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Thursday, April 17, 2003
Updated: April 25, 4:37 PM ET
First-round quarterbacks a risky proposition

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

Since 1992, NFL quarterbacks improved their completion percentage from 57.4 to 59.6 percent. Too bad the franchises that wager first-round draft choices on quarterbacks weren't as efficient.

First-round QBs since 1992
1992
  • David Klingler, Cincinnati: Coming from a Run-and-Shoot offense, Klingler couldn't make the adjustment to a bad Bengals offense. He had a strong arm but turned out to be the third worst selection of the past 10 years behind Ryan Leaf and Heath Shuler.
  • Tommy Maddox, Denver: Bounced back after being out of the NFL from 1995-2001 to become the Steelers starting quarterback. Won seven of 11 games last year. He lasted only two years with the Broncos after they made him the 25th pick in the first round.
  • Dave Brown, N.Y. Giants: Giants used a supplemental pick on Brown, who started for three seasons from 1994-1997. Basically a career backup.

    1993

  • Drew Bledsoe, New England: Had a 63-60 record with the Patriots before being traded to the Bills for a first-round choice. Produced an 8-8 record in turning around the Bills last season.
  • Rick Mirer, Seattle: Won only 22 of 60 starts with the Seahawks and later the Bears. Has been a third quarterback for the past couple of years.

    1994

  • Heath Shuler, Washington: Despite being a top choice, he was beaten out by seventh-rounder Gus Frerotte and never recovered. His career ended early because of foot problems. Never showed the accuracy to be an NFL starter.
  • Trent Dilfer, Tampa Bay: Was a surprise sixth pick in the 1994 draft and managed a low-scoring offense for the Bucs from 1994-99. He won a Super Bowl ring with the Ravens and earned a starting job with the Seahawks in 2001. His career record as a starter is 51-43.

    1995

  • Kerry Collins, Carolina: Even though he took the Panthers to the NFC championship in his second year, he was released two years later when the team and organization lost faith in him. He was the fifth choice in the 1995 draft. He re-emerged as a starter with the Giants in 1999 and took them the Super Bowl.
  • Steve McNair, Tennessee: He was the third pick of the 1995 draft and a success story. The organization was patient enough to give him two years to learn the offense without having the pressure to start him too early.

    1996
    None

    1997

  • Jim Druckenmiller, San Francisco: This 49ers gamble didn't work. They drafted him in the first round but he never could get many starts. The Colts are taking a chance on him this year by bringing him to training camp.

    1998

  • Peyton Manning, Indianapolis: The No. 1 overall pick, he has been one of the league's best quarterbacks. He's 42-38 as a starter and has been to three Pro Bowls.
  • Ryan Leaf, San Diego: The second pick in the draft was a disaster. He lasted a couple of years before moving on to backup roles in Tampa Bay, Dallas and Seattle. He quit last year instead of being a third quarterback with the Seahawks.

    1999

  • Tim Couch, Cleveland: After winning only 11 games as a starter in his first three seasons, Couch won eight of 14 starts and helped to make the Browns a playoff team in his fourth season. Is battling Kelly Holcomb for a starting job this year.
  • Donovan McNabb, Philadelphia: The second pick in the draft was a major success story. He's kept the Eagles as an NFC championship contender and is one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the game.
  • Akili Smith, Cincinnati: Won only three starts with the Bengals and is pretty much a third quarterback who's on his way out in Cincinnati. If the Bengals draft Carson Palmer, they may release Smith in June. Completed only 47 percent of his passes as a pro.
  • Daunte Culpepper, Minnesota: Took the Vikings to an NFC championship game in his second season, his first as a starter. He's 21-22 as a starter and in the final year of his contract. The Vikings are having a tough time coming to a contract resolution.
  • Cade McNown, Chicago: Had a horrible 3-12 record as a starter and didn't seem to have the arm strength or leadership to turn the franchise around. He's hanging around the 49ers roster hoping to be a third quarterback.

    2000

  • Chad Pennington, NY Jets: Didn't get a chance to start until his third season and took the Jets to the playoffs with an NFL best 104.2 quarterback rating.

    2001

  • Michael Vick, Atlanta: Took the team to the playoffs and filled the Georgia Dome in his second year. Has the look of a superstar.

    2002

  • David Carr, Houston: Survived an NFL record 76 sacks and won four starts for an expansion team. He completed 52.5 percent of his passes and had nine touchdown passes.
  • Joey Harrington, Detroit: Was 3-10 as a rookie starter. He completed 50.7 percent of his passes as a rookie and had 12 touchdown passes.
  • Patrick Ramsey, Washington: Selected with the final pick of the first round, Ramsey heads into the 2003 season as Washington's starter.
  • Using a first-round choice on a quarterback is a 50-50 proposition. For every Peyton Manning, there is a Ryan Leaf. For every Donovan McNabb, there is an Akili Smith. For every Drew Bledsoe, there is a Rick Mirer. No wonder front offices sweat and panic when confronted with thoughts of using a first-round choice on a quarterback.

