35 years ago, the NFL draft was embroiled in drama. John Elway, (also known as the New York Yankees’ 1981 second round pick), refused to sign with the Baltimore Colts and threatened to use baseball as his ticket out of Baltimore. Meanwhile, teams drafted an additional five quarterbacks in the first round, a run ended by the selection of some guy named Dan Marino at #27 overall. While Elway’s journey out of Baltimore was the initial drama, the record number of quarterbacks selected in the first round became the lasting image of the 1983 draft, such that ESPN felt the need to air a 30 for 30 on the topic.
This year’s draft could reach the heights of the 1983 draft with four quarterbacks likely to go in the top 10 (Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Baker Mayfield, and Josh Allen) and two others who teams could reach for in the first round (Mason Rudolph and Lamar Jackson. Even if the 2018 draft doesn’t reach the heights of 1983, it’s likely to meet or surpass 1999, the last draft that started with three quarterbacks and saw five quarterbacks off the board in the first 12 picks.
So is there something special about this year’s quarterbacks? Probably not. Quarterbacks are being taken earlier and more frequently, a trend that has continued for decades. As the table below shows, the number of quarterbacks taken in the first round draft has increased every decade.
Since 1970 (the year of the AFL/NFL merger), the number of quarterbacks drafted in the first round has grown each decade (if four quarterbacks are drafted in the first round this year, this trend continues with 2019 to break the tie). However, volume does not necessarily answer if more quarterbacks are being drafted in the first round due to expansion (there were 28 NFL teams in 1979). As the table also shows, the number of quarterbacks as a percentage of total first round picks and total roster spots has also increased. For example, from 1970 to 1979, 6.0 percent of first round picks were quarterbacks compared to 8.6 percent in the current decade. If anything, quarterbacks are playing longer than in the past, so this suggests that there is more turnover of starting quarterbacks in the NFL due to teams giving quarterbacks short leashes. Losing teams without an answer at quarterback will continuously be gifted with an early first round pick, which it’s hard to resist using on the next new thing at quarterback, especially if the team just brought in a new coaching regime (I just described the last ten years of the Browns organization).
It’s fairly obvious to state that the quarterback position is very important to the overall success of an NFL team (Brett Hundley anyone?), but does that explain why teams are drafting quarterbacks earlier? While the success rate is higher in the first round than in any other round, this still suggests that teams are reaching on quarterbacks to fill a need at the most important position in football, regardless of talent level.
In 2017, 19 of the 32 quarterbacks were first round picks and 28 were drafted in the fourth round or earlier (Tom Brady, Tyrod Taylor, Trevor Siemian, and Case Keenum were the exceptions). Given the number of quarterbacks drafted in the first round over the last decade, this isn’t surprising. Over the last fifteen years, 40 quarterbacks were drafted in the first round and 19 of them held starting jobs through 2017. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the talent level of quarterbacks has improved relative to other positions, but that more first round quarterbacks means more first round quarterbacks as starting quarterbacks.
Drafting and scouting any position in football is really difficult, but the complexities of learning an offensive system, being a team leader, and possessing the necessary physical traits make this even harder to succeed at the quarterback position. Due to the win-now mentality that prevails in the NFL, it is increasingly important to find a cost controlled quarterback who can play at an All Pro level in order to win big and stay employed (at the minimum, drafting a quarterback early gives the coach and GM job security until it becomes clear the QB is a bust). However, if the quarterback doesn’t pan out, the franchise most likely wasted a few years and draft picks that could have been used to improve other aspects of the franchise.
It’s clear that the perceived need to find a franchise quarterback motivated the Jets to move up to the third pick after being spurned by Kirk Cousins. If the quarterback (and it will be a quarterback) the Jets take flops, it sets the franchise back at least four years and possibly longer given the second round picks traded to move to the third pick. If the Jets are confident they can find their quarterback of the future to unseat Christian Hackenberg (Ha!), it’s a great move regardless of the opportunity cost.
Regardless of the success of the first round quarterbacks in 2018, they join a prestigious club that is quickly growing in size as teams devote more first round picks to quarterbacks.