In this April 18, 1998, file photo, Peyton Manning holds up an Indianapolis Colts jersey as he is flanked by Colts owner Jim Irsay, left, and NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue after being chosen as the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft in New York. Manning went on to win two Super Bowls and a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Associated Press file

The NFL Draft stirs all sorts of memories:

  • ESPN personality Chris Berman acting shocked over every other pick while kissing up to the annoying New York Jets and Giants fans as they booed every other team’s picks, each other’s picks and their own team’s picks;
  • Boston media and talk-show callers declaring the Patriots’ entire draft a flop immediately after New England announces its first selection (oh wait, that still happens);
  • Tons and tons of quarterback hype.

It’s the last point I want to discuss more as the NFL’s annual draft gets going with the opening round set for Thursday night.

You don’t need to be a fact-checker blogging from your mom’s basement to know that many quarterbacks taken in the first round of the draft turn out to be busts. Every year anywhere from two to five guys are given labels like “franchise saviors” (well, their paychecks are likely saviors to their bank accounts) or “generational” (Trevor Lawrence of the Jaguars was the most “generational” QB since … Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow, one year earlier). 

Plus, the idea that so many game-changing QBs are available every year makes zero sense. If every first-round QB lived up to the league and media hype, all 32 NFL teams would have a franchise passer within five to seven years and we’d have nothing but 9-8 and 8-9 teams in the standings. 

The annual emphasis on QBs is a combination of two things: NFL teams’ desperation at the position and ESPN’s desperation for ratings. According to Sports Media Watch, last year’s first round — when quarterback was not taken with the top pick — had the lowest TV viewership since 2017, which was also the last time a quarterback didn’t go No. 1. Whether it’s draft day or game day, QBs = viewers, so of course the talking heads are going to tell us Paxton Lynch and Josh Rosen are future superstars.

So just what is the success rate of first-round QBs? I did a rough study to get something approaching an answer. I reviewed every first-round QB selected from 1993 through 2019 (the jury’s still out on most guys taken later) and assigned them a grade from 0 to 3. I omitted 2019 first-rounder Dwayne Haskins, whose life ended before his NFL journey had a chance to run its course. The scale:


3: Hall of Famer or multiple Super Bowl winner; 

2: Pro Bowler, MVP or Super Bowl participant;

1: Started for a few years or was a longtime backup;

0: Bust.

Not counting Haskins, 69 QBs were taken in the first round. The breakdown goes like this:

3: 5


2: 27

1: 21

0: 16

The illustrious five “perfect” QBs are Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes, who have combined for nine Lombardi Trophies. One game-changer roughly every five years; that sounds about right for the “generational” label.

As you can see, the odds are roughly 1 in 2 (46% for grades 2-3) that a first-round QB will have some modicum of success — essentially, a coin toss. The 1998 draft, with Peyton Manning at No. 1 and legendary disaster Ryan Leaf at No. 2, best exemplifies this — hey, we’re still talking about them 25 years later, right?

By far the most successful year was 2004, with Eli Manning (3), Roethlisberger (3), Philip Rivers (2) and the long-forgotten J.P. Losman (1) combining for 9 points, 3 higher than the next-best years (2003 and 2018).


The worst years? Well, no first-rounder was taken in 1996 and two other years (1997 and 2013) saw just one QB taken, a flop in each case. But 2007 had two mega-hyped first-rounders, both spectacular busts:  Jamarcus Russell and Brady Quinn. One wonders how much of their potential was legit and mow much was a SportsCenter creation.

Speaking of Quinn, the Cleveland Browns have selected five first-round QBs since they rejoined the NFL in 1999, none of whom scored higher than a 1 (sorry, Baker Mayfield).

In this 1998 file photo, San Diego Chargers rookie quarterback Ryan Leaf, the No. 2 selection in the NFL draft, tries to figure out what play is being called from the bench during a preseason game against the San Francisco 49ers in San Diego. Leaf labels himself as “the biggest bust in draft history.” Associated Press file

For comparison’s sake, I did a similar rundown for second-round QBs, and only 24 were selected from 1993-2019. The scores:

3: 1 (Drew Brees)

2: 7

1: 9

0: 10

One in three second-round QBs have been successful, decidedly less than a coin ross. While it’s true teams have a better chance of taking a good QB in Round 1, one also wonders if their desperation causes them to reach for guys who probably should have gone later (Tim Tebow or Mark Sanchez, anyone?). 

Before I go, I’ll leave you with one other stat: The first-and second-round QBs selected since 1993 have combined for 14 Super Bowl wins. Everyone from the third round and lower, including undrafted free agents, have won 10 — seven by a man named Brady. 

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