After the gold rush: What happens in the draft following a QB bonanza?

Well in advance of their arrival, the quarterbacks of the 2018 NFL Draft captured the imagination of teams around the league.

Between the quarterback prospects that opted against declaring earlier and the rising sophomores, word of an upcoming signal-caller megaclass began to spread over a year ago during the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine. Even playing under the microscope for a full draft cycle and the accompanying relentless criticism did little to dampen excitement, and not without reason.

While most drafts feature a few intriguing prospects at the position, 2018 offered a flavor for every conceivable taste: the hyper-accurate overachiever (Baker Mayfield), the pedigreed gunslinger (Sam Darnold), the rocket-armed underdog (Josh Allen), the prototypical pocket passer (Josh Rosen), and the dual-threat enigma (Lamar Jackson). When all five went on the draft’s opening night, the group became the largest first-round quarterback class since the turn of the century.

At a certain level, this makes sense. The class emerged at a time when many of the NFL’s top passers approach retirement and few young signal-callers appear able to assume the mantle, leaving a massive void at the most important position in the sport. While not all five of 2018’s first-round quarterbacks will start immediately, each expects to take over their respective offenses by the start of their second season in the league.

Even so, the 2018 draft represents an abnormality. Despite desperate general managers and team owners pushing signal-callers up the draft board annually, rookie classes rarely produce more than a few first-round selections at the position. Including 2018, only three drafts have seen five or more quarterbacks picked in the opening round. The original and most famous such class, 1983, generated a record six first-round quarterbacks including three future Hall of Famers.

On the other end of the spectrum, the 1999 class generated five more first-round passers, an overall underwhelming group that failed to earn a single All-Pro honor.

How many success stories come out of the 2018 quarterback class remains to be seen. However, if history provides any indication, the next two drafts likely won’t deliver much Day 1 talent under center.

Photo by E. Bakke/Getty Images

If 1983 set the standard for first-round quarterbacks, the two years that immediately followed established the nadir. Not a single passer went in the opening round of either the ’84 or ’85 drafts, something that had never before occurred during the common draft era (1967 to present). While a two-year absence of the game’s most important position in the first round would trigger the collective anxiety of scouts and fans today, the development came as little surprise to NFL talent evaluators at the time.

“I knew what the ’84 draft was going to produce,” Ernie Accorsi, then the Baltimore Colts’ general manager, said during an interview for the 1983 NFL Draft documentary Elway to Marino. “Boomer Esiason was picked in the second round. He played like a No. 1, but at the time he wasn’t a first-round pick.”

Esiason, the 38th overall pick and first quarterback selected in the 1984 draft, didn’t see the field much as a rookie but eventually developed into a league MVP and nearly led the Cincinnati Bengals to an upset of the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIII. Still, as Accorsi explained, Esiason would have gone much earlier in the draft had NFL teams believed he possessed such potential.

Randall Cunningham became the first signal-caller selected in the 1985 NFL Draft, waiting nine picks into the second round to hear his name called. Like Esiason, he outplayed his draft position, developing into an All-Pro and taking multiple teams on long playoff runs. Even so, the fact he couldn’t sneak into a first round that included Kevin Allen, Derrick Burroughs, Kevin Brooks, Darryl Sims, and several other busts underscores the pre-draft perception of Cunningham and the other quarterback prospects.

A similar narrative played out in the two years following the 1999 NFL Draft. While the practice of pushing quarterbacks up the draft board had grown even more pervasive by the dawn of the new millennium, the 2000 draft saw zero go in the top 10 and only one (Chad Pennington, No. 18 overall) come off the board before the end of the first round.

Infamously, Tom Brady entered the league that year as well. However, while he eventually became the most celebrated player of his generation, teams thought so little of his potential coming out of Michigan that six rounds and nearly 200 picks elapsed before the New England Patriots selected him.

The 2001 class likewise produced only one first-round quarterback, albeit the generationally gifted Michael Vick. A dozen years would pass before another draft yielded only a single passer in the opening round.

