Highly drafted quarterbacks rarely transform bad franchises

USA Today

Those who think the Jets killed the future of their franchise by winning on Sunday and giving the Jaguars the lead in the Trevor Lawrence sweepstakes may want to look at how great teams are built. It’s hardly ever by losing enough to earn the first overall pick, and using that pick on a franchise quarterback.

In fact, of the NFL’s eight current division leaders, none drafted their quarterback first overall. None even drafted their quarterback in the Top 5.

Four current division leaders used a first-round pick on a quarterback, but none followed the “tanking” model to get him: The Chiefs were a playoff when they traded up to draft Patrick Mahomes. The Bills were a playoff team when they traded up to draft Josh Allen. The Packers were a playoff team when they drafted Aaron Rodgers. The Steelers were a 6-10 team but had been in the playoffs the two years before that when they drafted Ben Roethlisberger No. 11 overall.

The other four division leaders did not draft their starting quarterback in the first round: The Seahawks drafted Russell Wilson in the third round. The Saints signed Drew Brees as a free agent. Washington traded for Alex Smith after the Chiefs decided to move on from him. The Titans traded for Ryan Tannehill after the Dolphins decided to move on from him.

But while the NFL’s best teams didn’t get their quarterbacks at the top of the draft, what about the teams that do have a Top 5 draft pick quarterback? Some of them may make the playoffs this year, but overall the results are more bad than good: The teams that have a quarterback picked in the Top 5 on their roster (the Browns, Dolphins, Bengals, Jets, Rams, Cardinals, Bears, Lions, Eagles and Falcons) have a combined record of 60-78-2 this season.

Bad franchises are often bad for reasons that no one player can change, and sometimes quarterbacks who look like great prospects either languish on bad teams or prove not to be so great. There’s no guarantee that Lawrence can transform a franchise.

64 responses to “Highly drafted quarterbacks rarely transform bad franchises

  1. While I applaud your line of reasoning and clear empiric proof of it, there is no disputing the far-reaching historic impression that bad franchises are rescued by the arrival of a QB messiah, such as Dallas when they drafted Aikman in 89 or Peyton Manning and the Colts.

  2. Truer words have never been spoken. Bad teams tend to have bad o-lines and a mediocre receiving corps. Most of them lack continuity in front office management and/or coaching staffs, leading to lack of continuity in plays and play-calling. And what does it matter that a quarterback can routinely post 20 points in a game if the defense routinely gives up 30?

    Other things enter into it. Is the quarterback getting good coaching? Is the o-line so porous that all a novice quarterback is going to learn is bad habits? Or face severe, chronic or nagging injury?

    If the coach and gm have a chance (depends on ownership), I’d build the o-line and receiving corps, as well as the defense, and then go after a good qb, either by draft-and-learn for a bit or by trade. Some quarterbacks seem to be able to come up to speed quickly these days, but most (including Mahomes, Brady and Rodgers) learned a lot from the bench.

    There are no quick fixes, and owners who think differently seem to help mire their teams in mediocrity for years, if not decades.

  3. All you have to do is look at the Cleveland Browns for the last 15 plus years. Always picking very high, and taking QBs that never worked out until Mayfield came along.

  4. Andrew Luck was a “can’t-miss” prospect. Then no offensive line happened. No guarantees it will work out for Trevor in New York OR Jacksonville, dysfunctional franchises both.

  5. But Eagles won SB after drafting Carson Wentz, and the Rams made the SB after drafting Jared Goff. A top pick can take you there, but does not guarantee long term success.

  6. The Bills took a lot of heat for trading the draft pick KC used to get Patrick Mahomes. If you follow the draft picks they received they used them to draft Pro Bowl CB Tre White, Pro Bowl LB Treamaine Edmunds, LT Dion Dawkins and used draft capital to get Josh Allen. Mahomes is a great player, but the trade worked out well for both teams.

  7. Lawrence isn’t lost yet. And even if they don’t get him, that doesn’t mean there are no great prospects left.

    1997 Peyton Manning went back to school and the Jets organization spent the last few weeks up to the draft licking their wounds. They could’ve stayed at no 1 and grabbed Orlando Pace, Walter Jones or Tony Gonzalez as a consolation prize but all they cared about was that they missed out on their franchise QB.

  8. I look back at all the great dynasties in the NFL (Super Bowl Era) and most if not all built their teams from the O & D lines out. Chuck Knoll picked Joe Green as his first pick (4th overall) with Pittsburgh. Bill Walsh drafted James Owens (WR) as his first pick (2nd rd) with SF. I like what xofdallas said, there are so many variables involved with this but i agree coaching is tops on the list.

