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Should the Eagles pick a quarterback in the 2016 NFL Draft at No. 13?

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A little thought experiment I had wondering what would have happened if McNabb had been drafted by another team led me to assess whether the Eagles should draft a quarterback in the first round this year. Disclaimer: this post is almost 2300 words, but you can kind of get the gist by jumping straight to the "Closing Thoughts" section if you're pressed for time.

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Recently, while pondering the Eagles' quarterback situation like every other fan, I began to analyze the oddity that is the first-round drafted quarterback. Quarterbacks are taken in the first round every year and few of them ever pan out, and yet teams keep doing it. They buy into the "either you have a quarterback or you don't" narrative and relentlessly draft busts in the hope that they will save their franchise.

But are they right? Are some quarterbacks simply destined for greatness while others are doomed to failure, and the only way find out for sure is to go ahead and draft one? Or is a quarterback's success dependent on the environment he is thrust into?

Interestingly enough, Donovan McNabb makes a great example of this. Here was a highly touted - if somewhat unpolished - quarterback prospect who ended up having one of the best careers of his generation and will certainly go down as the franchise's best quarterback. But would McNabb have had the same decorated career had he been drafted by the Saints? Or the Dolphins? Or any of the other franchises that would become mired in mediocrity at the turn of the century? Or was his success the product of a stable situation in Philadelphia, where he was blessed with a great defense and a coach who knew how to get the most out of his quarterbacks?

Before you go betting a dollar on the "nature vs. nurture" aspect to this post, I'm going to dive deep into the Quarterbacks of Drafts Past and attempt to surmise where the truth really lies. To get things started, check out the chart below, where I've shown some notable career statistics of every quarterback drafted in the first round between 2000-2010. I picked this range because I felt that it gave these players enough time to establish their careers, whereas it may be too soon to fully judge some recent first-round quarterbacks that have not had the same amount of experience in the league. WARNING - some information in this chart may cause cringing:

Year QB Team Years in League Rating Win% Playoff Win% Super Bowl Win%
2000 Chad Pennington NYJ 11 90.1 0.543 0.333 -
2001 Michael Vick ATL 13 80.5 0.544 0.400 -
2002 David Carr HOU 11 74.9 0.291 - -
Joey Harrington DET 7 69.4 0.342 - -
Patrick Ramsey WAS 9 74.9 0.417 - -
2003 Carson Palmer CIN 13 88.1 0.522 0.250 -
Byron Leftwich JAC 10 78.1 0.480 0.000 -
Kyle Boller BAL 9 69.5 0.426 - -
Rex Grossman CHI 11 71.4 0.532 0.500 0.000
2004 Eli Manning SD 12 83.5 0.530 0.727 1.000
Philip Rivers NYG 12 95.5 0.575 0.444 -
Ben Roethlisberger PIT 12 94 0.669 0.647 0.667
2005 Alex Smith SF 11 84.5 0.566 0.400 -
Aaron Rodgers GB 11 104.1 0.672 0.538 1.000
Jason Campbell WAS 10 81.7 0.405 - -
2006 Vince Young TEN 6 74.4 0.620 - -
Matt Leinart ARI 7 70.2 0.444 - -
Jay Cutler DEN 10 86 0.500 0.500 -
2007 JaMarcus Russell OAK 3 65.2 0.280 - -
Brady Quinn CLE 7 64.4 0.200 - -
2008 Matt Ryan ATL 8 90.8 0.587 0.200 -
Joe Flacco BAL 8 84.8 0.615 0.667 1.000
2009 Matthew Stafford DET 7 85.8 0.452 0.000 -
Mark Sanchez NYJ 7 74.3 0.514 0.667 -
Josh Freeman TB 6 77.6 0.410 - -
2010 Sam Bradford STL 5 81 0.405 - -
Tim Tebow DEN 3 75.3 0.571 0.500 -
AVERAGE 8.852 80.4 0.486 0.423 0.733

Wow, look at that list! A lot of world-beaters there. To properly break down the information presented above, I'm going to play devil's advocate for both sides. "Peter the Pessimist" will argue the case for avoiding a quarterback in the first round, while "Ollie the Optimist" will make the case for drafting a quarterback in round one. Then I'll tie everything together in a neat little bow with my honest take on the situation.

