There’s historically been one method for NFL teams to land a top-tier starting quarterback: Select one near the top of the draft. Many of the league’s great passers were no-doubt-about-it picks, and while there are obviously exceptions to the rule (hello, Tom Brady), most of the best signal-callers of the past two decades — Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, and Cam Newton among them — are former first-round selections who entered the draft process billed as franchise cornerstones.
Over the past five years, though, the league has witnessed a spike in the number of successful quarterbacks who were taken outside the first 32 picks. From reliable starters (Andy Dalton) to ascending stars (Derek Carr) to Super Bowl champions (Russell Wilson), teams have picked up franchise QBs beyond the range where they typically have been available. Whether it was Drew Brees, Brett Favre, or others, the top of the second round — where Dalton and Carr were taken — has long produced its share of great finds. Yet go farther down the draft board, and the stretch from 2012 to 2016 looks like an all-time aberration. Wilson (third round, 75th overall in 2012), Kirk Cousins (fourth round, 102nd overall the same year), and most recently Dak Prescott (fourth round, 135th overall in 2016) have produced some of the best seasons ever for QBs taken at their respective draft positions.
With Prescott’s phenomenal rookie season (67.8 completion percentage, 8.0 yards per attempt, and just four interceptions on 459 attempts) so fresh in everyone’s minds, a central question heading into this year’s draft is if another quarterback likely to be available after the first round could turn into a high-level starter. The mystery teams will have to solve is whether this newfound run of success among non-first-round passers is the product of teams evaluating quarterbacks poorly or whether Wilson, Prescott, and the like are exceptions who happen to break the scouting rules that teams have followed for decades. What they find could be the difference between securing a future star and trudging deeper into the quarterback wilderness.
The first question teams must address when trying to find the next Wilson, Cousins, or Prescott is what went wrong during those players’ evaluations. How was Prescott the eighth quarterback drafted in 2016, behind guys like Connor Cook and Christian Hackenberg? In some cases, the answer is simple. Wilson, at 5-foot-11, was considered too short to survive in the NFL. We know how that worked out.
Often, stature plays a major role in QBs tumbling down the draft board. The first half of Round 1 is often reserved for players who check every box. "A lot of times, guys picked in the top 10 have all the qualities you’re looking for," Washington head coach Jay Gruden says. "They’re tall, they have the big arm strength."
Since 2000, nearly every quarterback taken in the first round has been 6-foot-2 or taller. Most have weighed at least 225 pounds. The outliers from that group, such as Johnny Manziel and Michael Vick, have tended to be absurd athletes who lit college football on fire during their time on campus.
Gruden was the Bengals offensive coordinator in 2011, when Carson Palmer threatened to retire and leave Cincinnati with a glaring hole at quarterback. Gruden pored over the tape of every available passer in that year’s class, gaining familiarity with guys like Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder, and Jake Locker. All three — along with no. 1 pick Newton — came off the board in the first 12 selections, and six years later that trio represents some of the only early misses from an all-time great draft. Looking back, Gruden gets why each was appealing. Locker boasts prototypical size (6-foot-3, 231 pounds), ran the 40-yard dash in 4.59 seconds, and was one of the most physically impressive quarterbacks to come along in years; Gabbert is a 6-foot-4, statuesque passer with a big enough arm to throw the ball through a receiver; Ponder’s athletic profile didn’t quite match up to the other two, but his testing numbers weren’t far behind.
None of that was enough to sway Cincinnati, who had Dalton rated behind only Newton on their list of 2011 QBs. In trying to piece together how their man went 23 spots behind Ponder, at 35th overall, Gruden says it had to do with how unremarkable Dalton looked. "He doesn’t have the same pizazz [as those other guys], as far as arm strength," Gruden says. "There’s really nothing there that says, ‘Oh my god, we’ve got to have Andy Dalton.’"
At a combine measurement of 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, Dalton seemed undersized for an NFL quarterback. He had proved to be an effective runner at TCU, but according to the stopwatch (he ran the 40 in 4.87 seconds) he wasn’t gifted as an athlete. He had other, quieter qualities, though, that the Bengals loved. "I think one of the reasons that some quarterbacks last is that when we get done doing the things that aren’t the most valuable, like measuring, timing, and studying individual traits, sometimes you can lose focus on the body of work the player has put out," says Duke Tobin, the Bengals director of player personnel.
