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Why aren’t NFL teams better at drafting, developing quarterbacks?

With the Giants needing to begin a transition away from Eli Manning, it’s an important thing to understand

NCAA Football: Senior Bowl Practice-North
Quarterbacks for the North team at the Senior Bowl.
John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

“The one position that has the most mistakes in the history of football, guess what it is? Quarterback. There have been more misses at the quarterback position than any other position in football.”

That was New York Giants legendary linebacker and current radio analyst Carl Banks during a recent appearance on ‘Big Blue Kickoff Live’ via the team’s official website.

Giants general manager Dave Gettleman certainly understands the gravity of using a high draft pick on a player you hope will become your franchise quarterback. He refers to teams who flounder around unable to find their franchise guy as being in “quarterback hell.” While some might say the Giants are already there if they continue to ride with Eli Manning, Gettleman knows he does not want to make a long-term decision that puts — or leaves — the Giants there.

“ ... when you miss on a quarterback, you really hurt the franchise for probably five years. It’s a five-year mistake,” Gettleman said in his 2018 pre-draft press conference.

With quarterback chatter once again dominating the offseason for the Giants and opinions about quarterbacks seemingly coming from every corner of the draftnik globe Banks’ comment is one that deserves our attention. So, let’s spend some time examining the possible reasons for it.

A little history

There have been 53 quarterbacks selected in Round 1 since 2000. I am going to list them loosely as “successful” and “unsuccessful.” Please don’t get caught up in agreeing/disagreeing with who is in which category. I’m simply going by which quarterbacks, in my view, have lived up to their draft positions. The lists are simply meant to show how often first-round quarterback selections fail to produce the desired results.

SuccessfulChad Pennington, Michael Vick, Carson Palmer, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Alex Smith, Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Matthew Stafford, Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Marcus Mariota, Jared Goff, Caron Wentz, Patrick Mahomes, DeShaun Watson, Baker Mayfield

Unsuccessful David Carr, Joey Harrington, Patrick Ramsey, Byron Leftwich, Kyle Boller, Rex Grossman, J.P. Losman, Jason Campbell, Vince Young, Matt Leinart, Jamarcus Russell, Brady Quinn, Mark Sanchez, Josh Freeman, Sam Bradford, Tim Tebow, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill, Brandon Weeden, E.J. Manuel, Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater, Jamies Winston, Paxton Lynch

To be determinedMitchell Trubisky, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen, Lamar Jackson.

That’s 20, successful, 28 unsuccessful and 5 to be determined. Percentage-wise, I have only 37.7 percent of quarterbacks chosen in the first round listed as “successful.” That’s ... umm ... not good.

Dan Hatman of The Scouting Academy, a former NFL scout and perhaps the most knowledgeable person I know when it comes to process and what variables go into decision-making in the NFL, says the problem isn’t isolated to quarterback.

Hatman kept a spreadsheet of first-round picks from 1998 until roughly two years ago. Measuring success by whether or not each player selected made the Pro Bowl at least one time for the team that drafted him — a standard metric for NFL teams — Hatman said only 35 percent of the players taken in Round 1 during that time period met expectations.

“I don’t think it’s isolated to quarterback,” Hatman said. “We have a systemic problem in valuing players, in my opinion.

Hatman might be right — hello, Ereck Flowers — but we’re focused on quarterbacks here and we’re headed toward writing something roughly the length of ‘War and Peace,’ so let’s stay focused.

Florida State v Duke
Daniel Jones
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Case study — Daniel Jones, Duke

Let’s look at some of the things being said about Duke quarterback Daniel Jones, who seems to be a guy no one in the scouting community can really agree on. Gee, sort of like that guy who has played quarterback for the Giants for the past 15 years. What, exactly, is Jones?

After the first day of Senior Bowl practice, Scott Wright of Draft Countdown wrote that Jones was “firmly in the top 10,” that he showed “superb fundamentals and a clean, efficient throwing motion” and that “teams with a preference for polished pocket passers are going to like what they see.”

From Paul Schwartz of the New York Post:

“One high-level NFL talent evaluator told The Post that Jones is a first-round pick and “hands down’’ the best quarterback of the eight participating in the Senior Bowl.”

Jones ended up having a difficult week of practice during the Senior Bowl, but won the MVP during the game by going 8-of-11 with a touchdown pass and a rushing score. Opinions weren’t any less mixed after the game.

