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Yesterday, I was a guest on the Wharton Moneyball show on SiriusXM Channel 111 (@BizRadio111), discussing the NFL draft. As always, it was a lot of fun, but the hosts threw me a curveball in the final seconds:

Which will produce the best quarterback from the 2015 Draft — the Jameis Winston/Marcus Mariota group, or the field?

Now I am quite familiar with the value of taking the field in these sort of bets. We are prone to being overconfident in our ability to predict things, especially when it comes to the NFL Draft. But I still said I’d take Winston/Mariota and leave you with everyone else, and be reasonably confident that I would end up with the draft’s best quarterback.

But am I right? How far down the quarterback slots do you have to go in the average draft to find the best QB? Would taking the top two generally be enough?

This is, of course, a question without a clear answer because there is no objective answer to the question “who was the best quarterback in the [__] Draft?” It’s much too early to grade the 2013 or 2014 drafts, and you will get no shortage of debate as to whether Andrew Luck or Russell Wilson is the best quarterback from the 2012 draft. In 2011, Cam Newton was the first overall pick, but Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick were the 5th and 6th quarterbacks taken.

In 2010, Sam Bradford does appear to have been the best quarterback from that draft, and should be remembered that way absent Colt McCoy, Tim Tebow, or Jimmy Clausen having a magical career turnaround.

In 2009, getting the top two quarterbacks would give you Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez, while the field would give you…. Josh Freeman and Curtis Painter.

In 2008, the top two quarterbacks were Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco. The book is not yet written on which one of them will be remembered as the best, but we can say that both will wind up being better than the field of Chad Henne, Matt Flynn, and Josh Johnson.

In 2007, the quarterback class was… ugly. The top guy will probably go down as one of Trent Edwards (most starts, most wins, most yards), Kevin Kolb (a positive TD/INT ratio!), or Drew Stanton (highest ANY/A but only 12 starts). Although for our purposes, we don’t need to finely split hairs. That’s because it’s clear the top quarterback was not JaMarcus Russell or Brady Quinn, the top two quarterbacks in that draft. Score one for the field.

Say what you want about Jay Cutler, but he was the clear top quarterback of 2006. In fact, he has thrown for more touchdowns than the rest of the class combined! As the 11th overall pick, he doesn’t quite meet the spirit of today’s question, but he is part of the field technically. That’s because Vince Young and Matt Leinart were the 3rd and 10th selections.

We need not spend much time on 2005. It was Aaron Rodgers, the second quarterback selected. Although Rodgers was much closer to the field (Jason Campbell was taken 25th overall, one pick after Rodgers) than being the first pick (Alex Smith).

For 2004, we can at least ignore the pretend Eli Manning/Philip Rivers debate, but that doesn’t help us when Ben Roethlisberger is in the mix, too. Call this one a push between top 2 and the field.

In 2003, it’s easy: it was Carson Palmer, the first overall pick. Nobody else comes close. Well, I guess that depends how you define class: Tony Romo went undrafted that year. Does the field include undrafted quarterbacks?

In 2002, not only is the answer David Garrard, but I think it’s Garrard by a wide margin. Garrard had a winning record, the most yards, the most TDs, and the best ANY/A out of the group with him, Patrick Ramsey, Josh McCown, and the first and third overall picks: David Carr and Joey Harrington. Score another one for the field.

In 2001, it’s Drew Brees, who was the second quarterback selected, albeit 31 picks after Michael Vick.

For 2000, let’s put that one down for the field.

1999 isn’t particularly close: Donovan McNabb made six Pro Bowls and started for 11 years; Daunte Culpepper is the runner up with three and five, respectively. And we know about 1998. So that’s two more for the top two.

Okay, we can do this all day, so let’s change gears. First, to recap: in the 13 drafts from ’98 to ’10, the top quarterback was the first quarterback drafted 4-6 times (depending on your view of how ’04 and ’08 are resolved), and one of the first two 8-9 times (depending on your view of ’04).1 Instead of just going down the list, let’s get a little more scientific about it. What if we rank by passing yards? Let’s begin with the 1967 draft, the first common draft of the AFL/NFL era. And let’s go through 2010, as I think we can safely put that one in the books, while it’s too early to review the drafts since then.

