Franchise Quarterback or NFL Bust? The Risk from the 2024 NFL Draft Has Never Been Higher

By Scott Kacsmar

The 2024 NFL draft made some history when teams loaded up at the quarterback position with a record six quarterbacks taken in the first 12 picks. For a position that has a bust rate of roughly 50%, the expectations are high and so is the risk of failure for these players at the most important position:

Atlanta aside, most of these teams will look to get these players on the field as early as possible this season. While fans have a right to be excited now, the inconvenient truth is that half of this class is statistically likely to bust at the NFL level. Most NFL drafts are fortunate to produce two quality starters. Expecting six franchise quarterbacks to come out of this class would be lunacy.

We just saw something like this play out with the 2021 NFL draft. Trevor Lawrence, the No. 1 overall pick by Jacksonville, is the only quarterback still with his original team as we head into the 2024 season. Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Justin Fields, and Mac Jones have all been traded already after disappointing, short-lived tenures.

Is Caleb Williams destined to blow his classmates away in a similar result to Lawrence? We already profiled how the Heisman Trophy winner has the best situation of the 28 quarterbacks drafted No. 1 overall since 1966 going into his rookie season.

Are the Atlanta Falcons nuts for thinking Michael Penix Jr. will excel as the No. 4 quarterback in this class when some thought he would slide to the second round?

Can Sean Payton coach the inner Dan Marino out of Bo Nix in Denver as the sixth quarterback taken in the first round? Marino (1983) is the only other quarterback who was drafted as the sixth quarterback in a first-round class in NFL history.

With an eye on the upcoming season, let’s use the past to see why it is so unlikely for all of these rookie quarterbacks to work out at the toughest position in sports.

The Magic Number for Franchise Quarterbacks Is 5

No matter how many rounds a draft has or how many quarterbacks are drafted in the first round or top 100 picks, the magic number for the maximum number of quality starters in a single NFL draft appears to be five.

Props to the 1957 NFL Draft

Believe it or not, one of the best quarterback draft classes ever took place in 1957. Len Dawson and Sonny Jurgensen are in the Hall of Fame. John Brodie, the highest-drafted passer that year at No. 3 by the 49ers, was the 1970 MVP. Milt Plum (Browns) was a decent replacement for Otto Graham in Cleveland for a few years. Jack Kemp was a 17th-round pick by the Lions who later found success in the AFL with the Chargers and Bills.

Plum and Kemp might not fit today’s definition of successful franchise quarterbacks, and Dawson had to join the AFL to catch on at pro football. But this was the deepest NFL draft class for quarterbacks in the league’s first 50 years.

The 1971 NFL Draft Flirts with Six “Good” Quarterbacks

The 1971 NFL draft is on a short list of classes to produce six notable passers, but note we are calling them notable rather than good. In fact, many did not become relevant until the 1980s, which would have been their 10th season at the earliest. That’s an eternity of time in the NFL and not the kind of patience teams are showing anymore for a quarterback to develop:

The top three picks in 1971 were Jim Plunkett, Archie Manning, and Dan Pastorini. Plunkett was a bust in New England and didn’t have success until he took over for the Raiders in 1980, winning a pair of Super Bowls for coach Tom Flores. Manning, despite the success of his famous offspring, never played for a team with a winning record in his long career. Pastorini was an Alex Smith-type game manager of his era in Houston.

Otherwise, that draft produced Ken Anderson, who won the 1981 MVP and led the Bengals to the Super Bowl that year. Joe Theismann was converted from punter and ended up running Joe Gibbs’ Washington offense in the 1980s. Lynn Dickey was a third-round pick by the Oilers who finally caught on with the Packers in the 80s. He led the NFL in passing yards (4,458), touchdowns (32), and interceptions (29) in a wild 1983 season.

The 1987 NFL Draft Plays the Long Game

Even more stark than the 1971 class, the 1987 NFL draft had six Pro Bowl quarterbacks, but many of them needed more than a decade to prove their worth, and often their success was limited to one season:

  • Vinny Testaverde (1.1): The top pick by Tampa, Testaverde did not have a real quality season until 1996 with the Ravens, then he peaked with the Jets in a 1998 season that saw him reach the AFC Championship Game.
  • Chris Miller (1.13): His only Pro Bowl season and playoff win came in the 1991 season for the Falcons when he threw for 26 touchdowns.
  • Jim Harbaugh (1.26): While he was just a game manager for the Bears, “Captain Comeback” had an incredibly fun season for the 1995 Colts, reaching the AFC Championship Game.
  • Rich Gannon (4.98): After refusing to convert to safety, Gannon waited a long time until the Raiders made him their starter in the late 90s, and he won the NFL’s MVP award and reached the Super Bowl in 2002.
  • Steve Beuerlein (4.110): He bounced around the league before landing with the Panthers where he threw for a league-high 4,436 yards in 1999, his only Pro Bowl season.
  • Don Majkowski (10.255): Before the “Majik Man” was replaced by Brett Favre in Green Bay, he had that special 1989 season where he led seven game-winning drives.

