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Will Blake Bortles be the Best QB of the 2014 Class?

A rare shot of Blake Bortles in a two-tone helmet.

A rare shot of Blake Bortles in a two-tone helmet.

The Jaguars drafted Blake Bortles with the 3rd pick in the 2014 draft. Nineteen picks later, the Browns took Johnny Manziel, and with the 32nd pick, the Vikings traded up to acquire Teddy Bridgewater.

If you believe in the efficient market theory, this means Bortles is the most likely of that group to wind up being the top quarterback from this year’s draft. But I wanted to look at other drafts where the top quarterback was selected very early but the next quarterback wasn’t drafted in quick succession (like say, Andrew Luck and RG3).

Since 1967, the first year of the common draft, a quarterback was selected in the top 61 in 34 of 48 drafts. But in 22 of those 34 drafts, another team spent a top-12 pick on a quarterback, too.2

That leaves 12 drafts where (a) a quarterback was drafted really, really early, and (b) no other quarterback went off the board for awhile (at least 14 picks between the quarterback selections in all 12 cases). Some further slicing, however, is required if we really want to do an apples-to-apples comparison. In six of those cases, a quarterback was selected with the number one overall pick, and based on research conducted by Jason Lisk, it doesn’t seem appropriate to compare quarterbacks not selected with the top pick to number one overall selections.3 I’d also throw out the 1973, 1976, and 1981 drafts, as the number two quarterbacks were all drafted after pick 30.

Okay, we are obviously at risk of creating a sample size so small that is is useless. To recap, we are looking at all drafts since 1967 where:

  • A quarterback was selected in the top 6, but not 1st overall
  • The next quarterback was drafted in the 13-30 range range

Unfortunately, the concern here is pretty real. Bortles/Manziel are just the third pairing to meet those criteria.

2008 Draft

In 2008, the Dolphins selected Jake Long with the first overall pick and the Rams drafted Chris Long at number two, allowing Matt Ryan to fall to the third pick. That means, like in 2014, at least a couple of teams thought no quarterback was worthy of the first pick.4. Then, after Ryan, it wasn’t until pick 18 that the next quarterback was drafted – Joe Flacco. At the risk of inviting trouble in the comments, I think Atlanta’s decision holds up pretty well in retrospect, and this seems to be a bit of pro-Jaguars evidence. Of note: Jaguars GM David Caldwell was the Falcons director of college scouting in 2008.

1992 Draft

In 1992, the Bengals drafted David Klingler with the 6th overall pick. The next quarterback off the board was Tommy Maddox with the 25th pick. This was a terrible draft for quarterbacks, with Jeff Blake (pick 166) and Brad Johnson (pick 227) being the top passers from that class.

Again, we can’t take much from two examples. We know the general idea here — there was one quarterback rated really highly by one team, and no other team felt compelled to spend a top 20 pick on any other quarterback. But we only have two examples, and in one of them, all the early quarterbacks were terrible. In the other, both quarterbacks selected in the first round were successful.

Widening the sample

If we include the first overall picks and only require that the next quarterback be drafted in the top forty,5  we also add:

Bradford/Tebow probably gets marked as a pro-Bortles argument, but not by much. Nobody was a winner with Russell/Quinn, which is this generation’s Klingler/Maddox. Smith over Rodgers looks bad in hindsight, even with Smith’s late-career renaissance. Vick over Brees is even worse, and Campbell/Lomax falls along similar lines (albeit Lomax isn’t a HOFer).

On the other hand, Aikman/Eklins and Jones/Huff go the other way. Tally it up (including the ’92 and ’08 drafts), and it looks like a 4-3-2 record to me for the team that selected the quarterback first. I wouldn’t say this is good evidence of the efficient market theory, as you’d probably expect a better “record” given the picks used on the quarterbacks involved. Frankly, the sample size is too small to tell us much of anything, other than scouting quarterbacks is really, really hard.

