NFL Draft Daily: Why will we never see a first round without quarterback again

NFL Draft Daily looks at top stories, historical trends, player performances and more all through the lens of the NFL Draft. After all, there are only 30 days until the 2022 NFL draft. Check back in tomorrow for another entry.

You’ve heard it by now if you’ve been watching any sort of coverage in the lead up to the 2022 NFL draft: this is a weak quarterback class. There is no Trevor Lawrence or Joe Burrow or Kyler Murray. The expectation is that for the first time since 2017, there won’t be a quarterback taken with the first overall pick.

Mills was a bit of a wildcard in 2021, having only started 11 games in his career at Stanford. (Wikimedia Commons)

So, we know it’s bad, but how bad are we talking? Daniel Jeremiah recently said on his Move the Sticks podcast that if Davis Mills was in this draft class, he would be the first quarterback taken. Mills was the seventh quarterback selected in 2021 with the 67th overall pick. That should give us some perspective on how bad this is. Granted, that is just one draft scout, but DJ often knows what he is talking about.

Yet, every 2022 mock draft we see has at least one and probably two or three quarterbacks projected to go in the first round, including Jeremiah’s most recent mock. Malik Willis, Matt Corral and Kenny Pickett all seem to find their way into the top 32 selections. If these guys are no better than a player drafted in the third round just a year ago, why are they considered first-round players?

It all comes down to the league’s need for quarterbacks. Since 1996, there has been at least one quarterback selected in the first round of the NFL draft. In fact, only four times in that span, 2013, 2001, 2000 and 1997, was only one quarterback taken in the first round. Even that is a bit of a misnomer because Drew Brees was selected 32nd overall in 2001. It was just before we had 32 NFL teams, so he was the first pick of the second round.

So even when there arguably aren’t first-round caliber quarterbacks, the league finds a way for them to go in the first round. 2013 is a perfect example. E.J. Manuel was seen as the best of a very weak quarterback class, arguably even weaker than the one we have in 2022. He lacked the polish or skill set of a first-round prospect, but he went No. 16 overall because the Bills desperately needed a quarterback. He inevitably flopped, as did pretty much everyone from that draft class. Had Manuel come out the year before or the year after, he probably wouldn’t have gone until the third round. 2012 featured Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Weeden. 2014 had Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater and Derek Carr. I think all of them would have been viewed as better draft prospects, whether that was right or not.

Beyond teams getting desperate, there is more incentive to draft quarterbacks in the first round than ever. With contracts skyrocketing for these signal callers, getting a cost-controlled quarterback is often the key to building a Super Bowl contender. Especially since the introduction of the fifth-year option in 2011, it makes a ton of sense to grab a quarterback at the end of the first round for that extra year of contract control.

Jackson led the league in touchdown passes in his MVP season. (Wikimedia Commons)

Let’s use Lamar Jackson as an example. The Ravens quarterback will play this season on his fifth-year option. He has been to multiple Pro Bowls in his first four seasons, so he will earn the equivalent of the franchise tag for the position. His cap hit this season will be roughly $23 million, which ranks ninth among quarterbacks in the NFL. That’s fairly affordable for a player who has already won an MVP award in his career.

Then there are guys like Daniel Jones. He has struggled with consistency, fumbles and injuries in his first three seasons. He also has had a horrendous offensive line and injuries to most of his key skill players as well. In short, it’s a bit unclear what to make of Jones.

If New York decides it wants to hang onto Jones for an extra season without giving him a true extension, they have until May 2 this year to exercise his fifth year option and lock him in for 2023. Based on his playtime in his career, Over The Cap projects Jones to have a cap hit of $22.3 million for that season. That would rank 13th in the league right now. Probably a slight overpay for Jones, but not if he turns it around this upcoming season. For the record, it would be about $8 million less than Jared Goff’s cap hit. That stems from the monster deal he signed with the Rams after his third season. Sometimes it pays to be patient when evaluating your quarterback.

With such a high priority placed on finding quarterbacks and the appeal of the fifth-year option, we are always going to see at least one quarterback taken in the first round, whether they are truly a first-round talent or not. It’s going to happen this year, where it is debatable if there are really any first-round quarterbacks. Weak quarterback class or not, the league will find a way to make at least one of them into a first-round selection.

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NFL Draft Daily: Should teams consider waiting on quarterbacks in 2022?

NFL Draft Daily looks at top stories, historical trends, player performances and more all through the lens of the NFL Draft. Check back in tomorrow for another entry.

I cannot remember a time where this many teams had a need at quarterback at the same time in the NFL. The list of teams that could potentially have a new starter or spend a premium draft pick on a quarterback is long. The Steelers, Packers, Falcons, Panthers, Saints, Eagles, Giants, Broncos, Texans, Lions, Seahawks and Washington are all facing questions about the future at the position. Maybe even the Raiders and Vikings belong in that conversation. Some have aging veterans to replace, some have recent draft picks that have not worked out and some have disgruntled stars who could be on the move.

Ben Roethlisberger is expected to retire at the end of the season. (Wikimedia Commons)

That puts a ton of focus on the upcoming NFL draft. Unfortunately, this is one of the worst quarterback classes in some time. That doesn’t mean none of these quarterbacks will be good. In fact, there is a surprising amount of depth to this quarterback class. However, there are no slam dunk picks in this draft class as of right now. Maybe someone will separate themselves during the pre-draft process, but we don’t have a Joe Burrow, Trevor Lawrence or Kyler Murray level prospect. Honestly, none of them even come close.

