Putting the 2018 QB Class into Historical Context
In about a month, we will see five or six quarterbacks get drafted in the first round. Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield, Josh Rosen, Lamar Jackson, and Josh Allen are virtual locks, while Mason Rudolph has a solid chance to join them but could fall to Day Two. Depending on where the dominoes fall in late April, the 2018 QB class could be historic in terms of draft position. (Sidenote: the drafts I’ll be comparing it to in the next section are since 1970, when the AFL-NFL merger went down).
Will the 2018 QB Class be Historic in Terms of Draft Position?
Since 1970, 22 quarterbacks have been selected with the top pick. In seven of those drafts, the second overall selection was also a QB. While there’s a great shot 2018 will enter those ranks, it’s certainly not breaking new ground. In 1971, Jim Plunkett, Archie Manning, and Dan Pastorini were taken back-to-back-to-back to start the draft. Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb, and Akili Smith did the same in 1999. This year’s class could certainly join that club, with Darnold/Rosen/Mayfield as the most likely trio to accomplish the feat. With rumors the Browns and Giants could opt for this year’s “generational” talent at running back in the dynamic Saquon Barkley, there’s a chance a QB sweep may not come to fruition.
Whether or not three quarterbacks are taken to start the draft, all signs point to four QBs going in the top 10. This would be the 1999 draft, whose fourth QB (Daunte Culpepper) was taken 11th overall. With the Browns, Giants, Broncos, and Jets all looking to find a QB of the future, the top four QBs of the 2018 class are likely to go by pick five or six, and beat the 1999 draft. Cade McNown was taken a pick after Culpepper, meaning 1999 saw five passers taken in the top dozen picks. Most mock drafts or rankings do not have all of Darnold, Mayfield, Rosen, Jackson, and Allen in the top 12. One of the latter two guys is usually left out, depending on whether the author leans toward film or metrics. However, when the QBs start flying off the board early, I expect at least one of the Dolphins, Bills, Washington, and Cardinals to trade up and join the action. If so, the fifth QB off the board could be taken as highly as sixth overall, but I’d put money on that occurring by the 10th pick.
While some would argue for 2004, the 1983 QB class is usually regarded as the best of all time. It’s debatable from a hindsight point of view, but teams put their money where their mouth is at the time in 1983. John Elway, Todd Blackledge, Jim Kelly, Tony Eason, Ken O’Brien, and Dan Marino were all taken in the first round, spread out among the first 27 picks. Where Rudolph is taken will determine whether 2018 ties 1983 with six first-round signal-callers. Even if that happens, it’s not a sure thing Rudolph will become the highest-drafted sixth QB of all time. Maybe the Cardinals can’t trade up but still want a QB, maybe the Bengals or Chargers surprise us by getting out in front of replacing their franchise QB. But I think a better bet is that one of the Saints, Steelers, or Patriots will sacrifice immediate help for a Super Bowl run to grab an apprentice behind their geriatric Hall of Famer. If not, it’s hard to see Rudolph getting past the mid-second round, where there will surely be a team or two mentioned above that didn’t go QB on Day 1.
After the top-six QBs of the 2018 class, Mike White, Kyle Lauletta, and Luke Falk are likely to be next off the board at the position. If one of them is taken in the second round, it would be the first time seven QBs were taken that highly. It’s more likely all of these guys will go in the third or fourth round. Seven QBs have been taken by the end of the third round five times, but 2018 could see eight or even nine. These mid-round prospects are solid and some of the lottery tickets later are intriguing, but this year’s class is being buoyed by a top-six that could break a few draft records.
Is the 2018 QB Class Deserving of Historic Status?
There’s going to be a lot of draft capital thrown at quarterbacks in April. Is this justified by talent or is it a heavy dose of hype plus a dearth of franchise QBs in the league to blame? I tackled this objectively with my QB prospect model. Since draft capital is a significant factor in that, I’m relying on consensus from industry mock drafts, but on average, those are likely more conservative than what will happen in April. Also, due to availability of college data, I will be comparing the 15 QB classes since 2004.
In my last article, I dove into what attributes are important for quarterback prospects. College performance (TANY/A*), age, and percent of college production coming from rushing (Rush%) are the pre-draft attributes that have stood out in my research. (Note: Nick Giffen and Jonathan Bales have shown hand size is a significant factor as well, and I’ll test that as soon as I get my hands on a full dataset for it). A film component is necessary as well, but I haven’t been able to find a source comprehensive enough for my liking. So for now, I’m using draft capital, which is cream of the crop in predicting longevity for QBs, but needs significant help from the above factors in predicting efficiency at the NFL level. Currently, my model features a split of 50% draft capital, 25% TANY/A*, 15% Rush%, and 10% age. This model predicts longevity on the level of draft capital alone, but is 36% more predictive of career efficiency.
Measuring which QB class is the best or worst depends on how you set the bar. Are you looking for top-end talent, pure depth, or a combination of both? I’ll look at it a number of different ways, so you can decide for yourself. Just remember that this is measuring how good the prospects were at the time, not how successful they ended up being.
