In the NFL these days, there's an expectation that a QB drafted in the first round needs to be an immediate starter, and the numbers seem to bear this out. Of the 12 quarterbacks drafted with a Top 40 pick in the last four drafts, all but one were immediate starters for their teams in their rookie seasons.
The only exception was Johnny Manziel, who was certainly expected to be an immediate starter in Cleveland, but failed to do so for a number of reasons.
There were eight more QBs drafted over the last four years between the 40th and the 100th pick (top of 4th round). Only two of them were immediate starters, Russell Wilson in Seattle and Mike Glennon in Tampa Bay.
The following table summarizes the 20 QBs picked with a top 100 pick over the last four years.
|Year||Rnd||Pick||Name||Age||Team||Yr 1 Starter||Yr 1 Starts|
|2012||2||57||Brock Osweiler||21||DEN||No||- -|
|2014||2||62||Jimmy Garoppolo||22||NWE||No||- -|
|2015||3||75||Garrett Grayson||24||NOR||No||- -|
|2015||3||89||Sean Mannion||23||STL||No||- -|
|2013||4||98||Matt Barkley||22||PHI||No||- -|
The table illustrates that there is a very clear difference in expectations for QBs picked at the top of the draft and QBs drafted later on. Not all of the QBs drafted high lived up to expectations obviously, but almost all got to start early, though many of them are no longer starters just a few years into their careers.
The later picks on the other hand were not drafted to be immediate starters, even though Russell Wilson and Mike Glennon did win the starting spots in their rookie season.
In Tampa Bay, Mike Glennon was drafted in the third round in 2013 to back up veteran QB Josh Freeman, who was entering his fifth season with the Buccaneers. But Freeman was benched after three weeks in 2013 (and eventually released) and Glennon was promoted into the starting spot.
In 2012, the Seahawks signed Matt Flynn to a three-year, $26 million contract in free agency and were hoping for him to become their franchise quarterback. Two months later, they took a flyer on an undersized quarterback in the third round of the draft, and by the end of camp, rookie Russell Wilson had won the starting job from Flynn.
The other point, which is not immediately obvious from the table above, is that all of the teams picking in the top 40 were QB-needy teams at the time of the draft. All of them had below-average or truly terrible QBs playing for them, as you can see from slightly modified table that shows which veteran QB each rookie replaced:
|2015||1||1||Jameis Winston||21||TAM||Mike Glennon|
|2012||1||1||Andrew Luck||22||IND||- -|
|2015||1||2||Marcus Mariota||21||TEN||Zach Mettenberger|
|2012||1||2||Robert Griffin||22||WAS||Rex Grossman|
|2014||1||3||Blake Bortles||22||JAX||Chad Henne|
|2012||1||8||Ryan Tannehill||24||MIA||Matt Moore|
|2013||1||16||EJ Manuel||23||BUF||Ryan Fitzpatrick|
|2014||1||22||Johnny Manziel||21||CLE||Brandon Weeden|
|2012||1||22||Brandon Weeden||28||CLE||Colt McCoy|
|2014||1||32||Teddy Bridgewater||21||MIN||Christian Ponder|
|2014||2||36||Derek Carr||23||OAK||Terelle Pryor|
|2013||2||39||Geno Smith||22||NYJ||Mark Sanchez|
The veteran QBs in this table read like a dumpster fire of NFL quarterbacking. No wonder each team saw the necessity to invest heavily into the quarterback position. The only exception here is probably Andrew Luck, who was not brought in to replace a below average starter, but was brought in to replace Peyton Manning, who had decided to move on to the Broncos.
If we now look at the QBs drafted between picks 40 and 100, the names on the veteran QB list change dramatically - for the better.
|Age at time
|2012||2||57||Brock Osweiler||21||DEN||Peyton Manning
|2014||2||62||Jimmy Garoppolo||22||NWE||Tom Brady
|2013||3||73||Mike Glennon||23||TAM||Josh Freeman||25|
|2015||3||75||Garrett Grayson||24||NOR||Drew Brees
|2012||3||75||Russell Wilson||23||SEA||Matt Flynn||27
|2012||3||88||Nick Foles||23||PHI||Michael Vick
|2015||3||89||Sean Mannion||23||STL||Nick Foles||26
|2013||4||98||Matt Barkley||22||PHI||Michael Vick
What most of the teams in this table have in common is that at the time they drafted a QB, they had an older franchise QB in place with a closing window (Manning, Brady, Brees, Vick) or hoped they had a franchise QB in place (Flynn).
And there is an important lesson here for the Cowboys. The Broncos, Patriots, Saints, Seahawks and (to a more limited extent) the Eagles drafted a QB to back up their franchise quarterbacks. They did not invest in a draft pick to replace their franchise guy. And that is exactly the situation the Cowboys find themselves in.
The Seahawks signed Matt Flynn to a big contract but brought in Russell Wilson anyway. The Broncos drafted Brock Osweiler the year they signed Manning, and when Manning's play deteriorated, they were ready. The Patriots have been in a constant state of readiness, drafting Matt Cassell (7th round) in 2005, Kevin O'Connel (3rd in 2008), Ryan Mallett (3rd) in 2011 and Jimmy Graoppolo (2nd) in 2014. The Saints invested a 3rd rounder last year in anticipation of Drew Brees's eventual demise, and even the Eagles prepared for Michael Vick's eventual slowdown with QB picks in consecutive years.
When the talk turns to the Cowboys' plan at QB, it seems the only example most people can think of is Aaron Rodgers (1st) sitting for three years behind Brett Favre - which in a circuitous way seems to provide some kind of rationale for why the Cowboys should invest a 1st-round pick in a QB.
But as you saw above, there are alternative ways in which to prepare for injury or an eventual drop in performance of your franchise QB. If the Cowboys are looking to find a backup for Tony Romo for the next few years, the approach followed by the Patriots, Broncos, Saints, and Seahawks suggests they should invest a low second- or third-round pick in a QB this year. In principle, that should give you a guy who can carry the team for a few games during Romo's inevitable injury breaks over the coming years. If you're really lucky, that guy may even turn into you franchise QB down the line. If not, at least you have a capable backup and can still invest a first-round pick when Tony Romo is eventually done.
Tony Romo is without question one of the elite quarterbacks in the league. And as the Cowbyos develop a plan for their QB position, they'd be well advised to follow the lead of other franchises with elite QBs, not some team with an overhyped but underperforming QB. Good franchises have a plan in place that consists of more than grabbing other people's rejects on the cheap. The Cowboys need a better plan at backup QB, but that plan may not necessarily involve a first-round pick.