What Does History Say About Where the Vikings Should Draft A QB?

Photo Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Quarterback is obviously the Minnesota Vikings’ biggest need, considering that Kirk Cousins is a free agent. The Vikings need to make a decision on whether or not they want Kirk as their QB before the free agency begins. We’ll have more clarity on what Minnesota wants to do at QB closer to the draft, but they could still go after a QB of the future even if they sign Kirk. Having a quality young QB has been a huge boost for teams that can find them because having a high-level QB on a rookie deal creates a huge cap advantage for teams.

The reality of the NFL is that most successful QBs are early picks. Before injuries, the projected starters for 22 of the 32 NFL teams were first-round picks. We remember later picks who go on to have success like Russell Wilson, Kirk Cousins, Dak Prescott, and Brock Purdy. But I just named the only four QB successes from the 97 QBs drafted in the third round or later since 2011.

The Vikings are taking on a lot of risk if they choose to go after a QB in the first round. Teams need quality QBs to be successful, and if the QB you draft fails, the team will most likely be bad. Minnesota is drafting at 11, and they don’t have the luxury of choosing the guy they think is best. Teams often have to trade up for a QB in the first round, and trading up is generally considered a negative-value proposition. They must consider the risks and potential rewards of four main paths they can take to get a QB early in the draft:

  • Pay a lot of capital to move up into the top three.
  • Pay some capital to make a short move up into the top 10.
  • Stay and pick a QB at 11.
  • Trade back or draft a different position, then trade up for a QB at the end of the first.

To determine which of the paths the Vikings should take in the draft, I decided to look at the history of the position in the draft since 2011. I used that year as the cutoff because that was the first year the CBA implemented the rookie wage scale, which is what gives the monetary advantage to teams on a QB with a rookie deal.

There have been 41 first-round QBs in that time. Of those, I consider 19 to be successes. That doesn’t necessarily mean the successes are superstars, but my definition includes players who got a second contract to be a starter in the league, like Ryan Tannehill, or players on rookie deals who I expect to become highly paid starters when their contracts are up. That’s under a 50% success rate, which shows the risks of relying on a rookie. Teams like the New York Jets have been mired in mediocrity for years because of their inability to successfully draft a QB.

Let’s dive into the different options, and see how they’ve played out recently for teams:

Trade up into the top 3

Notable successes: Jared Goff, Carson Wentz
Notable failures: Robert Griffin III, Mitchell Trubisky, Sam Darnold, Trey Lance, Bryce Young

This move is by far the costliest for the Vikings, likely requiring three first-round picks and some change to get there, like with the San Francisco 49ers’ trade for Lance. On their face, the results look bleak when trading up that far. Even the successes come with caveats. The Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles were done with Goff and Wentz, respectively, before the end of their big-money deals.

However, despite the general lack of success from the QBs taken in these trades, three of the seven teams made the Super Bowl during that QB’s rookie deal. The takeaway should be that despite the high cost to move up to the top three, missing on QB at the pick doesn’t hamstring your team’s future. Of course, you need to hit on other picks to build a quality team, but trading away multiple firsts doesn’t prevent you from doing that. Having a good coaching staff and organizational structure can help overcome the lack of resources.

Make a small trade up from your pick to get your guy

Notable successes: Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, Josh Allen
Notable failures: Blaine Gabbert, Justin Fields

This category obviously stands out, because it has two of the league’s best QBs in Mahomes and Allen. Both players were clearly extremely talented but had blemishes as college QBs. Mahomes and Allen had teams fall in love with them during the draft process, and trade up to get them. The Buffalo Bills traded up from picks No. 12 to No. 7 for Allen. It’s easy to sell yourself on the idea that the Vikings should do this if someone like Drake Maye or Jayden Daniels falls to that range due to polish or other concerns.

However, if you look at the negative results, you can see players with the same story. Gabbert and Fields were both exciting, physically talented prospects, but failed to develop into quality QBs. They are another reminder that taking one might not work out.

