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By trading with Miami, the 49ers are betting against history

Syndication: The Indianapolis Star Scott Horner/USA TODAY Network photo illustration via Imagn Content Services, LLC

As April draws nearer, the NFL Draft looms large for football fans hoping for one final infusion of excitement before the onset of summer. This year, the first round is slated to feature at least five quarterbacks who are expecting to hear their names called before the end of Day 1. The top of the order is looking more and more set, as Trevor Lawrence of Clemson is all but certainly headed to join Urban Meyer and his staff of Seattle Seahawks castaways in Jacksonville, and Zach Wilson of BYU is quickly ascending to be the Jets’ presumptive selection at No. 2. Assuming this ends up being the case, the three remaining passers — Justin Fields, Trey Lance, and Mac Jones — are becoming the focal point of every mock draft the internet has to offer.

Talks heated up this week with the massive trade between San Francisco and Miami, as the Niners are now in line to have first opportunity to select either Fields, Lance, or Jones to be the next face of their franchise. The Seahawks’ Bay Area rivals gave up significant capital to make this jump, including three first-round picks — one as high as the 12th overall selection this year. Teams make moves like this with one overarching goal: win a Super Bowl.

In discussions around quarterbacks, this often get lost in the fracas, with much focus being spent on comping prospects to current superstars, or the less enviable comparison to high profile busts. Speculation is fun, and we can digress endlessly on whether or not Zach Wilson is the next Patrick Mahomes, or if Trey Lance’s career trajectory will mirror Josh Allen’s third year ascension, but the singular question that teams should be asking themselves always returns to whether or not they believe they have identified the player who will lead their team to the big game.

Measuring Super Bowl wins purely as a ‘quarterback’ stat is incorrect, and does a great disservice to every player not lined up under center. However, quarterback is the most important position on any NFL team’s offense, and arguably the most important position on any team’s roster. When looking at every Super Bowl since the dawn of the millennium, very few teams have won with an average or replacement level QB. And the teams that have done so have either accomplished this feat on the strength of a powerhouse defense (e.g. the 2000 Ravens, 2002 Bucs, 2007 Giants, or 2015 Broncos) or were the product, at least in part, of a signal caller catching fire in the playoffs (2012 Ravens, 2017 Eagles), and in almost all of the above mentioned cases, it was some combination thereof.

This reinforces two themes: (1) Football is a team sport, and even great individual performances require above-average contributions from the rest of the team, and (2) winning the Super Bowl with mediocre quarterback play is becoming increasingly unlikely. For further support of the latter statement, please read on.

Looking at Super Bowl winners (and losers...) since 2000

Super Bowl QBs and Draft Position

Season Winning QB drafted Losing QB drafted
Season Winning QB drafted Losing QB drafted
2000 Trent Dilfer* 1.6 (1994) Kerry Collins* 1.5 (1995)
2001 Tom Brady 6.199 (2000) Kurt Warner Undrafted
2002 Brad Johnson 9.227 (1992) Rich Gannon 4.98 (1987)
2003 Tom Brady 6.199 (2000) Jake Delhomme Undrafted
2004 Tom Brady 6.199 (2000) Donovan McNabb* 1.2 (1999)
2005 Ben Roethlisberger* 1.11 (2004) Matt Hasselbeck 6.187 (1998)
2006 Peyton Manning* 1.1 (1998) Rex Grossman* 1.22 (2003)
2007 Eli Manning* 1.1 (2004) Tom Brady 6.199 (2000)
2008 Ben Roethlisberger* 1.11 (2004) Kurt Warner Undrafted
2009 Drew Brees 2.32 (2001) Peyton Manning* 1.1 (1998)
2010 Aaron Rodgers* 1.24 (2005) Ben Roethlisberger* 1.11 (2004)
2011 Eli Manning* 1.1 (2004) Tom Brady 6.199 (2000)
2012 Joe Flacco* 1.18 (2008) Colin Kaepernick 2.36 (2011)
2013 Russell Wilson 3.75 (2012) Peyton Manning* 1.1 (1998)
2014 Tom Brady 6.199 (2000) Russell Wilson 3.75 (2012)
2015 Peyton Manning* 1.1 (1998) Cam Newton* 1.1 (2011)
2016 Tom Brady 6.199 (2000) Matt Ryan* 1.3 (2008)
2017 Nick Foles 3.88 (2012) Tom Brady 6.199 (2000)
2018 Tom Brady 6.199 (2000) Jared Goff* 1.1 (2016)
2019 Patrick Mahomes* 1.10 (2017) Jimmy Garoppolo 2.62 (2014)
2020 Tom Brady 6.199 (2000) Patrick Mahomes* 1.10 (2017)
*indicates 1st round pick

