Why Leach is Wrong, Harrell won't make the NFL and the Red Raiders are more than alright

[Note by Seth C, 05/20/09 11:53 AM CDT ] Promoted to the front page earlier this morning.  Tremendous work, definitely front page worthy and cannot recommend enough that everyone take the time to read this.


Much has been made about Mike Leach’s comments about the NFL draft process which started with Michael Crabtree’s slight descent in this year’s draft and culminated with his frustrated remarks over Graham Harrell’s non-selection. 


Leach’s comments fuelled a war of words with a rival coach,  set the blogosphere ablaze and provided Texas Tech’s detractors  with an opening to disparage the team’s recent successes, as well as question the quality of its players (never mind that Tech had four players drafted in this year’s NFL class, only one less than Big 12 leader Oklahoma).


Now that the din has subsided somewhat, I wanted to take stock of Coach Leach’s now infamous comments "The truth of the matter is that the NFL drafts quarterbacks notoriously bad. . . that's indisputable."


Could Coach Leach be right?  Is the NFL draft process really that indisputably bad? 


Not only that, but how could NFL scouts possibly overlook one of the most prolific quarterbacks in NCAA history?


Now that Graham Harrell has suffered the indignity of being undrafted and has thus far failed to make a roster as a free agent, what are his chances of making the NFL?


Finally I wanted to understand whether or not our detractors have a point.  Is there something unique about Tech quarterbacks, and its players in general, which makes them seemingly so undraftable?


To better understand these questions and more, I took a look at the current roster of 126 quarterbacks on teams across the league (including this year’s draft picks), and used it as my sample to assess these questions.  This selection of players spans 16 years (the league’s current oldest quarterback is Mark Brunell who was selected in the 1993 draft).  I also looked back at each draft dating back to 1993 to understand how well draftee quarterbacks over the past 16 years have actually fared.  I have confined most of my analysis to the draft years 2000-2009 because so few quarterbacks drafted during the 1990’s remain in the league.


After what turned out to be some pretty time consuming work (significantly more than I had anticipated), I’ve came up with – what I hope are - some pretty interesting explanations. 


Let’s start by looking at Coach Leach’s comments.



Is the NFL really that bad at selecting quarterbacks?


Of the 126 quarterbacks drafted since 2000, 79 players (or 63% of all drafted quarterbacks) are still in the league. 


This number is probably as a good an indicator as any about the quality of the NFL draft process.  Today, 90% of quarterbacks selected from 2005-2009 are still in the league.  This seemingly high percentage is inflated by the fact that every one of the current year’s draft picks are on NFL rosters today.  Similarly, NFL teams are still nurturing the growth of players selected during its most recent drafts.  Many of these same teams have committed to multi-year contracts which are still in effect.


It is interesting, however, to see the dramatic decline in the retention rate of players drafted from 2000 to 2004.  


Only 41% of quarterbacks drafted from 2000 to 2003 remain in the league.   The relatively poorer showing reflects a combination of factors – primarily that the career of the average NFL quarterback is remarkably short and that the NFL tends to give its draftee quarterbacks two to three years to develop.  Should the draftee fail to develop sufficiently, teams understandably move on to newer prospects.


The worst year for selecting NFL quarterbacks was in 2004.  Currently just 6 of 17 selected quarterbacks from that draft are still in the league.  This poor showing reflects a few things.  Firstly, 17 quarterbacks represent the highest number of quarterbacks selected from any year in our sampling of drafts from 2000 to 2009 during which the average number of quarterbacks selected per year was 12.5.  Six of the 17 quarterbacks were taken in the 7th round (including our own B.J. Symons).  Not one of these 7th round selections remains in the NFL today. 


2004 may have been the year when the practice of taking a flyer on a quarterback with a late draft pick officially ended. Just 35% of all quarterbacks drafted in that particular year are playing in the NFL today. 


Another way to appreciate the competence of NFL quarterback selection process is to examine the current roster positions of quarterbacks and compare those to when the quarterback was drafted.  In other words, how many 1st round picks are now starters, occupy the second string or worse.  By this measure, 1st round draft picks have proven to be extremely good bets. Of the 27 quarterbacks selected in the 1st round,  18 (67%) are projected as starters; while  5 (19%) are second string and 4 (15%) are third string.  Those are pretty impressive numbers.


It is in the subsequent rounds where the drop-off becomes dramatic and the performance more erratic. Of the 11 quarterbacks selected in the 2nd round from 2000 to 2009, only 2 (or 18%) are listed as starting quarterback today.  Fifty percent of 4th round draft picks (4 out of 8) are projected as starters, while none of the quarterbacks selected in the 5th  round are NFL starters. Only one 7th round draft pick is projected as a starter. 


