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Finding a Starting NFL Quarterback

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Where do starters come from, and what is the most reliable way to find them? A mathematical analysis of draft picks, trades and free agent pick-ups.

2017 NFL Draft
Mitch Trubisky, second overall draft choice
Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

You’re sitting at home, maybe on your phone, maybe on your computer. It’s Sunday and the 20xx NFL Draft has just concluded. You’re looking over the list of picks and you notice something: amidst the reaches, certain busts, and just-a-guys no one on the entire internet has ever heard of, there’s no one listed with the word “quarterback” by his name.

Absurd! Even the out of state fans know your team needs a QB. Linebacker? Offensive guard? That’s all well and good but who the heck is going to throw to the number one [insert: superstar/future star/relative unknown/inevitable disappointment] wide receiver?


Much like the Nile River, star quarterbacks come from somewhere. They don’t appear suddenly, fully formed, ready to birth civilizations lead a team to greatness.

Where are teams (that aren’t yours) finding these mythical players? Based on Ourlads depth charts, these are the 32 projected NFL starters for 2017 and how they were acquired.

AFC East

New England Patriots Victory Parade
Boston’s Top Model Tom Brady
Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images
Player Acquired By Original Draft Selection
Tyrod Taylor Free Agent 2011, Round 6, Pick 180 (BAL)
Ryan Tannehill Draft Choice 2012, Round 1, Pick 8
Tom Brady Draft Choice 2000, Round 6, Pick 199
Josh McCown Free Agent 2002, Round 3, Pick 81 (ARI)

AFC North

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers-Training Camp
Pittsburgh Steelers Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Player Acquired By Original Draft Selection
Joe Flacco Draft Choice 2008, Round 1, Pick 18
Andy Dalton Draft Choice 2011, Round 2, Pick 35
Cody Kessler Draft Choice 2016, Round 3, Pick 93
Ben Roethlisberger Draft Choice 2004, Round 1, Pick 11

AFC South

NFL: Houston Texans at Indianapolis Colts
Indianapolis Colts Quarterback Andrew Luck
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Player Acquired By Original Draft Selection
Tom Savage Draft Choice 2014, Round 4, Pick 135
Andrew Luck Draft Choice 2012, Round 1, Pick 1
Blake Bortles Draft Choice 2014, Round 1, Pick 3
Marcus Mariota Draft Choice 2015, Round 1, Pick 2

AFC West

NFL: Detroit Lions at San Diego Chargers
Los Angeles Chargers Quarterback Philip Rivers
Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports
Player Acquired By Original Draft Selection
Trevor Siemian Draft Choice 2015, Round 7, Pick 250
Alex Smith Trade: 2 2nd Round Picks 2005, Round 1, Pick 1 (SF)
Philip Rivers Trade: Eli Manning 2004, Round 1, Pick 4
Derek Carr Draft Choice 2014, Round 2, Pick 36

NFC East

NFL: New York Giants at Washington Redskins
New York Giants Quarterback Eli Manning
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
Player Acquired By Original Draft Selection
Dak Prescott Draft Choice 2016, Round 4, Pick 135
Eli Manning Trade: Philip Rivers 2004, Round 1, Pick 1
Carson Wentz Draft Choice 2016, Round 1, Pick 2
Kirk Cousins Draft Choice 2012, Round 4, Pick 102

NFC North

NFL: NFC Divisional-Green Bay Packers at Dallas Cowboys
Green Bay Packers Quarterback Aaron Rodgers
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Player Acquired By Original Draft Selection
Mike Glennon Free Agent 2013, Round 3, Pick 73 (TB)
Matthew Stafford Draft Choice 2009, Round 1, Pick 1
Aaron Rodgers Draft Choice 2005, Round 1, Pick 24
Sam Bradford Trade: 1st Round Pick, 4th Round Pick 2010, Round 1, Pick 1 (STL)

NFC South

Nickelodeon's Superstar Slime Showdown at Super Bowl
New Orleans Saints Emergency Kicker Drew Brees
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Nickelodeon
Player Acquired By Original Draft Selection
Matt Ryan Draft Choice 2008, Round 1, Pick 3
Cam Newton Draft Choice 2011, Round 1, Pick 1
Drew Brees Free Agent 2001, Round 2, Pick 32 (SD)
Jameis Winston Draft Choice 2015, Round 1, Pick 1

NFC West

Cincinnati Bengals At Training Camp
Arizona Cardinals Hacky Sack King Carson Palmer
Photo by Mark Lyons/Getty Images
Player Acquired By Original Draft Selection
Carson Palmer Trade: 6th Round Pick 2003, Round 1, Pick 1 (CIN)
Jared Goff Draft Choice 2016, Round 1, Pick 1
Brian Hoyer Free Agent 2009, Undrafted Free Agent (NE)
Russell Wilson Draft Choice 2012, Round 3, Pick 75

Diving In: Starters and Busts

Bad news/good news time: bad news, that’s about the end of the pretty pictures; good news, more fancy tables!

