The Great Quarterback Gamble - Part III

Today we wrap up our look at the hits and misses of drafting quarterbacks in the first round, and work our way to the present day. Were NFL Teams any more successful at this exercise in the last few years? What does it mean for the future?

In 2006, much of the talk leading up to the draft centered around running back Reggie Bush. A human highlight reel at USC, Bush was predicted to be another Gale Sayers in the NFL. Bush has since been more comparable to Oprah's friend, Gayle King, rather than Gale Sayers, but we're talking about quarterbacks here.

The Houston Texans surprised everyone by declining the opportunity to select Bush first overall, instead selecting defensive end Mario Williams, but that's not to say there wasn't any debate or intrigue surrounding the quarterback position in the 2006 draft.


2006
Pick #3 - Vince Young - Tennessee Titans
Pick #10 - Matt Leinart - Arizona Cardinals
Pick #11 - Jay Cutler - Denver Broncos


Vince Young was an athlete the scouts drooled over coming out of Texas. Young had become a prime time superstar, leading the Longhorns in a last-minute National Championship victory over USC in the 2006 Rose Bowl. His college career was full of tantalizing displays of athleticism, as he combined tremendous running ability with big plays in the passing game.

Despite concerns about Young's lack of pocket-passing experience and a reportedly low score on the Wonderlic test, his size and physical tools quickly placed him near the top of player prospects entering the draft. The Tennessee Titans, looking for an eventual replacement for longtime field general Steve McNair, made Young the first quarterback selected. McNair was not quite ready to play teacher for the kid who was coming to put him out of work, so the Titans traded McNair to the Baltimore Ravens, drastically moving up the timetable of Young's development.

Young made his first start in Week 4 of his rookie season, and started every game for the remainder of the year. Struggling early, he showed improvement as the season progressed, and the Titans won seven of their final eight games to finish 8-8. In those games, Young accounted for 11 touchdowns (four rushing) to just five interceptions.

Hopes were understandably high for Young the following year, but his development stalled. Though the Titans finished the season with a 10-6 record and a playoff berth, Young's stat line was unimpressive as he threw only nine touchdowns against 17 interceptions, posting a 71.1 quarterback rating. Questions surfaced among fans and media in regards to Young's future as a top-flight quarterback.

Those questions remain to this day, as Young started only the first game of the 2008 season before leaving due to a knee injury. Kerry Collins stepped in to lead the Titans to a 13-3 record and a division title, while Young was the subject of bizarre off-field drama. Where Young goes from here is anyone's guess, as the Titans have publicly committed to keeping Collins as their starter in 2009.

Matt Leinart had nearly as much hype as Young entering the NFL. As the quarterback of a high-power USC team, he put up strong numbers in college, led the Trojans to a National Championship, and was awarded the Heisman Trophy in 2004. Leinart was regarded as the proverbial "golden boy quarterback," and was expected to make a smooth transition to the pro game.


Jay Cutler - great stats, but no playoffs.
Jamie Squire - Getty

Despite high grades, Leinart experienced a surprising fall to the 10th pick, where Arizona grabbed him. He worked his way into the starting lineup early on, and had a passable rookie season, with an 11 to 12 touchdown-to-interception ratio, though the Cardinals only managed four victories in his 11 starts.

Like Young, Leinart struggled in his sophomore campaign, starting only five games and sharing snaps with Kurt Warner. He suffered a broken collarbone in Week 5 and missed the remainder of the season. Competing with Warner for the starting spot in the 2008 preseason, Leinart was beaten out, and watched from the sidelines as the veteran not only produced an NFL MVP-caliber season, but led the Cardinals to their first ever Super Bowl appearance. With Warner pondering retirement, Leinart may have an opportunity to reclaim the starting job in 2009, but a return from Warner may continue to postpone Leinart's development.

Jay Cutler was a "dark horse" of sorts in the draft, receiving less "pub" than Young or Leinart, but still building a strong following among many experts. His arm strength was unmatched by other prospects, and his ideal size and demeanor had him rising steadily up the draft boards.

After receiving interest from several teams, it came as a bit of a shock when the Denver Broncos selected Cutler with the 11th pick. The Broncos were coming off an appearance in the AFC Championship game the previous season, and quarterback Jake Plummer was enjoying a resurgent career.

Even more surprising was Cutler's entrance into the starting lineup with five games remaining in the 2006 regular season, with the Broncos still in contention for the playoffs. Denver finished 2-3 in Cutler's starts and missed the playoffs, but the young quarterback was impressive, throwing nine touchdowns and five interceptions, good for an 88.5 quarterback rating.

Cutler has since gone on to start every game for the Broncos, both in 2007 and 2008. In 2007, Cutler threw for 20 touchdowns and 14 interceptions for an 88.1 quarterback rating, but the Broncos stumbled to a 7-9 record. In 2008, though Cutler threw 25 touchdowns against 18 interceptions (posting an 86.0 quarterback rating), the Broncos again struggled to rise above mediocrity, finishing 8-8 and missing the playoffs for the third straight season.

The postseason drought, combined with continued defensive deficiencies, led to the unexpected firing of long-time Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan. With the coach who drafted him now gone, Cutler will again shoulder the lion's share of the responsibility to lead the Broncos back to contention in 2009.

Despite the struggles, 2006 would rate as one of the stronger rookie quarterback classes of the last few decades. Would 2007 raise the bar?


2007
Pick #1 - JaMarcus Russell - Oakland Raiders
Pick #22 - Brady Quinn - Cleveland Browns


A quarterback returned to the top draft slot in 2007, as the Oakland Raiders were enamored with Russell's size and arm strength. Listed at 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds (though 260 may well be in Russell's rear view mirror these days) and possessing one of the strongest throwing arms in the league, Russell represented the type of quarterback Raiders owner Al Davis sees in his dreams (when he's not dreaming about suing the NFL for the 873rd time).