For example, here’s how to read the table below. The quarterback with the most passing yards among quarterbacks drafted in 2008 was Matt Ryan, who has thrown for 28,166 yards. He was a first round draft pick and the third overall selection. And he was the first quarterback taken in his class.

YearQuarterbackPass YdsRdPkQB Order
2010Sam Bradford11065111
2009Matthew Stafford21714111
2008Matt Ryan28166131
2007Trent Edwards60333926
2006Jay Cutler277491113
2005Aaron Rodgers285781242
2004Eli Manning39755111
2003Carson Palmer35365111
2002David Garrard1600341085
2001Drew Brees560332322
2000Tom Brady5325861997
1999Donovan McNabb37276122
1998Peyton Manning69691111
1997Jake Plummer292532422
1996Tony Banks153152421
1995Kerry Collins40922152
1994Gus Frerotte2129171976
1993Drew Bledsoe44611111
1992Brad Johnson29054922714
1991Brett Favre718382333
1990Jeff George27602111
1989Troy Aikman32942111
1988Chris Chandler284843762
1987Vinny Testaverde46233111
1986Jim Everett34837131
1985Randall Cunningham299792371
1984Boomer Esiason379202381
1983Dan Marino613611276
1982Jim McMahon18148152
1981Neil Lomax227712332
1980Marc Wilson143911151
1979Joe Montana405513824
1978Bill Kenney172771233314
1977Steve DeBerg342411027517
1976Richard Todd20610161
1975Steve Grogan2688651163
1974Danny White219593531
1973Dan Fouts430403646
1972Brian Sipe237131333012
1971Ken Anderson328383676
1970Terry Bradshaw27989111
1969James Harris813681927
1968Ken Stabler279382524
1967Bob Griese25092142

Let’s look at six criteria. For “order” I mean where the player was drafted at the position. So a median order of 2 means if you sort the quarterbacks by where they were drafted in their class (1st taken, 2nd taken, 3rd taken, etc.), the median is the 2nd quarterback taken.

Average order: 3.6, which is heavily weighted down by four players who led their class in passing yards but were not among the first ten players drafted.

Median order: 2

Mode: 1 (18 times)

Average draft pick: 64

Median Draft pick: 32.5

Percentage that were either the first or second quarterback drafted: 61%

Now, what if we used Pro-Football-Reference’s AV metric instead of passing yards? As it turns out, very little changes.

YearQuarterbackAVRdPkQB Order
2010Sam Bradford26111
2009Matthew Stafford54111
2008Matt Ryan87131
2007Trent Edwards173926
2006Jay Cutler761113
2005Aaron Rodgers1041242
2004Philip Rivers114142
2003Carson Palmer90111
2002David Garrard6141085
2001Drew Brees1422322
2000Tom Brady15361997
1999Donovan McNabb107122
1998Peyton Manning177111
1997Jake Plummer772422
1996Tony Banks422421
1995Steve McNair100131
1994Gus Frerotte5671976
1993Drew Bledsoe103111
1992Brad Johnson74922714
1991Brett Favre1552333
1990Jeff George65111
1989Troy Aikman97111
1988Chris Chandler773762
1987Rich Gannon994987
1986Jim Everett87131
1985Randall Cunningham1072371
1984Boomer Esiason1062381
1983Dan Marino1451276
1982Jim McMahon57152
1981Neil Lomax712332
1980Eric Hipple384854
1979Joe Montana1233824
1978Doug Williams561171
1977Steve DeBerg781027517
1976Richard Todd62161
1975Steve Grogan9051163
1974Danny White843531
1973Dan Fouts1223646
1972Brian Sipe751333012
1971Ken Anderson1213676
1970Terry Bradshaw106111
1969James Harris3881927
1968Ken Stabler942524
1967Bob Griese105142

Average order: 3.5

Median order: 2

Mode: 1 (17)

Average draft pick: 61

Median Draft pick: 33

Percentage that were either the first or second quarterback drafted: 59%

What about using QB wins? Incredibly, 64% of the time, the first or second quarterback off the board winds up with the most wins of any quarterback in that class.

