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The Increasing Rarity of the NFL Quarterback Draft Bust

More quarterbacks are being taken near the top of the first round than ever before, to the point that soon half of NFL teams will start QBs who were once top-three selections. That’s changing how we calibrate our expectations for these passers—and what we qualify as a wasted pick.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When a quarterback is selected with the first overall pick in the NFL draft—and for the sixth time in nine drafts this decade, one almost certainly will be on Thursday night—two career paths immediately spring to mind. The first is the road to glory: The QB shakes commissioner Roger Goodell’s hand, lifts a jersey featuring his name and the number 1 on the back, and that image is later featured in celebratory montages alongside clips of Goodell handing the same quarterback a Lombardi Trophy and the player slipping on a yellow jacket in Canton. The second path leads directly to failure: The quarterback flops, and flashbacks of him smiling on the draft stage are inserted into remember when montages of famous draft busts.

But a surprisingly common result of teams drafting a quarterback with a high pick is one we don’t often think about: This player will just be fine. He won’t become a legend whose career will go down in history; he won’t emerge as a bust whose selection will live on in infamy. NFL teams have grown increasingly content with taking good-but-not-great quarterbacks with the first few picks of each spring.

In 2018, the value of quarterbacks has never been higher. We know this from reading headlines every few months that a new QB has signed the largest or highest-paying contract in league history—and feeling confused at how such an unspectacular player could be the highest paid of all time. In the last year alone, Matthew Stafford, Derek Carr, and Jimmy Garoppolo all signed what were then the largest contracts in NFL history, while Kirk Cousins inked a deal with the Vikings that included the highest annual average value ever. Nobody would describe these quarterbacks as the best in the league; I wouldn’t even describe any as the best in his division. But franchises are doomed if they don’t have a reasonably effective passer, so if a team has a chance to sign one of the few dozen humans on earth who can play quarterback well at the NFL level, it must pay him a historic salary.

The same line of thinking applies to the draft. More quarterbacks are being taken with top picks than ever before, and as much as we scramble to label these players as either superstars or busts, most QBs recently taken in high slots have fallen into a duller intermediate tier. We’ve come to embrace a new understanding of how teams value quarterbacks, but we have failed to adjust our expectations for each incoming crop of passing prospects.

When half of the teams in the NFL start quarterbacks selected in the top 10, it naturally means that many franchises spend prized picks on perfectly average players at the position. So what should we realistically expect from a highly drafted QB in 2018—and what does that mean for the teams targeting Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Baker Mayfield, Josh Allen, and Lamar Jackson?

A quarterback was the no. 1 overall pick just three times in the 1980s. Two of those three, John Elway and Troy Aikman, went on to become Hall of Famers; the third, Vinny Testaverde, played for 21 years and retired among the top 10 all time in both passing touchdowns and passing yards. (A third Hall of Famer, Steve Young, was the top pick in the 1984 supplemental draft featuring players under contract with the rival USFL.) There were no QBs drafted with the second overall pick in the 1980s, and just one, Jim Everett, taken third. Elway, Aikman, Testaverde, and Young each made at least one Pro Bowl; all four held starting jobs for a minimum of 10 years.

During the 1990s, 10 quarterbacks were taken with top-three NFL draft picks, more than twice as many as in the previous decade. Of these, only one, Peyton Manning, is a lock to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Four of those QBs—Heath Shuler, Akili Smith, Ryan Leaf, and Tim Couch—busted out of the NFL within five years of being drafted.

Top Three QB Draft Picks, 1990-99

Year Quarterback Team Draft Pick
Year Quarterback Team Draft Pick
1990 Jeff George Colts 1
1993 Drew Bledsoe Patriots 1
1993 Rick Mirer Seahawks 2
1994 Heath Shuler Redskins 3
1995 Steve McNair Oilers 3
1998 Peyton Manning Colts 1
1998 Ryan Leaf Chargers 2
1999 Tim Couch Browns 1
1999 Donovan McNabb Eagles 2
1999 Akili Smith Bengals 3

The 2000s were similar: 10 quarterbacks were taken in the top three; Eli Manning seems to be the only surefire Hall of Famer of the bunch. And three—Joey Harrington, JaMarcus Russell, and Vince Young—played their final NFL snaps less than six years after being drafted.

