Tip for this weekend’s NFC championship: Do not create any sort of drinking game based on mentions of how it’s a battle between a No. 1 draft pick and Mr. Irrelevant. You’ll black out before the second quarter.
The NFC’s two best teams are indeed quarterbacked by a former No. 1 pick — Detroit’s Jared Goff — and a former dead-last pick — San Francisco’s Brock Purdy. You could not get any further apart in the draft — undrafted free agents excepted, of course — yet here they both are, one win from the Super Bowl.
It’s a hell of a hook for a game, even if Goff and Purdy, at this point, aren’t nearly as far apart in their skillsets as their draft selections would suggest. The fact that Goff and Purdy have captained their teams to this point in the season is a tribute to their own talent and willpower, of course. But it also reflects well on the coaching and offensive schemes both have played under … and perhaps not so much on the scouting and draft analysis industrial complexes.
The odd thing about Goff is that he has, in effect, had two distinct chapters to his career — one that started fast and ended ugly in Los Angeles and then the current renaissance in Detroit. Goff started all three years he played at Cal and was the first of 15 quarterbacks selected in the 2016 NFL Draft. Picked behind him were QBs including Carson Wentz, who helped lead Philadelphia to a Super Bowl before beginning a multi-team odyssey; Dak Prescott, who exited the playoffs two rounds ago; and a whole lot of hey-I-remember-that-name guys.
The Rams pulled off a complicated trade with Tennessee to grab Goff, sending four 2016 picks and two 2017 picks to the Titans in exchange for the No. 1 pick and two other 2016 picks. "Goff is a work in progress and a quarterback who can evolve over time with skills that can be molded," Yahoo Sports wrote prior the 2016 draft.
That turned out to be quite true.
Goff’s progress from 2016 No. 1 draft pick to 2023-season NFC championship was not a straight line. It was more like a dip into and a surge out of a deep canyon. He did lead the Rams to a Super Bowl in his third season, but head coach Sean McVay soured on him two years later, shipping him off as not much more than a throw-in to the 2021 deal that landed the Rams Matthew Stafford from Detroit. But under the tutelage of head coach Dan Campbell and offensive coordinator Ben Johnson, Goff has blossomed once again into one of the league’s most accurate and reliable quarterbacks.
Six years after Goff’s pick, in 2022, Purdy didn’t draw much attention out of Iowa State, even though, in retrospect, he probably should have. He started all four years and never missed a start due to injury, exactly the kind of durable foundation you want to see in a quarterback ready to make the next leap. Still, he sat unpicked through all seven rounds of the draft, right up to No. 262.
Eight quarterbacks were selected ahead of Purdy, and some became starters: Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett, Atlanta’s Desmond Ridder, New England’s Bailey Zappe, Washington’s Sam Howell. But none of them has had anything close to his level of success.
It’s a testament to the variability of both NFL scouting and NFL draft projection that Purdy has succeeded beyond all realistic expectations. Hindsight is 20-20, of course, but Purdy embodies the exact reason draft grades probably shouldn’t go below B-minus. Today’s questionable misfit might just be tomorrow’s Pro Bowler.
For instance — and this is not to pick on these outlets; nobody knows anything when it comes to drafting — ESPN noted in its draft grade of San Francisco that “there’s little chance Purdy will be anything more than the third quarterback in 2022. Anything beyond that will depend on how he develops.” (Spoiler: He developed quite well.)
The Niners Nation fan site was a bit more generous, giving the pick a B+ and noting, “While he has unexceptional arm strength, which leads him to check down more than he should, Purdy also avoids negative plays, using his decent athleticism and quick release to avoid sacks and turnovers.” (Here at Yahoo, we didn’t do any more than name the guy.)
The No. 1 pick comes with a whole lot more pressure than Mr. Irrelevant feels. But once the season starts — and certainly once you reach the playoffs — where you came from doesn’t matter. All that counts is where you can lead your team next.