Stay put and take whoever falls to you

Notable successes: None
Notable failures: Christian Ponder, Brandon Weeden, EJ Manuel, Josh Rosen, Dwayne Haskins, Mac Jones, Kenny Pickett

Uh oh. That’s not good. Outside of Mahomes, Watson, and two players in the next section, the history of first-round QBs taken 10th or later is bleak. The list of players here feels like teams with a QB need that ended up reaching for lack of a better option at their pick. The Vikings saw three QBs go off the board before selecting Ponder, as did the Arizona Cardinals before taking Rosen. The Cleveland Browns saw Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III go first and second before their early pick in the draft. Mac Jones was the fifth QB taken in 2021. Kenny Pickett was part of the worst QB draft class in recent memory and was viewed by teams as the best of a bad bunch.

The lesson that can be taken from these results is Don’t draft a QB just because you feel like you need to. If you love a QB in the draft, you are almost certainly going to be willing to trade up for him. If you don’t like him enough to trade up to ensure you get him, he’s probably not worth it.

trade back into the first to get a QB

Notable successes: Lamar Jackson, Jordan Love
Notable failures: Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater, Paxton Lynch

In this scenario, the Vikings would likely draft a defender at 11 and then try to get back into the first to get their QB. That’s distinct from letting a player fall to you. It shows the team is willing to give up assets to acquire the player, but they were willing to pass on the player initially because they knew the league might not be high on him.

Like with Allen and Mahomes, the two successes in this bucket were extremely physically gifted. I’m not completely sold on Love, but the flashes from him have been very impressive. If the Vikings go into the draft needing a QB and fail to trade up for one in the early first, moving up to get their favorite guy may be a viable option.

overall QB results

We looked at the results from the four different paths the Vikings could take, but it’s also important to consider the hit rates in different buckets of the draft. Here’s a look at some relevant categories:

  • First-overall pick – 7 out of 9 (78%)
  • Second to 10th pick – 9 out of 18 (50%)
  • 11th to 20th pick – 1 out of 7 (14%)
  • 21st to 32nd pick – 2 out of 6 (33%)
  • No trade up – 12 of 24 (50%)
  • Trade up – 7 of 17 (41%)

The results are pretty clear and match what you would expect. The higher a QB is drafted, the more likely that player is successful. It’s definitely interesting that picks 21-32 have a higher hit rate than 11-20, but the sample size is so small that I would chalk that up to mostly luck.

We can also see that there’s not much difference in success rate between trading up and not trading up. It’s notable that all 12 of the successes from teams that stayed put were in the top 10, including five first-overall picks. QB-needy teams that stay put in the top 10 have a big advantage in terms of the ability to get a quality QB. Unfortunately, the Vikings don’t have that luxury.

So what should the Vikings do?

It’s not guaranteed that the Vikings will want to draft a QB this season, but let’s operate under the assumption that they do. From the data above, it’s pretty clear to me that the team moving up for a QB that they love in the draft gives them the best chance of getting a franchise guy.

The gap in historical success rate for top 10 and non-top 10 QBs is massive. So even if the cost is greater, the increased success rate is worth it. Even if you screw up the pick, you can bounce back very quickly, as shown by the Super Bowl teams above.

If you’re not willing to trade up for a guy, staying put and picking a player appears to be the worst option. You’re better off taking a different position and trying to move up later to take a QB who you feel the rest of the league has overlooked. Here are my ultimate preferences for how the Vikings look at the QB position in the draft:

  1. Spend some capital to make a short move up into the top 10.
  2. Spend a lot of capital to move up into the top three.
  3. Trade back or draft a different position, then trade up for a QB at the end of the first.
  4. Stay and pick a QB at 11.

Ultimately, none of this might matter. QB success is highly dependent on the individual player and the team’s development plan. The Vikings could trade up and draft a Zach Wilson, or stay put and draft a Patrick Mahomes. Or they could trade up and take the next Lamar Jackson, or wait and trade up and draft the next Josh Rosen. Still, history tells us that the best way to get a good starting QB is to have a pick in the top 10. Even if you swing and miss, your team can recover quickly, and the downside is no worse than teams that waited to take that swing late, like the Brandon Weeden Browns, Mac Jones Patriots, and Christian Ponder Vikings.

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