Quarterback is the king of the cards: Zach Wilson’s value, how rubber bands destroyed Johnny Unitas and more

Throwing quarterbacks in the fantasy can help you win your league; but projecting them into reality can help you win a lot of money – in the football card game. Let’s take a look at the market in June 2022 for last year’s first-round quarterback crop. And then we’ll get into a little vintage (pre-1970) card speculation with the quarterback that pretty much gave rise to the belief that this is by far the most important position in the game.

First the recruits of 2021.

The only successful quarterback as a rookie was Mac Jones, who was the last of five first-round rookies drafted, ranked 15th overall. Trey Lance, the No. 3 overall pick, barely played. Trevor Lawrence – the No. 1 overall pick widely seen as a generational prospect – and No. 2 overall pick Zach Wilson have been largely harmed by their poor environments, although it is also clear that they do not have not far exceeded their situation. The No. 11 overall pick, Justin Fields, also struggled mightily for the understaffed Bears, who later fired their coach (as the Jaguars did for Lawrence).

The values ​​of their Panini Orange Prizm rookie card (limited but unsigned) have little to do with their draft order. In the card game, it’s how you currently play in the NFL that determines the value of a rookie card. So it’s Jones’ card that, in a perfect “10” rating from PSA, fetches the most money, around $250 in recent eBay sales. Then Lawrence at $210, followed by Lance (about $150-$175), Fields ($125) and Wilson bringing up the rear ($110).

(Important Note: Please check market prices before buying anything and be sure to compare the same board in the same category of the same leveler. These prices are available in eBay search, 130Point.com or on the PSA website. The modern card market constantly fluctuates.)

Let’s compare card prices to MVP ratings in June. That’s not to say a second-year QB is likely to win the award. But it shows how the bookmakers feel about the edge each quarterback has right now. We’ll go in order from best odds to longest:

  • Lance Trey: 5000/1
  • McJones: 5000/1
  • Trevor Lawrence: 6000/1
  • Fields of Justin: 15000/1
  • Zach Wilson: 15000/1

One thing this tells us is that bettors haven’t lost faith in Trevor Lawrence as a generational prospect (even though he performed as poorly, by most objective measures, as Wilson). But are we really capturing the cap of these players in the short term, or are MVP ratings just an indicator of team wins? This could just as well be the last as the first, although there is of course a chicken egg issue with the team wins and QB rise (i.e. the expected wins may reflect the perception of how the QB will play). How can that really be the case with Trey Lance, though, who didn’t play enough last year for us to have any idea how the Niners will fare with him at the helm? I think this model is interesting, but I wouldn’t bet it. It’s just too close to the team’s over/under totals.

The most off-kilter player with a consensus opinion heading into the draft and entering his sophomore year is obviously Wilson. He seems like the only glaring value given he’s the cheapest card and was universally considered worthy of the No. 2 overall pick in a draft with perhaps the best QB prospect of all time at No. 1. It wasn’t controversial where the Jets drafted Wilson. It was chalk.

But Wilson was so bad, in general. What if we look at the other 5 top QBs overall who performed similar to rookies in yards per pass attempt (for me, the most consistent stat over time), to see if any in their seasons aged 22 or under (Wilson played at 21 in 2021) struggled like Wilson did? We also want them to be underwater in the TD/INT ratio. Besides Lawrence, here are the QBs with a 6.0-6.5 YPA (Wilson was 6.1) with more interceptions than TDs (Wilson had nine TDs and 11 picks, despite running for four scores). We also require a minimum of 10 starts, according to Pro-Football-Reference.

This generates the following recruits, in order of year:

Note that Josh Allen was just over 6.5 per attempt, so he didn’t make the list, but he also had more picks than TD assists. If you want to include it, that’s reasonable.

