This is Part 2 of a series of rambling posts intended to answer the question, “What happens when an NFL team tries to find its franchise quarterback?” For background, read the introduction. Part 1 is here.
Cam Newton, 1st overall – Carolina
The Panthers went 2-14 with Jimmy Clausen running the show to earn the right to tab their franchise quarterback in the 2011 draft. They appeared to do so, although Newton had a pretty dreadful 2016 season, one year removed after leading the Panthers to the NFL Championship Game. Newton was entering the strata of “elite” quarterback until last season’s debacle. Nevertheless, he’s the ninth quarterback we’ve looked at so far, and only the second who you can realistically imagine leading a team to a title.
Result: 6 seasons as starter, 3 playoff appearances (3-3)
Jake Locker, 7th overall – Tennessee
Locker is the first quarterback we’ve looked at who did not start as a rookie. The Titans started Matt Hasselbeck and won 9 games in 2011, but Locker won the starting job the next season. Tennessee went 4-7 in Locker’s starts, and his season was interrupted by a shoulder injury. In 2013, injuries kept Locker to only 7 starts. The Titans changed head coaches in 2014, and Locker was benched early in the season in favor of Zach Mettenberger. He was reinstated as the starter in Week 12, but suffered a dislocated shoulder 3 weeks later that ended his season. Locker decided to retire after 4 frustrating seasons in which he posted a 57.5% career completion percentage with 27 touchdowns and 22 interceptions.
Result: 1 seasons as starter, 0 playoff appearances
Blaine Gabbert, 9th overall – Jacksonville
Blaine Gabbert was pressed into service as a rookie starter after Luke McCown proved to be ineffective to start the 2011 season. I know, hard to believe that Luke McCown would be ineffective. Gabbert started 14 games, went 4-10 and finished dead last in QBR. 2012 was an injury plagued season which saw Gabbert go 1-9 in his starts and finish 27th in QBR. In 2014, Gabbert threw 1 touchdown and 7 interceptions in 3 games, and in the offseason he was traded to San Francisco for a 6th round pick. He replaced Colin Kaepernick as the 49ers starter midway through 2015 and was pretty bad. He was even worse last year, with head coach Chip Kelly, who is a genius, going back to Kaepernick after going 1-5 to start the season with Gabbert.
Result: 2 seasons as starter (for 2 different teams), 0 playoff appearances
Christian Ponder, 11th overall – Minnesota
After Brett Favre finally retired for good the Vikings need to find The Guy to replace him, so they drafted Ponder, then signed another old timer, Donovan McNabb, presumably to mentor Ponder as he made the transition to the NFL. Unfortunately, McNabb and the Vikings were so ineffective that they made Ponder the starter after 5 games. The Vikings ended the season with just 3 wins and Ponder near the bottom of the quarterback rankings. They turned things around dramatically in 2012, and while Ponder himself had an inconsistent season, the Vikings made the playoffs with a 10-6 record. Ponder was injured in the final game of the regular season, and did not play in the playoff game vs. Green Bay. He could not continue his upward trajectory in 2013, as he played poorly early in the season, and was injured in Week 3. After experimenting with Matt Cassell and Josh Freeman, the Vikings went back to Ponder midway through the season, but saw little success and was knocked out of a December game with a concussion. Ponder’s inconsistent play and a regime change in Minnesota led the Vikings to draft Teddy Bridgewater the next offseason. Ponder backed up Bridgewater for the 2014 season, and has since bounced from the Raiders, Broncos, and 49ers, primarily as a 3rd string quarterback.
Result: 2 seasons as starter, 1 playoff appearance
Sam Bradford, 1st overall – St. Louis
The Marc Bulger era in St. Louis finally came to an end in 2010, as after totaling just six wins in the last three season, the Rams finally had the #1 overall pick, and drafted their Franchise Quarterback. Bradford was given the keys to the offense as a rookie, and while his numbers were mediocre, the Rams went 7-9, and had high expectations for 2011. But Bradford was bothered by a high ankle sprain all season, finished 31st in QBR and the Rams won just 2 games. With the #2 pick in the 2012 draft, the Rams had an opportunity to draft Franchise Quarterback Robert Griffin the III, but instead swung the mega-deal with Washington. Bradford and the team bounced back, winning 7 games. But as has been the case with many quarterbacks, injury blotted out any hope for long term success for Sam Bradford. He tore his ACL midway through the 2013 season, ending that campaign, and again in a 2014 preseason game. In a surprising move, the Rams and Eagles swapped quarterbacks the next offseason, with Bradford joining Chip Kelly, who is a genius, in Philadelphia. Bradford managed to not tear his ACL, and the Eagles went 7-7 with him under center in 2015. Kelly was then fired, but the new Philadelphia regime signed Bradford to a two-year extension. However the Eagles also signed Chase Daniel and then made the big trade with the Browns to draft Franchise Quarterback Carson Wentz number two overall. Bradford pouted for a bit, and was eventually traded to the desperate Minnesota Vikings, who had just lost Franchise Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, to a horrific injury. The Vikings went 7-8 under Bradford, who completed an NFL-record high 71.6% of his passes, but finished in the middle of the pack in QBR. Bradford is not as incompetent as many of the quarterbacks we’ve seen, but is an injury risk, and no team has had a winning record with him as the starter.