Top Three QB Draft Picks, 2000-09

Year Quarterback Team Draft Pick
Year Quarterback Team Draft Pick
2001 Michael Vick Falcons 1
2002 David Carr Texans 1
2002 Joey Harrington Lions 3
2003 Carson Palmer Bengals 1
2004 Eli Manning Giants 1
2005 Alex Smith 49ers 1
2006 Vince Young Titans 3
2007 JaMarcus Russell Raiders 1
2008 Matt Ryan Falcons 3
2009 Matthew Stafford Lions 1

Every draft in this decade besides 2013 has included a quarterback being taken in the top three. Three times in the past six years, there have been QBs taken first and second, something that happened only six times in the history of the draft before this decade. And it’s plausible that this year could be the second in which the top three picks are all quarterbacks. After Thursday night, this decade should safely count the most top-three quarterback picks of any decade, and the most top-10 and top-15 quarterback picks of any decade as well.

It seems too early to offer Hall of Fame predictions, but there haven’t been any players among these picks who have washed out of the league. Of the 10 top-three QBs picked this decade, only Robert Griffin III isn’t currently an NFL starter, and he was Offensive Rookie of the Year before suffering a litany of injuries, so it seems odd to say scouts whiffed on him. (Early results on Jared Goff are good; the book is out on Mitchell Trubisky.)

Top Three QB Draft Picks, 2010-Present

Year Quarterback Team Draft Pick
Year Quarterback Team Draft Pick
2010 Sam Bradford Rams 1
2011 Cam Newton Panthers 1
2012 Andrew Luck Colts 1
2012 Robert Griffin III Redskins 1
2014 Blake Bortles Jaguars 3
2015 Jameis Winston Buccaneers 1
2015 Marcus Mariota Titans 2
2016 Jared Goff Rams 1
2016 Carson Wentz Eagles 2
2017 Mitchell Trubisky Bears 2

Teams’ calculus at the position has changed. In the 1980s, they weren’t looking to draft a quarterback highly in most years. Only once every few seasons, when a legendary prospect came along, did front offices risk spending such a high pick on a QB. Some consider Testaverde to have been a bust even though he had a rather prolific career because, in his heyday, a top-three QB was supposed to be a Hall of Fame–caliber player. Anything less represented a massive misfire. Now, teams go into every draft projected to take a QB in the top few picks or to trade it to a quarterback-needy team. As a result, there are 13 NFL teams starting top-three draft picks at quarterback, and there will probably 15 or 16 after this year’s draft.

In a 32-team league, the 15th-best QB is only slightly above average. But the value of an average quarterback is so high now that drafting one in the top three not only seems normal; strangely enough, it seems like a success.

To fully grasp how the expectations surrounding highly drafted QBs have changed, take Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, picked first and second in the 2015 draft. Neither has dominated the league. They’ve combined for one Pro Bowl appearance (Winston was an injury replacement in 2015) and one top-10 passer-rating season (Mariota ranked 10th in 2016). When the Titans made the playoffs this winter, it was the first time either quarterback made the postseason, and it arguably happened in spite of Mariota, who was one of just two players in 2017 to start at least 10 games while throwing more interceptions than touchdowns. (The other was DeShone Kizer.) Neither is the best quarterback in his own division—in fact, Winston is probably the worst QB in the NFC South, behind Drew Brees, Cam Newton, and Matt Ryan. (Newton and Ryan were also top-three draft picks; all four starting quarterbacks in Mariota’s AFC South were first-round picks.)

And yet, if we could do the 2015 draft over again? The Bucs and Titans would absolutely draft Winston and Mariota one and two. Those are the faces of their franchises; they will presumably extend them to massive, perhaps record-setting, contracts as soon as their rookie deals expire.

Blake Bortles was a top-three pick. He finished last season outside the top 15 in most major statistical categories and has previously led the league in interceptions and sacks taken. Someone thinks Blake Bortles is a good QB is a running joke on a popular network sitcom. But the Jaguars don’t seem to consider Bortles a bust; in fact, they just extended him.

My instinct is to presume that Josh Allen will be a huge bust because his college stats and tape reveal a player who can barely complete screen passes with regularity. But it’s been a while since scouts have completely missed on a top-five pick, which Allen seems likely to be. I have come around to the premise of Allen being a franchise quarterback—that is, a quarterback whom a franchise employs for a significant amount of time, not an elite NFL player.

A top-three quarterback can still turn into a superstar. Cam Newton has won an MVP; Carson Wentz might have last season if not for his ACL injury. There is always the possibility that a highly drafted player will become a football icon. But unlike the case in decades past, teams seem to be fine with these choices even if they don’t produce greatness. NFL scouts have perfected the art of selecting OK quarterbacks in the first few picks of each draft, and an OK quarterback has become one of the most valuable things in all of sports.