Of the 23 first round draft picks selected from 2000 to 2009, 19 are still in the league (a retention rate of 83%). Once you get to the second round picks, this figure falls to 50% (5 out of 10); rises to 62% in the third round, resumes its decline to 44% in the fourth round, and accelerates dramatically to 16%, 26% and just 14% in the fifth, sixth and seventh rounds respectively.  Only 3 of 21 quarterbacks selected in the seventh round since 2000 are still in the NFL.


So is Leach right?  Is the NFL quarterback selection process ‘indisputably’ flawed? Well, as this evidence suggests, not exactly.  What the discussion above instead implies is that the NFL is actually very good at selecting first round talent. It is in the subsequent rounds where the hunt for talent becomes far more elusive.  This drop-off is as much a reflection of the disparity in talent from the first round to the following rounds as it underlines just how few players have genuine NFL ability.  After the first round, you enter the realm of true speculation.


When one looks at the evidence, in this instance, Coach Leach’s comments, while understandably heartfelt, were not actually grounded in the facts as much as they should have been.  It is unfair to point to spectacular failures like a Ryan Leaf as evidence that the entire NFL evaluation process is flawed.  Of course over time some mistakes will inevitably be made (injuries, psychological factors, intangibles and a host of other immeasurables constitute the significant unknown risks that accompany any draft pick).  What is undeniable – to borrow Coach Leach’s phrase – is that judging NFL talent is an imprecise science at best (and after the first round more like a roll of the dice).


What are the chances of an undrafted quarterback making the NFL and what does this say about Graham Harrell’s chances?


Of the 126 quarterbacks on NFL rosters today (including 2009 draft picks), 29% went undrafted.  That sounds like an incredibly high percentage of undrafted players and to some degree might even give credence to Mike Leach’s sentiments that the NFL has a poor track record selecting quarterbacks. 


Let’s not get too excited.  


Only 4 of the current 36 undrafted quarterbacks are listed as starters (a mere 11% of undrafted quarterbacks), while 25 of the 36 undrafted quarterbacks (69% of non-drafted quarterbacks) occupy the third string position or worse. 


These numbers suggest that while it is certainly possible that a non-drafted player may start in the NFL, the odds are long at best.  The four starting non-drafted quarterbacks are Kurt Warner, Jake Delhomme, Tony Romo and Shaun Hill.  Of these players, only one, Shaun Hill of Maryland, actually played at a major FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) team. The others were quarterbacks on genuinely obscure college teams (Delhomme played for the then Southwest Louisiana State Rajun Cajuns, which at the time was a member of the Big West Conference).


I raise this distinction to make the argument that it is virtually impossible for a quarterback from a major FBS program who goes undrafted to ultimately become a starting quarterback in the NFL.  Shaun Hill is truly a rare specimen. 


Why is Shaun Hill’s situation so unique? Firstly, the NFL gets a chance to evaluate quarterbacks from FBS schools more than other players from non-FBS programs.   FBS players are on television, play the best competition, and have a high profile body of work which scouts are best able to evaluate.  Everyone scrutinizes the same guys – particularly the top performers in the FBS. They are in almost every way impossible to miss.


Shaun Hill, however, was a bit of an exception. He played two years for a junior college, was a backup his junior year and only started in his final season as a senior when he led his team to the top of the ACC, a trip to the Orange Bowl and a number 13 ranking.  Despite his success as a team leader, he only played in 14 college games during which he averaged a pedestrian 216 passing yards per game.  By FBS standards, Shaun Hill was about as underneath-the-radar-screen as it gets for an NFL prospect.  He was literally hiding in plain sight.  Shaun Hill’s tenure as a starting college quarterback was so brief that, even as a leader of a successful team, there simply was not a lot of evidence to suggest that he might one day be an NFL-quality quarterback.


Shaun Hill went undrafted in 2002 when he was signed as a free agent by Minnesota.  Based on his performance in minicamps and preseason workouts, he was just good enough to earn the third string role.  In 2003 he played for the Amsterdam Admirals of the now defunct NFL Europe where he led the league in passing. In 2006 Shaun Hill was signed by the San Francisco 49ers as a third string quarterback behind Trent Dilfer and Alex Smith ( the overall number one selection in the 2005 draft).  As in Minnesota, Shaun Hill did not play a single down that season either.