Miller and Majkowski were the only quarterbacks on this list to produce their best season for the team that actually drafted them.

Injuries Derail the 2012 NFL Draft Class

For a more recent NFL draft class that had a lot of hype for the quarterbacks, the 2012 class is unique with the way injuries derailed its potential. It is possible this class does not produce a single Hall of Famer despite producing many seasons of quality play:

  • No. 1 pick Andrew Luck was on a Hall of Fame path before he shocked everyone when he retired before he was 30 years old and right before the 2019 season for the Colts.
  • No. 2 pick Robert Griffin III had a nice rookie season for Washington, but the knee injury he suffered at the end of it left him as damaged goods for the rest of his disappointing career.
  • Ryan Tannehill resurrected his career with the Titans in 2019 when he led the team to the playoffs three years in a row.
  • Russell Wilson has had the best career as a third-round pick in this draft, but his play in Denver was so bad that if he doesn’t pick things up in Pittsburgh, he could cost himself a golden jacket a la Donovan McNabb when he was traded from the Eagles and bombed in Washington and Minnesota.
  • Kirk Cousins is still going strong after he was drafted in the fourth round, though he’s never made it past the divisional round of the playoffs and has clung to a .500 record for much of his career.
  • Nick Foles has one of the weirdest career arcs in NFL history as he had that stellar 2013 season under Chip Kelly, then he came back to the Eagles and delivered an all-time Super Bowl run. Other than that, he’s been pretty bad but at least he will be memorable.

The Optimism for the 2020 NFL Draft

Despite COVID-19 ruining some of the draft hype, the 2020 NFL draft quarterback class could go down as one of the best ever, if not the best. Unlike the four classes we just went over, this class has the potential to deliver five franchise quarterbacks who are actually delivering at an early age for the teams that drafted them:

  • No. 1 pick Joe Burrow needs to stay healthy, but he’s already led the Bengals to a Super Bowl and another AFC Championship Game appearance.
  • No. 5 pick Tua Tagovailoa has posted some gaudy stats with Miami since coach Mike McDaniel and Tyreek Hill arrived in 2022.
  • No. 6 pick Justin Herbert is the only player in NFL history to throw 30 touchdowns in each of his first two seasons, and now we’ll see what he does with a competent coach in Jim Harbaugh.
  • Jalen Hurts was a surprise pick in the second round when the Eagles still had Carson Wentz, but he has been better than Wentz ever was, and he’s already led the Eagles to a Super Bowl appearance.
  • The latest addition is seeing Jordan Love deliver a great season and playoff appearance for the Packers in his first season as a starter in taking over for Aaron Rodgers.

If the others can continue showing improvement and Love steps into the MVP conversation-starting this year, then we could be looking at a handful of legitimate franchise quarterbacks from a single draft.

Something that clearly has never happened before in NFL history. This class is the hope for the 2024 class, but even then, that means the sixth player is the odd man out.

How Often Is the No. 1 QB the Best QB in the NFL Draft?

We mentioned at the top how Trevor Lawrence was the first quarterback drafted in 2021 (QB1) and he has proven to be the best in his class by any measure.

How often does that happen? We wanted to answer this historically, so we took each draft class since the 1970 merger and ranked the quarterbacks in order of their draft position in the class. So, Caleb Williams is QB1, Michael Penix Jr. is QB4, and Bo Nix is QB6 in 2024, for example.

Then we ranked the quarterbacks in descending Weighted Career Approximate Value (wAV) from Pro Football Reference. The quarterback with the highest wAV would be deemed to have the best career in the class.

