I need to begin this article with a disclaimer. This began as an investigation about whether or not it was possible to tell the difference between a “successful” and an “unsuccessful” quarterback during the course of an early playing window. As a research question, this meant that I needed to have a clear definition of success and at least a loose definition of failure, and it also meant that I needed to track various markers of performance to see whether or not there was a difference in any of those markers from one group to the next. What I found was not what I expected, and so I will begin with the simplest and cleanest framing of the question.
What does it look like when a team drafts a successful franchise quarterback in the first round?
Of course, to answer this question I needed a definition of a successful franchise quarterback. At a basic level, I expect a player who has some semblance of success and–more importantly–who the franchise keeps for at least six years (longer than the length of time under which the franchise has control of the player’s rights as per the 2011 CBA). I am willing to accept playoff appearances for the team or Pro Bowls for the individual as measures of success, but I believe that the best place to start is that the franchise itself has stopped looking and has decided that this quarterback is The Guy.
Players drafted prior to 2011 faced different rules for rookie contracts. Players drafted after 2018 have not gotten deep enough into their careers for us to tell whether or not they are going to reach the six-year mark. Thus, the twenty-five first-round quarterbacks drafted from 2011-2018 constitute the candidates for this investigation. I am ruling out the host of other quarterbacks drafted later as a way of cutting down the noise that would be generated by players who were intended to be backups or who never really had a chance to prove themselves. However, we will revisit some of those other quarterbacks later.
As I go through the candidates and their performances, I will offer commentary and analysis. However, I need to stress that while I am a Chicago Bears fan, this piece is not about Justin Fields, even if concerns over Fields prompted my initial research.
Plays Blown Dead
Two of these twenty-five are arguably players whose careers were compromised too early by injury (Robert Griffin III and Teddy Bridgewater). Another two (Watson and Manziel) had significant issues independent of their playing performance, though performance alone would likely have kept Manziel from becoming a franchise-defining quarterback. It still seems fair to consider both of these drafts a failure, though. Given how many times non-football issues are brought up when players are discussed in the draft, it’s naïve to suggest that teams don’t at least try to account for social-emotional issues as well as athletic talent.
Another ten players did not make it to the end of the allotted five years with the same team: Baker Mayfield, Mitchell Trubisky, Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker, Christian Ponder, EJ Manuel, Brandon Weeden, and Paxton Lynch. They are a mixed bunch. Their average completion percentage (58.7%) was typically under the league average for this time (which slowly climbed from 60% to 65%), but the higher range of a single standard deviation of the mean for these players was also within the lower range of a single standard deviation for he league as a whole. The touchdown percentage is the same story, even if the interception rate is a little higher. The average yards per game across their entire tenure with the team that drafted them are definitely lower than the league average at 183, but half of them clear the 200+ mark, so the best of these players are almost mediocre. Half of these players even have at least one 3-game stretch where they have an averaged passer rating of 100+ before they leave their drafting team, so they had moments where they validated fan belief (or where they fueled false hope, depending on your perspective).
One point that really stands out is the sack percentage, in that the best two of the “failed” quarterbacks took sacks at a 6.6% rate, and both of those are true outliers, whereas the average for the whole group is 8.45%, notably higher than the league average. In fact, those two players (Trubisky and Weeden) have at least a couple of categories where they outperform the average of the failed quarterback group by more than one standard deviation. Along with Baker Mayfield, they represent the “best” of the quarterbacks who didn’t make it. Their performance levels were often close to league averages without having major areas of exceptional struggle, which is likely why the two of them who were on the younger side found their ways on to other rosters as starters.
Short of the Line of Gain
Five more players make it exactly five years, essentially making it the length of time determined by the team-controlled contracts set in place in 2011: Jameis Winston, Jared Goff, Marcus Mariota, Carson Wentz, and Blake Bortles. Goff and Wentz have found other work starting, as has (after a break) Mariota. Jameis Winston went from being the quarterback that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers tried to convince themself was the answer to being the quarterback the New Orleans Saints are trying to convince themself is the answer.
Winston made the Pro Bowl but not the playoffs, Mariota and Bortles made the playoffs without making the Pro Bowl, Carson Wentz and Jared Goff did both (with Wentz’s injury leading to an Eagles Super Bowl under Foles while Goff’s trade led to a Rams Super Bowl under Stafford). These players did well, and they are in their own way success stories, just as it’s a success story when a receiver comes down with a pass and both feet in bounds. However, these successes still left their franchises looking for answers — in some cases finding them — in other places as soon as their contracts were up.
Moving the Chains
Ultimately, this means that of twenty-five quarterbacks who were drafted in the first round, only six have the chance to be considered successful franchise quarterbacks. Here are the six players who were (or are on course to be) kept by their drafting team outside of the five-year span offered by the terms of the rookie contract system: Patrick Mahomes, Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Ryan Tannehill, Josh Allen, and Lamar Jackson (who was at least offered a major contract extension).
Of the six “successful” players, they follow a pretty predictable pattern. In their first two years (regardless of how much they played during those years), they averaged a 60% completion percentage (56.3-65.9 range) and at least 200 yards per game in starts by their second year (Josh Allen tucks in at 193 yards per game because of his incomplete game where the playoff-bound Bills had him throw five passes and then sit). In their first two years they get sacked less than 8% of the time and have at least one three-game stretch with an averaged passer rating above 100. All of them threw touchdowns at least 3.5% of the time and interceptions less than 3% of the time. These players are definitely good, in that they are hitting the NFL averages or exceeding them most of the time. There, at least, is a tentative list of traits to look for early in a quarterback’s career.
