The forward pass was introduced to football in 1906, a rule change that was considered gimmicky for a sport whose reliance on running was central to its very existence. But from those early days, the game has evolved to the point that we are about to witness an historic run on players whose sole purpose is to throw the ball.
With an ever-growing reliance on the passing game, there will be more quarterbacks taken earlier in the draft than ever before. In fact, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that five quarterbacks will be taken with the first five picks Thursday night.
There has never been another time when quarterbacks have been more important to the NFL, and there has never been another time when the projections of the most accomplished quarterbacks in the draft have lined up so closely at the top of the draft board.
And there has never been another time when the teams drafting this early have had a need at the most critical position not only in football but in all sports.
"I’d say that for every position outside of quarterback, respect is earned on Sundays," ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky said. "More often than not, do you show up and play? If so, guys will overlook a little bit of what happens on a Monday through Friday with you. Quarterbacking isn’t like that. You earn your respect and admiration from your teammates by what you do 24-7, 365 days a year. It’s like being the president."
No pressure, guys.
We have seen legendary quarterback classes like the one in 1983 that featured eventual Hall of Famers John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly. In 2004, it was Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers, quarterbacks who totaled four Super Bowl championships and are likely to have three Hall of Fame berths. And just three years ago, Baker Mayfield, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson headlined a strong group.
But never before have we seen this many quarterbacks bunched this tightly together at the top of the board. This year’s QB Fab Five: Trevor Lawrence of Clemson, Zach Wilson of BYU, Justin Fields of Ohio State, Mac Jones of Alabama and Trey Lance of North Dakota State.
The first four teams on the board — the Jaguars, Jets, 49ers and Falcons — all have quarterback needs. The Bengals, choosing fifth, already have their quarterback of the present and future in Joe Burrow, but with other teams potentially in the market to move up, it could be a clean sweep. At the very least, it's a safe bet that all five will be taken among the top 10 picks.
There’s something for everyone in terms of this year’s group.
Looking for a classic pocket passer? It’s Jones, the Alabama star who benefited from terrific blocking and a wealth of skill position players and appears headed for the 49ers.
Need a great thrower who also can run? It’s Lawrence, who has been linked for months to the Jaguars and Urban Meyer, the legendary college coach in his first try in the NFL.
"You’re always looking for the stars to align when you’re looking at prospects, whether that be from a physical, mental, character aspect, whatever the case may be," said Meyer’s hand-picked general manager, Trent Baalke. "With [Lawrence’s] situation, the stars all align, and that’s what you’re looking for."
How about a gutsy competitor who can throw the ball on a dime or turn a broken-down pocket into a terrific open-field run? It’s Fields, who has shown plenty of toughness in bouncing back from big hits in leading the Buckeyes.
Throw Lance in that category, too, because he showed at North Dakota State that his skill set merits consideration at the top of the draft. Great thrower, elusive runner, gritty leader.
"He’s built like a brick house, so he’s going to be durable," NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. "He’s going to add to your running game because you can use some designed quarterback run game, which he’s built to handle."
Lance to the Falcons at No. 4 as a potential heir apparent to Matt Ryan? Wouldn’t be a shock.
Wilson, who is almost certain to be selected by the Jets, has the ability to make throws that only a select few can. When you see analysts liken his game to Patrick Mahomes, you know you’re talking about rare arm talent.
"What really jumps off the board is his quarterback athleticism," said former Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner, now an NFL Network analyst. "It’s his understanding of how to make different throws. We’re all enthralled by a guy like Zach Wilson because we saw what Patrick Mahomes was [coming into the draft] a few years ago. You saw what he’s done in the NFL. [Wilson] shows you similar traits. Maybe Zach Wilson can be that same kind of guy. The types of throws, the athleticism by which he plays the quarterback position is really special and really rare."
Another Mahomes with the Jets? No wonder Joe Douglas had no problem moving on from Sam Darnold. If Wilson is even remotely close to Mahomes, the Jets can become a playoff team in short order.
Five excellent prospects are about to find out where they’re headed, and the optimism surely will be high wherever they go. But as we’ve seen with other vaunted quarterback classes, there’s no guarantee they’ll all succeed.
There may have been three Hall of Famers to come out of the Class of ’83, but half the other first-rounders that year — Todd Blackledge, Tony Eason and Ken O’Brien — never made it big.
Mahomes was drafted the same year as Mitchell Trubisky. And while three of the first-rounders from 2018 panned out, two others — Darnold and Josh Rosen — did not.
Here’s hoping the percentages are better this time around.