Historically, that’s not a realistic expectation. It’s very hard to be a good quarterback in the NFL and few are great over the long term. Identifying those players from among college prospects and developing them is a low-percentage endeavor. The Falcons got it right when they picked Matt Ryan No. 3 in the 2008 draft. Something to keep in mind as the Falcons considered drafting his heir: none of the 22 quarterbacks selected in the first round of drafts from 2009-16 will play for their original teams in 2021.
Two of those quarterbacks, Cam Newton and Andrew Luck, went on to be great. Six others had a good year or two, but didn’t change the trajectory of the franchises that eventually parted ways with them. Most of the 13 other QBs drafted from 2009-16 just weren’t good.
A great quarterback also hasn’t emerged from among the five drafted within the top five picks from 2017-20. Two were jettisoned by their teams this offseason. The Bears let Mitchell Trubisky (No. 2 pick in 2017) walk, and the Jets traded Sam Darnold (No. 3 in 2018) to the Panthers. Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield (No. 1 in 2018) has one pretty good season out of three. At least the Browns finally won a playoff game in January.
I want to say the jury’s still out on Kyler Murray (No. 1 in 2019), Joe Burrow (No. 1 in 2020) and Tua Tagovailoa (No. 5 in 2020). That’s not really how it works nowadays. QBs drafted that high don’t get much time to show their worth before organizational or fan discontent (or both) begin to surface.
The low hit rate on QBs doesn’t stop NFL teams without a great one, which is most of them, from desperately searching for one in the draft. The possible reward is huge: a team-friendly contract for a player at the game’s most important position. That possibility and the multiple top QB prospects this year converged to set up a potentially historic draft.
Quarterbacks have been picked 1-2-3 in the draft twice since the NFL merger agreement with the AFL in 1966. They’ve never been the first four picks. The Jets reportedly will take a QB with the No. 2 pick this year. The 49ers traded up nine spots to No. 3 for the chance to draft one of the top QBs. The Falcons could make it four QBs in a row off the board to begin the draft or, if they trade the No. 4 pick, the team that acquires it surely will take a quarterback.
Not to throw water on Khan’s life-altering experience, but having the top choice of quarterback doesn’t necessarily mean higher odds of being right. The Panthers hit on Newton and the Colts on Luck. There are more QB busts on the list of recent first quarterbacks taken: Trubisky, EJ Manuel and Blake Bortles.
Mayfield’s one good season is mitigated by the two better QBs in his class, Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen. The Bucs gave up on Jameis Winston (No. 1 pick in 2015) after too many boom-or-bust seasons. The Rams went to a Super Bowl with Jared Goff at quarterback, but he was bad in the big game. Last month L.A. traded Goff to the Lions, along with two first-round picks, in a salary dump.
The best drafted quarterbacks of recent years were picked lower in the order. Patrick Mahomes (2018 MVP) and Deshaun Watson (three-time Pro Bowler) were drafted after Trubisky. Jackson, the 2019 MVP, was the last of five QBs selected in the first round of the 2018 draft. The problem with faulting teams that passed on those players is that there’s a long list of decision-makers who did the same.
Maybe this year will be the draft where most of the quarterbacks picked high go on to become great. But that didn’t even happen with the famed 1983 draft class of QBs. Three would become Hall of Fame players: John Elway (No. 1 pick), Jim Kelly (No. 14) and Dan Marino (No. 27). Ken O’Brien (No. 24) had a pretty good career. Todd Blackledge (No. 7) and Tony Eason (No. 15) did not.
It’s probably 50/50 that the QBs picked high in this draft will be the answer for their respective franchises. Teams were aching for the chance, anyway, because the payoff is so high for being right. The 49ers surrendered a lot of capital for the chance to get their guy at No. 3 overall. They sent the Dolphins the No. 12 pick this year, first-round picks in 2022 and 2023 and a third-round pick in 2022.
Injuries contributed to the 49ers finishing 6-10 in 2020. They were NFC champions the season before. San Francisco general manager John Lynch said Monday that the team’s talent means it is “uniquely set up to provide a positive environment for a rookie quarterback.” Oftentimes players drafted that high are rushed to play for bad teams, Lynch said, hurting their development.
Lynch’s point is reasonable. The reality is that 49ers fans will expect the new QB to be good right away with coach/offensive guru Kyle Shanahan. The team’s supporters already were howling about multiple pre-draft reports that Shanahan is targeting Alabama quarterback Mac Jones.
“We do this for a living, and I think people should be proud of us that we won’t let that affect our decision,” Shanahan said Monday. “Then it’s up to us to live with the consequences.”
Shanahan knows what will happen if he selects the wrong quarterback when it’s his turn to pick. Once it becomes clear that a drafted quarterback won’t meet expectations, the hope that Khan talked about is crushed by the reality. Fingers are pointed, and people in Shanahan’s position are fired by those with Khan’s authority.
Chances are that’s how it will play out for most of the five or six teams expected to pick a QB in the first round.