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The Case for the First-Round Quarterback Draft Mulligan

From Josh Rosen to Dwayne Haskins to Sam Darnold, NFL teams are moving on from their highly drafted QBs faster than ever before. What does that mean for the 2021 class? And what does it say about the state of modern team building?

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There’s nothing like the day when your favorite NFL team takes a quarterback with a first-round draft pick. You can picture the next 15 years of your life unfolding as you celebrate this wonderboy grinning from ear to ear. He looks doofy in the ill-fitting draft hat he’s put on, much like a newborn baby looks doofy when put in a onesie for the first time. You’ve earned this moment of joy. You’ve watched countless passes wobble to patches of empty grass, but now you’ve landed the player who can make your wildest dreams come true. You order a jersey with his name on the back—after all, you’ll need something to wear to the Super Bowl parade.

There’s nothing like that day, that is, until the next day when your favorite NFL team takes a quarterback with a first-round pick. Three to five years later, you’re finally done watching that terrible bust your team drafted. What an awful pick that was! Remember how stupid that guy looked in his draft hat? This guy, though ... he’s going to be great. You order his jersey—after all, you’ll need something to wear to the Super Bowl parade—but when you go to hang it in the closet, you spot something out of the corner of your eye: the jersey you bought with that other quarterback’s name on the back. You start to second guess everything. Is this déjà vu? Is the new guy destined to fail as well? You’ve lost the ability to trust in your happiness.

Football fans have been riding this emotional roller coaster since before Mel Kiper Jr. watched his first three-cone drill, but in recent years the dips and loops have come faster than ever. In the 1990s, there was just one instance of a team selecting a quarterback with a first-round draft pick and then doing it again within a span of three years: Seattle took Dan McGwire no. 16 in 1991 and Rick Mirer no. 2 in 1993. In the 2000s, there was also just one instance of a team using two first-round picks on quarterbacks in a three-year stretch: Washington took Patrick Ramsey at no. 32 in 2002 and Jason Campbell at no. 25 in 2005.

But since 2010, there have been four instances of first-round quarterback draft mulligans. In 2011, the Jaguars grabbed Blaine Gabbert at no. 10 and the Vikings took Christian Ponder at no. 12; the teams replaced those QBs by drafting Blake Bortles and Teddy Bridgewater, respectively, in 2014. In 2012, the Browns took the surprisingly old Brandon Weeden at no. 22; they gave up on him almost immediately, picking Johnny Manziel in the 2014 first round. Yet the true groundbreakers of the first-round quarterback draft mulligan were the Cardinals. They used the 10th pick in the 2018 draft on Josh Rosen, and he was treated like any other prized rookie quarterback, with the team praising his demeanor and leadership. (Here’s an article describing how Rosen’s cool apartment was possibly “the key to the Arizona Cardinals’ future.”) But Rosen played horribly as a rookie. He was so bad, in fact, that the Cardinals finished 3-13 and wound up with the top pick in 2019. Historically, a franchise in that spot would’ve used the no. 1 pick on a non-quarterback to continue building its roster around the top-10 quarterback it just took. But Arizona decided that Rosen was already a bust, trading him to the Dolphins and selecting Kyler Murray with the first pick.

The Cardinals became the first team since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to give up on a quarterback they took in the first round after one season and immediately use another first-round pick on a quarterback. (Other teams had previously used back-to-back first-round picks on QBs, but the circumstances differed: The Colts took quarterbacks with first-round picks in both 1982 and 1983, but one of them was John Elway, and he didn’t sign with the franchise. The Cowboys took Troy Aikman with the no. 1 pick in 1989 and selected Steve Walsh in the same year’s supplemental draft, but the latter was picked primarily to provide competition for Aikman.) For the Cardinals, drafting Murray created an awkward moment—the team had famously released a graphic with head coach Kliff Kingsbury saying “Josh is our guy,” even though he clearly wasn’t. The Arizona Republic captured the scene on draft night as fans wearing Rosen jerseys wandered aimlessly around a party, unable to get excited about their new toy because their last one broke so quickly. But picking Murray was the right call: Rebooting at quarterback allowed the Cardinals to find the face of their franchise, and prevented them from wasting years hoping that Rosen would pan out.

In 2021, we’ll get more teams attempting do-overs with first-round QBs. The Jets are all but certain to draft a quarterback in the top three for the second time in three years: They used the third pick in the 2018 draft on Sam Darnold, and Darnold went on to record the lowest combined passer rating of any quarterback who played regularly in each of the past three seasons. A few weeks ago, the team traded him to the Panthers for a package of future picks. New York is now considered a virtual lock to take BYU’s Zach Wilson at no. 2.

The Washington Football Team could also be in the market for a first-round QB, since it released 2019 first-round pick Dwayne Haskins in December after he played poorly and repeatedly broke the NFL’s COVID-19 protocols. The quarterbacks currently on the Football Team include Taylor Heinicke and Ryan Fitzpatrick … and Fitzpatrick is the official quarterback of teams trying to break in a rookie QB, even if he notably does not like that role.

And there was speculation a few months ago that the Dolphins could be prepared to move on from 2020 first-round pick Tua Tagovailoa. It seems unlikely that Miami will go that route following its trade out of the no. 3 spot, but the fact that this was even a talking point reinforces that teams are now willing to cycle through quarterbacks in rapid fashion.

