The 2021 NFL draft begins in nine days, and there are five exciting quarterback prospects who look as if they’ll go early in the first round. History tells us, however, that only two of those five are going to make it in the NFL.
Yes, that’s right. This is me being that guy — the guy dropping the turd of reality into the punch bowl of pre-draft excitement. As Round 1 inches closer, expectations soar. Every fan of every team looks at the draft as salvation — the annual event that will turn around their sad franchise, or provide the final piece you’re sure will turn their good/great team into a champion.
While that’s all part of the fun, it’s not really what’s going to happen. Or at least it’s not what usually happens. History tells us that a first-round pick is statistically unlikely to make it to a second contract with your favorite team. And if your team is taking a quarterback, history tells us he only has a 42.2% chance of making it to that second contract.
“Oh yeah?” you ask. “What history is that, exactly?” — and I’ll tell you. Thanks to ace researcher Paul Hembekides and the numbers-crunching folks at ESPN Stats & Information, we have data on every first-rounder from 2000 to 2016 — all 540 — and whether or not they made it to a second contract with the team that drafted them. Overall, 232 of the 540 were re-signed by the team that drafted them at the end of their rookie contracts. That’s right — around 43%. These are first-round picks, mind you, not the whole draft. This is the most important round, the round that gets the glory. And even in this round, the data says teams are less than 50% likely to hit.
Pretty rough reality check, no?
“There’s a lot of things you can’t control,” said one NFC front-office executive who preferred not to be identified because basically nobody wants to get caught talking about the draft this time of year. “You’re introducing 20-somethings into money they’ve never seen before, and that’s automatically going to introduce distraction from what got them to the point where they’re at. There’s injury, of course. There’s changes in system. I mean, some quarterbacks never get a fair shot. You change systems, change coaches, sometimes two or three times during that rookie contract, and you’ve got to look at it as more of an organizational failure than a failure of the prospect himself.”
Fair point, as we look at the case of the Jets. Three years ago, they traded up from No. 6 to No. 3 in the draft to take Sam Darnold. They fired coach Todd Bowles and general manager Mike MacCagnan after Darnold’s first year and fired coach Adam Gase after his third. They’re picking second in this year’s draft and just traded Darnold to the Panthers because they’ve decided to draft his replacement.
Darnold isn’t even in our ESPN Stats & Info study, because he was drafted in 2018. These numbers only run through 2016, because it’s too soon to know for sure whether all of the guys drafted in 2017 or later will make it to second contracts. This is the season in which their fifth-year options will be decided. Fifteen of the 32 first-rounders in the 2017 class are no longer on the teams that drafted them, and Darnold is the second of the five quarterbacks who went in the first round in 2018 who has already been traded away and replaced. Those drafts aren’t trending a whole lot better than the 17 we looked at for this article.
In studying those drafted from 2000-16, we did find some differences by position. Offensive linemen seem to be the most likely first-round picks to succeed. Of the 55 offensive tackles taken in the first round from 2000-16, 33 got second contracts with the teams that drafted them. That’s 60%. Twelve of the 26 first-round guards (46.2%) and all nine of the first-round centers (100%) made it. Linebacker is a relatively safe pick, too, as 54.8% (23 of 42) of the those drafted got re-signed to second contracts. But man, it’s ugly after that.
You fired up about all of the wide receivers available to your team in the first round this year? Not so fast, my friend. Wide receivers were the lowest-rated group in this study. Of the 70 receivers drafted from 2000-16, only 19 made it to second contracts with the team that drafted them. And that includes Odell Beckham Jr. and Tavon Austin, who didn’t exactly become legendary Giants or Rams. For every Calvin Johnson, there’s a Kevin White. For every Julio Jones, an A.J. Jenkins. This doesn’t mean your team shouldn’t pick a wide receiver early — superstar wideouts are extremely valuable, after all — just that any individual choice is a relative long shot.
The next-worst position group in this study is defensive tackle (35.3%) and then cornerback (35.5%). Some of this could be attributable to poor scheme fit.
“When you ask players to do the exact same thing they did in college, they’re probably going to be all right,” former Jets and Dolphins GM (and current ESPN NFL analyst) Mike Tannenbaum said. “When you ask them to do something different, that’s when you bring in the unknowns and the risk goes up.”
Are there teams that have been more successful than others at retaining their first-round picks? Yes, but remember that this is only a 17-year sample, and teams usually have one first-round pick per year. With that being said, the Cowboys signed a league-high 73.3% (11 of 15) of 2000-16 first-round picks to second contracts. They’re followed closely by the Panthers and Texans at 68.8% (both 11 of 16), the Eagles at 60% (9 of 15) and the Steelers at 58.82% (10 of 17).
At the bottom of the list are the Broncos and the Jaguars, each of whom made 17 first-round picks over that stretch and signed only four to second contracts (23.5%). Others near the bottom include the Browns and Lions at 25% (each 5 of 20) and the Cardinals and Bills at 27.8% (each 5 of 18).
So what about the quarterbacks? There were 45 taken in the 17 drafts from 2000-16, and 19 of those (42.2%) got second contracts from the teams that drafted them. That includes MVPs Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton. It includes Super Bowl champions Eli Manning, Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger. But it also includes Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, the top two picks from 2016 drafts, who were traded away this offseason from the teams that drafted them, before their second contracts even technically kicked in.
Does it matter how high they’re picked? Sort of. Nine of the 12 quarterbacks taken with the No. 1 overall pick from those drafts got second contracts with the teams that picked them. (The ones who didn’t were JaMarcus Russell, Sam Bradford and Jameis Winston.) Only one of three who were picked No. 2 got one (Wentz). Only one of the four who went No. 3 got one (Ryan). Philip Rivers, who was picked No. 4 in 2004, got one. That’s 12 of the 19 overall. Finding a Roethlisberger at No. 11 or a Rodgers at No. 24 is basically like finding a golden ticket in your Wonka Bar.
Mina Kimes explains why she believes that Trey Lance is the most exciting quarterback in the draft.
The problem is that so much goes into whether a quarterback is successful in the NFL. It’s about more than the player’s ability and mental makeup. It often comes down to situation. What kind of team is built around him? How much time does he need before he’s ready to play, and how much of that time does he get? Who’s coaching him? How much more will be asked of him than was asked in college, and how will he handle that?
“In college, you see guys looking over at the sideline for every play from the coaching staff,” Tannenbaum said. “In the NFL, with 15 seconds left on the play clock, that communication between the coach and the quarterback is cut off. If you don’t have the ability to get into the right play yourself, it’s hard to be a successful quarterback in the NFL.”
This whole thing is hard. That’s what too many people forget and everybody should remember on April 29 when Roger Goodell is calling out names and fans are throwing parties or chairs depending on whether they like the pick or not. This isn’t a matter of picking the right guy and plugging him in. It’s a matter of picking the right guy, putting the right structure in to make sure it works and hoping nothing goes wrong to knock it off course. Add in all of that, and it’s easy to see why most first-round picks don’t make it. And why the first night of the draft is just the beginning of a long, involved process that will determine whether they do.