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Why This Quarterback Draft Class May Wind Up Better Than Expected

We’ve heard it over and over and over again: The quarterback prospects in this year’s NFL draft class aren’t as strong as in previous years. Teams may still get anxious and reach for QBs earlier than the consensus mock drafts are predicting — after all, the 2022 draft, which starts Thursday night, carries tremendous uncertainty about who will be picked where. But this pool of passers simply doesn’t contain the glut of can’t-miss talent that we saw in other recent drafts.

Then again, that might not mean this crop of signal-callers is doomed. For one thing, its projected weakness might be overstated, relatively speaking. And even if it isn’t, we should know by now that the draft is unpredictable: “Can’t-miss” prospects actually do miss at an alarming rate, and highly touted quarterback classes have had stunningly mixed results over the years. Relatedly, less well-regarded classes still have a fighting chance to produce at least some value. And furthermore, there is even some evidence that a talented passing prospect should actually want to be picked lower in the draft from a career-development perspective anyway (if not a rookie-contract one).

So how weak is this year’s class of quarterbacks? To help put the talent of Malik Willis, Desmond Ridder, Kenny Pickett and company in context, we’ll look at ESPN’s scouting grades, which rate each player (regardless of position) on a 0-to-100 scale, and go back to 2004. It’s certainly true that this year’s top QBs are not especially strong relative to other prospects at different positions. Willis and Pickett, the top-rated QBs, were each given a grade of 90, sitting behind 13 other prospects and tied with eight other non-QBs.1 From 2004 through 2021, the average top-ranked QB in a draft class carried a rating of 95.1, and the average second-ranked QB had a rating of 93.1, so neither of the top QBs in this year’s class would rank among the top two in a typical class.

That’s sort of indicative of the whole crop of passing prospects this year. Aside from good depth at the back end of the top five — with a scouting rating of 84, fifth-ranked Sam Howell of North Carolina is better than the average No. 5 ranked QB prospect (79.6) — the prospects in this class are generally rated lower than the baseline prospect for each ranking slot since 2004:

So there have been plenty of stronger classes than the 2022 quarterback crop, to be sure. However, there have also been weaker ones. Two classes (2013 and 2017) featured a No. 1 QB prospect graded lower than Willis or Pickett are this year, and four (2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017) featured lower average grades for their top three QBs than 2022’s leading trio (Willis, Pickett and Mississippi’s Matt Corral). If we expand our scope to look at the average rating for the top five QBs in each class — which matches the number of passers taken in the first round of several recent drafts — then 2022 looks downright ordinary in terms of strength, ranking 11th out of 19 drafts since 2004.

Not that the perceived quality of a quarterback draft class — or the ranking of the prospects within it — even matters much. For instance, we all remember the over-the-top hype train for the first QBs off the board in 2018: Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma, Sam Darnold of Southern California, Josh Allen of Wyoming, Josh Rosen of UCLA and Lamar Jackson of Louisville. Four years later, the glorious predictions around that class seem comical. Of those five QBs, the best career by Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Approximate Value (AV) belongs to the fifth QB chosen (Jackson), while the second-best career belongs to the third QB off the board (Allen). The second QB taken (Darnold) has been the league’s worst regular starter over the past four seasons, and the less said about Rosen’s career, the better.

To be fair, even though it was almost totally powered by the relatively unexpected sources of Jackson and Allen, that group is on track to be one of the better QB draft crops of the past two decades, collectively producing 195 total AV in its first four post-draft NFL seasons. Still, that number doesn’t especially challenge the 250 AV generated early on by the 2012 QB class, which was also expected to be elite — nor does it surpass the four-year total from the 2011 class (200 AV), which drew somewhat more middling reviews from scouts going into the draft. Meanwhile, the class of 2007 — which looked much better on paper, with a supposedly strong top two of JaMarcus Russell and Brady Quinn — ended up being one of the worst of the last 20 years, with a paltry 53 total AV in its first four years.

Overall, the correlations between a quarterback draft class’s four-year AV and its average scouting grade for the top three (0.27) and top five (0.44) QB prospects are fairly low. While those relationships are not quite nonexistent, they do indicate that the vast majority of what makes a QB class productive or not is getting missed by the draftniks beforehand. So if a supposedly strong class can undershoot expectations, and a supposedly weak one can be better than predicted, there may be hope yet for this disregarded group of passers in 2022.

And ironically, an underlooked factor for success could be the very lack of respect that would cause a prospect’s stock to fall on draft day. If we’ve learned nothing from the struggles of Darnold (or Zach Wilson, for that matter) with the New York Jets — and various other QBs brought into terrible franchises — it’s that the NFL promotes a vicious cycle of drafting quarterbacks. Since the highest picks go to the worst teams, and those teams put an incredible premium on taking QBs with top picks, the best prospects end up with horrible supporting casts early in their careers. This often leads to struggling performances — which, if they get bad enough, motivate the team to move on from the once-promising prospect and restart the cycle.

We can only hope that a passer as talented as Jacksonville’s Trevor Lawrence can overcome his chaotic rookie season with the Jaguars, one of the worst situations a touted QB was ever drafted into. But while landing in a better situation isn’t exactly a substitute for superior talent, it can tangibly help a QB’s career performance — at least among first-round picks. Starting with the 1984 draft and going through the class of 2018, I looked at the four-year AV produced by each first-round quarterback as a function of both draft position (as measured by the Jimmy Johnson draft chart) and the quality of talent around the QB (as measured by the team’s Elo rating at the end of the previous season).

In a linear regression, the more well-regarded quarterback in the draft does better — no surprise — but there is a slight (though not statistically significant) trend toward QBs who land on better teams also doing better.2 Compared with a QB drafted in the same slot, additional points of supporting-cast Elo could lead to modestly more AV over a prospect’s first four years, holding all else constant.

It’s not a big enough effect to transform the production of a middling talent into that of a No. 1 overall pick — a No. 1 overall talent with the worst supporting cast would still be expected to play better than most other prospects with the best supporting casts — but it could matter a bit more deeper into the first round, when most (if not all) of this year’s QB prospects are expected to land.

For a prospect like Willis or Pickett, each of whom has a wide range of where he might be selected depending on the mock draft, the best version of each player’s career could very well involve getting drafted slightly lower — but into a better situation — rather than higher and into a much worse one.

Such is the paradox of drafting quarterbacks in the modern NFL. And without a clear-cut dominant top talent in this year’s class, where each prospect is selected could have a uniquely outsized effect on how their careers pan out. Maybe that won’t matter in the grander scope of the league, if this QB class is in fact weaker than past cohorts. But though these passers look less than stellar on tape, history says that won’t mean as much as we might think when this group gets judged years down the line — particularly for the QBs who get drafted into situations that give them a better chance to succeed.

Footnotes

  1. As of April 25.

  2. You might think a team’s draft position and previous-year Elo have a strong inverse relationship, since better picks go to worse teams, but the correlation between those two factors is surprisingly weak, such that I detected no multicollinearity when I looked at the variance inflation factors.

Neil Paine is the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

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