QB-needy NFL teams have finally learned from their mistakes – but that discipline likely won’t last

Chasing the next star quarterback

QB-needy NFL teams have finally learned from their mistakes – but that discipline likely won’t last

NFL owners and the people they employ did something totally out of character this past draft cycle.

They showed restraint.

A down year for college quarterbacks — which 2022 was — has rarely stopped teams in need from reaching for one.

Since 2000, multiple quarterbacks have gone in Round 1 a total of 19 times. Many of the names called — a long list that includes the likes of Tim Tebow, Brady Quinn, Josh Rosen, Paxton Lynch, Johnny Manziel and Brandon Weeden — were laughable in retrospect.

But this past year was an anomaly, with Kenny Pickett (going to the Steelers with pick No. 20) the lone first-rounder — and only QB taken in the first 70 selections.

Did this mark a new age in NFL player procurement? Or was it simply a black swan event unlikely to be repeated soon?

With the expected 2023 class loaded with quarterback talent, it’s probably the latter. But even if (when) things revert back to normal, those in charge of NFL rosters would be wise to apply the same discipline they showed in 2022. Because for all the advancements in scouting and the unprecedented access to information, drafting quarterbacks in the first round is still basically a 50-50 proposition.

Of the 30 QBs taken in Round 1 between 2010 and 2019, just nine made it to a second contract with the team that drafted them. (That figure could tick up to 11, depending on what happens with Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray.) Thirteen of the 30 made a Pro Bowl for their original team.

Of the five quarterbacks selected in the first round of the 2021 draft, three ranked in the bottom four in QBR during their rookie seasons.

There is no one reason why teams continue to whiff at the most important position in sports, but by now, the pitfalls are so well established that it’s hard to feel sympathy for anyone who falls into one.

“I think it’s paramount that you just get good quarterbacks and avoid the bad ones,” new Miami Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel deadpanned recently. “… The hardest part of football is when you’re selecting players to play in a game that’s slightly different. There’s compounding variables for success.

“Does your quarterback benefit from having a fast-paced, very fast, highly-skilled group of eligibles?” McDaniel continued. “What kind of situations is the existing coaching staff that he’s playing in, what is the scheme like? What is he being coached? There are so many layers which makes this game beautiful, which makes scouting departments extremely relevant and makes it very tough.

“That’s why you’re not 100% on any position ever because it’s an inexact science. You’re dealing with human beings that are a product of their environment and you’re forecasting what they’re going to be in a completely different environment. There’s like a laundry list of different things that can create success or failure in NFL games, so you just try to project what the things are that an NFL quarterback is going to be asked to do.”

Tony Racioppi, a New Jersey-based private quarterbacks coach who helped Pickett prepare for the pre-draft process, calls this dynamic “The Three Ps.”

When evaluating a collegiate quarterback, the surrounding personnel, the protection he’s given and the team’s play-caller should all factor heavily. While advanced stats, college tape, and measurables are all helpful tools, they cannot possibly paint the full picture.

“The hardest thing to judge is a guy’s mental makeup and his heart,” Racioppi said. “How fast can he process information and how mentally and physically tough is he to last a long time?”

“You look at the best ones who have played the longest, and they are not the most physically gifted guys. The guys that played in their mid-30s — nowadays early 40s — most of those guys are not the biggest, the strongest, the fastest and the best arms. They have all of those intangible traits that are the hardest things to find out about guys.”

That’s why there’s some real anxiety among coaches and team executives in the time between when they draft a player — particularly one they take high — and when that player gets on a practice field. You really just don’t know how a guy will perform in an NFL setting until you actually see them do it.

For quarterbacks in particular, the speed of the game and complexity of offenses (and defenses) are often challenges too daunting to overcome. Passers who put up video game stats in college are often asked to do little more than make one or two reads and run variations of just a handful of basic plays.

That’s why teams covet one-on-one face time with prospects in the months leading up to the draft. Eric Galko, who runs the East-West Shrine Bowl, understands this dynamic. That’s why he offers teams at least 24 hours of meeting time with game invitees in the week leading up to the all-star game.

That extra time should help personnel evaluators decide whether a player has the smarts to play the position, and whether his personality will be a culture fit. All that being said, teams of course will always give a higher grade to guys who can throw the ball through a brick wall or run like Usain Bolt.

The success of athletic outliers like Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes, and Justin Herbert have led many teams to prioritize special traits over more polished, but less dynamic, passers.

Roughly half the passing plays in NFL games involve relatively safe and easy throws that most everyone at this level can make. What separates the good and great players are those who can improvise and make something out of little to nothing.

