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The Golden Age Meets the Stone Age at the NFL Draft

If quarterbacks are the ultimate football currency, which teams found treasure in the first round, and which landed on fool’s gold?

AP Images/Ringer illustration

The Harvard Business Review released a study Thursday that found a quarterback is significantly more important to an NFL franchise’s success than a coach, general manager, and, by a wide margin, owner. Incredibly, this has become more pronounced over the past two decades, with the quarterback’s influence growing and the general manager’s and owner’s importance falling steadily.

It probably didn’t take Harvard to tell us that a great quarterback is a franchise’s quickest and easiest path to success. For many reasons—the NFL’s offensive explosion and cheaper rookie contracts among them—taking the right quarterback in the draft has become almost ludicrously important. Hitting on the right player, whether that’s Patrick Mahomes II or Deshaun Watson, and riding his cheap rookie years has become perhaps the most valuable thing in all of sports.

Every NFL draft is about the quarterbacks, even when you think it’s not. The Bills probably thought the 2017 draft wasn’t about quarterbacks until the 10th overall pick they traded away became Mahomes. There were 198 picks before the Patriots took Tom Brady in 2000. No one at the time knew that draft was about a quarterback, yet every pick ended up being a bad pick when Brady was available. At the risk of sounding overly simplistic, the quarterback position eventually ends up hovering over every draft.

Thursday’s first round was so interesting because it was such a strange night for quarterbacks, and thus, a strange night for football. When multiple first-round signal-callers are drafted at the same time, they have a habit of completely changing the league. They get people fired; they get assistants hired; they change the way we view schemes. Only two quarterbacks were taken in the top 10 this year, compared with four last year. But there will still be incalculable fallout: Kyler Murray’s going no. 1 had been rumored for so long that we’ve probably lost sight of how revolutionary it is. Murray lacks prototypical size, and in previous years he probably would have either stuck with baseball or fallen deep into the draft. Drew Brees and Russell Wilson didn’t go in the first round in large part because of their height. Their success has made Murray’s selection at under 6 feet tall possible. But this pick is about more than Murray’s size: The Arizona Cardinals just took a quarterback in the top 10 for the second year in a row, and it’s not considered all that weird.

Teams act primarily out of fear when it comes to quarterbacks. They sign average ones to huge deals because they fear losing them. They overdraft them because they fear another team swiping their target later in the draft. The Cardinals’ selection of a quarterback in the first round of back-to-back drafts is the natural extension of that thinking: taking a quarterback because you’ve got the chance and you’re scared that your current one might not be good enough. Keeping Josh Rosen, the no. 10 overall pick in last year’s draft, after selecting Murray would be even more revolutionary. If Murray succeeds and, most importantly, if the Cardinals eventually get value for Rosen, Arizona’s move will not only be viewed as brilliant, but could also spark a trend: just keep drafting quarterbacks. Cardinals general manager Steve Keim seemed open to the idea that Rosen could stick around for a little bit:

It was not, however, a night of revolutions. This is the NFL, after all. There is no common theme from Thursday’s first round, because there is no consensus thinking among how the league views quarterbacks. For all of the progress Murray’s selection suggests, just five picks later the Giants selected Duke’s Daniel Jones. There’s been some scuttlebutt in the past that the internet will run out of space. It would absolutely happen if I were given enough time to list all of my thoughts on this particular selection. I came into Thursday’s draft intending to needle whichever team overdrafted Missouri’s Drew Lock, and the Giants were a prime candidate. Instead, they spent the sixth pick on a quarterback who is worse than Lock. General manager Dave Gettleman suggested that Jones could sit behind Eli Manning for three years, which would, of course, wipe out most of the benefits of his rookie contract.

Bashing Gettleman, at this point, seems like low-hanging fruit, but, unfortunately for the Giants, it is well deserved. Drafting Jones this high makes no sense, and, for the second straight year, Gettleman demonstrated that he doesn’t understand that you can trade down if the player you want will be available later in the draft. (The Giants picked twice more in the first round.) Earlier Thursday, Gettleman was quoted as saying that the worst place a team can be is quarterback hell. They are there.

Gettleman has touted the “Kansas City model” as a viable path to success. The problem, of course, is this model resulted in the Chiefs’ trading Alex Smith and starting Mahomes, who is … better than Jones. The Chiefs also got a haul in return for Smith, including a third-round pick, something the Giants would almost certainly not get for Manning. Even if they do, Gettleman would probably squander it. My colleague Danny Kelly ranked Murray as a top-five overall prospect, and Jones 100th. They were taken five picks apart from each other. Do not try to understand this.

The next problem with this particular pick is that it’s almost certain that one of the Giants’ biggest rivals got a better quarterback nine picks later, when the Redskins selected Dwayne Haskins at no. 15. Ian O’Connor put it succinctly: “If Daniel Snyder outsmarts you, it is time to pack up and go home.” Haskins is probably not an elite quarterback, but Jones is definitely not an elite quarterback.

The impact of last year’s draft was easy to decipher: Five quarterbacks were selected in the first round, and their impact, or lack thereof, was felt almost immediately. There are fewer teams with glaring holes at the position this year, which means there are candidates to adopt the “Kansas City model” Gettleman cited and select a player to sit behind a veteran until he’s ready. In theory, almost every team could adopt this approach and add a quarterback this weekend. Thus, a lot of teams will be judged on whether they passed on Haskins or Lock. Who you don’t take can get you fired as easily as who you do.

The implications of Thursday’s first round will be felt throughout the league: Josh Rosen will likely become available. Lock is still on the board. There are no clear teams that need a quarterback except Miami, who might be tanking in 2019. Oakland did not draft a quarterback, opting instead to reach at no. 4 for Clelin Ferrell and take a running back later in the first round. The Bengals didn’t select an heir apparent to Andy Dalton. The Buccaneers didn’t pick a signal-caller. The market for Rosen will be one of the most interesting things to watch over the next few months. So, too, will the second round of the draft. The quarterback position, already the most valuable commodity in sports, is more important than ever, increasing the stakes of every pick as long as one is available. At some point, teams might get better at gauging it. Not all of them, it seems.