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Cowboys Draft 2016: Talking Quarterback Drafting History

In recent arguments about drafting a quarterback with the 4th overall pick, many on both sides have claimed that a brief look at the draft history proves that they are right. But what does the draft history actually look like?

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

There's been much discussion of what the Dallas Cowboys should or should not do with the fourth overall pick in the 2016 draft. Some are vehemently for taking a quarterback. Some are vehemently against it. Some are for taking "the right" quarterback. All claim to have history on their side. As a service to BTB readers, I offer a synopsis of the history.

In the BTB comments, I have seen three basic schools of thought:

  • Top five pick is your best bet for getting a franchise quarterback
  • Any pick in the top 50 will do
  • Plenty of franchise quarterbacks have been found outside the first round

Apologies if you feel like that this does not adequately express your position, if you feel that there is too much overlap between picks 6-50 and "outside the first round", or if you feel I am using one of these positions without crediting you for it. I believe, however, that these represent neatly categorizeable segments which can be analyzed somewhat, and so I intend to look at those three groups. I will limit the research to this century, as 15 years just feels about right. Some may complain that this leaves out Tom Brady, but it also leaves out Peyton Manning so we're about even. I'm going to look at three things for each group: number of starters, number of  players with a playoff appearance, and number of players with a Super Bowl appearance.

In the last 15 years, there have been 19 top five picks used on a quarterback, or roughly 25% of picks. That is a very high mark, and I pause to note that the people who draft players for a living seem very keen on using those precious picks on quarterbacks. 14 of them (73%) were either primary starters for at least six years (indicating a second contract) or were the primary starter for their team in 2015. 11 of them (57%) were good enough to lead a team to the playoffs (though Vince Young and Mark Sanchez are in that number without being in the first group). One (5%) has appeared in a Super Bowl. Those who realize this is Eli Manning can perhaps assuage some of that pain by learning that Eli is one of the relatively few players who has managed a negative approximate value for a season.

With picks 6-50, 33 quarterbacks have been selected since 2001. At 5%, quarterback seems to have fallen back to almost a normal place in the distribution. 9 of these picks (27%) lasted for six years as a starter or were their teams primary starter in 2015. 10 players (30%) led a team to the playoffs, with Colin Kaepernick, Tim Tebow, and Rex Grossman losing their starter status shortly thereafter. In an odd turn, six of these quarterbacks (18%) have led their team to a Super Bowl appearance, though again, that number includes Grossman and Kaepernick..

Finally, 145 QBs have been drafted outside the first round in the time frame under review. Eight (5.5%) meet the six year or 2015 starter criteria. An interesting subset of this group (and making up a full 25% of them) is Kirk Cousins and Nick Foles. Foles, of course, rose to the starting job in Philadelphia and had a magical Pro Bowl run in his first season as a starter. He has since gone on to be benched by a team with a worse passing game than the 2015 Cowboys, so I think it's safe to say his days as a legitimate starter are over. Cousins, in 2015, performed a similar miracle, throwing only three interceptions in his final ten games (Foles had two in ten games during his moment in the sun). I am not saying that Cousins will go the way of Foles, but he definitely could. Eight of these picks (5.5%) led their team to a playoff appearance, including Quincy Carter in 2003. If you count Brock Osweiler this year, make that 9 and 6.2%. Finally, Drew Brees, Colin Kaepernick, and Russell Wilson (2%) have led their team to a Super Bowl spot. It's worth noting that Brees and Kaepernick were taken at 32 and 36, respectively, and barely qualify as second-rounders.

Now we can talk sense about this. There is definitely a pronounced advantage in finding a playoff caliber quarterback in the top 5. It doesn't appear to translate to Super Bowls at the moment. But a look at the players on the 2nd through 7th round list should be enough to convince you that the idea of drafting someone there with high hopes is folly. 74% of them did not spend even a single year as the primary starter for their team and nearly 90% of them never made it to a third year as starter.

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