- Ryan Leaf to San Diego Tribune's Jay Posner
It was the defining moment and the epithet on Ryan Leaf's unfulfilled NFL career. It was replayed on TV, over and over again, even a decade later, long after Leaf has departed the scene, having moved on to the coaching staff of West Texas A&M and perhaps, jail, in the near future.By all accounts, Leaf is the gold standard of pro football busts. Drafted in 1998 by the San Diego Chargers with the No. 2 overall pick, he was supposed to compete with Peyton Manning on the highway to Canton. Instead, Leaf serves as the biggest cautionary tale in recent NFL history.
The lesson? Don't waste your high draft picks on quarterbacks. Most of the time, it's just not worth it.
It's a lesson, however, mostly ignored by NFL teams. And they do so at their own peril.
From the first common draft in 1967 through 1997, only eight quarterbacks were taken first overall in those 31 years. Since 1998, however, a quarterback has been taken first overall nine times in just 12 years, including five in a row from 2001-2005.
1970 Terry Bradshaw
1971 Jim Plunkett
1975 Steve Bartkowski
1983 John Elway
1987 Vinny Testaverde
1989 Troy Aikman
1990 Jeff George
1993 Drew Bledsoe
As you can see, teams didn't blow their top pick on a quarterback unless they felt they had a sure thing. More than half of these quarterbacks are either enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame or led their teams to Super Bowl glory, and the rest had long and productive careers.
Now look at this list:
1998 Peyton Manning
1999 Tim Couch
2001 Michael Vick
2002 David Carr
2003 Carson Palmer
2004 Eli Manning
2005 Alex Smith
2007 JaMarcus Russell
2009 Matthew Stafford
Among this bunch, only the Mannings own Super Bowl rings and Peyton may be the only one headed to Canton. Two are already bona fide busts. Another one is just coming back to the league after spending two seasons in prison.
And those are just the No. 1 overall picks. Between 1998 and 2009, teams invested 33 first-round selections on quarterbacks, a higher percentage than any 10-year period in NFL history. Despite a mountain of evidence suggesting the contrary, teams continue to spend their most valuable draft pick on a highly risky proposition.
In 2009, of the 32 quarterbacks who started the majority of their teams' games, fewer than half (15) are first-round draft picks. The other 17 came in the second round (3), third round (2), fourth round (2), fifth round (1), sixth round (4), seventh round (1) and undrafted free agents (4).
That's right, nine starters came from the sixth round or later, or altogether undrafted. And put this list up against the one you just saw:
Tom Brady (sixth round, 2000)
Kurt Warner (undrafted, 1994)
Tony Romo (undrafted, 2003)
Marc Bulger (sixth round, 2000)
Matt Hasselbeck (sixth round, 1998)
Jake Delhomme (undrafted, 1997)
Matt Cassel (seventh round, 2005)
Derek Anderson (sixth round, 2005)
Shaun Hill (undrafted, 2002)
Among them, they've been to nine Super Bowls with four rings. Six of them were selected to the Pro Bowl. And you still want to waste that first-round pick, let alone No. 1 overall, on a quarterback?
Since what's done is done, we decided to conduct a thorough examination of these first-rounders during what we shall dub "The Quarterback Decade," that began in 1998 when Manning and Leaf went 1-2 in the draft. We want to find out, at least statistically, if Leaf was indeed the biggest flop.
Our research would cover a 10-year period between 1998-2007, ensuring that we have the goods for at least 2½ seasons before calling someone a bust. Out of those 28 quarterbacks, we exempted those who have started at least 75 percent of their teams' games while maintaining a passer rating better than 75.0.
The following statistical information was then taken into consideration for the remaining 14 quarterbacks:
1. Winning percentage as a starter
2. Percentage of games started for original team
3. Career passer rating (through Week 8 for active players)
4. Draft position
We discovered that Leaf had some fine company, and that, if you remove all the off-the-field stuff, he wasn't even the worst of the lot. Of the 10 biggest quarterback busts in the past decade, only one had a career winning record as a starter; one started more than half of his team's games; one completed more than 56 percent of his passes, and none threw more touchdowns than interceptions.
Half of them are already out of the league. Of the other half, three have their butts firmly planted on the pine, one just got off, and only one started more than half of his team's games this season.
And this is how we ranked team, from the pretty awful to the absolute worst: