The Problem With Trading Up To Draft A Quarterback

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To be successful in the NFL, you need to have a franchise quarterback. It’s not a secret, it’s not an option, it’s a necessity, and the last few Super Bowls have proved that. Instead of listing the franchises who have recently won a Super Bowl with a franchise quarterback, it’s easier to name the ones that haven’t. The last team that won a Super Bowl without a franchise quarterback was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with Brad Johnson back in 2002. They defeated the Oakland Raiders in that game, and the Raiders haven’t made the playoffs since. Think about how long the Raiders have been a punchline, that’s how long it has been since a team without a franchise quarterback won the Lombardi Trophy. Going all the way back to the early 90’s, when the Dallas Cowboys were winning Super Bowls, only Johnson and Baltimore’s Trent Dilfer have won Super Bowls without being considered “franchise” quarterbacks.

So when the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles traded up for the first and second overall pick to the  respectively, it made sense to a lot of people. If a franchise has a chance to draft a quarterback that could possibly take them to the Promised Land, they almost have to take it… Right?

Maybe not. While having the first or even second overall pick almost guarantees a franchise their pick of any player they want, the draft is a crapshoot, and sometimes franchises get burned. Just ask Mike Ditka. In 1999, Ditka was coaching the New Orleans Saints and he just couldn’t get a break. Back to back 6-10 seasons lit a flame underneath the Hall of Famer’s seat, and he knew he needed a miracle. In Ditka’s eyes, that miracle was Texas running back, Ricky Williams. Williams had racked up almost 7,000 rushing yards and 75 touchdowns in his four seasons with the Longhorns and was drawing comparisons to Hall of Fame rusher, Earl Campbell. However, Ditka’s Saints had the 12th pick in the first round, and it was foregone conclusion that Williams would be long gone by the time they were on the clock, so Ditka took a gamble and traded his first, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh round pick from the 1999 draft, as well as the first and third round picks from 2000 to the Washington Redskins so that he could move up to the number five spot. Williams would rush for a very pedestrian 1,000 yards and five touchdowns a season before being traded to the Dolphins in 2002.

Of course, a running back is different from a quarterback. There’s only so much that a rusher can do without a quality offensive line or an adequate passing game. Barry Sanders is the best running back of all time because he was able to thrive despite a terrible supporting cast. Williams was able to find great success almost immediately with the Dolphins and had a decent resurgence with the ‘Phins again in 2009.

Let’s look at a more contemporary and relevant comparison. In 2012, the NFL Draft was a veritable goldmine for franchise quarterbacks. All eight quarterbacks that were taken in the first six rounds have started a game in the NFL, and six of them are projected to be day one starters in 2016. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, and the Washington Redskins didn’t realize that they would find a consistent starter when they drafted Kirk Cousins out of Michigan State in the fourth round. The quarterback-needy Redskins were eying Baylor’s Heisman winning quarterback, Robert Griffin III, but with the 6th overall pick, they doubted that Griffin would fall that far. It was a foregone conclusion that the prodigy, Andrew Luck, would be the first overall pick, and Griffin would likely be taken with the second pick. At the time, the St. Louis Rams were content with Sam Bradford as the starting quarterback, so they began aggressively shopping the pick. Ultimately, the Rams were able to get three first round and two second round picks from the Redskins, allowing them to take Griffin III at number two.  As history shows, this was a terrible mistake. Injuries and shaky performances hampered Griffin’s ability to develop and he was released earlier this year. While the Rams didn’t build a dynasty with the six picks, they were able to get some quality starters like Janoris Jenkins, Michael Brockers, Alec Ogeltree, and Greg Robinson.

At this moment, only 14 NFL teams are starting quarterbacks that they took with a first round pick*. Of those fourteen, only the Ravens, Steelers, Packers, and Giants have won a championship under the leadership of their current quarterback. In all reality, teams with a first round quarterback have won just as many Super Bowls as teams without one. Joe Flacco, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, and Eli Manning have combined for six championships so far in their combined careers, but New Orleans’ Drew Brees, Seattle’s Russell Wilson, and New England’s Tom Brady also combine for six titles. So while having a prime pick helps, it is possible to grab an elite quarterback with a later pick.

*Obviously disregarding the trade between the New York Giants and San Diego Chargers including Eli Manning and Philip Rivers as both teams got a quarterback that panned out.

In fact, of the 25 quarterbacks in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, only 11 were taken in the first round of the NFL draft. Not included in that 11 are the likes of Johnny Unitas, Brett Favre, and Joe Montana, a trio considered by many to be among the very best of all time.

So, while Jared Goff and Carson Wentz may reverse the fortunes of the Rams or Eagles, making up for the incredible price the teams paid, it isn’t necessarily a strategy that teams should rely on. While each draft doesn’t feature a Tom Brady or a Kenny Stabler, it might feature a Robert Griffin III. Without the benefit of seeing college prospects compete against NFL style talent, it’s unwise to mortgage a team’s entire future on one player, regardless of how “can’t miss” he is.


Main Photo: INDIANAPOLIS, IN – FEBRUARY 27: Quarterback Jared Goff of California throws during the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)