It’s often said that the NFL draft is an imperfect science, with no greater evidence than the practice of selecting quarterbacks. A first-round signal-caller is no assurance of stability for a franchise, and a complete whiff (i.e. Jamarcus Russell) can set an organization backwards for years to come.
In Brian Billick’s new book, “The Q Factor,” the former Ravens coach likens drafting a franchise quarterback to “looking for a needle in a haystack … with high-powered magnifying glasses, night goggles, big data, and Ouija boards.”
In “The Q Factor,” co-written with Jim Dale, Billick tracks the five first-round quarterbacks from the 2018 draft — Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen and Lamar Jackson — through the first two seasons of their young careers, analyzing the traits that made them so highly touted, all in pursuit of identifying more foolproof keys to predict quarterback success.
Billick spoke to The Baltimore Sun about the new book, what he sees in presumptive No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence and his evaluation of Jackson six games into the 2020 season. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
What prompted you to write this book on the 2018 first-round quarterback draft class so early in their careers?
Jim Dale approached me prior to the 2018 draft about the very question: Why do we keep missing? Why is it 50-50 at best? With the analytics and the experience and all the resources we throw at it, it’s still a 50-50 crapshoot as to whether a first-round quarterback is going to be successful or not.
2018 looked to be a draft that was going to be at least four or five guys [in the first round]. So it just seemed like a good time to look at, by using that draft, the process itself. What is it about the process? Can it be marginally better to try to avoid that 50-50 crapshoot?
In your own words, what is “The Q Factor” and why did you decide for that to be the title?
“The Q Factor” is obviously in reference to the quarterback. But it’s a euphemism for all leadership positions. Businesses are constantly looking to acquire top talent, whether it’s a CFO, CEO, CCO. Leadership in business is as important, or more important than it is in football.
We tried to look at the broader view, basically using the search for talent at the quarterback position — hence “The Q Factor — as an analogy to say, “OK, what should you be looking at? What is the process that you should use in identifying top talent, whether it’s a quarterback, whether it’s a CEO, whether it’s any head of any organization, any business? What are the criteria that you’re using to select these people?” And we’ve tried to make that analogy throughout the book as well.
You wrote that the Ravens were “lukewarm” on Sam Darnold, who was at the top of many draft boards, but obviously saw something in Lamar Jackson. How much does “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” play a role in the draft process?
It’s huge because part of the warping effect of choosing these guys and the reason why so many fail is that people out of need — and as we say in the book, “Need is a terrible evaluator” — they let their need for a quarterback warp their perspective as to whether a guy can play or not.
The Ravens were in a fortunate situation in that they didn’t need a quarterback. They had Joe Flacco. They saw an opportunity to get a unique talent and it’s obviously worked well with Lamar Jackson, compared to those that desperately needed a quarterback.
Another contrast that stood out to me was Baker Mayfield and Lamar. There was a divide among ownership and general manager and the coaching staff with Baker. But from top to bottom in Baltimore, the organization was behind Lamar. How much has that played a role in his early success?
Huge. Pivotal. The three areas that clearly we identify in the book when you evaluate taking a quarterback: They’ve got to have the physical skills. Next, they have to have the mental and emotional makeup to transition into the NFL. Are they married to the right club and is the club going to utilize those abilities?
The first-round busts, they all had the physical tools to play. So, where the difference comes in is those who didn’t have the competitive, mental and emotional makeup to compete in the NFL. Or, they weren’t with a club that utilized the talents properly. That was the key in Baltimore.
Pivoting to the college ranks, it appears Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence is the consensus No. 1 pick or quarterback. If you’ve looked at the tape yet, is there any other quarterback who has some of the traits you use to extrapolate success in the NFL?
I haven’t other than Trevor Lawrence and he certainly appears to have all the credentials. Let’s remember that the critique of [former Clemson star] Deshaun Watson was, "Well he’s coming out of a program that’s so dominant, they’re so much better than their competition. The style of play, they’re wide-open windows. Can that translate in the NFL?
And people didn’t extrapolate properly — certainly, Houston did. Trevor Lawrence is going to be the same thing. He clearly has the talent and he’s had great success. But are we going to learn from the previous mistake with Deshaun Watson, are we going to use the same misextrapolation. Between now and the draft, there’ll be some people that will want to kind of pick Trevor Lawrence apart and that will be a part of the criteria. So that’s what teams are going to have to decide, whether that is valid or not.
You wrote that Lamar is a one-man case study. What’s the single most important thing evaluators can take from his success?
Clearly, the position is becoming more athletic. Now, Lamar Jackson is a bit of a unicorn. This guy is special. And to just say, “OK we’re going to take one of these athletic guys and do what Baltimore did,” well that may or may not work.
[Former Alabama and Oklahoma star] Jalen Hurts, for instance, you knew certain athletic quarterbacks like Jalen Hurts were going to be pushed up the draft chart because of the success of Lamar Jackson. I’m not sure his pure quarterbacking skills are such that that combination will necessarily work. The challenge for Philadelphia if they’re going to tap into a Jalen Hurts, are you going to wrap an entire offense around him?
What’s your evaluation of Lamar’s play this season and how can the Ravens get him and the offense back on the track to perform more like the 2019 season?
It’s a pretty high bar and maybe a little unrealistic expectation. So what should be the expectation? The question is can Lamar Jackson get to be a 500-attempt guy and be as effective as that type of quarterback? Eventually, he’s going to evolve to that. And when you look at the numbers right now, if you project what he’s done this year to last year, it’s not too dissimilar.
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He’s on pace for about a 430-throw year, 63% completion, he’ll be over 3,000 yards, 27 touchdowns and five interceptions. Those are pretty good numbers. Lamar’s efficiency is actually up a little bit. Now the total production is a little bit different, but if he can carry those numbers all the way throughout then yeah, I think this will be a pretty good year. It might not be an MVP year but right now, I think he’s playing better than people are giving him credit for.