Best QB Draft Classes in History | QB Draft Class Facts & Figures
(Or at least the most prolific in terms of era-adjusted yards)
The NFL Draft begins on Thursday night in Arlington, Texas, and onlookers expect between four and six quarterbacks to be taken in the first round. A number of mock drafts go so far as to project that four of those QBs will be among the draft’s first five or six picks, including USC’s Sam Darnold, Wyoming’s Josh Allen, UCLA’s Josh Rosen, and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, winner of the 2017 Heisman Trophy.
Several other mock drafts have Louisville’s Lamar Jackson going in the top 15 – or 16 – or higher – or lower – or in the second round – and still others have Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph sneaking into the draft's opening round. Current Vegas odds imply about a 40% probability that six (or more) QBs are selected in round one.
Six first-round quarterbacks would tie the record set in the 1983 NFL Draft, when John Elway, Todd Blackledge, Jim Kelly, Tony Eason, Ken O’Brien, and Dan Marino were drafted. Five first-round quarterbacks would equal the 1999 NFL Draft for second most in history. Six other drafts saw four QBs taken in round one.
It will take some time before we know which QBs in the 2018 draft class were worthy of the first round and which weren’t, and even longer before we know how this group stacks up historically. Hell, for all we know, the draft’s best quarterback might end up being Washington State’s Luke Falk, Richmond’s Kyle Lauletta, or Western Kentucky’s Mike White, all of whom are projected to go in subsequent rounds. Sixth-round pick Tom Brady (2000) would be happy to provide a history lesson on that.
With so many quarterbacks in the mix, the 2018 NFL Draft is practically begging us to look back and rank the best NFL quarterback draft classes of all time. There are several such lists out there on the internet, but nearly all rely on the subjective views of their author. As always – be it with sports, movies, or politics – my objective is to remove opinion from the equation and take a purely empirical approach.
So I looked back at every NFL draft in history – the first was in 1936 – and tallied up the career passing yards thrown by the quarterbacks selected in each draft. To keep these QB draft class rankings as straightforward as possible while still accounting for era, I made two simple adjustments – the first based on league-wide passing trends and the second based on the number of regular-season games. The result is era-adjusted passing yards expressed on a 2017-equivalent basis. (See footnotes for more.)
The NFL’s most famous QB draft class is not its most prolific
The 1983 NFL quarterback draft class is arguably the league’s most famous. Six quarterbacks were drafted in the first round and three became Hall of Famers (Marino, Elway, and Kelly). When Marino retired in 1999 – the last of the three to do so – he was the NFL’s all-time passing leader. Elway was 2nd and Kelly was 10th. The class’s combined performance in 1986 remains the best in league history, as they threw for the modern equivalent of 21,648 yards and accounted for over 20% of all passing yards.
But once you factor in era, rule changes, and the number of regular-season games, the oh-so-famous 1983 QB draft class falls to second place in total era-adjusted passing yards, outgunned by 1971, “the original Year of the Quarterback.” That year, the Patriots selected Heisman Trophy-winner Jim Plunkett of Stanford first overall, the Saints took Ole Miss’s Archie Manning second, and the Oilers picked Santa Clara’s Dan Pastorini third – all quarterbacks.
Lynn Dickey and Ken Anderson were among four quarterbacks chosen in the third round, and Joe Theismann went one round later (99th overall). Anderson offers another history lesson for teams picking quarterbacks in 2018. He was the sixth QB selected in the 1971 draft but became its most prolific, ranking 7th in career passing yards when he retired in 1986 after 16 seasons with the Bengals.
The 1983 QB draft class may have had three Hall of Famers, Ken O’Brien, and a higher high, but the 1971 class had more depth and a longer peak. Collectively, the 1971 group produced over 15,000 era-adjusted yards in a single season as early as 1972 and as late as 1983 – a span of 12 seasons. The 1983 group first achieved that feat in 1984 and last did it 1991 – a span of eight. You can compare those peaks and their duration in this chart:
None of the 1971 NFL draft’s quarterbacks became Hall of Famers, but by the time they’d all retired in 1986, Anderson, Plunkett, Theismann, Manning, and Dickey owned five of the top 31 spots on the NFL’s all-time passing list. Pastorini was 48th. (For those curious, if you don’t adjust for regular-season games per season, the 1983 quarterback class ranks number one all-time.)