  9. That’s a fair point and good comments. However, As a long suffering Jag’s fan whose team had never had the chance to pick #1, I will gladly take the chance and live on some hope for once that TLaw is the likes of Elway in 83, Aikman in 89, Manning in 98, Manning in 04, Luck in 12 versus some of the busts and be hopeful for an offseason that we finally got a guy to spin it as we have had the pleasure of watching Leftwich, Garrard, Mckown, Gabbert, Bortles and Minshew the last 15 years.

  10. This is also why a QB not carrying a bad team to greatness might still be a pretty good QB if given a more fair chance.

  11. Terry Bradshaw almost got killed in his first couple of years in Pittsburgh. The Steelers were horrible.

    That’s why his career is all the more remarkable.

  12. Need to build the team inside-out and have a competent coaching staff and FO. Jags/Jets should trade down and build team first. I’m sure the next “Generational” QB is right around the corner.

  13. This is a thinly veiled slap at the Jaguars. Despite your negativity, we have every expectation that our highly drafted QB, be it Lawrence, Wilson or Fields, will lead us up to 3rd place in the AFC South and that we will once again breathe the rare air of a 4 win season.

    Ah, the good ol’ days, they’re coming back.

  14. bad teams generally have bad coaching.
    if you’re a good coach, you build a team, if you’re a bad one, you draft a qb to save your job.

  15. I’ve said this often in the past. The key is just to identify the right QB and then support your QB top to bottom in the organization. Terrible franchises are always looking for a savior, and it rarely works. Wentz and Goff did okay because the foundations of those teams were strong. Buffalo had a plan and a lot of good players already when they drafted Allen and have stuck to it. Darnold has never had a chance because they have surrounded him with little stability, and he also gets hurt a lot. Baker Mayfield now with a coach who has given Cleveland an identity versus trying to play Madden every week made a world of difference. It’s not as hard as people make it, but most owners don’t get this just like normal fans.

  16. Players win games, organizations win Championships, Division, Conference and Super Bowls. A team needs to be good on Offense, Defense and Special teams. A serious deficit in one area puts more pressure on the other 2 to compensate, which usually falls on the QB.
    Top 10 is a very limited a small sample, a more reasonable sample would be successful 1st round QBs which changes the argument entirely.
    As a counter point Carson Palmer made Cincy relevant and had a good career.

  17. Not totally true. Troy Aikman Peyton Manning, Drew Bledsoe ?
    What it means is that you gotta do a lot more than just get a QB. You gotta draft well all over the place and make good trades and free agency signings too. If any of those is done poorly the results become obvious.

  18. Yeah okay, and you also have first overall QBs like Jamarcus Russell hurting things more than surrounding talent or FO decisions. But realize when once-in-an-era talents, like Peyton Manning (and maybe Lawrence for all we know), come along, the first overall franchise QB can 100% be the catalyst to turn everything around.

  19. An excellent qb can add a few wins to an average team,. A bad team that gets a good qb and drafts well for a couple of years can become a good team.

  20. I don’t know about the Jets but the Jags have two 1st round picks, two 2nd round picks, and the most cap space in the NFL next season, so there are tools in place to climb out of the hole. The Jags got to where they are with terrible coaching and a bad GM, and the GM is gone with the coach going soon. If they get Lawrence they will have quality coach’s and GM’s asking to be paired with Lawrence. The Jags owner spends money and just needs a GM that can pick the right guys to spend on. Add to all that the Jags have young talent on defense, a nice young WR core, and a stud rookie RB. Throw in Lawrence, a good coach, and help on D-line & O-line, then look out NFL.

  21. Brady Quinn, Brandon Weeden, and Johnny Manziel were all drafted with the 22nd pick. Colt McCoy was a third rounder, Deshone Kizer a second rounder. Browns didn’t actually ever draft a QB high between Couch and Mayfield, fwiw.

    Also fwiw, there could v well be two #1s on division winners by season’s end in Goff and Mayfield if we check back in ten days.

  22. As of this writing the Bills would trade all that and more to get that pick back .

    Kansas City were perennially early losers in the playoffs until Patrick came along. With Patrick it’s an afc conference crown , a super bowl , a league MVP and one Superbowl MVP ..he’s currently got his team the best record in the NFL and a first round bye ..

  23. This is all very true.
    In fact, some teams have been tanking for 60 years and are no closer to a championship as the first day they unveiled their goofy looking purple clown suits.

