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The NFL Has Changed How It Drafts Quarterbacks

Five NFL teams spent a top-15 draft pick on a quarterback this year, and two of them paid dearly for the chance to do it. But though it seemed to some to be a harbinger of where the draft is headed — with more teams burning more pick value on more rookie passers — the haul was nothing new.

The legendary 1983 class, of course, saw six first-round quarterbacks, including eventual Hall of Famers John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino. Five first-rounders were taken in 1999 and 2018, and four were taken in 2003, 2004, 2011, 2012 and 2020. FiveThirtyEight has been covering the hot new trend of reaching for quarterbacks since 2014 — so does the latest draft really herald any kind of new era?

From 1984 to 1994, teams drafted an average of 8.7 quarterbacks per year in the first seven rounds, and just 1.5 in the first round. There were some confounding factors during this stretch, like 1984’s probable No. 1 overall pick, Steve Young, joining the upstart USFL. But in 1995, the league expanded for the first time since 1976 — and the expansion Carolina Panthers spent their first-ever draft pick on quarterback Kerry Collins, one of 14 QBs taken overall that year. During the 1999 season, former No. 1 overall pick Peyton Manning became the first quarterback to start all 32 games of his first two seasons since the league adopted a 16-game schedule in 1978. In the 1999 draft, one year after Manning was selected, five teams tried to select now-and-forever first-rounders of their own, and 13 quarterbacks in total.

In the two-plus decades since, at least 10 quarterbacks have been drafted every year but 2015 (when only seven were taken). The pattern of drafting first-rounders held steady for most of the same period: The three-year moving average of first-round quarterbacks has hovered around three per year, with at least four first-round passers selected in seven of 23 drafts. Viewed through that lens, this year’s tally of five is hardly paradigm-shattering.

So why does it feel like teams are burning through quarterbacks faster than ever?

First, we’re at a particular high point in the cycle of teams replenishing their supply of QBs. After a dip from 2013 to 2015, the last four drafts have had more quarterbacks taken in the first round (17) than in any other four-year period. But if the 2022 class has as many first-rounders as 2021 — which, per some experts, is possible — then nearly two-thirds of the league will have drafted a first-round quarterback over a five-year span.1

If that happens, there is the matter of where they all are going to play. The careers of top quarterbacks are much, much longer than they used to be: In 2020, according to Stathead, a whopping 60 regular-season games were started by quarterbacks who were at least 38 years old by Dec. 31.

Elway, Kelly, Marino and company were drafted into an NFL in which just one quarterback 38 or older2 would start any game in the following season. This year’s crop of rookies have joined a league in which graybeards Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Ben Roethlisberger are all expected to start full-time. 

But highly drafted QBs have made it work regardless. Before 2008, Manning was the only quarterback drafted in the first round to start at least 30 games in his first two years, and 19 first-rounders started fewer than 10 games. Since then, eight first-round picks have started at least 30 of their first 32 possible games, and only two first-rounders (Johnny Manziel and Paxton Lynch) got fewer than 10 starts.

These days, first-round quarterbacks are increasingly expected to start right away — and teams usually do what they can to clear any obstacles to that starting role out of their way. With more first-rounders starting faster and more established starters delaying retirement, though, that means fewer opportunities for second-day picks.

In the early 2010s, there was a bumper crop of excellent mid-round quarterbacks. Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, Nick Foles, Derek Carr and Jimmy Garoppolo have five Super Bowl starts and 14 Pro Bowls between them, and they were all drafted in the second or third round of the draft from 2011 to 2014. Add in Ryan Mallett, Brock Osweiler, Geno Smith and Mike Glennon, and the 10 second-day draftees over those four classes have combined for an eye-popping 637 starts.

But the subsequent six years have seen 11 second-day quarterbacks start just 106 games and make zero Pro Bowls. Of them, none are clear-cut starters going into this fall. NFL teams’ recent lack of use for second-day quarterbacks is starting to show up in the draft patterns, too:

After the 1983 class and before the 2002 expansion, second- and third-round quarterbacks significantly outnumbered first-rounders, 42 to 29. From 2002 to 2017, first-rounders held a 46-to-39 edge. The 17 quarterbacks taken in the first round since 2018 is an unprecedented run — but at the same time, just seven QBs have been drafted in the second and third rounds during that span, tied for the least of any four-year stretch since the mid-1990s.

It’s not like teams are making up for it in the later rounds, either. The 2002-17 drafts saw 7.2 passers taken in the fourth through seven rounds per year,3 which was up from 5.7 per year over the 1984-2001 period. But since 2018, teams have selected just 5.8 of these signal-callers per draft, culminating in this year’s crop of just two late-round QBs. Even if 2021 is an outlier, the most 10 most recent draft classes have averaged just six third-day quarterbacks per year, versus 7.8 the decade before.

Until the NFL expands again, there will only be 32 starting quarterback jobs. And as much as the college game has evolved over the years, there’s still a finite supply of pro-caliber rookies. But as NFL decision-makers keep getting better at understanding and optimizing the game, the demand for better quarterback play will only grow. And as top veteran quarterbacks play longer and longer, there are fewer opportunities for rookies to develop into those roles.

So despite what you’ve heard, NFL teams aren’t drafting more quarterbacks than usual. But they seem to be prioritizing QB prospects with starting potential in the first round, and giving them their shot as soon as possible, while letting developmental players fall to (or completely out of) the draft’s third day. 

Footnotes

  1. Multiple teams have already doubled up since 2018, and in this scenario more presumably will in the future.

  2. Jim Hart of the St. Louis Cardinals.

  3. The draft included 12 rounds from 1977 through 1992, eight rounds in 1993 and seven rounds since. We’re looking only at the first seven rounds for all years.

Ty Schalter is a husband, father and terrible bass player who uses words and numbers to analyze football. His work has been featured at VICE, SiriusXM and elsewhere.

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