I was there for Peyton Manning in 1998 and no one thought he was disappointing as a rookie, I can assure you. But he certainly had nothing to do with the Manning he was to become. The other Hall of Famer on the list is Griese. Matthew Stafford is a good roster for Wilson as rookies (statistics) and Stafford had the Hall of Fame WR of inner circle (eventually) Calvin Johnson. Norm Snead has been a four-time Pro Bowl passer (three more than Stafford has earned so far in his career). Obviously, Wilson could become another Bortles as well, even if even Bortles went to a league game and had a profitable sell window. But those historic lineups indicate that Wilson still has a very good chance of being a good player, probably no different than he had at the start of his rookie year.

Josh Allen’s Orange Prizm is around $1,000-$1,500 in best quality now. In June after his rookie season, he was $25 in a PSA 10. No one thought much of Allen after his rookie year, even after his second season, when the card in June 2020 was selling for around $200 (he made the interim playoffs).

We wish Wilson’s PSA 10s traded at $25 like Allen’s. But cards were $8 to rank then and now cost around $90 – that’s most of the difference. (The workaround is to buy rough for deep discounts and get the grade when you think it’s time to sell.)

Maybe Stafford is the best comp. Stafford was a No. 1 overall pick, but would also have been No. 2 for Lawrence, hypothetically. Despite only one Pro Bowl, his rookie card reached $400 right after his Super Bowl victory. It’s now around $275 (you have to sell on modern chart news). In August 2021 (after being on the Rams) it was around $100 (those are PSA 10 prices).

Bottom line: Wilson’s supporting cast has been massively upgraded through free agency and the draft and he’s in his second year under a Shanahan system that’s been very kind to quarterbacks and generally maxed out their performance.

Fields is another interesting game. He sure has some elite traits, with his arm and his ability to run. The environment in Chicago was not improved, as it was for Lawrence and especially Wilson. Fields’ supporting cast is still terrible. And he was just an 11th overall pick, so far less draft capital than Wilson. However, he was considered by many scouts to be worthy of a top three pick. While his current card price for the Orange Prizm we’re reviewing isn’t the bargain Wilson seems to be, it’s still a bargain.

Finally, let’s look at a vintage-era player whose cards seem to be undervalued. We take a look at PSA 6 prices with Johnny Unitas, focusing on his rookie card via his 1962 Topps card, which has black borders and is therefore highly condition sensitive. Like his 1959, 1960, 1961 Topps cards, it is the first numbered card in the set, meaning it was sorted that way by most collectors, being the first card in a pile held together with a rubber band, pressed against the edge of a box, being exposed to more sunlight and handling, etc. This limits the supply of cards in the excellent condition to near mint which we are looking for in a PSA 6. compared to PSA.)

We looked at the most recent average price paid in the EX-MT category for Unitas cards against their book prices. Don’t forget that there is a bounty for well-centered cards every year. If you can find a centered scaled chart for book price or average recent sales price, you should always buy it.

  • 1957 (rookie card): 97% pound ($1,140)
  • 1958: 100% pound ($200)
  • 1959: 103% pound ($180)
  • 1960: 240% pound ($120)
  • 1961: 90% pound ($80)
  • 1962: Not enough sales, but $175 for a reasonably centered price is fine, even if it can cost up to $250. This is a very low sold/pop card; a very difficult card. The 1962 Unitas book price is therefore very unreliable and, I would bet, too low. 1962 Topps football is one of the toughest sets for the condition in the hobby considering those black borders, in any sport.

I bought a 1961 Fleer PSA 8 Unitas in 2020 for $175 and it didn’t budge – but there were no sales after the pandemic. There is a very recent sale of a PSA 9 that was 26% over book. This would put the expected value today of a PSA 8 at also 26% from the book: $252. (Extrapolating the value of the most recent sale to the book value of that rank at the rank you’re buying is a reasonable way to gauge the current value of the card in question.)

Bottom line: Unitas was the NFL’s first superstar, who essentially invented the quarterback position and played in the championship game that made the league a TV phenomenon. He will always remain an iconic figure in the sport. Additionally, its cards are generally rarer as it had the honor of being the first card in the set for its peak seasons. You can buy ALL of his early non-rookie cards, all in EX-MT condition for well under $1,000. I find it hard to see how, over time, this can be a losing investment. And I expect that to be a victory.

(Top photo: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)