NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- As the Nation Football League annual draft approaches next week, excitement and hope fill football cities across the country. ESPN, the sports network, began running commercials in April rhetorically asking the viewer whether their team would draft a player worthy of naming their next child after. There are always great players in the draft that could help a franchise, but quarterbacks are usually the ones that steal the spotlight.
This year there are a number of notable quarterbacks that are touted as first-round talents. Analysts on television and radio speculate wildly about the validity of each one's skillset. One analyst may grade a player as the next All-Pro, while another grades the exact same player as a second round pick with limited potential. With so much contradictory information filling the airwaves, I thought it would be an interesting study to analyze the market of drafting a quarterback.
To begin, I gathered data from the year 2000 to present day on quarterbacks that had starting experience for more than one full season. A caveat is that the quarterback can be drafted prior to the 2000 season, but has to have meaningful starting experience in the new millennium, such as Peyton Manning. I then looked at the correlation between the winning percentage that each quarterback had attained, and how it related to the player's initial draft position.
There are a total of 254 picks in the draft, and are represented 1-254 on the X-axis in the chart. Meanwhile, quarterbacks that went undrafted are represented as pick 255 to give them a quantitative value. I chose winning percentage as the measure of success because winning teams mean players, coaches, and front office staff usually get to keep their jobs for a longer period of time. Popular opinion would say that first round quarterbacks are more skilled and thus would be able to lead their teams to more wins. That assumption, however, proved inaccurate.
The chart above shows that although there is a slight negative correlation between when a player was drafted and their success as a starter, the relationship has no statistical significance. Since there was no meaningful relationship determined, and common opinion was proven somewhat false, it makes the case to start from the best quarterbacks and work down the list.
In the next phase of the study, I looked at the winning percentage of quarterbacks that were the first overall picks in the draft. These quarterbacks, such as Peyton Manning, are viewed as once-in-a-generation kind of talents that have enough skill to turn around a failing franchise. When looking at first overall selections, of which there were 14, the average winning percentage was 48%. They all have great measurables such as size, arm strength and awareness, but picking a successful one has the probability of flipping a coin. That is slightly disheartening, considering most franchises pin their hopes and dreams on players like these.
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If a team cannot be certain that picking a quarterback who is arguably the most talented player in the draft will turn around their franchise, they must be able to at least find good enough quarterbacks in the first round that have some success. When looking at both first-round quarterbacks, which means they were one of the first 32 picks, as well as top 10 picks, both groups each averaged only 49%. This means, similar to what was found with quarterbacks that were first overall picks, teams picking quarterbacks that are among the top players in the draft is no guarantee the team will gain more success over the player's career.
Considering that quarterbacks who are among the best players in the draft are not guaranteed to improve a team, the next step is to look at successful quarterbacks and unsuccessful quarterbacks, to see if there are patterns among the groups. The top three quarterbacks since 2000, with the highest winning percentages, are Tom Brady (77%), Russell Wilson (75%), and Colin Kaepernick (74%). All three players were drafted outside the first round and, coincidentally, the average draft position of quarterbacks among the top 10 in winning percentage is 42nd, which is the middle of the second round. This proves that jumping on a quarterback early in the first round may not be the best strategy.
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One must, however, also look at the worst quarterbacks for perspective. The bottom three are Chris Weinke (10%), Brandon Weeden (25%), and JaMarcus Russell (28%). Both Weeden and Russell were first round picks, and are considered draft "busts", or failures, by most people with knowledge of the NFL.
The issue now is what separates our top three quarterbacks from our bottom three. Are Brady, Wilson and Kaepernick superior in talent to the bottom three? Many would say yes, but that is a simple conclusion considering the success each has respectively had biases one's perspective. During the pre-draft process, like we are in now, the conclusion was that JaMarcus and Weeden were superior talents considering they were taken in the first round and our top three winners were not.
A pattern that looks feasible, however, is that the top three were on teams that possessed great defenses early in their career. Brady's first year as a starter in 2001, he won 11 games and lost three, leading his team to a Superbowl victory. His defense was ranked sixth in the league that year, littered with many veterans and potential Hall of Fame players. Similarly, Wilson's first year as a rookie in 2012 he went 11-5 and led his team to a playoff win. The defense was ranked first overall that year. Lastly, Kaepernick, whose first year starting was also in 2012, led his team to a 5-2 record in the seven games he started, and reached the Superbowl. The trend among these three quarterbacks, although Kaepernick and Wilson only have a few years of experience, is that a good defense makes the job of a quarterback slightly easier, and potentially compensates for his flaws.
In contrast, Weinke, Weeden and JaMarcus all had defenses in the bottom half of the league. This may have caused the quarterbacks mistakes to be magnified as a weak defense was unable to stop opposing offenses from capitalizing on opportunities.
The next question is how all of this relates back to the 2014 draft? The first conclusion is that a quarterback must have talent. Tim Tebow lacked traditional quarterback talent, but had such a strong defense he was able to narrowly squeak out a playoff winning season. The next year the Broncos brought in Peyton Manning and they became one of the top-five teams in the league. Similarly, Russell Wilson won the Superbowl in February, but it isn't hard to believe that if you plugged in Andrew Luck to that system the Seahawks would have had similar success. Once you have a talented enough quarterback, it is important to introduce him to a team that has a very strong defense.
A critic of this theory might ask, doesn't the quarterback's play help the defense? It is a valid question, but considering the Tebow example and many like it, it is safe to say a good quarterback and a strong defense share a symbiotic relationship, where each improves the others ability.
This year there are two teams with solid defenses that could be transformed by a young, talented quarterback. The first is the St. Louis Rams. Although they do have a quality starter in Sam Bradford, he is often injured, playing only two full seasons the past four years. The team had the 13th best defense last year and, with a strong surrounding group, could be one playmaking quarterback away from the playoffs.
Similarly, in the same conference there is the Arizona Cardinals. They had the seventh ranked defense last year, and are led at quarterback by an aging Carson Palmer. At thirty-four he is a league journeyman, playing with three different teams over his career after facing injuries in his early-twenties. They too are one young playmaking quarterback away from becoming a very strong team in the league.
Although analysts will speculate quarterbacks ability and fit for potential teams, know that the probability of them being correct is no more than 50%. Talented players enter the league every year, but unless they are paired with the right team and fit, it is highly unlikely they will ever reach their full potential.