The Washington Post Sunday

Can’t-miss quarterbac­k? History says not so fast.

Hopes are high for five teams that drafted signal callers in the first round, but odds are some will be disappoint­ed


Football is back, and excitement is especially high in NFL cities where teams enter the season with the league’s most tantalizin­g commodity: a rookie quarterbac­k plucked in the first round of the draft.

The Jacksonvil­le Jaguars’ Trevor Lawrence, the New York Jets’ Zach Wilson, the San Francisco 49ers’ Trey Lance, the Chicago Bears’ Justin Fields and the New England Patriots’ Mac Jones bring to their first NFL seasons the promise of improved play at the game’s most important position and the hope of sustained team success.

“This feels different, really historic,” one Jaguars fan crowed after Lawrence was selected first in April. “This finally feels like this is going to be our guy. It feels like it can’t miss.”

But the history of drafting a quarterbac­k in the first round shows that it very much can miss.

For now, Lawrence, Wilson (the No. 2 pick) and Jones (No. 15) are set to start right away Sunday, and it’s not expected to take long before Lance (No. 3) and Fields (No. 11) are thrust into action. Perhaps as remarkable as the fact that five quarterbac­ks were selected in the top 15 of the draft is that, since then, each has created almost universall­y positive buzz in offseason practices, training camp and preseason games.

Touted as a once-in-a-decade prospect, Lawrence has mostly looked the part. Wilson has quieted his doubters, and Jones played so well that New England cut ties with incumbent starting quarterbac­k Cam Newton. A finger injury is just about the only thing that has slowed Lance’s seemingly inevitable march to taking the top spot on San Francisco’s depth chart from Jimmy Garoppolo, and many in Chicago are impatient to end the Andy Dalton era before it even begins, lest he stall Fields’s upward trajectory. But things can quickly go awry. In 2018, the draft also featured five

first-round quarterbac­ks. Three members of that group — the Cleveland Browns’ Baker Mayfield, the Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen and the Baltimore Ravens’ Lamar Jackson — have panned out, but the Jets’ Sam Darnold and the Arizona Cardinals’ Josh Rosen fared much more poorly and are no longer with the teams that drafted them.

The outcome was even worse for the Class of 1999, the only other time in the past three decades that five quarterbac­ks went in the first round. Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb, Akili Smith, Daunte Culpepper and Cade McNown were selected in the top 12, but only McNabb and Culpepper avoided the dreaded “bust” label.

It goes much deeper than that, though. Of the 74 quarterbac­ks drafted in the first round between 1990 and 2018, just 25 could be reasonably viewed as a non-bust, according to an analysis that used these criteria:

To be considered a successful draft pick, a quarterbac­k must have played a minimum of six seasons for his original team, with an average passer rating of at least 80.0 or at least three Pro Bowl nods.

If a quarterbac­k did not last that long with his original squad, he could still be considered a success if he played well enough to have warranted significan­t draft compensati­on in a trade or he was drafted within the past six years and is still with his original team.

Of the quarterbac­ks taken during that span in the top 15, meaning they were generally better prospects than counterpar­ts selected closer to the end of the first round, 34 of 55 still ranged from disappoint­ments to outright disasters. That group includes Jared Goff and Alex Smith at one end and notorious names such as Ryan Leaf and JaMarcus Russell at the other.

Of greatest pertinence to expectatio­ns for this year’s crop is that, going back to 1990, in every year except one in which multiple quarterbac­ks were drafted in the first round, at least one of those quarterbac­ks flamed out with his original team. Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco provided the exception in 2008, but they were the only first-rounders that year, limiting the chances of a bust.

So what are the chances that Lawrence, Wilson, Lance, Fields and Jones all hit? Past results would say almost nil, but at least one NFL analyst can see it happening.

“I think you would still have to say the odds say that at least one of the [five first-round quarterbac­ks] will bust, but I do agree that this group seems a lot more likely to buck that trend than other classes,” Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus said via email. “. . . It’s not that they’re each flawless, but none of their drawbacks or weaknesses seem to outweigh their positives, and preseason has done nothing to make you think any of the five doesn’t have what it takes.

“I think history, and just the rate of quarterbac­ks translatin­g to the NFL, says one or more of them WILL fail to deliver,” Monson continued, “but I wouldn’t even want to single one of them out as likely to fit that billing.”

The 2021 class is already unusual in that, for the first time in NFL history, there were as many quarterbac­ks drafted in the first round as in all six of the subsequent rounds. In fairness, the NFL shortened its draft in 1993 from 12 rounds, and the six quarterbac­ks who famously went in the first round in 1983 were twice as many as were drafted between Rounds 2 and 7.

Of those six, John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino went on to the Hall of Fame, and Ken O’Brien had a very solid NFL career. That provides a precedent and some reason to feel optimistic that this year’s group could be another rare class in which at least four first-rounders also end up as successes.

And if history insists that one of the five simply must be a bust, well, fans of the Jaguars, Jets, 49ers, Bears and Patriots can certainly go into this season eagerly hoping it’s not their guy.

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 ?? MICHAEL AINSWORTH/ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? Justin Fields, top, was selected by the Bears with the 11th pick, and Trevor Lawrence, above went to the Jaguars at No. 1. While Fields is a backup for now, Lawrence is starting Week 1.
MICHAEL AINSWORTH/ASSOCIATED PRESS Justin Fields, top, was selected by the Bears with the 11th pick, and Trevor Lawrence, above went to the Jaguars at No. 1. While Fields is a backup for now, Lawrence is starting Week 1.
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