SAN FRANCISCO -- If the NFL draft goes as expected in two weeks, quarterbacks will go in the No. 1 and No. 2 slots for the first time in 13 years. Both teams, Indianapolis and Washington, staked a lot on the belief that they can transform those picks into franchise players. The Colts released Peyton Manning, who defined their club for 14 years, and Washington traded three first-round picks and a second-rounder, to move to No. 2 and a shot at exiting quarterback purgatory.
Just a few years ago, those gambles would have seemed much riskier. In the previous decade, using a top-three pick for a quarterback was as likely to crush a struggling franchise as it was to revive it. For every Peyton or Eli Manning, there was a Tim Couch, JaMarcus Russell or Ryan Leaf. In 1999, Couch, Donovan McNabb and Akili Smith went 1, 2 and 3. Only McNabb lasted.
Even if the chosen one had a future, conventional wisdom said he would struggle early, and initially sitting him behind a veteran made sense.
Then along came Matt Ryan, the No. 3 pick for the Falcons in 2008. Thrown into the fray immediately, he succeeded. He has started all but two Atlanta games the past four seasons with a healthy average passer rating of 88.4. Matthew Stafford, Sam Bradford and Cam Newton became No. 1 picks the next three years. All of them took the starting jobs immediately. Each succeeded, to varying degrees.
More to the point, none of them came unglued in Leaf-like fashion.
Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III enter this draft with more "sure thing" assessments than their predecessors. They are great players, but one has to wonder whether they would have inspired equal confidence four years ago.
The shift in success rates is particularly remarkable given the proliferation of simpler spread offenses in college.
The pattern, by the way, holds up even among lower-drafted quarterbacks since 2008. Mark Sanchez went at No. 5 to the Jets and Joe Flacco at No. 18 to Baltimore. Sanchez reached two conference title games and Flacco came within a dropped pass of going to the Super Bowl this year.
(Contact Gwen Knapp at gknapp(at)sfchronicle.com.)
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