October 5, 2015

SHATZMAN | Predicting Quarterback Success

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Tom Brady grew up a 49ers fan. The Bay Area-native watched Joe Montana lead his team to four Super Bowl titles. In 1999, the 49ers went 4-12. It was the team’s first losing season since 1982. The 49ers needed to address the quarterback position in the 2000 NFL Draft, as undrafted free agent Jeff Garcia had yet to prove himself a capable starter in the league. This draft featured two-time All-Big Ten quarterback Tom Brady. So it would have been fitting for the 49ers to select Brady: he was a longtime Niners’ fan, who had earned the nickname the “Comeback Kid” at the University of Michigan – the same nickname given to the quarterback who he idolized growing up, Joe Montana.

After using four consecutive selections to bolster a their woeful defense, the Niners drafted a quarterback with the 65th overall selection: Giovanni Carmazzi, Hofstra University. After Carmazzi, 133 more players would be selected before the Patriots drafted Tom Brady in the sixth round. By 2006, Carmazzi was out of pro football: he wasn’t even on the 49ers’ active roster in his one NFL season, and his career ended after unsuccessful stints in NFL Europe and the CFL. Brady, on the other hand, had already led the Patriots to three Super Bowl victories. Carmazzi’s career had ended, while Brady’s had just begun.

But Brady is not the only quarterback to prove that draft position does not correlate with success. First-round quarterback busts are common in the NFL. JaMarcus Russell, the first pick in the 2007 draft, played parts of just three seasons for the Oakland Raiders before losing his job. Russell and his 68 million dollar rookie contract are forever embedded in Raider infamy. On the other hand, Brady-like QB gems, while less common than busts, aren’t so rare. Russell Wilson was a third-round pick. Tony Romo went undrafted. Among the 32 starting quarterbacks in the league today. 19 were first-round draft picks. Most of the elite quarterbacks — Rodgers, Manning, Rivers, Roethlisberger — were first-round picks, and the top picks often end up being great professional players.

But there is another side to this. Since 2009, of the 17 quarterbacks drafted in the first-round, seven of them are currently backups — guys like Christian Ponder, Blaine Gabbert and Robert Griffin III — while three — Jake Locker, Tim Tebow and Josh Freeman — are no longer in the NFL. So the question is, why do future Hall of Fame quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Drew Brees fall out of the first round? Why were Locker, Gabbert and Ponder selected in the first round of the 2011 draft, while Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick and Tyrod Taylor weren’t?

There is no concrete answer to these questions, but there are a few reasons that make sense. First, quarterback prospects tend to be 21 or 22 years old. Some quarterbacks play late into their thirties. Thus, there is a several-year window during which a young quarterback can improve, both physically and mentally. Some players improve far more than others. Tony Romo went undrafted in 2003. Romo didn’t got a shot to play until 2006, and he has been the Cowboys’ starter ever since. If Romo had been as good as he is now in 2003, he couldn’t have gone undrafted, right? Most quarterbacks do not become elite until years after being drafted. Football players, like other people, have to work hard and improve their skills. They also have to adapt to a new level of competition. Some do so better than others.

There difference between college football and professional football is massive. After the University of Alabama finished a perfect season in 2009, some believed that the Crimson Tide could beat the Detroit Lions after Detroit’s imperfect, 0-16 2008 campaign. But a college team could never compete with an NFL team. Only a fraction of the thousands of college football players even try out for the NFL, much less play in a game. So while a handful of the Alabama players made the NFL, the majority of them did not. The NFL consists of the best of the best from college football. This speaks to the level of competition in the NFL: some players can dominate the college game but struggle in the NFL. Some struggle with the speed — both mental and physical — of the professional game. Others may thrive in specific systems that aren’t found in the NFL. All top quarterback prospects had success in college. The challenge is carrying that success to the next level.

Technology has become ubiquitous in the NFL, and prospect scouting is now more effective than ever. Teams can analyze precise details of workouts and game-film, in hopes of predicting the future stars of the league. Despite this, there will always remain a human aspect that teams cannot predict. A college quarterback who has the makings of an elite professional player will not always be successful — see JaMarcus Russell. Likewise, late-round prospects can improve and become great talents. There will always be busts. There will always be steals. The goal is to choose the Tom Brady instead of the Giovanni Carmazzi.