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How often do third round quarterbacks work out in the NFL?

It’s rare, but happily not unprecedented.

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Schaub and Desmond Ridder are in very different stages of their lives. Schaub is a 40-year-old retired quarterback with a 16-year NFL career in the books, while Ridder is a rookie just starting his career. Despite that, and despite their very different skillsets, Schaub is a natural player to look to when you’re trying to project how Ridder might fare in the NFL.

Schaub may not be the best case scenario for Ridder—that’d be fellow third rounder Russell Wilson, probably—but he is an example of a third round pick at the position panning out. He was not given the opportunity to step in to a starting job as early as Ridder might be—Michael Vick was in the prime of his career, after all—but Schaub wound up fetching the Falcons significant draft capital. More importantly, he enjoyed a quality career that included a couple of Pro Bowl seasons for playoff teams, and he’s not the only quarterback in the last 30 years who has panned out despite being taken in the third round.

As you might guess, it’s rare that this happens, and if Ridder becomes a high-end starter he’ll be bucking history in a major way. Is it unprecedented beyond Schaub, though, or are there enough successful examples of quarterbacks being taken in the third round to invest hope in Ridder being the team’s next franchise quarterback?

Let’s look at third round quarterbacks from 1990 to the present day and see how many successes we can find. We’ll be pulling from Pro Football Reference for the draft history and stats.

The successes

Neil O’Donnell, 1990-2003

Brian Griese, 1998-2008

Chris Redman*, 2000-2011

Josh McCown, 2002-2019

Matt Schaub, 2004-2020

Nick Foles, 2012-Present

Russell Wilson, 2012-Present

Jacoby Brissett, 2016-Present

Davis Mills*, 2021-Present

There were only two successful third round quarterbacks drafted in the 1990s. Griese was a journeyman starter who had one inexplicably great year—he threw for 19 touchdowns against 4 interceptions for the Broncos in 2000 and made the Pro Bowl in just 10 starts—but he had a long and solid career for a third round pick. O’Donnell was also a one-time Pro Bowler, but he quietly had a good career in which he never threw double digit interceptions in a single season and retired with the lowest interception percentage in league history. He piloted the Steelers all the way to Super Bowl XXX, as well, making him arguably the second-most successful man on this list.

The 2000s were only a little kinder to third round quarterbacks. I added Chris Redman here because he’s a favorite, hence the asterisk, but he did turn in a surprisingly game 2007 season for the Falcons and carved out a nice little career as a backup. McCown turned in a lengthy journeyman career that saw him somewhat ludicrously turn in the best year of his career as a 38-year-old for the Jets back in 2017, but you can’t argue with a third round quarterback making 76 starts over a career that spans nearly two decades.

The big success story is Schaub, though. Drafted to give Michael Vick a long-term backup, Schaub had to step in for Vick on multiple occasions and was pretty sharp, and that led to interest from the rest of the league. In perhaps the worst-timed trade in franchise history, Atlanta spun Schaub to the Texans in 2007 for a pair of second-round picks—tremendous value for a third-rounder—just before Michael Vick was arrested and ultimately released by the team.

He didn’t flourish there right away—his first two seasons were fairly forgettable—but Schaub wound up turning in a terrific four year stretch for Houston that coincided with three playoff berths for Houston. At the height of his powers, Schaub was a two-time Pro Bowler who actually led the league in passing yards one year, throwing for 90 touchdowns against 45 interceptions, and would go on to serve as a long-term backup for the Ravens, Raiders and then Falcons again, turning in a wonderfully weird and productive fill-in day for Matt Ryan against the Seahawks in 2019 that saw him throw for 460 yards. He finished his career with a winning record and 136 touchdown passes.

The 2010s gave us the only Hall of Fame contender for third round quarterbacks in Russell Wilson, though somehow you have two Super Bowl winners on this list. Wilson is a nine-time Pro Bowler with 292 career touchdowns through the air against only 87 interceptions, plus another 23 scores on the ground, and is arguably the most successful third round pick ever. Obviously, this is the guy you’re hoping Ridder’s career arc resembles, though I feel pretty confident in saying he is not going to be as successful as Wilson no matter how much we might hope that’s the case.

I’m adding Mills here not because I think he’s stellar, but because he’s going to wind up being a multi-year starter for the Texans and he was solid in his rookie year.

Before we move on, a quick historic footnote: 1988 was slightly outside of my time range for this article, but Chris Chandler was the second quarterback off the board in round three that year and obviously went on to have a terrific career given that.

The not-so-successful

As you might guess, this works out far less frequently than it works, which is the cautionary note here. There are dozens of third round quarterbacks in the past three decades who have become decent enough backups or flamed out entirely, and history suggests that’s the far more likely outcome. Compare that to the three genuine successes and handful of quasi-successes above and it’s clear the odds don’t favor a third rounder becoming a high-end starter in the NFL.

The best of the dregs are guys like Mike Glennon, who turn in a year or two as a starter and find consistent work as a backup, but even those guys are exceptionally rare. Most of them wind up like Billy Joe Hobert, who was a replacment-level backup who found his way into a season’s worth of forgettable starts over several seasons in the league. If you’re being taken in the third round at quarterback, by and large, it’s because there are significant limitations to your game that make it obvious to NFL teams that you’re a lottery ticket at best and a career backup with some promise at worst. Remember that Russell Wilson, who stands 5’11”, was a player the Seahawks liked but was supposed to sit behind the immortal Matt Flynn when he was drafted.

One interesting trend of late concerns third rounders finding their footing as at least solid backups. There have been more successful quarterbacks drafted in the third round in the last decade than at any point in NFL history previously, with the likes of C.J. Beathard and Mason Rudolph at least providing something. That’s not going to cheer you up at all, because if Ridder isn’t more than that, the Falcons aren’t getting draft capital for moving him and are going to have to use significant draft capital in a year or two to hopefully get their franchise guy.

What does this all mean for Ridder?

Not a lot, really, except that he’s going to be swimming hard against the tides of history. There are nuances to Ridder’s situation with the Falcons that make it more than just third round quarterback equals unlikely to succeed, though it’s still a longshot.

It’s fairly rare that a third round quarterback lands in a situation where they’ll be given the chance to compete for a starting job immediately, and it’s vanishingly rare that a quarterback taken in the third round is the second player at the position off the board. The closest historical analogs in the past 30 years are 1990 (two quarterbacks went in the first, three went in the third, including Neil O’Donnell), 1993 (two in the first, one in the third), 1996 (Tony Banks was the first quarterback off the board in the second round, Bobby Hoying was selected in the third) and 2000 (one quarterback in the first, two in the third).

Ridder is stepping into a situation that, while not necessarily favorable given the talent at hand, is set up for him to win the job and get an opportunity. At worst he’s likely to be a multi-year backup for the Falcons if they wind up investing a top pick in a quarterback a year from now, but it’s pretty rare that a quarterback drafted this late has a genuine opporunity to start his entire rookie season. I’m a believer that his talent and the opportunity in front of him will conspire to give him a legitimate shot to be a multi-year starter for Atlanta, and while the team and the fanbase obviously can’t put all their eggs in that particular basket, Ridder’s ability and this situation suggests he could be much more than just a solid backup in the NFL. It’s all on him to earn it.

Ultimately, a quarterback’s ability and career trajectory are not determined by the round they go in, as that’s more of a reflection of the perception of their talent and promise at the time they’re drafted than anything else. Ridder already has a chip on his shoulder about going this late in the draft, and we’ll hope in a decade we can add his list to the short but impressive list of third round quarterbacks who have turned in quality careers.