First-Round QBs: What To Do?

It is widely-agreed that quarterback is the most important position in any sport. That reality has inevitably led, of course, to NFL teams’ consistent overrating of college QBs in the hopes that they might strike gold, stabilize their fortunes, and perhaps even create a dynasty. With very rare exceptions, a team does not win the Super Bowl without a top-flight quarterback, or at least a quarterback who has the ability to perform at an elite level for a stretch of time.

In recent years, such overvaluing of the quarterback position has combined with a growing impatience to create the phoenix of an instant winner from the ashes of a losing club. Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Star-Tribune wrote an excellent piece detailing this phenomenon, and he cites ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper, Jr., who examines how the approach to young QBs has changed dramatically over the course of the past few decades. As Kiper observes, “(In the 1970s), it was a five-year process. You never evaluated a rookie or second-year quarterback and said he was a bust or this or that…All the quarterbacks needed time: Troy Aikman, John Elway. These guys (now) are kicked to the curb early.

It stands to reason, of course, that draft strategies and evaluation techniques would change over such a prolonged period of time, particularly as the league itself has evolved and has become largely predicated on the passing game. However, many pundits point to the 2008 draft as the clear turning point. Matt Ryan of the Falcons and Joe Flacco of the Ravens, both taken in the first round of the 2008 draft, were pressed into duty for teams that had finished with a losing record the year prior and helped guide their clubs to the playoff in their rookie campaigns. Flacco, of course, led the Ravens to a Super Bowl championship in 2012 on the heels of a historically-great playoff run, and while Ryan has not had the same playoff success, his statistics have consistently put him near the top of the league.

The early returns of Flacco and Ryan have perhaps forced other teams to ask the simple question “Why not us?” That question, in turn, might have created even more excessive valuation of college quarterbacks, and even more willingness to discard those quarterbacks when they do not enjoy instant success. Even as some attempt to return to the more traditional approach of patience–Texans owner Bob McNair has recently stated that his club will not repeat the mistake it made by thrusting David Carr into the starting role in 2002, and the Jaguars have apparently changed their organizational philosophy after the recent Blaine Gabbert debacle–others will overlook the red flags of quarterbacks like Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater, and Blake Bortles and hang their fortunes on the right arms of those young men.

As we noted just an hour ago, the 2013 draft was an anomaly in that only one quarterback was taken in the first round. 2014 figures to see at least three quarterbacks hear their names called on the first day of the draft, if not four or five. And yet, as Robinson writes, none of those players are “sure things” like Andrew Luck in 2012 or Peyton Manning in 1998. In fact, their elite skills are diminished or even trumped by their drawbacks. If they played a different position, their drawbacks might drop them several rounds at least. As it is, there will be no shortage of teams willing to roll the dice.

If they don’t, the repercussions, both from an on-field and job-security standpoint, could be insurmountable. As Robinson points out, “all it takes is one general manager who thinks, ‘If we pass now on Manziel, and he turns out to be the next Drew Brees, we’ll never forgive ourselves.’

Some GMs will, of course, be turned away by the red flags. Some will convince themselves (and perhaps rightly so) that a Day 2 or Day 3 QB has just as much to offer as the big names of this year’s class, and they will point to the approaches that the Bengals took to land Andy Dalton and the 49ers took to grab Colin Kaepernick. Indeed, they could take a top non-QB in the first round and still get a quality signal-caller in the later rounds.

But there will be those unwilling to pass. It could be that their talent evaluators believe a player like Manziel is simply too good to pass up, or maybe some measure of desperation and impatience will creep into the calculus. In any event, when May 8 rolls round, and when the fans of a team see a quarterback put on that team’s jersey, those fans may well be overcome with equal parts excitement and apprehension. And there will be good reason for both.

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