  24. The Patriots improved enough to get to a Super Bowl after drafting a QB #1. Of course, there was a HOF coach as well,. Coaching competence is likely the key factor whether highly drafted QB’s succeed or not…

  25. If you don’t draft well and make good free agency decisions, you’re not going to have success no matter who your quarterback or coach is.

  26. One player is not going to turn a trash team into a super bowl contender, however, quarterback is the most important position and drafting a good one is going to improve a team far greater than drafting any other position. This assuming that the current quarterback is below average. In the Jets case, if they believe Darnold is a quality starter, then drafting the outstanding OL prospect Sewell might be their best move for the long term.

  27. Trent Dilfer won a Super Bowl. Proof enough that OFFENSIVE LINE is the key to being competitive in any situation. Yes you need skill players (and some luck) but no QB can produce laying on his back.

  28. Is this really an argument to not take Trevor Lawrence with the first overall pick? Or for Jets fans to not feel bad that you missed TL by one pick? That is so stupid. The “picked in the top 5” is an arbitrary number to make his case. If you say “picked in the top 10”, then you get Patrick Mahomes, which negates the argument.

  29. The key words are “highly drafted” and “Bad franchises” and “turn around”

    Both are loaded terms that need to be better defined to decide if the statement rings true.

    I would define that any QB drafted in the 1st round is “highly drafted” because you are passing up other 1st round talents, skill and non-skill players, that could help you more immediately. In that way, I think most good QBs either come from the 1st round, or come from later rounds but get seasoned by 1 team, and then bought in FA by another.

    I agree that highly drafted QBs don’t turn around a “bad franchise”, but I think they CAN turn around a BAD TEAM. A team that is bad for a season or two because it is missing QB but has other pieces can TOTALLY turn around a team. The Matt Ryan / Joe Flacco draft comes to mind.

    But QBs don’t turn around bad FRANCHISES because a bad franchise is a function of ownership / GM talent and cap management and coaching, none of which a QB can affect.

    What we mean by turn around is also loaded. Is turn around = Superbowl? Or can it mean return to “respectability”

  30. I think it has more to do with the difficulty in projecting how a QB plays and looks in college into how they might be in the NFL. Obviously its not easy to predict.

  31. agree with unbreakable02215021217, realfootballfan, doyoueveractuallythink and some others commenting here.
    A top 5 QB is seldom a saviour, but to dismiss drafting a QB that high just because he gets picked at that very spot is simply wrong. The pick in itself was oftentimes absokutely warrantedy and putting the eagles, rams and falcons up as a prime example for that means that they also were anything but responsible for getting a bad team to a friggin Super Bowl… adding in some of the other teams mentioned, Cardinals, Dolphins, Browns and Bengals, you’d be unwise to go ahead with saying “they have NOT picked their franchise QB”. The only one maybe justifying above mentioned list is Stafford, and he is anything but a slouch.
    It sure seems the franchise around the picks made mistakes in not supporting the high pick.

  32. This isn’t exactly a surprise.
    There’s a difference between a team having a down year and drafting a QB early, and a perennially bad team that has consistent incompetence in the front office and coaching. An all pro talent won’t succeed if the rest of his team’s roster is terrible and his coaches are inept.
    The bad franchises stay bad because they’re so poorly run, not because they never have any talented players. Time and again you’ll see players leave awful teams and suddenly excel in better environments. The Browns, Lions, and Jets have been a dumpster fire for so long because of the chaos within their organizations, not because they couldn’t draft good players.

  33. As many posters have noted, the situation matters. Chances are at least one of the Browns 1st round picks would have been good if on a team with a competent coach, good o-line etc. It seems like some guys are ruined after being on a bad team too long.

  34. “Highly drafted quarterbacks rarely transform bad franchises”

    Yes because you the media invent two messiahs in the draft that often don’t pan out.

  35. Tanking isn’t absolutely necessary, but you do want to draft the QB when you have the chance – Big Ben was the 3rd QB off the board, Eli the 1st, Mahomes was the 2nd. You may not need the #1 overall pick, but many of the most successful teams drafted their QB in the top 12.

  36. One major difficulty in drafting all positions is determining work ethic. Many of these athletes are physically gifted enough that they are better than the competition with little effort. That may change significantly when getting to the NFL, and then work needs to be done in and out of season, some are better at that than other’s.
    Dwayne Haskins vs Lamar Jackson, both talented and going in different directions. Michael Vick has been open about how he did not dedicate himself to learning his craft as a QB relying primarily on his talent.
    NFL QB is more precise than college QB, requires work and dedication to be successful, making mistakes is devastating when you have limited possessions.

