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The 2018 draft class: Is it time for a jackpot?

The 1983 quarterback draft class is the gold standard.

This year's group probably won't pan out so well, but silver sure can shimmer.

The Comstock Lode, the massive silver vein in Nevada's western mountains, made many men rich and established much of America's Pacific infrastructure.

There was so much silver, the U.S. Mint opened a branch in nearby Carson City.

Terry Pegula, a geologist to his inner core and self-made billionaire by drilling into the Marcellus Shale, would love surveyors Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott to finally locate a strike when the NFL Draft begins Thursday night.

What the Bills and the rest of the NFL want to accomplish over the three days of rookie selections are rich with mining metaphors. Prospectors are digging for, well, prospects. You never know what you have until you commit to the claim. A failed venture is called a bust.

The U.S. Bureau of Mines didn't certify the 2018 quarterback class, but NFL scouts and draft speculators believe at least four and as many as seven passers could be selected in the first round.

The Bills want one and have the wherewithal to get one, although it might take a willingness to trade up from No. 12.

"It has the potential to be one of the great classes," Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "The guys are really talented, statured players. They've shown in big moments, shown extraordinary athleticism.

"They've got a chance to be great. It's a very exciting time for the league."

This year's headliners are Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield, USC's Sam Darnold, UCLA's Josh Rosen and Wyoming's Josh Allen. Many expect at least three of them to be taken within the first five selections, perhaps 1-2-3.

Caught in the rush, teams could scramble for Louisville's Lamar Jackson, Oklahoma State's Mason Rudolph and Richmond's Kyle Lauletta before the end of the first round.

"This is an extraordinarily deep quarterback class, the deepest in years," said agent Leigh Steinberg, who has represented 62 first-round draft choices and, he guesses, about 150 quarterbacks.

"You have to look at this five, 10, 15 years later. But as it appears, this is the year to take the franchise quarterback."

Only twice have more than four quarterbacks been drafted in the first round or even within the first 32 picks to match the size of the current NFL. This century, an average of 2.7 quarterbacks have been taken so early.

Six were taken in the hallowed 1983 class that produced Hall of Famers John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino, another Super Bowl starter in Tony Eason and another Pro Bowler in Ken O'Brien.

"I'm tired of hearing everybody talk about what a great draft class this is," said Dan Shonka, a former Philadelphia Eagles scouting executive and general manager of independent scouting service Ourlads.com.

"It's quantity, but the quality isn't there. If anybody thinks this is the class of '83, they're in the concussion protocol right now."

A more comparable group seems to be 1999. Five quarterbacks were drafted among the top 32, and the order could look similar this year. Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb and Akili Smith became the first QB trio in nearly three decades to go first, second and third overall. Daunte Culpepper went 11th and Cade McNown 12th.

There aren't any bronze Hall of Fame busts in that group, but there were franchise-changers, for better and worse.

"The time to take the quarterback is now if you don't have an incumbent or successor," Steinberg said. "If they don't pick up the quarterback from the depth of this class, then when are they going to do it?"

Elway's job as the Denver Broncos' president of football operations is to oversee evaluation of all the prospects. The Broncos need a quarterback and own the fifth overall selection.

Yet Elway last week claimed the Broncos don't have more than four quarterbacks with a first-round draft grade and conceded there's no consensus how this year's quarterback class should be ranked.

"You can go around a room and probably get four or five different opinions on how they should be stacked," Elway said.

Furthermore, Elway said, next year's quarterback pool appears "not real deep."

Last year at this time, we knew Darnold, Rosen and even Rudolph were on the horizon. Next year looks vague.

"So that will push teams into competition," Steinberg said. "What you'll see is a fair amount of trading from GMs asking, 'How do I get into position to draft the quarterback I want?' And from team to team, that quarterback's name might be different.

"How do you navigate the class with so many buyers? It's going to involve shrewd trading. GMs with high picks will feel like they have an inheritance."

As in the mining industry, with rookie quarterbacks there have been boom-bust cycles.

In the years right after the busiest first rounds, quarterback classes have been nonexistent. Zero quarterbacks were among the first-round selections in 1984 or 1985.

In 2000, Chad Pennington was the lone quarterback selected in the first round, 18th overall. In 2001, Michael Vick was the top choice, but the next was not called until Drew Brees in the second round, 32nd overall.

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With so many variables, the thin line between a bonanza and a ghost town is easy to see.

"This is the highest risk-reward a GM can face," Steinberg said. "It can make careers and break careers. The pressure is extraordinary to get this one right."

Henry Comstock, a shifty opportunist who finagled his way into other prospectors' early discoveries of his namesake silver lode, gave up his claims for a few thousand dollars and was broke when he killed himself in 1870 despite attempts to find another big strike.

"People are fired over it all the time," Shonka said, "and there's going to be people fired over this draft. You watch."

Mining the right information

Todd Blackledge had led Penn State to the national championship and was considered a surefire first-round prospect. Yet he watched the 1983 draft without festivities at his apartment.

Top rookies back then weren't invited to the draft to be shown off on television. The draft was held in a hotel ballroom with 12 rounds completed over two days.

Now the draft is a three-day extravaganza, shown on multiple TV networks from AT&T Stadium in Dallas, the conclusion to a breathless four months of analysis with no actual games played.

Blackledge marvels at how much the draft has transformed since the Kansas City Chiefs took him seventh overall — the next quarterback after Elway — 35 years ago.

(Illustration by Daniel Zakroczemski/Buffalo News)

"Quite honestly, I didn't know who Ken O'Brien was," Blackledge said. "I was not real familiar with Tony Eason. It just was very different."

