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The 49ers MUST use a high draft pick on a quarterback

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The 49ers hold the 2nd and 34th picks in the draft, and must use one of those picks on the quarterback position.

NFL: Super Bowl XLIX-New England Patriots vs Seattle Seahawks Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Tom Brady, 6th round.
Russell Wilson, 3rd Round.
Kirk Cousins, 4th round.
Dak Prescott, 4th round.

These players are all examples routinely cited for why the 49ers can wait until the later rounds to attempt to draft a franchise quarterback. A close look at the success rate of QB’s by draft position, however, clearly demonstrates that these players are outliers, and that waiting until the later rounds would be a foolish decision.

Setting aside the 2016 draft class, because it’s much too early to judge:

  • 114 quarterback were picked in the ten drafts from 2006-2015.
  • 26 were first round picks. Using a very generous definition* of “success,” around 50% of those picks were successful NFL starters.
  • 15 quarterbacks were drafted in the 2nd round. Using the same very loose definition, 4 QB’s have been successful. That’s a success rate of 27%.
  • 73 quarterbacks were drafted in the 3rd round or later. Only three of those players have been successful NFL starters. That’s a success rate of only 4% for quarterbacks taken in the 3rd round or later.

To refine those statistics even further: Three of the four successful 2nd round QB’s were taken in the first four picks in that round. There is a very clear line of demarcation after those picks:

  • Picking a quarterback by the 36th pick in the draft yields a success rate of 57%.
  • Picking a quarterback after the 36th pick yields a success rate of 4.4%.

The logic behind this is simple: In a quarterback driven league, teams end up picking in the Top 5 because they don’t have a QB. They may pass on one in favor of a surefire elite talent with their first pick, but they won’t pass on addressing the most important position in football the second time around. By the time QB needy teams get a second crack at picking, any QB with a high probability of success will be drafted.

The 49ers are in desperate need of a franchise quarterback. There is the faint possibility of trading for a Jimmy Garoppolo or Kirk Cousins, but the most likely scenario is that they end up attempting to address that position in the draft. They hold the 2nd & 34th picks. None of this means that there is a quarterback worth taking at No. 2, No. 34, or anywhere in between, but the team’s 34th overall pick represents a premium “last chance” to draft QB with a high probability of being a quality NFL starter.

*I wrestled with creating a clear, objective definition of “successful NFL starting quarterback.” I settled on a Justice Potter Stewart “I know it when I see it” type definition. I was extremely generous in erring on the side of labeling a player “successful,” applying the same expectations regardless of draft round. I weighed sample size and level of play, looking for at least a full season of starts at roughly league average level of play. It’s an imperfect, subjective, and ambiguous method, but it gets the job done. The 114 QB’s drafted from 2006-2015 could be filtered through any number of more objective criteria, and while the exact numbers would change, the end result would be the same: a steep drop-off in odds of drafting a viable starting quarterback after the early picks of the 2nd round.