Quarterbacks dominate top of draft

Poor QB play usually means a top-10 pick. Which is why the top of the draft will continue to be dominated by signal callers.

Updated: April 19, 2005, 1:01 PM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Since 1998, the NFL has been in an arms race. More quarterbacks from passing offenses are coming out of college. Passing stats are escalating, and completion percentages are increasing. Gone are the days of just getting by at quarterback.

"The two teams that have dominated in our league [the Eagles and the Patriots] have one constant about them and that is that they've got outstanding quarterbacks," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said.

Coughlin and general manager Ernie Accorsi have recognized that. The Giants are in a division with Donovan McNabb, who has taken the Eagles to four consecutive NFC title games. Without hesitation a year ago, Accorsi jumped on the chance to swing a trade with the Chargers and make Eli Manning the Giants' franchise quarterback. The quarterback trend in the draft really began in 1998 when Eli's brother, Peyton, was drafted first by the Colts. If Eli develops like his brother, the Giants should eventually be able to compete with the Eagles.

Position-by-position schedule
In preparation for the NFL draft (April 23-24, ESPN), Len Pasquarelli and John Clayton will roll out a position-by-position look at draft prospects, along with a breakdown for each position. Click here to see the complete schedule.
Since 1998, 22 new, younger quarterbacks have taken starting jobs. Fifteen of the 22 came in the first round of the draft.

Whether a team picking near the top of the draft actually considers the top quarterbacks to be the best players available, the coach and the general manager have to consider making them the top selections. That's the situation the 49ers find themselves in with Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers even though they probably rate Michigan wide receiver Braylon Edwards the best player in the draft.

Do the 49ers have the luxury of not taking the best quarterback in a league saturated with first-round quarterbacks? Probably not.

"You need to have a good quarterback," said Houston general manager Charley Casserly, who built the Texans around quarterback David Carr. "My perception is that there have been quite a few real good quarterbacks coming out of college. With 32 teams, you have quarterbacks who are getting older and getting replaced. There are good ones coming into the league. More teams are passing the ball in college. More teams are passing the ball in high school. You have seven-on-seven camps in high school that are giving more quarterbacks opportunities to throw the ball."

In the 1990s, there was a quarterback drought. Go back to the 1998 season in which Peyton Manning was drafted. Nine of the top 10 quarterbacks in 1998 were in their 30s. The list included Randall Cunningham (35 years old), Vinny Testaverde (35), John Elway (38), Troy Aikman (32) and others. College offenses weren't spreading the field, and fewer throwing quarterbacks were coming into the league.

That trend started to change with Manning in 1998. He was followed in 1999 by McNabb and Daunte Culpepper. Between 2002 and 2004, there were 11 first-round quarterbacks.

The average starting quarterback this fall will be 29 years old. Instead of nine of the top 10 quarterbacks being in their 30s, only 10 projected starters will be 30, and the oldest will be 35-year-old Trent Green. In 1998, Warren Moon was still going at 42.

Another trend of note is that it's becoming increasingly rare for the lower-round quarterback to get starting jobs.

Marc Bulger, Matt Hasselbeck, Tom Brady, Aaron Brooks, A.J. Feeley, Kurt Warner, Green and Tim Rattay are the only projected starters not selected in the first two rounds of the draft. And Rattay might be replaced by whichever quarterback (Smith or Rodgers) the 49ers draft.

"You need to have more quarterbacks who can move around and have some athletic ability," Bills assistant general manager Tom Modrak said. "It's not the same for the dropback quarterbacks. You need to get a young top gun."

Which is why the Bills gambled a year ago and traded a 2005 first-rounder to get J.P. Losman in the first round of the draft. Buffalo had Drew Bledsoe, a dropback thrower with limited mobility. The Bills have to compete against Brady, who plays like a first-rounder, and Chad Pennington of the Jets, who was a first-rounder, and felt the only way to remain competitive in the AFC East was to get a young talent to groom at quarterback.

The Bills feel that if Losman had been in this year's draft, he would be in consideration with Smith and Rodgers at the top of this draft. By being aggressive, they believe they found their quarterback of the future.

The consequences of not getting a first-round caliber quarterback aren't good. With the exception of Minnesota and Tennessee (with a healthy Steve McNair), the teams in the top 10 in the draft have the same thing in common. Atrocious quarterback play. What do the 10 teams picking at the bottom of the first round have in common? Good quarterback play.

Seven of the 10 teams with the worst records last season finished with quarterbacks who completed between 52.9 and 57.9 percent of their passes and finished 20th or lower in passing yards. Those kinds of numbers at quarterback usually mean a team is going to be picking in the top 10 of the draft.

That's why quarterbacks have gone No. 1 overall in four straight drafts. And it's a trend that isn't likely to stop anytime soon.

John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer