Sound Investments: In Defense of Drafting Quarterbacks
NFL

Sound Investments: In Defense of Drafting Quarterbacks

We look back at two decades of how win-loss percentage has worked out for teams prioritizing QBs on draft day.


Right now, there all several NFL teams either anxiously waiting to draft what they hope will be that elusive franchise quarterback or agonizingly debating whether they should mortgage the future of the organization to trade up for a shot at one.  

Is this line of thinking justified? What has history revealed about teams that choose to prioritize the QB position on draft day?

Well, what we do know is that drafting a quarterback with the first pick (regardless of round or pick number) has generally led to team improvement in the first season, though not as much as taking a running back.

The chart below considers each team’s first selection in each draft from 2000 through 2017 (regardless of round) and breaks down, by position, the average change in winning percentage in the first season after that selection.

Avg. Win% Increase Based on Position of 1st Player Drafted, 2000-17

PositionPicksAvg. Win% Before PickAvg. Win% Next SeasonAvg. Win% Difference
Running Back43.497.565+.068
Quarterback40.347.411+.064
Linebacker60.527.538+.011
Offensive Line88.482.489+.007
Defensive Line130.493.498+.005
Defensive Back116.539.530-.009
Kicker/Punter2.563.500-.063
WR/TE94.527.464-.063

On the opposite end of the scale from RBs and QBs, teams that chose receivers with their top picks saw a significant drop in winning percentage in the ensuing season. No other position produced a significant change in Year 1.

We didn’t include the 2018, 2019 and 2020 drafts, so that we could analyze what occurs beyond the first year. By considering the second and third seasons following a draft, will we uncover different trends relating to the position of the first player selected and team improvement or decline?

The quarterback position is of particular interest here. The top four quarterbacks of the last two decades—Super Bowl winners Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers—combined for only 16 starts in the year in which they were drafted, all of them by Manning. Brady, Brees and Rodgers combined to throw 46 passes in their rookie seasons; stardom would have to wait.

More recent QBs have followed a similar path. Patrick Mahomes was a spectator for the first 15 games of his rookie campaign in 2017 before winning league MVP honors one year later. Lamar Jackson, the 2019 NFL MVP, took over as the Baltimore Ravens’ starter in midseason 2018 only after an injury to Joe Flacco.

The reality is that many quarterbacks are drafted not with the expectation that they will be difference-makers in Year 1; but rather, their impact is measured by their performance in subsequent seasons. And even as early as Years 2 and 3, the numbers indicate as much.

Avg. Win% Increase in Years 2-3 Based on Position of 1st Player Drafted, 2000-17

PositionPicksAvg. Win% Before PickAvg. Win% Years 2-3Avg. Win% Difference*
Quarterback40.347.518+.171
Defensive Line130.493.510+.017
Linebacker60.527.540+.013
Offensive Line88.482.488+.006
Running Back43.497.487-.010
Kicker/Punter2.563.547-.016
WR/TE94.527.489-.038
Defensive Back116.539.488-.051
*Difference between the season prior to the pick and combined second and third seasons after the pick

After the first-year spike, teams taking running backs with their first selection quickly reverted to the form they showed in the season before the pick. The Carolina Panthers of 2017-19 provide a perfect example – with the oddity that the team’s success has an inverse correlation with Christian McCaffrey’s production.

After a 6-10 season in 2016, the Panthers made McCaffrey their first pick (eighth overall) in 2017 and jumped into the playoffs with an 11-5 record. McCaffrey produced a modest 1,086 scrimmage yards – enough to lead the team – and seven touchdowns.

In the two ensuing seasons, McCaffrey’s numbers skyrocketed: 1,965 scrimmage yards in 2018 and a league-high 2,392 last season. But Carolina’s record dropped to 7-9 and 5-11. Similarly, the Jacksonville Jaguars’ improvement in 2017, after they took Leonard Fournette fourth overall, was impressive: they jumped from 3-13 in 2016 to a 10-6 division championship season and fell just short of reaching the Super Bowl.

But over the next two seasons, the Jaguars returned to also-ran status, going a combined 11-21.

Christian McCaffrey (22) runs on the Saints in Charlotte.
 Christian McCaffrey runs on the New Orleans Saints in Charlotte.

The common thread for the Panthers and Jaguars in 2018 and 2019 was poor quarterback play. Both teams ranked in the NFL’s bottom 10 in both passer rating and yards per attempt over those two seasons – and stellar running back play wasn’t enough to overcome those deficiencies. McCaffrey’s two outstanding seasons and Fournette’s 1,674-yard output in 2019 went to waste.

Three quarterbacks of recent vintage exemplify the slightly delayed positive impact of selecting a QB with a first draft pick. Jared Goff, Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson saw significant action as rookies, posting a combined 10-19 record (each of their teams was sub-.500 in that season). In Years 2 and 3? Winning records for all three teams in each season, and a combined 6-for-6 reaching the postseason.

Teams’ Record Before & After Draft Selection

Player, Team (Year)W-L Before PickW-L Year 1 After PickW-L Years 2-3 After Pick
Goff, LAR (2016)7-94-1224-8*
Wentz, PHI (2016)7-97-922-10*
Watson, HOU (2017)9-74-1221-11*
*Reached playoffs in both seasons

What do these numbers suggest for the 2020 draft class? Four teams selected QBs with their initial pick, with three of them – the Cincinnati Bengals, Miami Dolphins and Los Angeles Chargers – coming off seasons of double-digit losses.

Recent history suggested that Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert wouldn’t turn things around for their teams in 2020. They didn’t. The Bengals finished 4-11-1, the Chargers went 7-9 and the Dolphins were 10-6 but didn’t make the playoffs as Tua started only nine games, getting pulled from one of them.

However, history indicates they could lead their teams to turnarounds in 2021 and ’22.

Finally, let’s take a look back at the one team that came off a successful 2019 season and selected a quarterback with its first pick. After going 13-3 and reaching the NFC championship game, the Green Bay Packers traded up to make the surprising pick of Jordan Love, whose 17 interceptions at Utah State in 2019 were the most in the FBS.

Love didn’t throw a pass as a rookie, but we have to wonder if the Packers might be following the Kansas City Chiefs’ blueprint. Is there a legitimate comparison to be drawn to Patrick Mahomes?

In his last two collegiate seasons, Mahomes threw 25 interceptions, fourth most in the FBS over the 2015 and ’16 campaigns. He then served as a backup behind Alex Smith in Kansas City for most of 2017 before quickly rising to stardom with 114 TD passes and only 23 interceptions over the next three seasons.

Mahomes was a backup to Smith just as Love is backing up Rodgers, and the common thread between the incumbents is a very low interception percentage. Smith ranks 11th in league history in lowest interception rate at 2.1%, while Rodgers’ 1.4% is the lowest all-time.

Whether in 2021 or beyond, we’ll start to see if Rodgers’ efficiency rubbed off on Love.


Aaron Charlton contributed. Research support provided by Evan Boyd and Sam Hovland.