Quarterback classes can't be defined until NFL snaps are taken

On Jan. 14, when Kyler Murray declared that he was interested in playing in the NFL , these seemed like reasonable questions to ask:

Will he be tall enough, at 5-foot-10, for teams to think he can play quarterback at the pro level? Where will he be picked? Round 3? Round 2? Maybe the first round? Maybe even -- gasp -- FIRST OVERALL?!

On April 25, the Arizona Cardinals answered those questions -- posed breathlessly just over three months before -- with a resounding, somewhat-anticlimactic duh by making the reigning Heisman Trophy winner the first overall pick of the 2019 NFL Draft. What had once seemed like a point of high drama quickly became, as one source told NFL.com's Michael Silver, "the worst-kept secret in the last 25 years."

Murray's selection helped write the next chapter of another similarly predictable story: A quarterback class that "terrified" one NFL scout speaking to Bleacher Report in June of 2018 ended up producing three first-round picks, with Daniel Jones (No. 6 overall) and Dwayne Haskins (No. 15) joining Murray.

This latest crop of signal-callers has not generated the kind of buzz that the QBs of 2018 did. In part, that is justifiable, based on good-faith analysis by outside observers of these players' potential flaws and challenges. But recent history suggests we should forget everything we were told about them while we wait to see what they can actually do on the field, and that we should resist the temptation to draw conclusions about their NFL futures based on any assumptions made about the group as a whole.

As the pre-draft chatter and analysis finally begin to fade into memory, it's worth examining the value in labeling a quarterback class "weak" or "strong" before anyone's taken a single NFL snap. Yes, such labels can serve as convenient shorthand when attempting to summarize the amount of perceived risk that exists at a certain position group. They can also be made shockingly obsolete within the span of a few months.

Just look at the reigning NFL MVP.

'The rest is irrelevant'

Roughly three years before he proved himself to be one of the NFL's most electric talents, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes made an important impression on someone who would later directly impact his life.

On Dec. 29, 2015, as a Texas Tech sophomore, Mahomes threw for 370 yards and four touchdowns in a Texas Bowl loss. The Red Raiders were obliterated by LSU, but Mahomes had put together a performance that resonated with current Chiefs general manager Brett Veach.

"He was the best player on the field," said Veach, who was co-director of player personnel for the Chiefs back then, at this year's NFL Scouting Combine. "And that was a game that included (LSU running back and future No. 4 overall pick Leonard) Fournette and those guys. You watch that game, and this guy's the best player on the field, and he's a sophomore, a true sophomore."

Mahomes' future genius was far from undeniable when he was drafted. Some were worried about his ability to transition to the NFL after cutting his teeth in Texas Tech's Air Raid offense. And the rest of the quarterbacks in his class came with their own questions. Mitchell Trubisky had only started one season at North Carolina. As for Deshaun Watson, an anonymous NFL scout told Sports Illustrated in January of 2017 that he didn't "see him as the pocket passer like a lot of people prefer in our league."

Working for NFL Network at the time, current Raiders GM Mike Mayock said he "would be scared to death" to draft a quarterback in the top 10 that year. The idea that the group was "weak" became pervasive enough that Trubisky had to answer a question about it, telling Sirius XM Radio, "For people to say, like, 'This is a weak quarterback class,' I kind of take offense to that and I take pride being a part of this quarterback class."

As with the quarterbacks of 2019, the apparent lack of certainty seemed to reflect actual perceived risks. Even so, a casual observer might have been surprised when teams traded up for all three quarterbacks, with Chicago jumping to No. 2 for Trubisky, the Chiefs advancing to No. 10 for Mahomes and Houston moving to No. 12 for Watson. All three quarterbacks won a division title this past season.

What made the Chiefs willing to go out on a limb, giving up a third-round pick that year and a first in 2018, for a quarterback in a class that seemed to inspire so little confidence among outside observers?

"The quarterbacks, how they're evaluated, all comes down to each individual team and what they value, what they look for, what the plan is," Veach explained in February. "So what we thought of the entire class a few years ago was really irrelevant. We kind of identified a guy and we found a way to get him and we believed in him, and it worked out. So whether or not a class is successful is really determined on who the coach is, who the personnel people are, who they believe in. And if everyone thinks the class stinks, but if an organization, a team, believes in someone, and they believe that they have the structure in place for them to be successful, then the rest is irrelevant."

One of the qualifying factors to consider is that Mahomes (whose pre-draft rise, to be fair, did not go unnoticed among members of the media) was drafted by a regime, headed at the time by general manager John Dorsey and head coach Andy Reid, that was ideally positioned to handle the outstanding questions about Mahomes' game. Reid had helped develop Donovan McNabb in Philadelphia and had elevated the career of former No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith in Kansas City. He also had the luxury of easing Mahomes into NFL life as a rookie, while the veteran Smith shepherded the Chiefs to the AFC West title.

"Mahomes was just kind of really a wild card," said Marc Ross, former Giants vice president of player evaluation (who was also working as a scout in Philadelphia when the team drafted McNabb), during an interview in early April. "His physical traits were amazing. He could throw the ball like nobody had seen, and he was a really good athlete, could make plays. But he was just wildly inconsistent at Texas Tech. So it was just whether he was going to be able to hone that and just kind of calm down, become more consistent. I think he went to the perfect place, with Andy Reid, in a situation where you just learn and develop for a year.

"If you put Andrew Luck on any team, he was going to be Andrew Luck, whereas a Patrick Mahomes went to the perfect situation to get the best out of Patrick Mahomes. I think there are those guys that, no matter where they would have gone, would have been stars, and then some other guys ... who have failed, they may have had a chance to succeed (in the right situation)."

In other words, a number of forces, including timing, Reid's coaching acumen and Mahomes' own prodigious talent, converged to pave the way for Mahomes to surpass the expectations of even the wildest optimist in his first year as a starter in 2018. It's not as if he came out of nowhere, emerging from a morass of quarterbacking mediocrity to shock the world. The Chiefs identified him as their man and developed a plan for him, and it paid off. It is entirely within the realm of possibility that the designs new Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury (Mahomes' former coach at Texas Tech, who made his admiration for Murray known even before Kingsbury had reached the NFL) and Giants GM Dave Gettleman have for their own first-round picks will work out, as well.

"Andy had enough confidence in what he saw and what all the numbers told him to say, 'OK, I'm going to take a chance on this guy,' " said Bill Polian, former general manager of the Bills/Panthers/Colts and current member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, during an interview in March. "And it only takes one team doing its own study to allow you to make that pick."

'I'm not gambling on the future'

Like the 2017 QB group, the Class of 2019 seemed to be judged as lacking in part because it was not a different class -- either the one that came before or the one that is yet to come, with promising players looming on the horizon. In 2017, it was easy for anyone fretting about the QBs to be seduced by the tantalizing promise of the class of 2018, a group that included Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen.

But both Polian and Ross cautioned against looking much further than the class in front of you.

"Because there's no guarantee, A) that (a future prospect is) coming out, and B) that he's going to be healthy, and C) that you're going to get a chance at him," Polian said. "If you're asking, would I pass on a quarterback this year that I thought was good enough to help us win because I was hoping I'd get (Alabama QB) Tua (Tagovailoa) next year? I would not do that.

"Personnel work is a gamble at best. At best. The best of us bat .600. The worst are below .500. So for me, speaking for me alone, I'm not gambling on the future."

Ross pointed out that history also proves it can be difficult to predict which prospects will actually end up being worthy of a high draft pick 12 months down the road, even setting aside the randomness of injuries and chance.

"The media always talks about that. ... But when it comes draft time next year, these guys might, they gotta play, they might be terrible next year," Ross said. "You can't predict and say, We're gonna get our guy the following year because there's this group. ... Going into last year, Baker Mayfield was nowhere near a top-10 pick or a first-round pick. So, one, you don't know who's gonna rise up, and you don't know whether the guys you think are good are going to falter."

In the spring of 2017, while Darnold, Rosen and Josh Allenwere generatingbuzz about their NFL potential, Mayfield, the actual eventual No. 1 overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft, was making headlines with an arrest for public intoxication. Now, Mayfield is coming off a sizzling-hot rookie season as the high-profile leader of a Browns team with a loaded offense and sky-high potential.

Consider, also, how '17 and '18 stack up against each other. The first-rounders of 2017 have a combined record of 42-23 (.646) with a per-season combined TD-to-INT ratio of 63:25. The first-rounders of 2018, meanwhile, have a combined record of 24-33 (.421) with a per-season combined TD-to-INT ratio of 71:58. Those numbers can be attributed to each player's team situation. There is also the chance, however, that the class of '18 won't be the all-timer it was built up to be, just as the class of '17 has so far exceeded expectations.

