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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