When the NFL draft finally kicks off Thursday night, we have a pretty good idea that quarterbacks Jared Goff and Carson Wentz are going to go with the first two picks, probably in that order -- and that's about where the certainties end. While we know trades are the norm, it's still possible that, with the top two slots already traded for, the rest of the teams picking in the top 10 could hold onto their picks, as they did last year. Players like running back Ezekiel Elliott and linebacker Myles Jack could come off the board during the first few picks or sweat their new locations into the middle of the first round. There's all sorts of subterfuge going on. It'll be fun.
There's even more uncertainty when it comes to the other quarterbacks in this year's class. After Goff and Wentz, there's a group of three quarterbacks -- Connor Cook, Paxton Lynch and Christian Hackenberg -- who are generally considered the second tier of the position in this year's draft class. ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay has each of these three passers among his fourth and fifth tiers, suggesting it's at least possible they could find their future homes during Friday's second round.
You can make logical cases for and against drafting a quarterback in the second round. The anti-quarterback argument says you're unlikely to come away with a truly top-tier passer, because if these quarterbacks were sufficiently disposed to turn into stars, they wouldn't make it past the first round. Late-round picks are obviously also unlikely to turn into stars, but the opportunity cost is far lower. When a team uses a sixth-round pick on a quarterback, they're usually passing up the chance to take a special-teamer or a player who isn't going to make their team. When they use a second-rounder on a quarterback, they forego the chance to draft, say, a defensive lineman with a something close to a 50 percent chance of turning into a three-year starter.
The flip side is all about value. Quarterbacks who deserve to land in the first round can fall to the second round because teams drafting at the bottom of the first round are often pretty good, and they're often pretty good because they already have a pretty good quarterback. NFL teams who are close to the top almost always prefer to draft a player at a position of weakness than to draft a quarterback who might sit for a year or two. The last time an NFL team with a winning record drafted a quarterback with one of the last 10 picks of the first round was when the Packers chose Aaron Rodgers in 2005. (And if you think that's a sign more teams should do it, keep in mind that the three previous instances of a team trying that move yielded Jim Druckenmiller, Tommy Maddox and Todd Marinovich.)
Even teams trading into/down to that range at the bottom of the first round haven't fared well. Sure, the Vikings came away with Teddy Bridgewater with the last pick of the first round in 2014, but consider the other quarterbacks who have been drafted by quarterback-needy teams from picks 22-32 since 2000: Johnny Manziel, Brandon Weeden, Tim Tebow, Brady Quinn, Jason Campbell, J.P. Losman, Rex Grossman and Patrick Ramsey. Rodgers is the lone success story, and he obviously entered a much different situation than those other players, with a long-term waiting game ahead of him.
The second round appears to be different.
Specifically, the first half of the second round appears to have developed into a bit of a sweet spot for finding and developing quarterbacks. Just going through picks 30-45 when they occurred in the second round (given that the league hasn't always been 32 teams), you'll find four NFL starters in Derek Carr, Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick and Drew Brees. Geno Smith might technically qualify as a fifth, although I don't think he'll actually be the starter for the Jets in September. That's out of just nine passers taken since 2000, with the other passers including Pat White (not drafted as a quarterback), John Beck (drafted at the age of 26, a move that rarely works out), Kevin Kolb (effective but oft-injured) and Drew Stanton (a career backup).
Again, compare that to the players taken in the bottom half of the second round over that time frame in chronological order: Jimmy Garoppolo, Brock Osweiler, Jimmy Clausen, Brian Brohm, Chad Henne, Kellen Clemens, Tarvaris Jackson, Quincy Carter and Marques Tuiasosopo. This isn't an artificial cutoff, either; if we go into the drafts from the 1990s, the best quarterback from the top half of the second round is Brett Favre; the best passer from pick 46 on is Kordell Stewart.
Even if we expand our list of first-round picks to include players taken from selections 17-32 inclusive, the additions of Joe Flacco and Chad Pennington to the pool are countered by the arrivals of Josh Freeman and Kyle Boller. There's really not much of a drop-off between the bottom of the first round and the top of the second round, whereas the gap between the two halves of the second round is enormous. (Note that these splits don't overlap; when picks 30-32 were in the first round, they're included in the first-round group, and the same is true in the second round.)
Is there some empirical difference between players going at the very end of the first round and the top of the second round? I doubt it. Basically, what history seems to suggest is that there's a dramatic drop-off point in terms of passer quality once the teams who are most likely to be in need of quarterbacks have selected in the second round.
In a nutshell: If organizations that need a quarterback have passed on you twice, chances are you aren't a very good one.
All that information brings us back to the quarterbacks lurking in the second tier of this year's class behind Goff and Wentz. It's not out of the question that Cook, Hackenberg and Lynch could all come off of the board before the middle of the second round (or sooner). Lynch has popularly been thought of as the most interesting of those three passers, but Hackenberg has the prototypical size and arm strength that tends to rise on draft boards as we approach the end of April, while Cook has recently been hotly linked to the Browns with their second selection.
Cleveland, of course, has been responsible for many of those failed quarterbacks in the first round: Manziel, Weeden and Quinn all failed to launch after making their way to the Browns in the bottom half of the opening round. But we have to remember scouting/drafting and developing can be entirely different components, and those making the decisions in Cleveland are an entirely different group than years past. If the Browns draft Cook, they'll have an excellent offensive mind guiding his future in Hue Jackson, a coach who helped another second-round pick (Dalton) take a big leap forward.
The often overlooked aspect to this strategy for fans is cost. The break-even point on performance is lower. Let's say the Browns take Cook with the first pick of the second round and he turns into Drew Stanton. That might be disappointing, and the opportunity cost of not using that pick on a starter elsewhere would be meaningful, but it wouldn't be a wasted selection. Cook would be on a four-year deal for a little more than $6 million total over his rookie contract.
Compare that to a typical veteran backup quarterback, such as Browns second-stringer Josh McCown, and you'll note that McCown's cap hit over the next couple of years is just over $5 million per season. Even Stanton himself is at a combined $6.5 million over the next two years. It wouldn't take a lot for Cook to deliver some modest return on investment, and he would obviously have the upside to deliver much more over the course of his deal if he turns into even a below-average starting quarterback. If he's somehow a steal, and starts early, you get a dream scenario of simply having a really cheap player at a typically high-cost position for a good amount of time, such as the Raiders are experiencing with Carr, and (though he wasn't a second-rounder) what Seattle experienced with Russell Wilson.
Of course, nobody wants to be making these sorts of guesses. You would rather take Rodgers and let him sit for three years, or have Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck fall into your lap with the first overall selection, or see Tom Brady turn into the best draft pick in the history of football. The chances of getting one of those things to happen are remarkably slim, and you'll probably get fired before one of those moves actually occurs. For those general managers and head coaches who have to try to find a quarterback another way, the gambit of taking a quarterback in the second round doesn't appear to be a bad idea. Just make sure he's worth taking before the halfway point.