It seems almost unthinkable now. The stuff of football legend, a Sasquatch story folks with gray around the temples tell once in a while and they simply swear it is true no matter what you’ve heard before.
In 1996, no quarterback was selected in the first round of the NFL draft. It was only the fifth time it has happened since the 1970 AFL/NFL merger and it has not happened since.
“I don’t see that happening again — ever,” Broncos general manager George Paton said. “I really do not. The game’s changed, the spread offense, 7-on-7 tournaments in middle school, high school, there are just too many quarterbacks who are too sophisticated in that regard compared to a couple of decades ago. And, most importantly maybe, the position has become more important than ever.”
These days it’s not a question of if a quarterback will be selected in the first round, but rather how many will be selected in the first 10 picks. In 2021, quarterbacks were selected with the first three picks of the draft, and five went in the first round.
In 2020, Joe Burrow was the first selection of the draft and four quarterbacks were picked in the first round. Three quarterbacks went in the first round in 2019, five in 2018, three in 2017 and on and on.
“The position is so important and with a rookie wage scale, the financial penalty for failure is far less costly than it used to be [for a rookie quarterback],” former Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers and Indianapolis Colts general manager Bill Polian. “As a result, a first-round gamble on a talented, but undeveloped prospect is worth the risk.”
So what happened in 1996?
In the 25 drafts since 1996 a quarterback hasn’t been the No. 1 selection just six times. But in that 1996 draft, no signal-caller was taken until Tony Banks was selected with the 42nd pick, by the then-St. Louis Rams. Just eight quarterbacks were selected that year, just three — Banks, Danny Kanell and Bobby Hoying — before the fourth round.
“When you look at it, it’s pretty simple, maybe, no quarterback went in the first round, but how many of those guys went on to start for a team?” said the guy who was the No. 1 pick of that draft, receiver Keyshawn Johnson. “Clearly the NFL got it right that year, turns out they got it right, because I don’t think any of the quarterbacks drafted started more games than Tony Banks.”
Johnson is correct. Banks’ 78 career starts — with St. Louis, Baltimore and Houston — led the way among the drafted quarterbacks from 1996. Kanell was the only other quarterback in the group who started at least 24 games. Four of the quarterbacks selected that year — Spence Fischer, Mike Cawley, Jon Stark and Kyle Wachholtz — never attempted a pass during a regular-season game.
“There were no quarterbacks worthy of a first-round pick, none of them were doing the things that myself, Jonathan Ogden, Kevin Hardy, Simeon Rice — the players at the top of the draft — were doing and were able to do,” Johnson said. “Keep going around — Eddie George, Terry Glenn, Willie Anderson, Marvin Harrison, Ray Lewis — there were no quarterbacks on that level, capable of leading their teams, so they didn’t draft them.”
Three Hall of Famers were indeed selected in the first round that year — Ogden (No. 4 by the Ravens), Harrison (No. 18 by the Colts) and Lewis (No. 26 by the Ravens) — while Hall of Fame receiver Terrell Owens was a third-round pick. Rice, selected at No. 3 by the Arizona Cardinals, would go on to win the Defensive Rookie of the Year that season as George, selected at No. 14 by the Houston Oilers, would win Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Why it won’t happen again
History has shown none of the quarterbacks from 1996 made anyone question why they weren’t selected in the first round. There is a school of thought that the 2014 draft, though, could have, or should have, been the last no-quarterback first round, but the zeal to find a quarterback has grown almost exponentially since 1996 and now is so heightened the teams choosing simply won’t let it happen again.
“That position is so critical, everything goes into it, their talent just as every position, but everything’s magnified at that position,” San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch said at the scouting combine. “Lots of times you have to make projections from college to the NFL because the game is played a little bit differently. Levels of competition, there’s so many things that go into it. Just like every position. But as I said, the importance of that position just makes your decision so critical.”
In 2014 Blake Bortles (No. 3), Johnny Manziel (No. 22) and Teddy Bridgewater (No. 32) were the three quarterbacks selected in the first round. Of the three, Bridgewater, taken with the last pick of the first round, has been the only one selected to the Pro Bowl. Derek Carr, selected by the Raiders at No. 36 overall — a second-round pick — is the only quarterback from that draft who has thrown for more than 18,000 yards.
Several personnel executives say the 2013 draft, when EJ Manuel was the only passer selected in the first round, the 1997 draft, when Jim Druckenmiller was the only quarterback selected in the opening round and the 2007 draft (JaMarcus Russell and Brady Quinn were the only first-rounders) should have likely joined the 1996 draft in history.
As it stands, only five drafts total since the merger have gone without a first-round quarterback: 1974, 1984, 1985, 1988 and 1996.
This year’s class was initially labeled a down year for QBs, but in their latest mock drafts, ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay each have three quarterbacks being selected in this year’s first round — Pitt’s Kenny Pickett, Liberty’s Malik Willis and Mississippi’s Matt Corral.
“It’s like the quarterback class this year,” Paton said. “The process gets going and the public perception is the quarterback class isn’t one to be excited about. But they perform well in the season, they perform well at the Senior Bowl, pro days. They really have passed every test other than the hype test.”
The demand for a franchise passer is higher than ever and the supply hasn’t increased at the same pace. Teams will repeatedly reach on a quarterback, even early in the first round, and select a passer well above where they may even have him graded in hopes they win the thrower lottery.
“It’s definitely grown in importance,” Johnson said. “But if you can’t throw it under pressure, you aren’t going to pan out, you aren’t going to be successful, I don’t care how much they push you up the board. And if you’re a GM and you simply draft a quarterback in the first round because you need one and you don’t really think he’s a first-round pick, you’re probably going to get fired. It’s not going to make the guy better just because you took him in the first round.”
These days, quarterback workouts at the scouting combine are televised in prime time and pro day throws against no defenders are the stuff of fire emojis sent coast-to-coast. It simply seems unlikely a first round will close in any future draft without a quarterback in it.
“It would be an outlier year, an extreme outlier year,” Paton said. “I just can’t anticipate that happening. Too many teams need one every year, they’re just not going to sit it out.”