Shaun Hill finally made his NFL debut in December 2007 when Dilfer went down with a concussion.  (If you are keeping score, Shaun Hill is now in his fifth year in the NFL). Hill played well enough to start for the rest of the season before missing the final game due to injury.  Despite his performance, in 2008 Hill was made a back up to the great J.T. O’Sullivan (who incidentally is playing for his 9th NFL team since 2002 – 11th if you count two tours with Chicago and a stint in NFL Europe).  It wasn’t until Mike Singletary took over as interim head coach that Hill was inserted into a late October game after what was becoming a weekly display of gross underperformance by O’Sullivan who by that point was leading the league in interceptions and fumbles. In week 10 of the 2008 season, Hill was finally named the starter, a role he has managed to hold onto for the remaining 6 games prior to this season.  


O’Sullivan has left for greener pastures, making the starting position Shaun Hill’s to lose.  Shaun Hill’s quarterback competition now includes the former number one draft pick, Alex Smith, who is currently listed as a third string quarterback, having suffered a broken shoulder which may likely end his career prematurely . Smith restructured his contract just to stay on the team. The other quarterbacks are Damon Huard (a 13 year veteran from Washington – who was also undrafted), Kirby Freeman (an undrafted free agent from Baylor), and Nate Davis (a 7th round pick in the 2009 draft out of Ball State).  Shaun Hill is starting on a team with arguably one of the least competitive quarterback situations in the league.


So what have we learned from the Shaun Hill case study? How can we extrapolate those lessons to future undrafted quarterbacks from FBS programs might who one day might be able to emulate his success?   Here’s the formula in summary:


  • Win an opportunity to join a team as an undrafted free agent
  • Make said team as a third or fourth string backup 
  • Avoid being released over the next 3 to 4 years despite never playing a down
  • Be sufficiently attractive to another team which covets the services of a fourth or fifth year career backup with a limited NFL track record to serve as its own backup.
  • Ideally join a team with a uniquely bad quarterback situation (in Hill’s case he had the good fortune to join a team with a flame-out first round draft bust, a brittle former Super Bowl MVP and an inexperienced career journeyman.).
  • Hope for timely injuries to the preceding quarterbacks and/ or excruciatingly poor performances from same quarterbacks
  • Presto!  - within a mere 7 years, even you can become a starting NFL quarterback (we assume that in the course of  those seven years, future prospects will not suffer a career ending injury)

Its safe to say that based on the above case study, Graham Harrell’s chances of starting in the NFL are sadly about as close to nil as it gets.   To claim that Graham Harrell suffered from anonymity would be ludicrous.  He was the NCAA’s most prolific quarterback, leading the country’s most prolific offense, on the most prolific team in the Leach era.  He was on television every week (much of it in prime time), played against the best competition in country in the Big 12 and was the third runner-up for the Heisman.  Can you imagine a scout explaining to his GM why he might never have bothered to monitor one of college football’s most productive passers ever?  What possible excuse could he or would he come up with?  At least with Shaun Hill there is a reason why teams might have overlooked him (Graham Harrell – not so much). It is probably safe to assume that everyone and his mother had more than ample opportunity to evaluate Graham Harrell’s capabilities in great detail.


Furthermore, for Harrell, the situation with the Cleveland Browns was not exactly overly competitive either (although Jacksonville with its three undrafted back up quarterbacks may have been the best situation for Harrell to join a team). In Cleveland, he was competing with two other undrafted quarterbacks with lesser pedigrees (Utah and Tarleton State) for a roster spot.  Furthermore, the current incumbents, Brady Quinn – whose own NFL talents remain a question mark – is locked in a battle with Derek Anderson who generated a whopping efficiency rating of 66.5 in 2008 – the worst rating in the NFL.   In other words, an unsettled quarterback scenario, such as the one in Cleveland, offered a better than average situation for Harrell to gain a roster spot.  As we now know, he was unable to do so.   


Of course, who says Graham Harrell should be an NFL starter anyway?  Isn’t being a backup good enough?  Again let’s look at the numbers.


Fifty-five percent of current 36 undrafted quarterbacks occupy the fourth (or in some cases fifth) spot on the depth charts.  It is likely that once NFL rosters are trimmed further, almost all of those quarterbacks will be cut from their respective teams. 


