The real quarterback controversy in Chicago has nothing to do with the husband of Kristin Cavallari or the journeyman from Ohio. Depending on who you believe, that matter might have settled in the locker room between Coach Fox and #6 weeks ago, or it might have been settled on the field on Monday night. No, the real controversy has to do with what happens after Cutler’s run is over. Whether he’s cut, traded, sacked into retirement, or even extended, there will come a point when Jay Cutler is no longer the Bears’ quarterback. That’s where there is legitimate cause for controversy. When do the Bears invest the draft capital needed to find Jay’s heir?
Recycling and reclaiming players can be fun, and maybe a Brian Hoyer or a Matt Barkley will provide some sort of stopgap. However, the reality is that Chicago will need to actually draft a quarterback sooner rather than later, and there are assumptions people make about this process that I wanted to investigate. This article is going to focus on the biggest one—is there really some sort of shortage of quarterbacks that requires the expenditure of a high first-round pick? I’m guilty of assuming this is true sometimes, and the ransom given up for Carson Wentz only reinforces this idea.
Let’s look at recent drafts and see if the rules might have changed while nobody was looking. 2011 was the first year after the Cutler trade when the Bears could have taken a quarterback (not that they would have) with a first-round pick. Probably incidentally, it was also the first year of the rookie wage scale, when drafting a quarterback in the first round didn’t automatically derail a franchise’s salary cap. Seventy quarterbacks have been drafted over the last six years, and while not all of them have seen playing time, players from Cam Newton (#1 in 2011) to Brandon Doughty (#223 in 2016) give us a decent sample size to start the conversation.
The average of all quarterback play by those drafted from 2011 on has seen a completion percentage just under 61%, a slightly better than 3:2 touchdown to interception ratio (1.6:1), and just over 7 yards per attempt. Before going on, it’s important to explain a quirk of math for those who might overlook it—the bad quarterbacks accumulate fewer attempts and games, meaning that only the good quarterbacks contribute large numbers to these averages. The “average” above is actually made up mostly by plays from the “very good” from this pool, with a bit of noise thrown in by marginal players who get maybe a game or a series each to prove their worth. That’s why only 22 of these 70 men have at least two of these three stats at a level above the overall averages. This would seem to be a minimum threshold for a “good” quarterback pick.
Eight of these “good” quarterbacks were found in the first round, but seventeen quarterbacks have been drafted in the first round. In other words, fewer than half of the first-round quarterbacks turned out to be “good.” Because we all know that there is such a drop-off in quality after the first round, it’s therefore obvious that a team in need of a quarterback needs to draft early. But…
…Four “good” quarterbacks were found in the second round, even though only seven were drafted. Four more were likewise found in the third round when only eight were drafted. In other words, eight “good” quarterbacks were found in the second and third rounds of the draft by teams spending a collective total of fifteen picks. That sounds remarkably like the results from the first round.
In fact, it is not until the fourth round that there’s a real drop-off (only three “good” quarterbacks found out of eleven picks—Prescott, Nassib, and Cousins). Worse, after the fourth round, things get really bleak. In fact, only three of the remaining 28 quarterbacks (one per round) drafted after the fourth meet even the loose definition of “good” provided above.
So, as long as the general manager in question doesn’t wait too long, it seems possible that a team with a savvy enough GM can find a quality quarterback without investing a first-round pick to do it. It doesn’t take a one-off like Dak Prescott to make the idea work.
Okay, that’s the number stuff. What does the “ear test” tell us? The eight first-rounders to make the cut are Carson Wentz, Paxton Lynch, Marcus Mariota, Teddy Bridgewater, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannenhill, and Cam Newton. Besides Lynch (whose stats might be an artifact of only having 59 attempts), those names sound legitimate. In the next two rounds, the list includes Derek Carr, Jimmy Garoppolo, Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick, Jacoby Brissett, Cody Kessler, Russell Wilson, and Nick Foles. Those names sound shakier, especially with the New England quarterbacks, but I’ll take an Andy Dalton before a Ryan Tannenhill, and so it’s worth looking at two measures of quarterback efficiency to cross-check the ear test. One is Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt and the other is the conventional quarterback rating.
The table above shows the rank of each of these men in ANY/A, with their relative rank to one another in passer rating noted in in parentheses.
Even if we’re tempted to dismiss Garoppolo as an example of Belichick-ian dark magic, this is not clear dominance from the first rounders. We can make qualifiers and caveats about teams and results, but when evaluating a quarterback, ANY/A is a pretty decent overall measure. So are the measures of completion percentage, touchdown to interception ratio, yards per attempt, and quarterback rating. There’s a lot of overlap in these stats, too, but there’s fair reason to question the axiomatic belief that quarterbacks need to be found in the first round.
Does this mean that it’s safe to wait to pick a quarterback? Not at all. But it does suggest that a savvy enough GM has three rounds in which to find the right man, so long as all other factors (scouting, combine results, college play) are in place. Picking three random players in the third round are not going to guarantee a starting quarterback. However, while choices get slimmer as the rounds tick by, there is no dramatic falloff in success rates after the first round is over.
If I were a betting man (and I’m not), I would bet on Pace to find the next quarterback for the Bears in the players who slip into the second round (maybe even trading up to get a high enough second-rounder). It gives him the first round to find a playmaker without a real loss in his potential to find the next Chicago quarterback. If he keeps Jay around, he could even let the rookie develop behind the man from Santa Claus, Indiana. After all, sitting a first-round pick behind Smokin’ Jay might cause too much controversy.
*All stats come from the terrifically useful Pro Football Reference.