The Make or Break Draft Pick
Steeler fans spend a lot of time musing and kibitzing about draft picks, especially this time of year. Let’s face it . . . there’s not much else to do.
Rebecca’s recent article Shoring Up the Depth at QB shined the spotlight on the issue that most of us secrete in the dark corners of our mind—how (and when) do we replace Big Ben?
Finding a franchise quarterback is an oh so difficult maneuver—probably the most difficult personnel management move in all of sports. The reasons are twofold: 1. You do not win a Super Bowl, except in very rare cases, without a franchise QB, and 2. Drafting one is supremely difficult because great quarterbacks do not grow on trees.
How difficult is it? Rebecca alluded to the difficulty of it in her article. Two thirds of the top 36 quarterbacks as rated by PFF were chosen in the top 32 picks in the NFL draft. The catch is — drafting a QB in the first round is no assurance of getting a top flight QB. Far from it.
An article at cleveland.com (most appropriately) looked at the issue:
To get an idea, we looked back at the 45 quarterbacks chosen in the first round over the previous 16 drafts – starting with the return of the Cleveland Browns in 1999.
* 17 of these quarterbacks (38 percent) have won a playoff game.
* 16 of the 45 (36 percent) have winning records as starters during the regular season.
* The career passer ratings for only a half-dozen of these quarterbacks is high enough to be ranked in the top half of the league last year.
To get a primo QB, the best place to start is with a first round pick. Even when you pick a first rounder, the success rate for getting a winning QB is only around 35%, unless you are the Browns. Then your success rate is 0%.
The single best example of how hard it is to cash in a top pick on a QB is the draft of 1998. Those of you old enough to remember this draft know I’m speak the truth when I say that there was an absolutely for-real controversy over whether the Colts should draft Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf with the first pick of the draft. Many draft pundits seriously believed Leaf was the better pick.
The Colts indeed picked Manning first. We know how that worked out. The Chargers selected Leaf with the second overall pick. Leaf started 18 games, threw 14 TD passes, 36 interceptions and was out of the league after four seasons. Second pick. Out of the league.
Tim Couch (1 overall), Akili Smith (3), Matt Leinart (10), Jamarcus Russell (1), Jake Locker (8), Blaine Gabbert (10), RGIII (2) and Johnny Manziel (22) are notable first round washouts.
Since 2005, the only QBs who have started in the Super Bowl are first round picks except for Tom Brady (round 6), Drew Brees (2), Colin Kaepernick (3), Russell Wilson (3) and Kurt Warner (undrafted).
While picking a QB in the first round is not guaranteed to yield a franchise passer, picking one outside the first round rarely yields a quarterback who is a consistent winner.
Why do so many highly drafted QBs fail to become franchise QBs? Well, I’m no expert, just a fan, but two reasons come to mind. First, by definition, franchise QBs are going to be scarce. They are the best. If you had 32 “franchise” quarterbacks, the scale would slide up because only the top six or eight would be winning Super Bowls and succeeding nearly every year.
The second reason is that because the single most important component of a top flight NFL team is a top flight QB, there is a premium on anyone who looks like they might possibly be one of those six or eight guys who could lead a team to the playoffs almost every year. High risk for a high reward.
Big Ben is nearing the end. We all certainly believe he has some gas in the tank, but whether he’ll be effective for one, two, three or more years is anyone’s guess. My own is two at his top level or close.
That means that the Make or Break Pick is coming soon. Success is not a given. Past success at good number one picks is not germane to picking a QB. A swing and a miss at drafting a QB with a first round is a five year sentence to mediocrity or worse.
Timing is important. It’s going to be a tightrope walk to find the right time to look for the right guy. Committing to a new QB while your current guy can still potentially take you all the way can result in salary cap hell or missing out on a chance for a Lombardi. However, most teams probably hang on to a franchise QB too long, chasing the dream of a Super Bowl win. Chances are if the front office wonders if Ben can still do it and the right guy is within reach, it’s time to reach.
Soon the Steelers will have to decide when to make their move. Until then, we pray that Ben stays healthy enough to make a Lombardi run until the best opportunity presents itself.