Does the NFL Know What a QB Looks Like?

Drafting a quarterback is a huge gamble

Does the NFL know what a quarterback looks like?

What the NFL sees in Patrick Mahomes in 2024 is not what they saw when he was coming out of Texas Tech in 2017. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have slid to the 10th overall pick of his draft. Mahomes now owns three Super Bowl rings.

What the NFL sees in Sam Darnold in 2024 is not what they saw when he was coming out of Southern Cal in 2018. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have been the third overall pick of his draft. In signing as a free agent with the Minnesota Vikings this offseason, Darnold joins his fourth NFL team in seven seasons.

Every NFL team has two draft boards – a quarterback board and an overall board. If a team doesn’t have a franchise quarterback in place, the quarterback board claims priority on draft day. Quarterbacks are anywhere between 60-80 percent of a championship equation. It is imperative for each of the 32 NFL teams to find that guy – that franchise quarterback who can deliver championships.

So when needy teams scout college quarterbacks, all too often they see something that isn’t there. The John Elways, Troy Aikmans and Joe Burrows are few and far between on draft day. Too many mistakes are made high in drafts.

Which brings us to the 2024 NFL draft where six quarterbacks have the attention of quarterback-hungry teams: Caleb Williams of Southern Cal, Drake Maye of North Carolina, Jayden Daniels of LSU, J.J. McCarthy of Michigan, Michael Penix of Washington and Bo Nix of Oregon.

Several will be drafted high and proclaimed as “franchise” quarterbacks. The teams are hoping that this draft mirrors the 2004 draft that produced three of the NFL’s Top 10 passers of all time in the first 11 selections: Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger. Manning and Roethlisberger won two Super Bowls apiece.

But too often drafts resemble the one in 2021. Five quarterbacks were selected in the Top 15 picks and three of them are already on their second teams (Justin Fields, Trey Lance and Mac Jones) and another is on the trading block (Zach Wilson) and will be moved this offseason.

What teams see in the scouting process is not always what they get on the field.

Tim Couch, JaMarcus Russell, Zach Wilson, Ryan Leaf, Rick Mirer, Lance, Darnold, Blake Bortles, Joey Harrington, Akili Smith and Heath Shuler were all selected in the top three picks of NFL drafts since 1990. They played a combined 50 seasons with no Pro Bowls and no Super Bowl rings. They started 454 games and lost 301 of them. They threw 429 touchdowns passes against 492 interceptions.

Expanding it further, Andre Ware, David Klingler, Jake Locker, Josh Rosen, Blaine Gabbert and Matt Leinart were all selected in the Top 10 picks of drafts since 1990. No Pro Bowls, no rings as starters. They started a combined 136 NFL games and lost 95 of them. Gabbert has been the most successful of the 14 quarterbacks mentioned above. He has played 12 seasons with six teams. He has lost 35 of his 49 career starts but picked up a Super Bowl ring as a backup quarterback with the Kansas City Chiefs last season.

So what does a quarterback look like? Is he fast like Michael Vick or slow like Tom Brady? Is he tall like Peyton Manning or short like Drew Brees? Does he have a rocket arm like Brett Favre or a feather-touch like Joe Montana? Is he mobile like Steve Young or a statue like Dan Marino? Is he the product of a blue-blood program like Matthew Stafford or is he a small-school phenom like Roethlisberger?

As you may have surmised, there is no real prototype that gives a quarterback his best chance for success in the NFL.

But in the 20 years I spent researching NFL drafts for The Dallas Morning News in the 1990 and 2000 decades, there is one statistic I checked first and foremost on the resumes of all college quarterbacks. I didn’t care about Heisman Trophies, All-America honors, starting records or the height, weight and speed of a prospect. I wanted to know how many passes he threw at the college level.

The more passes he has thrown, the better prepared he is for the NFL. So I always looked for the guys who threw 1,300 balls in college. They are usually the three- and four-year starters. They have seen all the coverages and blitzes that college defenses have to offer. Those are the guys that I viewed with the best chance for success at the next level.

Mahomes threw 1,349 passes at Texas Tech. Peyton Manning threw 1,381 passes at Tennessee, his brother Eli threw 1,363 at Mississippi and Roethlisberger 1,304 at Miami (Ohio). All won multi-Super Bowls in their careers. Matt Ryan threw 1,347 passes at Boston College. He took the Atlanta Falcons to a Super Bowl and joined Mahomes and Manning as NFL MVPs.

Brees threw 1,638 passes at Purdue. He went to 13 Pro Bowls and delivered the New Orleans Saints a Lombardi Trophy. Russell Wilson threw 1,489 passes at North Carolina State and Wisconsin. He went to nine Pro Bowls and delivered the Seattle Seahawks a Lombardi Trophy. Steve McNair threw 1,755 passes at Alcorn State. He took the Tennessee Titans to a Super Bowl and was an NFL MVP. Rivers threw 1,665 passes at North Carolina State. He went to eight Pro Bowls with the San Diego Chargers.

