Barring a legitimately stunning turn of events, it’s widely expected that quarterbacks will be selected with each of the first three picks in the 2021 NFL Draft. If the Falcons decide to extend that streak, it will mark the first time in NFL history that four quarterbacks have been drafted with the first four picks in the draft.
While this class is being touted as very strong for the quarterback position, there are some fans who are wary of selecting the fourth player at the position, which they believe means the fourth-best option. Draft order isn’t an indicator of future success or failure, but perhaps those fans are right to be concerned.
The history of the fourth quarterbacks drafted in a given year is really bleak, even if they’ve never gone one-through-four before.
Since the NFL merger in 1976, there have been a total of 45 drafts, which means we have 45 fourth quarterbacks taken to study. Of those 45 players, only nine can reasonably be considered a hit, and that’s using a fairly generous definition of a hit. In reality, that number is probably closer to five or six.
The average career for the fourth quarterback taken in a draft lasts about 6.5 seasons, which doesn’t seem so bad on the surface. I mean, the typical NFL career last three or four years. However, the average number of starts for those quarterbacks is just 35, a little more than two full seasons. So, the fourth quarterbacks selected typically go on to have journeyman backup careers in the league.
The standouts of the group
Not every fourth quarterback taken had a lackluster career. In fact, one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game was once the fourth player at the position off the board. Here are the notable quarterbacks in NFL history who saw three passers go ahead of them.
- Joe Montana (third round, 1979 draft)
- Jay Schroeder (third round, 1984)
- Bubby Brister (third round, 1986)
- Jim Harbaugh (first round, 1987)
- Mark Brunell (fifth round, 1993)
- Kordell Stewart (second round, 1995)
- Daunte Culpepper (first round, 1999)
- Derek Carr (second round, 2014)
Obviously, Joe Montana is the crown jewel of the quarterbacks listed above. The Hall of Famer won four Super Bowls and was named NFL MVP three times. Outside of Montana, though, these quarterbacks were good but ever really great for an extended stretch of their careers. Seriously, who is second-best on this list? Jim Harbaugh? Daunte Culpepper? Derek Carr??
To be clear, there were some exceptional quarterbacks taken after the fourth quarterback went off the board. For some reason, the fourth quarterback slot was a bit of a black hole or a very unlucky spot for teams.
What this means for the 2021 NFL Draft
In short, absolutely nothing. If Atlanta does take a quarterback at No. 4, it will be the earliest point in a draft that the fourth quarterback has ever been taken off the board. In fact, only nine times in league history has the fourth quarterback selected been picked in the fourth round, but it’s been happening with increasing regularity.
The average spot in the draft for the best quarterback to be taken is the 48th-overall pick, which would be at the midway point of the second round. So, the Falcons are way ahead of that point, suggesting that it’s still very much possible to grab the best passer. It’s just extremely hard to evaluate this position correctly.
Each individual draft is different as well. In some drafts, such as the famous 1983 draft or the 2004 draft, there are multiple future star quarterbacks. In others, such as most drafts, there isn’t a future All-Pro in the entire quarterback class.
It’s very rare that there are more than two or three highly touted passers in a draft. This year, there appear to be five quarterbacks that have teams excited. That would suggest – if pre-draft analysis is correct - that even if they take the fourth quarterback off the board, the Falcons could land a game-changing player.
However, history is not on their side.