QB or not QB: That is the Question
The Case Against Cleveland Drafting a Quarterback
The Cleveland Browns have a quarterback talent evaluation problem. Since 2000, they’ve passed on Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, Joe Flacco, Russell Wilson, Kirk Cousins, Ryan Tannehill, Teddy Bridgewater, Jimmy Garoppolo, Derek Carr, Dak Prescott, Carson Wentz, and Deshaun Watson. Their ineptitude at drafting a playmaker under center has reached such great heights that now team executives won’t even rule out the possibility of drafting two QBs this year in the first round.
As absurd as that thought is, almost everyone agrees that the Browns must use one of their two top-five picks to draft their quarterback of the future. But I’m here to tell you that’s wrong, for four reasons: One, most of how we think of the quarterback in the modern NFL is wrong; two, quarterback evaluation is notoriously inaccurate; three, the Browns already have an above-average NFL starter under center; and four, the 1st and 4th picks provide the opportunity to upgrade the roster at several key positions of need.
The Importance of the Quarterback in the Modern NFL
Let’s first talk about the philosophy of drafting quarterbacks. The quarterback is the most important player on the roster, and the dominant view among draft analysts and front offices seems to be that as the quarterback goes, so goes the team. It’s why we talk about quarterbacks’ “wins,” as if they’re baseball pitchers (forget for the moment what a meaningless stat the pitcher win is). To distill the prevailing draft philosophy to a syllogism: Winning teams have great quarterbacks. I want to win. Therefore, I need a great quarterback.
But is this true? The quarterback touches the ball on every offensive play and is in the center of your field of view before every snap. But this simply means that he’s foremost in our minds when we’re thinking about players who matter (psychologists call this the availability heuristic). As an indirect result of this bias, we overestimate the necessity of the quarterback in the modern NFL.
Take three recent examples. The first is last year’s Jacksonville Jaguars, who finished at 10–6 atop the AFC South before advancing to the AFC Championship game and blowing a 10-point lead to New England. Blake Bortles, drafted third overall in 2014, had the 23rd-best passer rating of quarterbacks who played at least 4 games. His adjusted net yards per attempt ANY/A) was 17th. His completion percentage was 31st. Now let’s shift to the NFC championship game, which is also instructive: fellow journeymen Case Keenum and Nick Foles squared off for tickets to the Super Bowl.
Keenum, who signed an offseason contract with the Denver Broncos (his fifth team since 2012) had the eighth-best passer rating (98.3) in the league last year, the ninth-best ANY/A (7.03), and the third-best completion percentage (67.57). Foles, who started his career in Philadelphia before interludes in St. Louis and Kansas City, had dismal numbers last year: a completion percentage of 56.44, sandwiched between Brian Hoyer and Tom Savage for 40th in the league, an ANY/A of 4.75 (behind Brock Osweiler!), and a passer rating of 79.5, behind Joe Flacco and Eli Manning. The moral of this story is that great quarterbacks aren’t necessary to compete. Can they help? Absolutely. But even when you find yourself with a replacement-level player lining up under center, there are ways to overcome his weaknesses. Just ask Doug Marrone, Doug Pederson, and Mike Zimmer.
On the other hand, when your hopes and dreams are pinned on your quarterback and you’re expecting him to transform the rest of your roster, the story is different. Take the Indianapolis Colts, who drafted Andrew Luck first overall in 2012. It worked out well for a bit, as Luck posted brilliant campaigns in 2013, 2014, and 2016, but ultimately he fell victim to managerial and coaching ineptitude that bordered on criminal negligence, and he couldn’t stay healthy behind an anemic offensive line. Another even more recent example: Russell Wilson accounted for over ninety percent of the Seahawks’ offense last year, but he couldn’t even secure a playoff spot alone.
“But,” say the QB enthusiasts, “look at what Jimmy Garoppolo did last season in San Francisco, when he took a 1–9 team and went undefeated for the rest of the season!” But what looks like Garoppolo carrying the team on his back was really, in all likelihood, a competent quarterback being plugged into a Kyle Shanahan-led offensive machine. C.J. Beathard, who helmed the San Francisco offense before Garoppolo took over, had a 69.2 passer rating, 2nd-last in the league among players with 160+ pass attempts (and just ahead of the Browns’ own Deshone Kizer). Jimmy Garoppolo’s 96.2 passer rating, only tenth-best in the league, was enough for San Francisco’s offense to kick into gear. And a further note on this objection: Garoppolo was not a first round pick, and every team passed on him before the Patriots selected him in the second round. As it turns out, this is a common story in quarterback evaluation.
The Problems in Quarterback Evaluation
In addition to systematically overvaluing every quarterback, we also lack a consistent and accurate method of quarterback evaluation. Some emphasize mental cognition tests like the Wonderlic; others focus on NFL combine results; Bill Walsh and Bill Parcells each had specific, established criteria that they identified in prospects. The myriad evaluation methods substantiate the difficulty of evaluating well, and these inherent challenges make it risky to draft a QB early unless you’re confident that they’ll turn into a bona fide starter.
