Highly-Drafted NFL Quarterbacks: The Holy Grail for Success?
While discussing the ’09 play of undrafted quarterback Tony Romo, a reader recently suggested we do an analysis of the relationship between draft position and quarterback success. Ask and you shall receive my friend.
Now, the key term with which we are dealing is “success.” While draft position is easily quantified, success is not so easy. How is the success of an NFL quarterback best measured? Career statistics, such as total passing yards? Rate statistics, such as yards-per-attempt? Super Bowl wins? Playoff appearances?
These are all possibilities, but each contains at least one weakness. Career statistics could end up rewarding longevity too much–as in favoring average players who managed to stay healthy over superb quarterbacks with short-lived careers. Rate statistics are just the opposite. Further, statistics like these vary too greatly from era to era. How can we reliably compare Johnny Unitas and Peyton Manning, for example?
Super Bowl wins, in our opinion, generally are too big of a factor in determining a quarterback’s talent (although we don’t dismiss their importance) as they are a bit fluky. Playoff appearances are similar in that they are affected greatly by the talent around each quarterback.
The statistic we believe is most representative of a quarterback’s career success (and the most transferable over different eras) is Pro Bowl selections. Of course, this criteria is by no means flawless. Yes, Pro Bowl selections can sometimes turn into a popularity contest, but remember that the fans only control one-third of the result. Ultimately, the Pro Bowl is generally made up of the best players in the league. At the very least, it appears to be a better criteria for grading quarterback success than any of the aforementioned statistics.
Thanks to our friends at Advanced NFL Stats, we were able to acquire two graphs related to draft position and Pro Bowl appearances. The first (above) charts the chance of any player making one, two, or three-plus Pro Bowls based on his draft position (1 to 100). Notice that, while there are fluctuations (which are to be expected), a downward curve exists which suggests higher draft picks will (generally) perform better.
A similar curve (shown right) exists for all players when it comes to years as a starter. Of course, higher draft picks are generally given more opportunities, so we cannot claim that this trend is due solely to a relationship between draft spot and talent.
But what about quarterbacks? Perhaps the trends within this position could differ from the norm due to the manner in which quarterbacks are drafted. First, teams will often become desperate to find a franchise quarterback and consequently reach for one. Secondly, the position appears to be the most difficult to scout. Combine numbers, Pro Day workouts, and so on mean even less for quarterbacks than they do for players at other positions.
Further, “common” sense (which really isn’t so common and can often be misleading) suggests quarterbacks from all draft positions can thrive in the NFL. Romo (undrafted), Tom Brady (sixth round), and Matt Hasselbeck (sixth round) all immediately come to mind.
However, when we analyze the data, there is a noticeable relationship between a quarterback’s draft position and his future success (at least as defined by Pro Bowl appearances).
Notice that the slope in the graph to the left is similar to that in the first graph. Among all first-rounders, there is a 32% chance of making a single Pro Bowl. That number actually rises to 38% among first round quarterbacks. Thus, highly-drafted quarterbacks may be slightly more likely to find success than first-rounders at other positions, although that difference is far from significant.
Second-rounders of all positions have a 15.3% chance of making a single Pro Bowl. Among quarterbacks, that number soars to 32%. Thus, second round quarterbacks are as likely to make a Pro Bowl as first-rounders at all positions (and more likely after we eliminate the first round quarterbacks).
The higher probability of quarterback Pro Bowls continues in the third round, where 13% of signal-callers reach a Pro Bowl, compared to just 6.4% of third-rounders in general.
Also note the steep decline in Pro Bowl appearances among third and fourth round quarterbacks (as compared to quarterbacks in other rounds), followed by a sharp jump in Pro Bowls among fifth and sixth round quarterbacks. Sixth round quarterbacks are actually 2.33 times as likely to make a Pro Bowl as fourth-rounders. While this could certainly be due to an inconsequential blip in the data, it is at least interesting.
Ultimately, there is a fairly strong correlation between draft round and Pro Bowl appearances. While the relationship exists for all positions, it is significantly stronger for quarterbacks than for players at other positions.
The greatest disparity can be found in the second round, where quarterbacks are over twice as likely (32% to just 15.3%) to make a Pro Bowl as all second-rounders in general. Thus, despite conventional wisdom, perhaps the best draft strategy for quarterback-needy teams is to bypass the position in the first round and secure a potential Pro Bowl signal-caller in round two.