The very definition of “franchise quarterback,” as hazy as it may be, may have been rearranged at this year’s draft. It no longer means a caretaker who can lead a respectable team. It now means a quarterback capable of winning a Super Bowl — now.
The first round, in ways expected and not, was about quarterbacks. The news that Aaron Rodgers wants out of Green Bay and has agitated for a trade from the Packers, delivered Thursday afternoon, hovered over the night. Once the selections began, quarterbacks flew off the board — and even walked across a glitzy stage after last year’s remote draft — at record pace, five of them in the first 15 picks.
Maybe quarterbacks weren’t the only thing that mattered. Kyle Pitts became the highest tight end ever taken when the Atlanta Falcons grabbed him fourth overall. Even as offensive players were taken with the first seven picks, Heisman Trophy-winning wide receiver DeVonta Smith slid to 10th, where the Philadelphia Eagles traded up to take him. The Carolina Panthers made the first significant surprise by making cornerback Jaycee Horn the first defensive player taken eighth overall.
But quarterbacks dominated the draft in a way they haven’t before. The first three picks were all used on quarterbacks for the first time in 22 years — long-haired savior Trevor Lawrence to the Jacksonville Jaguars, baby-faced playmaker Zach Wilson to the New York Jets and North Dakota State dual-threat mystery man Trey Lance to the San Francisco 49ers. Two more quarterbacks went not long after, with the Chicago Bears trading a haul of picks to move up and take Justin Fields at 11 and the New England Patriots taking Alabama’s pinpoint pocket passer Mac Jones 15th.
In the past four drafts, teams have selected 17 quarterbacks in the first round, an unprecedented run of first-round passers. Teams are hungrier than ever to find a franchise QB and more willing than ever to turn their franchise over to a rookie. The factors are many: the financial boon of a quarterback on a rookie contract; rules changes that have protected quarterbacks and allowed for more styles of play; coaches more accommodating to systems quarterbacks used in college.
There was nothing too instructive about what the Jaguars did. As expected for years, Lawrence went first overall. The Jaguars were a bad team without a quarterback, and they took the quarterback regarded as a generational talent. Once the formality of Lawrence’s selection ended, the next picks revealed plenty about the state of the NFL’s quarterback search.
The Jets early in the month had jettisoned Sam Darnold, a 23-year-old taken third overall three years ago who had flashed competence through injury surrounded by dysfunction and little talent, and used the second overall pick on Wilson.
The NFL didn’t exactly know what it was looking at when Patrick Mahomes came out of Texas Tech in 2017 slinging deep passes from every angle and everywhere, but now it is looking for quarterbacks just like him. “Mahomesian” has become part of scouting lingo.
Scouts like to say Wilson has “Mahomesian” traits — meaning he can make accurate throws from odd body positions. The NFL may have once looked at Wilson and seen a too-small prospect with injury history from a school that didn’t play stiff enough competition. Now it sees limitless possibilities.
The 49ers traded a ransom — the No. 12 pick and a third-rounder this year, plus first-round picks in 2022 and 2023 — to move up to the third spot in the draft despite the presence of Jimmy Garoppolo. He has been injured frequently, but Garoppolo has gone 22-8 in the regular season for the 49ers. A little more than two years ago, he had them leading Mahomes’s Chiefs by 10 points midway through the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl.
Lance’s lack of experience and level of competition made his selection a gamble, but the 49ers were eager to make it. Coach Kyle Shanahan once crafted a revolutionary offense around Robert Griffin III with Washington, and Lance has similar athleticism. If his speed and smarts translate from North Dakota State to the NFL, he will provide the 49ers elite traits. For all his success managing the 49ers’ offense when healthy, Garoppolo lacks a skill that stands out.
For many coaches, eschewing Garoppolo for a quarterback with 17 college starts under his belt would seem like an unnecessary risk. Shanahan, though, understands where the real danger lies. “There’s a risk any season you go into without a top-five QB,” he said in a news conference this month, explaining the trade up.
Recent NFL history backs Shanahan up. In the past three seasons, eight quarterbacks have reached a conference championship game: Tom Brady, Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Garoppolo, Ryan Tannehill, Jared Goff and Drew Brees. Aside from Garoppolo, they are all either all-time greats, chosen in the top 10 of their draft — and therefore identified as possessing elite traits — or both. To do anything of note in January, or to beat the teams going deep into the playoffs, it takes a rare quarterback.
The days of the Jaguars beating their head against the wall for years with Blake Bortles, or of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers extending Jameis Winston rope for a fifth playoff-free season, seem to be over. The Bears had no long-term answer at quarterback before Thursday, but they had already given up on 2017 second overall pick Mitchell Trubisky, whom they allowed to walk in free agency for a backup job in Buffalo.
The Bears’ failure with Trubisky led to another bold move Thursday night. With Fields still on the board at 11, the Bears gave the Giants the 20th pick this year, a fifth-rounder this year and a first- and fourth-round pick next year to move up. They nabbed a player with massive talent, an accurate passer who is also one of the fastest quarterbacks to enter the league. The Bears have seen how a tantalizing prospect can bust, but they were wise enough to understand the need to keep trying.
The Patriots understand more than any franchise what a stabilizing force a franchise quarterback can be, and in Jones they attempted to find one in the mold of Brady. Jones was one of the last players left in the green room, pecking at two cellphones in a robin’s egg suit. He wound up with the winningest franchise of the past two decades — and the first quarterback Coach Bill Belichick has taken in the first round.
At Alabama, Jones produced some of the gaudiest stats of all-time. He is not much of a runner, which cuts against the stylistic trend at the position, but he possesses impeccable footwork and instincts inside the pocket. If his accuracy and decision-making from college translate to the NFL, Jones may overtake Cam Newton before long.
Well before the draft, another team discarded an accomplished quarterback for one it believes offers more upside. Goff quarterbacked the Los Angeles Rams to the Super Bowl three years ago, in just his third season after the Rams had traded up to draft him first overall. And still in January they shipped Goff, two first-round picks and a third-round pick to the Detroit Lions for Matthew Stafford, who despite an absence of postseason success is one of the most talented throwers in the NFL.
Even teams with a great quarterback are mindful of finding their next great quarterback. The Packers, much to the ire of Rodgers, traded up in the first round last year to select Jordan Love as his heir apparent. General Manager Brian Gutekunst viewed quarterback as so important that he would use significant draft capital to seek a potential difference-maker for years down the road. In theory, it was valid. It reality, it backfired. The pick inflamed Rodgers, and this offseason his anger culminated with Thursday’s reports that he may refuse to play for Green Bay again after 16 seasons.
Rodgers’s percolating potential availability convinced the 49ers to take a stab the night before the draft. “To me when the MVP of the league might be available … yeah, we inquired,” 49ers GM John Lynch told reporters after taking Lance. “It was a quick end to the conversation. It wasn’t happening.”
To be sure, more teams will be calling the Packers. Rodgers is a quarterback who can win a Super Bowl, and everybody is looking for one, almost regardless of what they have on their own roster. The draft left no doubt: At quarterback, good enough is no longer good enough.