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One of the NFL’s Final 4 QBs is a Surprising First-round Pick Outlier

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Joe Theismann won one Super Bowl and played in a second with Washington after entering the NFL as a fourth-round draft pick with another franchise.

He starred for coach Joe Gibbs, whose path to the Hall of Fame featured three championships with three starting QBs — including one selected in the sixth round (Mark Rypien) and one who was chosen in the first round but wound up taking a detour to the USFL before reaching the sport’s pinnacle (Doug Williams).

So perhaps Theismann’s view is shaded by all of that personal experience. He does not consider it vital for a team to find its quarterback early in the draft, even if recent evidence shows that conference title game participants most often do employ first-rounders at the sport’s most important position, a trend reflected in Sunday’s matchups: Patrick Mahomes’ Chiefs at Lamar Jackson’s Ravens in the AFC, and Jared Goff’s Lions at Brock Purdy’s 49ers in the NFC. Three outta four ain’t bad.

“I definitely don’t believe that being a No. 1 pick is the key to getting to a championship game. It’s still a team game,” said Theismann, who made it to the Super Bowls after the 1982 and 1983 seasons, beating the Dolphins in the first and losing to the Raiders in the second. “I’ve always said this: The quarterback is the most dependent player on the field. So if you’ve got first-round talent at that position, good for you, but that’s also no guarantee.”

Of course not. Nothing is certain when it comes to talent evaluation, fulfilling potential shown in college or blossoming in the pros.
But it clearly can be a sign of things to come when a QB goes at, or near, the top of a draft, which is why USC’s Caleb Williams, UNC’s Drake Maye and LSU’s Jayden Daniels are expected to hear their names called early in April.

So, sure, Purdy famously earned the “Mr. Irrelevant” moniker by being the 262nd and last choice in the 2022 draft and is now set to appear in a second NFC championship game in two NFL seasons, but otherwise, a trio of high picks will help determine which two teams head to the Super Bowl in Las Vegas on Feb. 11.

“Super proud of him. I just hope he continues to blaze trails and just show people that draft status is what happens on draft day. What happens after that is up to you,” Niners All-Pro left tackle Trent Williams said about Purdy. “You get a player like that with the last pick of the draft? Literally like playing the lottery and winning the Powerball when it’s at $2 billion.”

The only newcomer to this round among the quartet is Jackson, who becomes the 30th quarterback to start a conference title game in the last 15 seasons. He got there with a masterful performance in a 34-10 victory over the Houston Texans last weekend — throwing for two touchdowns and running for two more — after beginning his career 1-3 in the playoffs.

Take a look at that group of 30 and the pattern is obvious: 20 were first-rounders (including Goff at No. 1 overall to the Los Angeles Rams in 2016, Mahomes at No. 10 in 2017 and Jackson at No. 32 in 2018); five went in the second round, two in the third, one in the sixth (Tom Brady) and one (Purdy) in the seventh. Only one of the 30 was undrafted: Case Keenum, whose Minnesota Vikings fell one game short of Super Sunday after the 2017 season.

“Brock is sort of the exception to the rule, I guess you could say,” Theismann said. “It’s always good to have that one guy in there that might say: ‘I don’t fit that mold that everybody projects for us. But I still can get the job done.’”

And how. Purdy compiled an NFL-best passer rating of 113 this season, accumulating 4,280 yards and 31 TDs while completing 69.4% of his throws. His 9.6 yards per attempt were the most for a qualifying QB since Kurt Warner’s 9.9 back in 2000.

He was the only one of the eight quarterbacks who started in the divisional round last weekend to be drafted after the first round. But only one of those eight quarterbacks — Houston rookie C.J. Stroud — was picked in the top five by his current team.

Purdy is “putting up numbers that are impressive for first-rounders,” said Christian McCaffrey, the San Francisco running back who was a unanimous choice for The Associated Press 2023 NFL All-Pro Team. “At some point it’s not surprising. At some point, it’s just who he is.”

The other starting quarterbacks still around have impressive pedigrees, but the ways they arrived at their current clubs demonstrate that going through a season so bad that a team is in position to take a franchise QB with one of the top few picks isn’t always the path to success.

The Chiefs were coming off back-to-back playoff berths with Alex Smith at quarterback when they made the bold decision to package two first-round picks and a third-rounder to move up 17 spots to draft Mahomes.

After Mahomes sat for most of his rookie year, the Chiefs traded Smith and now have gone to six straight conference title games — the second-longest streak ever — and won two Super Bowls with the two-time MVP at the helm.

A year later, the Ravens jumped back into the first round via a trade to take Jackson so he could replace Super Bowl 47 MVP Joe Flacco.

Jackson became the starter midway through his first season, won the MVP award the following year and was a first-team All-Pro this season as the Ravens, like the 49ers, benefited from going after a young quarterback even when they had a veteran starter in place.

For more than a decade, the Lions boasted a QB taken at No. 1 overall after turning their 0-16 record in the 2008 season into Matthew Stafford.

But poor management and the inability to build the rest of the roster led to zero playoff wins in 12 seasons with Stafford. So Detroit sent him to the Rams — who won the Super Bowl in his first season there — and Los Angeles dealt two first-round picks to the Lions and made Detroit take on Goff’s hefty contract as part of the exchange.

But Goff played like the QB who helped the Rams reach the Super Bowl in the 2018 season, the Lions used the extra draft picks to add talent around him and Detroit is in a conference title game for the second time in the Super Bowl era — and got there by beating the team that discarded him three years ago.

Here’s something else all four QBs remaining have in common: Every member of the quartet is a twentysomething, the second consecutive season in which the last four standing had yet to turn 30. The only other time that happened in back-to-back playoffs since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger came in 2003 and 2004.

“If you’re under 30, you’re still young enough that you haven’t been beaten to a pulp,” Theismann observed. “Which is important, because you don’t start feeling things that aren’t there.”

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AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/NFL

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