Welcome to The Ringer’s 21st-Century NFL Draft Retrospective, where we’re looking back at the past 20 years of drafts to find the biggest hits, misses, and league trends since 2000. Who have been the best selections? What lessons can be learned from the top picks that never worked out? What does the track record of no. 1 picks teach us about team building? And how has the league changed over the last two decades?
Something strange happened to the quarterback profession in the past decade. No, not Blake Bortles making the AFC championship game. There was a shortage—and now there are too many. According to researcher Chase Stuart, the number of top quarterbacks that entered the league between 2006 and 2015 was the lowest of any decadelong stretch on record. There are currently zero 33-year-old starting quarterbacks in the league, Stuart notes, and only two born in 1986. This age gap is not normal. NFL quarterbacks are typically supposed to peak around that age; instead, it’s Chase Daniel and Colt McCoy, uh, not peaking. Stuart dubbed this group the “Missing Generation” of quarterbacks. There are structural reasons this gap exists: it coincides with the NFL failing miserably for years to understand college offenses, and includes a concentration of bad coaching and some bad luck. Successful quarterbacks from the past decade, like 2012 draft pick Russell Wilson, were also a lesson in different NFL missteps: Wilson had to wait until Pick 75—the Jaguars took a punter before him—before the Seahawks selected him, proving once again that NFL teams rarely knew what to do when elite talent showed up at their doorstep. Oh, also, Blake Bortles made the AFC championship game.
In place of this lost generation of middle-aged quarterbacks are remarkably old ones, like Tom Brady and Drew Brees, both of whom set age-related records basically every time they do anything, and brilliant, dynamic young quarterbacks, the ones who entered the league beginning in 2016. The latter generation is not missing: Patrick Mahomes, age 24, just won a Super Bowl. Lamar Jackson, age 23, just won the MVP. Jackson is younger than the presumptive first pick in next week’s draft, Joe Burrow. Dak Prescott (26), Deshaun Watson (24), and Carson Wentz (27) are among the top quarterbacks to enter the league in the past four drafts. These young quarterbacks did such a good job of filling the role of the “missing” generation that something miraculous has happened: There is an oversupply of quarterbacks. If you’re racking your brain for the last time this happened, stop. It hasn’t. Quarterback play is, on the whole, better than it ever has been; it has surged in the past two seasons and will likely improve.
You can see this with your own eyes every time Mahomes or Jackson takes a snap, or you can simply look at the numbers from last season that show the sheer competence across the board at the position: NFL quarterbacks had a 90.4 rating, the second-best in history; nine quarterbacks had a QB rating of 100, the same amount as in 2018; the league-wide completion percentage of 63.5 percent is also the second-best in history. Even amid a historic, decadelong passing boom, the past two seasons were the best passing years. The reasons for this are many: A generation of offensively savvy play-callers has made average players look downright competent. Even below-average quarterbacks can hit most open passes and failing that, coaches have excelled at relying on short, quick passes if need be. If the league loses, say, Mike Mularkey as a head coach and gains Sean McVay or Kyle Shanahan, that’s a win for NFL quarterbacks. Young receivers are better than ever—rookies had the most touchdown receptions in history last season, and this year’s receiver draft class is one of the best ever. At the top end of the quarterback position, an unusual amount of elite talent is coming into the sport, ready to excel at younger ages than ever and finding coaches who know what to do with them. Rule changes designed to protect the passer from big hits are in place now, as are rules strictly limiting defensive contact with receivers. It is probably the best time in football history to be a quarterback. The competent look good and the great look supernatural.
Draft position is not a great indicator of success for this group. The Bears’ unfortunate selection of Mitchell Trubisky in 2017 is proof that teams haven’t gotten better at drafting, but the league has gotten better at using its quarterbacks. There are fewer square pegs in round holes in the NFL, and that’s a good thing for this generation of quarterbacks, and the next.
Next week brings the first draft of the new decade, and with it comes a time to figure out what we’ve learned about elite prospects. Seven drafts since 2011 have featured three first-round quarterbacks—there was one such draft in the 1990s. It’s likely that at least three passers will go in the first round next Thursday: Burrow, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, and Oregon’s Justin Herbert. Utah State’s Jordan Love could also join them. They’ll enter a league much different from the quarterbacks who entered in previous generations: Quarterbacks can be instant franchise-changers regardless of draft position.