That leaves 12 undrafted quarterbacks occupying the second and third roster spots (one-third of all undrafted quarterbacks in the NFL). Only one of the seven undrafted second string quarterbacks comes from a prestigious school - Damon Huard from Washington. The other quarterbacks are all from far more obscure schools (ie Central Washington, Arkansas State, etc).  Three of the five undrafted quarterbacks who are listed as third string have an FBS background (Oregon State, Utah and Northwestern).  Two of these quarterbacks (Brett Ratliff of Cleveland and Matt Moore of Carolina) have had career trajectories similar to Shaun Hill – college transfers with one good season against FBS completion.  The third, Brian Basanez, was a highly successful quarterback at Northwestern whose situation is most similar to that of Graham Harrell – with the obvious caveat that he actually made the team during try outs.


Judging from what we’ve analysed in this discussion so far, Graham Harrell’s best bet is to become the NFL’s next Damon Huard.  Like Harrell, Huard was a highly successful college quarterback who kept a nationally prominent Washington team at the top of the polls for most the year.  When Huard graduated, he was ranked first in Washington Huskies football history in Total Career Offense, Career Passing, Passing Yards per Attempt (8.41), etc.  Despite his unquestionably successful college career, and the fact that every NFL scout was familiar with his abilities and achievements, Mr. Huard somehow went undrafted.


Just how rare is a player like Damon Huard?  He is the only active quarterback remaining from his draft class of 1996 (Tony Banks, Bobby Hoying, Jeff Lewis, Danny Kannell, Jon Stark and Kelly Wachholtz are now long gone). Only two other quarterbacks selected between 1994-1997 remain in the league.


Huard began his NFL career in 1996 as an unsigned free agent with the Cincinnati Bengals. He then played for the Miami Dolphins for 3 years where he got a break to play following an injury to Dan Marino.  Huard next signed with New England where he spent 2 years and won two Super Bowl Rings as a backup to Tom Brady.  After New England, Huard joined the Kansas City Chiefs where he was an on-again, off-again starter for three years during which in his best season he averaged 205 passing yards per game, to his now current team San Francisco.  


So let’s see,  for Graham Harrell to enjoy a role in the NFL as a career backup, all he would have to do is sign with a team as an undrafted free agent; make the team as a third or fourth stringer; somehow manage to stick with the same team without ever playing a game for 3 years; seize his opportunity to play when the starting quarterback succumbs to injury; impress enough people that despite his limited playing time, he could still be an asset for another team; back up one of the league’s most dominant players for two years with minimal playing time; join a team with a dysfunctional quarterback scenario and play just well enough to convince yet another team that even after 13 years as a career backup that he can still be a valuable asset.  Sounds plausible, doesn’t it?


It is fair to argue that Damon Huard might almost be as a rare a specimen as Shaun Hill.  Needless to say, both Huard and Hill’s career paths underscore that it is highly improbable for an undrafted major college quarterback to have a meaningful career in the NFL, let alone make a team.


Why are there no Texas Tech quarterbacks in the NFL?


Graham Harrell’s predicament should not be that surprising.  The odds of making the NFL are incredibly long in the first place.  Since 2000, an average of just 12.5 quarterbacks has been drafted each year. 


There are 633 college football programs in the country, comprised as follows:


  • 120 FBS teams (i.e. about half of which are considered  major programs)
  • 126 FCS teams (think Sam Houston State, Texas State, Ivy League etc)
  • 147 Division II schools (Tarleton State, Central Washington)
  • 240 Division III schools
  • 93 NAIA football programs.


Of the 126 quarterbacks currently on NFL roster, 20 have come from non-FBS schools (16% of all quarterbacks).  Six of these quarterbacks are from Division II schools and only one is from a Division III school (Justin Goltz, a non drafted quarterback from Occidental College who is currently 4th on Detroit’s depth chart).  Nine of the non-FBS quarterbacks were actually drafted.


Using the 2009 NFL roster as our sample, assuming that 13 quarterbacks are drafted each year of which about 2 are from non-FBS teams, we can begin to calculate the odds of even making an NFL team.  We also assume that only starting quarterbacks would be considered (with players like Matt Cassell, a backup QB while at USC, being an obvious exception).


  • 9.0% of FBS quarterbacks are likely to be drafted in a given year
  • 1.0% of FCS quarterbacks are likely to be drafted in a given year
  • 0.3% of Division II quarterbacks are likely to be drafted in a given year
  • 0.04% of Division III quarterbacks are likely to be drafted in a given year


The fact that Division III Occidental’s Justin Goltz even made an NFL team pre-camp roster is as close to a miracle as one can get (perhaps even moreso than the aforementioned Shaun Hill or Damon Huard).