Peter the Pessimist

If you look at the averages from the raw numbers, it is not encouraging. If you're taking a player with your first-round pick, there are reasonable expectations that this player will have an enormous impact on your franchise. An aggregate regular season and postseason win percentage below 0.500 and quarterback rating of 80.4 could not realistically be farther from "enormous impact," unless you are including "enormously negative impacts."

Additionally, the average time spent in the leagues for these quarterbacks is almost two full seasons below where they would be if all of them were still playing today. Two players - Time Tebow and JaMarcus Russell - only lasted three seasons. Three! Not only are teams getting a terrible return on investment in terms of quality, they are also getting a bad return in simply the time these players are able to contribute to their team (or any team, for that matter).

Then there's the matter of the talent these teams passed up on when they drafted their quarterback. The Raiders, when they infamously selected the aforementioned Russell, missed out on:

  • Calvin Johnson (with the very next pick!)
  • Joe Thomas
  • Adrian Peterson
  • Patrick Willis
  • Marshawn Lynch
  • Darrelle Revis

Of course, you're not going to select a cornerback with the first overall pick that the Raiders had, but you can always trade back and demand a king's ransom that some other sucker team would most likely pay. Looking at other drafts, in 2009 Tampa Bay selected Josh Freeman when they could have had Jeremy Maclin, Alex Mack, or Clay Matthews. I could go on but you get the idea. And yes, obviously hindsight is 20/20. But draft picks like Drew Brees (2nd round), Russell Wilson (3rd round), and Tom Brady (6th round) suggest that selecting quarterbacks is more or less a crap shoot. It's not that these players are an exception to the rule; rather, there is no rule. It is simply not worth risking an early round pick on a quarterback when you can draft other (and probably better) talent at positions that are not so volatile.

So, taking a quarterback with the 13th overall pick? Yeah, no. HARD PASS.

Ollie the Optimist

Let's take a deep breath and look all the way to the right on that chart. Average Super Bowl winning percentage: 0.733. Isn't that wonderful? Isn't it nice to think that if your prized first-round quarterback does manage to take you to the promised land, you have a good shot at bringing home the Lombardi? I am aware this point has holes, the biggest of them being selection bias. Picking a date range of 2000-2010 is entirely arbitrary, but at the end of the day it's impossible not to make the date range arbitrary. I could go from 1998-2010, starting with when the oldest starting quarterback was drafted to throw in the accomplishments of McNabb and Manning, but then I'm tossing out the success of Newton and Luck while simultaneously adding in more busts like Ryan Leaf. On the other end of the spectrum, I could go more recent to include Newton and Luck but I'll be bringing along Blaine Gabbert and Jake Locker while I'm at it. In the end I have no choice but to be arbitrary, and the range from 2000-2010 seems as good as any.

Now back to the original point. While it seems like it's difficult for a first-round quarterback to make the Super Bowl, once they do the results are desirable. These quarterbacks are in the Super Bowl because of their efforts, not in spite of them. In other words, you can Nick Foles your way into the playoffs, but you can't Nick Foles your way to a Super Bowl. Furthermore, of the eight quarterbacks to win a Super Bowl in the past ten years (Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Joe Flacco, Russell Wilson, and Tom Brady), five of them were drafted in the first round, and only first round picks have won multiple Super Bowls in that time span. Football is a team sport - one player won't take you to the Super Bowl - but a quarterback can sure make the difference once you're in the big game.

This is the risk that teams are willing to take when they draft quarterbacks in the first round. And if your eventual goal is to win a Super Bowl, then it is absolutely a risk worth taking.

So, taking a quarterback with the 13th overall pick? I want to win a Super Bowl, so HELL YES.

Reading Between the Lines

We've seen arguments on both sides. Now what do we do? If we revisit the "nature vs. nurture" dichotomy I provided above, we can logically say that Peter the Pessimist is a "nature" guy - that is, he thinks busts are busts and history dictates first round quarterbacks should be avoided - whereas Ollie the Optimist is a "nurture" guy - that with the right environment, any first round pick as the potential to develop into a franchise quarterback. But which one is right?

