There are no sure things in the NFL draft, but quarterback might be the riskiest position of all. No defense revolves around a single player the way every offense revolves around the quarterback. Trust your offense to the wrong young quarterback, and your team isn't going to climb back into playoff contention. Recent history is littered with teams that drafted a quarterback high, only to find out that player couldn't play at the NFL level.
The lessons of history can help us figure out how much of a risk each quarterback prospect will be. That's the point of Football Outsiders' quarterback-adjusted-stats-and-experience (QBASE) projection system. It looks at college performance, experience and expected draft position (to incorporate scouting information that college stats will miss). To allow some time for development, QBASE projects a quarterback's efficiency (passing only) in Years 3-5 of his career, according to Football Outsiders' defense-adjusted yards above replacement (DYAR) metric. Fifty thousand simulations produce a range of potential outcomes for each prospect, with players drafted later generally having a larger range of possibilities.
QBASE favors quarterbacks expected to go high in the draft who have a relatively long résumé of college success, according to the stats. Those stats include completion percentage, adjusted yards per attempt (adjusted for touchdowns and interceptions) and team passing efficiency (measured with Bill Connelly's passing S&P+ stats). These numbers are adjusted both for the quality of the defenses faced as well as the quality of a quarterback's offensive teammates. QBASE is meant to be used only on players chosen in the top 100 picks; after that, the judgment of scouts becomes even more important, and statistics become even less predictive.
However, there's a bit of a problem with using our QBASE system to analyze this year's prospects. As noted, one of the strongest elements in QBASE is the quarterback's résumé: how many years has he started in college. Over the past 20 years, most of the quarterbacks taken at the top of the draft who then developed into NFL stars were quarterbacks who started at least three years in college, and often four.
Why Kyler Murray is the draft's most fascinating prospect
Former Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray might be shorter than NFL scouts would like, but his instincts and athletic ability more than make up for it.
But the top two quarterback prospects of the 2019 draft, Kyler Murray and Dwayne Haskins, both have a measly one year of starting experience in college. It's not just rare for a quarterback with only one year of starting experience to become a successful starter in the NFL, but it is rare for a quarterback with only one year of starting experience to get drafted in the first three rounds.
Here's the list of quarterbacks with only one year of starting experience to be drafted in the top 100 picks since 1997: Mark Sanchez, Brock Osweiler, Mitchell Trubisky and Cam Newton, if you don't count the year Newton spent starting in junior college. That's it.
Expand the list of quarterback prospects to those with two years of starting experience, and this group of passers still has a lousy track record. The best of the two-year starters are Joe Flacco, Michael Vick and Alex Smith. The jury is still out on players such as Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson. Aaron Rodgers could count as either a two-year or three-year starter since, like Newton, he also started a year in junior college. But for the most part, highly drafted quarterbacks with only two years of college starting experience have underperformed their draft position. These are some of the biggest busts in quarterback history: JaMarcus Russell, Ryan Leaf, Akili Smith, Blake Bortles and so forth.
Obviously, these quarterback prospects are not necessarily to blame for their lack of starting experience. Murray had to sit behind Baker Mayfield, a Heisman winner who had one of the five highest projections in QBASE history. And the experience issue is exacerbated by the number of quarterbacks in this year's draft who transferred midway through their college careers.
Murray transferred from Texas A&M to Oklahoma. Will Grier went from Florida to West Virginia. Ryan Finley began at Boise State before starting three years at North Carolina State. Jarrett Stidham left Baylor and finished his college career at Auburn. Whether it was because of injury, job-sharing or losing the competition to be a starter, all of these quarterbacks missed out on getting the early playing time that QBASE feels is a prerequisite for top prospects.
It seems like quarterbacks are coming out with less starting experience in recent years, but that's not really true. There are still plenty of top prospects who started three or four years in college: Patrick Mahomes, Mayfield, Lamar Jackson or this year's Drew Lock. Will recent top prospects with less college experience do better than similar prospects of a decade ago? We'll need to see more out of them before we can answer that question. Until we do, QBASE will remain a little bit skeptical of quarterbacks with less starting experience.
Despite the lack of experience, Murray and Haskins (in that order) have the highest QBASE projections in this year's class. But they don't match the top QBASE projections of recent years. This is the first draft since 2014 in which no quarterback has a QBASE projection over 600. We'll study the QBASE projections for Haskins, Murray and the five other quarterbacks currently in the top 100 of the Scouts Inc. rankings for the 2019 draft.