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This year is expected to be a record-setting quarterback draft measured both by pick equity and number of players selected in the first round. The bookmakers have set the over/under at 5.5 QBs selected and under is -600 in some places. There have not been more than five QBs selected in the first round of the NFL draft this century, with the most being five in 2018.
What’s even more unusual this year is not just the number of expected first-round picks but also where the first five QBs are expected to be drafted. Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson are locked in at No. 1 and No. 2, according to the betting markets. Then the overwhelming expectation is that the San Francisco 49ers, who traded up, will also select a QB. The consensus fifth-drafted QB, Trey Lance, has an over/under of 6.5 overall. Let’s conservatively say that he’s a top-10 pick. There have never been five QBs selected in the top 10 picks of the draft this century. (This also never happened going back to the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.) There were four in 2018. Here’s a chart of the number of QBs selected by overall pick from 2000-2020:
|# of QBs||By Pick||Years This Century|
|3||10||2020, 2012, 2011|
|4||25||2018, 2012, 2011, 2004, 2003|
You have to go all the way to pick 32 since 2000 to get to the five QBs expected to be selected by the 10th pick this year. If that’s true, then this must be by far the best QB class this century. That was not widely reported going into the college football season or even well into it. What happened? Maybe nothing and the conventional wisdom is just wrong.
If we do smash the quickest-to-five-QBs by at least 22 picks, it’s almost certainly going to be because teams can’t agree on who the second-best QB is. After all, they’re not going to select the fourth- or fifth-best quarterback on their board over all of the players—or, at a minimum, the best player—at most other positions, are they? Should they?
Once you get past the first overall pick, the expected value of a quarterback takes a big hit. Let’s use Pro-Football-Reference.com’s weighted career approximate value (CarAV), which rewards a player for his contribution to a team’s points scored and prevented as well as overall performance in other key statistics. CarAV is normalized so that the position of the player does not matter.
|Overall||Number||Pro Bowls||Busts||CarAV||Bust Rate|
Astute readers have no doubt noticed that there must be overlap between “Pro Bowls” and “Busts.” Well, welcome to the world of NFL QBs. Is Jared Goff a “Pro Bowler” for the Rams? Yes. Twice as a matter of fact. Was he a bust? Of course. Setting up rules that define a bust is hard. Goff even signed a second contract with the Rams, but it’s unfair to say that made him a successful pick. For that reason, the key column is just raw CarAV.
We can see that there’s a big difference in expected outcomes between No. 1 and Nos. 2-5 overall. Most often, that’s simply the best QB in the eyes of the draft and the second-best. The QBs selected 6-to-10 overall includes Justin Herbert and also Patrick Mahomes—and lately, Ryan Tannehill is crushing it, too. And 11-to-20 has Ben Roethlisberger, an all-time great, as well as Deshaun Watson. Of course, the last of the five QBs taken in 2018, Lamar Jackson, was a league MVP. Clearly, teams have hit it big at QB with lesser first-round pick equity.
By the same token, the QB you take is probably not going to make it. In a way, it’s like making a long-shot bet when the odds are mispriced. You’re probably not going to win but if you keep betting it, you eventually will and then the payoff will be outsized. To quote Michael Scott quoting Wayne Gretzky and citing himself, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
What about continuing to draft QBs throughout the draft? Trying to find the next Russell Wilson (third round), Dak Prescott (fourth round) or even, of course, Tom Brady (sixth round) is not supported by the data. Let’s look at hit rates by round after the first round:
|Round||No.||Pro Bowl QBs||Hit Rate|
If you’re a GM, are you going to risk being blasted for drafting the next Christian Hackenberg when there’s an 86% chance that’s going to happen? Or do you take the path of least resistance and draft a running back or an offensive lineman who has up to a three-times greater chance of being solid starters? Swing for the fences and probably strikeout or just try to hit a double? NFL GMs are telling you their answer by drafting just two second-round QBs combined in the last three drafts (Jalen Hurts and Drew Lock).
What also may be happening is that players who are viewed to have traits that make them worthy of a second-round pick are being pushed by some team every year into the first round. That would make prospects like Davis Mills (Stanford) and Kyle Trask (Florida) more likely to be pushed into Round 1, thus making over 5.5 QB picked in Round 1 the way to bet. You may not have five off the board as fast as expected, but you still can have more than five after the 32nd overall pick is announced.