Stacking the 2021 QB draft class against the greatest in NFL history

Five quarterbacks are likely to be selected in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft: Ohio State’s Justin Fields, Alabama’s Mac Jones, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, and BYU’s Zach Wilson. A sixth quarterback, most likely Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond, may also join the 2021 QB draft class party. Six quarterbacks have never been drafted in the first round before. Only three drafts in post-merger NFL history have seen five quarterbacks selected in the first round: 1983 (John Elway, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino, and others), 1999 (Daunte Culpepper, Donovan McNabb, and others), and 2018 (Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, Baker Mayfield, etc.). We will compare all of these QB draft classes a little later, beginning with 1983.

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History tells us that for every Hall of Famer or perennial Pro Bowler at the top of a loaded draft class, a Todd Blackledge or Cade McNown is lurking as well. What other lessons can we learn about Lawrence and company from the past?

A deep dive into the 1983, 1999, and, to a lesser extent, 2018 QB draft classes provide some cautionary tales and important reminders that a poor organization can ruin a good prospect and that no one is truly a “sure thing.”

Be sure to join PFN Chief NFL Analyst Trey Wingo and Chief Draft Analyst Tony Pauline every week on Draft Insiders as they break down all you need to know heading into the 2021 NFL Draft. Subscribe to our YouTube channel and hit the notifications icon so you can tune in live every Wednesday at 9 PM ET.

Trey Wingo and Tony Pauline Discuss the 2021 QB Draft Class

Pro Football Network’s Chief NFL Analyst Trey Wingo and Chief Draft Analyst Tony Pauline talked about the possibility of five or six quarterbacks getting drafted in the first round this year and weighed in on a variety of historical precedents in this week’s episode of Draft Insiders. Here are some excerpts from their conversation.

TONY PAULINE: When you break down the top five guys this year, Trevor Lawrence is head-and-shoulders above the rest. He is that generational type of quarterback who can carry a team at the next level, as did Peyton Manning, as did John Elway, as did Andrew Luck.

TREY WINGO: None of the quarterbacks who were drafted in the first round by their teams from 2009 through 2016 are still on the team that drafted them. Half of those quarterbacks are no longer playing in the NFL. 

It’s easier now for a team like the Jets to think about taking Zach Wilson at [the second overall pick] and moving on from Sam Darnold, who they took at [the third overall pick] in 2018. But then, if you just think, ‘We’re gonna pick another quarterback,’ and don’t replace anything around the quarterback, then what are you doing as an organization?

Instead of believing in what you drafted and giving that quarterback weapons around him to help him be exceptional, you are just doing this on the same cycle, over and over again. 

I have no idea what Sam Darnold can be. I just wonder what he would have been at this point if the Jets had done a better job drafting around him the way that the Bills did around Josh Allen

TONY PAULINE: Tim Couch. David Carr. You go back 20 years ago, these guys were taken at the top of the draft. They were supposed to lead the franchise. Teams invested all kinds of capital in them at a time when there was no rookie salary cap. Yet, they never did anything to protect these guys. And these guys got the snot beat out of them and never lived up to expectations. In many cases, they went through their careers injured. 

So the question is — what’s the track record of a team that drafts someone like Kellen Mond? The Browns and Bengals, for the longest time, couldn’t get it right at quarterback. There are some franchises, like the New York Jets, that just can’t get it right.

The 1983 Quarterback Draft Class

The 1983 quarterback draft class is one of the most legendary and talked-about groups in pro football history. But for those of you who don’t want to rewatch the 30 for 30 episode, here’s a refresher:

Meet the members: 1983 John Elway (1st overall, Baltimore Colts), Todd Blackledge (7th overall, Kansas City Chiefs), Jim Kelly (14th overall, Buffalo Bills), Tony Eason (15th overall, New England Patriots), Ken O’Brien (24th overall, New York Jets), Dan Marino (27th overall, Miami Dolphins)

Stanford’s John Elway refused to play for the Baltimore Colts. They were a little like the Houston Texans of their era, but with bourbon making their owner’s decisions instead of Jack Easterby. Elway forced a blockbuster trade to the Broncos six days after the draft, and the rest is history.

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Todd Blackledge was a star in Penn State’s conservative offense. But, he was an ill fit for the modern (by 1983 standards) offense Chiefs coach John Mackovic was running. Blackledge could never unseat pesky Bill Kenney (the Case Keenum of the early 1980s) as the Chiefs’ starter. He became one of the most notorious busts in draft history, then a successful broadcaster.

Fans who now think of Jim Kelly as a distinguished elder statesman and inspirational figure may find it surprising to learn he had a Baker Mayfield-like cocky reputation in his youth. The University of Miami star initially chose the USFL over icy Buffalo.

