Now that the brand reveal has ended with a dull thud, and the Senior Bowl has come and gone, it is time to get serious about the true mission of the Commanders’ first offseason, finding a field general to lead the offense to glory.
The hope for many in the fanbase is that the new brand will provide a clean break from past and allow the new-look team to overcome the Redskins’ dismal history of drafting quarterbacks.
And with hope, inevitably comes unrealistic expectations. One thing I love about this time of year is how fan’s expectations of the draft so often seem to exceed reality. To illustrate what I mean, here is a comment from a recent discussion thread on the topic, name withheld to protect the innocent:
I only want a QB at #11 if they have the upside of being a top ten QB in the league. I don’t think any QB in this class meets that bar (not even Willis – good playmaker, questionable passer).
Don’t get me wrong, landing a top 10 QB with the 11th pick in the draft would be great. In the 2021 regular season, Russell Wilson and Carson Wentz were tied for 9th overall, ranked by ESPN’s Total QBR, with Dak Prescott following at 11th. The Commander’s offense would be massively improved by upgrading from Taylor Heinicke to any of those QBs if they played like they did this season.
But how realistic is it to expect the team to pick a top 10 quarterback at pick #11 in this or any other draft? If you consider that Wilson and Prescott were selected in the third and fourth rounds of their respective drafts, maybe that’s reasonable. One the other hand, Josh Rosen and Christian Ponder were picked on either side of 11, so it’s no sure thing.
In order to help the rank and file sailors under Riverboat Captain Ron’s command set reasonable expectations about the coming draft, I did a deep dive into the outcomes of first-round QB draft selections over 15 NFL seasons to estimate the chances of drafting a quality starting QB.
I used the quoted commenter’s standard of selecting a top ten QB as one measure of a successful outcome, but also took a broader view to avoid misleading results and determine true hit rates.
Ranking Quarterbacks Picked in the First Round
There are a variety of different ways to rank QB performance, none of which is perfect. I used ESPN’s Total QBR as a performance metric, because it measures all the ways that a QB can help or hinder their team, and it is adjusted by game situation, to correct for QBs artificially inflating their stats by running up production in garbage time. Total QBR is available back to 2006, which gives us 16 drafts to work with. I discarded the 2021 draft class, because it is too early to judge them. That leaves 15 drafts, in which 44 total QBs were selected in the first round. That is a large enough sample to get a reasonable idea of what to expect in different draft ranges.
Quarterbacks were rated by first identifying the season when they achieved their Peak QBR value while playing as a primary starter (more than 8 starts). Then I determined how they ranked amongst starting QBs by QBR in that season, using ESPN’s rankings.
By focusing on an individual’s peak performance, this method essentially identifies each QB’s ceiling. It provides an optimistic, best-case scenario of the QB’s drafted in each range, because many QBs could only sustain high level performance for single season. To avoid overestimating the chance of drafting quality starter, I then considered how the QBs performed across their whole careers, or careers to date, to come up with true hit rates. This process used QBR as a guide, but was a bit subjective. Nevertheless, I doubt that many of my judgement calls will be controversial, because the results are fairly clear cut.
Last of all, in order to get large enough numbers to derive meaningful estimates of hit rates, I had to group draft picks into ranges. This is because, after the third pick in the draft, the most QB’s selected at any individual pick number was four (pick #10). Only one QB was selected 11th, where the Commanders will be picking: Jay Cutler. Whatever you think of Jay Cutler, from a statistical standpoint, it’s not possible to draw any meaningful conclusion from a single data point.
To boost the numbers, I grouped the QBs selected in the first round into draft ranges. Because QB selections have historically been concentrated toward the top of the first round, and the probability of selecting a starting QB tends to drop off logarithmically, it made sense to group the draft picks into ranges in an approximately doubling sequence: pick 1, picks 2 to 3, picks 4 to 7, picks 8 to 15, picks 16 to 32. The last range has 17 picks, instead of 16, because I didn’t want to leave pick #32 on its own.
This grouping sequence assigns nearly equal numbers of QBs to the different draft ranges, with one exception:
Roughly similar numbers of QBs were selected in all of the draft ranges except for picks 4 to 7, where almost half as many QBs were selected. Fortunately for this article, that’s not where the Commanders are picking.
