If there is anything I hate it is simplistic analysis. Simplistic analysis usually misses a few things and the most important thing it misses is why things occur. For instance, we will be doing a deep dive of the draft when quarterbacks were taken one and two. We can look at what they collectively accomplished following the draft and come to a certain conclusion. That conclusion would be that you are better off taking a quarterback first than second. Well, duh.
What those numbers after the fact won’t tell are the factors that led up to those decisions. Maybe there is a connection there that is more meaningful than simply when a guy was taken. Plus, looking at the first two guys doesn’t tell you who was picked after them. For instance, Brian Griese and Matt Hasselbeck were taken after Ryan Leaf in the 1998 draft. Neither were Payton Manning, but they both enjoyed lengthy careers that were better than what Leaf did.
So, if we start with the general we can eventually make our way to the specific. Since the merger in 1970, quarterbacks have been taken one and two eight different times. It should be noted that quarterbacks have been taken one, two, and three only twice. Of those eight times, the number one pick clearly enjoyed a better career four times (counting Trevor Lawrence) while the second pick was clearly better once (Donovan McNabb).
The other three are possibly debatable depending on how you look at things. So, let’s take a look at all three and see if we can make one determination or another based on their professional statistics.
The Close Calls
Jim Plunkett— 52.5 PCT, 25,882 passing, 164/198 TD/INT, 1,337 rushing, 14 TD
Archie Manning— 55.2 PCT, 23,911 passing, 125/173 TD/INT, 2,197 rushing, 18 TD
Situations always have to be taken into account. Both players started on bad teams, but Plunkett found his way to the Raiders towards the end of his career. He won a Super Bowl ring, but you could also claim that he had a better supporting cast. Quite frankly, the Saints and Oilers were historically awful, so Manning was running for his life half of the time.
Jameis Winston— 61.3 PCT, 21,840 passing, 139/96 TD/INT, 1,220 rushing, 11 TD
Marcus Mariota— 62.6 PCT, 15,656 passing, 92/54 TD/INT, 2,012 rushing, 17 TD
Mariota might be one of the biggest tragedies in recent memory. His college numbers might be better than any of the players we will look at other than C.J. Stroud. He hasn’t been that bad as a pro, but he has never been able to get traction. So, Winston has the counting numbers, but I’d probably prefer Mariota.
Jared Goff— 64.2 PCT, 25,854 passing, 155/70 TD/INT, 474 rushing, 10 TD
Carson Wentz— 62.6 PCT, 22,129 passing, 151/66 TD/INT, 1,362 rushing, 10 TD
There is reason those of us in statistics like to go with a Player A/Player B test. You see these names and you are immediately out on Wentz. It makes perfect sense based on recent results, but the overall results are pretty damn close. As of 2023 I’m inclined to call it a draw, but I figure in five years the answer will be quite different.
The talk about Will Levis motivated this whole thing. Can we identify a bust before it happens? I make no bones about the fact that I’m not a scout, so I don’t see what they see. Then again, maybe that’s a good thing. Scouts like to dream on traits. A particular quarterback may be faster, have a stronger arm, or more arm talent (whatever that is). Yet, have we bothered to ask whether they are actually better?
In the interest of space, I am going to track the five drafts where there is no doubt about who was the better quarterback. We will take a look at the college numbers for the best quarterback and compare that to the second best quarterback. In short, could we have predicted this out of the gate?
Best Quarterback— 61.8 PCT, 46,491 yards, 384/132 TD/INT, 151.2 Rating
Second Best QB— 61.9 PCT, 39,883 yards, 308/114 TD/INT, 148.8 Rating
So, maybe it isn’t a huge difference, but there is a difference. Of course, in almost every case, the number one quarterback was playing at a more prestigious program. Strength of schedule matters. However, when you want a quarterback that is going to play well it is probably better to draft a quarterback that has played well. We can make excuses for a “talented” guy all day long. You’ll usually end up making excuses for them on the next level too.
What does this all mean?
I am not Nostradamus. I can’t tell you who will have the better career between Bryce Young and C.J. Stroud. The eyeball test says Young might be a bit better because of the level of competition and relatively less talent around him, but I am not a scout. What I can tell you is that Will Levis will not be better. Why won’t he be better? Well, he wasn’t nearly as good over the past few seasons.
Bryce Young— 65.8 PCT, 8,356 yards, 80/12 TD/INT, 165.0 Rating
C.J. Stroud— 69.3 PCT, 8,123 yards, 85/12 TD/INT, 182.4 Rating
Will Levis— 64.9 PCT, 5,876 yards, 46/25 TD/INT, 145.6 Rating
This isn’t to say that Levis won’t be good at the next level, but he wasn’t particularly good at that level. Sure, maybe that is because he went to Kentucky. Maybe he does better at an LSU, Oklahoma, or USC. Maybe he puts up better numbers in a spread offense. Maybe if a frog had wings it wouldn’t nip its butt on the pavement every time it jumped. Stroud had the highest rating of any player 19 quarterbacks profiled in this article.
Does that make him the best quarterback prospect? It’s never that simple. Ohio State outclassed everyone in the conference because they had more talent than anyone in the conference. Put him (even with Ohio State) in the SEC and it’s likely a different outcome. Still, to bypass him (or even both he and Young) for Levis just seems mind-numbingly stupid. There’s more to life than numbers, but I still trust numbers. Young and Stroud are likely just better no matter how much you massage them.