Some, like Charlie Campbell of Walter Football, came away believing Jones had raised his stock in the upcoming draft:

Jones was not flawless in every practice, but he showed the ability to really spin the ball. With good size and a powerful arm, Jones has the look of a NFL pocket passer. Team sources said that he interviewed well and that trend should continue as he has received excellent preparation for the NFL. A couple general managers told me that they think Jones will rise and could be the first quarterback selected next April. While Jones did not dominate on the field, he improved his draft standing with his performance at the Senior Bowl.

Others, like Joe Marino of The Draft Network, don’t even see a first-round quarterback when they watch Jones:

Jones entered the week routinely mocked by draft analysts in the top-15. Despite an “MVP” performance, I bet that changes in the next round of mocks.

From people I have spoken to, I understand the NFL likes Jones. He draws rave reviews regarding his intangibles and being David Cutcliffe’s understudy helps. With that said, I don’t see a first-round quarterback. We know what one of those looks like and Jones misses the mark. He hurt his chances this week.

There are plenty of complaints about Jones’ arm strength, and plenty of evaluators who worry about his less-than-stellar 59.9 completion percentage at Duke.

Yet, others disagree.

Jason Evans of the Duke Basketball Report, who watched Jones’ entire career with the Blue Devils, told Big Blue View that Jones is “very, very accurate on deep throws.” On the ‘Valentine’s Views’ podcast, Evans also said this:

“To me that [completion percentage] doesn’t reveal the quality of Daniel Jones’s throwing. You know the saying it takes two to tango? In a football passing attack it takes three to be successful. Those three are the QB throwing the ball, wide receivers getting open and catching the ball and the offensive line protecting the quarterback,” Evans said.

“We had a really great QB throwing the ball, we had sort of an OK offensive line, we had below average wide receivers.

“I think that when you see Daniel Jones throwing to professional NFL-quality wide receivers you’re going to see a real step up in that completion percentage. The guy is a very, very accurate passer and that’s hugely important in the NFL.”

This isn’t meant to be a scouting report or a referendum on Jones. It is meant to drive home a point. Everyone is watching the same practices. The same film. The same games. Yet, there are differing analysis or opinions.

Why is that?

Maybe it has something to do with this:

Perhaps not all 20 of those categories are applicable. Still, point is it’s hard not to believe that each and every scout, general manager, coach, draft analyst, fan with a Twitter account, has some type of bias or pre-conceived notion they bring to the table when they study players.

What do you think a quarterback should look like? How much value do you place on size? Arm strength? Escapability? Accuracy? Are you a fan of traditional quarterback play? Do you like the newer school of quarterback play, where running is more of a choice than a last resort? There are other factors. What does your coach value? What skills or traits are most important in the offense your team runs? Does a quarterback’s personality mesh with your locker room or your community?

Different conclusions can be drawn because each person is looking at something through a different lens, a different set of experiences, a different level of knowledge, a different pre-conceived notion or expectation.

Back to Hatman.

“Our cognitive biases going into a process almost invariably dictate outcomes. If you went into the Senior Bowl week liking Jones then you were less apt to crush him with each practice, and you’re probably very apt to then turn around and say that his performance in the game justified your previous conclusion,” Hatman said.

“If you didn’t like Jones going into the week you’re much more apt to say the practices told me what I thought about him on tape and the game’s irrelevant because it’s an All-Star game against competition that’s not playing difficult scheme.

“If you went down there and liked him, you found a way to like him because of the game. If you went down there and didn’t like him, you found a way not to like him because of practice.”

Hatman asks a straightforward, but important question.

“Are the people making these assessments truly able to get to an objective place and take their previous notions off the table?”

“It’s hard. Incredibly hard to do that,” Hatman said.

He added this, which is something to remember when you are falling in love with Dwayne Haskins or someone else by watching his clips on YouTube:

“The things that make or break quarterbacks are usually between their ears, not their appendages.”

Our own Mark Schofield, one of the pre-eminent quarterback analysts in the draft community, says quarterback evaluation is “more subjective of an art than any other position.”

As such, preferences — ah, let’s just use the word biases — are inherent.

“The fact is, the humans doing the evaluations all have biases,” Schofield said. “I do. We have traits that we prefer at the position. I mean, I tend to prefer the pocket type QBs. It’s why I love the [Brett] Rypien kid. Others look for people who do more off script/off structure. So trying to balance that is tough. I’ve tried to learn from past evaluations, but self-scouting isn’t easy. No one likes to revisit misses.”

Is getting it right really about self-evaluation?

“... self-scouting isn’t easy. No one likes to revisit misses.”

