The big story of the NFL Draft was the absence of quarterbacks being taken in the early rounds. It's not that NFL teams have stopped putting value on the quarterback position. After all, the league is in a passing-friendly era in which 4,000-yard passing seasons are no longer rare.
The combination of greater emphasis on passing, schematic evolution that make pass offenses harder to stop, rules that make pass defense more difficult, and colleges that throw frequently and therefore produce pro-ready quarterbacks have all caused the NFL to become air-obsessed.
And it's not that the current crop of quarterbacks is so deep that very few teams are looking for a talent upgrade at the position. In an era in which 4,000-yard seasons have become the norm, bad quarterbacks are even more obvious.
So despite the facts that the NFL is in a pass-heavy era and at least 10 teams entered the Draft needing an upgrade under center, there was only one quarterback taken in each of the first three rounds. The near-consensus top three pro prospects before the season -- Matt Barkley, Tyler Wilson, and Landry Jones -- all waited until the fourth round to come off the board.
Maybe this was just a weak class of quarterbacks. It wouldn't be the first time that NFL teams were unimpressed with the quarterback wares in a given year. In 2000, only one quarterback went in the first round and three went in the first three rounds. Likewise, 1997 saw one first-rounder and only two in the first three rounds. Years like this just happen.
A second possibility is that NFL teams have gotten better at accounting for the effects of systems and surrounding talent. Think about the quarterbacks who plummeted from first round status:
- Geno Smith comes from a version of the air raid in which one-third of his passes were thrown behind the line of scrimmage. How much of his success was his own talent and how much was the result of Dana Holgorsen (or Tavon Austin)?
- Barkley spent his career throwing to Robert Woods and Marqise Lee. How much of the struggles of USC quarterbacks in the pros has been the result of no longer playing with the talent advantage that comes with playing for the dominant program in the nation's most populous state?
- To a lesser extent, the same could be said about Jones. He played in an offense-friendly conference in a well-coached attack for a program that has more talent than almost all of the teams that it plays. Is that good preparation for the NFL?
- Wilson regressed without the benefit of Bobby Petrino running the offense. Was the Wilson who looked like a first round pick just an example of Petrino CGI?
- Ryan Nassib played for a coach whose system got him the Buffalo Bills' head coaching job. That coach then promptly took a different quarterback in the first round, one who had played in the underwhelming Jimbo Fisher offense.*
* - This is a pet theory of mine. NFL teams should look for quarterbacks who did not play in advanced schemes and who did not have a massive talent advantage in college. Which major program has produced the best NFL quarterbacks? Michigan, a team whose offenses were predictable enough that bowl opponents would routinely say things like, "we knew what was coming." You want to give a quarterback the experience of throwing under NFL conditions? Let him play against opponents who can guess the play based on formation and personnel.
The simple fact is that it is increasingly difficult to differentiate a quarterback from his system. College offenses have made massive strides over the past two decades. From the variants of the air raid and the spread-to-run attack to the pistol and the various tweaks of the pro-style offense, college coaches have gotten very good at putting their players in position to succeed. So when a quarterback like Smith throws for 8,590 yards and 73 touchdowns in two seasons, how much credit do we give him as opposed to the scheme and talent around him?
How does one isolate the value of Smith's numbers?
In fact, college offenses have gotten so good that NFL teams have started to incorporate their concepts. In prior decades, a "college offense" was the wishbone or the power-I, which had limited passing games. NFL teams could safely ignore James Street and Darian Hagan as they continued to look for pocket passers.
Now, the most common "college offense" is the Rich Rodriguez/Urban Meyer/Chip Kelly spread-to-run attack, which has a significant passing component. Thus, many NFL teams have incorporated parts of these offenses, as well as the pistol, which also allows the use of the quarterback in the running game. These NFL teams now have to consider quarterbacks running a college offense, which means they have to wade deeper into the "is it the system or the player?" question. (The underlying assumption here is that spread-to-run is a better way to skin a cat and is therefore more likely to generate distorting statistics than a pro-style offense will.)
Also, it's interesting to note that none of the players listed above were spread-to-run quarterbacks. After the success of the 49ers, Seahawks, and Redskins in 2012, maybe this was the wrong year to be a quarterback in the Draft who did not have much in the way of rushing yardage in college?
Now put yourself in the shoes of an NFL GM whose team has a need at quarterback. If you take a signal-caller in the first round, then the success or failure of your pick is going to be evident every time your team takes the field. Even the most casual of fans can judge whether the quarterback you drafted is playing well. And yet this decision that is going to have disproportionate impact in terms of how you are evaluated is marked by inherent uncertainty. There's no good way to predict how a quarterback is going to do when he moves from the air raid to a pro-style offense.
Contrast the guesswork that is required when drafting a quarterback with the relative certainty of taking an offensive tackle. While a quarterback's performance in college is heavily dependent on the scheme and the surrounding talent, a tackle's tasks can be isolated almost like a hitter's in baseball. Did this tackle keep the opposing defensive lineman or outside linebacker away from the quarterback? Secondarily, when the tackle is tasked with blocking an opponent on a running play, can he push the opponent out of the way or at least shield the opponent from the ball carrier? Playing offensive tackle is a mentally complex position, as evidenced by the fact that tackles collectively have the highest Wonderlic scores, but the tasks that college tackles perform translate closely to what they are asked to do in the NFL. It's no accident that offensive tackles have a much lower bust rate than quarterbacks. This has been true for decades, and the phenomenon will only get more pronounced as college offenses evolve.*
* - One counter: we are one year removed from a Draft in which three quarterbacks were taken in the top eight picks. Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III were the top two picks and proceeded to lead their teams to the playoffs. It's quite possible that the tackle-heavy, quarterback-light approach in the first round this year was just a blip. On the other hand, Luck and Griffin ended up taking a back seat to Colin Kaepernick (a second-round pick) and Russell Wilson (a third-round pick) by the end of the season, which may illustrate the value in waiting to select a quarterback.
For college football fans who like points and yards, this is a golden era. The Pac-12, which was always an offense-friendly league, has retained that status and has been joined by the Big XII as conferences where games played in the 30s and 40s are the norm. The Big Ten has imported a spread innovator as the head coach at Ohio State and a pro-style expert at Penn State, the latter of whom managed to turn an offense with a walk-on quarterback into one that scored 29 points per game. And the SEC, long thought of (at least in the imagination of Gary Danielson) as a defense-first league, just produced an air raid Heisman winner, and two of its teams - Georgia and Texas A&M - tied for the national lead in yards per play.
But while the array of clever offensive schemes is fun for fans, it makes life harder for NFL GMs. A top-level quarterback is an absolute must for a team to win in a pass-friendly era, but the process of drafting a quarterback has never been more fraught with peril.
If Dana Holgorsen can produce an assembly line of 4,000-yard passers, then how do we know whether his latest quarterback is anything more than a product of an offense that creates open receivers and easy reads? If Bill O'Brien can get 3,217 yards, 24 touchdowns, and only five picks out of Matt McGloin, then how can an NFL GM be confident that another quarterback's similar numbers (for instance, Matt Barkley threw for 3,273 yards, 36 touchdowns, and 15 picks) are worth consideration? You're damned if you take a quarterback on little more than a wing and a prayer, but you're also damned if you trot out Mark Sanchez for another season.*
* - This conundrum also extends to college awards voters. How much value should they put on the stats produced by Wisconsin running backs or Oklahoma quarterbacks when those numbers are consistently high? Again, how do we separate the player from the context?