Detroit Lions need ‘conviction’ to draft from this year’s questionable QB crop

Detroit Free Press

INDIANAPOLIS — It’s the hardest position to find in sports, and the later NFL teams wait to address it in the draft, the more difficult it becomes.

But Eric DeCosta has helped the Baltimore Ravens buck the trend of busted quarterback draft picks multiple times in his two-plus decades in that franchise’s personnel department.

DeCosta was general manager Ozzie Newsome’s right-hand man when the Ravens traded up to take Lamar Jackson with the 32nd pick of the 2018 draft. Jackson won NFL MVP in his second season and has played more games than any quarterback taken outside the top 10 since 2014.

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In 2008, as director of college scouting, DeCosta was part of a front office that moved down, then up, in the draft to take Joe Flacco with the 18th pick of the first round. Flacco helped the Ravens win a Super Bowl before his rookie contract was up.

The Ravens also “hit,” to a lesser extent, on quarterback Tyrod Taylor, a sixth-round pick in 2011. Taylor has started for four teams in his NFL career and attempted more passes than all but three — Cam Newton, Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick — of the 10 quarterbacks taken in front of him.

In a quarterback-dominant league, the Ravens are one of the few teams that have had success drafting the position at historically low-yield spots.

And as the Detroit Lions decide whether to allocate any capital to the position this spring in a draft that lacks surefire quarterback prospects, there are lessons to learn from what the Ravens and others have done.

“The biggest thing, I think as an organization, is having conviction as a player and not necessarily being swayed by the public opinion or by media rankings or the draft prognosticators and different things like that, and just really believing in what you do and what you see,” DeCosta said Wednesday at the combine. “Having conviction, and then being able to play the game.

“In both cases, with Joe and Lamar, we made trades. In Lamar’s case, we traded from the second (round) up into the first. In Joe’s case, I think that year we had the eighth pick and then we traded all the way back to maybe 26, and then back up to (18). But using the draft board, understanding how that works and having the flexibility to go get the guy and to get him at a good spot.”

Historically, NFL teams have been quick to snag top quarterback prospects, rarely letting them fall out of the top 10.

And while taking a quarterback high does not guarantee a team or player success, most quarterbacks taken outside the top 10 in recent years have quickly washed up.

The 22 quarterbacks taken in the top 10 in the past 10 NFL drafts have combined to play 77 (of a possible 105) seasons as their team’s primary starting quarterback (73.3%), with 20 Pro Bowl appearances and four Super Bowl starts.

The 21 quarterbacks taken in picks Nos. 11-66 over that span have combined for 30 (of a possible 110) seasons as their team’s primary starting quarterback (27.3%), with nine Pro Bowl appearances and zero Super Bowl starts.

The Lions hold four of the top 66 picks in this year’s draft, when as many as six quarterbacks could come off the board.

Most NFL observers believe it is a down year for quarterbacks, with NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah saying last week he does not expect one to go in the top 10.

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“None of the quarterbacks just completely blow you away that say, ‘OK, slam dunk, you’ve got to take him,’ ” Jeremiah said. “It’s going to be fascinating to see who kind of blinks when it comes to these quarterbacks. I don’t have one with a top-10 grade, but I also don’t have a dying need for the position personally in the Jeremiah household, so I’m curious to see who the first team is to say ‘OK, yeah, we’re all in on one of these guys.'”

In a normal year, the quarterback-needy Lions would be projected by most draft analysts to take a quarterback with their first pick, No. 2 overall.

Instead, most pundits believe they will draft a defensive player at No. 2 and wait on a quarterback until No. 32, the final pick of the first round (acquired from the Rams in last year’s Matthew Stafford trade), or pass on the position altogether.

Liberty’s Malik Willis, Pitt’s Kenny Pickett and Ole Miss’ Matt Corral are the top quarterbacks in the draft, with North Carolina’s Sam Howell, Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder and Nevada’s Carson Strong (depending on his medical reports), also in contention to go in the top 66 picks.

“I think that this quarterback class just gets a lot of maybe crap that they — we — don’t deserve,” Strong said. “Maybe I’m being personally biased because I’m in it, but I think that there’s a lot of guys who have a ton of potential to be really good in the league.”

Top quarterbacks do not always go No. 1 or 2 overall, but most QBs currently considered among the NFL’s elite were top-10 picks.

Joe Burrow (No. 1) and Justin Herbert (No. 6) went early in 2020, Josh Allen was the No. 7 overall pick in 2019 and the Kansas City Chiefs traded up to take Patrick Mahomes with the No. 10 pick in 2017.

Just five quarterbacks — Justin Fields, Mac Jones, Dwayne Haskins, Deshaun Watson and E.J. Manuel — have gone in picks Nos. 11-21 the past 10 years, while the late first round has been littered with busts like Paxton Lynch, Johnny Manziel and Brandon Weeden.

Jackson, Teddy Bridgewater and Jordan Love, who has played sparingly in his two seasons with the Green Bay Packers, are the other quarterbacks taken in the back half of Round 1 the past 10 years.

Aaron Rodgers, the reigning two-time MVP, was the 24th pick in 2005.

“Everybody wants a quarterback,” DeCosta said. “It’s very hard, especially if the guy’s regarded as being one of the first picks in the draft, it’s very hard to get a quarterback. So the challenge as an organization is, how can you play the game effectively? How can you get the quarterback that you want? Who do you like? Who do you see?”

New York Jets general manager Joe Douglas took Zach Wilson with the No. 2 pick last year after being a part of the Ravens scouting department in 2000-14. He said several traits stand out in non-top-10 quarterbacks who have gone on to have NFL success, including Flacco and Taylor.

“There’s a certain amount of intense competitiveness, there’s a certain amount of physical, mental, psychological toughness that those guys have, not to mention confidence,” Douglas said. “And obviously when you’re not taken high, it sparks a fire in a lot of guys. I think we’ve seen that.”

The Lions have given no hints about whether they plan to take a quarterback at No. 2, No. 32 or any other point in the draft, and Jeremiah said it only makes sense to do so “if your comp or your ultimate upside for the player is” better than incumbent quarterback Jared Goff.

If not the Lions, some other team will find the conviction to take a quarterback in the first quarter of the draft. When they do, Ridder said, they will reap the rewards.

“I think we’re all just hard workers and overachievers,” he said. “I know a lot of these guys from either Carson Strong, who I’m staying with out in California, to meeting guys like Kenny Pickett, Malik, Sam, it doesn’t matter. We’re all overachievers, and we all feel like that there’s almost a chip on all of our shoulders just cause they’re saying that this draft class isn’t as good as others and this and that, but I think you’ll see a lot of success out of all of us in the league.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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