The Worst QB Class Since 2004
There are two clear choices here. If you’re looking for early-round talent, 2013 takes the cake. That year hosts the worst QB1 prospect of a class in E.J. Manuel. It also holds the distinction of worst collection of top-X QBs when X equals 1 all the way up to eight. Manuel, Geno Smith, Matt Barkley, Tyler Wilson, Landry Jones, Ryan Nassib, Mike Glennon, and B.J. Daniels. A sad group of passers if you look at it now, but they were equally uninspiring at the time of the draft. 2013 marks the lone draft in the sample in which only one quarterback was taken in the first round, or fewer than four QBs were selected by the third round. The 2013 class was devoid of top/mid-tier prospects. Even with hindsight, it’s only joined by 2007 with not a single QB resulting in a hit.
Despite the dearth of prospects in 2013, the 2015 QB class looks worse from a depth perspective. There was some top-end talent as Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota went back-to-back to start the draft, but only seven QBs were drafted in 2015. That’s three fewer than any other year in the sample, and you’d have to go back over 60 years (when there were just 12 teams in the NFL) to find a draft with seven or fewer QB selections. This was all justified, as the only undrafted QB that year to make even a brief appearance in the NFL was Nick Marshall, playing cornerback.
Ultimately, a decision needs to be made. I’d rather have the top-end talent that came with the historically shallow 2015 class. That leaves 2013 and its lack of QB talent throughout the draft as the worst quarterback class in the (Eli) Manning era.
The Best QB Class Since 2004
Now on to the top classes. I’ll review how it looks now, and then look at how the 2018 group compares. When looking at top-end talent, a few different classes stick out, depending on the exact lens you view it through. Cam Newton (2011) is the best prospect in our timeframe, but the 2015 duo of Mariota and Winston is the best. Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III are close, though. Ryan Tannehill and Russell Wilson were strong second-tier prospects behind them, so 2012 clocks in with the top trio/quartet of QB prospects.
The 2011 class shines when looking at top-five QBs all the way through top-13 (even though there were just 12 drafted that year). Cam is followed by a relatively weak 2-3 punch of Jake Locker and Blaine Gabbert. After that, Colin Kaepernick, Christian Ponder, Andy Dalton, Ryan Mallett, and Tyrod Taylor represent the strongest bunch of mid-tier prospects in the sample. Three of the four weaker QB prospects in the class were still taken in the fifth round.
The 2016 class was historic in terms of pure depth. Carson Wentz, Jared Goff, Paxton Lynch, Dak Prescott, and Jacoby Brissett were a fine top-five. But the strength of this class comes with the amount of early/mid-round selections. Nine QBs were off the board by the end of the fourth round, which is only matched by 1995 and 1999. That includes the worst second round QB selection of my sample in Christian Hackenberg, who was actually the worst prospect of the class, if we take out draft capital. The high selection dragged him up to 10th — still a far cry from his QB4 status, if you sort by draft order. (Sorry Jets fans, I know this is not a fun article for you). The 15th-best prospect in the class, Brandon Doughty would’ve ranked 10th or 11th in most years, and would’ve edged out Trevor Siemian for seventh in the previous class.
A few different QB classes shined in different aspects, but I’ll take 2011 for having the top prospect in 15 years, while also having a solid top-five and a great middle tier. Plus it’s chock full of mobile quarterbacks, which happen to be my weakness. Hence, why I’m writing an article series about a QB efficiency metric that adds rushing to the equation.
So How Does 2018 Stack Up?
I know, I’ve written 1,700 words and I haven’t answered the question that sparked this piece. Despite being data-driven in my approach, I’m a long-form writer in a short-form world. But if you’ve read any of my articles and are still here, you must be cool with that, so let’s keep this party going.
This QB class has been hyped to oblivion, and I’ve loved it since I first dove into prospect season. Besides the talent that’s present, there’s a wide variety of archetypes. Here’s how I summarized it back in January:
- Short QB with insane college production.
- Super-young QB who checks all the boxes.
- Super-athletic young QB with solid passing efficiency.
- Young QB with okay production but a scout’s dream.
- Big QB w/ bigger arm but poor production.
- Big QB w/ great production getting no love.
Not only is it an interesting collection of prospects, but it could be a historic one. Above, I outlined that case from a draft capital perspective, but is that justified? The answer is yes. Absolutely. Out of 15 draft classes in the sample, the 2018 bunch holds…
- The sixth-best QB1 (currently Darnold).
- The third-best QB2 (Mayfield).
- The best QB3/QB4/QB5 (Jackson/Rosen/Allen).
- The second-best QB6 (Rudolph).
The mid/late-round prospects are middle of the pack compared to past drafts, but the strength of the 2018 class is carried by the six first-round prospects. They rate well individually for their respective ranks, but they really shine as a group. The 2018 QB class ranks…
- Second in top-three talent.
- First in top-four, top-five, top-six, and top-seven.
- Second in top-eight through top-11.
- First in top-12 through top-14.
The 2018 draft class trails only 2012 (Luck, Griffin, Tannehill) in top-end talent, but ranks highest in early-round overall talent. The 2011 class is still best in terms of mid-round talent, but 2018’s depth overall is cream of the crop. Also, I mentioned above that we could see four or even five quarterbacks go in the top 10 this year, especially if trade-ups cause a frenzy (we’ve already seen one, with the Jets trading up to No. 3 overall). If so, this year’s crop of quarterbacks would look even better than summarized just above. We won’t know for sure until late-April, but the 2018 QBs are arguably the best group to enter the league in the last 15 years. There’s a case for 2012 and 2011, depending how you weigh depth vs. elite options. But the hype is real for the 2018 QB class, and I can’t wait to see teams scramble to get a piece of it on Draft Day!