Gene Frenette: First-round QBs an iffy proposition, but likely not Trevor Lawrence
First-round QBs have iffy history, but Lawrence looks less risky than most
Less than two weeks before the NFL draft, five projected first-round quarterbacks currently run the gamut from iffy, to promising, to close as it gets to a sure thing.
History tells us there will be more fool’s gold in these packages than in a Bernie Madoff investment portfolio. Still, NFL front-office personnel and scouts find them irresistible to take because the position is too important to ignore.
So they press, and they reach, and they buy in to marriages that too often last about as long as a Gregg Williams employment stop.
Oh, sometimes the union is a long-term fit, occasionally even Hall of Fame-good. But the reality is the odds of success are against that first-round quarterback living up to his value. Yet before the draft, and usually for at least a year or two after, hope always wins out.
The same holds true with three teams picking at the top of the April 29 draft – the Jaguars, New York Jets and San Francisco 49ers. All are locked in on taking quarterbacks, the order presumably being Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, BYU’s Zach Wilson and a virtual toss-up between Bolles School product Mac Jones (Alabama) and Justin Fields (Ohio State) in the 49ers’ No. 3 spot.
For the first time in NFL history, there’s legitimate buzz of five quarterbacks, the other being a more unknown quantity in Trey Lance of North Dakota State, possibly being selected among the top-10 picks.
Hard to find right QB in NFL Draft
The moment all of them are chosen, you can count on fan bases in those respective NFL cities wildly embracing their arrival, or at least being optimistic they’re an upgrade from the current starting quarterback.
Chances are, most of them will be wrong. Such is the hazard and inexact science of NFL decision-makers trying to figure out who can effectively play the most complicated position in sports.
It’s a losing numbers game. Since NFL free agency began in 1993, only 24 of 70 quarterbacks chosen in the first round had worthy careers with the team selecting them or appear on their way to doing so. For another four, it’s too early still to be determined.
Now that’s a really good batting average if you’re a major-league hitter, but it leaves two out of three NFL fan bases exasperated because whiffing on that first-round quarterback usually translates into years of mediocrity. And if you repeatedly keep swinging-and-missing, like the Cleveland Browns did on five first-round quarterbacks before the improving Baker Mayfield, the misery can last for decades.
“It’s unbelievable the lack of success in the last 10 years,” former Atlanta Falcons’ general manager Thomas Dimitroff told the Times-Union. “Why do I think it is? Plain and simple, you got a head coach, GM and a staff that understands how the NFL runs and how important it is to hit now in a not-too-long league. They’d rather take a chance on an unknown quarterback coming out of college than settle for either what they have on their present team or a middling quarterback in free agency.
“There’s a gamble to it and everyone knows it. In today’s NFL world, they’re saying if we don’t do this right, we’re going to be gone in two or three years. Careers are hanging in peril, so you take a chance the next quarterback is going to work out.”
Jaguars need draft home run
The one time Dimitroff took a big swing on a quarterback, with the No. 3 overall pick in his first year (2008) as the Falcons’ GM, he hit a home run. He drafted Matt Ryan, who led Atlanta to the playoffs four of his first five seasons. He would have delivered the Falcons a championship had Ryan not taken an untimely sack in the fourth quarter against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI.
Nonetheless, that one right call on a first-round quarterback, as well as the huge gamble of trading up 20 spots in the 2011 draft to land receiver Julio Jones, allowed the Falcons to be one of the league’s most stable franchises for a decade. Though Dimitroff’s 12-year tenure ended midway through the 2020 season when owner Arthur Blank dismissed him and coach Dan Quinn after an 0-5 start, it would have ended a lot sooner had he not made the right choice with his first-round quarterback.
Mark this down: there’s a good chance at least two of the head coaches or GMs among the five teams likely taking quarterbacks in the first round this year will get fired because that pick becomes a bust.
That’s what happened in 1999, the only time in NFL history where five quarterbacks were chosen in the first 12 picks. Three of those QBs — No. 1 Tim Couch, Cleveland; No. 3 Akili Smith, Cincinnati Bengals; No. 12 Cade McNown, Chicago Bears — were abject failures. Daunte Culpepper, who went 11th to the Minnesota Vikings, had a couple decent seasons, but was only 38-42 as a starter in Minnesota. The only QB who flourished in the bunch was the Philadelphia Eagles’ Donovan McNabb, taken at No. 2.
Predictably, Browns coach Chris Palmer and Bengals coach Bruce Coslet were gone within two years after their quarterbacks flopped. The only reason the Chicago Bears’ Dick Jauron survived the McNown disaster is journeyman QB Jim Miller came on and led the team to an NFC North title in 2001, the lone winning season in his five-year tenure.
It’s possible the 2021 quarterback class will fare a lot better, maybe even produce three future Hall of Famers like the 2004 first-round trio of Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger. Unfortunately, that kind of bounty from one draft is more an outlier than the norm.
Even with No. 1 overall picks, where the chances of finding a quarterback who leads his team to sustained success are significantly better, half of them are still destined to fall short of expectations.
The good news for the Jaguars is they have a good chance this year of hitting that home run. Trevor Lawrence is no Tim Couch. He will probably not be fool’s gold.
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