That is the last part of the above quote from Schofield, and it leads us to the next point. Perhaps getting the quarterback choice right — or any player choice, really — isn’t necessarily about the player. Maybe it’s about evaluating yourself — your scheme, your strengths and weaknesses as a coaching staff, as an organization. Maybe it’s about knowing your locker room, your community, your culture. Maybe all of those things are just as important as identifying a player’s physical gifts, or lack thereof.

“We can evaluate the film well. We can work to uncover who they are. How much would you give up to get him,” Hatman said.

“Our ability to understand development curves, our ability to predict how a player is going to perform in our organization, the ability to then determine the proper market value to get a player that you think can be a star in your organization is really freakin’ hard.

“It takes a lot of understanding of who you are as an organization, what your strengths and weaknesses are.”

Schofield also talked about another very human element of the equation. The desire to stay employed.

“I think the main thing to remember is that first, we’re talking about humans here. Not the quarterbacks being evaluated but the humans doing the evaluations. They have jobs, responsibilities, bills, mortgages, school tuitions, and more,” Schofield said.

“So that leads to ‘safe’ decisions. Like drafting someone that fits the mold rather than breaking it. Which is why the [Baker] Mayfield pick was virtually ground-breaking for the NFL.”

College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl - Alabama v Oklahoma
Kyler Murray
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Which brings us back to Jones ... and Kyler Murray

Jones checks most of the traditional boxes for quarterback play. He’s 6-foot-5. He has enough arm. He’s classically trained with a connection to David Cutcliffe, who coached both Peyton and Eli Manning. He’s a pocket passer, with the mobility to create using his legs. For the Giants, there is the added benefit of an existing relationship with Manning.

He’s a safe choice for a general manager. He won’t get a GM fired because he is what the NFL traditionally thinks a quarterback looks like.

Murray is ... well, different. Even in a league where shorter quarterbacks like Baker Mayfield, Russell Wilson and Drew Brees are experiencing success, Murray is in another category. He’s going to measure around 5-foot-9 at the Combine and he likely won’t come close to 200 pounds, way below the physical measurements of any successful quarterback in the modern NFL.

Murray might be great. He might also be the kind of outside the box selection that gets a general manager run out of the league.

“A decision to draft Daniel Jones in the first doesn’t get people fired right away. He checks the boxes, Looks the part, fits the mold,” Schofield said.

“Drafting Kyler Murray, however...

“A former scout told me a great story once. It’s easy to hedge on evaluations. Not sure on a guy? Put a fourth on him. If he busts; “What did you expect, I only had a fourth on him.” If he pans out: ‘Look, I had him as an early Day three guy.’”

Which all comes back to self evaluation. Are you secure enough to take a risk on something or someone different? Do you have the infra-structure, the organization and the creative coaching staff, to succeed with whatever type of quarterback you are about to select?

“For one organization he’s [Murray] going to be a fit and they’re gonna be excited and love him up and want him to be their guy, and that’s the place he should go,” Hatman said. “That’s the best chance for him to be successful.

“If a place is institutionally biased against what he presents then that shouldn’t be where he goes. The chances of him being maximized are small.”

AFC Championship - New England Patriots v Kansas City Chiefs
Patrick Mahomes ... the QB everyone is hoping to find.
Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images

The Patrick Mahomes example

When Hatman and I were discussing quarterbacks he turned the tables and asked me a simple question: Would Patrick Mahomes have produced a 50-touchdown, 5,000-yard season in 2018 if he had been drafted by the Buffalo Bills instead of the Kansas City Chiefs?

The answer, in my view and Hatman’s, is “no.”

Mahomes was taken 11th overall by the Chiefs, who traded up to get him, in 2017. Mitchell Trubisky, went No. 2 overall to the Chicago Bears. Other players selected before Mahomes included DE Solomon Thomas (No. 3, San Francisco 49ers), WR Corey Davis (No. 5, Tennessee Titans) and John Ross (No. 9, Cincinnati Bengals).

Did NFL talent evaluators not understand what they saw when watching Mahomes? Hatman argues that evaluators knew exactly what Mahomes was. It was simply a question of whether he would land in a place and with a coach able to maximize his skillset.

“I don’t think anybody who watched Patrick Mahomes at Texas Tech walked away without being impressed by his physical tools. If you talked to people at the program they raved about the kid as a person, his intelligence, his work ethic. All the things that you’d want,” Hatman said.

“I don’t think the NFL, I don’t think Draft Twitter missed on the assessment of the on film tools of Patrick Mahomes. I don’t think anybody missed on the makeup of the young man, which I’m going to argue at quarterback is more important than the physical gifts assuming you have the baseline of ability.”

