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63,000,003 reasons to trade up in the draft for a quarterback

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Dollars and draft picks

Earlier this week I posted an article that reviewed a statistical argument against trading up into the top of the draft. While the argument was well-reasoned, there were a lot of questions it didn’t address.

Here’s one of them:

If your team needs a quarterback and doesn’t have a legitimate starter on the roster, how do you get one?

There are really only three options:

  1. Trade for a guy
  2. Sign a veteran free agent
  3. Draft a guy

Trading for your guy

The Supply: You need to find a team that has two starting quality quarterbacks: one they want to keep, and one they want to trade. Recognize that they usually want to keep the better or younger quarterback (that’s not always the same guy - Garoppolo was younger, but Brady was better), and you’ll see that the trade market is pretty limited, with only a handful of opportunities per season. If there’s not a really good reason for the team to trade the player away born of rather unique circumstances, it’s probably not a good deal for the acquiring team. In any event, caveat emptor.

San Francisco 49ers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

The Cost: Typically, the cost of a trade is measured in draft picks, though occasionally a player-for-player trade can happen (Kendall Fuller), and less often, salary cap may be part of the deal (Case Keenum, Brock Osweiler).

The cost may be high or low, depending on how motivated the ‘seller’ is, and what the reasons are behind the motivation.

The Redskins have traded for a QB two years in a row, now: one very cheap and one not very cheap.

Oakland Raiders v Kansas City Chief Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images

The Chiefs had a huge salary cap problem to solve, and had already drafted their ‘quarterback of the future’ in Mahomes. Alex Smith’s history meant that he still commanded a significant price in trade.

Los Angeles Chargers v Denver Broncos Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

This off-season, the Broncos were stuck with an “untradeable” Case Keenum after they lost faith in him and traded for a high-priced Joe Flacco to replace him, so the ‘Skins were able to acquire Keenum (who led the Vikings to the NFC Championship game in 2017) for a swap of late round 2020 picks, with the Broncos eating more than half of his 2019 salary cap on top of the dead cap hit. The cherry on top included Keenum renegotiating his salary to give up a bunch of money that he would have otherwise been paid.

The Bottom Line: Acquiring a franchise quarterback by trading for a veteran from another team is almost oxymoronic since teams don’t normally keep spare franchise quarterbacks laying around. Still, circumstances do sometimes occur where an unproven QB like Jimmy Garappolo, or a seeming journeyman QB like Tyrod Taylor or Nick Foles is available and may be worth trading for. The acquiring franchise could strike it rich on a trade, but it’s no sure thing, and the stories of championships won by quarterbacks acquired in trade are few and far between.

Signing a veteran free agent

The Supply: When we talk about signing a veteran quarterback capable of leading the team for 4 years or more, who is also healthy, capable of winning championships, and available in free agency, he starts to sound a bit like a purple unicorn — I’ve read about them, but have never seen one. It’s easy to see why Kirk Cousins was such a hot commodity last off-season, and why the Vikings over-committed to him contractually.

This off-season, the free agent options started with guys like Nick Foles, Tyrod Taylor and Teddy Bridgewater, and pretty much fell off a cliff from there (though maybe Nick Foles, himself, is a purple unicorn).

Houston Texans v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

A team’s front office can’t just go outside and pick a starter off the quarterback tree.

They aren’t like apples. Like money, veteran free agent franchise quarterbacks don’t grow on trees.

There may be a quarterback or two capable of leading a team that reaches free agency each year, but the truly gifted franchise quarterback that comes available is, again, the stuff of legends or mythology, and (as in the situation of trades discussed above) will almost certainly result from rather unique circumstances [see: Chargers, Saints and Brees, Drew, 2006].

NFC Championship - Los Angeles Rams v New Orleans Saints Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The Cost: Veteran free agent acquisitions are purely salary cap costs, with no draft picks (aside from comp pick implications) involved, but the cost of signing a truly talented veteran free agent who is clearly capable of winning a championship (assuming you can find him in the open market of free agency at all) is likely to be right at the top of the NFL salary cap structure. In other words, the player is likely to get paid a contract that will be among the top-5, if not the absolute highest in the league.

The Bottom Line: If a true franchise quarterback hits the free agent market (and Drew Brees following shoulder surgery 13 years ago was probably the last time it happened), unless there are mitigating circumstances (such as Brees’ shoulder) a team that wants to sign him will likely have to out-bid one or two other quarterback needy teams, driving the price up. Expensive and almost impossible to find — this isn’t a plan that many (any?) teams can rely on for acquiring a talented quarterback.

Drafting a Quarterback

The Supply: The general availability of draftable quarterbacks isn’t really that scarce, but, as I’ll illustrate below, there are typically about 5 starter-quality quarterbacks available in any two consecutive NFL drafts, so a team that needs one has pretty limited opportunities to draft him. Still, five starting quarterbacks every two years probably offers way more opportunities and up-side potential than can be found via trade and veteran free agency combined.

