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Where Do Quarterbacks Come From? Part 2

Bad Teams

New York Jets V New England Patriots Photo By: Robert Sabo/NY Daily News via Getty Images

In the previous article, we had a look at how the best teams in the NFL over the past decade found their starting quarterbacks. With just a few notable exceptions, the league’s consistent winning franchises primarily look to the draft to find their quarterbacks of the future. And despite seldom picking in the top half of the first round, they seem to have a knack for finding quality starters that lesser teams pass over.

The exceptions to the rule are the New Orleans Saints, who acquired Drew Brees in one of the best value free agent signings in league history, and Kansas City who traded for Alex Smith before finally drafting one of the few elite QBs in their franchise’s history. With the exception of Kansas City, the decade’s top teams have been remarkably efficient at finding starting QBs, and have not needed to expend huge amounts of draft capital to do so.

Things have been a little different in Washington for the past 30 years or so. For most of the post-Beathard era, the Washington Football Team has struggled to find legitimate starting QBs for more than a few years in a stretch. Dan Snyder’s tenure as owner has been marked by consistent poor decision making across the board, and perhaps no roster position has been the subject of more bad moves in that time than QB. A few of the highlights include the decision to move on from Brad Johnson to Jeff George, the McNabb trade, the RG3 trade, the subsequent mismanagement of the relationship with Kirk Cousins, and the decision to draft Dwayne Haskins over the better judgment of his director of college scouting.

Like the WFT many, but not all, of the teams at the bottom of the league table have struggled to find quality starting QBs. In this second of two articles, I will examine how the worst teams in the NFL over the past decade have attempted to find starting QBs to see if there are any consistent patterns and mistakes that we might hope to see the new WFT front office avoid. And perhaps in some cases finding QBs might not be the problem.


Decade’s Worst Teams

The 2012 NFL Draft Photo by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty Images

I used the same ranking method as the previous article to identify the six worst and most consistently losing franchises over the past decade (2011-2020). Unlike the elite franchises, which mostly rose to the top of their own accord, separating the worst of the worst franchises was more challenging, since there was stiff competition for the last two places.

First, the no brainers. Four NFL franchises ranked in the bottom quartile in all four metrics: number of winning seasons, regular season wins, overall playoff performance, number of seasons with a playoff win. These teams were the New York Jets, the Las Vegas Raiders, Cleveland Browns, and our very own Washington Football Team. No other teams were as consistently bad and lacking in highlights as these four teams. In most other years of the last decade, the Browns would have contended for the honor of being the worst of the worst teams, but they screwed everything up last season by finishing 11-5 and doing something that none of the other bottom six teams managed to do in the last decade: win a playoff game.

Slightly above the bottom four were three teams that ranked in the bottom quartile in three categories. Of these, Chicago and Miami ranked just outside the bottom quartile in regular season wins, where they were tied for 24th with the LA Chargers and Tennessee Titans, thereby making the cut as the final two worst teams. The other team that ranked in the bottom quartile in three categories, Detroit, missed out by virtue of ranking in the middle of the pack (9-way tie at #14) in number of winning seasons.

The other contenders for inclusion were the Jacksonville Jaguars who, similarly to Cleveland, took themselves out of the running for worst team of the decade by winning a divisional playoff game in 2017, which knocked them out of the bottom quartile in overall playoff performance and number of seasons with a playoff win. It almost seems a shame to continue without them, but rules are rules.

The final ranking of the decade’s worst teams, in order of rank sum from worst to slightly less worse, is as follows:

1. New York Jets (rank sum 111)

Regular Season Wins: 59, rank 30

Winning Seasons: 1, rank 29

Playoff Points: 0, rank 26

Playoff Win Seasons: 0, rank 26

2. Las Vegas Raiders (rank sum 108)

Regular Season Wins: 63, rank 27

Winning Seasons: 1, rank 29

Playoff Points: 0, rank 26

Playoff Win Seasons: 0, rank 26

3. Cleveland Browns (rank sum 105)

Regular Season Wins: 48, rank 31

Winning Seasons: 1, rank 29

Playoff Points: 1, rank 25

Playoff Win Seasons: 1, rank 20

4. Washington Football Team (rank sum 104)

Regular Season Wins: 63, rank 27

Winning Seasons: 2, rank 25

Playoff Points: 0, rank 26

Playoff Win Seasons: 0, rank 26

5. Chicago Bears (rank sum 100)

Regular Season Wins: 73, rank 23

Winning Seasons: 2, rank 25

Playoff Points: 0, rank 26

Playoff Win Seasons: 0, rank 26

6. Miami Dolphins (rank sum 100)

Regular Season Wins: 73, rank 23

Winning Seasons: 2, rank 25

Playoff Points: 0, rank 26

Playoff Win Seasons: 0, rank 26


Worst Teams’ Quarterbacks

Cleveland Browns Introduce Justin Gilbert and Johnny Manziel Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

