Saturday, April 11, 2009

Why Quarterbacks Should Never Be Drafted Top Five

This is part of an ongoing conversation elsewhere but I believe it stands alone.

I was asked:

about how teams come to their ratings on QBs, I think you are projecting what you think over what teams actually do. I seriously doubt that a team would make any QB higher on their board on a 50% chance they develop. The odds of whether they could develop IMO would already be considered, for example (just an example, have no idea exactly how they have them rated) Detroit may give Stafford a 70% chance of succeeding, maybe a 50% chance for Sanchez, perhaps a 40% on Freeman. The odds teams give a prospect on succeeding I believe are already factored in, otherwise their draft board has no value when it comes to QBs. It is possible you are right, but IMO probably not.

I actually think teams tend to vastly overvalue quarterbacks due to the importance of the position. I used 50% off the top of my head because that is the bust rate of first round quarterbacks. There are other factors that go into that, of course. Not all quarterbacks are equally likely to bust, but that isn't an unreasonable baseline for a calculus. I'm not referring to Stafford in particular but I don't like his odds. He has some things going for him for sure, he's no Akili Smith or Joey Harrington, but the Peyton Manning/Elway comparisons are pretty tiresome too. He's much more like Rex Grossman for a lot of reasons. That isn't an entirely ugly comparison, btw, Grossman easily could have turned out better than he did. It's just that their college similarities are striking.

It gets hard to say the same things in different ways. If you look at the first round quarterbacks who really became studs in the NFL they all tended to share criteria. Lots of college experience (typically 40+ starts, 4+ years in the program), high completion percentages.

I think where people, NFL people included, fail when evaluating quarterbacks is they don't consider the downside of being wrong. We have discussed it here but it's something you either accept or your don't.

Just like all successes aren't equal (quarterbacks >> OLB), all busts aren't equal either (QB >>> OLB). Bad quarterbacks can't be hidden and they can't be moved. They either play or they don't. The problem is that if they play and are even below average then they are contributing negatively to the team, the team would be better off with one of many veteran free agents who are available each year.

As an example, let's look at two players: Vernon Gholston and Alex Smith. Gholston looks like a bust by an measure. He will never justify his draft status and at this point looks like he should have been more like a 4th rounder. Even so, he can still be used in positive ways. While he might be useless for two-thirds of defensive downs he can still be substituted into spots where he can contribute. Even though the team will never recoup their investment, as long as they don't try to force him into situations where he contributes negatively they can still get a positive return, they can win more games with him on the roster than otherwise. On the other hand, Alex Smith is in no position to contribute positively to his team. If he starts then he is below a replacement-level player, and every down he is on the field the team suffers, relative to a Shaun Hill being under center instead. The team can't substitute him into situations where he specializes like they can with Gholston.

If we express this mathematically, if 100 is NFL average production then Gholston can be used in limited ways where he produces at 125 (or whatever) and otherwise does not play. If Smith playe he can only produce at 75. The problem is further magnified by quarterback being so much more important than OLB or DE or whatever they are calling Gholston these days.

Here's the other thing with quarterbacks: even if all picks in a given slot get the exact same contract, the quarterback costs the team more. Why? Because he isn't expected to contribute anything his first year, and he isn't supposed to be any better than average his second. So if you have a player sign a 6 year $72M contract at #1 OA, the OT or OLB plays all six years at $12M per. The quarterback sits for the first year, or only plays in low pressure spots, and is now effectively on a 5 year $72M contract at $14.4M per. His second year he plays but is no better than average. An average NFL QB gets $7M (I really don't know, just a number) so the rest of our rookie's contract gets thrown on to his back end for value purposes. So no we have a QB who effectively was worth $0 as a rookie, $7M as a sophomore and now has (effectively) a 4 year contract at $16.25M per. If he isn't among the top 5 quarterbacks in the league by his third year then he is still being overpaid.

But then we stumble into the bust rate. I agree that no team is going to draft a guy #1 OA expecting a 50% bust rate so let's say 25% instead. If our guy busts 25% of the time then we are out the entire $72M. So let's look at the 75% he doesn't bust. We have to account for the bust potential which is 25% of $72M so the effective contract is now 6/$90M but wait, our guy isn't going to play as a rookie so really 5/$90M. Now our young star has to be at the level of Peyton/Brady by his second year to make his contract justifiable, since those are the only guys who get paid at that rate on an annual basis.

Once again, this doesn't argue against the possibility of a QB being the best choice at #1 OA. What it argues is that if there are any questions, and concerns, if your bust rate is any higher than 25% then we'd better be extra cautious and lean away from that guy. Not because he might not otherwise be a good prospect, but rather because it is virtually impossible for him to ever justify the contract.


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