Brees ranks second all-time in NFL passing yards, Peyton Manning third, Roethlisberger fifth, Rivers sixth, Ryan seventh and Eli Manning 10th. Favre, Marino, Stafford and Elway also rank in the Top 12 in passing yards. All threw more than 1,000 passes in their college careers.

Brock Purdy was the 262nd and last player selected in the 2022 draft. It seemed he came out of nowhere to take the San Francisco 49ers to an NFC championship game as a rookie in 2022 and a Super Bowl in 2023. But his performance shouldn’t be that much of a surprise by my metric. He started 46 games at Iowa State and threw 1,467 college passes.

Lamar Jackson, Jared Goff, Dak Prescott, Jalen Hurts, Justin Herbert, Kirk Cousins, Trevor Lawrence, DeShaun Watson, Baker Mayfield, Jordan Love, Derek Carr, Geno Smith and Daniel Jones are all starting quarterbacks in the NFL. All threw at least 1,000 passes in college. Jackson has been an NFL MVP and all except Jones and Love have been to the Pro Bowl. Goff and Hurts have been to the Super Bowl.

There are, of course, exceptions. Kenny Pickett threw 1,674 college passes at Pitt and became a first-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2022. He posted a 14-10 record in his two NFL seasons with as many interceptions (13) as touchdowns (13) and was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles in March. Brady Quinn threw 1,602 passes at Notre Dame. He became a first-round pick of the Cleveland Browns in 2007 but lasted only four NFL seasons, losing 16 of his 20 starts with more interceptions (17) than touchdowns (12).

On the flipside, Kurt Warner threw only 352 career passes at Northern Iowa. He is now in the Hall of Fame with his two NFL MVP awards and Super Bowl ring. Tom Brady threw only 711 passes at Michigan. He threw more passes than that in the last of his 23 seasons in the NFL – 733 for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at 45 years of age. He won seven Super Bowls, three MVP awards and will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer when he becomes eligible in 2028.

Aaron Rodgers threw only 665 passes at Cal and now owns a Super Bowl ring and four MVP trophies. Josh Allen threw only 649 passes at Wyoming and has been to two Pro Bowls, been an MVP runner-up and has taken the Buffalo Bills to an AFC championship game in his six seasons.

But JaMarcus Russell threw 797 passes at LSU before becoming the first overall pick of the 2007 draft by the Oakland Raiders. He lasted only three NFL seasons, losing 18 of his 25 career starts. Johnny Manziel threw only 863 college passes, Darnold 846, Zach Wilson 837, Akili Smith 515, Mark Sanchez 487 and Lance 318. All either struggled or continue to struggle in the NFL.

Which once again brings us back to the Class of 2024. Nix threw 1,936 college passes, Penix 1,685, Daniels 1,438, Williams 1,099, Maye 952 and McCarthy 713. And keep an eye on South Carolina’s Spencer Rattler. He threw 1,313 passes on campus.

Another tip for the drafters – it wouldn’t hurt to sit your rookie quarterback for a season or two instead of rushing him onto the field before he is ready for the speed and complexity of the game. Playing a quarterback too soon can be damaging to his psyche. Especially if the team isn’t capable of protecting him.

David Carr was the perfect example. Carr threw 845 career passes at Fresno State and became the first overall pick of the 2002 NFL draft by the expansion Houston Texans. He became a walk-in starter and was sacked an NFL-high 76 times as a rookie, losing 12 of his 16 starts. Carr was sacked 208 times in his first four seasons, losing 43 of his 59 starts, and never achieved the heights the Texans expected of him.

Green Bay used a first-round pick on Rodgers in 2005 and he spent his first three seasons watching Favre quarterback the Packers. That didn’t slow down his ability to craft of a Hall-of-Fame resume. Rivers sat for two years at San Diego watching Brees quarterback the Chargers before hitting the field. McNair also sat for two years before playing and Brady, Brees, Favre and Mahomes all spent their rookie seasons on the sideline. When they were finally given the offense, they were all up for the challenge.

Sometimes a franchise quarterback is worth the wait – especially when you don’t have one.

1 Comment
  1. Brian wolf says

    Great post, Rick … throwing experience in college definitely helps. With rookie contracts though, QBs will still be thrown into the fire too soon. Teams hope to find the next Russell Wilson, who can help a veteran team win a championship–Purdy as well?–before getting a big payday. Brock Purdy should hold-out and demand a new contract. Why risk injury waiting to finally get paid after two NFC Championship appearances and a conference championship?
    He should demand compensation now and not wait till after his third season. The team just needs to pay sooner.

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