Quarterback trends

It is an inarguable fact that quarterback is the most important playing position on the field.  This year’s playoff participants reinforce that notion.  With the exception of the Cardinals, who were missing Carson Palmer due to injury, each of the 12 playoff teams had a quarterback that is solidly entrenched as a starter. This article reviews current starting quarterbacks and determines where they came from, how soon they came starters and other relevant characteristics. The article also discusses trends that may affect a team trying to fill a need at the position. As a first step, teams were grouped into categories based on my humble opinion of the ability of their starting quarterback. The following table reflects that categorization.   This table indicates that there are eight teams with quarterback issues. This includes the Bears (and Jay Cutler), a designation with which some might not agree. A more detailed summary of each team’s situation is on the final page of this article. History tells us that the draft is the principal avenue for acquiring a quarterback. The current situation is no different with 22 of the 32 starters coming to their teams via the draft. If the draft day trade between the Chargers and the Giants is re-characterized as Manning and Rivers coming through the draft to their respective teams, which is in essence what happened, that number grows to 24 starters. Excluding that trade the remaining eight starters came to their current team as follows:
  • Three players (Jay Cutler, Carson Palmer, Alex Smith) came via trade
    • Cutler was expensive and came to the Bears along with a 5th round choice for two 1st round selections, a 3rd round pick and Kyle Orton
    • Palmer was a bargain and came from the Raiders for a late round pick and an exchange of late round selections
    • Smith went from the 49ers for 2nd and 3rd round selections
  • One player (Tony Romo) was an undrafted free agent
  • Two players (Drew Brees and Peyton Manning) came to their team via the free agent route, being available largely due to injury
  • Two players (Brian Hoyer and Ryan Fitzpatrick) were journeymen free agents
Improving a team’s quarterback situation in 2015 through free agency seems unlikely. Only two current starters (Brian Hoyer and Jake Locker) are eligible for free agency, and neither is an established player. Ryan Mallett, the backup for the Texans, is a free agent and might have some potential but the Patriots traded him for a late round pick, which says something about his potential. Historically, trades are unlikely. There have been rumors concerning Jay Cutler and Sam Bradford being on the trade market but neither plays for a team that has a viable backup quarterback. Trades usually occur when a team has an excess at the position but that does not look to be case for any team this year. This leaves the draft as the most likely path to improvement. There are two draft trends that should be noted. The first is that there is an increased prevalence of first round draft choices as starters. In looking at current starters, 19 of the 32 were first round draft choices. This compares to 13 first round selections ten years ago in 2004.  It is only logical then that college players at the top of the draft boards will be in great demand. Are Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston worthy of an early draft shot? Maybe or maybe not, but they will be taken early. Is this good news for Brett Hundley? Whether this is a trend or a blip is something worth following. The following table shows a breakdown by draft round for the past five years. Most recent starters come from the first round and all have come from the first three rounds. The second trend is that quarterbacks are starting earlier in their career. 19 of the current starters were starters as rookies compared to 13 in 2014. Some of the top “older” starters served apprenticeships before taking over but that seems to be a thing of the past. Here are some of those that learned by watching:
  • Aaron Rodgers sat behind Brett Favre for three seasons
  • Philip Rivers spent two years behind Drew Brees
  • Carson Palmer sat behind Jon Kitna for a year before moving up
  • Tony Romo understudied Drew Bledsoe and Vinny Testaverde
  • Drew Brees waited his turn behind Doug Flutie
The following table shows more details about changes over the past 10 years: The difference among the age groups is even clearer when 2014 is reviewed by age and number of years it took to gain the starting nod: Only four of the 14 players that were 30 and over started as rookies. For the under 30 crowd, 15 out of 18 started as rookies. While a bias toward younger players starting as rookies is to be expected, this is a pretty large difference that borders on the astounding. In addition to the eight teams who were previously identified as having quarterback problems, should any other teams be seeking quarterbacks due to an aging starter?  As can be seen in the preceding table, slightly less than half the starters are 30 years old or older. The five oldest, with their ages as of September 1 2105 in parentheses, are Peyton Manning (39), Tom Brady (38), Drew Brees (35), Tony Romo (35) and Carson Palmer (35). Do the teams with older quarterbacks have a backup who is the long-term answer? I would categorize the backups as follows: The potential starters are largely players who have not had the opportunity to show what they can do. So it is more a matter of uncertainty than being a proven starter-in-waiting. These backups are pre-2015 free agency and excludes backups for the Bills and the Bucs as they do not currently have one. The bad news for teams looking for a quarterback is that there are unlikely to be solutions for all of them. They are left to hope their existing quarterback or a backup shows improvement or that a recycled free agent will do the job.   Follow Tony on Twitter @draftmetrics