In Dalton, Cincinnati saw a four-year college starter who had been the centerpiece of his program’s best seasons in 70 years. During Dalton’s final two campaigns at TCU, the Horned Frogs went 25–1 and played in two BCS bowls. He had the requisite skill set to play quarterback in the pros (namely accuracy and consistency that Gruden felt many of the other top passers in the 2011 crop lacked). To Tobin, two factors are the key to evaluating QBs: "experience and winning football." Dalton passed both of those tests.
Looking at the group of non-first-round quarterbacks who have excelled in recent years, virtually all hit those two benchmarks. Wilson, Cousins, Carr, Prescott, and Tyrod Taylor (sixth round, 180th overall in 2011) each started for at least three seasons in college. Cowboys quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson had concerns about Prescott entering last year’s draft, but says that the QB’s body of work at Mississippi State (during his junior season in 2014, the Bulldogs won double-digit games for the first time since 1999 and rose to the no. 1 ranking in the AP poll) assuaged them to some degree.
Cousins had a similarly outstanding career at Michigan State, as the Spartans won 22 games over his final two seasons as the starter. And in Gruden’s mind, there was more to like than just that record. When Cousins was drafted in 2012, the Bengals were no longer targeting a quarterback. Yet throughout his draft prep Gruden saw Cousins as a quarterback with a lively arm who could put the ball just where he wanted in the intermediate areas of the field. Passers fall to the late rounds because they don’t possess every trait for which teams look, but Gruden says there are some specific characteristics he hunts for in days 2 and 3 of the draft.
The ability to anticipate a defender’s movements and predict where the ball needs to go are near the top of that list, but given the proliferation of spread offenses in college football and the widespread use of bubble screens and what Gruden calls "one-man-show-type routes," NCAA passers are rarely required to make decisions based on rotations in coverage. That can make it hard for front offices to ascertain who will be able to read NFL defenses. It’s an area Wade Wilson feels might have given teams pause about Prescott, who played exclusively out of the shotgun in college and made a significant portion of his throws following a read-option fake.
"That was the hardest thing with these guys: They’ve never been in the huddle," Wilson says. "They don’t talk. They don’t say a word. There’s no verbal communication in college football, so it becomes a projection."
For everything he liked about Prescott, Wade Wilson admits there are reasons no one took the quarterback in the first three rounds of the draft. "If we thought Dak was gonna be Dak, we would have drafted him a lot higher," Wilson says. Even if teams were wrong about identifying Prescott’s potential, there’s no way to separate his performance as a rookie from the infrastructure he had in Dallas.
Prescott stepped into the perfect situation for a young quarterback. The Cowboys boast the league’s best offensive line, a fantastic running back in Ezekiel Elliott, a Terminator in Dez Bryant, and an overlooked slot receiver in Cole Beasley. In 2016, it might have been the NFL ecosystem most conducive to rookie quarterback success. Prescott stepped into enviable circumstances, and among non-first-round passers who have recently thrived, his situation isn’t unique.
Every quarterback mentioned in this piece has been given a considerable lift either by his surrounding roster or by the scheme of his offense. Early in his career, Wilson shared a backfield with Marshawn Lynch as the Seahawks running game dictated the rest of the unit’s approach. Seattle closed out Wilson’s rookie season with only 405 passing attempts, the lowest mark in the league and 31 fewer than the 31st-ranked 49ers. Carr’s ability to handle pocket pressure was the weakest part of his game at Fresno State; the Raiders have stuck him behind the best pass-blocking offensive line in the NFL for two straight seasons. Cousins enjoyed throwing to the most complete collection of receiving corps in football last year in DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garçon, Jamison Crowder, and Jordan Reed. And Taylor was boosted by an expertly designed ground game that ranked first in Football Outsiders’ rushing DVOA in 2016 after finishing second in 2015 (although his ability as a runner played a role in that).
Pointing out the help that all these quarterbacks have received isn’t meant to detract from their body of work. It’s an attempt to provide context for how this stretch has been made possible, and to note that unearthing the next Prescott isn’t solely about spying qualities that others miss. No team in the league would’ve been able to replicate the cushy climate Prescott found with the Cowboys offense. But not every young QB would’ve been able to pilot Dallas to the best record in the NFC. "He had every weapon around him, but that being said, you’re a rookie quarterback, and [defenses are] going to do everything they can to screw you up," Wilson says. "For him to throw 400-something passes and throw five interceptions is unbelievable."
Prescott’s debut campaign was remarkable, and it was the product of much more than a stellar supporting cast. According to Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders, Prescott was one of two rookie QBs since 1978 to be drafted outside the top 40 and start all 16 games. The other was Russell Wilson.
