How's this for a "Did You Know?" segment on "SportsCenter?" Of the 40 quarterbacks selected in the NFL draft's first round between 1986 and 2004, only three (Troy Aikman, Trent Dilfer and Ben Roethlisberger) won Super Bowls as starters, while only four others (Drew Bledsoe, Steve McNair, Kerry Collins and Donovan McNabb) even made Super Bowl appearances. When he won a championship as a "caretaker" for his second team, Dilfer, ironically, also became Exhibit A for finding a quarterback through Plan B, so to speak.
Another stat for you: Counting Brett Favre (a former second-round choice, by the way) and the competitions in Buffalo, Chicago, Detroit and New York (Jets), 38 quarterbacks are vying for starting jobs. A mere 19 -- in other words, half -- of these men who man the game's most important position are former first-round picks. When one recalls draft-day dichotomies like Bledsoe and Peyton Manning going first overall (in '93 and '98) followed, respectively, by Rick Mirer and Ryan Leaf, or the two-star/three-bust QB class of 1999, yeah, 50-50 sounds about right.
Among active quarterbacks, eight were second-day selections (fourth round and beyond). Another six were picked in rounds that have since been discontinued (since 1994 the draft has included seven rounds) or weren't drafted at all.
"The thing with quarterbacks," one area scout summarizes, "is that you just never know until you get them. That's what's so scary about it."
Scary indeed. For every Carson Palmer, the prototypical "franchise quarterback" drafted early and paid quite handsomely, there's a David Klingler or Akili Smith (actually, that should be Klingler and Smith, as the Cincinnati Bengals know so well). For every Michael Vick, there's a Jim Druckenmiller. For every Aikman, there's a Heath Shuler. We could go on literally all day.
Meanwhile, a sixth-round pick and poster boy for why "the draft matters," Tom Brady, leads the Patriots to three Super Bowl wins in his first four seasons as a starter. Undrafted Kurt Warner quarterbacks the Rams to two Super Bowls before he is replaced by Marc Bulger, a Pro Bowler his second season as a starter who also was chosen in the sixth round of the 2000 draft, 31 picks before Brady.
Jake Delhomme, quarterback of the 2003 NFC champion Carolina Panthers: undrafted. Matt Hasselbeck, quarterback of the 2005 NFC champion Seattle Seahawks: sixth round. And if you like, go back nearly 30 years ago, to 1979, when the San Francisco 49ers took Joe Montana, now widely considered the greatest QB ever, in the third round. We could go on literally all day.
Indeed, when it comes to quarterbacks and the draft, sometimes the last are first. The Chosen One could be the last choice and sometimes is not chosen at all. And sometimes the later, the better. So for teams such as the Chiefs, Cowboys, Dolphins, Ravens and Vikings -- those looking for a young quarterback to develop -- there is life after Matt Leinart, Vince Young and Jay Cutler. Sometimes Plan B grows up to be Brady or Brunell or Bulger. So while the consensus opinion leading up to April 29-30 is that Leinart, Young and Cutler make up the cream of the 2006 quarterback crop, history shows that in three, five or seven years, the facts might say otherwise.
In fact, in the opinion of at least one personnel executive, Grambling State's teapot (short and stout) of a quarterback, Bruce Eugene, is the best pure passer available. Alabama's Brodie Croyle has everything going for him except a slender build and concerns about his injury history. What Alabama-Birmingham's Darrell Hackney lacks in height (5-foot-11) he makes up for in arm strength. Georgia's D.J. Shockley is a smart kid who plays better than he practices and who started only 12 games in college.
Alabama State's Tarvaris Jackson has all the tools and might be the steal of the draft in the third or fourth round; he just needs a little polishing in the pros. A West Coast area scout loves the efficiency and decision-making ability of Oregon's Kellen Clemens. Down the road, perhaps Clemson's Charlie Whitehurst and Bowling Green's Omar Jacobs might turn out to be better players than the prospects who project to go ahead of them.
Why? How? What don't professional scouts and personnel evaluators see that allows a Brady to last until pick No.199? For one, intangibles (i.e, leadership, poise), perhaps the most essential quality for a quarterback, are difficult to project at the pro level. Leaf, whose first name might as well be "Former First-Round Bust Ryan," had all the tools except heart. (Leaf is the ultimate cautionary tale for teams considering choosing a quarterback high in the draft. It isn't a stretch to say that teams are equal parts afraid of picking the next Leaf and hopeful of finding the next Manning.)
