What’s behind the NFL’s first-round quarterback boom? Barnwell on how the league has changed

    Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for ESPN.com.

In some ways, this will be the weirdest NFL draft in modern league history. Last year’s at-home experience might have been the strangest in recent memory, but this year, teams will be picking players who just finished a scattered, bizarre college football campaign. One prospect, North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance, had his final college season consist of one single game. Others, like Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell and LSU wideout Ja’Marr Chase, opted out of the 2020 season altogether.

Something else that is unique about the 2021 draft, though, is becoming more common: A lot of quarterbacks are coming off the board, and fast. Back in the legendary Class of 1983, six quarterbacks were drafted in Round 1. Over the ensuing 34 years, only the 1999 draft delivered as many as five passers in the first round.

Well, over the past four years, quarterbacks have been in style. In 2018, five teams drafted quarterbacks in the first round. In 2019, there were two picked in the top six. Last year, three went in the top six. Now, three drafts later, we’re expecting five more quarterbacks to hit the stage in the top half of Round 1. By his draft value model, Chase Stuart expects this to be right next to 1999 for the most pick capital spent on quarterbacks in a single draft in league history.

Is it possible that we’re just in some golden age for quarterbacks and this is a short-term aberration? Yes. At the same time, we’ve now seen a handful of years in a row where quarterbacks who weren’t expected to rise up the draft charts have made themselves into top-five picks with one year of impressive performance at the college level. That list includes Mitchell Trubisky, Kyler Murray, Joe Burrow, and will likely add Mac Jones on Thursday night.

What I think we’re seeing is that organizations are more desperate to find a long-term solution at quarterback than ever before. Teams have always wanted great quarterbacks, of course, but if they’re significantly more aggressive in solving those problems now than they have been in years past, it changes the way we need to think about the NFL. Player timeframes, salary-cap construction, the hiring and firing of coaches and general managers — we need to rethink a lot of what we know to account for the league’s new quarterback math.

Let’s look into what has changed, why it matters and what it means for the future of the league, which starts forming later this week:

Why are teams drafting more quarterbacks?

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