Geoff Schwartz examines the inexact science of drafting quarterbacks
By Geoff Schwartz
FOX Sports NFL Analyst
In the NFL, you’re only as good as the quarterback taking the snaps for your team, a fact that has become more apparent to NFL front offices as they search for their team's next signal-caller in the draft.
Teams know that if they hit it big – as the Kansas City Chiefs did with Patrick Mahomes – they are set for years to come. But for every team that finds its future franchise QB, there’s a bust or two in each draft at the same coveted position.
Why is it so difficult to draft a quarterback?
I must note that it’s difficult to draft every position in the first round, with almost half of each first-round draft class becoming "busts." An earlier-round bust at most positions isn’t ideal and costs your team, but a bust at quarterback can set a franchise back a half-decade or more.
It’s that important to get it right.
So if it’s that important, why do teams fail at nearly a 50% rate?
The first issue is properly identifying a QB's weaknesses coming out of college and why he has those weaknesses. Teams often look at the positives and believe those can outweigh the negatives. They believe their coaching can overcome the weakness, and the ego behind that thinking can be the downfall of a quarterback.
When quarterbacks come into the NFL, their areas for improvement get amplified because of the complexities of the defenses. If a QB isn’t accurate in college, it would seem that when the game gets faster in the NFL, his accuracy would only get worse. If a college quarterback has trouble reading the field with an offense that generates ample opportunities for open receivers, those issues will carry over into the league.
Along the same lines, teams will look at "polished quarterbacks" who pass the eye test, interview well and are generally considered safe bets and hope their limited physical talent can be overcome in the NFL. But it almost never happens that way. Again, your limited arm talent only gets amplified in the NFL against quicker and faster defenses.
Can that weakness be hidden by a good offensive design and playcaller? Yes, of course. But eventually, that wears off.
Ask Jared Goff and Sean McVay.
Teams will also ignore red flags about preparation and attitude in favor of big arm talent. If a high-level quarterback prospect has gotten this far without proper preparation, what makes you think the stress and anxiety of playing the position in the NFL will make them flip the switch? When people are stressed, they often revert to the demeanor they know best, not pivot to something uncommon. This is why drafting quarterbacks with questionable work habits can lead to disaster.
Of course, it’s never that simple. I can look at Justin Herbert, who scouts thought didn’t read the field well enough or didn’t make certain throws, and they wrote him off. But this is why finding out why those issues exist is important.
In Herbert's case, the Oregon offense wasn’t advanced, he had no professional targets, and the offense was run first and pass second. Within just a few NFL starts, it was clear his negatives in college weren’t all because of him.
While Josh Allen is a complete outlier, the Bills quarterback has improved from a player who was inaccurate in college to an MVP candidate in the NFL. Allen’s work ethic and desire to improve are something that can’t be overlooked, and he improved his mechanics drastically in the professional ranks. Plus, Buffalo set him up for success with the scheme and talent around him.
So far, all of the reasons teams miss on quarterback prospects are related to misevaluations based on college action and off-the-field issues that arise before players are drafted. While these are valid reasons a quarterback might or might not work in the NFL, the biggest reason for failure is the system he is drafted into, and that has become clearer as the NFL has evolved into a more adaptable and quarterback-friendly league.
Most often, NFL teams that draft in the top 10 are routinely struggling organizations that do not develop players, especially at quarterback. They fail to hire the right coaches and find the right players. That’s the simple way to look at the issue.
The more complex way to view the lack of help for a young quarterback is looking at how adaptable the playcaller is to the quarterback’s strengths and weaknesses. There are plenty of recent examples.
The Chiefs drafted Mahomes, and while Andy Reid primarily runs his offense out of shotgun now, he added wrinkles to fit what Mahomes does best, including deeper route concepts, home-run plays and getting Mahomes on the move.
The Bills have also done amazing work with Allen. They’ve built an offense based on play-action, shot throws, moving the pocket and empty protection (which allows for quick reads), and they've been able to get Allen playing into a position. They use his legs as a weapon to keep teams off-balance. They upgraded their offensive line and continue to do so this offseason. They’ve added weapons to make the offense work.
Now, even if you design an offense to fit your quarterback, it’s not always going to equal Super Bowl wins, but the idea is to maximize your team's chances to win. When you win at a consistent level, your organization's confidence skyrockets.
On the flip side, you have a team such as the Chicago Bears, who drafted Mitchell Trubisky and then didn’t run an offense that fit what he does or did best. Trubisky is not a quarterback who fits in a true West Coast offense. He’s a one-read quarterback, and he’s athletic, meaning the offense should include his legs. It should include a ton of play-action and run-pass option.
That just never materialized in Chicago.
Five quarterbacks will be drafted in the top 15 of the upcoming draft, and history would suggest that two or three will be busts.
Let’s hope it’s not the quarterback for your squad.
Geoff Schwartz played eight seasons in the NFL for five different teams. He started at right tackle for the University of Oregon for three seasons and was a second-team All-Pac-12 selection his senior year. He is an NFL analyst for FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffSchwartz.