Best QB Draft Classes in History | QB Draft Class Facts & Figures
The sister post to this one covers the best quarterback draft classes in NFL history in terms of era-adjusted passing yards. For more on those legendary classes, please check out the original story.
Developing that story kicked up a lot of other fun facts – including the number of active QB draft classes in the league in a given season, draft-class longevity, draft-class peaks, the worst draft classes in NFL history, and, more generally, the best quarterback seasons and careers based on our era adjustment.
The facts laid out below come from my analysis of Pro-Football-Reference.com data.
The Number of Active QB Draft Classes
- Quarterbacks from 18 different draft classes recorded passing statistics during the 2017 season, tying the 2004, 2003, 1975, and 1969 seasons for the most in NFL history. Of those, 2017 is the only one in which the 18 draft classes were consecutive (2000 through 2017). All of the others had gaps – 2004 and 2003 because of Doug Flutie's longevity (QB Class of ’85) and 1975 and 1969 because of George Blanda's (’49).
- There have been between 14 and 18 QB draft classes active in every NFL season since 1961. The average over that period (and post AFL-NFL merger) is 15.75. The seasons with 18 active QB classes were mentioned above. Interestingly, the seasons with 14 active QB classes have all come in twos or threes – 2013 and 2012; 1992 and 1991; 1986, 1985, and 1984; 1981 and 1980; and 1962 and 1961 – and are generally due to a lack of longevity among what, in those seasons, should've been the elder quarterback classes.
- The older end of the 2017 season's draft-class curve was made up of Tom Brady (2000), Drew Brees (2001), Josh McCown (2002), and Carson Palmer (2003), and each was the only one to throw a pass from his draft class in 2017. Palmer retired in January, so unless he or another member of the '03 class pulls a Vinny Testaverde and makes a spot start, we won’t see 19 different QB draft classes throw a pass in 2018.
The Longevity of QB Draft Classes
- The average post-merger QB draft class has recorded passing yards in 15.5 different seasons (excluding those that are still active). The following bullets cover those with the most and least longevity.
- The 1949 QB draft class recorded passing yards in a record 26 seasons thanks to the aforementioned George Blanda. Blanda played for 27 seasons, and though his final nine were spent as a kicker, he still registered passing stats in eight of those. The only season in which he did not attempt a pass was 1973.
- Four other QB draft classes have recorded passing yards in 20 or more seasons – 1956 (21 seasons via Earl Morrall), 1985 (21 via Randall Cunningham, Steve Bono, Frank Reich, and Doug Flutie), 1987 (21 via Vinny Testaverde), and 1991 (20 via Brett Favre). The longevity of the 1949, 1956, 1987, and 1991 classes is by way of one man per class, so it’s really an individual statistic masquerading as draft-class statistic.
- The 1985 QB draft class’s longevity is more interesting. Cunningham played through 2001 but “retired” for one season in 1996. Bono and Reich were still playing in 1996 before retiring in 1999 and 1998, respectively. Meanwhile, after starting 15 NFL games in the 1980s and playing eight seasons in the CFL, Flutie returned to the NFL in 1998 and played through the 2005 season. Their longevity was a team effort.
The Peak Seasons for QB Draft Classes
- The median "peak season" for a QB draft class is season number four (among fully retired classes since 1936 and post-merger. The median is the same in both cases.) By season four, stars and starters are often in the saddle, and there are usually enough mediocre starters, fringe starters, and backups still bouncing around the league. Together, they can put up strong cumulative numbers for their draft class.
- The 1985 QB draft class had the latest peak in history – year 14. In 1998, Randall Cunningham started 14 games for Minnesota, Doug Flutie started 10 for Buffalo, Steve Bono started two for Saint Louis, and Frank Reich started two for Detroit. (The 1962 QB draft class had the 2nd-latest peak in history – year 12.)
- Four post-merger QB draft classes have peaked in their rookie year – and for very different reasons. The 2017 class has only played one season, the 2013 and 1974 classes peaked in year one because they're terrible, and the 2012 class peaked in year one because it was superb. As detailed in my original post, the 2012 QB class's rookie season is 5th-best all-time in era-adjusted yards for any draft class in any season.
The Worst QB Draft Classes in NFL History
- The 1996 QB draft class is the worst since the merger in terms of longevity and cumulative era-adjusted passing yards (among fully retired classes). Eight quarterbacks were selected in 1996, and four of them threw a pass in the NFL. Tony Banks (42nd overall) started 78 games over nine seasons and passed for 15,315 career yards. Danny Kanell (130th) started 24 games over six seasons and passed for 5,129 yards. Bobby Hoying started 13 games and Jeff Lewis attempted 54 passes. (The 1997 and 1976 QB draft classes are next with only 10 seasons to their name. They had more yards but lower peaks than the 1996 group.)
- The 2013 QB draft class could give the 1996 class a run for its money as worst since the merger. The 2013 group currently trails the 1996 group by 7,779 modern-day equivalent yards, and had only four quarterbacks in the league in 2017 – E.J. Manuel, Geno Smith, Mike Glennon, and Landry Jones. Good luck.
- Zero quarterbacks were selected in the first round of the 1996, 1988, 1985, 1984, and 1974 drafts – the only such drafts since 1942. In 1988 and 1974, no quarterbacks were drafted in rounds one or two.
The Best Individual Seasons and Careers: Era-Adjusted Yards
- The five best individual seasons since World War II in terms of era-adjusted passing yards belong to Dan Fouts (1982), Roman Gabriel (1973), Joe Namath (1967), Drew Brees (2008), and Drew Brees (2011). Fouts averaged 320 passing yards per game across 1982’s strike-shortened nine-game season – 1.45 times the NFL’s team average. Those 320 yards per game would translate to about 348 yards per game today. (These rankings are based on the same era-adjustments used and described in the original story.)
- The five best careers in terms of era-adjusted passing yards belong to Brett Favre (77,106 modern-day equivalent passing yards), Peyton Manning (74,861), Drew Brees (71,195), Fran Tarkenton (68,038), and Tom Brady (67,215). Compared to the actual list, Favre and Manning flip-flop at the top, Brees remains third all-time, Brady falls from 4th to 5th, and Tarkenton jumps from 11th to 4th. (Dan Marino falls from 5th to 6th.)
- I'll put out a separate post with these best era-adjusted season and career rankings this summer.
Back to part one: The Best Quarterback Draft Classes in NFL History
The main data source for this article is pro-football-reference.com. Data includes the NFL and AFL regular seasons.