SALT LAKE CITY — The list of quarterbacks who were taken in the first round of the NFL draft is long and undistinguished. Considering all the many failures of those draft picks, teams might do just as well picking names out of a sack rather than spend months evaluating quarterbacks.
During Thursday night's opening round of the NFL draft, it is widely anticipated that five, and possibly six, quarterbacks will be taken. USC’s Sam Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen, Wyoming’s Josh Allen, Louisville’s Lamar Jackson and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield consistently appear at the top of those silly mock drafts/guesses that appear online daily. Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph, Western Kentucky’s Mike White, Washington State’s Luke Falk, and Richmond’s Kyle Lauletta also are hot prospects.
In 1983, a record six quarterbacks were drafted in the first round — John Elway, Todd Blackledge, Jim Kelly, Tony Eason, Ken O’Brien and Dan Marino, in that order. Half of them fulfilled their expectations for stardom, and the other three faded away.
In 1999, five quarterbacks were taken in the draft — Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb, Akili Smith, Daunte Culpepper and Cade McNown. Two of them became very good NFL quarterbacks and three were busts. In six other drafts, four quarterbacks were taken in Round 1. Once again, not many of them proved worthy of the pick.
Quarterback is the most important position in football, if not all of sport, but finding one is tricky. After all the 40 times and Wonderlics and physicals and combines and personal workouts and film studies and interviews, there is still no predictor of success.
Tom Brady was the 199th pick of the 2000 draft, chosen behind quarterbacks Chad Pennington, Giovanni Carmazzi, Chris Redman, Marc Bulger and Spergon Wynn. Joe Montana was the 82nd pick of the 1979 draft, taken after quarterbacks Jack Thompson and Steve Fuller. Brady and Montana combined for 12 Super Bowl appearances and nine world championships.
There’s no foolproof method for finding QB talent. NFL teams, for one thing, tend to downplay quarterbacks who didn’t play against big-time competition, and yet small schools gave them Tony Romo (Eastern Illinois), Carson Wentz (North Dakota State), Ben Roethlisberger (Miami, Ohio) and Joe Flacco (Delaware).
The Brad Pitt character in “Moneyball” put it best when he reprimanded a haughty baseball scout: “You don’t have a crystal ball. You can’t look at a kid and predict his future I’ve sat at those kitchen tables with you and listened to you tell those parents, ‘I know. I know’ and you don’t. You don’t.”
There have been 56 quarterbacks taken in the first round of the NFL draft during the last 20 years. I attempted to determine how many of them proved themselves worth the high pick and the financial investment that came with it. It involves a certain amount of subjectivity, but of course there are plenty of objective measurements — yardage, pass efficiency, touchdown-to-interception ratio, championships.
To facilitate the evaluation, I determined the average pass efficiency rating of the top 32 quarterbacks from last season — 88.05 — and then dumbed it down to account for the rise of the PE rating across the league as the game has evolved. Let’s use 80 as a benchmark for average, and that’s being kind.
Another consideration: The higher a player’s selection in the draft, the higher standard to which the player is held.
Here’s the way it breaks down for the 56 quarterbacks taken in the first round since 1998:
• Five are shoo-in Hall of Famers.
• Four have had or are having great careers and will get Hall of Fame consideration.
• Twelve have played well enough to justify their selection in the first round.
• Eight show promise, but the jury is still out because of various circumstances — injuries, not enough playing time yet, or they’re on the fence, ready to break through or regress. It was difficult to know where to place Wentz, Jared Goff and Deshaun Watson after only 1-2 seasons of play, but they have played so well already that I bumped them into the former category. Sam Bradford is another tough call. He has eight years of data to evaluate, which should disqualify him from this category, but he’s missed so much playing time because of injuries. He’s usually played well when healthy.
• Twenty-seven players either were flat-out busts or underperformed expectations. It was too difficult to decide which designation some players deserved, so I placed all of them in one category and you can decide who is a bust and who merely underperformed expectations.
The conclusion is obvious: Twenty-seven players — about half of those selected in the first round — did not play well and certainly didn’t justify being taken in the first round. If you subtract the eight players who can’t be evaluated yet — and you should — that means 27 of 48 first-round QBs flopped — or 56 percent. Only nine of those 56 quarterbacks led their teams to the Super Bowl.
In other words, picking a quarterback in the first round is pretty much a 50-50 proposition.
The 56 quarterbacks drafted in the first round of the NFL draft during the last 20 years and how they fared in the league: