NFL first-round picks aren't always money in the bank

Last Updated Apr 28, 2016 5:19 PM EDT

The Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles, whose lackluster on-field performance has disappointed fans for years, are likely willing to gamble millions of dollars by choosing a quarterback in Thursday night's first round of the NFL Draft, even though the track record for such picks is problematic.

According to sports economist Brian Goff of Western Kentucky University, data shows that that half of 58 quarterbacks picked as first-round picks since 1990 have underperformed, and 18 of them have proven to be total busts. Indeed, some potential Hall-of-Famers were overlooked or missed entirely by the draft in recent years.

Quarterback Tom Brady of the New England Patriots, who has led his team to four Super Bowl victories, wasn't chosen until the sixth round in 2000. Kurt Warner, who led the St. Louis Rams to victory in the 2000 Super Bowl and was a four-time All-Pro, wasn't drafted. And neither was Tony Romo of the Dallas Cowboys, who has also made four Pro Bowls since he became a starter in 2006.

"The first 10 picks, you may overpay but if you look over the years the first rounders, the second rounders -- they dominate the Hall of Fame," said Goff. "So, the higher up you go, the more likely it is that you're going to find that great, great player."

And plenty are found in that elite group. Among recent quarterback picks, the Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton, who led his team to this year's Super Bowl (only to lose to Peyton Manning's Denver Broncos), was drafted first in 2011 and received a four-year, $22 million contract.

Other successful first-round picks at high-profile positions include wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., whose acrobatic catches have electrified fans. Beckham signed a fully guaranteed, four-year, $10.4 million contract with the New York Giants in 2014 (along with a $5.9 million signing bonus). In 2011, the Houston Texans drafted defensive end J.J. Watt, who has won the AP's Defensive Player of the Year Award in three out of his first five seasons. He signed a four-year, $11.2 million deal.

As the teams search for the next Newton, Beckham and Watt, they're relying on analytics, the statistical approach to grading players that gained notoriety in Michael Lewis' "Moneyball." Metrics, though, have their limits, according to Goff.

"What makes a great quarterback isn't just accuracy. It's not just vision. It's not just arm strength," he said. "It's a combination of those things."

Media reports indicate that the Rams and Eagles, who both finished the regular season with a 7-9 record, will choose quarterbacks Jared Goff of the University of California (no relation to Brian Goff) and Carson Wentz of North Dakota State, respectively. The Eagles paid a steep price to move up in the draft, trading five lower picks to the Cleveland Browns. The team's incumbent quarterback Sam Bradford, who recently signed a new deal with the Eagles, reportedly has asked to be traded.

Given the widely publicized problems of players such as star college quarterback Johnny Manziel (the 22nd pick in the 2014 draft), whose career at the Cleveland Browns was cut short because of behavioral problems, teams are also interested in a player's character. PricewaterhouseCoopers uses a systematic approach to examine a player's background and associates to see if it can foresee any potential issues down the road.

"We don't look at how far he throws the ball or how fast he runs," said Glenn Ware, who heads PwC's Sports Intelligence practice. He added that pro organizations are interested if "a player has engaged in conduct that would be a distraction to his playing."

If PwC finds negative information on a player, a team may decide to provide him with extra coaching. However, in certain situations, a team may wait to draft the prospect at a lower round or skip him entirely.

"Obviously, they spend a lot of money on first-round draft picks," said Ware, "so the more data [they have], the better."

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    Jonathan Berr is an award-winning journalist and podcaster based in New Jersey whose main focus is on business and economic issues.