The following is a breakdown of the above projected starting quarterbacks, where they were selected in the draft, and how they stack up against all other quarterbacks drafted between 2000 and 2016. The first round is split into first overall, top five, top twenty, and late round selections. Second, third and fourth round choices are grouped together, and the late round choices are also clumped together.

Expectations for late round draft picks are much different than for first rounders, so it’s worth including current NFL players who aren’t starters. Back-ups (“Current Player, Non-Starter”) are people too. This is also an opportunity to recognize undrafted players. Coming up with a percentage of success for that group would be extremely difficult but FootballOutsiders have a good list of undrafted QB’s who have helped teams.

Players who’ve contributed to the NFL, loosely defined by vague memory, but didn’t have the lasting careers of Brady or Brees also receive a mention. Would anyone complain about winning a Super Bowl with the next Marc Bulger? This is where things start to get hazy. Was Jared Goff a good pick? No one can really say at this point. Was Colin Kaepernick a bad pick? He had some success. How about Jay Cutler? He’s not with a team right now, and so he’s not included as a starter, but he had a long career. A long, middling career. Chad Pennington, Michael Vick and Matt Schaub had some very good years. These are counted as “Past Contributors.”

Starter and Bust Rates refer to the percentage of players chosen in their respective rounds who have gone on to become starters or busts. It is the likelihood of finding a very good, or a very bad, player.

Round Selected Pick Range Number of Starters Percentage of NFL Starters Current Player, Non-Starter Past Contributor Total Players Drafted Number of Busts Bust Rate Starter Rate
Rd 1 Pick 1 9 28% - 1 12 2 17% 75%
Rd 1 Top 5 5 16% 1 - 9 3 33% 55%
Rd 1 Top 20 3 9% 5 - 13 5 38% 23%
Rd 1 21-32 1 3% 3 2 11 5 45% 9%
Rd 2-4 7 22% 15 8 63 33 52% 11%
Rd 5+ 6 19% 15 5 102 76 75% 6%
Undrafted 1 3% 20 3 - - - -

Critics may object to this moneyball-style analysis by saying that it’s not the place where the player is selected that matters but the player himself. This is only true to a point. Taking a QB with a fourth-round grade first overall will not automatically make that player successful. That is why NFL teams have scouts: so they can avoid making a mistake like that. A player must be deemed worthy of the selection.

Takeaways:

  • First overall picks account for the highest percentage of starting quarterbacks in today’s NFL. A staggering 75% of first overall picks go on to become starters. Any prospect worth that pick needs to be an excellent player, and for the most part NFL teams have done a good job at identifying QB’s with that kind of ability.
  • The bust rate almost doubles dropping from first overall QB’s to those taken in the Top 5.
  • There are as many starting QB’s taken from picks 2-32 as there are first overall.
  • If there’s a QB worth taking, you need to get him early (picks 1-5). The good ones don’t last and the bad ones start to fill in. From the fifth pick onwards the bust rate increases gradually, seeing nearly half of all prospects drafted at the end of the first round failing to make a positive impact in the NFL.

Per-Round Analysis

It may be illuminating to look a little closer at the players being chosen in each round, rather than grouping them in similar rounds.

Round Selected Number of Starters Percentage of NFL Starters Current Player, Non-Starter Past Contributor Total Players Drafted Number of Busts Bust Rate Starter Rate
Rd 1 18 56% 9 3 45 15 33% 40%
Rd 2 3 9% 6 3 19 7 37% 16%
Rd 3 4 13% 6 1 22 11 50% 18%
Rd 4 3 9% 3 4 22 12 55% 14%
Rd 5 0 0% 3 2 31 26 84% 0%
Rd 6 2 6% 1 8 38 27 71% 5%
Rd 7 1 3% 4 2 33 26 79% 3%
Undrafted 1 3% 20 3 - - - -

There have been a lot of quarterbacks drafted in the first round since the year 2000! The fact that 40% of those players have developed into starters is remarkable. There doesn’t seem to be much separation from rounds 2-4. The fifth round and beyond is a wasteland. Renowned sixth-round draft choice Tom Brady is a diamond in the rough, right alongside Josh McCown. Who’d have thought?