Kelly played two years for the Houston Gamblers before coming to the NFL. Once in Buffalo, he helped head coach Marv Levy revolutionize the NFL with the K-Gun Offense and (let’s be positive) led the Bills to four AFC Championships.

Champaign Tony” Eason was a University of Illinois alum who had a Jimmy Garoppolo-like run for the Patriots in the mid-1980s. He led them to Super Bowl XX in 1985 to get hammered by the Chicago Bears but maxed out as an oft-injured game manager.

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Jets fans howled when the Jets selected Ken O’Brien of California-Davis over the guy still on the board at that point. In fact, it may have been history’s first case of fans howling over an NFL draft pick, since 1983 was one of the first times the NFL was drafting in front of any audience.

Anyway, O’Brien still ranks second to Joe Namath on the Jets all-time list in nearly every passing category, and he led the Jets to the playoffs three times. Even one of the Jets’ greatest draft-day triumphs comes bundled with failure.

Dan Marino slid to the bottom of the first round due to a poor senior season at Pitt. Perhaps, some drug rumors had an influence. (Read more about Marino’s draft-day plunge here). Marino went on to rewrite the record book and pave the way toward the modern pass-happy NFL.

Lessons learned from the 1983 QB draft class

Had we evaluated the QBs of the 1983 draft three years later (like we currently evaluate the 2018 class), here is where everyone stood:

  • Marino was a superstar.
  • Elway was just beginning to cement his reputation.
  • Kelly was an arrogant rookie exile from an upstart league.
  • Eason was a rising star who just led his team to the Super Bowl.
  • O’Brien was a rising star who just led the NFL in efficiency rating.
  • The jury was still out on Blackledge, but the verdict was coming soon.

So Marino was like Lamar Jackson to a degree, Elway like Josh Allen, Kelly a bit like Mayfield, Blackledge more like Darnold than Josh Rosen. Modern versions of Eason and O’Brien would be looking forward to Jared Goff/Carson Wentz/Dak Prescott-sized contracts that their teams would come to regret.

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But there was a lot of ballgame left for the QB Draft Class of 1983 three years later, just as there’s much left to learn about the Class of 2018 right now (and 2021 in the future).

As for the Class of 2021 NFL Draft QBs, perhaps Mac Jones or Justin Fields is a Blackledge, propped up by a major program. Maybe Trey Lance is O’Brien, a small-school guy destined to be good-not-great. Or he’s a Marino whose stock could slip, not due to rumors, but a pandemic that all but wiped out his senior season.

One thing is certain — Trevor Lawrence looks a little like a long-haired version of Elway.

The 1999 Quarterback Draft Class

The 1999 QB class drew comparisons to the 1983 class well before the draft itself. For its first few seasons, it ran neck-and-neck with Elway and company. But history was mostly unkind to this group of quarterbacks. Here’s a rundown.

Meet the members: Tim Couch (1st overall, Cleveland Browns), Donovan McNabb (2nd overall, Philadelphia Eagles), Akili Smith (3rd overall, Cincinnati Bengals), Daunte Culpepper (11th overall, Minnesota Vikings), Cade McNown (12th overall, Chicago Bears)

Kentucky’s Tim Couch endured 56 sacks as a rookie for what was essentially an expansion team. Then, he suffered a broken thumb in 2000 and a broken leg at the end of 2001. By then, backup Kelly Holcomb had emerged as a heated rival for the starting job. The Browns organization was in the midst of the first of what would become about 500 regime changes over the next two decades.

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Syracuse’s Donovan McNabb earned five Pro Bowl berths and led the Eagles to the Super Bowl in 2005. Everything then went Philly-style toxic in a hurry (see Wentz, Carson, but add Terrell Owens and some early-21st century sociopolitical semiotics to the mix).

McNabb was the greatest quarterback in Eagles’ history. But someone is foaming at the mouth while reading this and screaming, “Norm Van Brocklin was better!” even though Van Brocklin’s career ended before that reader’s grandparents even met.

The Bengals could have traded down with Mike Ditka’s New Orleans Saints, who would do anything to acquire Ricky Williams. Cincinnati could have obtained an aircraft carrier full of extra picks in 1999. Instead, they selected Akili Smith, a one-year wonder at Oregon, after rising through the JUCO ranks.

Smith was not NFL ready and would later admit to not having the necessary work habits to succeed. And, of course, the Bengals organization was a Superfund project. Smith started just 17 career NFL games.

Central Florida’s Daunte Culpepper was the best quarterback in the 1999 class from 2000 through 2004. Then, he fell off a cliff due to injuries and the breakup of his Randy Moss-Cris Carter-Robert Smith supporting cast.

