In the Part 1 of this two-part miniseries, I began examining a simple proposition:
The Washington Commanders should draft a quarterback at Pick #11.
There is actually a lot packed into to that simple assertion, so I decided to take it a few keywords at a time. For any readers who can’t be bothered to follow that link, this is where I got to:
The Washington Commanders
Stupid name. Only an idiot would have come up with it.
Washington... Draft a Quarterback...
Historically, the Washington NFL team has an astonishingly poor track record of drafting starting quarterbacks. In part, that was because the team looked primarily to free agency for quarterbacks from the 1960’s through the 1980’s. However, since drafting Mark Rypien in the sixth round of the 1986 draft, and through the advent of the salary cap era, the Redskins only managed to draft two quarterbacks good enough to sign with a second team as a starter, and neither of them stayed in Washington.
A monkey throwing darts at Mel Kiper’s draft board might be expected to do better.
Washington… Should Draft a Quarterback...
The hot topic on Hogs Haven discussion boards right now is whether the People’s Team should try to acquire a veteran starting QB via a trade or free agency or through the draft. To get an idea of which might be a better path to building a competitive team, I had a look at what the best teams in the NFL over the last decade have done.
While a few teams have managed to win championships with veteran-acquired quarterbacks, including the last two Super Bowl Champions, a large majority of championships have been won by teams starting QBs they drafted.
I also looked at two measures of long-term success (seasons with playoff wins, winning seasons) and in both cases the answer seems to be: draft a quarterback.
That brings me to the final step of this exercise.
…at Pick #11
Another current hot topic on Hogs Haven is what to do with the 11th pick in April’s draft. There are a few popular options:
1. Include it in a trade package for a veteran QB
2. Pick the best QB available with it
3. Pick the best player available and, if that’s not a QB, pick one later in the draft OR If there is no player worth taking at #11 trade down for more picks and take a QB later. These two options both might come down to looking for a QB later in the draft or perhaps next draft.
4. Package it with other picks to trade up for one of the top QB prospects
I have already dispensed with the option #1 in Part 1 of the series. The best teams draft their starting quarterbacks. If Rivera wants his Compensators to become one of the best teams in the NFL, he should do what the good teams do and draft one of his own, like he did the last time he took a team to the Super Bowl.
Trading Up for QBs Usually Fails
The fourth option might come into play if Rivera thinks that another team picking ahead of him, such as Carolina, Denver or another team trading up might take his preferred QB prospect. This has proven to be a terribly ineffective way to find a signal caller and a huge waste of draft capital for nearly every team that has attempted it.
There are actually two strikes against it. For one, it does not make sense at the level of simple probabilities. To keep this article from getting too long, I have decided to save that rationale for my article. But there also seems to be something else at play, because teams that trade up into the top end of the top 10 seem to do worse at getting their guy than you would expect by chance.
Last offseason, I took an in-depth look at the past results of teams trading up for QBs. I examined every case in the salary cap era in which a team traded into the top 10 to draft a QB. Two of the 12 trades (Eli Manning, Michael Vick) are no longer relevant due to changes in rookie contract rules. Of the 10 remaining cases, two were trades from later in the first round to pick #10 (Patrick Mahomes, Josh Rosen) and are not really relevant to the Commanders’ options in 2022, either. That leaves the following eight cases in which teams traded well ahead of where the Commanders are picking to select a quarterback:
1998 Chargers trade up one spot to pick Ryan Leaf 2nd overall
2009 Jets trade up from #17 to pick #5 to select Mark Sanchez
2012 Redskins trade up from #6 to #2 to select RG3
2016 LA Rams trade up from #15 to pick #1 to select Jared Goff
2016 Eagles trade up from #8 to #2 to select Carson Wentz
2017 Bears trade up from #3 to #2 to select Mitch Trubisky
2018 Jets trade up from #6 to #3 to select Sam Darnold
2018 Bills trade up from #12 to #7 to select Josh Allen
In 2021, the 49ers gave up two future first-round picks and a third rounder to trade up from #12 to #3 to select Trey Lance. While it is too early to judge Lance as an NFL QB, what we can say is that San Francisco did not land a day one starter with their massive expenditure.
That’s hardly a list of future HOF inductees. Of the 8 trades that can be evaluated now, only one (Bills, Josh Allen) resulted in selection of the kind of the kind of star caliber QB that teams making these deals must think they are getting. None of the other seven trades landed a QB who was good enough for the team that drafted him to extend after his rookie deal. Five of eight QBs targeted by these trades were major busts: Leaf, Sanchez, RG3, Trubisky, Darnold.
That is about the hit rate I’d expect from Mel Kiper throwing darts at the monkey’s draft board.
