Evaluating the QB Drafting Decision

Following the Rams big trade to get a QB in the draft immediately people started creating trade scenarios with certain teams that “don’t need” quarterbacks. That got me to thinking about why we are so convinced that teams should bypass the quarterback because of current roster construction when there are viable players to be selected. If this is the most important player on the field why take such a short term view or narrow minded approach to drafting a QB? So with that in mind here is a pretty long look at some of the things that really should go into the decision making process.

Quarterback Hit Rates

Everyone is obviously going to have very different definitions of a “hit” when drafting a quarterback but I thought the most simple way to judge was by Pro Bowls. While Pro Bowls can often be misleading, in general, players who have good careers will end up being selected over time. Here is the success rate of players drafted from 1990-2012, as measured by selection to at least one Pro Bowl.

Draft PickHitMissRate
Top 5161159.3%
6 to 154930.8%
15 to 3221511.8%
Round 242016.7%
Round 351920.8%
Round 41352.8%
Round 51303.2%
Round 663714.0%
Round 72434.4%

I’d consider this level of player as a team being satisfied with the selection. At the least it probably indicates a competent quarterback that would be the equivalent of the so-so veteran starter option. It also seems relatively clear that the first half of the first round produces far better players than the back end of the round. There is some bias in the PB voting for certain (the flashy highly drafted rookie has a major advantage over an equal performer drafted with no fanfare at number 31), but this would certainly seem to be an indication that scouting in the NFL is doing something right in how they rank these players.

If we switch the filter to multiple Pro Bowls, the numbers shift a bit.

Draft PickHitMissRate
Top 5131448.1%
6 to 1521115.4%
15 to 3221511.8%
Round 22228.3%
Round 32228.3%
Round 40360.0%
Round 51303.2%
Round 63407.0%
Round 70450.0%

In my mind these are the players that move a team beyond just satisfied as often they are finding very good talent who are potential franchise players. The hits at the top are pretty big compared to everywhere else. It’s basically a 50/50 opportunity to land a very good quarterback, compared with generally a 15% or lower chance elsewhere.

I think most people will agree that the key to sustained success in the NFL lies with the quarterback position. Defenses come and go. Running games come and go. The great QB is a constant. But teams also get too caught up in two concepts, which are a mistake in my opinion.

Maximizing Opportunities, Player Costs, and Developing QB’s

One is the concept that says once you draft a quarterback you have no choice but to exclusively develop that player. Depending on where the player is drafted that developmental period can be anywhere from two to four years before the team is willing to concede it made a mistake. Some of this is draft bias where the front office is blinded by the fact that they drafted this player. Some is also deeply rooted in the old financials where highly drafted quarterbacks were immediately among the highest compensated players at the position (i.e. Sam Bradford) where it was difficult to justify signing anyone else.

The GM being tied to the QB is just such a narrow view. Maybe there is fear that ownership will see them as not having a plan, but if the goal is to be successful why not increase your odds of success by picking in back to back years if the opportunity is there? As long as you have the conviction to stick with some kind of on the field plan and not become the Texans of 2015 with a rotating carousel what is the harm?

I’m not sure if anyone is confident that Marcus Mariota is or is not the answer for the Titans. He had some moments last year but also struggled at times. I don’t believe anyone watching him play believes his chances of success are any better or worse than they are as a blind investment- meaning it’s a 50/50 proposition. While nobody can argue against the Titans trade, had they not traded with the Rams they should at least consider the possibility of drafting another QB which theoretically gives them around a 70% chance of hitting on the position, the most important one on the field.

For the GM this is going to do nothing but extend his chances to keep his job. If Mariota flops, the odds are against the GM being allowed to pick another QB, 3 or 4 years down the line. He’ll be fired. It gives the team an option to likely replace Mariota if needed one year down the line without having to go down the same developmental path that landed them in the top five of the draft in back to back years.

The financials should also be of limited concern compared to the past. Sam Bradford earned in the ballpark of $50 million guaranteed without ever taking an NFL snap on a contract worth $12 million a year in 2010. In today’s NFL Bradford would have likely earned somewhere in the ballpark of $19 million a year with $65 million guaranteed under the old CBA rules.

Because of that commitment, teams would have an incentive not to pick the same position in back to back years. You can’t expect to be successful in the NFL with a near $40 million allocation to the position. Plus that pick would not have cost the same if picking a left tackle, defensive end, or any other position traditionally selected in the top 5. Contracts were negotiated and quarterbacks drew a premium, other positions did not, at least not to the level of the QB. So there was a financial benefit for picking elsewhere.

These rules are different. Mariota cost the Titans $6 million a season. The top pick in this year’s draft will cost around $6.9 million. Two quarterbacks for $12.9 million. That actually leaves a team well below the league average of spending around $16.5 million on a starter and backup to fill out the roster.

There is also no benefit cost wise to not taking a quarterback. The cost of the 1st pick is a sunk cost if you make the pick. Whether the pick is a punter or a quarterback they make the same money. So it’s not like by selecting a different position you save the team money.

Some will argue that we are losing the opportunity of a contributor at a different position, but we have to take a grander view of the whole scenario. In the grand scheme of things the team has to understand that we are underinvesting in a position for a four to five year period. In theory the team has at a minimum an additional $3.5 million per year in savings. If one of the players hits, we are effectively paying $12.9 million for $22 million in value ($22 million is the average spend on two QBs for the top 16 spenders in the NFL), $9 million in savings. Because the spend on QB is so large this is the lone position that brings this kind of value when you hit. Those savings can be applied to free agents that take the place of the blind pick which would be used at the other position. So we are not necessarily losing the performance, we are just shuffling the way we find that performance.

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