Above, you can see every quarterback to either win or lose the Super Bowl in every year since 2000. In all, twelve different quarterbacks have won at least once, seventeen have lost at least once, and twenty-four, in total, have started at least once. Tom Brady — who should simply be known as “the Super Bowl constant” — has appeared in nearly half of these games since Y2K (ten out of a possible twenty-one contests). Outside of Brady, only Ben Roethlisberger and the Manning brothers have multiple rings (two apiece). And, again with the exception of Brady, only Russell Wilson and Patrick Mahomes have made consecutive appearances, each going 1-1. First round selections have appeared in the Super Bowl twenty times since 2000, which is nearly equal to the number of appearances by all other rounds combined (twenty-two). Clearly, teams are right to prioritize finding passers early in the draft, and it is understandable why organizations are willing to make bold moves to have the opportunity to do so.

But how successful are teams at identifying and drafting the signal caller who will lead their squad to the big game? If recent history is any indication, not very. As previously stated, fewer than fifteen different QBs have done so since 2000. How many quarterbacks have been drafted in that same time span? Two Hundred and Sixty.

In 21 seasons, teams have selected an average of nearly twelve and a half quarterbacks in the draft each year. Below is a chart with the total number of quarterbacks selected by round, as well as the average number selected by round per year (all data pulled from Pro Football Reference).

Quarterbacks Drafted by Round 2000-2020

. R.1 R.2 R.3 R.4 R.5 R.6 R.7 Tot
. R.1 R.2 R.3 R.4 R.5 R.6 R.7 Tot
QBs drafted by round 60 22 26 30 35 46 41 260
Avg per year 2.86 1.05 1.24 1.43 1.67 2.19 1.95 12.38

Clearly, the greatest number of quarterbacks selected in the draft have been picked in the first round, and it isn’t even really that close. This number takes a dramatic and immediate dip in the second and third rounds, and picks back up as the draft goes on, almost like an inverted bell curve. I believe the reason for this is twofold: (1) the Quarterback position is the most important position on the field and requires that teams have a signal caller who consistently performs considerably better than replacement level in order to find sustained success, and (2) teams are willing to overdraft passers who they think may develop into a franchise player, more so than any other position.

So if teams are going all in on quarterbacks, is the success rate commensurate with the draft capital expended? Quite simply, no. Consider this: of the twelve quarterbacks who have won at least one Super Bowl since 2000, seven have been first round selections. One was a second rounder (Drew Brees), two were third rounders (Russell Wilson and Nick Foles), Tom Brady was a 6th rounder, and Brad Johnson was drafted in the ninth round of the 1992 NFL draft. While it is true that first round draftees comprise the majority this list, the truth of the matter is that sixty quarterbacks have been drafted in the first round since 2000, and only five of these players have won the Super Bowl. They are, in order of appearance, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Joe Flacco, and Patrick Mahomes. To put this into percentages, 8.33% of passers drafted in the first round since 2000 have won a Super Bowl. All did so with the team that drafted them.