    It's a 50 percent play for a 60 percent position. The numbers don't necessarily compute. Twenty-two have been taken in the first rounds since 1992. Six have been busts -- Mirer, Heath Shuler, Jim Druckenmiller, Ryan Leaf, Akili Smith and Cade McNown. Dave Brown had early success with the Giants but he ended up being a career backup. The book is still out on Tim Couch in Cleveland. Trent Dilfer and Kerry Collins did their best work on other teams that picked them off the street instead of the two that paid their first-round contracts.

    Perhaps here is the most telling stat. Of the 14 quarterbacks taken in the top 10 of the past 10 drafts, only half -- seven -- became Pro Bowlers. The most important position in football is a crapshoot, which has made teams such as Cincinnati, Chicago, Arizona, Carolina and Baltimore more defensive than offensive in their thinking.

    A bad quarterback decision in the first round of the draft can set a franchise back for years. The Bengals failed on David Klingler and Akili Smith and haven't made the playoffs since 1990. And complications because of the salary cap have only made the decision-making that much more dangerous.

    Before getting into the financial penalties of a bad quarterback decision, let's explore why it's so difficult. For one, teams that invest high first-round choices lack talent. While they look to the quarterback to turn around the franchise, those teams usually lack the receivers, running back or blocking to make the offense work.

    "I think quarterback is such a hard position, but what makes it more difficult is going to a poor team," said Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowksi, who coached Mirer in Seattle in 1993. "There is an intangible that a quarterback has to have, but you can't see it until you get him on the field. He has to come in and direct guys who have played in he NFL and show everybody that he has the ability to do it."

    As rookies, quarterbacks are asked to play and lead like a veteran when they barely know the offense and are working with personnel that would turn good quarterbacks bad. Couch and David Carr struggled with expansion teams. Smith failed with the Bengals, but McNabb succeeded as the Eagles were quick to turn things around.

    One of the unique aspects of this draft is that the best team in position to draft a quarterback in the first round probably won't. The Bears won 13 games and went to the playoffs in 2001, and they still have a good core group of players.

    Yet the thought of using the fourth pick on Byron Leftwich or Kyle Boller troubles the Bears. For one, the best use of a rookie quarterback is to have him sit and learn.

    Considering the cost, it's hard to do. He'd command a signing bonus of around $11 million or $12 million. The six-year deal would cost between $35 million and $40 million, including killer cap numbers in the final three years.

    And while the signing bonus and option bonuses are guaranteed, the chances of success aren't. It's a 50-50 proposition.

    "What you don't know about a quarterback in the pros is his decision-making," Colts general manager Bill Polian said. "So many teams have the West Coast offense, and that system somewhat takes arm strength out of the equation. The ability to escape becomes an issue. With quarterbacks now, it helps to have that escapability. You can't see how well a quarterback make decisions until you get him on the field. You've got to see him hit a receiver on the run. You've got to see him make decisions against a blitz."

    Mirer failed because he came out of an option running offense and probably didn't have the arm strength to merit the second choice in the 1993 draft. Akili Smith had one big year at Oregon, but a failed rookie season and a worse second year made him a ghost along the Bengals sidelines. Cade McNown lacked accuracy and didn't hit it off as a leader. And Leaf failed in every account -- leadership, dedication and accuracy.

    Couch's battle with Kelly Holcomb this summer will be closely scrutinized in Cleveland because of the potential cap disasters. Couch has played enough that the base salary of his seven-year, $59.4 million contract has escalated to $6.2 million. His cap number is $7.86 million. Couch, Courtney Brown and Gerard Warren eat up $17.6 million of the team's $75 million cap and put the team in a tight cap situation.

    Having a $6.2 million backup could be a disaster that the Browns can't get out of. No wonder the Bears and teams with first round choices scrutinize quarterback selections.

    "It's a question of patience with quarterbacks," Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said. "With first-rounders, you want to fill immediate holes. At quarterback, that doesn't happen. Most people feel that quarterbacks need time. So much more is put on the quarterback position than others. You have to be physical. Leadership is hard to gauge early. You have to decide not knowing how a player is going to do with these intangibles. On a high pick, you have to hit on it."

    Even success has its problems. Over the past 10 years, Manning was considered the surest bet to succeed, and he's lived up to every expectation. Although he hasn't won a playoff game, he's been a Pro Bowler and leader of the league's best offenses. But by hitting every escalator and incentive in his six-year contract, he has made $48 million and is heading into his free agent season with a $15 million cap number and an $11.3 million salary.

    To re-sign him, the Colts will have to come up with the biggest contract in NFL history. The Vikings hit on Daunte Culpepper, but he's in the last year of his contract, and re-signing him has been difficult. Chad Pennington's up in a year and he could command big numbers.

    Vick, who made the Falcons a playoff team in two years, already has a cap number of $5.1 million heading into his third year. Joey Harrington is projecting $10 million and $11 million cap numbers in the fifth and sixth years of his deal.

    So don't be surprised if only two quarterbacks go in the top 10 when a case can be made for four -- Carson Palmer, Leftwich, Kyle Boller and Rex Grossman. The last time more than three quarterbacks were drafted in the first round was in 1999. While McNabb and Culpepper have found success, Smith and McNown are already dubbed failures and Couch is under review.

    The percentages aren't working for first-round quarterbacks.

    John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.