Ranking QBs at the 1st Overall Pick
To provide some context for the range where the Commanders will be picking, I decided to show the data for the entire first round. Also, we don’t know for sure where they will pick, because they could trade up or down. If Supreme Commander, Kim Jung Dan, gets involved, it is possible that we could even see a massive trade up to the top of the draft order. Let’s start by having a look at the chance of drafting a top 10 QB with the first overall pick.
Ten QBs were selected first overall from 2006 to 2020.
They are kind of an underwhelming bunch if you expect your first overall pick to be a superstar. Nevertheless, six out of the ten managed to crack the top ten in the league for at least one season in their careers. Only three of the ten (Luck, Stafford, Newton) are confirmed long-term starters/franchise QBs. Burrow and Murray seem well on their way, barring unexpected setbacks. Burrow has taken his team to a Super Bowl in his second season and might join the elite tier. Winston’s status has been in limbo following his rookie contract. Goff’s career seems to be on a downward trajectory and Mayfield’s future is uncertain. Bradford’s career was hampered by injury and JaMarcus Russell is one of the greatest busts in draft history.
By my count, that’s five out of ten first overall picks who lived up to their draft status, if you count Murray, for a true hit rate of 50%. Mayfield could still turn it around to make six. Time seems to be about out for Winston and Goff.
Hit Rate: 50%
Ranking QBs at Picks 2 and 3
If the Commanders have their hearts set on Pickett, or one of the other top three QB prospects, they might have to trade up to this range to be sure they get their man. Anybody know who the top three QB prospects are?
Eight QBs have been picked 2nd or 3rd since 2006.
Once again, this list isn’t exactly packed with future Hall of Famers. In fact, of the eight QBs selected 2nd or 3rd over 15 years, only Matt Ryan is a certain long-term starter. Carson Wentz seems to have recovered from his wobbly 2020 season and is likely to make it two. The other three QBs to crack the top 10 were all one season wonders. QBs three through eight are generally considered busts, although there is a faint glimmer of hope remaining that Trubisky could turn it around with the right opportunity.
Still, by strict application of my criteria, five of eight QBs selected 2nd and 3rd had upside to become top 10 in the league, although three of them could only sustain that level of performance for a single season.
Hit Rate: 25%
Ranking QBs at Pick Numbers 4-7
For some reason, not many QBs get picked in this range. Therefore, I would consider this estimate to be less reliable than the others.
Only two of the five QBs picked in this range have earned top ten status thus far. Josh Allen and Justin Herbert have emerged as elite quarterbacks very early in their careers. Tua is still showing signs of improvement, and could still crack the top ten in the next few seasons. Danny Dimes seems to be trending downward. Hopefully that continues. And, of course, Butt Fumble brings up the rear. Remember, Commander Dan wanted to trade up for him.
That makes the hit rate 40-60%, depending on how Tua develops.
(Hit Rate 40-60%)
Ranking QBs at Pick Numbers 8-15
Now we get to the range where the Commanders will be picking, if they don’t trade the 11th pick. What is the chance they will land a top ten QB at pick number 11 based on previous drafts?
*NR = Not ranked
Five out of ten QBs picked in this range have made the top ten, although Leinart quickly flamed out after a good rookie season. Really, there are four keepers here and six busts. I can hear some of you saying “Jay Cutler?”. At his best, Cutler was a good to excellent starting QB on the field, posting QBRs above 60 in five of twelve seasons. That puts him ahead of Kirk Cousins with four. In other words, he is better than any Washington Redskins/Football Team starting QB since Mark Rypien.
The bottom six QBs picked in this range were all busts. Discounting Leinart gives a true hit rate of 40% in the range where the Commanders will be picking.
In hindsight it seems crazy to pick a QB like Blaine Gabbert at #10. But the thing to bear in mind when we look at what QBs might be available at #11 this draft, is that it didn’t seem at all crazy at the time. In fact, Blaine Gabbert was more hyped heading into the 2011 draft than Patrick Mahomes was in 2017. ESPN, for example, had him at #5 on their big board, well ahead of Cam Newton at #15. That was not an unusual ranking of QBs in that draft class. In 2017, they didn’t even have Mahomes ranked in their top 32, while they ranked Mitch Trubisky and Deshaun Watson in the 20s. Once again, that was a pretty typical ranking of QBs in that draft class.