All drafts are about quarterbacks—if you don’t have one, it’s about reaching for one. If you do have one, it’s about taking advantage of a team that’s trying to reach for one. Or it’s about grabbing a better player because another team already reached for one. You can tell the story of every draft through the quarterbacks selected, and thus, you can tell the story of the 20 drafts of this century through the position, too. It’s hard to say the NFL has learned anything about quarterbacks this century because it’s hard to say the NFL ever learns anything, but if there’s one theme, it is this: You can manufacture a quarterback through scheme and supporting cast more than you could at any prior point in the sport’s history, and they don’t necessarily have to be taken with a top pick.
Next week is the first draft since Andrew Luck’s retirement last summer, an important moment when considering the past decade of quarterbacking—and the next. Luck became sort of a shorthand phrase over the past eight years to mean a “sure thing.” Since Luck’s selection in 2012, “there is no Andrew Luck type” has been repeated almost every year. In a twist of circumstance, Luck turned out to not fit this billing, an unfortunate victim of some vicious hits, a poor offensive line, and some poor team building. There is no such thing as a sure-thing quarterback. Not even Andrew Luck was the Andrew Luck type.
The lesson of the past decade is not to draft the so-called Andrew Luck type, the quarterback who can make all the throws and play like a “prototypical” NFL passer. It’s to take any talented quarterback and execute everything around him perfectly. Jackson would have been a dynamic player anywhere, but he wouldn’t have changed football without the Ravens’ front office and coaching staff building the perfect runway for him. Mahomes would be a star in 31 other cities, but he happened to be paired with one of the greatest play-callers in the history of the sport in Andy Reid, who not only built a perfect team around him but kept Alex Smith in front of him for a season, meaning Mahomes received coaching and mentorship from some of the best minds in the game. You don’t win championships by drafting a quarterback, you win them by figuring out what the hell to do with the quarterback.
It may not have been clear how competent this group of quarterbacks was until this spring, when good ones found themselves on the outside of free agency, a time when passable quarterbacks typically thrive. Because of this oversupply, former no. 1 picks Cam Newton and Jameis Winston haven’t found a job yet (another first pick from the past decade, Sam Bradford, has been out of the league since 2018). Solid starter Andy Dalton, who will be made expendable once the Bengals select Burrow first, might be a backup this season. Newton, still a unique talent, might start this season if he gets healthy. He was the league MVP in 2015. Winston will probably have to take a backup job after a 30-interception season.
Teams were desperate for anyone with an arm in previous seasons; Mike Glennon, a less-than-mediocre Bucs backup, signed a three-year, $45 million deal with the Chicago Bears just three years ago. These types of deals weren’t given out this year, at the tail end of the decade when coaches realized how to manufacture competence.
After the draft—if the Dolphins and Chargers take quarterbacks—it’s possible all 32 teams will believe they have a plan at quarterback. Some of those teams might have more than one—the Jaguars didn’t know they had a potential rookie starter in sixth-round pick Gardner Minshew until Nick Foles got hurt (Foles was shipped to Chicago in March to compete with Trubisky). Quarterbacks in 2020 can come from anywhere.
For most of football history, there was a common drumbeat: There are not enough good quarterbacks. In 1988, Sports Illustrated’s Paul Zimmerman asked “Is it our imagination, or is the quarterback talent drying up?” At the time, the QB ranks included Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, Steve Young, Joe Montana, Randall Cunningham, and Phil Simms. (Incredibly, then-Redskins executive Charley Casserly offered this: “Here’s an off-the-wall theory: the influence of soccer on the youth of America. You find a lot of kids playing soccer, which means X amount are not playing football. There’s a trickle-down effect. Some people might say that doesn’t make any sense, but let them come up with a better reason.”) A lack of quarterbacks is a theme that pops up every few years, ignoring all the similar stories that came before it. For perhaps the first time, you cannot do that story. Now there are too many, if anything. This is the golden age of quarterbacks in the NFL and the league will welcome more of them into the fold.