So you want to draft a quarterback high?

(Editor's note: That's right. Another promoted fanpost! Keep up the good work, Field Gulls community!)

I've seen a number of people in the comment section saying that the Seahawks shouldn't give Geno a big contract because paying a quarterback too much money will wreck your salary cap situation. Rather, we need to draft a rookie quarterback who will be on a cheap, rookie contract to save the cap money for elsewhere. So I decided to take a look at the success rate of teams that did that.

My data here goes back to 2011. I intentionally didn't go beyond that, as the new collective bargaining agreement with a rookie salary scale made it so that highly drafted players would now be relatively cheap while on their rookie contracts. Before that, top draft picks were commonly paid like pro bowlers and often overpaid, to the extent that it wasn't necessarily clear that having one of the top few draft picks was beneficial to a team.

I look at the playoff success that quarterbacks had during their first five years in the league. Since the 2011 CBA, a rookie contract for drafted players has lasted four years, with an optional fifth year that is still a bargain rate for players who are good. Beyond the fifth year of a player's career, a team has to pay effectively market rate, so you don't have a cheap quarterback anymore.

I only look at first-round draft picks. If you want to take a late-round flyer on a quarterback, that's an entirely different proposition from drafting one highly. I only count playoff games that the quarterback in question started. There weren't many examples of a highly drafted quarterback sitting on the bench to watch his team play a playoff game, but this does mean, for example, that the Packers reaching the conference championship game in 2020 doesn't make Jordan Love count as a successful draft pick.

I also split things into #1 overall draft picks versus other quarterbacks taken in the first round. There are a handful of elite prospects who have a good chance of developing into quality NFL quarterbacks. Those generally go #1 overall and are not indicative of the quality of player that you're likely to get later in the first round, such as #5 overall.

#1 overall picks

There was quite a bit of success here among the eight quarterbacks drafted #1 overall. Jared Goff, Cam Newton, and Joe Burrow have all led their teams to a Super Bowl, though none of them won it. Andrew Luck also reached a conference championship. Baker Mayfield and Trevor Lawrence at least won a playoff game. Kyler Murray has reached the playoffs. Jameis Winston is the only quarterback drafted #1 overall since the 2011 CBA not to start a playoff game on his rookie contract.

Other first round picks

Patrick Mahomes is the great success story, of course. In his first five years, he reached four conference championships, winning two of them. Of the two Super Bowls that he played in, he won one and lost one. He is what every team hopes for when they draft a quarterback in the middle of the first round.

He's also the only great success out of the 30 players drafted in the first round other than #1 overall since the 2011 CBA. Josh Allen is the next best, as he reached one conference championship game, which he lost. There were two other seasons that he won a playoff game but didn't reach the conference championship.

The other notable success story is Blake Bortles, who reached a conference championship game in 2017. That's the third most playoff success that any of the thirty quarterbacks under consideration had. He's also surely no one's idea of a successful draft pick, as he has thrown exactly two pass attempts since his fifth year in the league ended. And remember, that's the third best results out of thirty draft picks.

Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson, Marcus Mariota, and Daniel Jones each won a playoff game in their first five seasons in the league. That's one game each. Jones's fifth season will be next year, so he still has a chance to add to it, but the Giants declined his fifth-year option, so it won't be on a cheap, rookie contract.

Mitchell Trubisky, Carson Wentz, Teddy Bridgewater, Robert Griffin III, Justin Herbert, and Mac Jones have each started a playoff game and lost it. Wentz did win a championship, though he watched from the bench as Nick Foles caught fire in the playoffs. Herbert at least looks like a franchise quarterback, though that hasn't yet translated to playoff success. Herbert and Jones haven't yet played five seasons, so they could yet add to it.

17 of the 30 quarterbacks in the sample didn't play in a playoff game at all on their rookie contracts. Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Paxton Lynch, Johnny Manziel, EJ Manuel, Brandon Weeden, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, and Christian Ponder are all past year five, so they're not going to add some future success. Many of them are out of the league entirely. Ryan Tannehill did reach a conference championship for the Titans in his eighth season, but that didn't benefit the Dolphins, who drafted him. Dwayne Haskins died tragically, which robbed him of a chance to achieve future playoff success.

