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Don’t waste a draft pick on a 3rd string QB

No return on investment

Philadelphia Eagles v New York Jets Photo by Al Pereira/Getty Images

Howie Roseman has previously said that he would like to keep a pipeline of young backup QBs. Last year the Eagles drafted Clayton Thorson, but he sucked and isn’t on the roster anymore so there’s an opportunity to bring in a new young QB. If that QB is an undrafted free agent, or a young veteran who got cut like Nate Sudfeld was, fine. But if the Eagles draft one, as they did Thorson, then they’ll be wasting a draft pick again.

The idea of keeping a late round developmental QB around to work his way up to the #2 just doesn’t happen anymore. 30 QBs were drafted in the 5th to 7th rounds from 2011-2017, after three seasons only 2 were still on the team that drafted them: Tyrod Taylor and AJ McCarron, both of whom left in free agency after their fourth year for a chance to play. More often than not, teams carry two quarterbacks. If they need to add a third later in the season, there are plenty of in-season free agents to chose from. Carrying three QBs in case of emergency isn’t worth the roster spot.

I compiled the performances of every QB who was the 3rd or later QB to play for a team in a season over the past ten seasons, both in starts and off the bench. Since we’re looking at performances of bottom of the roster QBs in games that matter, I did not count QBs who played only in meaningless Week 17 games, or 1st round QBs who were sheltered for the first few weeks on horrible teams. I also limited the sample to QBs with at least 10 attempts in a game, which is an arbitrary number but eliminates situations where a guy got a possession at the end of a blowout to spare the starter. I’m looking for situations where the coach had to go to or went to the bottom of the depth chart to play meaningful snaps. Is it worth keeping a 3rd QB on the roster for that situation? If not, then there is no reason to use a draft pick on a 3rd QB.

The results are not pretty.

3rd+ String QB Performance By Type

Type Comp % Y/A TD% INT% Rating
Type Comp % Y/A TD% INT% Rating
Veteran Starts 57.9 6.7 3 3.4 74
Rookie Starts 58.5 6.5 2.8 4 70.8
Veteran Subs 60 6.4 3.3 3.5 75
Rookie Subs 56.3 5.9 1.3 4.4 59.3

The Houston Texans under Bill O’Brien compose an unhealthy chunk of these performances, which should surprise no one.

It’s no shock that veterans outplayed rookies, but the gap between veterans who had to come off the bench and rookies who did is significant. Rookie 3rd string QBs who came off the bench had a nearly 4:1 INT:TD ratio, veterans were 1:1. Give them a week to prepare as a starter, and they were respectable compared to their veteran peers.

The only edge rookies have over veterans is that in starts they completed a slightly higher percentage of passes, but that they did so with a worse yards per attempt indicates that coaches were giving them more short passes to limit the shell shock, and/or they were going for checkdowns.

That should be reason enough to not use a pick on a 3rd string QB. There is more reason if you want it.

Let’s split them up further. About half of the 3rd+ string QBs joined the team after training camp. Maybe there is logic in having a rookie that has been with the team since minicamps and OTAs (or whatever we’re going to have this year—more on that in a moment) over a guy who joined a few weeks ago. Let’s split the veterans into two buckets: QBs who were with the team through training camp regardless of if they were on the roster the whole season, and QBs who weren’t.

3rd+ String QB Performance By Team Experience

Type Comp % Y/A TD% INT% Rating
Type Comp % Y/A TD% INT% Rating
Starts in camp 59.2 6.6 3.4 3.6 75.3
Starts not in camp 56.7 6.8 2.6 3.3 72.7
Bench in camp 58.3 6.3 3.2 3.7 72.4
Bench not in camp 60.5 6.5 3.3 3.3 76.8

There is little to indicate that there is value in having your third stringer stick around all year. As starters, 3rd+ string QBs who didn’t spend the offseason with the team threw for a lower completion percentage and fewer TDs, but had a better yards per attempt and turned the ball over less frequently, but these were all marginal improvements. Off the bench they were better across the board, but not significantly so. If there’s anything positive to draw from this, it’s that it makes sense to have a non-rookie as your #3 in camp, and then if you need to sign a QB during the season, make it that guy if he’s still available, which he probably will be. Maybe you can stash him on the practice squad, as the Eagles did with Nate Sudfeld.

The COVID-19 pandemic adds another layer to this. This is not an ideal offseason to draft a developmental QB. These QBs need hands on coaching, a ton of practice reps, hours and hours of film study with coaches, and other things that aren’t going to happen this summer. We can not even be sure at this time when the season will begin. It’s a bad environment to bring a late round QB into. Ah, but maybe that means after the 1st round QBs won’t be as highly valued in the draft. This scenario is highly unlikely, and it isn’t unprecedented. In eight of the past ten drafts, there have been at least 11 QBs drafted. In 2011 with a lockout on the horizon, 12 teams drafted a QB, 7 of them in the first 3 rounds. The Patriots drafted six QBs in the 2nd through 4th rounds when they had Tom Brady at the top of the depth chart, they currently have Brian Hoyer and Jarrett Stidham. They’d probably pounce on a guy with a top 50-ish grade in the 3rd round, like they did with Ryan Mallet in 2011. The Saints, Falcons, Titans, and Packers all have old starting QBs with no real backup. Teams may have concerns about how they’re going to coach these guys this summer, but the last time they faced this situation, they didn’t act like it.

There is no subset of 3rd string quarterbacks who clearly perform better than the rest, and one, rookie QBs who have to come in off the bench, who clearly perform worse. And the days of bringing a 3rd stringer along slowly to be the #2 or flip him for a better draft pick are in the past.

There’s no reason to use a draft pick on one when there are and will be plenty of veterans available. Hopefully the Eagles won’t make that mistake again.

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