Why do teams making these trades so often make bad decisions? I can’t say for sure, by I have a suspicion. Draft player evaluation is a highly probabilistic exercise, meaning that is associated with very high error levels. The hit rate for teams selecting QBs in the top 15 picks is around 40%. Teams that are willing to give up massive hauls of draft capital to trade up for players like Ryan Leaf, RG3, or Sam Darnold fail to appreciate the level of risk they are taking because they are overconfident in their draft ratings.
If you just take a look at the teams making these trades you may notice that four of the trades were made by three of the league’s perennial losers: Jets x2, Bears, Redskins. None of these teams is known for great decision making. The better teams in the league never seem to make this particular mistake. It will be interesting to see how the 49ers go with Lance.
Best QB Available at #11 or Later
If the ‘Ders aren’t trading the 11th pick for a veteran or trading up to draft a QB, they could either make a selection where they are or trade down for more picks. Suppose they trade back into the second half of the first round with a QB-needy team like New Orleans or Pittsburgh, or go with another position at #11 and select a QB in the second round. What are their chances of finding a starter like Lamar Jackson or Derek Carr?
A few weeks ago, I had a look at what the Commies should expect from a QB selected 11th overall. In the range where Ron and the Martys will be picking (picks 8-15) 10 QBs were selected in the 15 years from 2006 to 2020. Four of them (Patrick Mahomes, Jay Cutler, Ryan Tannehill, Deshaun Watson) made it as long-term starters and the other six were busts, giving a hit rate of 40%.
Trading back into the second half of the first round puts them in a range where only two keepers (Joe Flacco, Lamar Jackson) were drafted out of 11 QBs selected from 2006 to 2020, for a hit rate of 18%.
What if we decide to pick a player at another position like Kyle Hamilton, Charles Cross or Treylon Burks at #11 and target a QB in the second round? Over that same period (2006 to 2020), 19 QBs were selected in the second round. The best four were Andy Dalton, Derek Carr, Colin Kaepernick and Jimmy Garoppolo and the other fifteen became backups or busts. If we count Jimmy G as a starting quality QB, that’s a hit rate of 21%. If we don’t, it drops to 16%. Personally, I think drafting a WR, LB or OL would be a better use of a second-round pick.
Why are the hit rates for QBs taken in the second half of the first round and the second round so low? The second half of the first round is where the better teams tend to pick. Shouldn’t those front offices be better at drafting QBs?
Actually, the low hit rate in the second half of the first round and later in the draft is a result of the fact that teams picking before this range are pretty good at identifying the best QB prospects and take them off the board. During the 2021 offseason, I did a piece asking whether there is a Sweet Spot for drafting QBs, in which I examined the availability of starting quality quarterbacks vs. equivalent value players at other positions throughout the draft. Here is a key figure from that article which shows the relative availability of long-term starting QBs (blue line) and equivalent value players at other positions (orange) throughout the draft:
The availability of QBs who were good enough to earn a second starting contract drops off steeply through the first half of the first round, and then starts to level out as the second round approaches. This really just reinforces what everyone should know. If you want to draft a QB you are best off doing it as early in the first round as possible.
The drop in hit rates for drafting QBs in the second half of the first round and second rounds is just a reflection of the fact that most of the quality QB prospects have already come off the board. That seems kind of obvious, doesn’t it? Maybe not to every NFL team.
The Washington QB Draft Curse Explained
The graph of availability of starting quality QBs throughout the draft provides the explanation to a mystery that has been puzzling Washington football fans for generations: Why is the team absolutely crap at drafting quarterbacks?
There is a strong advantage to drafting QBs as early as possible in the first round, because the best prospects are quickly taken off the board by other teams. As I showed recently, that translates into a a 39% hit rate for drafting starting-quality QBs at pick numbers 1-15 (13/33 QBs drafted from 2006 to 2020). The hit rate drops to 18% in the second half of the first round.
Overall, the hit rate for QBs anywhere in the draft is below 50%, so you need to take a fair number of shots to ensure you find a starter. Has Washington made a habit of looking for QBs where the pickings are good? Not exactly.
In the 36 seasons since selecting Mark Rypien 146th overall in the 6th round of the 1986 draft, the Redskins drafted 16 quarterbacks. Only three of those 16 QBs (RG3, pick #2; Heath Shuler, pick #3; Dwayne Haskins, pick #15) were selected in the top half of the first round, and two of those were essentially thrown away by letting the owner make the pick. Two were selected in the second half of the first round (Jason Campbell, #25; Patrick Ramsey, #32). The remaining 11 QBs were selected in the 4th round or later.
In view of these findings, it is fair to say that one of the two main reasons for the Redskins’ lack of success at drafting quarterbacks is not really making the effort. The other is letting the owner make the picks. To drive home the first point, it is worth looking at what the team did with its first-round picks in the period following Rypien’s departure in 1994.
