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NFL Draft
NFL Draft

Why Haven’t QBs Gone 1-2-3-4 In The NFL Draft?

  • Daniel Olinger
  • April 14, 2023
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In the 88 NFL drafts that have been conducted since 1936, 35 of the first overall picks have been used to select quarterbacks. It should come as no surprise that the sport’s most important position has most often produced the top choice in the league’s yearly draft, but what is surprising is how long it took for the quarterback craze to fully take over.

A whopping 18 of those 35 quarterbacks who were selected first overall came from the past 25 NFL drafts, meaning that quarterbacks comprise 62% of the past 25 first-overall NFL draft picks. Prior to 1998, only 17 quarterbacks were taken first overall throughout 63 total drafts (27%).

Given that the first overall pick ascension was relatively recent, it makes sense that there was only one instance prior to ‘98 of the first three draft picks all being spent on the quarterback position—in 1971, when Jim Plunkett, Archie Manning, and Dan Pastorini were the first three names off the board. This run on QBs at the very top of the draft has only ever happened twice since (1999 with Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb, and Akili Smith; 2021 with Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, and Trey Lance).

With the 2023 NFL Draft less than two weeks away, there’s a chance we could see history repeat itself. The Carolina Panthers are all but guaranteed to take a quarterback at No. 1 after trading up. There’s a little less certainty that the Houston Texans will do the same at No. 2, but the odds still lean in favor of them drafting a new signal caller as well. The Arizona Cardinals themselves will almost certainly not pick a quarterback with the third overall pick, but the chances they stay at No. 3 are already slim given the massive amount of reporting signifying their desire to trade out of the pick and recoup assets. And if a team were to trade up for the third overall pick, chances are it’s for a quarterback given that Jim Irsay and the Indianapolis Colts appear dead set on drafting one at No. 4 after five consecutive years of kicking the can down the road following Andrew Luck’s retirement.

So it’s all but written in stone that at least two quarterbacks will be taken within the top four selections, and three in the top four is the most likely outcome, but to have each and every one of the top four picks be spent on a quarterback? That would make NFL history.

It’s a little odd that this year’s draft class has more than a puncher’s chance to become the first in NFL history where quarterbacks went off the board 1-2-3-4 right from the start. Many have called this draft class below average in quality with very few players even being graded as first-round level talents—and the quarterback quartet of Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud, Anthony Richardson, and Will Levis does not include any “chosen one” type of prospect. None of them have been placed on a pedestal like past first-overall selections in Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, and Trevor Lawrence were. Those three were all seen as the unquestionable top choice in their respective classes, to the point hardly anyone even discussed alternative scenarios in their pre-draft processes where they would not be the first selections. 

Meanwhile, in 2023, who gets projected as the first overall pick depends on the day of the week. The only thing everyone can agree on is that no one agrees on how these four quarterbacks should be ranked. And that’s actually the key right there—the lack of a consensus ranking. 

Every QB-needy team enters the first round of the draft hoping to exit with the guy they think will be the best in the class, and if everyone agrees on who the best is, the incentive to acquire any quarterback who isn’t that consensus QB1 is greatly diminished. What general manager wants to draft any first-round quarterback if he’s told that the guy he just picked will never be as good as the one who went before him?

With the 2023 class, teams have the incentive to keep swinging for franchise quarterbacks at the top because even if one gets picked, there’s a chance that they prefer the other three options anyway. No matter who gets taken by the Panthers at No. 1, teams out there will still believe that they can get their QB1 at either pick two or three. 

There’s also a bit of FOMO that sets in a QB class with this much parity. If all four could be franchise changers and you don’t acquire one in spite of your team needing a new man behind the center, you can’t help but feel like you missed out on a golden opportunity. Four bites at the apple, four different guys where it’s not clear which one could be the golden goose, and you weren’t able to take a chance on one of them? No one being the most desirable option means that everyone is a desirable option.

In fairness, this is all a bit much for what is a steep conjecture. The Texans might decide that they’re still a year away from being a year away and opt for Will Anderson Jr. instead. The Cardinals also could hold and take Anderson at No. 3, or maybe the Colts get trigger-happy and move up to No. 3 to get their guy, opening the door to let one of Richardson or Levis slide.

The historical precedent obviously says that one team in the top four will be content with a non-QB, and as the draft approaches, it appears that Levis to the Colts at No. 4 is the only way this premonition comes to pass. Prior to ‘98, quarterbacks just weren’t viewed as exponentially more important players than the other 21 on the field like they are in the modern day. The motto was to establish the run and that defense wins championships, while quarterbacks were still learning how to not throw more than 20 interceptions each season. That draft in ‘71 became an exception when the top two picks both finished in the top three of the previous year’s Heisman voting, while Pastorini at No. 3 was the Lance of his day in being the mystery box selection from Santa Clara.

Speaking of Lance, that 2021 class is a good comparison to the current one in ‘23. Lawrence was just about everybody’s QB1, but behind him, there was little consensus on the ranking of Lance, Wilson, Justin Fields, and Mac Jones. Teams and insiders seemed to be pushing Wilson and Jones, while Fields and Lance were Draft Twitter darlings that fans were craving. The lack of established rankings behind Lawrence set a good groundwork for the 49ers to trade up to No. 3 and get their guy. Why care if Wilson was gone at No. 2 if you already had Lance and Jones rated higher than him on your personal board?

There’s also been plenty of quarterback duos at the top of the draft over the years. From Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota to Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf, and all the way back to Drew Bledsoe and Rick Mirer, quarterbacks have accounted for the first two picks in the NFL draft eight different times in the Super Bowl era. Most often, it’s a situation similar to the guy on the pedestal scenario, where two collegiate prospects are deemed to be of the franchise savior level, and everyone presumes it’s fine to grab either star prospect within the first two picks, even though it’s hardly ever the case that both work out to become superstars in the NFL. 

This all brings us back to this year’s impending draft. It’s rare for everyone to agree that there are four quarterbacks who are all perfectly deserving of a first-round selection, but even rarer that no one can agree on how to rank those four against each other. It’s particularly hard with the somewhat consensus top three because of how vastly different they are as prospect archetypes.

Want the physical outlier who beat the odds and became a college football legend? Draft Young! Want the prototypical pinpoint passer whose stature and stats make him an easy projection to the next level? Stroud would be perfect for you. Want the guy with such jaw-dropping physical traits that he might become a world-breaking, MVP-winning quarterback if you can develop him and fix his current flaws? Richardson, welcome aboard. 

There are three roads diverged in this wood, and Robert Frost for the life of him cannot figure out which one is less traveled. Levis is the potential odd man out from solidifying the top four because he’s essentially the Richardson archetype with a lower ceiling. He’s more experienced and had an excellent season back in 2021, but his physical traits—while elite—are not 99th percentile like Richardson’s, making him not just a little less savory as a development project to pursue. 

But regardless, Levis is still a bona fide top prospect and one that most scouts feel comfortable with projecting as a talent who would be going first round and top ten in any class. Each of these four young men would have gone first in last year’s draft, and back in 2021 they’d be vying with the Lance-Wilson-Fields-Jones pack to be the QB2 behind the chosen prince in Lawrence, and that’s exactly why a 1-2-3-4 quarterback sweep at the draft has a real shot to become reality two weeks from now on April 27. 

Uncertainty invites opportunity because who knows, even if three quarterbacks are drafted ahead of yours, the fourth quarterback picked might turn out to be the true prize all along. We just don’t know yet.

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Daniel Olinger