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A brief history of first round quarterbacks, 2008-2020, as the Falcons gear up for the draft

A review of first round QBs since 2008 shows the Falcons can find a great player if they want Matt Ryan’s replacement now, but it’s far from a sure thing.

Cliff Welch/Icon SMI/Icon Sport Media via Getty Images

With the 4th overall selection in the 2021 NFL Draft, the Atlanta Falcons find themselves in a spot where they can potentially select a quarterback who lock down the position for the long term. This is a team that hasn’t invested in the position since drafting Matt Ryan in 2008, as the only other quarterback they’ve drafted since was 7th rounder Sean Renfree in 2013. These are definitely uncharted waters for the organization, but a new regime is in Atlanta and there’s plenty of buzz about the possibility that they’ll select Ryan’s successor, given their draft positioning and

Now many, including myself, believe Ryan still has plenty of game left. The argument for selecting a quarterback this year is that if things go according to plan, the Falcons won’t be picking this high for quite some time. It’s a fair assessment, but one that gives me pause is the hit rate on quarterbacks who are selected in round one, at least in recent years.

It’s always exciting to see a quarterback come off the board early, and generally gives hope to a franchise that sorely needs it. In the Falcons’ case, they want someone who can be groomed into their next great franchise quarterback, even if that player won’t necessarily get to play much in their rookie season.

Below I’ve listed every quarterback taken in the first round since 2008 so we can see how likely it is that Atlanta might hit on their selection. Those in bold are quarterbacks I think were worthy of their first round selection, even if I don’t agree with where they were specifically taken.

2008

  • Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons (3)
  • Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens (18)

2009

  • Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions (1)
  • Mark Sanchez, New York Jets (5)
  • Josh Freeman, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (17)

2010

  • Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams (1)
  • Tim Tebow, Denver Broncos (25)

2011

  • Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers (1)
  • Jake Locker, Tennessee Titans (8)
  • Blaine Gabbert, Jacksonville Jaguars (10)
  • Chrisitian Ponder, Minnesota Vikings (12)

2012

  • Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts (1)
  • Robert Griffin III, Washington Football Team (2)
  • Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins (8)
  • Brandon Weeden, Cleveland Browns (22)

2013

  • EJ Manuel, Buffalo Bills (16)

2014

  • Blake Bortles, Jacksonville Jaguars (3)
  • Johnny Manziel, Cleveland Browns (22)
  • Teddy Bridgewater, Minnesota Vikings (32)

2015

  • Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1)
  • Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans (2)

2016

  • Jared Goff, Los Angeles Rams (1)
  • Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles (2)
  • Paxton Lynch, Denver Broncos (26)

2017

  • Mitchell Trubisky, Chicago Bears (2)
  • Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs (10)
  • Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans (12)

2018

  • Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns (1)
  • Sam Darnold, New York Jets (3)
  • Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills (7)
  • Josh Rosen, Arizona Cardinals (10)
  • Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens (32)

2019

  • Kyler Murray, Arizona Cardinals (1)
  • Daniel Jones, New York Giants (6)
  • Dwayne Haskins, Washington Football Team (15)

2020

  • Joe Burrow, Cincinatti Bengals (1)
  • Tua Tagovailoa, Miami Dolphins (5)
  • Justin Herbert, Los Angeles Chargers (6)
  • Jordan Love, Green Bay Packers (26)

It’s too early to know how some of these draft classes will ultimately fare, with a particular eye on the 2020 class (it’s too fresh) and the 2018 class (it’s not too late for Darnold to take a step forward). Although we may all disagree on a few names every year, there’s no denying that taking a quarterback in the first round is far from a sure thing. The main differences between a player like Matt Ryan and Josh Rosen isn’t necessarily talent, but where they land in the NFL, the opportunities they’re given, and their supporting casts.

Ryan was thrown out there instantly, but he also had an offensive line that allowed him to only be sacked 17 times while Rosen was sacked 45 times in 13 games that he started. The Falcons also provided Ryan with a reliable run game, which had Michael Turner run the ball 376 times. Rosen on the other hand, had an unreliable run game led by David Johnson and his 3.6 yards per carry average. The Cardinals moved on from Rosen the very next season.

This isn’t meant to persuade you from believing if the Falcons ultimately do go quarterback in round one this year, that he’ll be a bust, or that Rosen is secretly a great quarterback (he’s pretty evidently not). It’s meant to pump the brakes on the expectation that no matter who they take will wind up a franchise quarterback. That’s the goal. The same goal that a lot of those teams had when they made their respective selections, just with mixed results.

The recent history displayed above shows that there’s at least 1-2 quarterbacks that go in the first round every year who don’t pan out. It’s possible that Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance and possibly Mac Jones will all be worthy of being first round selections. But it’s also possible, and very likely that one or two of them won’t be. If they all were great, it would make 2021 one of the best quarterback classes in NFL history, and I don’t have to tell you the odds of that.

If the Falcons do select a quarterback in the first round, I imagine the best-case scenario is similar to what the Green Bay Packers did with Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers. The Packers drafted Rodgers in 2005 to be groomed behind Favre, and he didn’t become the official starter until 2008. Did sitting behind a Pro Football Hall of Famer for three seasons make Rodgers what he is today? Possibly, but we’ll never know for sure. But when the team did decide to move on from Favre, they had a player they loved groomed and ready to take over.

If Atlanta does invest a first round pick in the position, that’s surely what they’ll hope to achieve.