One element that limits how many non-first-round quarterbacks become reliable starters is opportunity. Russell Wilson rose to the top of Seattle’s depth chart in 2012 by beating out Matt Flynn during preseason camp, but Prescott only ended up in the huddle with Dallas’s first-team offense after a series of seemingly unfortunate events. Tony Romo’s back injury in late August will be the inciting incident in any story told about Prescott’s emergence, but just as pivotal was former backup Kellen Moore suffering a lower-leg break in the early part of training camp. With Romo and Moore both on the shelf, Prescott was afforded time to work the Cowboys starters for a significant portion of camp. "If Tony had gotten hurt [later] in training camp, if Kellen had gotten hurt late in training camp, I think we would have struggled more early," Wade Wilson says.
By Week 1, Prescott had played with the no. 1 offense for long enough that he’d won over all the veteran stars. "To have that kind of confidence with [Jason] Witten, Dez Bryant, and Tyron Smith to say, ‘This is the way we’re gonna do it: I’m gonna do my job; you do your job,’ that’s the way he approached it," Wilson says.
Without a veteran quarterback on Cincinnati’s 2011 roster, Dalton also was handed the reins to his offense as a rookie, and Gruden believes it played a key role in expediting his acclimation to the NFL. On the flip side, during Cousins’s first three pro seasons, he started a combined nine games while backing up Robert Griffin III. In Gruden’s mind, Cousins’s lack of reps may have stunted his development; over the past two years, as Cousins has taken over as Washington’s full-time starter, he has unlocked qualities that were dormant when he wasn’t seeing the field. "The plays, the concepts, calling a play in the huddle," Gruden says. "It’s a mad scramble in your brain when you have all this stuff going through it. The more comfortable you get, the more knowledge that you have, the more you can attack the defense."
In January 2016, the Cowboys coaches were informed that they would head to Mobile, Alabama, as one of two NFL staffs responsible for coaching in the Senior Bowl. Wade Wilson and his Dallas colleagues were in charge of the North team that included Carson Wentz and three other quarterbacks, but they were given an hour with the four quarterbacks from the South squad as part of the week’s festivities.
They met in a conference room in the Mobile Convention Center where the Cowboys had held meetings all week, and because Wilson and Co. had only 60 minutes, they decided to meet with all four QBs together. Each made a positive impression, but it was evident who had the dominant personality in the room. "Dak had a presence about him, an aura about him," Wilson says. "It was, ‘OK, these guys are going to answer questions, but I’m the alpha dog in this room.’"
That’s the type of glowing review that often comes with the benefit of hindsight, especially regarding a player who has since defied odds and expectations. But Wilson points to several such moments to explain what sets Prescott apart.
When Wilson traveled to Mississippi State’s campus in Starkville prior to the draft, he was struck by the planning and thought Prescott had put into his workout and pro day as a whole. "He’s very professional, but he’s also very personable," Wilson says. "He’s not a brainiac doing everything by the numbers. He’s going to inject his personality." Days after the Cowboys took Prescott with the 135th pick, the passer arrived in Dallas for rookie minicamp. The first order of business was working on his footwork, mostly how he dropped back after taking snaps under center. "He said, ‘Give me one week to work on my drops, and you’ll never know that I even played in the shotgun,’" Wilson says. That’s about how long it took.
The Cowboys knew early that the makeup of their young quarterback was special. In the years since Russell Wilson has blossomed into one of the league’s biggest stars, similar stories have been told about him. Gruden says Wilson’s combine interview was "one of the most impressive" he’s ever seen. Highlighting the personalities of players like Wilson and Prescott doesn’t fully explain how they’ve outplayed their draft status and become two of the most notable steals in recent NFL history, but it illustrates what makes finding a great quarterback in the middle and late parts of the draft so difficult. And it could provide a roadmap for which qualities teams should search for as they discuss whether to roll the dice on passers such as Davis Webb, Brad Kaaya, Joshua Dobbs, or Jerod Evans in the 2017 class.
A late-round quarterback who features an ideal combination of physical attributes and personality traits doesn’t come along often. And in the case of Wilson (and in a way, Tyrod Taylor), the almost magical style he brings to the position only complicates matters further. Later this week, front offices will have conversations about using a third-, fourth-, or fifth-round pick on a QB in the hopes of finding the next Prescott. What they might underestimate, though, is the rare confluence of factors that made Prescott’s emergence possible in the first place.