1. New York Jets

Starting QBs (5):

  • Mark Sanchez 2009 to 2012 - drafted 2009, round 1 pick 5 (trade up, Cleveland receives 2009 picks 17, 52 + 3 players, +63 net trade value)
  • Geno Smith 2013 to 2014 - drafted 2013, round 2 pick 39
  • Ryan Fitzpatrick 2015 to 2016 - trade with Houston for 2015 conditional 7th round pick, not realized
  • Josh McCown 2017 - FA signing, 1 year $6m
  • Sam Darnold 2018 to 2020 - drafted 2018, round 1 pick 3 (trade up, Colts receive 2018 picks 6, 37, 49, 2019 pick 34, net trade value -387)

Drafted QB since 2010 (6):

  • Greg McElroy 2011, round 7 pick 208
  • Geno Smith 2013, round 2 pick 39
  • Tajh Boyd 2014, round 6 pick 213
  • Bryce Petty 2015, round 4 pick 103
  • Christian Hackenberg 2016, round 2 pick 51
  • Sam Darnold 2018, round 1 pick 3

Draft capital expended since 2010: 1206

2. Las Vegas Raiders

Starting QBs (3):

  • Carson Palmer 2011 to 2012 – trade 2011, Bengals receive 2012 pick 17, 2013 pick 37, net trade value -458
  • Terrelle Pryor 2013 – drafted 2013 supplemental draft, round 3 (cost 2014 pick 69)
  • Derek Carr 2014 to 2020 – drafted 2014, round 2 pick 36

Drafted QBs since 2010 (4):

  • Tyler Wilson 2013, round 4 pick 112
  • Derek Carr 2014, round 2 pick 36
  • Connor Cook 2016, round 4 pick 100
  • Terrelle Pryor 2013, supplemental draft round 3, first overall pick

Draft capital expended since 2010: 759

3. Cleveland Browns

Starting QBs (8):

  • Colt McCoy 2010 to 2011 – drafted 2010, round 3 pick 85
  • Brandon Weeden 2012 – drafted 2012, round 1 pick 22
  • Jason Campbell 2013 – FA signing 2013, 2 years $3.75m
  • Brian Hoyer 2014 – FA signing 2014, 2 years $1.965m
  • Josh McCown 2015 – FA signing 2015, 3 years $14m
  • Cody Kessler 2016 – drafted 2016, round 3 pick 93
  • DeShone Kizer 2017 – drafted 2017, round 2 pick 52
  • Baker Mayfield 2018 to 2020– drafted 2018, round 1 pick 1

Drafted QBs since 2010 (5):

  • Brandon Weeden 2012, round 1 pick 22
  • Johnny Manziel 2014, round 1 pick 22
  • Cody Kessler 2016, round 3 pick 93
  • DeShone Kizer 2017, round 2 pick 52
  • Baker Mayfield 2018, round 1 pick 1

Draft capital expended since 2010: 1679

4. Washington Football Team

Starting QBs (6):

  • Rex Grossman 2011 – FA signing 2011, 1 year $970k
  • Robert Griffin III 2012 to 2014 – drafted 2012, round 1 pick 2 (trade up Rams receive 2012 picks 6 & 39, 2013 pick 22, 2014 pick 2, net trade value -852)
  • Kirk Cousins 2015 to 2017 – drafted 2012, round 4 pick 102
  • Alex Smith 2018, 2020 – trade 2018, Chiefs receive pick 78 and Kendall Fuller, net trade value -59
  • Case Keenum 2019 – trade 2018, Keenum plus 2020 pick 229 for Denver 2020 pick 181, net trade value -3
  • Dwayne Haskins 2020 – drafted 2019, round 1 pick 15

Drafted QBs since 2010 (4):

