Continuing my series on quarterback myths, we come to the notion that “elite” quarterbacks are only drafted in the first round. It doesn’t take long to run into this myth on the internet. Everyone from the Bleacher Report to the folks at Harvard will tell you that high quality, franchise quarterbacks are drafted in the first round. It also doesn’t take long to run into the ridiculous counter-argument of pointing at Tom Brady and going, “nuh-uh.” I think this myth needs a strong advocate against it. In this post, I’m going to try and provide a strong argument for why we should believe that quality quarterbacks can be found in any round of the draft.
Let’s first examine the “best-of-the-best.” What was the draft position of all the quarterbacks that are currently in the Hall of Fame? Below you see a histogram of the Hall of Fame quarterbacks that played from 1945 to present sorted by draft position. I have also included Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in this graph as they should be locks for the Hall once they finish playing. Warren Moon is not included in the graph because he was undrafted.
The first thing to notice is the shape of this graph. It is a J-shaped distribution with most of the Hall of Fame quarterbacks being drafted early. At first glance, this might seem to support the argument that quality quarterbacks are more likely to come from the first round. However, the shape of the distribution should actually lead us to a different conclusion. In J-shaped distributions, the presence of rare but impactful data points at the right side of the distribution (Tom Brady and Bart Starr) implies the presence and continued occurrence of others (see Nate Silver’s book for this same argument presented with earthquake data). I am going to argue that the left side of the graph above is not the whole story. I am certain that there are other quarterbacks that could have been in the Hall of Fame, but were never given the opportunity.
In psychology, we have the notion of a self-fulfilling prophecy. A self-fulfilling prophecy is any expectation or belief that may alter behavior in a manner that causes those expectations to be fulfilled. As an example, when teachers are told that certain students are expected to do better academically, those students do better academically. This is true even when the students are picked completely at random. This is true even when the students had no idea their teacher was told to expect them to do better. The teachers alter their behavior around the students they expect to do better. As a result, those students become more interested in school and begin to show more academic promise.
Looking back at the Hall of Fame quarterbacks, the most recent entrants made their name in the 80’s and 90’s, Marino, Elway, Young, Aikman, and Moon. I’ve seen it argued that the game is different now. Since 2000, very few high quality quarterbacks have come from anywhere but the first round, Drew Brees and Matt Schaub being the only obvious exceptions. So are quarterbacks drafted in the first round actually more talented?
To answer this question, I turn to an article by David Berri and Rob Simmons (2011) published in the Journal of Productivity Analysis (yes a journal exists that is that specific). They examined all 331 quarterbacks that were drafted between 1970 and 2007 and that played in at least one game in a season. Once again, at first glance it seems the conventional wisdom is correct. Quarterbacks drafted at the top of the draft have more passing yards, more touchdowns, participate in more plays, and accumulate more wins. But Berri and Simmons also ask us to look deeper. When the statistics are broken down on a per play basis, all of the differences between high and low draft picks wash away. Quarterbacks at the top have similar completion percentages as quarterbacks at the bottom. The same is true for passing yards per pass attempt, touchdowns per pass attempt, interceptions per pass attempt, and passer rating.
Quarterbacks drafted at the top of the draft do just as well as quarterbacks drafted at the bottom once you control for playing time. When we think we see a relationship between draft order and being a franchise quarterback, it is only an illusion. Instead, what we are seeing is the results of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Someone expected that high draft pick to do well. Therefore, that high draft pick, at the very least, gets the opportunity to show what skills he has or doesn’t have. The massive salaries first round quarterbacks have commanded in the last 15 years only magnifies the effect of the self-fulfilling prophecy. A rookie quarterback making $15 million a year is not going to sit on the bench for very long, if at all. The GM is not going to stand by while this massive investment goes unused. The high paid rookie will get the chance to go out on the field and show everyone if he has what it takes or not. And if he doesn’t have it, the coach and GM will still stick with him far longer than they should because of sunk costs.
But what about the sixth round pick sitting on the bench as a backup making the league minimum? He’s less likely to even see the field. Would we have ever heard about Tom Brady without Drew Bledsoe almost bleeding out on the field? How many other Tom Bradys have sat on benches waiting for their moment that never happened? I will wager more than a few.
So now let’s look to the future. In 2012, we saw a few quarterbacks drafted beyond the first round that started games and made significant contributions. I expect this trend to continue. Not because the talent level has increased, but because, with the new rookie salary scale, the financial pressures to self-fulfill the prophecy and stick with a high priced first rounder that isn’t working out will be much less.
All in all, I believe there are quality quarterbacks to be found in later rounds of the draft. The only question is whether or not they ever get a chance to see the field and actually prove it.