Result: 5 seasons as starter (3 different teams), 0 playoff appearances
Tim Tebow, 25th overall – Denver
After a wild stint as the starter for the Denver Broncos in 2011, where he went 7-4 and actually won a playoff game, the Broncos signed Peyton Manning the next offseason. They subsequently traded Tebow to the New York Jets for a 4th round draft pick. He threw eight passes for the Jets and is currently a professional baseball player.
Result: 1 season as starter, 1 playoff appearance (1-1)
Matthew Stafford, 1st overall – Detroit
After the Lions’ historic 0-16 season in 2008, they earned the right to take their Franchise Quarterback. They got Matthew Stafford. Unlike most of the other names on this list (which is telling in and of itself), Stafford has had a pretty stable career as the starting quarterback for the Detroit Lions. The actual results, however, have been anything but stable. Their first three seasons under Stafford saw them improve from “piss-poor”, to “starting to come around”, to “look, the Lions are in the playoffs!” After which they reverted to “piss-poor” again and started the same three-year cycle. They have settled into the area of “decidedly average” the last two years, and backed into the playoffs in 2016. For Stafford’s part, he has largely stayed healthy, and usually puts up pretty good numbers. He’s made a Pro Bowl but hasn’t been able to get his team out of the wild card round of the playoffs. He’s at the bottom tier of quarterbacks you can call competent.
Result: 7 seasons as starter, 3 playoff appearances (0-3)
Mark Sanchez, 5th overall – New York Jets
The Jets gave the Browns their first and second round picks in this draft to move to this slot and take Sanchez. The Jets had gone 9-7 with Brett Favre at the helm, but Favre decided to fake retire. Sanchez beat Kellen Clemens for the starting job as a rookie, and the Jets had two solid seasons, making the AFC Conference title game both years. Few were under the impression that Sanchez had much to do with this success, however, and as the team surrounding him fell apart, he was exposed as a pretty bad quarterback. By Sanchez’ fourth year as a starter (2012), he was executing plays so memorably laughable that they have their own Wikipedia page. He missed the entire 2013 season to injury, allowing the Jets to try out Geno Smith to see how that might work out. It didn’t. The Jets released Sanchez the following year. The Eagles signed him to back up Nick Foles, and Sanchez came into service when Foles broke his collarbone in Week 9. Eagles head coach Chip Kelly, who is a genius, called Sanchez a ‘hell of a quarterback.’ Sanchez played backup during the Eagles’ short-lived Sam Bradford experiment, then was traded to Denver the next offseason. The Broncos released him, after which he signed with the Cowboys as clipboard-holder for Dak Prescott.
Result: 5 seasons as starter (2 teams), 2 playoff appearances (4-2)
Josh Freeman, 17th overall – Tampa Bay
The Browns were actually in this draft slot as well, and Tampa gave up a 6th round pick to move up two picks to take Josh Freeman, who is no longer in the league. The 2008 Bucs had collapsed down the stretch, losing four straight games resulting in their eliminaton from the playoffs and ultimately the firing of head coach Jon Gruden. Jeff Garcia was allowed to depart for free agency, leaving the team without a quarterback. Enter Josh Freeman, who took over as the starter in game 7. 2010 was a promising year for the team and quarterback, as they bounced back from a 3-13 record to go 10-6, just missing the playoffs. The optimism was short-lived as Freeman struggled horribly in 2011, throwing 22 interceptions and just 16 touchdowns. While the team showed slight improvement in 2012, by 2013 the end was looming for Freeman as a Buccaneer, and, as it turns out, an NFL quarterback. He was benched in favor of Mike Glennon after three games, and released after the team could not find a taker in a trade. He joined the Vikings, made a lousy spot start for them. He knocked around a couple of teams and played his most recent NFL game for the Colts in the final game of the 2016 season.
Result: 4 seasons as starter, 0 playoff appearances
Final Results from ’09-’11:
9 quarterbacks taken in the first round. 2.5 legitimate NFL starters (Newton, Stafford, half of Bradford). 2 (Locker, Tebow) no longer in the league and 1 on his way out (Freeman)