Why try your luck on Luck?

The Colts are going to take Andrew Luck first overall in the draft. No one will blame them if he doesn’t work out because every team without a star quarterback would draft him, given the chance. However, is this the right choice? Here are the career numbers for all first pick QBs since 1990 (from Pro Football Reference):

I listed each quarterback’s draft year, games played, winning percentage, completion percentage, TDs and INTs as a percentage of attempts, yards per attempt, quarterback rating, sacks as a percentage of dropbacks (excluding successful scrambles), and percentage of games in which he led a fourth quarter drive to tie or take the lead. For comparison, I included league average performance for 2000 and 2010 (note the big bump for 2010, due to more favorable officiating in the passing game).

Winning percentage sticks out right away: only four of the thirteen QBs have won more games than they lost. All of these QBs started on horrible teams, but it’s fair to say that only the Mannings and Michael Vick are top level quarterbacks; Jeff George, Drew Bledsoe, and Carson Palmer are above average, Alex Smith is just average; Tim Couch, David Carr, and JaMarcus Russell are duds; and the jury’s still out on Sam Bradford, Matt Stafford, and Cam Newton. The Mannings, Bledsoe, Vick, Palmer, and Stafford took their teams to the playoffs within four years, but only the Mannings have won a Super Bowl (Bledsoe has lost one).

Rather than roll the dice on a quarterback, teams can draft a non-quarterback or trade the pick. Between 1990 and 2008, six teams who “earned” the first pick drafted a quarterback, six traded the pick, and seven chose a non-quarterback. Teams that drafted QBs had a winning percentage of 13.3% over the next two years, compared to 20.1% for teams that traded the pick or chose a non-QB. Percentages compared similarly after four years: 29.5% and 35.0%, respectively. These teams may differ in other ways, but the numbers suggest that drafting a quarterback is unlikely to help, on average.

I don’t blame most of these teams for drafting quarterbacks, though. From 2001 to 2010, burgeoning rookie contracts made the first pick untradeable. Even worse, teams had a hard time justifying number one overall money for any position other than quarterback. My Lions are a perfect example. No one was really excited about Matt Stafford in 2009, and the Lions tried to trade the pick for Jay Cutler before the draft, but, in the end, the Broncos didn’t want to pay the price tag on the number one pick. The Lions were 0-16 the year before and they spent $42 million guaranteed on Stafford. For a desperate team, spending that kind of money for a tackle or defensive end doesn’t make sense.

However, the situation has changed. The new collective bargaining agreement restricts rookie contracts severely. The top pick is no longer anathema and no longer needs to be used on a quarterback. Now, the Colts actually have a decision to make (one that they have already made, admittedly). They could:

  1. Try their luck on Luck
  2. Trade the pick for a veteran QB +/- additional draft picks/players
  3. Trade down and draft some other QB
  4. Combine 2 & 3 to give themselves flexibility at QB

Luck may be something special — he’s getting the most hype for a college quarterback since Peyton Manning, who he aims to replace — but the odds are against it. Only the Mannings and perhaps Vick have justified their number one selection since 1990. All I know for sure is that I don’t know how good Luck will be yet. Picking Luck is a risk. He’s less of a risk than some other number one picks, but the buzz surrounding him also increases his trade value.

Let’s think about which proven quarterbacks the Colts could get in a trade. This will be similar to Bill Simmons’s annual NBA trade value column. First, there are the untouchable QBs (the Colts can save themselves the phone call and the embarrassment):

  • Aaron Rodgers
  • Drew Brees
  • Tom Brady
  • Eli Manning
  • Ben Roethlisberger

Roethlisberger and Manning are easily the weakest on this list, but they’ve both won Super Bowls and Roethlisberger is only 29. Next are the guys that are worth a conversation, but a conversation that almost certainly ends with a no:

  • Michael Vick
  • Philip Rivers
  • Matt Ryan
  • Matt Stafford
  • Cam Newton

I moved Vick down to this list because of his propensity to get injured. Rivers puts up top tier numbers year after year but has failed to get great teams to the Super Bowl (or even the playoffs) and is generally unlikeable. Ryan, Stafford, and Newton all have their teams moving in the right direction and have as much potential as Luck to be great. I could probably move them up to the untouchables.