Still, the “hit rate” on quarterbacks is fairly low, so just drafting one isn’t enough — the team has to draft the right one. That’s where a two-year window can be helpful. Rushing into a bad pick out of need can set the franchise back for years, so the front office needs to be patient enough to wait for the right guy, and then aggressive enough to go get him once they have him identified.

Cost: This should be broken down into two scenarios:

a. The team holds a very high draft pick that allows them to simply pick the player they want. In this case, the cap hit is quite low relatively speaking, and only a single draft pick needs to be expended. Last year, drafting Baker Mayfield cost the Browns their first draft pick, and he signed a 4-year, $32.7m contract (APY = $8.17m) after being drafted. This isn’t a tough call for a front office to make.

Cincinnati Bengals v Cleveland Browns Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

b. The team is not picking near the top of the draft and is unlikely to see a quarterback they are targeting fall to them. This team will probably need to trade multiple picks to get high enough in the draft to get “their guy”. The number of picks depends mostly on how far they need to move, along with other factors. This is a risky move, involving a lot of draft capital and a likely split in the fan base about the decision to move up. The more it costs, the greater the risk and the wider the split [See: Redskins and Griffin, Robert, 2012].

Cleveland Browns v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The Bottom Line: If a team has a “bridge quarterback” in place, they may be able to afford to go one year without drafting a potential starting QB, but not many teams could afford to pass two years in a row. That means that the team will need to get themselves in position to draft their QB of the future in one year or the other, and spend the draft capital to make it happen. If they don’t, they are likely doomed to an extended period of time in which the team is simply noncompetitive, and may churn coaches and/or front office executives.

The best option

Not the veteran route

Perhaps once in a decade, one NFL franchise out of the 32 total may manage to acquire a franchise signal caller via veteran free agency or by trading for a veteran.

The draft is the only method a team can count on

Roughly two to three teams per year are able to draft a starting quarterback, although the numbers vary from year to year.

In any given year, probably 25 to 28 teams have their quarterback of the present and future in place prior to the April draft, so the competition for those two or three golden-tickets in the draft is probably not as intense as it seems. There may be 5 or so teams vying to acquire “their guy” in the draft.

If a team was assured that, by trading up to a top-2 or top-5 position, they’d definitely get rewarded with a ‘face of the franchise’ talent who could lead the team for a decade or more, the cost in draft capital would probably be worth it nearly every time — the quarterback position is just. that. important. The fly in the ointment is that selecting one of the top three, or even top two, quarterbacks in the draft class doesn’t guarantee that you’ll hit a winning lottery ticket.

Supply and demand

The cutoff between “starter” and “non-starter” can get blurry at times.

In 2019, for example, where do you put Josh Rosen?

Teddy Bridgewater?

Tyrod Taylor?

Blake Bortles?

Ryan Tannehill?

Eli Manning?

I’ve made a few judgement calls in the list of starter-quality QBs above, but I feel like the list pretty well represents what the group of NFL starting-quality quarterbacks looks like at the moment, and for our purposes, all I need is a general idea about the group anyway.

It may take a while for the 2018 group to fully shake out (just look at how long it has taken to evaluate Bortles and Tannehill), but looking at the years from 2004 to 2017 — understanding that some quality signal callers from those drafts, like Carson Palmer, have already retired — one can see that a very good year for quarterbacks (2012) provided 4 starters, while a bad year (2013) offered no starting quality signal callers at all (could 2018/19 end up following the same pattern?).

Eyeballing the chart in 2-year groups, I see:

  • 16/17 = 6
  • 15/16 = 5
  • 14/15 = 5
  • 13/14 = 3
  • 12/13 = 4
  • 11/12 = 6

Let’s say that the NFL draft typically offers up around 5 starting quality quarterbacks in most 2-year periods, with a low of around 3 and a high of around 6.

That’s not many bites at the apple for a team that needs a guy to become the ‘face of the franchise’, but it probably represents better odds than hoping you can dig out a diamond via trade or veteran free agency.

If your team needs a quarterback, you might be able to survive a season with a “bridge” quarterback who allows you to build depth in the roster while the front office gets in position to draft the franchise QB when they identify him in year 2, but not many coaches or GMs can afford to wait for a third season before putting the quarterback of the future in place.

Gasoline is a cheap commodity product as long as you have plenty in the tank.

But when you’re sitting in your car, alone, on a country road, in the middle of the night, with an empty tank, suddenly, the value of a couple of gallons of gas skyrockets, and you’d pay anything you could afford to get a ride to the gas station.

That’s what happens with college quarterbacks entering the draft — a team that needs a starting QB is like the guy who runs out of gas in the middle of nowhere. There’s only one priority, and primary issue isn’t cost, it’s finding a way to get to the station so you can fill up the tank. The surest way to do that is through the draft, and, as it turns out, under the current CBA, it’s also the cheapest.

