NFL Draft - Quarterbacks as No. 1 Picks
by Robert Ferringo - 4/16/2010
While the NFL Draft is one of the biggest gambles in sports I will say that it isn’t rocket science. And over the past 20 years the modern draft has given front office folk a pretty steady blueprint of what you should and shouldn’t do with your first round picks. Despite this fact, teams repeatedly ignore those signs, symbols, blueprints, tarot readings, and previous cautionary tales, passing by the rotting corpses of past first round failures on their way to the guillotine. Every year multiple teams make major mistakes, and every year I shake my head and wonder how so many people can miss such clear signs telling them to do otherwise.
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This year the first team up on the draft board is the St. Louis Rams. St. Louis, once the Greatest Show on Turf, is now a complete and utter pushover and a franchise in desperate need of a turnaround. However, if all the projections and predictions are correct then they are going to walk into one of the most fundamental mistakes that a team can make in the NFL Draft:
1. Don’t take a quarterback No. 1 overall.
This week I’m going to document some of the biggest “Don’ts” in the NFL Draft’s first round. As I mentioned, I feel there is are some pretty clear things that you just don’t do if you’re picking in the first round. Of course, teams will do them anyway, but such is life and such if football. And since the No. 1 overall pick – a figurehead unlike any in sport – is where each and every draft begins it is fitting that the list of major mistakes that you can make in the draft begins right there.
Since the mergers in 1970 there have been 17 quarterbacks taken with the No. 1 overall pick. They are:
1970: Terry Bradshaw (Pittsburgh)
1971: Jim Plunkett (New England)
1975: Steve Bartkowski (Atlanta)
1983: John Elway (Baltimore)
1987: Vinny Testaverde (Tampa Bay)
1989: Troy Aikman (Dallas)
1990: Jeff George (Indianapolis)
1993: Drew Bledsoe (New England)
1998: Peyton Manning (Indianapolis)
1999: Tim Couch (Cleveland)
2001: Michael Vick (Atlanta)
2002: David Carr (Houston)
2003: Carson Palmer (Cincinnati)
2004: Eli Manning (San Diego)
2005: Alex Smith (San Francisco)
2007: JaMarcus Russell (Oakland)
2009: Matthew Stafford (Detroit)
As you can see, nine of those 17 picks have come in the last 12 drafts. That is disproportionate to the previous 27 drafts in which there were just eight quarterbacks taken No. 1 overall. Of those initial eight I can say that all but Jeff George were what I would deem “successful”. So 7-for-8 is a damn fine ratio. However, for the nine that have been taken since 1998 I would say that the returns have been, well, less than stellar.
Manning went No. 1 overall in 1998. But he is an all-time great and a once-in-a-generation player. Yet, since he was the top pick it seems as if every other team has been trying to imitate what the Colts were able to uncover by knighting stiffs like Couch, Carr and Smith as the “best player available”. In my opinion it’s astounding that in 11 years of drafting between 1999 and 2009 there were a whopping eight quarterbacks taken No. 1 overall.
And of those eight, only three – Vick, Palmer and Manning – have played in a Pro Bowl. Palmer has been very good, but not great, as injuries have bothered him. Manning has been very good and won a Super Bowl, but not for the team that drafted him (San Diego). The rest of the guys on that list? I’d say somewhere between total train wreck and unmitigated disaster. They have accounted for just three playoff games started and zero postseason wins, and guys like Couch, Carr and Smith dragged down franchises for years before the cord was finally cut.
Further, the NFL is completely different from what it was in 1998 when Manning came aboard. There has been expansion, division realignment, rule changes and Rex Grossman. The whole landscape has changed. So not only was Manning an anomaly, but teams have failed to react to that.
And even though we count Manning in the pre-alignment pool of success (making it eight of nine top overall picks at quarterback that were successful) you have to realize that three of those eight guys (Plunkett, Elway, and Testaverde) didn’t have their best years for the teams that drafted them. When considering that then suddenly only five of the 17 quarterbacks taken No. 1 overall (Bradshaw, Aikman, Bledsoe, Manning, Palmer) actually produced for the teams that picked them to the point where they could be considered “successful”.
(For the record, I still count Manning as a success for San Diego because they managed to get Philip Rivers, who they would have taken anyway, Shawn Merriman and Nate Kaeding in their ensuing trade.)
So with what I feel is a pretty overwhelming body of evidence against it, why would St. Louis seriously be considering taking Sam Bradford No. 1 overall? The answer can only be because they are inept, which is part of the reason they are picking No. 1 overall in the first place.
Let’s set aside the fact that, obviously, front offices and scouts have been terrible at assessing top quarterback talent. There is flawed logic to taking a quarterback overall. Not the least of which is the fact that the amazing amount of money that the No. 1 pick demands. And to get little or no production from a premium position, with that much loot tied up in it, is what can handicap a franchise for years.