Admittedly, this figure is higher than the percentage for any other round, but is still an exceptionally low success rate. Furthermore, since 2000, a quarterback has been selected with the number one overall pick fifteen times. Of these fifteen, only Eli Manning, Cam Newton, and Jared Goff have even been to the Super Bowl, and only Eli has actually won (which he did twice). Six of these top overall picks have never started a playoff game, and a seventh (Matt Stafford) has started three but never won. Yes, that is correct — nearly half of these number one overall selections have combined for zero playoff wins. Going strictly off of recent draft history, teams that draft a quarterback first overall are much more likely to miss the playoffs for the entire duration of his career than they are to win a Super Bowl with him under center.

Extrapolating Super Bowls

Listed below are some noteworthy figures. Since the year 2000:

  • Ten Super Bowl winning QBs were first round selection (includes repeats)
  • Ten Super Bowl losing QBs were first round selections (includes one repeat)
  • Eight Super Bowl losers were top 10 picks (Peyton Manning counts for two spots here)
  • Two first overall picks have won four Super Bowls (Eli and Peyton Manning)
  • Three first overall picks have lost four Super Bowls (Peyton twice, Newton and Goff once)
  • Six top 5 selections have lost seven Super Bowls (the list above plus Kerry Collins, Donovan McNabb, and Matt Ryan)

An optimistic way to frame this data is to proclaim that first round quarterbacks have more historical success than any other round. And this is true, in a sense. But another, more accurate way to frame this is to say that the vast majority of QBs selected in the first round never make it to a Super Bowl, and those who do are essentially just as likely to lose and never return as they are to win.

In fact, revisiting the percentage addressed above, 8.33% of first round QBs drafted since 2000 have won a Super Bowl. This is not much greater than the percentage drafted in rounds 2-3 who have done the same — Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, and Nick Foles, who comprise three of the forty-eight passers drafted in this range. This means that 6.25% have hoisted the Lombardi. Slightly less than the rate for first rounders, but within the realm of comparability.

The purpose of citing these statistics is not to suggest that teams should forgo signal callers in the first round, or to indicate that teams should take more mid-range fliers on riskier prospects. Rather, this is simply to identify how volatile success in the NFL really is. Dan Marino had an incredible career, and is by many respects the best example of where individual accolades don’t always translate to championships. Nobody would call Marino’s career unsuccessful. However, nobody would argue that his career wouldn’t have soared a bit higher with a ring. For another, more polarizing example, look to Eli Manning. Would he have even remained the starter in New York for more than a decade based strictly on regular season performance? Again, Super Bowl wins are not exclusively a quarterback statistic, but nobody reaps the benefits more than quarterbacks (see: Joe Flacco’s market-resetting contract in 2013).

The average age of first-time winners since 2000 is 27.8, and this number is getting younger. Since 2010, the average age has decreased to 26.75. According to Lauren Johnson of Oldest.org, the average age of NFL rookies is 21.7. Since first round picks sign four year contracts with a fifth year option, this means that the majority of first time winners were on their original contract with their respective team. Indeed, since 2010, only Nick Foles and Aaron Rodgers had already signed at least one new contract. Joe Flacco, Russell Wilson, and Patrick Mahomes were still all on rookie terms. The other victors — Eli Manning, Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady — had all won Super Bowls before, and all had re-signed at least once prior to doing so.

Without completely sidestepping the issue, this article is not about whether it is possible for a team to win a Super Bowl while paying their franchise QB an outsize portion of the organization’s available salary. Instead, this is simply to illustrate that hoisting a Lombardi Trophy is the least likely conclusion to any team’s season. This is especially true considering that one player (Tom Brady) has won exactly one third of all Super Bowls since the year 2000, and three other players have combined for six victories. This means that four players have won thirteen of a possible twenty-one championships so far in the 21st century.