That difficulty in evaluating players — and the risk of overestimating the talent of a quarterback — has an upside for teams that can identify hidden value. Of the top fifty first round quarterback picks in career approximate value (CarAV) since 2000, 19 of them (38%) have been drafted outside of the first round. This list includes Tom Brady and Drew Brees, ranked #1 and #2 in CarAV, and Russell Wilson, Kirk Cousins, Dak Prescott, and Super Bowl winner Nick Foles. And speaking of Super Bowls: quarterbacks drafted after the first round have been under center on exactly half of the 18 Super Bowl victories since 2000.
It’s easy to look at Peyton Manning, Phillip Rivers, and Aaron Rodgers as proof that first round QB picks can be superstars. Fair enough. But history also reminds us that the road to perennial playoff irrelevance is paved with the graves of general managers who thought the same about JaMarcus Russell, Brady Quinn, Tim Tebow, Matt Leinart, Jake Locker, and Rex Grossman.
My thesis is not that a quarterback is never worthy of a first round pick, but rather that these quarterbacks in this draft aren’t worthy of a first round pick. Are any of the top quarterback prospects surefire success stories? Sam Darnold has problems protecting the football. Josh Allen has a career 56.2 completion percentage. Josh Rosen has a worrying injury history. Baker Mayfield has maturity problems. And I’m not convinced that any of them have a profile better than Lamar Jackson, who is much more likely to end up as a mid- to late-first round pick.
This is the question the Browns must answer: Why waste draft capital early when you could find an equivalent or better player later? The Browns are the first team since 2000 to have two picks in the top five of the draft. In that 2000 draft, the Redskins had picks 2 and 3, and used them to pick two non-QBs (LaVar Arrington and Chris Samuels) who would go on to a combined 9 Pro Bowls. (Incidentally, in the sixth round of that draft, New England found a quarterback named Tom Brady.) And just like the Redskins in 2000, the Browns this year have a unique opportunity to upgrade their roster at positions other than QB.
The Have and Have-Nots
And in fact, the Browns already have upgraded their quarterback position. Tyrod Taylor, whom the Browns acquired in a trade with the Bills last month, is a former 6th round draft pick who is only 28 years old. Since 2015, when he became a regular starter, Taylor has a higher passer rating than Andrew Luck, more rushing yards than Russell Wilson, and fewer interceptions than Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck, and Tom Brady. He has just over one third of the interceptions of Blake Bortles over that timespan, and last year had the lowest interception rate in the league among quarterbacks with at least six games played. It’s clear that the Browns don’t need an upgrade at the quarterback position; instead, they need to update the weapons around him and the lines to protect him, and they have not done this enough (although the Landry and Hyde signings are good starts.)
Which brings me to my final point: the Browns have other needs that are more dire than quarterback. The retirement of Joe Thomas, an eventual hall of famer despite no playoff appearances, leaves a giant hole on the offensive line and a liability to the health of whoever is under center. Even with Thomas, the Browns’ offensive line was mediocre, and Cleveland needs an upgrade if they want to contend. Could they target Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson? Some think he’s a generational talent, and he’ll likely go in the top ten of the draft. If Cleveland doesn’t get him at #1 or #4, they won’t get him at all. What about their needs on their defensive line, where they could take their cue from the Super Bowl champions and win in the trenches? Last year they selected DE Myles Garrett first overall, so imagine the panic of opposing quarterbacks if you had Garrett rushing the passer from one side while N.C. State’s Bradley Chubb rushed from the other. It reminds me of the Joey Bosa/Melvin Ingram tandem in Los Angeles, the stuff of QB nightmares who combined for 23 sacks last season.
While the Browns could draft a quarterback or not, there is also a third option: convert the #1 and/or #4 draft picks to even more draft capital. At least one recent mock draft has the Browns doing just that, trading the #4 pick to New England for the #23, #31, and 2019 first rounder. Under this option or one like it, the Browns would obviously miss out on talent at the top of the draft, but could have the luxury of three first round picks and two next year to continue their rebuild. I like this option less than the non-QB picks at #1 and #4 just because it kicks the can down the road further. Sashi Brown, the Browns’ previous GM, liked to collect draft picks but not use them. With a 1–31 record over the past two seasons, the Browns are probably better off not sticking with the methods of their old front office, and instead should tap into the non-QB talent at the top of the draft.
There you have it. The case for the Browns not touching a QB until after their first two picks. And as much of a fun thought exercise this was, we all know that Cleveland is going to take a quarterback off the board at #1. And call me a cynic, but given the Browns’ recent draft history, they’ll probably go ahead and draft two quarterbacks right away.
The only question is: are you excited for the Sam Darnold-Josh Allen training camp battle?