Rest assured, had that class arrived in 2018, we would be able to swiftly locate O'Brien's hand size on the internet. Draftniks would have been telling us all about Eason's throwing velocity. Highlight clips would be ubiquitous.

And armchair analysts would be declaring themselves experts on the whole crew before the NFL put the Cleveland Browns on the clock Thursday night with the first selection.

The New York Jets took O'Brien 24th overall from Division II UC-Davis. He didn't take a snap as a rookie, was the top understudy in 1984 and then a Pro Bowler in his first full season as an NFL starter.

The New England Patriots took Eason 15th overall from Illinois. Two seasons later he started in the Super Bowl, the zenith of his career.

The football world was downright encyclopedic about EJ Manuel and Geno Smith when they entered the 2013 draft compared to what it knew about O'Brien and Eason after they'd played two NFL seasons.

"Nobody would have looked at even our class at the time -- we knew they were good quarterbacks -- and known three of them would be Hall of Famers," Blackledge said.

"We look at it through the lens of their careers all done and what that class accomplished. It's an unfair comparison."

The strength of this year's quarterback class also could shaft a club.

Might there be too many to make a definitive decision?

All of the quarterbacks carry a question mark or three, concerns about accuracy or maturity or pocket presence or commitment.

Scouting staffs can talk themselves out of the right guy, as many teams did with Marino over unconfirmed drug rumors or Brees for his perceived shortness.

"Some people like numbers in the draft because if there are 10 guys in a position group, you might get the chance to pick from at least five or six of the 10 to play for you," Shonka said. Patriots coach "Bill Belichick is a big fan of the numbers. I guess percentage-wise that works out.

"In theory, with this many quarterbacks, you should be able to find one. But what happens now, let's say they go 1-2-3, teams that need a quarterback later in the draft end up taking one they didn't really want?"

Where the draft will pivot is on who the Browns take first overall and then what the New York Giants do with the second selection.

The Giants have two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning, but he's 37 years old. If the Browns, who also hold the fourth choice, lead off with a quarterback, then the Giants could take the prospect Shonka and many others consider the best prospect regardless of position, Penn State running back Saquon Barkley.

"It's funny," Giants GM Dave Gettleman said of the quarterback class. "It's a really a neat group to evaluate because they are all different players.

"With the second pick, I'm sitting at Ben and Jerry's, and I've got a lot of flavors to look at, and they're all different."

Or the Giants could trade their pick to accumulate more assets.

A team that has targeted a specific quarterback probably would need to move into second position for him; the needy Jets traded into the third slot.

"I just don't know how you can pass up a Hall of Fame-projected player in Barkley for two quarterbacks you don't know what in the hell they're going to do," Shonka said. "It's just stupid, to me, to pass on a great player for one of two maybes."

Preserving commodities

The transition from college to pro quarterbacking was treated as an exceptionally wider leap in the 1980s, although it's increasingly more difficult today given how the games are staged.

There was significantly less pressure on rookie quarterbacks in 1983. In college, they played in pro-style systems, made calls at the line of scrimmage based on their own judgments and took snaps directly from the center. They likely ripened a season on the NFL sideline before being named starters. And when given the opportunity, that quarterback probably piloted a running-style offense, letting him turn and handoff to a tailback to mitigate major errors.

Football is all about passing now, but colleges trick up their offenses above and beyond. No longer beholden to NFL development, college football's big money puts emphasis on money and television deals and shoe contracts.

Coaches are the stars on campus. They call the shots. Their quarterbacks stare to the sideline -- not at the defense -- and call the corresponding play off a wristband. The offense is based off shotgun snaps, quick reads to one side of the field.

Spread-'em-out, air-raid offenses can be fun to watch on Saturdays.

But the quarterbacks are executing like automatons.

"They aren't even necessarily calling a play in the huddle," said Beane, who will oversee his first draft. "That is hard when now you're calling the play in the huddle, taking the snap directly from center, calling the protections, calling the audible or a run-pass option.

"All those variables they've never had are now on their plate, and maybe they're physically talented, but maybe you can't quite mentally process it all right way."

That paradigm adds to the overvaluation of unproven prospects and pushes them onto the field too soon.

"There's some good developmental guys," Shonka said. "The problem is, guys don't get a chance to develop anymore. That's the sticky wicket."

Steinberg has monitored the devolution as much as anyone.

His first client was quarterback Steve Bartkowski, the first pick in 1975. Steinberg by the 1990s represented half the NFL's starting quarterbacks. He handled Troy Aikman, Warren Moon, Steve Young, Drew Bledsoe and Ben Roethlisberger.

Steinberg's firm has nine active quarterbacks, including recent first-round picks Paxton Lynch and Pat Mahomes and four developmental prospects in this year's class: Riley Ferguson (Memphis), Nic Shimonek (Texas Tech), Chase Litton (Marshall) and Logan Woodside (Toledo).

"That process of care and breeding of a young quarterback has completely changed and not for the better," Steinberg said. "What they're seeing is confusing on the field. The speed of the game is faster. The players are better. The passing windows are tighter. Safeties and corners move in different ways than they did in college.

"There used to be patience and a general forbearance among coaches and general managers and fans who understood there was a learning process. All that's gone out the door."

The capriciousness of it all makes the discovery of a successful quarterback seem more like an accident than a science.

Not every oil well Pegula drills is an unquestioned triumph, but the methods of petroleum engineering make that endeavor a safe bet compared to quarterback mining.

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