Eroding The Myth Of ‘Developmental Quarterbacks’

You may have read recently about the possibility of the Pittsburgh Steelers drafting a quarterback next week in the 2016 NFL Draft. In fact, if you are a regular reader of this site, it is a topic that we have written about, and there is logic behind it.

The Steelers are one of the few teams who continue to hold firm to a philosophy of having three quarterbacks. They currently have two quarterbacks with a modicum of talent on the roster, and their previous quarterbacks not currently signed are question marks, while the only remaining veterans of any quality on the market are sure to be out of their price range.

So, indeed, it is certainly possible that the Steelers end up drafting a quarterback next week to stick behind Ben Roethlisberger and Landry Jones on the depth chart—but don’t let that fool you. In doing so, it would be a move purely to add depth to a position at which they believe it is needed.

Some were somehow persuaded a few years ago when the team drafted Jones that he might be what you would call a “developmental quarterback”. Even longtime Steelers backup quarterback Charlie Batch suggested as much. But the truth is that the “developmental quarterback” isn’t really a thing.

The notion that a team can find a franchise quarterback that simple needs some time and seasoning in the mid- to late-round area of the draft is one that many people of wide variety—including front office decision-makers—toy around with on a yearly basis. After all, the reasoning goes, Tom Brady was a sixth-round pick.

But Brady is as close to a developmental quarterback as you’ll find. Another example often cited is Russell Wilson of the Seahawks, but he was merely drafted in the third round. For one thing, that is not too far removed from the usual quarterback territory. For another, and more importantly, he wasn’t developed. He started from the get-go—ahead of another supposed “developmental quarterback”, Matt Flynn.

Just recently, Kevin Patra published an article on the league’s website examining the recent history of late-round picks and found a (to some) startling dearth not just of success, but talent, that we find after the first couple rounds of the draft. Patra posits that it is part of a league-wide developmental problem, but I think the answer is more simple: there are very few talents in the sports world that are capable of being a franchise quarterback. And the ones who are almost always are drafted in the first round.

Patra did a quick breakdown of the potential projected starters for next season and calculated that 21 of the 34 potential names were former first-round draft picks, with an additional six coming in the second round. Add Wilson in the third and Brady in the sixth, along with Tony Romo as an undrafted free agent, and you’re left with just four others, including Ryan Fitzpatrick, a former seventh-round pick.

Another interesting statistic that Patra brought up is the fact that only one first-round quarterback drafted outside of the top five picks since 2009 has won a playoff game—and that was Tim Tebow, over the Steelers. So even when we’re talking about first-round picks exclusively, the talent thins very quickly, so to speak, after the first quarterback or two. Of course, the cutoff is far from arbitrary, as Joe Flacco was drafted 18th overall in 2008, and has a number of playoff victories, and a Super Bowl ring. Of course, teams with stronger rosters such as the Seahawks, 49ers, and Bengals have been able to find a player in the second or third rounds that have won a playoff game as well, but they remain, decidedly, the outliers.

To make a long story short, however, it is true that the Steelers may indeed be adding a quarterback to the roster this season through the draft, but that quarterback is far from likely to amount to anything more than an arm on the depth chart. I’m certain that the majority of readers are aware of this, but there are always some outliers—I know, because I read the comments sections.

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