Measuring success with other metrics

Of course, success should not be judged purely by Super Bowls, alone. In 2016, Football Outsiders took a broad in-depth look at quarterback performance relative to draft position. Using two decades of data (‘96 - ’16), they found a negative linear correlation between draft position by round and QB performance across multiple measures. That is, expected success for passers is highest in the first round and goes down with each subsequent round. Outside the aberration that is Tom Brady, things shake out about as you would expect: quarterbacks drafted earlier start more games, accumulate more stats, and generally stand up better across all major metrics. QBs drafted in the first, on average, outperform all other rounds on advanced statistics such as: Career AV; Defense Adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR) and Defense Adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA); and Sack %. Looking at these metrics, Football Outsiders compiled a list of the top 20 QBs by performance, which is comprised of:

  • Thirteen 1st round selections
  • Two 2nd round selections
  • Two 3rd round selections
  • Two 4th round selections
  • One 6th round selection

First round draftees represent almost twice as many spots in the top 20 as all other rounds combined. Interestingly enough, however, only six of the twenty players listed have won a Super Bowl — Manning (Peyton), Brady, Rodgers, Brees, Roethlisberger, and Wilson. Of course, this was created prior to Mahomes being drafted in 2017, as he would undoubtedly deserve consideration as well. Regardless, this brings the discussion back to the initial point: Organizations don’t draft quarterbacks to fill up the stat sheet. Organizations draft quarterbacks to help win football games and lead teams to the championship. Many of those drafted manage to accomplish the former, but very few achieve the latter.

Conclusions

Nobody argues that a quarterback who won the Super Bowl didn’t do so “well enough.” This is the exact reason that “Let Russ Cook” was a non-issue until the Hawks started looking less and less competitive on a yearly basis. People outside of the Northwest postulated that Wilson wouldn’t succeed in a pass-intensive scheme, but was anybody arguing about this while the team was celebrating their victory in the streets of Seattle? Of course not. Tom Brady being tagged as a “game manager” was just a pejorative assertion by non-Patriots fans who couldn’t scour the flavor of sour grapes off their taste buds. I don’t think anybody in Philadelphia was really disappointed that Nick Foles won the Super Bowl and not Carson Wentz. As the games get more important, people care less and less about how the team wins.

And this is true because Super Bowls have a binary outcome: teams either win or lose, and quality of win is irrelevant. The Seahawks’ resounding destruction of the Broncos was a display of sheer dominance, undoubtedly more entertaining than the Patriots’ snail’s pace (albeit victorious) battle of attrition with the Rams several years later. Doesn’t matter. The Hawks didn’t get a second Lombardi trophy for lapping the Broncos many times over on the scoreboard, nor did the Pats lose a share of the title for doggedly grinding out a 13-3 “barn burner” of a win. So when a team drafts a quarterback, they don’t do so hoping he will eclipse 4,000 yards and 40 TDs. They do so hoping he will provide the needed boost to become perennial playoff contenders, and ultimately Super Bowl winners. Yards, touchdowns, and everything else is secondary.

With all this in mind, how ‘worth it’ was the trade that San Francisco made to move up to the third overall selection? This depends. If San Francisco is right in their belief that Justin Fields or Trey Lance will break the trends, then the answer will be “very worth it.” However, recent history doesn’t support this outcome. Of the ten Super Bowls since 2000 that were won by first round picks, only four were by top 5 overall selections, and all four of these belong to the Manning family. The other six victories belong to players drafted outside of the top 5 — Trent Dilfer, Ben Roethlisberger (twice), Aaron Rodgers, Joe Flacco, and Patrick Mahomes. This doesn’t mean that the Niners can’t do it, just that the historical precedent suggests it is highly unlikely.

I look forward to the draft every year. Few offseason events are as fun and full of hype. The mocks, the speculation, the projections, the meteoric risers and mercurial sliders, the trades, and the emotion on players’ faces and in their voices when they hear their name called.... It all makes for an eventful and climactic weekend of excitement before the long stretch of football-less time that is summer. I hope that every player selected in 2021 and beyond has a phenomenal career, and I look forward to seeing many of the uniquely talented athletes in this year’s class playing on Sundays for years to come. But as history has shown us, teams betting all their fortunes on identifying the next Patrick Mahomes are far likelier to end up with the next Blaine Gabbert.