Fans should get used to the first-round quarterback draft mulligan trend, and try to understand the logic behind it. To help with this, let’s lay out three incontrovertible facts:

  • Quarterback is the most important position in football. While it’s possible to win in the NFL without an elite quarterback—Nick Foles won a Super Bowl; Jared Goff made a Super Bowl; Blake Bortles came an early whistle on a fumble recovery away from playing in a Super Bowl—it’s exceedingly difficult. It’s no coincidence that the four teams that played in last season’s conference championship games were the four that had the most passing touchdowns in the league. All four were led by quarterbacks (Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, and Josh Allen) who are considered elite passers, and who ranked among the top 10 in virtually every major passing stat. It’s a lot easier to win when you have a great QB.
  • Elite quarterbacks almost never hit free agency, and are very rarely traded. The best quarterback to hit free agency in the past decade is Kirk Cousins; this January’s trade in which the Rams got Matthew Stafford for a package that included Goff is about as close as we’ve ever come to a QB blockbuster. The most consequential QB trade of the prior decade is … the Titans’ 2019 acquisition of Ryan Tannehill? The 49ers’ 2017 move to bring in Jimmy Garoppolo? The Bengals trading away Carson Palmer? Basically all of the league’s top-tier quarterbacks—and most midtier QBs—play for the teams that drafted them. So the draft isn’t just the best way to acquire a quality quarterback. It’s pretty much the only way.
  • Despite all the time and effort that goes into scouting and drafting quarterbacks, those picked toward the top of the draft are still highly likely to fail. Of the 60 quarterbacks picked in the first round since 2000, only 25 have made at least one Pro Bowl. Over the past five years, the hit rate is low. And more than half of the time, the QB picked first in a given draft does not turn out to be the best quarterback from that draft class.

To summarize: There is nothing more valuable in the NFL than an elite quarterback, the best way to get an elite quarterback is by drafting one, and drafting quarterbacks is an incredibly unpredictable business. I think there’s only one conclusion to draw from this: Teams should draft as many talented quarterbacks as they can. ESPN’s Bill Barnwell has written about how the best strategy to succeed in the draft is identical to the best strategy to succeed in the lottery: buy as many tickets as possible. That logic should also apply to taking quarterbacks. It’s not just that teams should be willing to give up on their failed recent first-round picks quickly, as the Cardinals did with Rosen and the Jets did with Darnold; it’s that they should be willing to have two quarterbacks on their roster in the hopes that one pans out. In 2018, The Ringer’s Kevin Clark reported that the Browns were considering using both of their top-five picks on quarterbacks in a passer-heavy draft. They didn’t ultimately go that direction, but it presented an intriguing thought. I’d argue the only reason a team shouldn’t be in the market to draft a quarterback is because it has an established elite QB in the prime of his career.

Of course, quarterback isn’t like other positions. For one, it’s functionally different. The Texans took three edge rushers with first-round picks (J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus, and Jadeveon Clowney) between 2011 and 2014, and that didn’t create depth chart turmoil, because teams can put multiple edge rushers on the field at the same time. Despite my twisted desires, however, there’s no reliable way to play multiple QBs simultaneously. One must be the starter, and one must be the backup.

The NFL simply isn’t built for franchises to develop multiple quarterbacks at once. The CBA limits how often teams can practice, so coaches typically have their first-string QB play with the first-team offense for the entirety of practices, leaving the backups to watch or to run the scout team. There’s a chance that one quarterback could have his development skewed unless the two split snaps, potentially impacting both players’ growth.

And using multiple first-round picks on quarterbacks within the span of a few years takes on outsized emotional significance. If a team holds an open competition for the starting right tackle spot, it’s widely referred to as a training camp battle. If there’s a similar competition for the QB spot, it’s called a QUARTERBACK CONTROVERSY, and every comment the coach and players have ever made is meticulously dissected. We worry about the psyche of QBs in a way we don’t with players at other positions. Will a team bringing in a competitor cause a young quarterback to lose confidence? Wouldn’t a young quarterback benefit from having a journeyman 38-year-old with a bushy beard and a Harvard degree as his mentor?

Perhaps most importantly: The people in charge of NFL teams don’t want to reboot at quarterback because it makes them look bad. When a team selects a quarterback in the first round of the draft, the general manager and head coach of that team stake their reputation on that QB’s success. Giving up on him is an admission of failure, which often costs one or both their job. The Cardinals fired head coach Steve Wilks after just one season before taking Murray in 2019; the Jets and Football Team have both turned over at coach and GM since making the Darnold and Haskins picks.

The functional arguments against drafting multiple quarterbacks are valid, but we shouldn’t take the emotional arguments as gospel. If a quarterback has his confidence shaken by the addition of a new QB … well, it’s a bad sign that a supposed franchise player isn’t able to handle competition. And recent history has proved that such competition could boost one player’s performance. Aaron Rodgers plainly hated the Packers’ decision to take Jordan Love in last year’s first round, so he went ahead and won MVP. General managers shouldn’t be afraid to diversify their QB portfolio. They may be worried about losing their jobs—but the thing that’s really going to cost a GM a job is never finding the right quarterback. There aren’t many people who seem critical of Cardinals GM Steve Keim’s decision to pick Rosen now, even though it was a total failure. The screwup that cost his team a highly valuable draft pick was wiped out once Murray emerged as a success. Keim would likely be out of a job if he’d doubled down on Rosen.

Entering the 2021 draft, NFL teams should fall into two categories: Those with franchise quarterbacks, and those doing everything in their power to get one. Given that this class is chock-full of quarterbacks with first-round grades, NFL teams have to ask: Are they considering passing on a player who could become an elite QB because it’s the right decision? Or because they don’t want to hurt their mediocre starter’s feelings? It may seem risky to draft multiple quarterbacks in the first round within the span of a couple of years, but the real risk is trying to win in the NFL without fully prioritizing the pursuit of an elite quarterback.