  • Robert Griffin III 2012, round 1 pick 2
  • Kirk Cousins 2012, round 4 pick 102
  • Nate Sudfeld 2016, round 6 pick 187
  • Dwayne Haskins 2019, round 1 pick 15

Draft capital expended since 2010: 1985

5. Chicago Bears

Starting QBs (3):

  • Jay Cutler 2009 to 2015 – trade 2009, Bears receive Cutler and Denver 2009 pick 140, give Denver 2009 – picks 18 & 84, 2010 pick 11 + QB Kyle Orton, net trade value -682
  • Matt Barkley 2016 – FA signing 2016, 1 year $675k
  • Mitch Trubisky 2017 to 2020 – drafted 2017, round 1 pick 2 (trade up 49ers receive 2017 picks 3, 67, 111 and 2018 pick 70, net trade value +30)

Drafted QBs since 2010 (3):

  • Nate Enderle 2011, round 5 pick 160
  • David Fales 2014, round 6 pick 183
  • Mitch Trubisky 2017, round 1 pick 2

Draft capital expended since 2010: 732

6. Miami Dolphins

Starting QBs (5):

  • Matt Moore 2011 – FA signing 2011, 2 years $5.025m
  • Ryan Tannehill 2012 to 2016, 2018 – drafted 2012, round 1 pick 8
  • Jay Cutler 2017 – FA signing 2017, 1 year $10m
  • Ryan Fitzpatrick 2019 – FA signing 2019, 2 years $11m
  • Tua Tagovailoa 2020 – drafted 2020, round 1 pick 5

Drafted QBs since 2010 (3):

  • Ryan Tannehill 2012, round 1 pick 8
  • Brandon Doughty 2016, round 7 pick 223
  • Tua Tagovailoa 2020, round 1 pick 5

Draft capital expended since 2010: 877

It should come as no surprise that the NFL’s worst teams do things a little differently than the elite franchises. What immediately pops out of these listings is how some of the basement dwellers churn through QBs without settling on long-term starters. In sharp contrast to the top teams, which averaged two starters per franchise over the last decade, the league basement dwellers averaged five starting QBs apiece. The Raiders and Bears were the exceptions, with QB stability approaching that of some of the elite teams. But the other four teams all went through five or more starting QBs in ten years, with Cleveland leading the way with a whopping eight.

Only three of the six worst teams have had extended periods with a true franchise QB in place (LVR Derek Carr 2014 to 2020, Chicago Jay Cutler 2009 to 2015, Miami Ryan Tannehill 2012-2018). And that could easily drop to two, depending on how you rate Jay Cutler, perhaps the most polarizing QB in recent decades. One of the few bad teams to have a true franchise QB, Miami made the curious decision to move on from a franchise QB who was still on the upward trajectory of his career, and it is not yet clear whether the eventual replacement was an upgrade.

A fourth franchise QB could have been added to the list, but Kirk Cousins’ tenure as Washington’s starting QB was a mere three years, and it is debatable whether the team was ever really committed to him as the starter. It is also debatable whether the team decided to move on from Kirk or vice versa. Certainly, the team did not build a relationship with Cousins which was conducive to extending him to what would now seem like an economical contract for a starting QB.

The relative scarcity of quality starting QBs amongst the NFL’s worst teams is not due to neglect. To the contrary, as a group these teams spend far more team building capital on the QB position than their elite counterparts to achieve far worse outcomes. Large FA contracts have not been a major issue amongst the league’s worst teams, or their elite counterparts, because the opportunity does not arise very often. But compared to five of the six top teams (Chiefs excepted), the bottom six throw draft capital at the QB position like it’s confetti. The stinginess of the league’s top teams, which expended an average of 273 pts of draft capital on QBs over the last decade (163 excluding KC), is put to shame by the extravagance of the perennial losers who expended an average of 1206 trade value pts on the position.

In part this difference might be explained by the fact that the league leaders are usually set at starting QB and don’t need to spend high draft picks to find a near-term starter. However, down at the bottom of the league table we see some behaviors which the best teams generally avoid, including spending large amounts of draft capital to trade for veteran QBs (LVR Carson Palmer trade -458 pts; just outside our 10-year window Chicago Cutler trade deal -687 pts) and costly trade-ups in the draft (Redskins’ RGIII net trade value -852 pts, Jets Darnold net trade value -387 pts).

