The Ups and Downs of First Round Quarterbacks


(Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

By Justin Prather, Sports Writer


The National Football League Draft gets underway tonight, but the buzz around potential quarterback picks has been going since the college football season began in 2020. While the 2021 draft probably won’t set any records for a number of QBs drafted in the first round — that record is firmly held by John Elway’s class of 1983 with six, including Dan Marino — it most likely will join the draft class of 1971 and 1999 in seeing three QBs go with the first three picks.

Being taken in the first round as a twenty-something offensive leader comes with its own cautionary tales that Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Mac Jones and Justin Fields would be wise to consider before taking the field for the big show. The NFL has a habit of eating first-round quarterbacks and spitting them out. Taking the 1971 draft as an example, how many self-proclaimed football fans could readily recall the careers of Jim Plunkett, Archie Manning — yes, Eli and Peyton’s dad — and Dan Pastorini. For 1999, Donnovan McNabb and Daunte Culpepper are vague memories for most.

Longevity of First Rounders

Looking at the draft classes from the last decade, 32 quarterbacks have been drafted in the first round. Of those in 2021, 23 are still in the league, two are free agents and seven are no longer in the NFL. Further, only 15 of those 32 are with their original team or were before being traded or cut. Looking at the seven quarterbacks that are no longer in the league, the average number of seasons played before being cut was just over four.

If four seasons are considered the standard chance a newly drafted quarterback is given before being cut or traded, the most recent four classes can be excluded for the purposes of determining longevity. That leaves out the likes of Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert, Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes and Deshuan Watson. That cuts the number of the first-round QBs still in the league over the last decade to seven. The number left with their original team is down to two, or none if trades in between the 2020 and 2021 season are considered. Those trades are Jared Goff moving from the LA Rams to the Detroit Lions and Carson Wentz heading to the Colts in Indy from the Philadelphia Eagles.

On the Other Hand

First-rounders are important to the league under center. Of the 32 teams in the NFL, 24 were primarily represented by first-round quarterbacks in the 2020 season. Only eight of those 32 teams started non-first round QBs from the past decade. The NFL places major importance on being round one quality as a QB.

The other thing to note is that the quarterback position moves in flux from year to year, like any other in football. 2021 might just be the year that the NFL demanded quarterbacks. Even though the NFL fielded mostly first-rounders in 2020, a number of them are in the back end of their careers — think Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger and Phillip Rivers. 

Some teams are moving into a time where they are thinking about transition. Green Bay, for example, drafted Jordan Love from Utah State in the first round last year, and even if he is traded, the Packers are signaling a new era. Pittsburgh has two possible replacements for Big Ben already with Dwayne Haskins and Mason Rudolph. Rivers announced his retirement in January. Room is being made for new QBs present and future.

Good News or Bad for Zach Wilson?

Only six QBs drafted in the first round in the last decade were not from the power five conferences. Of those six, only half are considered to be positive prospects for the 2021 season — Josh Allen, Teddy Bridgewater and Carson Wentz. Jordan Love might sneak in some snaps in 2021, but a starting job is not likely. The other two Group of Five recruits are Blake Bortles, currently a free agent that hasn’t started a game since 2018, and Paxton Lynch who is officially a free agent after being waived by the Steelers in 2020 but hasn’t taken a snap since 2017

Zach Wilson should be wary for multiple reasons. As we have already established, the NFL eats up first-round QBs. Being from BYU, independent from any NCAA conference, doesn’t help Wilson’s case statistically being outside a power five conference from a school that hasn’t fielded a franchise QB since Steve Young, not counting Taysom Hill of course who was undrafted in his class. Zach Wilson faces an uphill battle for relevance after the hype from going first round fades. 

Even more, Wilson is projected to be drafted by the New York Jets who have been characterized by quarterback struggles over the years, and just traded away Sam Darnold, the closest thing they have seen to a franchise QB since Chad Pennington left in 2008 in favor of Brett Favre. Stranger things have happened, though. The New England Patriots were terrible before they took a chance on their third-string sixth-round pick QB in the 2001 season. You know him as Tom Brady.


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