Bear that in mind, when you read statements like, “there are only three QBs in this draft class worthy of a top 10 pick.” Until we’ve seen any of these guys notch 20 starts in the NFL, those are just educated guesses.
To avoid setting yourself up for disappointment, remember that teams picking in the same range as the Commanders historically have only hit on quality starting QBs 40% of the time.
I’ll leave it to others to debate how the 2022 draft class stacks up to previous years.
Hit Rate: 40%
Ranking QBs at Pick Numbers 16 to 32
If Field Marshalls Marty and Marty don’t like the players available at 11, they might trade back in the first round to pick up additional later round picks and/or future picks. That is generally a good strategy, because late first through third round picks are undervalued by conventional trade value charts and future picks are absurdly undervalued. However, if the Commanders trade back when one of the two guys I like (Pickett, Corral) is available, I might break my TV.
Nevertheless, I recognize that doing so is generally a sound draft strategy. What is the chance that the Commanders can find a top ten QB if they trade into the second half of the first round and select a QB like Sam Howell, Carson Strong or Desmond Ridder? I didn’t say Willis, because I suspect the hype train will elevate him into the top ten regardless of whether he is ready to play this season or not.
As I have shown previously, the availability of quality starting QBs really thins out after the first half of the first round. Three out of 11 QBs selected in this range from 2006 to 2020 have made the top ten in at least one season, but only Lamar Jackson ever did it more than once.
What we really have here is one superstar, one average starter, one or two journeymen/quality backups, and a bunch of busts. The average starter, Joe Flacco, is a Super Bowl MVP. But he only ever posted two seasons with a QBR above 60. He ranked in the top 15 by Total QBR four times in 14 NFL seasons, and the rest of the time was just good enough or not quite good enough.
Freeman had one good season in 2010. Teddy Bridgewater is a journeyman, replacement level starter. And then there is Tebowmania, more of a phenomenon than a starting quarterback.
I call that two hits out 11 attempts, if I’m being generous by including the Super Bowl MVP, for a hit rate of 18%. That drops to 9%, if I’m being stricter and say that Flacco was not worthy of a first-round pick. That’s a tough call, considering that he is better than any QB drafted by the Redskins since 1986, other than Kirk Cousins.
While trading back from the 11th pick is generally a good draft strategy, it is a bad idea if the aim is to draft a quarterback.
Hit Rate: 9-18%, depending on whether you think Flacco is elite
I am a firm believer that best way to achieve long term success on the offensive side of the ball is to draft and develop a franchise quarterback. Now that veteran quarterback cap hits are accelerating past 20% of salary cap, everyone seems to be coming around to that position, if they weren’t already there. The problem is, it’s easier said than done. In the 15 drafts from 2006 to 2020, 11 to 12 quality starters were selected out of 23 quarterbacks drafted in the first half of the first round, for an overall hit rate close to 50%.
You might expect hit rates to drop precipitously after the first few picks, reflecting the steep decline in availability of quality starters, but that hasn’t really been the case. That might have something to do with the fact that the teams picking at the top of the first round tend to be the worst teams in football.
At any rate, if they Commanders pick a quarterback 11th overall, they have around a 40% chance of finding their Quarterback of the Future.
Acknowledgement: Edited by James Dorsett. QBR data from ESPN, all other data from Pro Football Reference. All hail the Supreme Commander.
How would you like the top brass to address the QB situation in the draft?
This poll is closed
Address it before the draft via trade or free agency
Trade up to get a top prospect
Best QB available at #11
Trade back in the first round to pick a QB
BPA at #11, pick a QB later if not there
Double dip like 2012
All QB draft - one of them’s got to stick
We don’t need no stinking QB, build a top defense and a good running game
1986, seriously? I hate this team.
Which QB would you like the Commanders to pick in the first round?
This poll is closed
None of the above