This April, the Kansas City Chiefs will have to make one of the most important decisions in franchise history. Through 12 weeks, they've all but locked up the first overall pick in the draft. The Matt Cassel/Brady Quinn rotation has totaled 2096 yards 13 touchdowns, 16 interceptions, and the Chiefs have largely been inept on offense.
Kansas City seemingly hasn't had a long term answer at the quarterback position since Len Dawson played for them in the 1960s. There has been little to no stability (or consistent production) at the position since then, with the most success coming from past-their-prime veterans Joe Montana and Trent Green. Their last attempt at drafting a quarterback in the first-round came in 1983, when they selected Penn State's Todd Blackledge ahead of future Hall of Famers Jim Kelly and Dan Marino.
Most assume that the Chiefs will select a quarterback at the top of the 2013 NFL Draft. This draft presents a unique problem, with the perception being that there is no "elite" quarterback prospect. With this perception in mind, Frank Dupont threw out a suggestion for them to sign Alex Smith as a free agent, his reasoning being that they would pay Alex Smith the same amount of money as they'd pay a 1st overall selection at quarterback, without the stigma of trying to "turn a short-term solution into a long-term one" - more along the lines of their trade for Montana than their attempts to build for several years around Trent Green (who was a hit) or Matt Cassel (who has been a horrific flop).
Again, this goes with the assumption that there is no sure-fire solution at quarterback - no Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck, or Robert Griffin III to turn overcome and minimize other flaws on the roster and reduce the entire team's margin for error. The golden rule of the NFL Draft is “don’t pass on a franchise quarterback if there isn't one currently on your roster.” This pressure to draft and play rookie quarterbacks is also higher than ever, with rookie QB success occurring at a faster and higher rate than ever before, and Frank points out the inherent Supply/Demand issue attached.
Year By Year Look
So does it really make sense for Kansas City to take a quarterback first overall? Aside from Peyton Manning in 1999, it is fair to say we have only seen three other prospects that were (almost) universally regarded as “sure thing/can’t miss” prospects – Eli Manning in 2004, and the Andrew Luck/Robert Griffin duo last season. Let’s take a look at every quarterback drafted between rounds one and four between from the 2001-2010 drafts.
2001: Michael Vick (1,1), Drew Brees (2,32), Quincy Carter (2,53), Marques Tuiasosopo (2, 56), Chris Weinke (4,106), Sage Rosenfels (4,109), Jesse Palmer (4,125)
2002: David Carr (1,1), Joey Harrington (1,3), Patrick Ramsey (1,32), Josh McCown (3, 81), David Garrard (4,108), Rohan Davey (4,117)
2003: Carson Palmer (1,1), Byron Leftwich (1,7), Kyle Boller (1,19), Rex Grossman (1,22), Dave Ragone (3,88), Chris Simms (3,97), Seneca Wallace (4,110), Tony Romo (UDFA)
2004: Eli Manning (1,1), Philip Rivers (1,4), Ben Roethlisberger (1,10), JP Losman (1,22), Matt Schaub (3, 90), Luke McCown (4,106)
2005: Alex Smith (1,1), Aaron Rodgers (1,24), Jason Campbell (1,25), Charlie Frye (3,67), Andrew Walter (3, 69), David Green (4, 85), Kyle Orton (4,106), Stefan LeFors (4,107)
2006: Vince Young (1,3), Matt Leinart (1,10), Jay Cutler (1,11), Kellen Clemens (2,49), Tavaris Jackson (3,64), Charlie Whitehurst (3,81), Brodie Croyle (3,85), Brad Smith (4, 103)
2007: Jamarcus Russell (1,1), Brady Quinn (1,22), Kevin Kolb (2,36), John Beck (2,40), Drew Stanton (2,43), Trent Edwards (3,92), Isaiah Stanback (4,103)
2008: Matt Ryan (1,3), Joe Flacco (1,18), Brian Brohm (2,56), Chad Henne (2,57), Kevin O'Connell (3, 94)
2009: Matt Stafford (1,1), Mark Sanchez (1,5), Josh Freeman (1,17), Pat White (2,44), Stephen McGee (4, 101)
2010: Sam Bradford (1,1), Tim Tebow (1,25), Jimmy Clausen (2,48), Colt McCoy (3,85), Mike Kafka (4,122)
Too Soon to Tell:
2011: Cam Newton (1,1), Jake Locker (1,8), Blaine Gabbert (1,10), Christian Ponder (1, 12), Andy Dalton (2, 35), Colin Kaepernick (2, 36), Ryan Mallett (3, 74)
2012: Andrew Luck (1,1), Robert Griffin (1, 2), Ryan Tannehill (1,8), Brandon Weeden (1,22), Brock Osweiler (2,57), Russell Wilson (3,75), Nick Foles (4,88), Kirk Cousins (4,102)
It is almost impossible to delineate some of these picks purely as “successes” or “busts,” especially when considering that many entered the league with hugely different expectations and situations. I wanted to create a tiered system so we can more closely gauge the different “types” of quarterbacks we see in the NFL.
Tier 1 (Franchise QB) Quarterbacks whose success is borders on transcendence. They serve as the foundation of your team, cover up flaws on the roster, and reduce everybody else’s margin for error.
