One of the funny things about the human brain is the way it can simultaneously arrive at rational premises and irrational conclusions.
Last week, there came a report that had both nothing and everything to do with the conundrum that the Eagles will confront regarding Jalen Hurts in the coming months. Citing league sources, an ESPN insider relayed that the Texans’ plans for their expected top-five pick in the upcoming draft would hinge largely on the performance of rookie quarterback Davis Mills, who would finish out the season as Houston’s starter under center. If Mills played well, Schefter reported, the Texans could look to bolster their defensive line in the draft. Otherwise, they would have to consider spending a first-round pick on a quarterback to replace embattled star Deshaun Watson.
At the heart of the report was a simple and seemingly rational line of reasoning. Quarterback is the most important position on the field. Finding a good quarterback is a team’s top priority. Most good quarterbacks are drafted early in the first round. Therefore, any team that does not have a good quarterback should draft one early in the first round.
It’s a conclusion that many Eagles watchers have settled upon as it becomes increasingly clear that Hurts likely does not have the arm strength or pure passing ability to be The Guy. But history says that it is the absolute wrong way to approach quarterback staffing issues. With one, possibly two, maybe three picks in the top half of the first round of this year’s draft, there is a school of thought that says Howie Roseman’s No. 1 priority is to parlay those assets into a franchise quarterback. Problem is, this school of thought ignores the one prerequisite for drafting a franchise quarterback: There needs to be a franchise quarterback available.
Call it the Prioritization Fallacy. Or the Sam Darnold Paradox. Back in 2018, the Giants made themselves the joke of the NFL draft when they spent the No. 2 overall pick on a running back instead of USC star Darnold, who went No. 3 overall to the Jets, or UCLA’s Josh Rosen, who went No. 10 to Arizona. Four years later, neither Darnold nor Rosen is with their original team, both of which have already spent another top-10 pick on the position. You can say a lot of things about Daniel Jones, whom the Giants drafted the following year, but he is at least employed.
In many ways, that 2018 draft is a microcosm of the reality of drafting for need at the quarterback position. It’s one the Eagles would be wise to consider as they contemplate their future with Hurts. If you are drafting a quarterback just because a quarterback is there, you are pretty much flipping a coin.
Take, for instance, the 30 quarterbacks have been selected with top-15 picks in the NFL draft since 2011.
Combined, those quarterbacks are 692-722-6 in their careers, a winning percentage of .487. Take away Patrick Mahomes and Andrew Luck (100-45) and that percentage drops to .468 for the remaining 28, an average of 7.5 wins per season in a 16-game season. Factor in Josh Allen, Ryan Tannehill, and Cam Newton, and that average drops to just below seven wins per season for 25 of the 30 quarterbacks drafted in the top 15.
Granted, numbers can only tell us so much. Many of these quarterbacks are still in the early stages of their careers. Joe Burrow, Kyler Murray and Justin Herbert are a combined three games under .500 in their careers, but all three look like decent bets to be near the top of the standings in five years. But even if we take a more subjective approach, the odds do not favor drafting for need at the quarterback position.
For instance, I think we can say that 10 of the 30 quarterbacks drafted in the top 15 since 2011 are unqualified busts. Conversely, only eight are unqualified stars. There’s a lot to argue about within the remaining 12, but however you slice and dice it, you’ll find it difficult to get much better than a 50% “Hit Rate” on top-15 picks.
Carson Wentz, Baker Mayfield, Mac Jones, Trevor Lawrence, Murray — I think all of them still deserve plenty of benefit of the doubt. That would bring us to 13 of 30 quarterbacks warranting a top-15 pick. Likewise, I think the odds are against Jared Goff, Jameis Winston and Daniel Jones, which would bring us to 13 “misses” in 30 picks.
Stars (8/30): Luck, Mahomes, Herbert, Allen, Burrow, Watson, Newton, Tannehill
Potential stars (3/30): Murray, Mac Jones, Trevor Lawrence
Non-busts (5/30): Wentz, Baker Mayfield, Winston, Goff, Daniel Jones
Leaning toward bustdom (4/30): Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Justin Fields, Tua Tagovailoa
Busts (10/30): Rosen, Blaine Gabbert, Dwayne Haskins, Christian Ponder, Darnold, Jake Locker, Blake Bortles, Robert Griffin III, Mitch Trubisky, Marcus Mariota
Even if all eight of the quarterbacks drafted in the top 15 over the past two years end up blossoming into stars, along with Wentz and Mayfield, that still only brings us to a success rate of 18/30. But that’s a huge assumption, particularly when you look at the performance of this year’s rookie class.
Rookie quarterbacks have made 56 starts this season, with a combined record of 16-40. That’s the third-lowest winning percentage of any rookie class since 2011. This, despite the fact that Mac Jones himself is 9-4 and on pace to finish as one of the winningest rookie quarterbacks in recent NFL history. While this group includes Jordan Love and Mike White, neither of whom was drafted in ‘21, and Davis Mills, who was drafted in the third round, the bulk of the starts have been made by the quintet of Lawrence (2-11), Wilson (2-7), Lance (0-1), Fields (2-7) and Jones (9-4).
In virtually every category, the performance of this year’s first-year passers has been abysmal. Of the 11 rookie quarterback cohorts since 2011, the ‘21 quarterbacks rank in the bottom three in touchdown percentage and interception percentage, and in the bottom half in yards per attempt.
This doesn’t mean teams like the Eagles should avoid drafting a quarterback. It means they should avoid drafting a quarterback just because they do not have the perfect quarterback. Look at the teams that end up with the actual franchise quarterbacks and you’ll see a familiar pattern. They make the best of the current guy until the right guy comes along.
Andy Reid did what he could with a mediocre Alex Smith until he saw Mahomes. The Chargers did the same with an aging Philip Rivers until they saw Herbert. The Bengals spent a long time with Andy Dalton under center. Then Burrow came along.
At the end of the day, a top-15 pick is a double-edged sword. It’s the best way to solve the Franchise Quarterback Dilemma. But it’s also an easy way to make it worse.