The closing argument - Salary cap considerations

In 2009, Matt Stafford was drafted #1 overall by the Lions and signed to a 6-year, $72m contract. His $12m per year represented 9.75% of the 2009 salary cap of $120m.

In 2018, Baker Mayfield was drafted #1 overall by the Browns, and signed a 4-year, $32.68m contract. His $8.17m per year represents 4.34% of the 2019 salary cap of $188.2m.

The difference is due to the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement, which changed the way draft picks get paid.

When I look at the salaries of the 17 starting quarterbacks who are paid more than Baker Mayfield, I see that they have APYs that range from a low of $16m per year for Andy Dalton to a high of $33.5m per year for Aaron Rodgers.

The average annual cost of Baker Mayfield’s rookie contract is basically half of what Andy Dalton makes, and less than 14 of what Aaron Rodgers makes.

When I get out a pencil and piece of paper and do my sums, I find that the 17 guys listed above Baker Mayfield have an average APY of $24m per year, or about triple the cap hit the Browns have to absorb for Mayfield.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Cleveland Browns Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, the other 2018 rookie starting quarterbacks (Darnold, Allen, Rosen and Jackson), who were taken later in the same draft, each make even less than Mayfield, and offer even more cap savings to their respective teams.

Still, in an effort to keep things simple and not over-state the argument, let’s use Baker Mayfield’s salary (the most expensive contract for a drafted QB since prior to 2012) as a salary cap proxy for drafting a starting QB out of college.

A team that needs a quarterback right now, who can start for the team for the next 4 years, and who offers the possibility of getting to the playoffs in that time (looking at you, Miami) has the following financial choice:

  • Sign a capable veteran QB who fits the bill for an expected contract of 4 years, $96m
  • Draft the next Baker Mayfield (if you can find him), with a contract of 4 years, $33m

The difference between trying to find and sign the once-per-decade veteran franchise quarterback, or drafting a rookie in search of the golden ticket, is $63m over the 4 years that represent the rookie contract for the drafted player.

The team can use that 4-year cap savings of $63m to go shopping in free agency in an effort to build the rest of the team [see: Eagles; Roseman, Howie and Wentz, Carson; Draft, 2016; Super Bowl, 2017].

Washington Redskins v Philadelphia Eagles

Even if you toss in some caveats, like the near impossibility of that drafted quarterback leading the team to a super bowl in his rookie year, it’s still a financially attractive option, and it has paid off quickly for a number of teams including the Cowboys (Aikman), Packers (Favre, Rodgers), Steelers (Roethlisberger), Colts (P Manning), Giants (E Manning), Ravens (Flacco), and Seahawks (Wilson).

Conclusion

Starting quarterback is the most important position in all of sports, and it is damnably difficult for a team to win a championship, or even win consistently in the regular season without a talented, top-tier signal caller.

Teams, when they get their hands on one, rarely let him go.

There are good reasons to trade up in the draft in search of the golden ticket that is a starting quality NFL quarterback:

  1. Acquiring a top-tier, starting quality quarterback via trade is an unlikely and unreliable way to find a championship quarterback.
  2. Signing a top-tier, starting quality quarterback in free agency is as rare as sighting a purple unicorn. In the salary cap era, probably the only player that fits the bill is Drew Brees, and the Saints made that happen by taking a chance on the surgically repaired shoulder that the Dolphins weren’t willing to take, and by paying a salary the Chargers weren’t willing to match.
  3. The draft typically offers at least one potential “franchise” quarterback nearly every year, and typically offers teams around 5 opportunities in any two-year period to draft a capable starter. It is by far the path that offers the likeliest path to adding a high-quality quarterback to the roster.

When you add the $63m dollars in salary cap savings over 4 years that a team can realize by drafting Baker Mayfield instead of trading for an Alex Smith or signing a Kirk Cousins in free agency, you get 63,000,003 good reasons to trade up in the draft for a quarterback.

Without a talented starting quarterback, a team has no chance of winning a championship in the NFL, and they simply don’t grow on trees. There’s only one reliable source for acquiring a franchise quarterback — the annual NFL draft.

When you think about it, trading up for the golden ticket is the only option makes any sense.

NFL Combine - Day 3 Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Poll

If there were only these choices, which would you opt for?

This poll is closed

  • 14%
    Roll with Keenum as the starter, McCoy as the backup, and (say) Josh Johnson as the #3 in 2019 - don’t draft a QB this year
    (94 votes)
  • 19%
    Use a mid-round pick to draft Rypien; let him compete for the starting job with Keenum and McCoy in 2019
    (125 votes)
  • 50%
    Trade a 2nd round pick for Josh Rosen
    (323 votes)
  • 8%
    Pick the best QB available at #15
    (54 votes)
  • 7%
    Trade up to #3 to insure the Redskins can get the QB they want in this year’s draft
    (46 votes)
642 votes total Vote Now