“You have to have that one skill set, that one trump card that is going to get you out of a bad situation,” Galko said. “The first answer can’t be something mental. Mac Jones, his real trump card is, ‘Hey, 15, 20 yards down the field, especially in the midfield routes, he’s extremely accurate and consistent.’ Justin Herbert, it’s the rare arm talent. Even this past draft class, Malik Willis — the running ability and improvisation ability with his arm mechanics that are that level.”

Galko added: “Usually, we see teams focus on the mental side a lot and take a lot of safe guys mentally. I think now we’re seeing teams more often say, ‘You know what, if I can have a big, strong, athletic or a ridiculously accurate downfield passer, that’s a better trump card than banking on mental, because I’m going to coach the mental because he has the physical. I can’t coach the physical.’

“I would say right the most important thing in quarterback evaluation is finding one thing that a quarterback prospect does better than most any NFL quarterback,” Galko added. “If a guy has that and you trust him character-wise, you have a good shot at finding a franchise quarterback, because a lot comes down to the situation you put him in.”

McDaniel, who as an assistant helped the San Francisco 49ers evaluate and decide on Trey Lance in 2021, values a college quarterback’s ability to maneuver in a messy pocket — since that’s what that player will regularly face as a pro.

“Can they play the position in high duress?” McDaniel added. “Are they tough? Can they anticipate? Those types of things, you’re looking at the college game that they’re playing and try to extrapolate to an unforeseen future.”

The New York Jets in 2021 went with a high variance pick in Zach Wilson over a “safer” prospect in Jones. Wilson’s upside is huge, but he proved as a rookie he wasn’t ready for the speed of the NFL, throwing 11 interceptions and completing just 55.6% of his passes.

But the Jets still believe Wilson has greatness inside of him because of his elite arm.

“His off-schedule platform throws that he’s well known for, his pure arm talent, everyone recognizes that,” Jets coach Robert Saleh said during spring ball.

“He’s a great young man, he’s very smart. We’re seeing it all, it’s just a matter of the game slowing down for him. When you get to this level, the amount of information that gets thrown at these quarterbacks is quite significant. He’s grinding through it, he’s doing a really nice job. He looks a lot better, the timing has been better, and it’s just a matter of continuing to stack up great days. And when we get into competition in training camp with other teams it will elevate a little bit more, and then the regular season happens and it will be a whole new speed.”

What Saleh didn’t say: He doesn’t really know if the game truly will slow down for his young quarterback.

That will be revealed in time. But it should be at least a little concerning how much worse Wilson looked than fellow rookie Davis Mills, who did more in Houston as a rookie with less surrounding talent.

Mills, the 67th pick (and eighth quarterback selected) in the 2021 draft, was promising enough in Year 1 that the Texans didn’t select a QB in 2022.

“Quarterback is the toughest position in football and you have to put time in,” Texans coach Lovie Smith said during the spring. “There’s no substitute for experience, though. Every year there are some things Davis will get just based on playing the game for a long period of time, but I think a lot of the good ones, they play good ball early on, too. Did I tell you he’s a smart guy that went to Stanford? He picks things up fairly quick and he’ll be okay.”

Of this year’s draft class, only Pickett has a realistic chance of being a Week 1 starter. But that doesn’t mean he’ll ultimately be the best player in this year’s class.

He’s just the one with the fewest flaws. Still, Galko believes Willis and Desmond Ridder fell to Round 3 because of factors not entirely within their own control.

“The strength of 2023’s class absolutely played a role in the quarterbacks dropping in the 2022 class,” Galko added. “I’ve talked to teams. I know that for a fact.”

That’s a positive development. Patience is just another word for restraint, and credit teams (particularly the Carolina Panthers, who waited until Round 3 to take Matt Corral) for not succumbing to desperation.

Mid- to late-round picks at any position, quarterback included, are not guaranteed anything but a chance, and if Corral struggles as a rookie, you can be sure the Panthers will seriously consider drafting a replacement next spring.

They certainly would have options. The battle between Alabama’s Bryce Young and Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud to go first overall could run through the national championship game. But 2023 won’t just be a two-man class.

Kentucky’s Will Levis has high-end arm talent that reminds some talent evaluators of Herbert and Allen. Stanford’s Tanner McKee, Pittsburgh’s Kedon Slovis, Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker, and South Carolina’s Spencer Rattler all have a chance to end up as first-round picks.

Who goes when will depend on the whims of the teams picking.

The non-traditional professional backgrounds of many new GMs will naturally impact the type of quarterbacks taken in Round 1. Gone are the days that the coaching staff — particularly the quarterbacks coach — exert an oversized influence on the QBs a team would select.

But a sad reality is the new guard, even if they are disciplined and smart, may ultimately prove to be no more successful than the old.

“There’s no tangible way as of right now — if we could figure it out, we’d be millionaires — of finding out how somebody can process and where their mind is, where their heart is, where their will power is,” Racioppi said.