However, in a league where the average touchdown rate has been north of 4% for over a decade, half of them are below that mark. Only two of them turned in passer ratings over their first two years that were notably above average (Jackson and Mahomes). The picture is pretty muddy, and that’s even among the top quarter of first-round quarterback selections.
Throwing a Challenge Flag
The common explanation for this low success rate (24%) is that it is simply too difficult to find a good quarterback for the NFL. Conventional wisdom states that even with premium picks, the odds of finding a “winner” are so low that teams need to keep trying. That answer is compelling. It might even be correct. However, there are two lines of evidence that make it difficult for me to accept this sort of reasoning, and the one that stands out the most is the performance of quarterbacks drafted in the second round.
Of the eight quarterbacks drafted in the second round, three actually played at least six years on the team that drafted them–Colin Kaepernick, Andy Dalton, and Derek Carr. This means that whereas only 24% of the first-rounders were clear success stories, 38% of second-rounders succeeded. Additionally, Brock Osweiler and Geno Smith both played out the length of their contracts, and Jimmy Garoppolo netted a return equal to the investment made in him (a second-round pick) for his last year under contract. That arguably means that only DeShone Kizer and Christian Hackenberg represent true failures as drafted quarterbacks in the second round. As draft picks (not as quarterbacks), second-round quarterbacks fail at a rate of 25%; first-round quarterbacks fail at a rate of 52%.
This is not about settling for lesser results, either. While only 16% of the first-round quarterbacks made it to the Pro Bowl in their first two years, 25% of the second-round quarterbacks did so. Three of the eight made it to the playoffs (four if Osweiler’s work in the regular season is counted). This leads to the second line of evidence.
Return to that list of successful quarterbacks for a moment. Ryan Tannehill, of course, took the Dolphins to the playoffs only once (with Matt Moore filling in and providing a 2-1 run when he was unable to play). He never made the Pro Bowl with Miami. Depending on what you are looking for in a franchise quarterback, it is possible that he falls short of being The Guy.
That means that players who were drafted in the first round in order to be “the guy” and who then managed to be the long-term answer at quarterback for their team over an 8-year span is a list of five men: Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, Andrew Luck, and Cam Newton.
While he has undeniably helped redefine the Chiefs, it’s worth pointing out that Patrick Mahomes was also drafted by a team that had five consecutive winning seasons before he took over as starter. He has turned out to be a phenomenal player, but it is difficult to argue that he turned around a franchise. He mostly just added momentum to a team that was already on the upswing. He was more The Next Guy than The Guy. He counts, but he brings an asterisk for fans hoping that finding the right quarterback can change a team’s fortunes.
Lamar Jackson looks promising, but he actually was not the true first-round draft pick of the Baltimore Ravens–that was Hayden Hurst. Jackson was actually acquired with what was essentially a pair of second-round picks, and he was signed to a team that had an established starter in Joe Flacco. He counts, but brings the caveat that the team took him because he was available after a fall, not as their primary move in the draft.
Josh Allen just signed an extension, but for the first two years it was looking very shaky until the front office went out and built a more complete team around him. He is truly looking like the player many people thought Jarod Goff would be–the high end talent who was able to have a turnaround as soon as he got the right coach and the right team around him. Essentially, he needed a reversed version of what happened with Patrick Mahomes, in that while Mahomes came into an established team and found immediate success, Allen was unable to find success until a team was established around him. He was The Guy and Friends.
Andrew Luck was successful right away, and he did make it six years, but he retired at that point because his body (and perhaps mind) had been beaten too badly in the lag between when he was drafted with the expectations of saving the franchise and when the team actually put the work into getting him help. He also went to a team that had exactly one losing season. Still, he was definitely The Guy as long as he lasted.
Finally, there is Cam Newton. Newton was drafted to a team that had multiple ups and downs and only once he was in his third year did the franchise secure a run of winning games and playoff appearances. For ten years, he was absolutely The Guy.
Still, at least half of even this list suggests that it was the team that led to the success of the player and not the other way around.
By contrast, the record suggests that Allen and Jackson (at least) should join Carr, Dalton, and Kaepernick as players who turned out to be capable players on teams that were built to win by front offices who approached success as the responsibility of a complete unit. While Mahomes very probably would have turned out to be an excellent player on any team, he again went to a winning team and helped them win more. Ryan Tannehill, once on a better team, suddenly made it to the Pro Bowl and was able to enjoy multiple playoff runs.
Thus, the premise of “Successful Franchise Quarterback” is suspect. The strong form of the hypothesis—that it is possible for a struggling team to draft a quarterback who then stabilizes the franchise for years to come—is almost completely undermined. The weak form of the hypothesis—that when the team has the opportunity, and when they are willing and able to build around the player, that it is possible to find a franchise quarterback in the first round—has some weak evidence. The corollary that teams need to seize the chance to find the guy as soon as they have a premium draft pick (or soon as they are able to trade up for one) is also heavily undercut.
This is not saying that teams should not draft quarterbacks in the first round. It is saying that general managers should build complete football teams and stop trying to find that one player who is going to turn the franchise around and elevate the team. Investing a premium pick or trading up to draft a quarterback with the expectation that this one move can change a team’s fortunes does not have a basis in actual recent trends.
The teams that found successful franchise quarterbacks were largely either already successful teams who added new quarterbacks or teams that only added quarterbacks after other needs were addressed.