The following table shows these results for 1970-2023 with the leader in wAV grouped together by draft position:

Top QB in Weighted AV by Draft Position in Class (1970-2023)
QB1 (40.7%)QB2 (20.4%)QB5 (5.6%)
1970Terry Bradshaw1981Neil Lomax2002David Garrard
1974Danny White1982Jim McMahon2018Lamar Jackson
1976Richard Todd1988Chris Chandler2020Jalen Hurts
1978Doug Williams1997Jake PlummerQB6 (11.1%)
1984Boomer Esiason1999Donovan McNabbYearPlayer
1985Randall Cunningham2001Drew Brees1971Ken Anderson
1986Jim Everett2004Philip Rivers1973Dan Fouts
1987Vinny Testaverde2005Aaron Rodgers1983Dan Marino
1989Troy Aikman2013Geno Smith1994Gus Frerotte
1990Jeff George2017Patrick Mahomes2007Trent Edwards
1993Drew Bledsoe2023C.J. Stroud2012Russell Wilson
1995Steve McNairQB3 (5.6%)QB7+ (11.1%)
1996Tony BanksYearPlayerYearPlayer
1998Peyton Manning1975Steve Grogan2000Tom Brady (QB7)
2003Carson Palmer1991Brett Favre2016Dak Prescott (QB8)
2008Matt Ryan2006Jay Cutler2022Brock Purdy (QB9)
2009Matthew StaffordQB4 (5.6%)1972Brian Sipe (QB12)
2010Sam BradfordYearPlayer1992Brad Johnson (QB14)
2011Cam Newton1979Joe Montana1977Steve DeBerg (QB17)
2015Jameis Winston1980Eric Hipple
2019Kyler Murray2014Derek Carr
2021Trevor Lawrence

As it turns out, QB1 is truly QB1 over 40% of the time as 22 of the 54 drafts have the wAV leader as the first quarterback drafted. Just over 61% of the time, the top quarterback in a draft is the first or second one drafted, which is good news for fans of the Bears (Williams) and Commanders (Daniels).

You are probably wondering just how good wAV is for doing this exercise. For the most part, wAV does a great job of distinguishing the top quarterback in each class.

The strongest disagreement would be Philip Rivers (QB2) over Ben Roethlisberger (QB3) for 2004 since the playoffs do matter. But we’ll let that slide with Rivers having a slight edge in wAV. I’d also take Tommy Kramer (QB2) over compiler Steve DeBerg (QB17) for the 1977 draft, but that’s not a debate that would get anyone fired up on social media in 2024.

The Deepest Drafts?

We highlighted some of these drafts earlier, but to back it up with the numbers, here are some of the highest players in wAV who were only QB5 or higher for their draft class.

The best players who were QB5 in wAV:

  • Lynn Dickey, 1971 QB4 (67 wAV)
  • Chris Miller, 1987 QB3 (51 wAV)
  • Matt Cassel, 2005 QB13 (47 wAV)
  • Robert Griffin III, 2012 QB2 (36 wAV)
  • Tony Eason, 1983 QB4 (36 wAV)

The best players who were QB6 in wAV:

  • Dan Pastorini, 1971 QB3 (62 wAV)
  • Kyle Orton, 2005 QB7 (40 wAV)
  • Don Majkowski, 1987 QB13 (39 wAV)
  • Nick Foles, 2012 QB7 (32 wAV)
  • Blaine Gabbert, 2011 QB3 (17 wAV)

The best players who were QB7 or higher in wAV:

  • Derek Anderson, 2005 QB11 (23 wAV)
  • Scott Hunter, 1971 QB9 (20 wAV)
  • Paul McDonald, 1980 QB7 (16 wAV)
  • Jake Locker, 2011 QB2 (15 wAV)
  • Brock Osweiler, 2012 QB5 (14 wAV)

It says a lot if the likes of Brock Osweiler, Jake Locker, and that half-season wonder Derek Anderson are on this list. There’s just little hope in getting seven quality passers from a draft, and from the other two lists, it’s really hard to get five or six too.

Some Drafts Are Still Very Much in Progress

An important thing to note is that for recent drafts, the title for top quarterback is still very much up for grabs.

We don’t know if Hurts will end up QB1 for 2020, but he currently leads it. The same can obviously be said for 2023 and leader C.J. Stroud after just one season. However, Brock Purdy might never be caught for 2022 after two seasons, but that’s how bad the draft was with Kenny Pickett, Desmond Ridder, and Sam Howell among his main competition.

The toughest race to call right now is 2018 as Lamar Jackson (QB5) is just barely edging out Josh Allen (QB3) in wAV by an 84 to 83 margin. This is interesting as Jackson and Hurts are currently 2-of-3 quarterbacks to lead in wAV from the QB5 draft position. In time, they could both lose that lead and be replaced by someone else on this table.