After his selection, Russell sat through a prolonged contract holdout, missing all of training camp, preseason, and several weeks of the regular season. Finally, he signed a massive contract worth a reported $68 million, including $35 million in guaranteed money. Russell raked in an exorbitant amount of money while receiving no playing time until he began spot duty in Week 13. He finally made his first career start in the season finale. His final stat line was four games, two touchdowns, four interceptions, and a 55.9 quarterback rating.

Russell's career began in earnest in 2008, as he made 15 starts and posted respectable if unspectacular numbers. Despite weathering a mid-season change of head coaches, he led the Raiders to a 5-11 record (going 3-3 in the final six games), throwing 13 touchdowns to eight interceptions for a 77.1 quarterback rating.

Russell has yet to truly hit it big on the NFL scene (in any area other than his bank account), but has already shown more promise than many quarterbacks who shared his lofty draft status. Whether or not Russell will be able to prosper in the whirlwind that is the Oakland Raiders remains to be seen, but his talent cannot be disputed.


Browns fans are still waiting for Brady Quinn to do something.
Matt Sullivan - Getty

Brady Quinn found himself in an uncomfortable position that was reminiscent of the Aaron Rodgers saga during the 2005 draft. Quinn was highly-rated coming out of Notre Dame, and was lining up endorsement deals before his pro career officially began. But due to a confluence of various factors, Quinn began a long slide down the board on draft day.

It was heavily speculated that the Chiefs would be interested in Quinn should he be available at their spot (#23) in the first round. The Browns, still trying to field a respectable team since the rebirth of the franchise in 1999, were wary enough of the Chiefs' intentions that they traded a package of draft picks to Dallas in order to jump up to the 22nd spot and draft Quinn.

Quinn began the season in the third spot on the Browns' depth chart, but moved up to the second string when Charlie Frye was traded to Seattle. It was thought to be a foregone conclusion that Quinn would quickly work his way into the starting lineup, but things didn't exactly work out that way.

Derek Anderson played well enough to hold off Quinn and lead the Browns to a 10-6 record. Quinn only saw action in one game his rookie year, completing three of eight passes with no touchdowns or interceptions. Though trade rumors swirled in the offseason, the Browns chose to retain both Anderson and Quinn entering 2008.

Anderson's erratic play through the first half of the season, along with the growing outcry from Browns fans for a quarterback change, saw Quinn finally make his ascension to the starting lineup. Starting only three games before suffering a finger injury, Quinn won one game, throwing two touchdowns, two interceptions and posting a 66.6 quarterback rating. The starting job in Cleveland is currently up in the air for 2009, but Quinn would seem to have the edge. Cleveland fans will wait and see if all those protein shakes will improve his play on the field.

After several years of highs and lows among first-round quarterbacks, was it finally time for an NFL rookie quarterback jackpot?


2008
Pick #3 - Matt Ryan - Atlanta Falcons
Pick #18 - Joe Flacco - Baltimore Ravens


Opinions on Matt Ryan were split leading up to the draft. Some scouts claimed he was everything a team could possibly want in a franchise quarterback, while others countered by pointing to the 19 interceptions he threw as a senior. After the Falcons selected Ryan, he quickly went to work proving the first group of scouts right, completing his first regular season NFL pass for a 62-yard touchdown.

Ryan started all 16 games for the Falcons, becoming the first rookie quarterback since Peyton Manning to reach the 3,000-yard mark. He threw 17 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, and compiled an 87.7 quarterback rating. More importantly, Ryan led the Falcons to an 11-5 record (including a dramatic comeback win over the Bears in Week 6), good enough to give Atlanta its first trip to the playoffs since the 2004 season. In one impressive rookie season, Ryan has erased the storm clouds left behind by the Michael Vick situation, and appears to have a bright future.


Joe Flacco, making Ravens fans forget Kyle Boller.
Jonathan Daniel - Getty

Much in the same fashion as Ryan, Joe Flacco had his share of both supporters and critics when it came to his potential in the draft. Possessing prototype NFL quarterback size (6-foot-6, 230 pounds), and a cannon for a throwing arm, Flacco's late surge shot him up draft boards. Detractors were wary of the fact that Flacco's alma mater (Delaware) wasn't exactly known as a star factory for NFL talent, but the Ravens were beginning a new era, post-Brian Billick, and were impressed enough with Flacco to pay the price in trade for an opportunity to move up and take Flacco at the 18th spot.

The Ravens named Flacco the starter prior to the regular season, and he rewarded the team with 16 starts, 14 touchdowns against 12 interceptions, and an 80.3 rating. Baltimore finished 11-5 and made it all the way to the AFC Championship game before losing to the eventual Super Bowl-winning Pittsburgh Steelers. Some may call attention to the Ravens' heavy reliance on their defense, but it's safe to say that Kyle Boller would have trampled a group of elderly nuns to have a chance to post numbers similar to Flacco's.

That brings us up to today, and judging by every draft since 1998, history all but proves what a treacherous adventure it can be to use a high first-round draft choice on a quarterback. Obviously, when that choice is right (Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan), you can set your franchise up for success for years to come. But when that choice goes wrong (Tim Couch, David Carr, Alex Smith, and many, many others), it can cost the team dearly, in both dollar amounts and the number of years it takes to recover.

Will the Chiefs look to use their top draft choice on a quarterback? Matt Stafford? Mark Sanchez? Who knows. But if they do, be prepared, because the business of drafting a quarterback is a dangerous minefield.

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