Before deciding to return to school, Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck was considered a lock to be the first player selected in 2011 NFL Draft. A quarterback being selected first would be no surprise, as the prevailing mentality is that the worst team in the league must find a shiny new college quarterback to energize the franchise. In fact, eight of the last ten drafts have begun with one being selected. What would have been unusual, however, was that Luck was just a third-year sophomore.
Players just three years removed for their high school graduation have been eligible to petition to enter the NFL draft only since 1990 (previously the league had required four years). And the only redshirt sophomore drafted first overall was Michael Vick, ten years ago. While Luck won’t be joining the draft this year, the top quarterback prospects jockeying to be first-round picks are still primarily underclassmen. The lone senior prospect is Washington quarterback Jake Locker, who many believed would have challenged Sam Bradford last year as the first overall pick if he had declared early for the 2010 draft. However, after an injury-plagued and inconsistent senior season, Locker is no longer the favorite to be even the first quarterback selected.
A trio of underclassmen whose stock ascended through autumn are now in the discussion. Super-sized Arkansas junior Ryan Mallett continued his successful development on the field, and although exaggerated rumors of character concerns have him falling with pundits and draftniks, his potential should keep him from falling very far. With some help from the overhype machine in Bristol, Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert became the initial favorite to replace Luck as the first quarterback selected, but the new flavor of the week is Auburn junior Cam Newton after he impressed the media with his workout commercial recently. An undefeated regular season, a Heisman Trophy, a national championship, and a propagandistic, made-for-media workout later, it’s easy to forget that Newton was a JUCO transfer and hardly on the 2011 NFL radar just months ago.
It is unusual for so many underclassmen quarterbacks to be considered top prospects. Only four times in the last 20 years has the first round seen more than one selected at the position. Presumably, much of this can be attributed to the conventional wisdom that a quarterback is already a historically risky proposition to spend a first-round pick on, and underclassmen are even more of a gamble. They have less experience and often lack the mental and emotional maturity to succeed quickly. Legendary coach Bill Parcells had guidelines based on that perspective for evaluating the position. They were broken down into four “rules” for drafting quarterbacks. As explained by K.C. Joyner in an article on ESPN.com last year, Parcells’ picks had to (1) be a three-year starter, (2) lead team to at least 23 victories, (3) be a senior, and (4) be a college graduate. The first three criteria deal with those experience and maturity aspects, but the last goes deeper. Graduation may seem redundant, or possibly unnecessary, in lieu of the rest of the list, but it actually adds another dimension—the dedication and focus to achieve a long-term goal.
Two years ago, another trio of underclassmen quarterbacks were all on their way to being first round picks. Before that draft, Vic Carucci of NFL.com wrote an article analyzing the recent history of underclassmen quarterbacks and demonstrated their higher risk through empirical evidence. Let’s update his chart since then (amending an error in the omission of Aaron Rodgers on his list) and revisit the discussion of drafting an underclassmen quarterback in the first round.
A record three underclassmen quarterbacks drafted in the first round of 2009 ratcheted up the sample set. As this is a copycat league, their progress in the last two years will likely have a proportionally greater influence on the decisions of front offices this year than further back. Injuries have impeded the beginning of Stafford’s career, but the results and leadership when he has played have been promising for an organization beginning to turn things around after years of futility. While Sanchez still shows inconsistency week-to-week, he led a stacked club deep into a conference championship for the second straight season. Finally, Freeman’s progress in his second season has been tremendous, and the future looks brighter as he grows with a young core of promising skill players around him. Going back a few more years, you find Roethlisberger and Rodgers, who have won three of the last six Super Bowls. While cautionary tales like JaMarcus Russell remain out there, limiting the scope of that list to more recent history shows that taking an underclassman at quarterback has produced more beneficial results than in the past. The poster boys for the maturity concern are Michael Vick and Vince Young. Vick initially helped Atlanta and has triumphantly returned playing elsewhere, but was that middling success worth the price of Vick’s transgressions and the lack of long-term return for the Falcons? Similarly for Young, he may ultimately find sustained success, but it won’t be for Tennessee, and his problems contributed to costing a head coach his job.
One thing is obvious, Parcells’ criteria is oversimplified for today’s league. As college football has evolved into a big business, with teams employing complex NFL offenses and the pressure to win being immense, the learning curve and timeline to mature has sped up for these young men. And enough have quickly achieved success in the NFL to dispel at least one notion: An underclassman quarterback is no more of a risk as a first-round pick than a senior graduate.