YearQuarterbackWinsRdPkQB Order
2010Sam Bradford18111
2009Mark Sanchez37152
2008Joe Flacco721182
2007Trent Edwards143926
2006Jay Cutler611113
2005Aaron Rodgers701242
2004Ben Roethlisberger1061113
2003Carson Palmer70111
2002David Garrard3941085
2001Drew Brees1172322
2000Tom Brady16061997
1999Donovan McNabb98122
1998Peyton Manning179111
1997Jake Plummer692422
1996Tony Banks352421
1995Steve McNair91131
1994Trent Dilfer58162
1993Drew Bledsoe98111
1992Brad Johnson68922714
1991Brett Favre1862333
1990Neil O'Donnell553705
1989Troy Aikman94111
1988Chris Chandler673762
1987Vinny Testaverde90111
1986Jim Everett64131
1985Randall Cunningham822371
1984Boomer Esiason802381
1983John Elway148111
1982Jim McMahon67152
1981Neil Lomax472332
1980David Woodley34821412
1979Joe Montana1173824
1978Doug Williams381171
1977Tommy Kramer541272
1976Richard Todd48161
1975Steve Grogan7551163
1974Danny White623531
1973Dan Fouts863646
1972Brian Sipe571333012
1971Ken Anderson913676
1970Terry Bradshaw107111
1969James Harris2581927
1968Ken Stabler962524
1967Bob Griese92142

Average order: 3.2

Median order: 2

Mode: 1 (16)

Average draft pick: 53

Median Draft pick: 29.5

Percentage that were either the first or second quarterback drafted: 64%

Finally, let’s use some sort of efficiency metric. I looked at the quarterback with the most Relative Adjusted Net Yards over average in each class, although there were some classes with no quarterback (because every quarterback either had a below-average career ANY/A or had too few attempts to qualify).

YearQuarterbackValueRdPkQB Order
2010None
2009Matthew Stafford130111
2008Matt Ryan2380131
2007None
2006Jay Cutler411113
2005Aaron Rodgers71341242
2004Philip Rivers5856142
2003Carson Palmer1754111
2002David Garrard46741085
2001Drew Brees90772322
2000Tom Brady1001861997
1999Donovan McNabb2545122
1998Peyton Manning16245111
1997None
1996None
1995Steve McNair2447131
1994None
1993Trent Green355982228
1992Brad Johnson1190922714
1991Brett Favre63092333
1990Neil O'Donnell9773705
1989Troy Aikman2288111
1988Stan Humphries18661595
1987Rich Gannon24794987
1986Jim Everett2331131
1985Doug Flutie9481128510
1984Boomer Esiason38112381
1983Dan Marino122521276
1982Jim McMahon644152
1981Neil Lomax13012332
1980None
1979Joe Montana88413824
1978Doug Williams15811171
1977Tommy Kramer3121272
1976None
1975Steve Grogan157451163
1974Danny White13403531
1973Dan Fouts74043646
1972Brian Sipe15021333012
1971Ken Anderson54093676
1970Terry Bradshaw2020111
1969James Harris58881927
1968Ken Stabler15482524
1967Bob Griese3289142

Here, the metrics are only looking at these 37 quarterbacks, not the 44 draft classes:

Average order: 3.8

Median order: 2

Mode: 1 (11)

Average draft pick: 70

Median Draft pick: 33

Percentage that were either the first or second quarterback drafted: 51%

The field fares the best here among our four metrics, particularly in the last category. This isn’t too surprising: yards, AV, and wins are all more strongly correlated with playing time than ANY/A, and we know that the top draft picks are more likely to be given more playing time.2

I think in an average year, picking between the top two quarterbacks and the field is pretty even, although I suppose I’d lean towards the top two. And this effect seems to be getting stronger, with more of the years where the top quarterback was one of the first two quarterbacks drafted coming recently. But in this year, with the top two quarterbacks perhaps going 1-2 and no other quarterback going until maybe even the 3rd round, it would seem to be a slam dunk to go with Winston/Mariota. So the good news: I don’t need to amend my answer to Wharton Moneyball!

