There’s a phrase that needs to be permanently etched into the walls at every NFL facility, and at this time of year, it needs to be flashing and making loud noises so that everyone sees it: “Need is a terrible evaluator.” Former Ravens head coach Brian Billick has said it many times, to me and others, including a variation of it in 2012, the last time NFL teams took four quarterbacks in the first round. In that instance, Billick wondered whether the Dolphins would reach for Ryan Tannehill at pick no. 8, or if an “equally desperate” team like Seattle would trade up. Seattle didn’t trade up and waited until the third round to take its passer, a guy named Russell Wilson. If you feel you must do something, you’re already about to make a mistake.
What makes a draft like the one that starts Thursday so fascinating is that need has to be an evaluator when so many quarterbacks could go in the top half of the draft. We know this because every time there’s a run on quarterbacks, teams routinely make franchise-altering mistakes. Even in 2004, when the first three quarterbacks off the board, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, and Ben Roethlisberger, were actually good, the Buffalo Bills followed that run up by taking J.P. Losman with the 22nd pick. Quarterback overdrafting has led to Blaine Gabbert being picked over J.J. Watt. It’s led to plenty of future Hall of Famers being pushed down the board. It has often led to high comedy.
Now, it makes sense that quarterbacks produce the greatest number of what-ifs in the sport: Where they go and how they perform is the single greatest indicator of a franchise’s success or failure. If you hit on any other position, it doesn’t guarantee relevance. If you fail at another position, it doesn’t ensure a franchise-wide failure. That is why quarterback-heavy first rounds are so fun: They make certain that the entire landscape of the league will change in the course of a night. As many as five quarterbacks could go in the top 15 picks on Thursday, and as Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph shoots up draft boards, there could be a sixth one in the first round. That is a lot of sliding doors.
If, in 1983, the Patriots had drafted Dan Marino instead of Tony Eason, things would have been different—or if the Jets had taken Marino instead of Ken O’Brien, or if, well, anyone in the first 26 picks had taken Marino. Instead, he fell to 27th in the first round and became the sixth quarterback taken in the draft. When so many teams take quarterbacks on Day 1, the ripple effects spread all across the NFL. Here’s what typically happens when quarterbacks dominate the first round:
1. They Get People Fired
Quarterback failures lead to firings and thus lots of quarterbacks getting drafted leads to lots of firings.
Taking a passer high in the draft is a great way to improve your team’s fortunes, and it’s also a quick way toward an audition for the Monday Night Football booth. Jeff Fisher was so obviously unequipped to handle Jared Goff in Los Angeles that he was fired midway through a season in which he’d received a fresh contract extension. John Fox was dumped by Chicago as soon as it was clear he wasn’t the guy to develop Mitch Trubisky. Lovie Smith lasted one year with Jameis Winston in Tampa Bay. Ken Whisenhunt lost his job with Tennessee because he couldn’t protect Marcus Mariota, then Mike Mularkey lost the job he took from Whisenhunt because he wouldn’t make changes to an offensive staff that did a poor job of building an offense around Mariota.
If you draft a quarterback who looks competent while the team around him isn’t, the coach will get fired. If you miss on a quarterback completely, chances are the general manager will get fired, too. Jaguars general manager Gene Smith was gone two years after Blaine Gabbert’s 2011 selection. Two picks earlier, the Titans took Jake Locker, and their general manager, Mike Reinfeldt, also got booted. It is hard to say that any of the Browns busts—Johnny Manziel or Brandon Weeden, for instance—cost anyone their jobs because everything costs people their jobs in Cleveland.
But here’s the issue: Not taking a quarterback can be just as dangerous for job security. The Browns passed on Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson in consecutive years, securing valuable draft capital in the process but leaving the team without a promising prospect at the sport’s most important position. You can make a case that Sashi Brown would still have his job had neither of those players hit. (Remember, the Browns passed on Watson twice.) Nothing shines a light on job performance quite like how teams draft and develop quarterbacks. So, expect great upheaval in the league about eight months from now.