  1. Why the top 6 and not the top 5? Only once was the top quarterback drafted with the fifth overall pick, but in three other drafts prior to 2014, the first quarterback went off the board at number six (and never was the first passer selected at seven, eight, nine, or ten). Plus, since the Jaguars were rumored to be considering a trade down to #6 to draft Bortles, it seemed to make sense to use 6 as a cut-off. []
  2. Why top 12? In none of these drafts was the 2nd quarterback selected with the 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th, or 17th picks, which made 12 seem like a good cut-off. []
  3. In reality, the number one picks in this sample were pretty underwhelming: Sam Bradford, JaMarcus Russell, Alex Smith, Michael Vick, Troy Aikman, and Steve Bartkowski are the six quarterbacks who would have otherwise made the cut-off. []
  4. Ironically, the Rams were again involved this year, as were a defensive end (Jadeveon Clowney) and offensive tackle (Greg Robinson). []
  5. This cut-off only excludes Mike Kruczek, drafted 47th in 1976 (Richard Todd went 6th) and Gary Sheide (64th in 1975), who never played in the NFL.  That year, Steve Bartkowski went first overall. []
  • Quinton

    This is made even tougher if you consider that teams drafting earlier are generally worse than teams drafting later. It doesn’t so much apply to this draft since Cleveland and Minnesota were both slotted in the top ten but you can imagine how different Aaron Rodgers career might have played out if he had to start with those 49ers teams.

  • Here’s the bet I’d like to make. I’ll take the field of QBs drafted over all three first round QBs. I think my odds are better than 50% to get the best QB in the class. If we exempt #1 picks, here’s the recent history of QBs taken in the first round altogether:
    2010: Tebow (Best later option: Colt McCoy)
    2011: Locker (!), Gabbert (!!), Ponder (!): Sweet Fancy Moses! (Best later option: Kaepernick)
    2012: Griffin (sort of a co #1), Tannehill, Weeden (Best later option: Wilson)
    2013: Manuel (Best later option: Glennon)

    That’s a small sample (2009 had basically no good options; Sanchez and Freeman in round 1, but also nobody good later), but scouting is hard as you say, so give me the extra lottery tickets and I think I’ll find the better guy most of the time.

    • Richie

      2008: Flacco better than late picks
      2007: no winners
      2006: Cutler better than late picks
      2005: Rodgers better than late picks
      2004: Roethlisberger better than late picks
      2003: Leftwich better than late picks
      2002: late picks better than Harrington
      2001: only Vick (#1 overall) was taken in first round. Brees (first 2nd-round pick) was better).
      2000: Brady
      1999: McNabb better than late picks
      1998: late picks better than Leaf
      1997: late picks better than Druckenmiller
      1996: no first rounders
      1995: Kerry Collins better than late picks
      1994: late pick (Frerotte) maybe better than Dilfer
      1993: late picks better than Mirer
      1992: Brad Johnson better than Tommy Maddox
      1991: late pick (Favre) better than Dan McGwire
      1990: late pick (Neil O’Donnell) better than Andre Ware

      It seems to be about 50/50. The thing is, once you exclude the #1 overall pick, it seems that taking the 2nd round+ QB’s have a higher ceiling. It kind of shows that if there is no QB who is clearly deserving of the #1 overall pick, that you might just be better off seeing what’s left in round 2. You could end up with one of the best QB’s of the past 20 years (Brees, Favre, Brady).

      I was trying to think of any examples where there was a clear #1 overall QB who didn’t get picked first because the team didn’t need a QB. I don’t see any examples in the last 24 years.

      • Cool stuff. Maybe we could give 2003 to the late picks, though. If we include the UDFAs with the late picks, Tony Romo > Leftwich.

  • Matt

    Just a tiny nit-picking, fact correction. Rich Campbell was actually the 6th pick, not the first selection of his draft class although that doesn’t help him stink any less. Thanks for the interesting post.

  • Richie

    I wish teams would publish their draft boards after the draft. Just because Manziel went so much later than Bortles, does that really tell us anything about the difference in their perceived values?

    It seems like this year had more teams who were settled (or committed) at the QB position than in recent memory. Only a few teams had gaping holes at QB and seemed likely to invest in a first round pick. If somebody else took Bortles in the first 2 picks, would Jacksonville have takend Manziel (or Bridgewater), or would they have taken Clowney or Greg Robinson (or something else) instead? Likewise, if Jacksonville took Sammy Watkins, would Bortles have gone soon after, or would he have slid way down?

    The Smith/Rodgers draft is interesting. My recollection (often fuzzy) was that they both had the possibility of going first overall early in the draft process. But then he (obviously) slid way down the board, getting passed over by quite a few teams who had a need at QB (some who still do). Miami, Cleveland, Chicago, Tampa Bay, etc. Were any of these teams seriously considering Rodgers?