Why it's so hard to find developmental QBs in the NFL draft's middle rounds

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Sean Payton on Saints' QB situation (1:07)

Sean Payton, speaking after the Zurich Classic of New Orleans celebrity shootout, said the Saints don't consider the QB position a "must" in this year's draft. (1:07)

METAIRIE, La. -- Myth 1: Teams can readily find top-quality quarterbacks like Tom Brady, Russell Wilson and Dak Prescott in the middle rounds of the NFL draft.

Myth 2: Teams such as the New Orleans Saints can draft a QB on Day 2 or 3, let him sit behind Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill, then develop him to be their future starter.

Those ideas sound nice, especially for the Saints, who pick 28th and would have to pay a fortune to trade up for one of this year's top five prospects.

And it’s not impossible. Especially not with one of the greatest offensive coaches in league history in Sean Payton, who once helped discover and develop an undrafted Tony Romo with the Dallas Cowboys.

But the actual track record of teams selecting a quarterback outside of the top 40 picks, then adding some time and seasoning into the recipe to produce a future starter, is rarer than you might expect.

Over the past 15 years, only eight quarterbacks who weren’t drafted in the top 40 have won more than eight games as a starter for the team that chose them: Wilson (98), Prescott (42), Kirk Cousins (26), Nick Foles (21 in two stints with the Philadelphia Eagles), Trent Edwards (14), Chad Henne (13), Trevor Siemian (13) and Tarvaris Jackson (10).

Jimmy Garoppolo should also be mentioned as a success among this group, because he won two games for the New England Patriots after being selected 62nd overall in 2014 -- then won another 24 after being traded to the San Francisco 49ers. And 2020 second-rounder Jalen Hurts could join the list is he locks down the Eagles' starting job.

But you get the point. The idea of “drafting and developing” works only if you find the golden ticket.

“There’s just not that many people on the planet that ... have every box checked, so to speak,” said ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky, who was part of a 2005 draft class that produced better than most. It included Charlie Frye (7-16 record in games started) in Round 3, Kyle Orton (42-40) in Round 4, Orlovsky (2-10) in Round 5, Derek Anderson (20-29) in Round 6, Matt Cassel (36-45) and Ryan Fitzpatrick (59-86-1) in Round 7.

“It’s a good question [why the successes are so rare],” Orlovsky said. “... And I try to tell people, there’s a reason Patrick Mahomes gets $40 million a year or Dak Prescott gets $140 million.

“While a person like me or a quarterback that’s drafted in Round 3, 4, 5, 6, they have some of the boxes checked, they don’t have all the boxes checked. And that box might just have the initial dash of that check. So physical talent does come into play. And how well you perform with that physical talent at the highest level on a consistent basis comes into play.

“While I could make a decision in 2.4 seconds, Matt Ryan, who’s more physically talented, makes the decision in 2.2 seconds. That is a career of a difference, essentially. And I know that sounds small and silly, but that’s just the reality. And while Matt does it 65 out of 66 snaps, I might do it 61 out of 66 snaps. That is a career of a difference. ... And that’s why the position is so hard.”

'Often poorly evaluated'

There are plenty of factors that go beyond the quarterbacks themselves, including poor coaching fits, poor scheme fits or teams that lack patience. But Orlovsky’s explanation is the simplest:

It’s just really hard to be a successful NFL quarterback.

That goes for first-round picks, too. Only three of the 19 QBs drafted in Round 1 from 2010 to '16 lasted more than five years with their original team (Cam Newton, Andrew Luck and Ryan Tannehill). Only Newton lasted more than six.

“I think it's a position that oftentimes is poorly evaluated,” said Payton, who mocked the “mock drafts” that tend to skew expectations for quarterbacks.

Even Payton’s own team has had more success developing undrafted QBs, including Hill and Chase Daniel, than it did with 2015 third-round choice Garrett Grayson, who lasted just two years with the team.

“I think there’s so much that goes into it that it’s not perfect relative to a science,” Payton said. “Look, more of them are found in the early rounds, no question. And yet there are great exceptions where guys were taken a little bit later and had great success. So, it's, ‘What you are looking for, what’s the vision for your club, what do you think they do well?’ And then, ‘Can they win?’

“Clearly we spend a lot of time on that position, and for good reason.”

Another popular explanation for why it has become harder to develop midround quarterbacks is because so many QBs with midround grades are actually being drafted in Round 1.

“Our draft-and-develop guys have almost become Round 1 instead of Rounds 2 and 3,” ESPN draft analyst Matt Miller said.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. gave a similar explanation, as did multiple team executives or scouts who said they have to select a quarterback much higher than their own team grades suggest if they want to get him.

One scout pointed out that teams have been more willing to take a chance on shorter quarterbacks, such as Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, at No. 1 overall in recent years, whereas in years past shorter QBs like Drew Brees and Wilson fell to Rounds 2 and 3.

“The five quarterbacks [projected to go in the top 10] this year, a lot of them in previous years wouldn’t be drafted that highly,” said Miller, who pointed to North Dakota State’s Trey Lance as a developmental prospect. “Players like [Wilson, Prescott and second-round pick Derek Carr] would likely be first-round picks in this day and age because of supply and demand. … You feel like you have to get one.”

Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik, who now works as an analyst for SiriusXM NFL Radio, said teams are also more willing to reach for QBs above their grade level in the middle rounds.

“Because if you strike gold or strike silver, for four years you’re gonna have a real bargain on your football team,” Dominik said.

'More quality No. 2s'

Dominik, former NFL general manager Mike Tannenbaum and one current AFC GM all suggested another reason for the developmental struggles of all QBs: It’s much harder to read defenses and process information in the NFL than in college, where many have information relayed from the sidelines through pictures or hand signals.

Grayson, for one, admittedly struggled with absorbing the Saints’ lengthy play calls and relaying them with confidence in the huddle.

Dominik and Hall of Fame personnel executive Gil Brandt also added how hard it is to measure things like heart and work ethic.

But Dominik said success doesn’t just have to come in the form of home runs like Wilson or Prescott. Dominik experienced some middling success with midround QB picks Chris Simms, Bruce Gradkowski, Josh Johnson and Mike Glennon when he was a personnel executive with the Bucs from 1997 to 2013.

“I think I’ve seen players get developed, but more into quality No. 2s,” said Dominik, who listedDrew Stanton and Colt McCoy, in addition to Cousins and Foles. “I think talent has kept their ceiling from exploding to being an elite talent -- but I do think clubs and coaches are still developing them.”

This year, there are a handful of prospects who could tempt the Saints outside of those top five prospects. Orlovsky said Stanford’s Davis Mills “intrigues me a lot” and said he could see Mills being successful with a “really good surrounding football team.” It’s possible Mills won’t last until the Saints’ second-round pick at No. 60 overall, though.

And it’s obvious from talking to various analysts that there isn’t universal agreement on whether Mills, Florida’s Kyle Trask, Georgia’s Jamie Newman, Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond or others are likely to pan out.

Payton stressed that the position is not a “must” for New Orleans this year, though Saints general manager Mickey Loomis did say during the Senior Bowl that he thinks “there’s a number of good quarterback prospects in this draft.”

“For you to draft a player in the second or third round, you have to love the player, you need to have a vision for him,” Loomis said. “I think playing the position, No. 1, and being successful at it is a difficult proposition in the NFL. So there's that part of the development.

“But it can certainly occur and has occurred.”