The obvious reason this happens is because owners are unhappy with what they are seeing on the field or at the practice facility, but I’d argue there’s another force at work, too. Since five or six first-round starters will carry with them new elements of the college game, it can lead to widespread changes among NFL schemes. This happened in 2012 when a handful of read-option specialists, dubbed the “new kings” by Sports Illustrated, changed the game in the NFL forever, while any team that didn’t adapt quickly fell behind. This year, Baker Mayfield could employ a wide-open, Oklahoma-style Air Raid offense at the NFL level that would leave defensive staffs dumbfounded. Being behind the curve gets coaches fired, too, and new quarterbacks change the curve.
2. Draft Steals Happen Elsewhere
Now this is just a math problem. Quarterbacks get overdrafted like no other position. If Josh Allen goes fifth to Denver on Thursday, that will push a player who may be a Pro Bowler for a decade down the board and create opportunities for better (and smarter) teams to pick up the nonpassers who are actually the best players in the draft.
Take the case of Derwin James, a talented Florida State defensive back who is being projected to go to Tampa Bay at no. 7 or even San Diego at no. 17. Either slot is probably too late for a player as good as James to go, but this is what happens when five quarterbacks need to be shoehorned in. In 2011 and 2012, years when teams took four quarterbacks in the first round, we saw this play out with Watt going to Houston after Gabbert and Locker were selected. Non-quarterbacks drafted in the top 10 that year included Von Miller, A.J. Green, Patrick Peterson, Julio Jones, and Tyron Smith. Meanwhile, Christian Ponder went 12th (!), and eventual star players like Ryan Kerrigan and Cameron Jordan dropped into the mid-first round. You were very lucky that year if you weren’t looking for a passer. In 2012, Luke Kuechly, Stephon Gilmore, Dontari Poe, and Fletcher Cox went in picks 9 through 12 after three quarterbacks (Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, and Ryan Tannehill) went in the top 10. Dont’a Hightower went 25th, three picks after Weeden. There are steals in every draft, but if you are not looking for a quarterback in years when many teams are, you stand a nice chance of finding some value.
3. Groupthink Will Be Very Wrong
“History tells us that two will make it big, and one of those two will be a great player,” then–Cincinnati Bengals coach Bruce Coslet told Sports Illustrated about the 1999 draft class, which featured five first-round passers. “Another two will be OK, and two more will wash out. And somewhere down in the draft will be another guy who will be productive for 10 years. The trick is to figure out which one will do what.”
Anecdotally, Coslet is mostly right—the draft class usually features that general breakdown, specifically about the players who end up dropping and becoming stars. The hit rate on a first-round quarterback is about 50 percent, and most quarterback-heavy drafts have a mid-round quarterback who succeeds. This should not come as a shock, but I can pretty much guarantee that the current conventional wisdom about the top five quarterbacks in this draft will be wrong. I know this because it has never been right. Teams overdraft quarterbacks because they feel compelled to. Narrative is a powerful force in football. Every team that says it trusts the tape and its scouts is telling a half-truth; executives are human and can get as swept up in the hype as anyone. Remember that Billick, who made the “need is a terrible evaluator” statement, drafted Kyle Boller in the first round and said it was because the Ravens convinced themselves he had a bad supporting cast. It turns out it was just Boller who was bad.
The value in these drafts often comes to the team that doesn’t overdraft and waits for its passer in the third round. This will lead to, as happened with Wilson, an army of teams claiming they almost drafted the passer who fell. The Eagles and Jets say they came close on Wilson. Incredibly, the Jets are also in on almost drafting Tom Brady and Derek Carr.
While we’ll soon embark on a furious debate about which first-round quarterback will be best for his respective team, we’ll eventually find out that only one or two will make a real impact and the rest of them are simply average, while some guy who goes in the third round also makes it big. That’s how this works. That’s why it’s so great. Let’s get weird.