As with most things, the truth lies in the middle. "Nature" is a hard thing to project, mostly because we can't get inside the head of quarterbacks. But we can take a look at the most outward displays of character and extrapolate. For example, first round picks like JaMarcus Russell and Robert Griffin III all had their unchecked egos and questionable work ethics called out at some point in their career. Johnny Manziel, while too early into his career to be fairly called a bust, is a prime example of how bad character can get a career off to a terrible start. And who can forget Brady Quinn's entitled pouting as he sat in the draft room with his attractive girlfriend, waiting until the mid-twenties to get picked? Conversely, the best first-round quarterbacks (such as Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers) all dedicated themselves entirely to the game in order to get better. Despite of experiencing privilege for the majority of their football careers they humbled themselves and worked to perfect their profession.

When it comes to "nature," as a general manager I would toss all of the in-depth analysis of a quarterback on the back burner and make my priority the interview. Does this prospect come across as a hard-worker who is ready to do what it takes to succeed? Or does he think it will all come easy simply because that is the way it's always been?

Successful quarterbacks were mostly drafted outside the top ten, indicating some semblance of stability.

Of course, character is only a piece of the puzzle and it is not enough to just put everything into the "nature" camp. Quarterback prospects have the tools but they still need to be developed and have talent at the other twenty-one positions on the starting roster. If you look at the quarterbacks on that list who have won a Super Bowl, only one (Eli Manning) was taken with the first overall pick. In fact, the other three (Flacco, Roethlisberger, Rodgers) were taken outside of the top ten entirely. Additionally, all of those quarterbacks have played under one coach for the majority of their careers; Tomlin replaced Cowher before Roethlisberger's fourth season and Manning just got a new coach in Ben McAdoo. This implies that the teams had achieved, at the very least, mediocrity before drafting their Super Bowl quarterback and were able to sustain continuity once they had done so.

If we take a look at the 1999 Eagles roster, Donovan McNabb had teammates in Brian Dawkins, Duce Staley, Troy Vincent, Tra Thomas, David Akers, and Jeremiah Trotter. Certainly not an entire team's worth of talent, but this was an excellent nucleus on both sides of the ball to build upon and likely helped contribute to Donovan's ability to develop, along with a strong coaching staff. I still think McNabb would have been successful elsewhere, but he most likely would not have achieved anything close to what he had in Philly given the situation. For example, we can contrast this with David Carr, who was sacked so many times behind a piss-poor offensive line that he emerged a shell of his former self and now has to carry the bust label because of it. That might not have ever been McNabb's fate with another team, but it's not crazy to wonder just how good he would have become in another organization.

Closing Thoughts

What then, is the final verdict? Should you draft a quarterback in the first round? Ultimately the answer is "yes and no." You should take a quarterback in the first round because of the Super Bowl potential, but not if the rest of your organization is a mess. If the team is completely devoid of talent and the front office was recently blown up (or if anyone is on the hot seat) and you're left with a top ten pick, it's probably best to pass over a quarterback in favor of "safer" talent. On the other hand, if you've attained some stability with your team and there are nice pieces in place on the roster then you absolutely pull the trigger. In a nutshell, unless you're drafting Peyton Manning you should select a quarterback to complete your roster rather than as a foundation to build around. Otherwise you are tempting fate, and the chart above suggests your odds aren't good.

With that in mind, what should the Eagles do? They are in an odd situation. Yes they have a new coach and technically have a new "general manager," but Roseman has been a mainstay in the organization for years and Pederson comes from the same coaching tree Lurie planted when he hired Andy Reid in the first place. Building on this, I do not believe that the decision to hire multiple offensive coaches with quarterback experience is a coincidence. I think they are committing fully to the method of assembling a staff of quarterback whisperers, which is what they had with Reid during their run of success. This indicates to me that they are preparing to move on without Bradford and develop a hand-picked quarterback. But is that the right course of action?

I'm going to label that a risk worth taking, even with all the unknowns. I think the team currently has more talent than it did when McNabb was drafted, even if there are holes along the offensive line and in the secondary. I'm also buying in to Doug Pederson's ability as a coach to develop a quarterback based off of what I've read about him. As long as Roseman does his homework and avoids the character risks (I'm seeing ghosts of a sunglasses-wearing, goatee-sporting Paxton Lynch) then I think the Eagles are in a good position to grab their quarterback and develop him into a future face of the franchise.

But of course, my opinion isn't all that important. What say you?

[Author's note: Yes, this was a high-level analysis with no real statistics applied to the numbers. I did not try to correlate draft position with playoff success or find a biography of every player on that list to draw conclusions on their character. If this is something you'd want to see, I can certainly look into it.]