"You know, they say it's the best class in history and all. It could never have lived up to what they're saying," said Ross, who expects Mayfield, Darnold and Lamar Jackson to separate from what he sees as an otherwise-average pack. "But I think you'll get, as you do most years, a really good player and then ... it'll be a mix. All these guys won't be top-flight quarterbacks in the league."

A year after being drafted 10th overall, Rosen was acquired by the Dolphins in exchange for a late second-rounder in 2019 and a fifth-rounder in 2020 -- which means that he was both a tentpole member of the all-star class of 2018 and the fifth quarterback acquired by a team during the 2019 NFL Draft.

'The consensus is fallacious'

Murray's quarterbacking journey from baseball-throwing oddity hampered by his height to No. 1 overall pick was paralleled by the shadow rise of Jones, whose selection by the Giants at No. 6 overall set off wavesof criticism. This is not hard to understand, given the value of the pick used to draft him and his relative standing among analysts. Based on the apparent consensus surrounding his perceived weaknesses -- Ross said before the draft there is "something missing" in terms of Jones' ability to make plays -- it would not be a shock if he failed to meet the expectations set by his draft position.

And yet, the way Gettleman diverged from apparent conventional wisdom further illustrates an essential divide that can distort any attempts by outside observers to draw conclusions about the overall quality of a given class. Even the best-intentioned and hardest-working members of the media are, understandably, not able to provide a complete picture of what teams are thinking internally before the draft arrives.

"People in the media are talking to people on teams, and they're getting incomplete answers, they're getting misleading answers, sometimes they're getting truthful answers," said Polian, who also worked as an analyst for ESPN after getting cut loose by the Colts. "But ... I can tell you this, having been a media member who's pretty well plugged into the system, right? I'm a retired member of the club, so I get more than the average reporter, so to speak. I didn't have 50 percent of the data that I had when I was drafting. I probably had 40 percent."

Polian, who stressed that each team develops its own unique criteria for identifying viable quarterback talent, remembered that the Colts' perspective when faced with picking first in 1998 put him at odds with the conventional wisdom of the day.

"All the media said, 'Ryan Leaf's the No. 1 pick in the draft.' [A] media member and a member of our scouting staff both said to me the same thing: 'You're crazy if you pick Peyton Manning.' Well, we applied the process ... and when the evaluations were all in, it was pretty clear -- crystal clear -- that Peyton Manning was the better choice. "

As the ultimate draft fates of Jones and even Drew Lock -- who was snagged by the Broncos in the second round after being widely mock-drafted in the first -- also suggest, it can be especially perilous to assume there is anything like a pre-draft consensus among teams about, well, anything, really, beyond the prospects blessed with blindingly obvious talent.

"I think if you went into every draft room the day before the draft and looked at their draft boards, you'd see 32 different top 10s, top fives, top 20s, certainly first-round picks," Ross said. "You'd see such a different variance of opinion. There'll be a couple guys that ... each year, there's two or three guys that everybody's going to have at the top. But even those guys have shown that there's been busts at the top of the draft. Every team's going to evaluate things differently. Every team will have a different draft board set up, and a different value on almost all of the players. Kyler Murray, let's say he's the first pick in the draft, some other team might have him 10th on their board. So it's like that every year."

"Teams do not build their draft boards based on 365 players, 1 through 365," Polian said. "They don't do it that way. ... It's different on everybody's board. The consensus is fallacious. And the consensus is a reflection, on any given day, the consensus changes, the conventional wisdom changes, right?"

At the combine, Gettleman, Broncos GM John Elway and Rams GM Les Snead all insisted they were withholding judgment of the class of 2019 until after the draft process played out, while Browns GM John Dorsey disputed the notion that anyone would dismiss what he saw as "a pretty good draft class." It's true that it would have been potentially awkward for any public-facing member of a team to say otherwise on the record. But the way the draft played out in Nashville further supported the idea that NFL decision-makers really do come to their own separate conclusions about the members of each draft class.

Murray, Jones and Haskins might turn out to be amazing starters. They might all flop. Finding a good quarterbackis hard. Yes, this year's QB prospects came with their fair share of question marks. But we shouldn't be surprised if the quarterback class of 2019 starts to look a lot stronger a few years down the road.

Follow Tom Blair on Twitter @TomBlair426.

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