Finally, here’s where the first quarterback drafted in each year since ’67 ranked among his classmates in each of the four categories. I have left the RANY/A Rk column blank if he was either below-average in that metric or did not have enough attempts to qualify.

YearQuarterbackRdPkYds RkAV RkWins RkRANYA Rk
2010Sam Bradford11111
2009Matthew Stafford111121
2008Matt Ryan131121
2007JaMarcus Russell11354
2006Vince Young13222
2005Alex Smith11222
2004Eli Manning111324
2003Carson Palmer111111
2002David Carr11323
2001Michael Vick11222
2000Chad Pennington1183322
1999Tim Couch11444
1998Peyton Manning111111
1997Jim Druckenmiller126555
1996Tony Banks242111
1995Steve McNair132111
1994Heath Shuler13454
1993Drew Bledsoe11111
1992David Klingler16777
1991Dan McGwire116888
1990Jeff George111122
1989Troy Aikman111111
1988Tom Tupa368333
1987Vinny Testaverde11121
1986Jim Everett131111
1985Randall Cunningham237111
1984Boomer Esiason2381111
1983John Elway112213
1982Art Schlichter14545
1981Rich Campbell16656
1980Marc Wilson115122
1979Jack Thompson13555
1978Doug Williams1172111
1977Steve Pisarkiewicz119888
1976Richard Todd16111
1975Steve Bartkowski112223
1974Danny White3531111
1973Bert Jones124342
1972Jerry Tagge111442
1971Jim Plunkett11233
1970Terry Bradshaw111111
1969Greg Cook15766
1968Greg Landry111222
1967Steve Spurrier13233

As always, please leave your thoughts in the comments. And does anyone want to make the argument for the field? What would your choice have been before reading this post?

  1. I am, of course, playing with multiple endpoints here, albeit for no nefarious reason other than laziness I could go back earlier than ’98, but I’d rather move on to the larger data set. However, if we include ’96 and ’97 to bring the class to 15, I think we’d have the top quarterback going 1 or 2 in both of those drafts as well. []
  2. However, let’s look at the eight classes with the “none” rows. In 2010, Bradford would be the top choice. In ’96 and ’97, Banks and Plummer still lead their classes in yards, AV, and wins. One could make the argument for Dilfer over Frerotte in ’94, and for Wilson in ’80. Todd was the only notable quarterback in ’76. I’d say that in at least 4, and maybe up to 6, of these 7 years, the best quarterback was the first or second pick taken. So while I prefer the efficiency metric, the way I defined efficiency probably deflated that 51% number slightly. []
  • I think you could pick the field in a year where there were a handful of first-round QBs. You mentioned 2004, where it is at least arguable (though I would not make that argument) that the field wins. In 1983, most statistical methods (including all but one of these) are going to say the field wins because 27th overall Dan Marino is part of the field. While 2011 wouldn’t go to the field, it’s clearly safer to pick the field when it means you’re getting two top-12 picks and two more in the first four of the second round than in a year like this one where it appears that the highest-drafted field QB is more likely to have one mid-second rounder and the rest in round three or later. Jay Cutler wins 2006 as the field’s representative even though he was chosen 11th overall.

    In general, the best QBs are going to be the earliest picks, and there are not that many successful QBs taken after round one, so what really should probably be the determining factor is how deep the top of that year’s QB class is. Since there are two guys getting first round grades this year, taking them over the field makes sense to me.

