In this post I want to explore just how difficult it is to find a franchise QB. I'm going to take a look at all QBs drafted over the 25 years from 1997 through 2011. I'll attempt to grade them as follows: A = Multiple Pro Bowls, multiple years as a top 10 QB. B = Solid, above average QB. 1 or 2 Pro Bowls at most, multiple years as above average starting QB, you can win with him but he's not likely to carry you much. C = OK, average to a little below average starting QB. Guys you can live with, may have a long career, but never shine. No Pro Bowls, mostly game manager types. D = everyone else, from fringe starters to complete washouts. You can't win with these guys, so there is no point in making any finer gradations. As a point of reference, I would say Sanchez is currently a C-, with only his big game clutch performances separating him from the Ds. No doubt you will quibble with this or that guy and his individual grade, but regardless of such fine gradations, I hope to illustrate a broader picture of just how difficult the search for a franchise QB is.
I'm not going to list every QB drafted over this time frame, as that would be very unwieldy. Rather, I will simply list the A, B and C guys from each draft, and ignore the rest, because the rest you can't win with. If you wish to further explore every QB drafted, you can explore the list I worked with here: http://www.nfl.com/draft/history/fulldraft?type=position.
Now, on to the ratings.
1987 17 QBs, 2 Bs (Vinny Testaverde, Rich Gannon), 1 C (Don Majkowski)
1988 9 QBs, All Ds
1989 12 QBs, 1 A (Troy Aikman), 1 C (Rodney Peete)
1990 13 QBs, 1 C (Neil O'Donnell)
1991 10 QBs, 1 A (Brett Favre)
1992 16 QBs, 1 C (Brad Johnson)
1994 9 QBs, 1 C (Trent Dilfer)
1996 6 QBs, All Ds
1997 9 QBs, 1 B (Jake Plummer)
2002 15 QBs, 1 C (David Garrard)
2006 11 QBs, 1 B (Jay Cutler)
2007 10 QBs, All Ds
2008 13 QBs, 1 A (Matt Ryan), 1 B (Joe Flacco)
2010 14 QBs, 1 B (Sam Bradford)
Note that any grades after roughly 2008 are highly speculative as these QBs are still developing, so these are just my rough projections where guys are likely to end up.
Now. let's look at some numbers. In 25 years, there were 293 QBs drafted. Of those, only 50 were even minimally serviceable (grade C or better) as starters. So if you drafted a QB, odds were only about 1 in 6 that he would ever become decent, let alone really good. Only 15, or about 1 in 20, ended up being Grade A, true franchise QBs, illustrating just how difficult it is to find one of those guys. 12 of 25 drafts did not produce a single Grade A QB, 7 drafts did not produce a single QB above Grade C, and 3 drafts did not produce a single Grade A, B or C QB. So even if you chose the best QB in any particular draft, you only had a roughly 50/50 shot at finding a franchise QB, and you had a 12% chance that no matter who you chose, he would be a complete washout.
Now let's dig a little deeper. Of the 293 QBs chosen, the breakdown of rounds they were chosen in looks like this:
Round 1 57
Round 2 26
Round 3 29
Round 4 38
Round 5 30
Round 6 41
Rounds 7-12 72
The Grades by round play out this way:
Round 1 12 As, 11 Bs, 7 Cs
Round 2 2 As, 2 Bs,
Round 3 1 B, 1 C
Round 4 3 Cs
Round 5 1 B
Round 6 1 A, 2 Bs
Rounds 7-12 1B, 2Cs
The obvious thing that jumps out at you from this chart is the importance of drafting your QB in Round 1. In Round 1 you had a slightly better than 50% chance of finding at least a serviceable QB, and you had a better than 20% chance of finding a franchise QB. After Round 1, the odds drop dramatically. Only 3 franchise QBs in the last 25 years came after Round 1, and only 1, Tom Brady, came after Round 2. The chances of getting even an above average QB after Round 1 are not good. Only 10 QBs graded A or B were chosen after Round 1, and only 6 after Round 2. The odds of finding an above average QB after Round 2 were less than 3%. This should put to rest the notion that you can draft a "developmental" QB in the later rounds. Outside of a very few exceptions, like Tom Brady, "developmental" QBs do not exist. If you drafted a QB after Round 2, the odds are overwhelmingly against that QB ever amounting to somebody you can consistently win with.
Delving deeper into the top of the draft, of the 15 Grade A QBs, 6 were the #1 overall pick, 8 were the first QBs off the board, 12 were first round picks, and 14 were chosen in rounds 1 or 2. The last time a Grade B QB was produced outside of Round 1 was 2004 with Schaub. The last time a Grade A QB was produced outside Round 1 was 2001 with Brees. The obvious conclusion: if you want a franchise QB, it is imperative that you get one early in the draft, and preferably the first QB off the board. Another conclusion: teams should pay almost any price to get the best QB evaluators available on their staff. It is so difficult to identify the right QB, and the consequences of choosing rightly or wrongly at this position are so disproportionate to all other positions, teams should make the very first priority of their franchise getting the best possible QB evaluators.
Franchise QBs are so rare, so difficult to find, and so disproportionately valuable compared to any other players that there is almost no price too high to pay to find one. Unless you already have one, any and every time you have a draft that you strongly believe the best QB in it will be a franchise QB, you should pay almost any price to move up high enough to take him. With the new rookie wage scale, if he doesn't pan out (as even a large % of the 1st rounders don't), he won't kill your salary cap, and after 3 or 4 years (or whatever interval deemed long enough to properly evaluate him) you dump him and move on, again paying almost any price the next time you identify one in the draft. This process should be repeated over and over until you eventually find that one needle in the haystack. Then, barring injury, you will be set up to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender for the next decade.