Granted, those figures don’t account for the supplemental draft, which officially produced four first-round quarterbacks during the two years after 1983. However, three of those signal-callers — Steve Young, Wayne Peace, and Ken Hobart — came from the folded USFL rather than the college ranks. The fourth, Bernie Kosar, deliberately exploited loopholes in the NFL’s rules to become eligible for the 1985 supplemental draft and allow his hometown Cleveland Browns to select him. Kosar had two years of college eligibility remaining at the time and would have become part of the ’87 draft class had he stayed the full duration at the University of Miami.

Taken in all, the two-year periods following the loaded 1983 and ’99 quarterback classes paint an unmistakable picture: When the NFL draft delivers a veritable quarterback bonanza, the pipeline of passers dries up for several cycles thereafter.

Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

While the volume of incoming quarterback talent varies from year to year, over 84.6 percent of rookie classes in the common draft era produced no more than three first-round selections at the position. On average, drafts during that stretch produce about 2.2 such signal-callers annually. That figure only climbs slightly in more recent times, with drafts averaging approximately 2.8 first-round quarterbacks since 2000. Typically, if a team hopes to find the next franchise signal-caller, it has only a few attractive options from which to choose each offseason.

However, on rare occasions, a surplus of underclassmen declare for the league at once, leading to a windfall of first-round quarterbacks such as 2018’s quintet. These classes offer roughly double the usual number of opportunities for teams to revitalize a dormant passing attack or secure a successor for an aging starter. Of the five quarterbacks selected on Day 1 this year, a whopping four had collegiate eligibility remaining.

But while underclassmen carried the day for quarterback-needy franchises this past April, their early arrival will have significant ramifications down the line. By declaring in 2018, the foursome of Allen, Darnold, Jackson, and Rosen drained next year’s senior class, leaving the 2019 draft perilously thin under center. Perhaps an elite senior prospect emerges from obscurity the way Carson Wentz did during his final season at North Dakota State, but the burden to restock the quarterback position appears likely to fall on underclassmen again.

Unfortunately for the teams planning to target a new signal-caller come next offseason, what remains of the draft-eligible underclassmen and rising seniors doesn’t have NFL personnel evaluators pounding the table as they have in previous years. While Allen, Darnold, and Rosen each generated hype as probable early first-round picks well before the start of their final collegiate seasons, the quarterbacks that will likely form the 2019 class sport enough warts to engender considerable skepticism.

Originally a five-star quarterback out of high school, Shea Patterson played two mostly impressive seasons at Ole Miss before deciding to transfer amid the school’s high-profile recruiting scandal. He eventually chose Michigan and head coach Jim Harbaugh, a former quarterback himself who helped develop Josh Johnson, Andrew Luck, and Jake Rudock into draft picks.

In Patterson, Harbaugh has a signal-caller capable of developing into a top-flight NFL prospect and reviving a Wolverines offense that finished 91st in scoring a year ago.

But several factors complicate Patterson’s outlook. As the newest member of the Wolverines’ quarterback room, his grasp of Michigan’s playbook trails that of his teammates. And while Patterson appears the odds-on favorite to open the season as the starter, Harbaugh hasn’t closed the door on someone else winning the job.

“I don’t have any announcements to make today about that,” Harbaugh said about Patterson’s place on the depth chart during the 2018 Big Ten media days, leaving open the possibility that another quarterback could open the season as the Wolverine’s starter.

Even if Patterson has the inside track to start, he must do more than safely navigate those preseason hurdles to earn a place in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft. Michigan faces one of the most challenging schedules in the nation, a slate that could highlight Patterson’s flaws.

On the other side of the country, rising junior Justin Herbert has grown from a lightly recruited three-star quarterback into the latest Oregon gunslinger to capture the national spotlight, following the path former Heisman winner and 2015 No. 2 overall pick Marcus Mariota trekked with the Ducks just a few years earlier. But while Mariota entered the NFL with the oft-derided “dual-threat” moniker, the 6-foot-6 Herbert cuts the figure of a more prototypical signal-caller. That distinction could reflect favorably on Herbert in the eyes of pro scouts should he declare for next year’s draft.

Still, what Herbert possess in physical tools he appears to lack in refinement on the field.

