The Fallacy of Tanking for a “Can’t-Miss” NFL Quarterback

There's no guarantee a prospect like Caleb Williams will pan out in the pros

October 17, 2023 1:56 pm
Caleb Williams of the USC Trojans warms up.
Caleb Williams is projected to be the top prize in the NFL Draft.
Michael Reaves/Getty

Six weeks into the NFL season, there are 10 teams (Green Bay Packers, Los Angeles Chargers, Minnesota Vikings, Tennessee Titans, Chicago Bears, New York Giants, New England Patriots, Arizona Cardinals, Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers) that have won two games or fewer. Of those 10, the Packers and Chargers have already had their bye weeks, so they are not completely out of contention for a playoff spot at 2-3. For the other eight, however, the postseason is barely even a remote possibility, and the priority should be development and building toward next season — starting now.

For some, that may mean deliberately not fielding the best possible football team in order to lose games and drop to the bottom of the standings to secure a top pick in April’s draft. For most of those teams, that pick would likely be used to select the team’s next quarterback. (Carolina just traded up to use the No. 1 overall pick on former Alabama QB Bryce Young and would probably not take another quarterback so soon.)

According to most draft pundits, the top prospect on the board this spring is USC signal-caller Caleb Williams, but some prognosticators are also high on Drake Maye from North Carolina, Michael Penix Jr. of Washington, Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy, Bo Nix from Oregon and Shedeur Sanders out of Colorado. No matter who ends up being the first pick of the group, the 2024 quarterback class projects to a be deep one and will likely feature a high number of early-round selections, including the No. 1 overall pick.

Selected No. 1 overall in the 2018 draft, Baker Mayfield was the first quarterback taken out of another class that was projected to be incredibly deep. It featured four top-10 picks (Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Josh Rosen) and an additional first-round selection at No. 32 overall (Lamar Jackson). Of those five first-round picks, only Allen and Jackson are still with their original teams — Mayfield, Darnold and Rosen have spent time with 13 teams combined since being drafted. Mayfield is currently the starter for Tampa Bay, Darnold is a backup on the 49ers and Rosen is out of the NFL entirely after bouncing around to six teams in six seasons.

Battle of Winless Bears and Broncos May Be the Caleb Williams Bowl
The loser of Sunday’s game at Soldier Field will have the inside track to the No. 1 pick

Allen and Jackson were certainly worthy of first-round picks, Darnold and Rosen were certainly not and the jury is still somewhat out on Mayfield, although he’s won enough games to show he was not a complete bust (and also lost enough to prove he shouldn’t have been taken No. 1 overall).

Looking at this group from 2018 and every quarterback class since, it’s fairly apparent that drafting a quarterback in the first or second round is no guarantee they’ll pan out in the pros. Including 2016, here’s every quarterback who was taken in either the first or second round of the draft: Mayfield, Darnold, Allen, Rosen, Jackson; (2019): Kyler Murray, Daniel Jones, Dwayne Haskins, Drew Lock; (2020): Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert, Jordan Love, Jalen Hurts; (2021): Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Justin Fields, Mac Jones, Kyle Trask; (2022): Kenny Pickett, Desmond Ridder; (2023): Young, C.J. Stroud, Anthony Richardson and Will Levis.

Of those 27 quarterbacks, 10 are either injured, serving as a backup or out of the NFL, and many of the others who are currently starting could certainly be benched at some point this season (Mayfield, Daniel Jones, Wilson, Mac Jones, Fields and Ridder). Looked at another way, it appears fewer than 10 of the 27 were definitely worthy of being taken early in the draft based on what we know thus far.

Suffice it to say, teams that opt to tank the remaining games on their schedule certainly could wind up with a franchise quarterback, but there’s also a very good chance teams that “Crash for Caleb” will just get burned.

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