Ever since Ryan Pace took over the Bears in the 2015 offseason, rumors have been swirling around Jay Cutler. First, Pace was desperate to move on from him and draft Marcus Mariota, but then that didn’t work out, Cutler stuck around for 2015 and had a very good year, and all of a sudden the Bears were building around Jay Cutler. Then a rough start to the 2016 season that saw more turnovers than touchdowns before an injury knocked him out for a month happened, Cutler was replaced by Brian Hoyer, and head coach John Fox seemed to indicate Hoyer might be Chicago’s starter going forward. But the Bears kept losing, Hoyer got hurt, and rumors swirled simultaneously that Fox was done with Cutler and Pace might be done with Fox. Then Cutler came back and played a tremendous game in an upset of Minnesota, and all of a sudden he’s the quarterback we need, but not the one we deserve.
All that in a season and a half. It’s been a whirlwind ride, and nobody has any idea what’s going to happen in the last half season that could change the narrative around Cutler in either direction. Here’s one thing that seems abundantly clear: Cutler is 33 years old and has a long injury history, so whether or not he’s with the Bears in 2017, they need to start looking to the future of the game’s most important position.
But there are a lot of different opinions as to how the Bears should do that. Some think they should cut (or more realistically trade) Cutler and draft the next QB with their 1st pick. Others think they should keep Cutler around but spend a draft pick on a QB to groom behind him.
In order to help figure out which approach gives you better odds of success, I looked at the draft history of recent NFL drafts to see what the odds are of landing a solid starting quarterback in various parts of the draft. It’s too early to pass much judgment on 2016, as only 2 out of 15 quarterbacks drafted saw the field. So instead I looked at the 2011-15 drafts, giving us a 5-year sample size.
I evaluated the QBs by splitting them into 4 categories:
- Entrenched starters are their teams’ guy and will be for the foreseeable future, as the team is happy with them.
- Semi-entrenched starters are looking promising, but the team is not fully committed to them. They could be the long-term answer, but might be gone in a year or two as well.
- Placeholders are starting but likely not for long.
- Everyone else is not a starter.
There were 55 quarterbacks drafted between 2011 and 2015, with 17 currently starting (or the scheduled starter but out healthy). So 38 are not starters. Of the 17 starters, I identified 7 as entrenched; these are Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, Derek Carr, Andy Dalton, and Russell Wilson. There are 5 I labeled as semi-entrenched: Ryan Tannehill, Teddy Bridgewater, Brock Osweiler, Kirk Cousins, and Tyrod Taylor. That leaves 5 as placeholders: Ryan Griffin III, Blake Bortles, Colin Kaepernick, Nick Foles, and Trevor Siemian. There are some of these that are not super obvious and could potentially fall into a different category, but that’s generally how I grouped them (full list here).
Now that I’m through the boring stuff, let’s get to the good part: where did these players come from in the draft? What draft areas have recently produced the best odds of landing a solid starting quarterback?
Let’s start at the top, where conventional wisdom says you’re most likely to find your guy. And that absolutely proves true here. All 6 quarterbacks picked in the top 3 from 2011-15 are currently starting, and all but Robert Griffin III and Blake Bortles look like long-term answers. So 2/3 of these picks have succeeded recently, including stars like Andrew Luck and Cam Newton. That’s an outstanding track record that shows the NFL has recently been doing a rock-solid job of identifying the very best quarterbacks in college.
It gets dicier from there though. Picks 4-10 produced 3 quarterbacks picked from 2011-15, and only Ryan Tannehill is still starting among that group. The other two were uber-busts Jake Locker and Blaine Gabbert. And the rest of round 1 doesn’t look much better either. From picks 11-32, Teddy Bridgewater is the only one of 5 quarterbacks drafted who ever looked like a solid NFL starter. Add it all together, and the 8 quarterbacks drafted outside the top 3 between 2011 and 2015 have resulted in 0 fully entrenched starters, with only 2 who are currently starting and might be the long-term answer.
Round 2 saw 6 quarterbacks drafted in this range, and 3 of them (Carr, Dalton, Osweiler) are currently starting. Carr and Dalton are entrenched as their teams’ guy for the foreseeable future, while Osweiler has not looked particularly good this year but has a contract that dictates he’ll get through at least 2017 to prove himself. And that doesn’t include Jimmy Garrapolo, who looked good in limited action in 2016 and will likely sign somewhere to be a starter this offseason.
Round 3 also saw 6 quarterbacks drafted, though Russell Wilson is the only one among them who has amounted to anything (sorry Nick Foles). Likewise for round 4, where Kirk Cousins is the only one of 8 drafted QBs to do anything of note.
The odds get even worse from there; 21 QBs were drafted in rounds 5-7, and only Tyrod Taylor and Trevor Siemian have become starters. Neither is a lock to be a long-term starter, though both have looked solid this year, but even if they both pan out those are less than 10% odds.
Add it all up, and what do we get? The Bears’ best chance of getting a good young QB to be their guy for the next 10 years comes from drafting in the top 3. The good news for Bears fans interested in going that route is that Chicago would be drafting 3rd if the draft was today (I wrote this after week 8), but they seem unlikely to stay that way as they get healthier. They could always take the option of trading up into this range, like Philadelphia did last year, but that’s expensive. The Eagles gave up additional 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th round picks to go from 8 to 2 and get Carson Wentz last year. Philadelphia’s front office probably feels pretty good about that trade right now, especially since they were able to get a first back from Minnesota by trading their incumbent starter, but the price is steep. If you swing and miss on somebody like Blake Bortles, that sets you back for years (just ask Jacksonville).
Still, the Bears could be in a position like Philadelphia was last year, where they can move up to a top 3 pick to get their guy and trade Cutler to recoup some of their lost draft picks. If Ryan Pace finds a quarterback in this draft that he absolutely loves and has to have, he should by all means go up and get him.
If that option doesn’t work out, however, recent history says reaching for a QB in the rest of round 1 is a terrible idea. They’d be better off waiting until round 2 to grab their guy, or even trading up from early round 2 into late round 1 like the Vikings did with Bridgewater. The 2nd round seems to have been a sweet spot for finding solid QB value in recent years, and Chicago’s best odds of success might actually be keeping Cutler around while drafting a QB to groom behind him in round 2.
Once you get beyond round 2, the success rate drops off dramatically. At that point you’re basically throwing a pick away, though the value you get there from finding a good QB is astronomical, especially if that QB emerges as a starter while still on his rookie deal.
So recent history suggests Chicago’s best odds of success are either grabbing a cream of the crop QB in the top 3 picks or waiting until round 2 to grab a 2nd-tier player they like and think will develop well. Waiting until round 2 is probably the safer option, as it allows you to keep Jay Cutler around as a good-but-not-great starter for the next few years, which should guarantee the Bears are competitive if they build a solid roster around him (which seems to be coming into place right now). Furthermore, if the guy they draft to groom behind him doesn’t pan out, they get another shot at it in 2-3 years when Cutler leaves.
Going all in on a top-3 pick at quarterback has the highest ceiling, as that is where most of the superstar QBs come from, but it also has a much higher risk of failure, because Ryan Pace will only get one crack at it, with no Cutler to solidify things if he swings and misses. If Pace identifies an elite QB he believes in, he absolutely should go up and get him, but if he’s wrong his career as a GM will effectively be over, and more importantly to Bears fans, the Bears will be set back as a franchise for several years.