But let’s look a little deeper. You have the No. 1 overall pick because your team sucks. Now, the most likely areas where your team sucks are probably A) the offensive line and B) the defense. So you take a quarterback No. 1. Does that address either of your biggest issues?
Not only that, but now you are putting a young, inexperienced, deer-in-the-headlights quarterback behind an awful line. What do you think is going to happen? I think that the quarterback will get beat up, injured, develop poor habits, have his confidence ripped to shreds, and get the fans completely turned against him because it’s easier to boo and blame the quarterback than it is the left guard. And the really good news? Because you probably have an awful defense you’re going to be playing from behind quite a bit so the opponent will be able to apply extra pressure, tee off on the rush, and put even more pressure on your young, inexperienced, deer-in-the-headlights quarterback, who will be throwing the ball on every other down.
In my opinion, Couch and Carr are perfect examples. They were the top picks of expansion franchises (the “new” Browns and the Texans). They weren’t any good. But you can’t help but wonder if they could have had decent careers if they had gone to more established teams. Instead, they were supposed to be the face of a franchise that was starting from scratch. And as such neither quarterback was surrounded with any of the mechanisms essential for NFL success.
I understand that quarterback is the most important position on the field. But that doesn’t mean that you have to take one first overall. Building a very good team is like building a house: you are only as good as your foundation. The offensive line and the defense are the foundation of any good team. If you don’t have those things it doesn’t matter who your quarterback is. And unless there is a quarterback out there that is clearly, obviously, without question the best player in the draft you don’t take him No. 1 overall.
Was Matt Stafford the best player in last year’s draft? No. So in my opinion Detroit made a mistake taking him and I think that will play itself out over the next decade. Was JaMarcus Russell the no-doubt, consensus best player in the draft in 2008? No. So Oakland made a mistake in taking him. (Which goes without saying.) How about Alex Smith? You see where I’m going here?
Is Sam Bradford the no-doubt, clear-cut No. 1 best player in the 2010 NFL Draft? No chance. So why in God’s name is St. Louis looking to take him with their top pick? They had a pretty good, established quarterback in Marc Bulger. But what happened to him? St. Louis put him behind one of the worst offensive lines in football, surrounded him with the worst receiving corps in football, and fielded one of the worst defenses in football. Voila – Bulger got creamed, was constantly hurt and ineffective, and now a one-time Pro Bowl quarterback is no longer with the franchise.
One of the knocks on Bradford is that he’s not exactly a large man (as opposed to a Manning, Joe Flacco or Big Ben) and he suffered a significant shoulder injury that put him out for the year last season. What do you think is going to happen if he drops back 400 times behind the Rams offensive line next year? I’m guessing the guys he will be facing will hit a lot harder than the guys from BYU.
Does Sam Bradford address any of those other underlying needs for this team? Right now, today, is he going to fare any better than an established, talented NFL quarterback on that team? There isn’t a chance in hell. So why would the Rams pick Bradford when they could trade down (possibly), they could not use their pick (forcing the teams behind them to go first), they could take the best offensive or defensive lineman available, or they could simply pick the best overall player available (which isn’t Bradford).
I’ve heard people describe Eric Berry as the Next Ed Reed. Would you rather have a young Ed Reed or a Matt Leinart, Jason Campbell, or David Carr on your team?
Further, let’s think about some of the other top picks from recent years. In 2006 the Texans took Mario Williams – a defensive lineman – with the No. 1 overall pick. They were lambasted for not taking either Reggie Bush or Vince Young. There is absolutely no doubt that they made the right choice and Houston found a cornerstone for their franchise. Since then they have finished at or above .500 in three of four seasons and Williams is a Pro Bowler.
Also, in 2008 Miami took Jake Long with the No. 1 overall pick. They promptly went 11-5 (after being 1-15 in 2007) and now have a cornerstone left tackle and will be in several Pro Bowls.
So even in this decade, while teams have flopped and floundered with the top overall pick wasting them time after time on overmatched quarterbacks, the two teams that went the other way and built their foundation on the offensive or defensive line saw immediate results and are now in position to achieve some postseason results.
I know that this analysis isn’t going to change St. Louis’ mind. (I would take Ndamukong Suh and not think twice, with due consideration given to Russell Okung or Eric Berry.) And I have a feeling that we will once again see a team ignore history and commit a cardinal first round draft sin: you don’t take a quarterback No. 1 overall unless that quarterback is by far, bar none, no doubt better than the rest of the players in the NFL Draft (which Bradford is not).
Good luck St. Louis. And good luck Bradford. You’re both gonna need it.
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