So that begs the question, should teams punt on this year’s quarterback class? There is not a one-size fits all answer, even though I am tempted to just say yes. For a team like the Lions, using the first-round pick they have from the Rams on a quarterback could make some sense, especially if it is someone like Malik Willis, who definitely needs some time on the bench to develop, but brings rare physical traits. Jared Goff is still under contract for 2022 and that team is nowhere near competing for a wildcard spot, much less a title. Taking Willis or grabbing someone like Sam Howell or Desmond Ridder at the top of the second round should not prevent Detroit from taking a top quarterback prospect if they end up in the top five again next season. Suddenly, those other players become valuable trade chips. Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen both netted second-round picks and they both looked awful leading up to that point.

On the other hand, for teams like the Texans or Giants. I don’t like the idea of drafting a quarterback in this class. Reaching to take Matt Corral or Kenny Pickett in the first round does not raise that team’s ceiling all that much. At this point, I would rather spend another year with Davis Mills or Daniel Jones while continuing to amass talent around the quarterback position.

Lawrence has thrown just one touchdown pass since the start of November. (Wikimedia Commons)

And this is the real crux of why I think it makes sense to wait on a quarterback: situation matters. Mac Jones is thriving in New England right now and may even win Offensive Rookie of the Year. Does that mean he is a better quarterback than Trevor Lawrence or that the Jaguars should have taken him No. 1 overall? Probably not. I have a feeling Lawrence would be crushing it in New England as well. The Patriots have a top-flight defense, the best coaching staff in the league and a strong running game to help Jones. Lawrence has none of those things in Jacksonville.

At this point, for teams that are not ready to challenge for division titles and playoff spots, it just doesn’t make sense to grab a quarterback and figure everything else out later. If one of the quarterbacks in this class slides to the Steelers and goes on to have a great career, will people point out that other teams could have drafted him? Yes, absolutely. However, it is incredibly unlikely that these players would find the same success because the support cast around them is so much worse.

The Giants will have to decide this offseason if they want to pick up Jones’ fifth-year option. (Wikimedia Commons)

Let’s use the Giants as an example. Fans are fed up with Daniel Jones, and for good reason. He has not shown much progress since his rookie season and is frustratingly inconsistent. However, if you put Corral behind that offensive line next season and expect him to fare much better, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I would like to sell you. New York has never been able to surround Jones with the right talent to succeed. Even when the front office has spent big, it has been on injury-prone stars who cannot stay on the field. At full strength, the Giants offense should be great, but we rarely ever see Kenny Golladay, Sterling Shepard, Kadarius Toney, Evan Engram and Saquon Barkley on the field together. And even when they are, Jones rarely has enough time to get them the ball. Not to mention Jones has not had the best coaching in his career either.

If you’ve read this site long enough, you know I am a big proponent of investing in the offensive line. It is the key to being a successful football team. So if I am the Giants, Steelers, Texans, Panthers or Washington, I am investing in the offensive line in this draft class and waiting until 2023 to find my long-term answer at quarterback. Plus, veteran options like Jimmy Garoppolo, Marcus Mariota and Teddy Bridgewater will likely be available to help bridge the gap. I would rather wait until 2023, when players like Bryce Young and C.J. Stroud will headline the draft class. What’s more, this is a great draft for offensive linemen and defensive talent. Teams will regret reaching for quarterbacks and missing out on those elite prospects.

Rookie quarterbacks are one of the hottest commodities in all sports, especially first-rounders. When you have a young quarterback on a controlled salary, you create a five-year window where you can compete for a title and spend whatever money is needed to build a successful roster around that player. I would rather spend the money and draft capital ahead of time to create a situation where a rookie quarterback is capable of thriving. For those who are going to say any team built like that would be too good to draft a top quarterback, may I remind you that the Chiefs traded up for Patrick Mahomes, the Texans traded up for Deshaun Watson, the Ravens traded back into the first round to grab Lamar Jackson at No. 32 and that Mac Jones fell into the Patriots’ laps at No. 15. You don’t always need to tank to find your quarterback of the future.

In short, I think it is time the NFL changes its roster-building technique. Teams who are consistently successful draft the best players available and find value in veteran contracts when it comes to free agency. New England went 7-9 before turning things around with a 9-4 record so far and that was after losing the greatest quarterback of all time. Mike Tomlin has not had a losing season in his tenure as the Steelers head coach. Even if he does have one this year, Pittsburgh should still be in the mix to reach the playoffs in 2022 because the rest of the roster is still pretty talented, with the exception of the offensive line. Even the Saints, who have started three different quarterbacks this season due to injury, are only one game under .500. They have a really strong core, a good coaching staff and a front-office who, mostly, invests well in the draft.

I’m not saying that teams should stop drafting quarterbacks in the first-round, but let’s not force it when it isn’t there. This isn’t a good quarterback class. It pales in comparison to the 2021 group, but most would. I am looking forward to ranking all the quarterbacks from recent class when I am done grading this current group. I think that will be really eye-opening regarding its relative strength.

Until then, just build in the trenches and everything will be fine.

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