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How to draft a quarterback: Part 1

A brief history of quarterbacks taken in the first round since the beginning of the century.

Alabama v Texas A&M Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images

Bengals fans come in two extremes. Those who have been campaigning to replace Andy Dalton as the team’s quarterback for years and those who think that Dalton can be a winning quarterback. The latter commonly points to the team’s “other needs” in the draft and says that they can “build around him.”

I, myself, fall somewhere in the middle. Dalton has had his moments. Even last season despite not having much around him at times he performed relatively well.

That is not to say I didn’t want to draft a quarterback in previous seasons (we’ll get to that soon), but in the past, Dalton wasn’t a guy who needed to be replaced in order to win games. Unfortunately, now he is.

But let’s not go down that rabbit hole. Instead let's focus on the idea of drafting a quarterback. Some people will talk about drafting a quarterback as if it is the one-stop fix for all of your team’s problems; others point to all of the first-round busts to come through the NFL Draft.

People love to talk about busts and they usually throw out the same few names. They make a good point. The fact is that for every Peyton Manning, there has been more than one Ryan Leaf.

So let’s take a look at that history and see how many rookie quarterbacks are able to stick.


The last time the Bengals selected a quarterback in the first round was 2003. The Bengals owned the first-overall pick and the city was full of optimism after hiring a highly sought after new head coach named (checks notes) Marvin Lewis. The Bengals selected Carson Palmer, who after a year behind Jon Kitna, helped turn the franchise around.

Of course, issues arose that are off-topic for this particular article, but Palmer went on to many productive years after leaving Cincinnati and was recently named to the Cardinals ring of honor.

Palmer was an excellent pick and a franchise quarterback for many years in the NFL, but 3 other quarterbacks were taken in the first round of that draft. There was Byron Leftwich, Kyle Boller, and Rex Grossman. Leftwich had a few years as a starter, and Grossman somehow managed to take the Bears to the Super Bowl, but none of the three were franchise quarterbacks.

The jury is still out on the most recent draft classes, but I think it is safe to say that we know where the careers’ of the class of 2017 are heading. So let’s take a quick look at the first-round quarterbacks from 2004, the year after the Bengals selected Palmer first overall, until 2017.


2004 was an incredible draft class for quarterbacks. Three future hall-of-famers came off the board in the first round with Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, and Ben Roethlisberger. Each of these three players had their respective franchises set at quarterback until recently, but the Bills did not have the same luck with J.P. Losman who they selected later in the first round.


Three quarterbacks went in the first round in 2005 and they had very different careers. The last one selected was Jason Campbell who went 25th overall. One pick before him at 24, the Packers selected Aaron Rodgers who was projected as a top pick but inexplicably fell. The first-overall pick that year was Alex Smith who went to the 49ers.

So there you have it. Three first round picks from the same draft class. The first-overall pick was a solid player in the NFL for a lot of years, but at the end of the day was replaced twice (going on thrice). One of the best quarterbacks of all time fell into the 20s and the guy taken right after him did not sign a second contract with his team.


In 2006, three more quarterbacks were selected in the first round. Vince Young (third overall) and Matt Leinart (10th overall) both had a ton of potential, but neither realized it in the NFL. The third was Jay Cutler (11th overall), who managed to stick around in the league longer than the other two, but was generally seen a guy who could be replaced. Even though he was traded out of Denver, Cutler had a good career and would not qualify as a bust.


In 2007 we had JaMarcus Russell as the first overall pick and Brady Quinn 21 picks after that. To quote the movie Forrest Gump “that’s all I have to say about that.”


Once again in 2008 there were two quarterbacks selected, but Matt Ryan (third overall) and Joe Flacco (18th overall) both had successful careers. Ryan’s career alone makes the Russell and Quinn selections from the year prior all the more underwhelming.


2009 was a mixed bag with Matthew Stafford going first overall and Mark Sanchez and Josh Freeman also going in the top half of the round. Stafford has had a good career, but probably not what anyone hopes for from the number one pick. Sanchez and Freeman were both busts, despite the Jets’ success early in his career.


2010 wasn’t very good with the oft-injured Sam Bradford as the first pick and Tim Tebow later in the round. Some would argue that Bradford’s talent translated into the league, but his lack of durability diminishes any argument for him in this case.


Cam Newton was the first overall selection in 2011, but the other three quarterbacks who went in round one that year were Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, and Christian Ponder. Enough said.


Four quarterbacks went in round one this year. The first two picks of the draft, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, had injury struggles, but Luck managed to put together a few great healthy seasons before his recent retirement whereas Griffin became a backup. Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Weeden were a different story with neither catching on in the long run. The Dolphins or Browns would have been better off with Russell Wilson, who went in the third round that year.


EJ Manuel was the only quarterback selected in the first round in 2013, and that worked out about as well for the Bills as Losman had years earlier.


Only one of the three quarterbacks taken in 2014 is currently starting for an NFL team, and that is only because Teddy Bridgewater is filling in for the injured Drew Brees. Blake Bortles is now a backup and Johnny Manziel is presumably partying on a boat with Justin Beiber somewhere.


In 2015 Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota went first and second and this year seems like it could be the last for each of them as a starter for with their original team.


2016 was pretty good with Jared Goff and Carson Wentz going in the first two picks. The Broncos took Paxton Lynch later in that round which didn’t go as well. John Elway probably wishes he’d have taken Dak Prescott instead.


Finally in 2017, three quarterbacks went in the first round. The first selected was Mitchell Trubisky, who is a hindrance to the Bears success when healthy, but Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson quickly joined the NFL’s elite.

All in all were have been 39 quarterbacks selected in the first round in the 14-year period from 2004 to 2017. 15 of them have managed to stick around and be impactful. That is not to say they have been elite, but at least impactful for multiple years. Case and point ,I counted Cutler as a good pick.

That is roughly 38%. Not great, but not terrible either. But percentages don’t really matter when it comes to these things.

The Chiefs certainly don’t care about the percentages, they just care about having Mahomes under center. The Vikings don’t care either. They just care that they had to spend a ton of money to get Kirk Cousins because Ponder and Bridgewater didn’t pan out for them.

So that gives you an idea of how these things can go. Yes, you could end up with a Mahomes or a Watson, but you could also end up with a Winston or Mariota. Or you could end up somewhere in between with a Smith or Cutler.

So how do you get an elite player rather than a bust or backup? Now that you know your history, Part 2 we will detail how drafting a quarterback can be a success and when it is the right time to draft a quarterback.