Bo Nix and the Success of QB6

Bo Nix fans, listen up. It was interesting to see that QB6 has produced six top quarterback finishes since 1970, which is double that of QB3, QB4, or QB5.

This could be draft slotting at work. Historically, quarterbacks drafted in the second half of the first round or in the second round rarely have significant success. Brett Favre and Drew Brees are huge outliers for that. This is a part of the draft that would contain a lot of QB3, QB4, and QB5 selections.

Meanwhile, QB6 is likely a mid-round pick like Ken Anderson, Dan Fouts, and Russell Wilson were as third-round picks. These players can come in with lower expectations and eventually thrive in the right situation, or right away as in Wilson’s case after he beat out Matt Flynn in the preseason.

But in Nix’s case, he won’t have the luxury of low expectations as he was the No. 12 pick and his head coach (Sean Payton) has historic offensive success on his resume with Drew Brees in New Orleans.

Nix is in historic company as the No. 12 pick but only QB6 in his class. The previous record for the highest pick by a QB6 is Dan Marino, who was the 27th pick by the Dolphins in 1983. That worked out just fine.

Here is the average draft slot for the top 15 quarterbacks taken in each draft for three different time periods:

  • Since 1970, the AFL-NFL merger happened.
  • Since 1994 is the start of the salary cap era and the reduction of the NFL draft to seven rounds.
  • Since 2011 is under the current rookie wage scale.
QB Draft #Since 1970Since 1994Since 2011
The average draft pick used over time on the first, second, third, etc. quarterback in the NFL draft.

The average QB1 was drafted with pick 8.6 since 1970, 5.1 since 1994, and 3.6 since 2011. That number keeps going down as most drafts start with a quarterback going No. 1 overall today.

But you can see significant increases in the first six quarterbacks taken. Overall, QB4 has been taken with the 67.0 pick since 1970, but since 2011, that has shot up to 41.7. That’s like going from the early third round to high in the second round.

Still, even with the average QB6 going 95.4 since 2011, you can see that Nix is in a rare position and will have to make the most of it.

The Longshots

Finally, let’s acknowledge what happened with the six longshots who were all QB7 or higher and still found a way to lead their class in wAV. As is often the case, it was a mixture of injuries leading to opportunity and some weak classes.

Tom Brady was QB7 in a weak 2000 class that saw Chad Pennington go off the board as QB1 to the Jets with the No. 18 pick. The Patriots carried Brady as a fourth-string quarterback in his rookie season, something teams would never do now, and he got his opportunity in 2001 after Drew Bledsoe was injured against the Jets. The rest is history.

Dak Prescott was QB6 in a 2016 draft that had teams trade up for Jared Goff and Carson Wentz. But a preseason injury to an aging Tony Romo paved the way for Prescott to step in Week 1 and have arguably the best rookie quarterback season ever. Technically, he still could lose this one to Jared Goff, who has been to two more NFC Championship Games than the Cowboys have since the 1996 season. Dak leads Goff 91-83 in wAV going into 2024.

Brock Purdy was QB9 and Mr. Irrelevant in the 2022 NFL draft, the last player chosen by San Francisco. He might not have seen the field his rookie year if Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo didn’t suffer season-ending injuries. He has been surprisingly great since and was a defensive stop away from winning a Super Bowl against the Chiefs. Of course, this was a class where Kenny Pickett was the only quarterback drafted in the top 70 picks, so it’s not like Purdy has any real challengers from it.

Brian Sipe was a 13th-round pick by Cleveland in a 1972 NFL draft that was one of the worst classes in history. But with terrible first-round quarterbacks (Jerry Tagge and John Reaves), Sipe had little competition on the way to the top. Sipe threw for 4,132 yards in 1980, which gave him more than any other passer had in that 1972 class in their career. He won MVP that year too in another one of the stranger career arcs in NFL history.

Brad Johnson was a ninth-round journeyman taken by the Vikings in the 1992 draft, considered in the running for the weakest draft class in NFL history. Johnson was going to be the starting quarterback for the 1998 Vikings, who had rookie sensation Randy Moss, but Johnson was injured in Week 2 and lost his job to Randall Cunningham. After a strong year in Washington, Johnson soon found himself in Tampa Bay where he rode a legendary defense in 2002 to a Super Bowl ring. His draft class was infamous for producing a major NFL bust in David Klingler from Houston, and for the Broncos trying to replace John Elway with Tommy Maddox.

