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The risks and rewards of drafting a quarterback at No. 6

If the Panthers select a quarterback in this year’s draft, get ready for a roll of the dice.

Arizona Cardinals v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The Carolina Panthers have the No. 6 pick in this year’s draft and are facing the most important and consequential decision in professional football: Do we or don’t we draft a quarterback?

Last year general manager Scott Fitterer and the Panthers front office held the No. 8 overall pick and bypassed quarterbacks Justin Fields (the No. 11 pick) and Mac Jones (No. 15), a seemingly fateful decision that has stalled Carolina’s rebuild. Sam Darnold isn’t the long-term solution under center so many mock drafts have the Panthers selecting either Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett or Liberty’s Malik Willis.

Investing an early pick in a quarterback is the ultimate risk-reward proposition. When a team lands an elite quarterback via the draft it can change the trajectory of the franchise for the next decade or more. Conversely, when an organization invests a premium pick in a quarterback who ends up being subpar at his position, they often spin on the hamster wheel of mediocrity for the next several years.

So how often does this risk-reward dynamic pay off in favor of the team drafting the quarterback?

The answer might temper some of the optimism we have as quarterback-hungry Panthers fans.

I looked back at the 10 drafts from 2009 through 2018 and gave a simple grade to each quarterback selected in the top 12. I cut off the analysis in 2018 so quarterbacks had at least four NFL seasons under their belts. I noted where they were drafted overall, where they were drafted among quarterbacks in that year’s draft, and included simple data from Football Reference showing the approximate number of seasons they were starters and how many Pro Bowls they made.

I then categorized each quarterback into one of five subjective designations capturing how their careers played out (or are currently playing out) on the whole: Franchise quarterback, above average starter, average starter, below average starter, or backup. Here’s the detail sorted by these five quarterback categories:

QBs drafted in the Top 12 from 2009-2018

Year Player Overall Pick QB Picked Years Starter Pro Bowls Category
Year Player Overall Pick QB Picked Years Starter Pro Bowls Category
2009 Matthew Stafford 1 1 12 1 Franchise
2011 Cam Newton 1 1 9 3 Franchise
2012 Andrew Luck 1 1 5 4 Franchise
2017 Patrick Mahomes 10 2 4 4 Franchise
2017 Deshaun Watson 12 3 3 3 Franchise
2018 Josh Allen 7 3 4 2 Franchise
2012 Robert Griffin III 2 2 3 1 Above Average Starter
2012 Ryan Tannehill 8 3 9 1 Above Average Starter
2010 Sam Bradford 1 1 5 0 Average Starter
2015 Jameis Winston 1 1 5 1 Average Starter
2016 Jared Goff 1 1 5 2 Average Starter
2016 Carson Wentz 2 2 6 1 Average Starter
2018 Baker Mayfield 1 1 4 0 Average Starter
2015 Marcus Mariota 2 2 4 0 Below Average Starter
2017 Mitchell Trubisky 2 1 4 1 Below Average Starter
2018 Sam Darnold 3 2 4 0 Below Average Starter
2009 Mark Sanchez 5 2 4 0 Backup
2011 Jake Locker 8 2 1 0 Backup
2011 Blaine Gabbert 10 3 2 0 Backup
2011 Christian Ponder 12 4 3 0 Backup
2014 Blake Bortles 3 1 5 0 Backup
2018 Josh Rosen 10 4 1 0 Backup

The “reward” of finding a franchise quarterback

Of the 22 players selected among the top 12 between 2009 and 2018, only six turned out to be franchise quarterbacks. That’s a 27 percent hit rate. Those aren’t great odds.

And when drilling a bit deeper, three of those franchise quarterbacks were the No. 1 overall picks in their respective drafts: Matthew Stafford, Cam Newton, and Andrew Luck. Most draft analysts were salivating over these guys before the draft as potential Pro Bowlers. This year’s top prospects — Pickett and Willis — haven’t received that level of hype and are viewed on the whole as “good but not great” prospects.

On the more optimistic side, the three players who should give Panthers fans hope are Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, and Josh Allen. Each of these players was drafted after No. 6 (which the Panthers hold in this year’s draft) and were either the second or third quarterback selected in their respective drafts. While it has only happened three times in the last 10 years for a team like the Panthers to land their franchise cornerstone via the draft, it can happen.

The “risk” of whiffing on a quarterback

As the Benevolent Dictator of Trade Down Island, Article 1 in my constitution begins with, “We affirm the NFL Draft is only educated guesswork...” Nothing illustrates this point better than looking at how often highly drafted quarterbacks go on to have underwhelming careers.

Among the 22 quarterbacks evaluated in this exercise, I ranked six of them as “backups” (I’m too much of a softie to label players/people as “busts”). Just as with the “franchise” quarterbacks, that comes out to 27 percent.

One observation that should give Panthers fans pause in light of the No. 6 overall pick the team holds is that five of the six “backups” were drafted somewhere between No. 5 and No. 12. The only “backup” player drafted earlier than No. 5 was Blake Bortles, the third overall pick in 2014.

What this means

The symmetry of this chart showing the distribution of the career outcomes of these quarterbacks is pretty telling:

MickSmiley, Cat Scratch Reader

Quarterbacks selected among the top 12 in their drafts have essentially equal odds of being “franchise” or “above average” players as they do ending up either “below average” or “backups”. On the whole, the average outcome is an “average” NFL quarterback.

This same pattern holds when only looking at quarterbacks drafted at No. 6 or later, the selection the Panthers hold in this year’s draft. Of those eight players, three are “franchise” players (Mahomes, Watson, Allen), one is “above average” (Tannehill), and four are “backups” (Locker, Gabbert, Ponder, Rosen).

Folks, if the Panthers pull the trigger on a quarterback at No. 6, history teaches they have equal odds of landing a franchise player as they do selecting a bust. Talent evaluation is an inexact science. The draft is largely educated guesswork. It’s a roll of the dice.

We’ll see if Scott Fitterer is willing to gamble this year.