Hatman calls it a “valuation question.” Mahomes landed with Kansas City, a team loaded with weapons and with a head coach in Andy Reid who is one of the best at identifying and developing quarterbacks.

“Nothing about Patrick Mahomes changes. He’s the same person, the same tools. In Kansas City he goes for 5,000 yards, 50 touchdowns. In Buffalo, he doesn’t,” he said. “It’s not the player evaluation that’s difficult. It’s understanding what he’s going to be and what you can get out of him and what your team brings with environment.

“One of the biggest bears in this whole thing is not figuring out the player, it’s figuring out your environment and what can you do?”

Put more simply, Hatman said, it’s “Who’s going to go to the best situation?”

Matt Waldman of The Rookie Scouting Portfolio absolutely nailed his 2017 pre-draft evaluation of what Mahomes was, what he needed and what he could be if he landed in the right situation. Much of what he wrote dovetails with Hatman’s thoughts on quarterbacks landing in the right place.

He wrote that Mahomes would “not be a good choice for a team that has a coach or general manager that covets the safety of a passer that thinks, moves, and functions as one of the thousands that could have rolled off an assembly line.”

Andy Reid is not that.

Waldman wrote this about the NFL and its quarterback evaluations:

Every team wants intuitive quarterback play from a technically sound passer with prototypical physical dimensions and top-shelf athletic ability. And everyone would like to win the lottery.

Teams have to prioritize what’s most important to them when searching for a quarterback. The way most teams behave, they hope that if they pick a “safe” technically-sound athlete that checks the easy-to-define boxes, it can lead him down a path where his play becomes intuitive.

All too often, they wind up with a prospect that looks like he rolled off an assembly line, but without the programming necessary to develop into the player that meets the organization’s expectations on the investment. If the decision is an utter failure, at least they can provide a list of qualities the player possessed that justified the choice.

Final thoughts

New York Giants v Indianapolis Colts
Dave Gettleman
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Can the Giants get their hunt for a successor to Eli Manning right?

Gettleman has never had to try and identify a franchise quarterback in the draft. Cam Newton was in place when Gettleman became GM of the Carolina Panthers. Manning is in New York, still.

Coach Pat Shurmur has succeeded with quarterbacks from undrafted ones like Case Keenum to top picks like Donovan McNabb and Sam Bradford. We know Shurmur likes size, because he has said as much. We know he appreciates a calm demeanor — both Manning and Kyle Lauletta often drew praise for that characteristic. We know that Shurmur has said arm strength is far down the list of things that are important to being a good NFL quarterback.

“The market doesn’t always provide good options. Sometimes you end up overdrafting that valuable position because you’d like to take him at 40, but we can’t wait that long,” Hatman said of the tendency to select quarterbacks earlier in the draft than their talent would indicate they should be selected.

“I don’t hear people talking about this class even close to the way they talked about this last class. But, chances are three of these guys will go in the first round because they’re quarterbacks and you’ve gotta take quarterbacks. You don’t have a quarterback, you need a quarterback.”

We don’t know who the Giants will fall in love with in this draft, or whether they will fall in love with any of the available quarterbacks.

Gettleman isn’t going to select a quarterback in the first round just to say he did it, thus mollifying the fan base. If he finds the guy he believes is the right one, he will make the move. If he doesn’t, he won’t.

Here is what he said at his season-ending press conference:

“Let me tell you something: if you make something a priority, you will make a mistake. It’s got to be within the flow of what you’re doing. You can’t force it, especially at quarterback. That’s why the guys in Carolina looked at me like I was out of my mind, you guys looked at me (like I was out of my mind). You get in the draft, you’re taking the best player -- you’re not taking, ‘ I need a ___, so I’m taking a ___’. No. You do that, you’re going to make a mistake, you’re going to screw it up.”

Will the Giants get it right? Will they screw it up? Will they shoot their shot in the upcoming draft or punt the choice into 2020? A reminder that from the time the Giants cut Phil Simms after the 1993 season it took them until 2004 when Manning arrived to really get it right.

Moving on from Manning is something the Giants know they have to do — soon. There’s no question about that. There is a huge question as to whether they can find the right successor because, well, because we’re all human and there are no guarantees.

“In the end, the reason teams miss on QBs is because there are so many moving parts involved. And jobs on the line,” Schofield said. “Humans are a risk-averse lot. With all of these factors and with jobs at stake, better to be safe and miss, than roll the dice and miss. Being safe and missing gets you another job when you’re fired years later. Being bold and missing finds you selling insurance in a few years.”