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The Bears began regretting the decision to draft Cade McNown almost immediately. McNown, who is still UCLA’s all-time leading passer (ahead of Rosen, Troy Aikman, Brett Hundley, etc.), was a scared-rabbit scrambler with a suspect arm.

McNown once pulled himself from the second half of a game due to a minor calf injury, which didn’t endear him to coaches or fans. Combine Rex Grossman’s skills with Mitch Trubisky’s expectations and a touch of Jay Cutler’s personality, and you get the ultimate Bears quarterback debacle.

Lessons learned from the 1999 QB draft class

The 1999 quarterback draft class reminds us that the organization often makes or breaks the quarterback prospect, not the other way around:

  • The Browns broke Couch the moment they removed him from the packaging.
  • McNabb, who ran a sprint out-option offense at Syracuse, benefitted immeasurably from Andy Reid’s coaching.
  • Culpepper was at least partially a product of Dennis Green’s system and his Moss-Carter receiving corps.
  • Neither Smith nor McNown may have belonged in the first round. But, both might have turned out differently if paired with Reid or Green.

What does that mean for the Class of 2021? Perhaps Matt Rhule is the Andy Reid of this generation and will develop whichever quarterback falls to the Carolina Panthers into a perennial Pro Bowler (with Teddy Bridgewater as his mentor).

Maybe Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers, like Green’s Vikings, have furnished the perfect landing spot for this year’s version of Culpepper. The Jets have ruined enough prospects over the past 50 years to know what’s at stake.

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As for Urban Meyer, well, he looks a teensy bit like Butch Davis did when he left the University of Miami for Couch’s Browns in 1999 — a collegiate savior ushering in a franchise-scale do-over with the first overall pick in a quarterback-laden draft.

Meyer doesn’t just have to choose wisely when he (probably) selects Lawrence. He must keep choosing wisely for the next few years to ensure Lawrence has the support any quarterback prospect needs.

The 2018 Quarterback Draft Class

Meet the members: Baker Mayfield (1st overall, Cleveland Browns), Sam Darnold (3rd overall, New York Jets), Josh Allen (7th overall, Buffalo Bills), Josh Rosen (10th overall, Arizona Cardinals), Lamar Jackson (32nd overall, Baltimore Ravens)

You know who these guys are. And you know their stories are just beginning to play out. So let’s skip the player-by-player histories and figure out what the class of 2018 can teach us.

Jerry Glanville famously said the NFL stands for “Not For Long” back in 1987. That’s much truer now than it was 34 years ago. Josh Rosen failed so thoroughly and suddenly in 2018, he took Steve Wilks’ entire Cardinals coaching staff with him. Darnold already appears destined for the discount rack. The general manager and coach who drafted him (as well as the coach who replaced that coach) are already gone.

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Mayfield has already survived several mini-coups in Cleveland. Allen was granted two full seasons to get the wiggles out of his game. Yet, he’s such an exception that he was one of the NFL’s biggest stories in 2020. Jackson is a nearly unprecedented individual.

Prospects like McCown and Akili Smith washed out quickly in years past. However, a first-round blunder at quarterback is now likely to bring a regime toppling down around it. Or, in the case of the Bears and Mitch Trubisky in 2017, should bring a regime toppling down around it.

Teams now have four years to build around a young quarterback before his salary goes through the troposphere. If they don’t use that time wisely, coaches and GMs are unlikely to get a second chance.

Someone in the QB draft class of 2021 will end up like Rosen, Darnold, McNown, or Blackledge. And some franchise will pay the price. Perhaps Zach Wilson proves to be a one-year collegiate wonder, or Trey Lance a small-program mirage, Mac Jones or Justin Fields (or even Trevor Lawrence) products of collegiate powerhouses who prove incapable of rescuing downtrodden organizations like the Jaguars or Jets.

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Maybe some team will reach for Mond or Florida’s Kyle Trask and get burned. Perhaps that team won’t be the Bears. Though it probably will be the Bears.

Or perhaps Mond is Josh Allen, with wobbly college tape but incredible upside. Or, he’s a Dak Prescott who did not have the weapons to succeed in the SEC. Maybe there is three Hall of Famers among the 2021 QB draft class.

We won’t know for sure about the great ones for about a decade. And we should leap to conclusions about the not-so-great ones once the 2021 season begins. However, history warns us that when it comes to first-round quarterback prospects, the clock is always ticking.

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Be sure to follow us on Twitter (@PFN365) to stay in the loop on all things around the NFL. Also, continue to visit Pro Football Network for NFL news and in-depth analysis concerning the 2021 season and beyond the 2021 and 1983 QB draft class.

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