Hunger games

The craze for quarterbacks is turning NFL teams loopy

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Something changed in the NFL draft in 1998. Well, wait, before we get to that, let’s begin with a concept Bill James taught me, one I’ve come to call the “Top 10 Prospects” principle. If you follow baseball, you know that every team has its own list of prospects. Google “Phillies top 10 prospects” or “Tigers top 10 prospects” or “Padres top 10 prospects” and various lists will appear.

That’s the principle: Every team has top 10 prospects.

So that’s obvious, right? Well, yes, but what’s easy to miss is that these lists are independent from the overriding reality. Yes, every team has a top-10 prospects list because every team has a bunch of minor league players. But that doesn’t mean that the team ACTUALLY has 10 good prospects. They might have 20 good prospects. They might have 7. They might have none.

The Washington Nationals’ No. 1 prospect is Lucas Giolito, a 6-foot-6 force of nature who throws an upper-90s fastball and backbreaking curveball. He’s just about major league ready, the scouts say, and a potential superstar.

The Seattle Mariners’ top prospect is, well, maybe Alex Jackson, an extremely raw 20-year-old who is said to have extreme power potential but hit .157 with zero home runs in 28 games with Class-A Clinton last year.

They’re both No. 1 prospects.

Now, it must be said: It’s possible that Alex Jackson will end up being a better player than Lucas Giolito. We can’t really know yet. But that’s not how you would bet. The point is that saying someone is the Mariners’ top prospect is not the same as saying that someone is the Nationals’ top prospect.

With that in mind: Every single year there are top quarterback prospects available in the NFL draft. That’s obvious. There will always be star quarterbacks coming out of college. This year, it’s Jared Goff and Carson Wentz. Last year it was Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota. The year before that it was Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater.

Every year, every single year, there will be quarterback prospects.

But are they REALLY prospects? And more to the point: Does anyone even know anymore?

Something changed in the NFL draft in 1998. That was the year, you might recall, that Indianapolis was forced to make the tough decision between Tennesee’s Peyton Manning and Washington State’s Ryan Leaf. Though that choice seems comical now, it was quite a big deal back then. Leaf was a 6-foot-5 quarterback with a bazooka of an arm. I had an NFL coach tell me flat out that he would take Leaf because, as he said, “He’s got that look in his eyes!” The Colts believed — rightly, as it turns out — that with the first pick in the draft they were making a colossal decision that would shape the entire future of the organization. They decided not to use the “look in his eye” technique and they took Manning.

As the guy said in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: They chose wisely.

And, it seems that there was a fundamental shift in the NFL thinking then. Before 1998, if you look back at the drafts, NFL teams drafted quarterbacks high ONLY when they believed those quarterbacks were good enough to be impact players. The teams weren’t always right. But they were much more discerning.

In 1997, Jim Druckenmiller was the first quarterback taken — with the 26th overall pick. In 1996, no quarterback was taken in the first round. Sure, when a potential star quarterback came along — a Drew Bledsoe, a Troy Aikman, even a Jeff George — teams would grab him with the No. 1 overall pick. But when there were no particularly interesting quarterback prospects to choose from, teams would move on.

There are numerous ways you can show this:

1. Since 1998, there have been 49 quarterbacks drafted in the first round — almost three per draft.

In the 28 drafts before that, there were only 47 quarterbacks drafted in the first round — less than two per round.

2. Since 1998, there has been a quarterback taken in the first round EVERY YEAR.

In the 28 drafts before that, there were five years where a quarterback was not taken.

3. Since 1998, the average place for the top quarterback is the second overall pick. In 12 of those 18 drafts, a quarterback was the first overall selection.

In the 28 drafts before that, the average place for the top quarterback was the 15th pick. In only eight of those 28 drafts was the quarterback the first pick.

There are more teams drafting now than there were in those earlier drafts, of course, so that explains part of the difference. But mainly it seems that teams, knowing what franchise quarterbacks can mean for success, are going all-in on whatever quarterback class happens to be coming out. It turns out great the year that Cam Newton comes out. It’s not quite so good the year JaMarcus Russell comes out.

And you wonder if teams can even tell the difference. Since 1998, the Cleveland Browns have taken four quarterbacks in the first round — Tim Couch, Brady Quinn, Brandon Weeden and the lamentable Johnny Manziel. That hasn’t worked out great for them, which might be why they traded out of the No. 2 spot in the draft this year. Jacksonville has taken three pulls at the roulette wheel with Byron Leftwich, Blaine Gabbert and, most recently, Blake Bortles. Detroit has taken Matthew Stafford and Joe Harrington with No. 1 overall and No. 3 picks. Hey! Look! Quarterback! Take that guy!

Just about every NFL mock draft now has quarterback Jared Goff going No. 1 overall to the Rams and quarterback Carson Wentz going No. 2 to the Eagles. I guess some think it could be Wentz first, then Goff. But that really leads to the same question.

Are Goff and Wentz REALLY potential franchise quarterbacks?

Maybe they are. I’m just saying it’s a pretty stunning coincidence that there happen to be two franchise-type quarterbacks in this year’s draft, and there were also two in last year’s draft, and there were three in the 2012 draft and four in the 2011 draft and so on. That seems like A LOT of potential franchise quarterbacks.

Goff and Wentz were not considered the No. 1 and No. 2 prospects in the draft back at the beginning of the year. Most projections then had Ole Miss offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil as the first pick. Ohio State’s Joey Bosa, Florida’s Vernon Hargreaves, UCLA’s Myles Jack — these were the top guys. Goff was viewed as a top-10 pick, but maybe closer to 10. There were mock drafts that did not have Wentz going in the first round.

Now, they’re franchise-makers. Were their combines THAT good?

Here is a “scout’s take” on Goff in Nolan Nawrocki’s always-entertaining draft preview:

“Goff doesn’t feel pressure at all. He telegraphs his throws. … He is accurate. He can throw the deep ball. … I think he’s a solid quarterback. I don’t think he is Aaron Rodgers.”

And here is Nawrocki’s take on Wentz:

“Prototype-sized, smart, light footed, small school passer … is loaded with upside … is not yet ready for prime time and ideally will have some time to be groomed behind an established veteran.”

That sounds reasonable. Both of them have talent. Both of them, in the right situation and with development, might turn out to be terrific. But you can’t help but wonder if the hunger of NFL teams to find that next franchise quarterback makes them lose all sense of perspective. They’ve become like Vegas gamblers who have started digging into their nest eggs.

Since 1998, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Phillip Rivers, Cam Newton and Andrew Luck have all been No. 1 overall picks. But so have Joey Harrington, Akili Smith, Tim Couch, David Carr, JaMarcus Russell and the ever-drifting Sam Bradford and RGIII.

Jared Goff, assuming he’s the first pick, will be expected to carry a new franchise in California.

Carson Wentz, assuming he’s the second pick, will be jumping from North Dakota State to the firestorm that is Philadelphia Eagles football.

Are they the sort of singular talents good enough and prepared enough to handle that sort of jump? Obviously teams have to come up with their own answers. But you wonder if teams are even asking the question. You wonder if they’re not just saying: Well, these are the top prospects. They must be good.