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The Case Against Drafting A ‘Robo-Quarterback’

TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin 2019 - Day 1 Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images for TechCrunch

As the 2019 NFL season winds down, the Miami Dolphins inch inexorably closer to potentially the most impactful college draft they’ve had in their 54 year history. With five picks in the first two rounds, the Dolphins’ starting lineup figures to look a lot different a year from now than it does today. Since at least one of those draft picks will probably be a quarterback, I think it’s a good time to discuss just what type of QB the Dolphins might look to select in the draft next Spring (as if we haven’t already been doing that for the past twenty years or so).

For my money, I’ll tell you what type of quarterback Miami won’t be drafting four and a half months from now, which would seem to downgrade a certain QB with three letters in his first name, who is also not particularly popular on this site. As we all well know, the multi million dollar process by which NFL teams decide what players to draft, and when they’re going to select them, is an imperfect and often flawed undertaking. This process has been greatly hindered in recent years by NFL teams insisting on applying the same height-weight-strength-speed principles of evaluation to quarterbacks that they apply to every other position. One of the quickest, easiest ways to draft the wrong quarterback for your team is to place too great an emphasis on physical attributes and not enough importance on actual production. I call this type of QB a ‘Robo-Quarterback’ -- a guy who can run like the wind, bench press the earth and throw the ball through a brick wall, yet doesn’t pan out in the NFL, for what he lacks from the neck up.

Let’s take a look at some Robo-quarterbacks from past drafts, and try and assess where teams went wrong in selecting them. First, of course, we have the granddaddy of all Robo QB’s, John Elway. Adored by the press from the beginning, Elway arrived in the NFL as the first overall pick in 1983, then refused to play for the Colts and was traded to the Denver Broncos. The raw as red meat Elway had to force himself to learn how to be an NFL quarterback, and only a stout defense and the league’s best rushing attack enabled him to win consecutive championships during the final two years of his career. Elway, of course, was talented enough to eventually become the franchise quarterback Denver needed him to be, but he’s one of the few Robo QB’s to have done so.

Next up, we have Kyle Boller, drafted nineteenth overall in the first round in 2003, by the Baltimore Ravens. At the scouting combine that February, Boller boasted that he could throw a football fifty yards from his knees. He then went out the next day and did just that. The Ravens were suitably impressed and drafted Boller, but he never came close to fulfilling his promise as an NFL quarterback, despite playing on a team that was generally loaded at most of its positions during his time in Baltimore. It was in 2007, though, that perhaps the quintessential Robo-quarterback, Jamarcus Russell, entered the NFL, selected by Al Davis for the Raiders with the first overall pick. An imposing figure at 6’6”, 260, Russell had a bazooka for an arm and looked like a can’t miss prospect when he came out of LSU, having gone 21-4 during his collegiate career. But he couldn’t handle the complexities of running an NFL offense and was released by the Raiders after just three seasons. Amazingly, after his release, not one other NFL team called to offer him a tryout. Even mega bust Ryan Leaf got a couple more chances after San Diego waived him in 2000. Despite having not played in an NFL game in the past ten years, Russell is just three years older, almost to the day, than former Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Incidentally, Tannehill was himself regarded by many as a Robo-QB when he came out of Texas A&M eight years ago, but he was too intelligent and hard working to let the label stick for long.

Finally, we have Ryan Mallett, another big, strong, rocket armed quarterback who couldn’t make the transition from college to the pros despite his overwhelming physical gifts. At least New England had the sense to take him late in the third round, instead of in the first, like every other quarterback on this list. As NFL offenses have evolved into quick hitting, short passing units, size and arm strength are no longer the be all, end all requirements for QB’s today the way they were fifteen or twenty years ago. In today’s NFL, quarterbacks like Drew Brees, Russell Wilson and Kirk Cousins are getting the job done. Sure, if a team plays outdoors in Northerly climes, like the Buffalo Bills, they might take a chance on a Josh Allen, and hope he puts it all together, but for most teams nowadays, this is not necessarily the way to go.