“He’s very raw at this point,” NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said of the Oregon quarterback, adding, “He’s quiet, but he’s very sharp, and it sounds like he’s been growing into a leadership role this offseason. There is a lot of development still ahead, but the upside is tremendous.”

Herbert also must settle concerns that he cannot stay on the field. He missed five games last season with a broken collarbone and has taken a worrisome number of hits due to his penchant for holding onto the football and extending plays. Since last offseason, Herbert has added weight to better absorb blows, but he needs cut out unnecessary punishment from his game.

In Auburn, another underclassman has begun creeping his way into the draft spotlight. Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham enjoyed a productive first season as the Tigers’ starting quarterback, throwing for over 3,100 yards and 18 touchdowns in Gus Malzahn’s up-tempo offense. A former five-star recruit, Stidham has the pedigree of a future NFL passer.

However, despite the production and accolades, Stidham could still become one of the most hotly debated prospects if he comes out for the draft next year. Jeremiah admits that it’s “tough to evaluate” Stidham due to Malzahn’s offense, a scheme which severely limits the quarterback’s reads and passes to the intermediate parts of the field. NFL talent evaluators need to see through the short tosses and predetermined targets to properly analyze whether Stidham can excel at the next level. Likewise, fellow draft analyst Dane Brugler sees “bad habits” with passing mechanics and “inconsistent ball placement” on Stidham’s tape, two issues that could weight down the Auburn quarterback’s draft stock.

Perhaps Malzahn will expand Stidham’s responsibilities in his second year as the starter, giving him greater control of the offense and more useable tape for scouts to evaluate. That hasn’t always happened in the past, as the only 2010 Heisman winner Cam Newton has played quarterback under Malzahn at Auburn and made it to the NFL without a position change.

Like the underwhelming underclassmen passers, what remains of the senior quarterback class has inspired more pessimism than hope.

Missouri’s Drew Lock leads the way as one of the most experienced signal-callers in the nation coming off a breakout junior campaign. Lock threw for 44 touchdowns and nearly 4,000 yards while helping the Tigers to their first seven-win season under head coach Barry Odom.

But while Lock has put himself in position to break several major school passing records, he also has to cut down on mistakes. According to Pro Football Focus, he ranked only 32nd in the country at avoiding turnover-worthy passes, an unimpressive finish for a signal-caller with NFL aspirations. Lock’s career 54.5 completion percentage will also raise a few eyebrows among scouts.

Still, if Lock can build on 2017’s achievements while overcoming the oft-derided play-calling of Missouri offensive coordinator Derek Dooley, Lock can help secure a spot somewhere on Day 1 of the 2018 NFL Draft. However, if issues with ball placement and turnovers continue to plague him, Lock could fall out of the first-round discussion entirely.

Though not traditionally known for producing NFL passers, Northwestern possesses one of the most intriguing quarterback prospects in the nation. Senior Clayton Thorson became the winningest signal-caller in program history in 2017 and could conceivably set several program records this season.

Of course, that can only happen if Thorson returns quickly from a serious injury. During Northwestern’s bowl game against Kentucky in late December, the quarterback tore the ACL in his right knee. While knee reconstruction doesn’t threaten careers as it did in previous decades, Thorson has less than eight months between his surgery and the Wildcats’ season opener against Purdue.

Though Thorson remains on the recovery trail, his coach has the utmost confidence in his pro potential. “I believe he’s going to be a first-round pick,” Pat Fitzgerald said in July. Thorson doesn’t need to play a full season to go on Day 1 of the 2019 NFL Draft — Wentz missed most of his senior season at North Dakota State and went No. 2 overall the following April — he still needs to prove himself healthy and assuage any lingering doubts about his game.

Perhaps the oldest quarterback with a non-zero chance at battling into the first-round discussion this year, West Virginia’s Will Grier will celebrate his 24th birthday shortly before the 2019 draft. Grier lost two full seasons, one to a redshirt freshman year and another as part of his transfer from Florida, pushing him towards the upper limit age for a college player.