In the 28 seasons from 1994 to 2021, the team made 25 selections in the first round, shown in the following table. Where the selection was not a QB, I have shown the best QB taken after Washington’s pick in the first or second round, if there were any good ones, to give an idea of the QB’s they might have considered taking but passed up. Where there was not a good QB taken within a round or so after Washington’s pick, I have put a dash. The point here is identify QBs that might reasonably have been considered as alternatives to Washington’s pick, not to cry about Washington’s failure to recognize the potential of players like Dak Prescott, whom the rest of the league also missed.
On the 16 occasions that the QB-needy WFT held a top 15 pick, they selected QBs just three times and ended up picking Heath Shuler, Robert Griffin III and Dwayne Haskins. Had they made a more regular habit of using top 15 picks on QBs, when they needed one, we might have seen Drew Brees (2001 Redskins primary starter: Tony Banks, Passer Rating 71.3), Ben Roethlisberger (2004 Redskins starter: Patrick Ramsey, Passer Rating 74.8), Aaron Rodgers (2005 Redskins starter: Mark Brunell, Passer Rating 85.9), Lamar Jackson (2018 Redskins starter: Alex Smith, QBR 46.9) or Justin Herbert (2020 Redskins starter: Alex Smith post-injury, QBR 28.2) in burgundy and gold.
Don’t Believe the Lack of Hype
But what if there aren’t any QBs worth taking at pick number 11? A lot of analysts say this is a weak QB class, and some even say it lacks a prospect worthy of a first round pick. Let’s talk about those analysts.
Last offseason, I had a look at how often the top QB prospects turn out to be the best QBs in their draft classes. It is a good reminder of just how difficult it is to predict ahead of time which QBs in any draft class will make it in the NFL and which ones won’t.
For example, Blaine Gabbert (2nd QB selected, 2011), RG3 (2nd QB selected, 2012), Jared Goff (1st overall pick 2016), Mitch Trubisky (1st QB selected, 2017), and Sam Darnold (2nd QB selected, 2018) were all considered can’t-miss prospects.
At the other end of the spectrum no analysts, or even NFL teams for that matter, thought that Russell Wilson, Kirk Cousins or Dak Prescott were worthy of their second-round picks, and most pundits had late first round to second-round grades on Patrick Mahomes.
Cam Newton completely polarized draft analysts and NFL scouts alike. NFL.com rated him a perennial All-Pro ahead of the 2011 draft, while a lot of NFL GMs and scouting directors didn’t rate him in the first round. Here is a great assessment of the 2011 QB class, which featured Newton, Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick, from an NFL scout in the linked article:
“I don’t like any of them, really,” said a national scout for a team with an established starter. “There’s no Sam Bradfords. There’s no Josh Freeman. I think they’re all second or third rounders.”
No Josh Freemans. Remember that when you read that the 2022 draft class doesn’t have any QBs who are worthy of a first-round pick. I have yet to hear one good reason why Kenny Pickett, for example, would not be a first-round pick most years other than the fact that he has small hands. Malik Willis’ draft profile has similarities to Cam Newton’s coming out. And the main knocks on Matt Corral seem to be that he’s about the same size as Drew Brees and he twisted his ankle in his last college game.
Summary and Conclusion
In this two-part series I have shown that:
- Most of the very best teams in the NFL over the last decade got their quarterbacks by drafting them (Part 1).
- Trading excess draft capital to move up to the top of the first round for a QB nearly always fails, and is a terrible risk-reward proposition. There seems to be something wrong with the decision making that leads teams to make these moves. I will take that up in my next article.
- Draft hit rates for QBs drop off significantly in the second half of the first round, reflecting the logarithmic drop off in availability of starting quality QBs as the draft progresses. Trading back or picking a QB later in the draft significantly reduces the chances of success.
- Despite its chronic need at the position, the Washington NFL franchise has seldom attempted the most effective method for drafting a franchise QB: picking them in the top 15.
- Reviews of the weak 2022 QB draft class should be taken with a grain of salt. Pre-draft QB draft prospect evaluations are little more than educated guesses.
My conclusion is that Rivera’s Commandos should not overthink this and take a shot at drafting a QB in the first half of the first round when they have the opportunity. If it doesn’t look like the rookie is catching on by about his 20th start, they should try again, and keep drafting them whenever they have a pick in the top 15 until they hit on one who pans out.
What do you think Riverboat Ron should do with the 11th pick in the draft?
This poll is closed
Pick the best QB on his board
Trade it for a premium vet QB
Trade back and pick a QB later in the first round or a later round
Trade up ahead of Carolina (#6) for a top QB prospect
Pick an elite playmaker at another position
Pick an interior offensive lineman
The Redskins’ best draft pick ever was a punter, so...
Ask Tanya who she wants