Now we get to the interesting stuff. The next guys seem like they are off limits, but I bet there’s at least one team in this list that would consider the trade:

  • Tony Romo
  • Matt Schaub
  • Joe Flacco
  • Alex Smith
  • Sam Bradford
  • Andy Dalton

Romo, Schaub, Flacco, and Smith all play on strong teams, so a change would feel unnecessary. However, the Cowboys, Texans, and Ravens just can’t get over the hump. T.J. Yates had a decent second half audition for the Texans, and the Ravens rely primarily on their defense. Both teams would think long and hard about Luck. Alex Smith isn’t fooling anyone; with the awesome 49ers defense, all he had to do was keep the turnovers down this year. In fact, the Colts would be unlikely to make this trade without additional compensation. Dalton and Bradford both have potential, but, unlike Ryan, Stafford, and Newton, they haven’t shown me enough to distinguish themselves from a hot college prospect like Luck.

I am convinced that the Colts could easily trade the first pick for any other quarterback in the league. Here are the guys they might actually want:

  • Jay Cutler
  • Matt Cassel
  • Jason Campbell
  • Kyle Orton
  • Matt Moore
  • Matt Flynn
  • Carson Palmer
  • Brett Favre

Okay, okay, I’m kidding about Favre (or am I?). And despite Matt Flynn’s stunning one game resume from week 17 (built on the Lions subpar defense), none of these guys are particularly exciting. However, they are all legitimate NFL starters (except Flynn, perhaps), and the Colts would surely get additional compensation in a hypothetical trade.

If I were in Jim Irsay’s shoes, I would cut Manning loose (or find some sucker to trade for him), and start inquiring with the Texans and Ravens. Or, I would combine strategies 2 and 3 above and trade the first pick (plus other assets if needed) for Sam Bradford and the Rams’ pick (second overall). I could then pick Robert Griffin III and give him time to learn a pro offense under Bradford. Or, I could trade down lower to the Dolphins’ pick (eighth or ninth), the Texans’ pick (26th), or the Ravens’ pick (29th). Grabbing Schaub or Flacco would require additional assets, but some interesting prospects (e.g., Kirk Cousins, 28-year-old Brandon Weeden) will certainly be available that late. Making a move like this would give the Colts an even keel at QB right now and a shot with a top prospect for later. They could even keep Manning on the off chance that he plays next year, since he would feel less threatened by a slate of Bradford and Cousins, for example.

While I was thinking about this issue, my buddy Luke sent me a great article by Michael Lewis profiling Eli Manning (whose first name is actually Elisha, same as his dad’s) shortly after the Giants picked him first in 2004 (through the Chargers). Lewis knows the Mannings from high school and describes Eli both from his interactions and from the opinions of his friends, family, and coaches. Suffice it to say, Eli is not the typical big-man-on-campus QB; it’s especially interesting to read given Eli’s success since the article came out.

Lewis also writes that many well-respected coaches (including three of the four great Bills: Belichick, Cowher, and Parcels) dislike picking quarterbacks high in the draft because of the risk involved. My argument is similar and encompasses all positions: top picks are risky and pricey, but they have great “street value,” so why not trade them for multiple assets/cheaper picks, especially assets with well-known value?

I also have a challenge for the NFL. Why is quarterback evaluation so inaccurate? Fans have an excuse — Lewis makes a great analogy between “Plato’s Cave” and watching football games as a regular fan. Without a view of all 22 players (sign the petition!!!) and consistent replay, fans just see a shadow of the game. We don’t see pass coverage, defensive formations, route running, etc. NFL teams have the “all 22” view and they get to test quarterback prospects as much as they like. I am waiting for the NFL to develop a QB virtual reality helmet that puts players into pro game situations to gauge their performance. In 30 years, we’ll be saying, “Luck, Jr., crushed the simulations! The Lions are going to win another Super Bowl right away if they draft him!”

5 responses to “Why try your luck on Luck?

  1. Spot-on. The Luck pick is the single most valued by other teams in the league in NFL history. If you think that value is higher than Luck’s expected production, which it almost certainly is, then you should trade. Especially with at least two other quarterback available that project well (the calculus is harder with Barkley staying in college, but I still say trade).

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