By Matt Baker • Times Staff WriterTAMPA
If months of mock drafts are correct, the Bucs will begin the opening round of the NFL draft Thursday by choosing either Florida State's Jameis Winston or Oregon's Marcus Mariota with the No. 1 overall pick. • And if more than a quarter-century's worth of quarterback data proves right, one of them will fail. • From the historic 1983 draft class through 2009, teams drafted 34 quarterbacks in the top 10. Half of them were busts and less than one-third became stars, according to a Tampa Bay Times analysis. Even with a sea of statistics, scouting remains an inexact science; it's hard to predict who will become the next Peyton Manning and who will become another Ryan Leaf.
As the Bucs prepare for what general manager Jason Licht has called "probably the biggest draft in the history of the organization," they're well aware of what amounts to a $25 million coin flip with the franchise's future at stake.
Guess right, and you have a cornerstone player at the most important position in all of sports. Guess wrong, and your team could be set back a decade.
"God only makes a handful of guys that can do it at that high of a level," ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said.
And determining which ones can do it is even tougher than you think.
To see what history tells us about the Bucs' upcoming decision, the Times analyzed all 59 first-round quarterbacks drafted between the historic 1983 crop (three Hall of Famers) and 2009 (Josh Freeman). The five most recent drafts were excluded to avoid making judgments about young players who could still be a boom or bust.
The analysis' two most-notable takeaways: There's a high rate of failure, and college statistics don't predict much at all.
"It's hard to quantify a lot of what makes them great," McShay said. "I think so much of it is the leadership and the work ethic and the ability to handle pressure, and then the other part of it is just raw, natural accuracy
"It's brutally hard. It's getting harder and harder."
In the samples, quarterbacks were more likely to fail than to succeed. More of them were busts (31) than had solid careers (28) — at least five years as a starter, more career touchdown passes than interceptions and at least one Pro Bowl or playoff appearance. The list of good quarterbacks, by that criteria, includes Jeff George, Jay Cutler and Alex Smith.
Only 14 of those 59 became stars, with a winning record in at least five years as a starter, multiple playoff wins and multiple trips to the Pro Bowl.
Move up in the first round and success remains split. Half of the 34 top-10 picks in that span were busts, while only 10 became stars.
"It's a 50-50 proposition, if you look historically," said Danny Kanell, a former FSU quarterback who started 24 NFL games.
That holds true at the very top of the draft. Quarterbacks were chosen first and second in 2012, 1999, 1998 and 1993. It's too early to make a final call on Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, but the other three years featured one star and one flop.
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Donovan McNabb, Peyton Manning and Drew Bledsoe made a combined 24 Pro Bowls and threw for more than 151,000 yards and 1,000 touchdowns combined. None of the other three — Tim Couch, Leaf and Rick Mirer — won more than 24 games as a starter.
The lack of telling college statistics doesn't make teams' guesswork any easier.
The analysis found no significant difference between a college quarterback's completion percentage or passer rating and his NFL success. A prospect's touchdown-to-interception ratio and yards per pass were worthless, too.
Even judging the film on college prospects can be a challenge. The spread systems that populate college programs haven't completely infiltrated NFL playbooks yet. The skills aren't the same, so teams must use projections and some guesswork to determine whether Mariota's video-game numbers at Oregon will lead to NFL touchdowns.
"Quarterback is the hardest evaluation today because the systems are so diametrically different from college to the NFL," NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. "It's getting to the point where you're almost grateful when you get someone like Jameis Winston, who comes out of the pro style."
Though Winston holds an advantage in that category, Mariota has the edge in the only college measureable that seems to translate to NFL success: experience.
Future NFL star quarterbacks started an average of 36 NCAA games. First-round flame-outs started only 30 — a difference of half a season.
Of the 12 first-round picks who started at least as many games as Mariota's 41, more became stars (five) than flops (three).
Winston played only 27 games with the Seminoles. Of the 22 quarterbacks who had no more than 27 starts, 14 were duds.
But that figure only goes so far.
"Usually teams and scouts and GMs and coaches, if they make mistakes, it's not from talent," Licht said. "It's from above the shoulders."
And not even the Wonderlic test can accurately measure how much young adults will mature when they get to the league and how they'll handle a $25 million contract.
Mayock said quarterbacks are so hard to judge because some of the most important aspects are intangible and can't be quantified at the scouting combine.
"How hard a worker is he?" Mayock said. "How much does the game mean? Is he the first guy in every morning? Can he translate what he sees on tape out on the field in 2.3 seconds?"
Whether it's because of honesty or a predraft smokescreen, the Bucs have consistently praised both Mariota and Winston. Though coach Lovie Smith knows the history of successes and failure, he's not convinced it will hold true in 2015.
"I believe in history," Smith said. "History will tell you a lot of things — but not about the players we have coming now.
"The ones we've spent a lot of time with, it seems like, were going to buck that trend a little bit, for sure."
The Bucs certainly hope so — whichever name they call Thursday.
Times staff writer Alex Sanchez contributed to this report. Contact Matt Baker at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.