"It's how they play at the point in time when they're put in there and asked to perform," says former Green Bay Packers general manager Ron Wolf, who amazingly brought four starting quarterbacks (Brunell, Hasselbeck, Warner, Aaron Brooks) into the league and fleeced the Falcons out of Favre in 1992 for the price of a first-round pick. "Some guys can do it, some guys can't. That's why sixth-rounders become [Pro Football] Hall of Famers and first picks fiddle away."
Much of the blame for busts doesn't fall on the quarterbacks themselves but rather situations in which they found themselves. Which is why, in some respects, quarterbacks taken later, while they have far less in their bank accounts to begin their careers, have an edge on the blue-chip prospects in the area of career development.
Quarterbacks taken in the first round are expected to play sooner rather than later, often for poorer teams. Roethlisberger's leading his team to the AFC title game as a rookie and winning the Super Bowl the following year, or even Palmer's sitting for his entire rookie season three years ago and becoming a star by Year 3, are far more the exception than the rule. For that, look no further than the first-rounders from 2002: David Carr, Joey Harrington and Patrick Ramsey.
Ramsey is with his second team, having been traded from Washington to the Jets this offseason for a sixth-round pick. Harrington is on his way out of Detroit. Carr has done nothing but get battered in Houston. A case could be made that Josh McCown and David Garrard, third- and fourth-rounders, respectively, look like the head of that QB class. Maybe none of the three first-rounders has it. No question all three were set up for failure.
Carr was asked to lead an expansion franchise from day one and has never had the luxury of quality protection. Harrington had the misfortune of going to Detroit and being teamed with an immature, underachieving supporting cast. Ramsey was the first pick of the Steve Spurrier era and actually beat out Brunell for the starting job last year before being injured in the opener. To brand them as failures is somewhat unfair. Same with Smith in Cincinnati and Tim Couch in Cleveland. Obviously they weren't worth the third and first overall picks of the 1999 draft, respectively, but perhaps their careers would have turned out differently had they landed in different spots and had more time to mature before experiencing failure.
On the flip side, there is Tampa Bay's Chris Simms, a third-round pick in 2003 whose first three seasons have followed the ideal blueprint for QB development. Didn't play as a rookie. Saw little time his second year. Stepped into the starting lineup halfway through last season, made progress and now looks like Jon Gruden's QB of the future.
Simms wasn't asked to play immediately and learn on the job. He was given time to adjust to the pro game in practice, as opposed to Kyle Boller, Baltimore's first-round bust who couldn't develop naturally, having been thrust into the caretaker role for a playoff team.
Wolf's picks -- Brooks, Brunell and Hasselbeck -- all served as backups to Favre before Green Bay moved them for draft picks. (Atlanta's Matt Schaub, a third-round pick two years ago, could be next to fetch his team value in return; his playing time has been limited, but he has been impressive and was one of the most coveted players this offseason.)
A team that invests a late-round pick in a quarterback can do so with options in mind. With a vet already in place, the team can groom the prospect as an eventual successor, backup or potential trade bait. Remember, Brady learned behind Bledsoe his first year, and Bulger sat behind Warner before the Rams let Warner go.
Charlie Frye went to Cleveland in the third round last year and was able to learn under Dilfer -- coincidentally, before taking over to finish the season. Frye looks like a player. Bears fourth-round pick Kyle Orton defied logic and led Chicago to a division title as a rookie, but he's probably better-suited to a backup role for now. The Lions like fifth-round pick Dan Orlovsky, while the Patriots and Rams may have stumbled upon good long-term QB prospects in respective seventh-round picks Matt Cassel and Ryan Fitzpatrick. For certain, there is no hurry to find out.
As for this year's draft, Leinart and Cutler, though probably not Young, will be asked to play early. The Big Three, as they've been called, also will play with the weight of greater expectations than the QBs chosen after them. Fewer expectations (and, of course, fewer millions invested) mean less pressure to, as they say, throw a kid to the wolves.
"So many people have tried things to discover the magic formula, but I'm not sure you can put a handle on it," Wolf says. No, there is no rule of thumb when it comes to getting your quarterback. Only that you have to have a pretty good one. But the more the lists of late-round steals and first-round flameouts grow, the more franchises are inclined to wait, perhaps settle, take less-expensive gambles later, and assemble a talented supporting cast around a less-than-prototypical superstar quarterback.
"You don't draft the right running back in the first round, you might lose a couple of games," says another personnel executive for a team that needs an apprentice for its veteran quarterback. "You don't draft the right QB, you might get fired."
As many teams have come to learn, the first picks and the right picks aren't always one and the same.