What’s the best draft strategy for getting that elusive franchise quarterback?  Put all your chips to the middle of the table and take one in the top 5 (like Chicago did this year) or settle on a mid round player (like Dallas did with Prescott) or take a late round flyer (like Denver did with Trevor Siemian) and hope he pans out?  Let’s see what history tells us.

All data in this post via pfref.com.

I’ll be using pfref.com’s Career AV stat to rank the quarterbacks drafted in the 20 year period from 1991 to 2010.  Somewhat arbitrarily, I’ve selected 50 as the cutoff point.  If a QB’s career AV is 50 or more he’s considered a hit, under 50 is considered a miss.  Some of these under 50 AV players are still active and thus might go over 50 before they are done playing.  Case in point: Sam Bradford has a career AV of 42, but is set to start for the Vikings this year, and will most likely (if he stays healthy) go over 50 AV this year.  It’s not a perfect system, but that’s what I’m going with.

A few words on the Career AV stat:  Basically, a QB gains AV for each year he plays.  It’s a complicated formula, but at the risk of over-simplifying it’s based on points the team scored, along with post season honors, such as being on the all-pro team or MVP.  The Career AV is a weighted sum of the AV’s from all the years, but only partial credit is given for the 2nd best year, 3rd best year, and so on.  Matt Ryan had an AV of 21 in 2016.  Drew Brees’ AV’s have ranged from a low of 14 to a high of 20 during his stint with the Saints.  Sam Bradford had an AV of 11 in 2016.  So, a starter with a halfway decent season can expect 11+ AV per season, and a top level player can get as much as 21 or so.  To get an AV of 50, a quarterback needs to have about 5 of the types of years Bradford had last year or a smaller number of top tier years.

Some of the problems with using the method I’ve chosen would be some really good players end up as backups behind even better players, such as Garoppolo backing up Brady.  (Goes without saying, we really don’t know how good Garoppolo would be as a starter.  Matt Cassel…)  Some of the guys might still be too young or have had some injury issues that are now behind them whose best years might still lie ahead (Sam Bradford?).  Some players that didn’t really deserve to start remained starters on their teams and racked up decent Career AV’s despite not really being all that good (Ryan Fitzpatrick?).

There were 247 QB’s drafted (both regular and supplemental drafts included) in that 20 year period.  54 (21.9%) of them never played in a single game.  36 (14.6%) meet the criteria of being a hit (50+ career AV).  188 (76.1%) of them have career AV’s of less than 20.  So, hitting on a QB in the draft is not an easy proposition (which is why these guys are getting paid $20+ million per year).  36 hits in 20 years of drafts, that’s about 1.1 hits per year on average.  So, you might say the average draft has about 1 quarterback in it that will go on to have a career AV of 50+.

Now let’s break it down by draft round.  Of the 36 hits, 19 (52.8%) were 1st round picks, 4 (11.1%) were 2nd round picks, 2 (5.6%) were 3rd round picks, 2 (5.6%) were 4th round picks, 1 (2.8%) was a 5th round pick, 4 (11.1%) were 6th round picks, 2 (5.6%) were 7th round picks, and you had 1 each in rounds 8 and 9 (Trent Green and Brad Johnson) who would be undrafted players now that we only have 7 rounds (not taking into account the extra round of compensatory picks).  It should come as no surprise that the 1st round has produced more than half of the hits, but does this mean the best value is in using a 1st round pick on a quarterback rather than waiting for a later round?  Let’s look at overall hit rates next.

46 1st round picks were used on quarterbacks in this 20 year span of our little study.  19 (41.3%) were hits.  22 2nd round picks produced 4 (18.18%) hits.  21 3rd round picks produced 2 (9.5%) hits.  31 4th round picks produced 2 (6.5%) hits.  27 5th round picks produced 1 (3.7%) hit.  39 6th round picks produced 4 (10.3%) hits.  42 7th round picks produced 2 (4.8%) hits.  19 8th round or later picks produced 2 (10.5%) hits.

Round QB’s taken Hits Hit %
1st 46 19 41.30%
2nd 22 4 18.18%
3rd 21 2 9.52%
4th 31 2 6.45%
5th 27 1 3.70%
6th 39 4 10.26%
7th 42 2 4.76%
8th or later 19 2 10.53%

The most popular round for taking a quarterback was the 1st round (46 picks), followed by the 7th round (42 picks) and the 6th round (39 picks).  The 2nd and 3rd round were least popular (not counting 8th and later).  The most successful round (as a percentage of hits per draft picks used) was the 1st round at 41.3%, followed not surprisingly by the 2nd round with 18.18%, but after that it was hit or miss at basically the same rate.  The other rounds produced only 1 or 2 hits with the exception of the outlier round 6, which produced 4 hits.  (These were Tom Brady, Matt Hasselbeck, Jeff Blake, and Mark Bulger.)

But, as everybody knows, even though the 1st and 2nd rounds have the highest hit rates for quarterbacks those are also the most valuable picks to spend.  Missing on a 3rd round pick doesn’t hurt nearly so much as missing on a 1st round pick, and missing on a 7th is quite painless in the grand scheme since those players are typically long shots anyway.

The Saints appear to have missed on Garrett Grayson in the 3rd round, but 3rd round picks are only successful (by this method of measuring success) about 9.52% of the time.  It was a less than 1-in-10 shot, so Saints fans shouldn’t be too bothered by it.  The Saints took a shot.  It didn’t work out, but I think it was worth the chance.  Hindsight being 20/20, the Saints should have used that 2nd round pick (58 overall) on Jimmy Garoppolo in 2014, whom the Patriots took just 4 picks later at #62 (Tom Savage would also go in the 4th to Houston) instead of Stanley Jean-Baptiste.

So, what’s the best way to go?  I think it depends on your immediacy of need at the position.  If you already have an established starter that you’re happy with, then I think going with a mid or late round pick is the way to go.  Saints were happy with Brees (and well they should be), so they spent the 3rd rounder on Grayson rather than trying to trade up to get Winston or Mariota.  It was absolutely the right thing to at the time.  Hindsight suggests Trevor Siemian would have been a better choice, but nobody knew that at the time, not even the Broncos, who waited until the 7th round to take him.  In fact, it can be argued they *still* didn’t know when they drafted Paxton Lynch in the 1st round a year later.  (Truth be told, nobody yet knows if Siemian will pan out as a long term starter.)

Bottom line is it’s a crapshoot of sorts, but taking a QB in the 1st round *does* maximize your chances of getting a keeper.  You’re nearly 5x more likely to hit on a 1st round pick than on a non-1st round pick.  Do the math: 247 drafted overall, but 46 is in the 1st means 201 non-1st rounders.  19 of the 36 hits were 1st rounders, so that means 17 were non-1st rounders.  17/201 = 8.45%, as compared to the 41.3% hit rate for 1st round picks.  41.3 / 8.45 = roughly 4.9.  If I’m a GM desperate for a QB I’m swinging for the bleachers, similar to what Ryan Pace did with Trubisky (though I don’t think I would let a team fleece me the way he let Lynch do).  Will Trubisky pan out?  Odds are against him, but a .413 batting average sure beats .085 when the bases are loaded bottom of the 9th in game 7.

NFL qb hit rates

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