Tua Tagovailoa, Jordan Love, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Justin Fields, and Kenny Pickett are all young enough that there is still time to find playoff success on their rookie contracts. Some of them have more hope as prospects than others, however, and all were drafted in the last three years. If we consider only quarterbacks drafted in 2011-2019, only 11 of the 22 would reach a playoff game in their first five years, and only 3 would reach a conference championship. (Quarterbacks drafted in 2019 have their fifth year remaining, but neither Daniel Jones nor Dwayne Haskins can change their rookie contract success, for different reasons.)

Expected results?

It's certainly true that a great quarterback on a cheap, rookie contract is the most valuable player asset in the sport. It's also rare.

Let's make a simple model to estimate how common you might expect it to be. Suppose that all games were decided by random chance. Every team has a 1/32 chance of winning a Super Bowl each year, 1/32 of losing it, 1/16 of losing a conference championship, 1/8 of losing in the divisional round, and 1/8 of losing in the wild card round. Let's ignore the expansion from six playoff teams per conference to seven, which will tend to underestimate playoff success.

Let's also ignore that some quarterbacks are bad enough to get benched or cut. Assume that every quarterback starts for five seasons and thus gets five chances to see a team outcome. This also ignores season-ending injuries, but those aren't that common for quarterbacks.

A quarterback who has a 1/32 chance of winning a Super Bowl independently in each of 5 years has about a 14.7% chance of winning a Super Bowl. (Exact odds of 1 - (31/32)^5.) He has a 12.9% chance of reaching a Super Bowl but not winning one. (Exact odds of 1 - (30/32)^5 - (odds of winning a Super Bowl).) He has a 21.1% chance of reaching a conference championship game but never winning one, 27.6% chance of reaching the divisional round of the playoffs but never reaching a conference championship, and a 14.2% chance of reaching the wild card round but never making it further. His odds of never starting a playoff game at all are a mere 9.5%.

Obviously, for quarterbacks who haven't been in the league as long, the odds of getting deep into the playoffs are lower. I've computed it for reduced number of years using the number of seasons since a player was drafted for players who were drafted in 2019 or later, but won't list the numbers here.

Using this model of every outcome being random, among #1 overall draft picks, the expected value for various best outcomes among the #1 overall draft picks is 1.01 champions, 0.90 who lost the Super Bowl, 1.51 who lost a conference championship game, 2.10 who lost in the divisional round, 1.22 who lost in the wild card round, and 1.26 who never started a playoff game. For comparison, the real-world numbers observed are 0, 3, 1, 2, 1, and 1, respectively.

#1 overall draft picks have thus fared a little better on their rookie contracts than you'd expect from this model where they start every game for five seasons and every game has a random outcome.

So what about later draft picks? With 30 quarterbacks taken later in the first round, the expected values for a quarterback's best playoff results are 3.72 champions, 3.32 who lost a Super Bowl, 5.58 who lost a conference championship, 7.73 who lost in the divisional round, 4.51 who lost in the wild card round, and 5.13 who never started a playoff game. For comparison, the real-world numbers observed are 1, 0, 2, 4, 6, and 17. That's massively worse than the model predicts.


One might point out that rookie quarterbacks sometimes join bad teams. But #1 overall picks necessarily join teams that were bad enough to earn the #1 overall pick, and they've had considerable success. Later first-round picks join better teams but haven't had much playoff success.

Since the 2011 CBA, three of the four first-round quarterbacks to reach a Super Bowl on their rookie contract were taken #1 overall. Four of the seven to reach a conference championship game on their rookie contract were taken #1 overall, and Blake Bortles is one of the three who didn't. Those same seven were the only ones to win multiple playoff games on their rookie contracts, as none won a playoff game in multiple seasons without reaching a conference championship. Six of the thirteen who won some playoff game on a rookie contract were taken #1 overall, as compared to only two of the twenty-five who didn't.

So yes, getting a quality starter at quarterback on a cheap, rookie contract is tremendously valuable and often leads to playoff success. But your odds of drafting one in the first-round if you're not picking #1 overall are not good.

Still want the Seahawks to take a quarterback at #5 overall? If Carroll and Schneider see one that they really believe in, then fine, they can take a shot. I think they've earned that right on the basis of their past success in evaluating quarterbacks. But picking the best available quarterback when there aren't any good ones left on the board would be a huge mistake and a waste of a valuable, high draft pick.