The Sam Bradford era has arrived in St. Louis. After suffering through a one-win season in 2009, fans of the Rams can now dream of better days with the number one pick in the 2010 draft under center.
Recent history, though, suggests this optimism should be muted. From 1999 to 2009, eight NFL teams selected a quarterback with the first pick in the NFL draft. Three of these quarterbacks - Eli Manning, Carson Palmer, and Michael Vick - were later selected to a Pro Bowl. And four others - Tim Couch, David Carr, Alex Smith, and JaMarcus Russell - have not come close to a paid trip to the NFL's All-Star game.
The pre-draft evaluation of these players rarely suggests failure is a possibility. All of these quarterbacks were considered future stars when they were drafted. For example, Mel Kiper -- immediately after the 2007 draft -- argued that the Oakland Raiders selection of JaMarcus Russell was a no-brainer. And Kiper was not alone in this assessment. In 2007, Russell was generally considered the best quarterback available by most draft analysts.
Three years later, though, the story has changed. Every team can now acquire Russell quite easily. So far, though, every team is passing. Which means Russell can spend his days counting the many millions the Raiders paid him for the meager production he offered across the past three years.
The immense amount of money a player like JaMarcus Russell receives is perhaps the only guarantee when it comes to spending top draft choices on a signal caller. According to the USA Today, JaMarcus Russell received more than $30 million in salary across his first three seasons in the NFL. To put this in perspective, every other quarterback selected in 2007 has only received about $21 million in salary. Of this $21 million, about $7.5 million was paid to Brady Quinn, who the Cleveland Browns selected with the 22nd pick in the 2007 draft. Like Russell, Quinn was also considered a future star on draft day.
The money these players have received thus far is entirely due to how the quarterbacks were perceived in 2007. But today, Russell and Quinn are no longer with the team who spent both the draft pick and millions to acquire their services. Meanwhile, Kevin Kolb and Trent Edwards - two quarterbacks selected later in the 2007 draft and who have subsequently been paid much less -- are listed today as the starting quarterbacks on the team who drafted them three years ago.
At this point, it appears the draft day evaluation of the quarterbacks selected in 2007 were incorrect. When we examine how these decision are made, we begin to see that 2007 was hardly unique.
Let's say you were a college quarterback who wished to be drafted high and collect large sums of guaranteed money. What factors would you focus upon? A recent study (published by Rob Simmons and I) revealed that NFL decision-makers focus upon such factors as a quarterback's height, 40-yard dash time, and Wonderlic scores. When it comes to performance on the field, aggregate measures like Wins Produced (a measure of wins that relies on all of the statistics tracked for a quarterback) or the NFL's quarterback rating, also seem to impact draft position.
For fans of football, such a list is not surprising. We would expect bigger, faster, smarter quarterbacks who produced on the field to get drafted first. But when we turned to how these specific factors related to NFL performance, we failed to find a statistical relationship. Yes, quarterbacks who score better on the Wonderlic test do not appear to be better quarterbacks. And the same can be said for quarterbacks who are taller, faster, and offer more with respect to most aspects of on-field performance.
Given these results, we should not be surprised that draft position and NFL performance are not really related. Darren Rovell recently asked me to update part of the study I did with Rob. The results - which Rovell posted at his CNBC blog - focused on the quarterbacks taken from 1980 to 2009. As one can see, the quarterbacks selected with picks 11 to 50 actually produced more wins than quarterbacks taken in the top 10 picks. And the correlation between where a quarterback is taken and his subsequent performance is consistently quite low.
What does this mean for Sam Bradford and the Rams? Well, it could be that Bradford will be everything the Rams and the team's fans hope. But it's also quite possible the Rams would have been better off taking Jimmy Clausen in the second round (or Colt McCoy in the third round) and investing their first pick in a different player. In other words, at this point, it's unclear that Bradford will actually offer more than Clausen. All we do know is that Bradford is definitely going to cost much, much more.
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