  37. heyguru1969 says:
    December 26, 2020 at 9:19 am
    Trent Dilfer won a Super Bowl. Proof enough that OFFENSIVE LINE is the key to being competitive in any situation. Yes you need skill players (and some luck) but no QB can produce laying on his back


    I don’t disagree that an O-line is the most important outside factor to a QB’s success.

    With that said-

    I’m just gonna throw it out there that Trent Diller playing on a team with arguably the best defense in NFL history may have something to do w it

  38. If you look at Miami and what they are in the process of doing its the best example.
    You must build the rest of the team 1st, be extra smart in FA and then take a QB and baby step him along.

  39. Its a common theme amongst most highly touted athletes. Many get by on their talent alone. But in the NFL, what sets the best players apart is the willingness to put in the work to refine their technique. And technique has to change as they grow older, taking care of themselves (and in some instances changing things that worked when they were younger but no longer). Being a big fish in a small pond is a lot easier than being a little fish in a sea of angry sharks…..

  40. Just goes to show that it boils down to the quality of the ownership/management and coaching as to whether or not a highly drafted QB changes the fortunes of a down and out franchise. Probably more often than might be realized, those highly drafted QB’s were picked to boost ticket and merchandise sales first and then if they end up being really really good that was just a bonus.


    I’d rather draft a great quarterback on a bad team and take a chance than going with a bad QB already on the team. Got to start building somewhere.

  42. Wow. What a terrible “analysis”. The Dolphins and Bengals have rookie QBs. How about we give these guys a chance, shall we? The Eagles won a Superbowl, and both the Falcons and Rams went to the Superbowl. Not too shabby.

  43. Good week to make your argument. Goff, Mayfield and Murray might take issue. Also, Lawrence may be a generational talent, which alters the conversation somewhat. Main thing is you can’t assess it in a vacuum, that there’s other pieces at play. Manning did it, but he survive the first couple years – Carr didn’t, Couch didn’t. Fact is, regret happens after the fact and regret needs data. Need a few years before assessing whether the Jets screwed the pooch.

    And anyone including Elway into the conversation needs to revisit the ‘83 draft. With purpose, he did the opposite of playing for the worst team in the league.

  44. Good point but look at teams in the playoffs with QBs drafted in the first round.
    If you want to be a playoff team you need to draft a qb first round or get lucky with a later round pick.

  45. good luck trying to win with a bad QB. the exceptions of bad QBs winning are very rare i.e. Trent Diller. Most of the Really good to Great QBs are taken in the 1st Round. Tom Brady being a major exception. I would bet most QBs that succeed are taken in the 1st round vs later in the Draft. sure no doubt you need more than a QB, but you don’t have a good QB you have a minimal chance to win

  46. To build a team, your priorities should be (1) Offensive Line (2) Defensive Backs (3) Defensive Line (4) QB, start a veteran, draft and develop someone…it’s not rocket science…

  47. The point made in the article is correct, but this info is of no use to the GM of a bad team. Quarterback is the most important position, by far. If you’ve got the opportunity to draft a superstar QB, you do it. What’s the alternative, to pass on him for an offensive lineman, or to say that we’re not gonna draft a QB until we’re in the playoffs? That wouldn’t make any sense. If you wait until you’re in the playoffs, you’re drafting in the #20 spot; so at that point you’re gonna say okay, now we’re ready to get the franchise QB? But the franchise QB is gone by pick #20. So there’s really no logical alternative except to draft him when you get the chance, and then do your best to build around him. If Trevor Lawrence goes to the Hall of Fame and you passed up your chance to draft him, how smart are you gonna look?

  48. bassjag904 says:
    December 26, 2020 at 7:47 am
    That’s a fair point and good comments. However, As a long suffering Jag’s fan whose team had never had the chance to pick #1, I will gladly take the chance and live on some hope for once that TLaw is the likes of Elway in 83, Aikman in 89, Manning in 98, Manning in 04, Luck in 12 versus some of the busts and be hopeful for an offseason that we finally got a guy to spin it as we have had the pleasure of watching Leftwich, Garrard, Mckown, Gabbert, Bortles and Minshew the last 15 years.