While the league leaders have an overall good track record of finding quality starters in the second half of the first round and later, the basement dwellers have a lot more first-round misses, even when picking in the top 5 and top 10: NYJ Mark Sanchez pick 5; Sam Darnold pick 3; CLE Brandon Weeden & Johnny Manziel pick 22; WFT RGIII pick 2, Dwayne Haskins pick 15; CHI Mitch Trubisky pick 2. By contrast, of the three first round picks made by top six teams in the last decade, Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson were home runs, while Jordan Love, drafted in 2020, is still too early to call.


Conclusions

Wild Card Round - Baltimore Ravens v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

There is not really one common unifying theme to how the six worst teams have approached finding, or not finding QBs. The Raiders have a had a quality starter since drafting Derek Carr in the second round of the 2014 draft, making them the odd one out of this discussion. The remaining five teams have explored a variety of different strategies to avoid success at the most important position.

The Dolphins and WFT both drafted quality starters in Ryan Tannehill and Kirk Cousins, respectively, but ended up moving on while their starter was still in his prime. In the Dolphins’ case, that seems to have been a questionable decision to clear cap space in the midst of a roster rebuild. It is too early to tell if Tannehill’s successor in Miami is a worthy replacement. Meanwhile, Tannehill’s career has taken off since moving to Tennessee. The WFT’s failure to establish Cousins as a long term starter was more an issue of relationship management, stemming from the owner’s preference for his chosen QB, RGIII. Chicago also moved on from a decent starter, in Jay to Cutler, to lesser options in low end FA Matt Barkley, followed by the over-drafted one-year starter, Mitch Trubisky.

As a group, these teams have thrown huge amounts of draft capital at the QB position without getting much in return. Some of the common mistakes that have squandered draft capital include missing on top-5 picks and/or multiple first and second round picks (Jets, Browns, WFT, Bears), costly draft trade-ups (Jets, WFT), and costly trades for signed QBs (Bears, Raiders). The WFT and Jets deserve special attention here as the two teams that managed to combine costly mistakes by expending huge amounts of draft capital to trade up targeting QBs who were busts.

And last of all, we get to the Browns, who seem to have been lost in their own special QB wilderness for much of the past decade and the one before it, as well. The Browns have churned through an amazing eight starting QBs in ten years, alternating between drafting QBs and signing low-priced FAs. During this span, the team has struck out on two first round picks, a second and a third, before finally drafting a legitimate starting QB, Baker Mayfield, with the first overall pick in 2018.

I suppose, if I were to look for one common theme in all the mistakes these teams have made in their search for starting QBs, it is just poor decision making overall. I have not delved into how the other five worst teams’ front offices approach selecting players, but we know that one of the reasons for the poor decision making by the WFT is the owner overriding the decisions of his player personnel executives. And here, the league’s six worst teams provide a stark contrast to the remarkable efficiency that the top-six teams have shown in their approaches to finding starting QBs.

Combining the lessons from the two articles in this series, I would like to close with two alternative visions of the WFT’s continuing search for the next starting QB.

If Ron Rivera’s team aims to emulate the best teams in the NFL, they should:

  • Look to the draft to find their QB of the future.
  • Avoid costly trade-ups for QBs, unless targeting a player the head of scouting, not the owner is pounding the table for.
  • Not gamble on raw, developmental or otherwise risky prospects in the first round (e.g. RGIII, Haskins, Trubisky, Manziel)
  • Be patient and draft QB prospects whose scouting grade aligns with their original pick number in the first or later rounds
  • Recognize when a drafted QB is working out and encourage him to extend.

If the aim is to stay in the bottom six:

  • Trade into the top five to target one of the consensus top QB prospects (e.g. Mark Sanchez, Sam Darnold, RGIII).
  • Take a chance on developmental prospects in the top half of the first round.
  • Go with the owner’s gut, rather than the scouts’ ratings.
  • Trade draft capital for an ageing vet QB, consider throwing in quality young players as deal sweeteners where appropriate.
  • Move on from a quality starter while he’s still in his prime.

Acknowledgements:

Thanks to James Dorsett for expert editorial input. Player stats were sourced from Pro Football Reference, contract data from Over the Cap, Rich Hill trade values from DraftTek.


Poll

If Trey Lance is on the board at #19 would you:

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