    • Richie

      Good point. This year it sounds doubtful that there will be a 3rd QB in the first round, so taking Winston/Mariota is a much safer bet. If there were other QB’s rated as possible 1st-rounders, then the field would make more sense.

  • sacramento gold miners

    Interesting question on whether we should include undrafted players when talking about 2003. While he hasn’t done quite enough for Canton, I would rate Tony Romo above Carson Palmer. Romo’s been the more consistent QB; Palmer has been up and down too often.

    • Richie

      “I would rate Tony Romo above Carson Palmer.”

      My first thought was that Romo has had a much better career than Palmer. But, to my surprise, their career numbers are a lot closer than I expected. Despite coming into the year at the same time, and despite all of Palmer’s injuries – he still has 20 more starts than Romo. (Though Romo has 7 more games played.) Romo has slight advantage 114-110 in career AV. But Romo crushes Palmer in things like ANY/A and TD-INT ratio.

      • James

        Considering it took Romo 3.5 years before he got on the field, I’m not surprised Palmer has more starts, especially since Palmer’s most famous injury didn’t cost him any games – his knee injury was in the playoffs and he started all 16 games the following season (and made the Pro Bowl to boot).

        • Andropov

          Yeah, they’re really only close if you’re looking at counting stats. Romo is far better on a rate basis over the course of his career.

  • Richie

    That is interesting that QBWINZ has the highest average draft position. Intuition says that the QB’s getting drafted early go to the worst teams, which would seem to make it tougher for even good QB’s to win (especially early in their careers).

    • Andropov

      It seems counter intuitive, but consider that QBs taken by worse teams are much more likely to be their team’s undisputed starter for at least a few years (a combination of no better options to play QB and the teams wanting to give them a fair shake) and, I would guess, are much more likely to be given second chances by other teams. A guy taken in the third round, a team might not care about replacing, or might simply be installed as a backup for a long time. But a QB taken in the top ten is going to start almost no matter what.

  • Richie

    Of course, I knew Tom Brady was drafted in the 6th round. But I was surprised to see in the chart that he was only the 7th QB taken. I was curious if it’s normal for the 7th QB to last until the 199th pick or not. Turns out, it’s not. I looked at all QB’s taken in the first 6 rounds of the draft since 1967. On average, the 7th QB was taken with the 120th pick – none after the 199th pick. (Of course, there were 10 years where fewer than 7 QB’s were drafted.)

    Here’s how the average works out for each QB:
    1st QB taken – 9th pick on average (a surprisingly high average. Tom Tupa and Danny White were 1st QB’s, but taken in the 3rd round!)
    2nd – 24th on average
    3rd – 49th on average
    4th – 68th
    5th – 93rd
    6th – 107th
    7th – 120th
    8th – 140th
    9th – 155th
    10th – 169th
    11th – 187th
    12th – 196th
    13th – 205th
    14th – 214th

    • I would have expected the first two to be higher and the rest to be lower. That’s interesting information!

      • Richie

        20 were taken first overall. 14 more were also taken in the top ten.

        Here are the 14 guys who were taken after the 10th overall pick:

        Greg Landry 11 1968

        Jerry Tagge 11 1972

        Marc Wilson 15 1980

        Dan McGwire 16 1991

        EJ Manuel 16 2013

        Doug Williams 17 1978

        Chad Pennington 18 2000

        Steve Pisarkiewicz 19 1977

        Jim Druckenmiller 26 1997

        Randall Cunningham 37 1985

        Boomer Esiason 38 1984

        Tony Banks 42 1996

        Danny White 53 1974

        Tom Tupa 68 1988

  • Tim Truemper

    Wondering how another skill position area would fare. I’m assuming Qb is tougher given all of the “soft” variables that are hard to quantify that would predict success.

  • Wil Henderson

    Depends more on team I would think . Pocket passer , roll-out passer, game manager , option QB , running QB, pro style , spread style , receiver types , play-calling ect ect . How would Peyton or Aarons number be as starting QB for Oakland for instance ?