Other takeaways:

  • More than half of all starting quarterbacks were first round picks, 18 to 14.
  • The second round produces similar quarterback talent to the Top 20 category from the previous table. In fact, teams were much more likely to find starters and contributors in round two than late in the first! Even rounds three and four produce a higher percentage of starters than picks 21-32, but they also produce busts more consistently.
  • There is an even distribution of starting quarterbacks acquired from outside of the Top 5 but before round five. Though the number of starters is about the same, it becomes harder to find them, as the number of back-ups and busts increases quite a bit outside of the first round. 35% of late first-round QB’s turned out to be starters, while only 17% of second, third and fourth-round picks made it.
  • If your team has waited until after the fourth round to try and find a starting quarterback, they’ve probably waited too long. The same can be said about starters at any position, but it’s not like the late rounds generated a ton of past contributors or present back-ups, either. At least a defensive back would play special teams.
  • There are a lot of undrafted quarterbacks in the league, and that number doesn’t include rookies. However, with one current NFL starter (Brian Hoyer) going undrafted and only three more with notable careers in recent history (Tony Romo among them), chances are not good for the 20 hopefuls currently employed. Expect this number to be trimmed before the regular season.

Finding a Starter Without Drafting One

Starting quarterbacks are most readily found in the first round, especially in the top 5. Important information, but probably not surprising.

Your team, though, your team is surprising. The draft is over, and they didn’t take a quarterback! What are the chances they can acquire a good one now?

Not great, turns out.

Drafted by Current Team: 22 (69%) Entered League with Different Team: 10 (31%)
Free Agent Signings 5
Acquired via Trade 5

22 of the NFL’s starting quarterbacks were drafted by the team they are presently a part of. Teams tend to hold on to their starting-caliber QB’s. Again, important but not surprising.

On the subject of trading for draft picks, ProSportsTransactions has a nice list of NFL draft trade history. Going back to the 2000 NFL Draft, the last draft to produce a starting quarterback in 2017, five teams, if you count the Giants and Chargers, traded for that coveted first round quarterback and got a starter out of it. Joe Flacco, Philip Rivers and Eli Manning have unquestionably worked out for their franchises. Jared Goff and Carson Wentz are projected to start this year but it’s too early to say whether they’ll be stars in the league. That doesn’t mean that every other first-round quarterback trade since the year 2000 has been a failure, but it does mean that all of the involved players have had shortened careers for whatever reason.


Trading Into the Top Five

That’s it, then. No more opportunities to find a quarterback this season. You’ve floated 4,000 miles down the River Nile and your team is being spit out to the ocean. Their best chance to acquire a starting-caliber quarterback lies in the top five of next year’s draft. Coincidentally, next year’s draft is going to be great! Absolutely packed with talent. Next year’s draft is always better. What’s it going to cost to get into the top five?

Head on over to WalterFootball and take a look at the NFL Draft Pick Value Chart. Similarly to how real NFL general managers place value on draft picks, each pick has been given a worth from 3,000 to 2. To explain further, let’s look at the trade the Chiefs made to acquire the 10th overall pick in the 2017 draft.

KC Sends Pick Value HOU Sends Pick Value
2017 Round 1, Pick 27 680 Round 1, Pick 10 1,300
2017 Round 3, Pick 91 96
2018 Round 1, Pick 27 340
KC Total Value: 1,156 HOU Total Value: 1,300

As a general rule, next year’s picks are worth half of what this year’s picks are worth. This is a good trade for the Chiefs. They lost less draft value than they received, and they got Patrick Mahomes II, a player with a 23% chance to develop into a starter... never mind the 38% chance to bust out of the league...

Here’s a hypothetical situation: Arizona is picking in the 13th spot and they want to move into the top five for a good chance at getting a starting quarterback. Let’s look at their draft stock and figure out what that move would cost.

Round Pick Value
1 13 1,150
2 36 540
3 98 108
4 115 64
5 157 28.6
5 179 19.8
6 208 8.2

The fifth overall pick in the draft is worth 1,700 draft value. A quarterback taken in the Top 5 has a 55% chance of being a starter, but a 33% chance of being a bust. It’s risky, but teams need QB’s. Tennessee held the fifth pick in 2017.

Arizona Sends Pick Value Tennessee Sends Pick Value
2017 Round 1, Pick 13 1,150 Round 1, Pick 5 1,700
2017 Round 3, Pick 98 108
2017 Round 4, Pick 115 64
2018 Round 2, Pick 36 270
ARI Total Value: 1,592 TEN Total Value: 1,700

Would Tennessee actually take this deal? They’d lose less than Houston lost for moving from pick 10 all the way back to pick 27... but Houston got an extra first round pick out of the deal. Top 5 picks come at a premium and it’s doubtful any team would trade out of that spot for less than two first rounders. Rumor has it Arizona couldn’t even trade up to pick 9 in the 2017 draft because they weren’t willing to give up two firsts, and that move was for only 4 total spots.

Desperate teams call in desperate trades. The Redskins’ trade for Robert Griffin III will always be an example of that. How will your team find their next starter?