    Or Lawrence could “pull an Eli” and tell the Jags “no chance”

  49. Trevor Lawrence has roughly the same height and weight as Michael Jordan. MJ wasn’t getting leveled by guys name Aaron Donald. How is no one concerned about Lawrence being alarmingly undersized to play in the NFL? Unless he vows to gain 25, 30 lbs over his rookie year, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a team shop the pick and build the trenches. I unfortunately predict a quarterback who rarely finishes a season and retires early like Luck. We’ll see

  50. Ur completely correct and there is always exceptions but a quarter back can’t do it by themselves. Burrows is the latest example of bad team and getting badly sacked all season before getting hurt. Didn’t need a crystal ball to see that coming. Bad teams get a shot at best talent. Up to those teams to build around them.

  51. Maybe your best post ever, MDS! Perhaps Mayfield can finally get the Browns back to where they had been 40 or so years ago in the 80s or better yet, the 50s. Maybe Tua can return Miami to glory years (or at least a 90s-type battle every year with Bills…I’d love to see that!) Maybe Kyler is the guy in Zona-land. Not sure about Goff or definitely Trubisky, while Wentz seems to be on the way out…will he pull a Tannehill with a new team? Will Darnold? Because as Russell Wilson, Tom Brady, and others as to draft round and as Drew Brees, Tannehill and others have proven in free agency/trade, you don’t need to be a top five pick to win divisions and championships. As Tannehill–my Aggie Home Boy–proved, it takes good coaching, not just talent to win in this league. Would Josh Allen or Pat Mahomes or Lamar Jackson have taken their teams as far as they have under different coaches? Hmmmmmmmmm. Speculation. But great post! Thanks!

  52. Trevor Lawrence has roughly the same height and weight as Michael Jordan. MJ wasn’t getting leveled by guys name Aaron Donald. How is no one concerned about Lawrence being alarmingly undersized to play in the NFL? Unless he vows to gain 25, 30 lbs over his rookie year, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a team shop the pick and build the trenches.


    Hes 6’6″ and 220 lbs.

    Josh Allen is 6-5 238
    Wentz is 6-5 237
    Rivers 6-5 228
    Big Ben 6-5 241 (LOL!!!)

    He only needs about 10-15 lbs, not 25-30

  53. @ cancerman2020

    Brees 6’0″ 209lb
    Wilson 5’11” 215lb
    Eli 6’5″ 218lb

    and the list goes on and on and they worked out just fine! Why do some people put so much emphasis on size whether it’s weight or height? It doesn’t make any sense, it’s like the old saying “it isn’t the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog”! He doesn’t need any weight added, he’ll be just fine right where he’s at since he’s elusive enough to avoid most of the hits, you people act like they’re just going to stand back there and let these players blast them.

  54. Highly drafted quarterbacks rarely transform bad franchises

    But from 2000-16 bad teams transformed highly drafted QB’s into busts right at a 70% rate!

  55. WOOOOOWWWWW…. Mahomes took a team that consistently flamed out in the playoffs to Super Bowl winners…. Baltimore was lost with Flacco throwing picks left and right before Jackson…. Arizona was going to roll with Josh Rosen, they picked top 10 in back to back years…. Buffalo hadn’t sniffed much of the playoffs, now with Allen they may end up with the 2nd seed…. Roethlisberger? ROETHLISBERGER???? we hadn’t been back to the super bowl since neil o’donnell before him…. Seattle was a strong D no QB team, rolling with Matt Flynn (as a starter, didn’t even last as a backup, was outta the league like what 3 years later?)…. The majority of quality QB picks have put teams in the super bowl or late in the playoffs, the only ones off the top of my head that don’t fit, maybe Rodgers? Wentz? Garoppolo? I mean there’s exceptions, and if you’re saying a QB doesn’t ALWAYS 100% change your franchise fortunes, on that sliver of surity yea you’re right… But man has a good QB prospect changed the fortunes for most franchises that have gotten it, and the converse actually proves it. Mason Rudolph pulled a fantastic D down to making Pittsburgh miss the playoffs last year. Trubisky has obviously not been the answer for a team with an at worst average D and an offense with some solid weapons. Wentz to Hurts has changed Philly alot, we can now see how bad Wentz has been hurting them this year, same with Haskins. I mean come on dood, we’re you forced to defend this bad position?

  56. A great QB helps provided that he has a) A coach to teach him the difference between the College and NFL game b) He has quality receivers c) He has an OL that can give him around 2.5 seconds in the pocket.
    Unfortunately most teams that are in a position to draft a college QB need a complete rebuild and are lacking at least the receivers and the Offensive line. So unless the rebuild started with a good coach it will be difficult for the QB to make it in the NFL.

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