Tier 2 (Starting QB) They are successful and capable of carrying teams for stretches, and many of them serve as the foundation of their teams’ offense. The difference between Tier 1 and 2 is that these QBs posses some kind of inherent flaw in their game that they are unable to overcome.
Tier 3 (Functional QB) The gap between Tiers 2 and 3 is the biggest chasm of all the Tiers. This is quarterback who is “good enough to not get replaced.” They are not capable of sustaining the offense. Ultimately, you end up trying to hide these players and minimize their impact on the game as much as possible, but they can have success if provided an excellent supporting cast.
Tier 4 (Backup or Worse) A quarterback who does not have the prerequisite physical or mental skills to succeed, and are ultimately liabilities when on the field.
Ideally, you’d like to get a ready-made Tier 1 quarterback, but as we discussed, a “ready-made” has only happened in 1999 and 2012. Tier 2 is a desirable and reasonable expectation. Tier 4 you obviously want to avoid completely, but I think drafting a first-round quarterback who either ascends to or remains a Tier 3 player is the most disastrous outcome for your franchise - more so than drafting a Tier 4 quarterback. You end up with a guy who you'll end up sinking considerable developmental time, but does does not vastly improve your chances of winning. Further, with the new rookie wage scale in place, it's easier than ever to cut your losses and move on from a bad draft pick. Blaine Gabbert might eventually progress into an Alex Smith level quarterback, but the Jaguars don't seem intent on waiting four years to find out.
First-Round QBs 2001-2010
Tier 1 – Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers
Tier 2 – Michael Vick, Carson Palmer, Philip Rivers, Jay Cutler, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Matt Stafford, Josh Freeman
Tier 3 - Alex Smith, Jason Campbell, Sam Bradford, Mark Sanchez
Tier 4 - David Carr, Joey Harrington, Patrick Ramsey, Kyle Boller, Rex Grossman, JP Losman, Vince Young, Matt Leinart, Jamarcus Russell, Brady Quinn, Tim Tebow
11/25 (44%) in Tier 1 or 2
4/25 (16%) in Tier 3
9/25 (40%) in Tier 4
Second-Round QBs 2001-2010
Tier 1 – Drew Brees
Tier 2 – None
Tier 3 – Kevin Kolb, Chad Henne
Tier 4 – Quincy Carter, Marques Tuiasosopo, Kellen Clemens, John Beck, Drew Stanton, Brian Brohm, Pat White, Jimmy Clausen
1/11 (9%) in Tier 1 or 2
2/11 (18%) in Tier 3
8/11 in (73%) Tier 4
Third-Round QBs 2001-2010
Tier 1 – None
Tier 2 – Matt Schaub
Tier 3 – Tavaris Jackson, Colt McCoy
Tier 4 – Josh McCown, Dave Ragone, Chris Simms, Charlie Frye, Andrew Walter, Charlie Whitehurst, Brodie Croyle, Trent Edwards, Kevin O’Connell
1/12 (8%) in Tier 1 or 2
2/12 (17%) in Tier 3
9/12 (75%) in Tier 4
Fourth-Round QBs 2001-2010
Tier 1 – None
Tier 2 – None
Tier 3 – David Garrard, Kyle Orton
Tier 4 – Chris Weinke, Sage Rosenfels, Jesse Palmer, Rohan Davey, Seneca Wallace, Luke McCown, David Green, Stefan LeFors, Brad Smith, Isaiah Stanback, Stephen McGee, Mike Kafka
0/12 (0%) in Tier 1 or 2
2/12 (17%) in Tier 3
10/12 (83%) in Tier 4
Sorting Through the Numbers
I acknowledge this is a crude measure and that many will likely take issue with where some players are ranked, but I wanted get a general feel of where successful quarterbacks have been selected. 11 of the 13 Tier 1 and 2 quarterbacks were drafted in the first-round. Statistically speaking, you have a slightly better chance of drafting a very good quarterback prospect in the first-round than a quarterback that has no business being an NFL Starter (44% for Tier 1 and 2, 40% for Tier 4). Remember, we are also working under the assumption that Eli Manning was the only "sure-fire" QB prospect in this 10 year period.
It is also apparent that the players in Tiers 1 and 2 are coming into the league and playing as functional starters within their first two seasons. The exceptions are Rodgers, Rivers, and Schaub (who sat out their first two seasons), and Brees - who sat out his first year and was legitimately bad in his first two seasons starting. I think it is also worth noting how poor the success rate of quarterbacks outside of round one is (although Dalton, Kaepernick, and Wilson could improve the rates here in a year or two.)
A final thought…only two teams in the last 10 years have selected a non-quarterback first overall. Houston took Mario Williams in 2006 and Miami took Jake Long in 2008. Both of these players were everything these franchises could have hoped for in a number one pick. They both made All-Pro teams and have been considered amongst the league's best at their respective positions. Yet it is possible that neither one will earn a second contract with their team. They have one combined playoff appearance amongst them, during Long's rookie year (Houston made the playoffs last year with Williams going on IR midway through last season). Despite his individual success, the Houston defense continued to be terrible after Williams was drafted. By the time it was good, they deemed him expendable. Long is facing a similar situation - he's a free agent after this season, but is having his worst year as a pro. Any relevance and improvement the Dolphins have going forward is going to be completely tied to Ryan Tannehill. A quarterback selected in the first-round.
h/t to Frank Dupont. Check out his website.