The 2004 class – headlined by Eli Manning (1st overall), Philip Rivers (4th), and Ben Roethlisberger (11th) and supported by Matt Schaub (90th) – currently ranks as the 3rd-most prolific QB class in NFL history. Through 2017, Manning, Roethlisberger, and Rivers are 6th, 8th, and 9th, respectively, in career passing yards. (They’ve played much of their careers in an unprecedented passing era.)
But the jury’s still out on whether the 2004 QB class can surpass the 1983 crew in total era-adjusted yards. If Manning, Rivers, and Roethlisberger remain starters and produce in line with last year, the 2004 class would sneak past the 1983 class in Week 16 of the 2019 season, basically two full seasons from now. Some of that will hinge on health, and some will depend on what the Giants, Chargers, and Steelers do over the next few days.
For now, the 2004 NFL quarterback class is well positioned in 3rd on the all-time list, the legendary 1983 class is 2nd, and the less-sexy 1971 class is number one thanks to depth, longevity, and era adjustment. Whether that means they're the "best" is ultimately up to you.
Postscript: What about the 2005 and 2012 QB draft classes?
Other recent quarterback classes have had more spectacular peaks than the 2004 group, but with some pretty sharp declines thereafter. The 2005 QB draft class produced the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th best combined adjusted-yards performances of all time in 2010, 2008, and 2009, respectively, when Kyle Orton, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Cassel, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Alex Smith, Jason Campbell, and Derek Anderson – and sometimes Charlie Frye and Dan Orlovsky – were starting NFL games. (This seems insane now, but Kyle Orton threw for more yards per game than Aaron Rodgers in 2010.)
Meanwhile, the 2012 quarterback draft class owns four of the top 10 combined adjusted-yards performances in NFL history – 2012 (5th), 2013 (7th), 2015 (10th), and 2016 (6th). Their rookie season was their best, and it was led, in order, by Andrew Luck, Brandon Weeden (not a typo), Ryan Tannehill, Robert Griffin, Russell Wilson, and Nick Foles, along with four starts by Ryan Lindley, 33 completions by Kirk Cousins, and four pass attempts by Brock Osweiler. They fell off a cliff in 2017 but are still 21st all-time in era-adjusted yards, and they’ll continue to chip their way up the list.
On to part two: Fun Quarterback Draft Class Facts and Figures
The study includes the AFL (1960-69), excludes undrafted quarterbacks, and does not deduct yardage lost to sacks, which was not tracked for all of NFL history. Sack yardage is generally excluded from individual statistics anyway, though it is often included in team passing statistics. To create more reliable era adjustments, I've excluded yards lost to sacks entirely.
The first era adjustment is an “inflation adjustment" that accounts for league-wide passing trends throughout NFL history. Thanks in large part to a series of passing friendly rule changes instituted in the 1970s, 1990s, and 2000s, today’s NFL teams have basically never passed more and rushed less. Passing’s peak came in 2015, when the average team threw for 259.2 yards per game. In 1990, that number was 211.4 yards. And in 1973, it was only 159.4. (All gross of yards lost to sacks.)
To account for this, I’ve adjusted each QB’s passing yards to a 2017 equivalent based on league-wide team averages in the seasons he played. For example, to convert 1990 passing yards (211.4 per team game) into 2017 passing yards (239.6 per team game), we need to multiply 1990 yardage by 1.13 (239.6 / 211.4). It’s kind of like converting 1990 dollars to 2017 dollars.
The second adjustment deals with the number of regular-season games played per season, which has generally increased over time. From 1936 to 1946, NFL teams played between 10 and 12 regular-season games. From 1947 to 1959/60, there were 12 games. From 1960/61 to 1977, there were 14 games per year. And since 1978, there have been 16 regular-season games. (In 1960, the AFL played 14 regular-season games and the NFL played 12 regular-season games.)
The main data source for this article is pro-football-reference.com. Data includes the NFL and AFL regular seasons. Data was compiled and analyzed by ELDORADO. All charts and graphics herein were created by ELDORADO.