It's pretty obvious a team that drafts a talented franchise quarterback is going to be in good shape for years to come. But when a team swings and misses with a top-10 QB pick, the damage can last for years.
The answer, it turns out, is EVERYTHING.
Classification of performance
Since 1993, the first year of the current state of free agency in the NFL, there have been 29 quarterbacks drafted with top-10 picks. To account for the league's learning curve, we set a minimum of three years of experience, which weeds out quarterbacks drafted after 2009 and whittles the list to 25. Among those 25, there is a diverse mix of resumes, ranging from league MVPs (Steve McNair and Peyton Manning) and Super Bowl-winning starting quarterbacks (Trent Dilfer and Peyton and Eli Manning) to those with the same number of career wins (three) as their overall pick (Akili Smith, the third selection of the 1999 draft).
In order to eliminate subjectivity and evaluate the players based solely on their on-field professional accomplishments, instead of factoring in preconceived expectations based on specific draft slots, salary figures or college performance, we must categorize them into easily definable "classes" determined by statistical benchmarks.
We've separated the 25 quarterbacks into three levels, based on team and individual milestones:
• Franchise: A win percentage of .500 or better and a minimum of three playoff visits.
• Bust: A win percentage below .400 or no playoff appearances.
• Average: Quarterbacks who fall short of the franchise requirements but exceed those of a bust. Some average quarterbacks had lengthy careers with multiple teams (Kerry Collins, 17 seasons with six teams) or are just beginning to shine in the NFL (Alex Smith and Matthew Stafford).
After applying these filters, we find the list of 25 is evenly distributed over the three grade levels:
The varying performance of these highly touted prospects shows the unpredictability of spending a top pick on a quarterback.
But just how much damage does a top-10 lemon ultimately inflict? Consider this: Of the nine franchises to draft a bust since 1993, seven of them missed the playoffs the next five seasons or longer. We'll repeat that. Drafting a bust quarterback costs a team a playoff berth for the next half-decade. It took an average of 5.7 seasons for these unfortunate squads to make it back to the postseason, and three of them (the Cincinnati Bengals, San Diego Chargers and Detroit Lions) were forced to use another top-10 pick on a quarterback within seven years. Luckily for them, they made better choices the second time around, as all three teams chose quarterbacks who led them to at least one postseason berth.
Is it worth the risk?
Drafting a franchise quarterback immediately alters the course of a team's history, as front offices begin the process of adding complementary players to craft a complete offense. Although the home run quarterback is the goal, teams can live with selecting an average quarterback. What they cannot afford is taking someone who can't win games or stay in the starting lineup. But seeing as how only nine of these players were drafted since free agency began, the odds are actually in the teams' favor.
Sixteen of the 25 players on the list were non-busts, meaning there's a 64 percent chance a top-10 selection will be either a leader who throws for touchdowns, minimizes mistakes, wins games and consistently takes his team to the postseason, or a serviceable player who will keep a team afloat (and in Dilfer's case, bring home a Lombardi Trophy) until it finds the next blue-chip prospect.
But why take an unnecessary risk? Over the same time span, 15 quarterbacks were selected in the first round with the 11th-32nd picks. Four of them met franchise requirements (Joe Flacco, Chad Pennington, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger), seven fell into the average category, and only four were busts (Jim Druckenmiller, J.P. Losman, Cade McNown and Brady Quinn). That makes a 73 percent chance of drafting a statistical non-bust, 9 percent higher than for those using a top-10 pick, not to mention all the cash saved by moving down the guaranteed-money ladder.
The middle-to-late first-round quarterbacks have a nearly identical regular-season winning percentage (.522) compared to top picks (.521), have similar Super Bowl experience (0.33 Super Bowl trips per non-top-10 first-rounder, 0.36 per top picks) and boast a better playoff winning percentage (.577 compared to .510). However, the argument can be made that teams drafting later in the first round are better, as evidenced by their previous season's records, and would be more likely to win games with whichever quarterback they select. There's some validity to the argument, especially when you consider the Super Bowl experience among the 15 later-round picks is limited to only Rex Grossman, Rodgers and Roethlisberger.
And that's where the comparisons stop.
The top-10 picks reach the postseason more often (2.2 average trips per QB, 1.5 trips per later-round QB), are far more likely to reach the Pro Bowl (1.6 visits compared to 0.4), and average almost 6,500 more career passing yards (yes, that number is inflated by Peyton Manning's 54,828 passing yards, but removing him from the equation drops that number by only 1,500 yards).
Ultimately, the decision rests on the belief a team has in its potential draft pick, as betting a single-digit selection on a quarterback comes with great upside and great risk.
The teams that roll the dice in the upcoming draft had better be certain their picks are the right ones, or be prepared to find themselves in the same situation again in a few years.