Steve DeBerg led the 1977 draft in wAV since he played 206 games, even coming back to play at age 44 for the Falcons in 1998. He was the ultimate bridge quarterback as he was eventually benched for Joe Montana in San Francisco, for John Elway in Denver, for Steve Young and later Vinny Testaverde in Tampa Bay. This class was weak with Steve Pisarkiewicz going to the Cardinals at No. 19 as QB1. The only other first-round pick was Tommy Kramer, who was Fran Tarkenton’s successor in Minnesota.

Conclusion: What Happens to the 2024 NFL Draft Quarterback Class?

If predicting who would be a good quarterback in the NFL was an exact science, we’d have a fairly predictable league to watch. As the cases of Brady and Purdy have shown, no one really knows anything until that player is given an opportunity to make a name for themselves.

We just know there’s a great chance at least half of these six first-round rookies in the 2024 class will unlikely live up to expectations, especially for the teams that drafted them. Maybe some will find success at a later stop, but it’s highly improbable the league just landed six new franchise quarterbacks despite the historic draft capital spent on them.

When you consider that Jim Kelly, part of the famed 1983 class, did not debut for Buffalo until 1986 because of his time spent in the rival USFL, the 2024 class stands alone with the number of hopeful franchise quarterbacks it is sending to the league at the same time. This is an experiment.

We have not even mentioned Spencer Rattler yet. He was QB7 in this draft and fell to the fifth round to the Saints. With the way NFL history is at this position, don’t be surprised if Rattler has a better NFL career than at least one of the chosen six in the top 12 picks.

If we were forced to call our shot today on how it might turn out for this class, here are some parting thoughts:

  • Caleb Williams will be the star of the class as the top-rated prospect with a history of playmaking ability, doing his best to overcome a poor defense a la Patrick Mahomes at Texas Tech, and he’s walking into the best situation any No. 1 pick ever has.
  • Jayden Daniels will add to Washington’s disappointment at the quarterback position as Kliff Kingsbury’s horizontal passing attack exposes him to third-and-long situations that his legs and reckless running style can’t overcome, and his 2023 Heisman season will look like a one-year wonder.
  • In trying to match the loaded quarterback conference that is the AFC, Drake Maye will struggle playing hero ball on a bad team in New England that is trying to overcome the mess that Bill Belichick the GM made while missing the advantages Belichick the coach provided all those years.
  • Michael Penix Jr. won’t be relevant until the 2026 season in Atlanta when he’ll be 26 years old, and even then, his NFL ceiling might just be Kirk Cousins.
  • J.J. McCarthy will enjoy having incredible weapons like Justin Jefferson and Jordan Addison make highlight-worthy catches in a pass-friendly offensive system to back up his reputation as a winner, and in a league where Jared Goff just got $170 million guaranteed, that might be good enough for a long career.
  • Bo Nix becomes the best quarterback the Broncos ever drafted, which isn’t saying much since the team did not draft Peyton Manning, John Elway, Jake Plummer, Russell Wilson, Craig Morton, etc.

We’ll see how it works out, but there was a smell of desperation with the way this 2024 draft went down:

  • The Bears already let Justin Fields overstay his welcome by a season and they weren’t going to make that mistake again for 2024.
  • The Commanders did not want to see Sam Howell take another snap (or sack).
  • The Patriots pulled the plug on Mac Jones, giving new coach Jerod Mayo a clean slate in his search for the next Tom Brady.
  • The Falcons must have forgotten they already gave Kirk Cousins a 4-year deal worth $180 million in March.
  • The Vikings were so scared that they traded up a single spot to take McCarthy to replace Cousins.
  • The Broncos are eating a record $85 million in dead cap money over the next two years for getting rid of Russell Wilson, so they took the last remaining quarterback on the board with a high draft grade in Nix.

Maybe the history books will look back on the 2024 NFL draft as the one where teams weren’t pleased with the way most of the quarterbacks from the 2021 and 2022 drafts panned out, and they looked ahead with doubt to a 2025 draft class that also expects to be weak.

That’s how you end up with some reaches, and that’s why you can expect to see some busts.

But good luck to them all, because the NFL is better when good quarterbacks are high in supply. The NFC can especially use them to cut into that deficit it has with the quarterback quality in the AFC right now. The good news is Williams and Daniels are statistically the most likely to be the biggest success in this class.

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