But Grier must answer for more than just his relatively advanced age for an NFL prospect. His size — listed generously at 6-foot-2 and 214 pounds by West Virginia — falls below the traditional minimums for NFL scouts. While teams bend those thresholds more than they have in the past, some teams will not invest top draft capital in a quarterback they deem undersized.

Since becoming eligible to play for the Mountaineers, Grier has established himself as one of the more prolific passers in the nation. He threw for nearly 3,500 yards in 2017 while tossing 34 touchdowns against just 12 interceptions. Despite the top-shelf production, Grier returned for a final season.

Another college transfer, N.C. State’s Ryan Finley also turned down a shot at the NFL for the opportunity to lead the Wolfpack and improve his draft stock. That could not have happened if not for the NCAA granting Finley a sixth year of eligibility, making him roughly as old as Grier. Finley’s age will bring similar questions and concerns from talent evaluators.

However, the comparisons with Grier end there. Finley possesses a larger frame — 6-foot-4 and 212 pounds according to N.C. State’s official measurements — and has seen significantly more action during his college career. He has played in 26 games for the Wolfpack over the last two seasons and made seven appearances during an earlier stop at Boise State.

“He wants to be a great quarterback,” N.C. State offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Drinkwitz said of Finley, adding that his star pupil has adopted a gluten-free diet and read books on leadership.

That commitment could help Finley with NFL scouts, but his play has to back it up this season.

The senior class includes several other big names including Washington’s Jake Browning, Wisconsin’s Alex Hornibrook, Penn State’s Trace McSorley, and UCF’s McKenzie Milton. Perhaps one breaks out in 2018 and enters the first-round discussion, but they remain outside of the first-round discussion at present by most estimations.

Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

While history suggests the supply of signal-callers should rebound after a few drafts, issues with the pipeline loom on the horizon. A college scout at June’s Elite 11 camp called the 2019 high school quarterback class “the worst I’ve ever seen.” The situation might not improve much in the following year, with Elite 11 head scout Joey Roberts acknowledging that 2020’s crop of passers earned the nickname “Average 11” from coaches this summer. Each group has time to improve, but those charged with evaluating talent feel they trail their predecessors at the same point in their development.

That follows a recent trend in college football which has seen blue-chip passers transfer at an alarming rate. Of all five-star quarterbacks listed on 247Sports’ composite recruiting database from the 2015, ’16, and ’17 recruiting classes, more than 60 percent have already transferred out of their original program. That amount doesn’t include those expected to transfer in the future should they fail to secure the starting job or Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, who admitted he wanted to transfer before becoming the unexpected hero of last season’s national championship game and could still decide to move on if Jalen Hurts beats him out for the top job in 2018.

This development concerns not only parties invested in the college game but also those in the NFL. Only four total quarterbacks selected in the first round since 2000 — Mayfield, Newton, Joe Flacco, and J.P. Losman — had previously transferred from an FBS program, a paltry amount underscoring how blue-chip transfers at the position rarely develop into viable NFL prospects. Furthermore, Newton’s move occurred at least in part due to academic and legal issues rather than for football reasons alone.

Of course, quarterbacks with lower recruiting profiles annually emerge as viable draft prospects, with the former walk-on Mayfield a prime example. The first round of the 2019 draft could also feature former transfers such as Grier, Patterson, or Stidham. Though none has established their bona fides as top prospects, that could change over the course of the upcoming college seasons.
Still, the turbulence at the top of recent quarterback recruiting classes leaves a lot of questions for NFL teams to answer. Typically, one or more signal-callers have established the inside track towards an early first-round selection at this point in the process, but the identities of such players have yet to materialize for the current draft cycle.

Regardless of how severe any quarterback drought becomes, eventually the problem will subside. A new batch of passing talent will emerge from the high-school ranks and into the college game, gradually making its way into the NFL. These dynamics have rebuilt the quarterback pipeline multiple times in the past and will certainly do so again in the future.

But while the pipeline will indeed rebound at some point, it might not happen soon enough for everyone. If an NFL team missed out on 2018’s quarterback bonanza and needs to draft a franchise passer over the next few years, it will likely end up empty-handed.

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