Graham Harrell is not the only highly successful NCAA quarterback in the 2008 class who failed to get drafted.  Of the top quarterbacks who finished in the top 10 in passing efficiency in 2008 and were draft eligible, only one (Mark Sanchez) was drafted.  Harrell’s draft performance was matched by fellow top 10 quarterbacks Chase Daniel, Chase Clement (Rice) and David Johnson (Tulsa). In a manner of speaking, Harrell is in good company.


While we’re on the subject of Graham Harrell’s credentials, let us put one particular argument to rest.  Graham’s standing in the Heisman race is hardly an indicator of future NFL success.  Since 2000, Heisman quarterback winners include Chris Weinke, Eric Crouch, Carson Palmer, Jason White, Matt Leinhart and Troy Smith (Tim Tebow and Sam Bradford are still in college).  Of these winners, only Carson Palmer is a starting quarterback.  Chris Weinke is out of the league.  Eric Crouch never played as a quarterback. Jason White was not even drafted.  None have yet to leave their mark on the NFL in any meaningful way.  Should Tim Tebow be drafted at all, it will likely be as a utility player – not as a quarterback.


Some of our rival fans who have indulged in their own bit of schadenfreude over a 23 year old college student’s near-term career prospects (seriously guys, get a life) by criticizing the inability of Tech quarterbacks to translate their success at the next level.  However, when we look at the current roster of NFL quarterbacks, no college team can claim to have a monopoly on quarterback talent.  USC-alums make up the highest number of quarterbacks in the NFL with a grand total of 5 quarterbacks (just 4% of all quarterbacks, 3 of which are projected as starters).  Even the claim that USC boasts 3 starting quarterbacks in the NFL might prove to be a bit tenuous.  Carson Palmer’s durability is an ongoing concern and Mark Sanchez has yet to play a single down.   While we’re at it, the schools with the most number of alumni quarterbacks in the NFL are:


  • USC: 5                                    (3 projected starters)
  • Oregon: 4                    (0 projected starters)
  • Michigan: 4                 (1 projected starter)
  • Boston College: 4       (2 projected starters)
  • Purdue: 3                     (2 projected starters)
  • Louisville: 3                (0 projected starters)
  • Fresno State: 3            (0 projected starters)


As we can see, seven schools are responsible for 21% of the NFL’s quarterbacks and 25% of its projected 2009 starters.  Boston College and USC are known to run pro style offenses, Purdue, Louisville and Fresno State run some version of the spread offense, and Michigan was a run-first offense during the tenure of its current NFL alums.  What does any of that tell you?  (Hint: the correct answer is not very much).


A player’s NFL abilities may depend somewhat on where he went to school, but only somewhat.  


There are few conclusions one can draw from the above data other than that a player’s selection into the NFL really is ultimately weighted to physical factors more so than where he went to school, success enjoyed while at school, the type of system he played in or the quality of the competition. 


In this respect, the NFL is to college football what the NBA is to college basketball, to what becoming a Hollywood star is to a drama student,  to what becoming a multi-millionaire is to most college graduates – there is little correlation between the two sets of experiences, although having success in the latter helps with the former (yet is hardly a guarantee).


Coach Leach’s program will breed NFL quarterbacks in the future.  He’s had two drafted already.  Graham’s status is disappointing, but if everything else we hear about Harrell is true, he sounds like an outstanding guy who will likely succeed in whatever he chooses to do – whether football related or not.  What more can a kid out of Ennis, Texas want than that?


Leach is building a program for the long term.  His winning percentage, college graduation rate and ability to elevate Texas Tech into the discussion of the elite college programs are truly testament of his talent as a coach.


Whether Texas Tech players, in particular its quarterbacks, are drafted into the NFL is not a true reflection of his program, nor should it be.  No school has a monopoly on NFL talent, and to claim otherwise is misleading.  Some college programs such as Ohio State, USC, Florida State do have a high number of representatives in the NFL. Still, as a percentage of overall alumni from those respective programs or when judged as a percentage of any particular position, these numbers are not ultimately meaningful.  To argue that one school’s ratio of NFL representatives is more or less statistically meaningless than another school’s is the ultimate exercise in futility.  


Tech’s detractors (and supporters) are better off spending their time on more legitimate measures of Texas Tech’s progress and success such as Texas Tech’s overall defensive performance or winning percentage against OU and UT than whether or not its players get drafted.


In the final analysis, let’s hope Coach Leach reconsiders his earlier position, wish Graham Harrell well despite the incredibly long odds of his making it in the NFL, and let’s ever so politely be sure to inform our detractors that their comments about our team and our players are both unwarranted and based on very flimsy facts - if any.


This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of Viva The Matadors' writers or editors.