NFL Draft: How a first-round surprise helped trigger a record early run on QBs

When the New York Giants drafted wide receiver Malik Nabers, sighs of relief echoed across NFL team headquarters in Minnesota, Denver and Las Vegas.

Sure, three quarterbacks had flown off the board with the first three picks in Thursday night's NFL Draft. But quarterback-needy teams expected that. They had prepared contingency plans. A deviation from the plan would have been welcome but unexpected.

“So once New York cleared, I’m sure every team we’re talking about felt like, ‘All right,’” Broncos head coach Sean Payton said. “But when Atlanta took that guy, now it was like, ‘Holy cow. Do we have to move up a pick?’”

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Pre-draft discourse had not heavily centered on the Falcons spending the eighth overall pick on a quarterback. Sure, Atlanta needed help this offseason. But that’s what the franchise seemed to accomplish in signing veteran Kirk Cousins to a free-agency deal that included $100 million guaranteed.

So when the Falcons unleashed their surprise, teams began scrambling.

Behold, not only were four quarterbacks drafted in the top eight picks for the first time in NFL history (since the modern draft began in 1967), but also five were taken in the top 10 and six taken in the top 12 for the first time.

“I believe it’s the first it’s ever happened,” Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell said. “And I can see why. Really talented group of quarterbacks. Lot of guys you can really see a future building side by side with them.

“This is kind of one of one as far as quarterbacks go.”

Or is it?

The 2024 NFL Draft offered a spectacular confluence of events. The supply was deep at quarterback; the demand volume was high from teams; and coaches appear to be as confident as ever that they can mold quarterbacks into NFL winners.

So the Chicago Bears, Washington Commanders and New England Patriots ditched Justin Fields, Sam Howell and Mac Jones, respectively before their rookie contracts expired.

With the first three picks of Thursday’s draft, the Bears selected USC’s Caleb Williams, the Commanders selected LSU’s Jayden Daniels and the Patriots selected UNC’s Drake Maye.

North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye, left, celebrates with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being chosen by the New England Patriots with the third overall pick during the first round of the NFL football draft, Thursday, April 25, 2024, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

New England received consistent trade offers before their selection, director of college scouting Eliot Wolf confirmed.

“We had some conversations with other teams, but ultimately we felt like Drake was the player that we wanted and we had the opportunity to get him,” Wolf said.

Patriots head coach Jerod Mayo insisted Maye would compete rather than be handed the role, but the chance to chase his ceiling was too alluring to pass up.

The Vikings, Broncos and Raiders followed these developments with steady heart rates.

Soon after, they saw a spike.

Because the Falcons, it appeared, felt similarly about Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. Penix was widely expected to be the fifth or sixth quarterback off the board, and the Raiders were a popular guess for a selection at No. 13, or he could go later in the first round.

Yahoo Sports’ Charles McDonald and Nate Tice did not include Penix as a first-round pick in their final mock draft. The oft-injured college player drew mixed reviews as scouts tried to sort through how translatable his late-career success was.

But the Falcons liked what they saw and didn’t want to miss a chance to use a top-10 pick they hope not to have again soon.

“These guys go off the board pretty quickly, and we thought it would be important for us to address our future quarterback right now while we’re picking this [early],” head coach Raheem Morris said. “We don’t want to be back in this position again.”

Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot added: “We won’t be.”

Cue stress across the NFL and the Vikings moving up from 11 to 10 to draft J.J. McCarthy. Talent evaluators understood that the Falcons' draft left seven quarterback-seeking teams for six prospects that could be considered first-rounders.

Sometimes, analytics aren’t the answer.

“I’m a spreadsheet-calculator guy myself but sometimes you’ve got to step out from there,” Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah said. “Take your Clark Kent glasses off and just have a championship mindset and swing for a great player.”

The Broncos agreed. With only Oregon’s Bo Nix remaining in the first round crop (depending whom you ask) and their division-rival Raiders in need, Payton and general manager George Paton didn’t want to risk getting cute.

Glasses off. Cape on.

“We considered moving back but once Penix went; it got a little stressful there at the end,” Paton said. “We just didn’t want to overthink this: This was our guy. We were going to take our guy.

“We would have been sick if we lost him for a couple fifth-round picks.”

Payton knew the feeling.

Seven years have passed but Payton’s disappointment still hangs heavy. The New Orleans Saints held the 11th overall pick of the 2017 draft and Mitchell Trubisky, at second overall, was the only quarterback selected in the top nine.

Payton merely needed to survive one spot before he was on the board. Then the Chiefs dealt the Buffalo Bills two firsts and a third to move up from the 27th pick to the 10th. They nabbed Payton’s gem.

He’s well aware of what Patrick Mahomes has done since.

“When the Chiefs selected Patrick and you go back and tune into everything that was said, [it was] ‘Well they could have gotten him later,’” Payton said. “No they couldn’t have. No they couldn’t have.”

So the Broncos wonder: Could they have drafted Nix later than 12?

Could the Vikings have landed McCarthy later than 10?

Could the Falcons have landed Penix later than eight (OK, probably), or the Patriots accepted a trade offer and still clung to Maye?

The immediate analysis could fairly knock any of these teams for allocating such prime capital to players whom they cannot guarantee will translate to the NFL of a famously inexact science.

But an NFL team approaching the draft solely through analytics is forgetting the emotion that annually dictates a series of positions. Teams fall in love with certain prospects as they fall in love with the opportunity to upgrade at a specific position. When a position begins to go off the board, a run often follows to comfort the panicked teams that follow.

Will all, or even most of the six quarterbacks go on to successful NFL careers? History tells us they will not. Could a team that reached for a prospect be the one who ultimately strikes gold? History tells us they can.

Thursday night, NFL teams raced each other to secure the answer to not only the most influential position in football but also the salary-cap asset most exploitable if a player hits during his rookie contract.

The flurry of Falcons-induced possibilities triggered a “range of emotions,” O’Connell said.

Teams responded accordingly.

“We all understand managing the draft but man, let’s also worry about what it’s going to look like 3-4 years from now, when this class will be judged,” Payton said. “Let’s make sure we get the right guy there.”