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Trading Up for Quarterbacks

Ryan Leaf

This offseason, like so many in the past, the prevailing conversation topic amongst Washington Football Team (WFT) fans is what to do about the hole at starting quarterback (QB). There are a number of approaches that Ron Rivera’s front office team could take to solving this perpetual problem for the post-Gibbs/Beathard DC franchise, and it appears that they are exploring all options.

The WFT’s first move in free agency this year was signing journeyman QB Ryan Fitzpatrick to a one year contract as a bridging option. This move provides temporary security at the most important position while the search for a long term solution continues.

In the first two part series (Part 1 – Good Teams, Part 2 – Bad Teams) of my 2021 pre-draft run, I examined the approaches that the best and worst teams in the NFL have employed in the search for their QBOTFs (quarterback of the future). As a group, the league’s top six teams have been far more successful at finding franchise QBs, and they nearly always find their QBOTF through the draft.

If Rivera’s team wants to follow the lead of the best in the business, though, they might have a problem. There are around three top QB prospects in the 2021 draft who are likely to go off the board in the top half of the first round. And thanks to Ron Rivera’s amazing success in transforming the moribund 3-13 team he inherited into 2020 division winners, the Football Team doesn’t pick until the 19th selection in the draft. Following the top three prospects (Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, and Justin Fields), are two prospects with more mixed scouting reports, Trey Lance and Mac Jones. If the WFT is to have a shot at drafting any of these top QB prospects, they might have to trade up from pick #19.

The top-rated prospect, Trevor Lawrence is receiving “generational talent” buzz. Consequently, the cost of acquiring him from the QB-needy Jaguars, holding the first overall pick, is likely to be franchise-crippling, and probably not something that Rivera would consider. It is likely that drafting Wilson, Fields, and possibly even Lance, would require trading into the top ten. That would be expected to be a costly move in itself, in terms of the draft capital or other resources that would be required to convince a team holding a top ten pick to consider moving back to pick #19. But might it be worth it if the WFT could finally draft a QB that would allow them to compete with the regular playoff contenders?

This article was inspired by Mark Tyler’s post Super Bowl WFT mock draft, which posed that exact question. In that mock draft, which had Lawrence, Fields and Wilson off the board by pick #4, Mark proposed a trade with Detroit to target Trey Lance with the 7th overall pick, in exchange for WFT’s first and second round picks in 2021 and first round pick in 2022. This prompted a vigorous discussion about whether Lance, who has tremendous upside but will require further development for the NFL, is worth the risk of a costly trade up.

One commenter expressed a view to the effect that, if Lance really is the QBOTF, Rivera can’t take the risk of letting him slip to another team. He has to do what it takes to draft Lance, even if it means giving away first and second round picks to move up. This is a common theme in draft discussions, both amongst fans and commentators, and apparently some NFL front offices, which have made these types of moves in the past.

This got me thinking. I realized that I have problems with two strands of this this line of reasoning. First, how certain is Rivera, or should he be, that his scouts’ chosen QB prospect really is the QB of the future? And second, does he really have to move up to land that guy? Is there a chance that he might be better off sticking where he is and picking another player, perhaps the next best QB in his scouts’ draft rankings, or a difference maker at another position? Then he could use the picks that he would have given away in the trade to give his QBOTF better weapons, protection, or some difference makers on the defense to make his job easier.

I will return to those questions at the end of this article. The other question that this discussion prompted in my mind was how often has trading up to grab one of the top QB prospects actually worked out? Off the top of my head, I could think of a few disasters, like the RG3 and Darnold trades. But, I also remembered that Kansas City traded up to draft Mahomes. Overall, I couldn’t say whether trading up has worked out or not. That prompted me to do some digging.


Methodology, Stats and Rationale

Question: How often has trading up for top QB prospects worked out for the team trading up?

To answer this question, I examined every case in the salary cap era (1994 to 2020) in which a team traded up for a pick in the top 10 to select a quarterback. This includes all cases where a team traded into the top ten or moved up from a later top ten pick to an earlier one.

I chose a top-ten window because that is generally considered to be where the elite prospects go off the board. That range of draft picks is also where draft trade valuations climb the most steeply, making trades the most costly. The choice of analysis window is ultimately purely arbitrary. I could have limited this exercise to a more “elite” top five or six window, but that would have eliminated the one successful draft trade that I knew about heading into the analysis (KC’s trade for Mahomes).

Draft capital was quantified using the Rich Hill trade value chart, courtesy of DraftTek, which is reported to more closely match the trade valuations used by NFL teams than the older and more familiar Jimmy Johnson chart. Net trade value was calculated as the sum of trade values of the pick(s) acquired minus the sum of trade values of picks given away, ignoring any players exchanged in the deal. Negative net trade values indicate that the team trading up gave away more draft capital than it received in the deal, which was usually the case. A few of the listed transactions had positive net trade values, indicating that the team trading up gained draft capital in the deal.

After each trade selection I listed any better QBs who were available at the pick the team traded up to (destination pick), and at the pick they started with (original pick). By “better”, I mean in retrospect. The point of listing better available QBs is not to criticize the trading-up team’s judgement regarding their player select, but rather to illustrate the inherent uncertainty of draft evaluations. For example, it would be unfair to criticize Washington, Miami or even Indianapolis for that matter, for failing to recognize that Russell Wilson was a better QB prospect than their first round selection in 2012, because no NFL team thought he was worth selecting before Seattle picked him in the third round.

Where there was any doubt about the relative merits of QBs discussed in this article, I used Pro Football Reference’s Career AV and Career Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt (ANY/A) statistics to break ties. ANY/A is a composite metric, based on passing yards, TDs, interceptions and sacks, which, according to my statistical advisor, James Dorsett, is a more highly regarded measure of QB performance amongst analytics experts than the more familiar QB/Passer Rating. This was seldom necessary, and usually only when comparing two below average QBs (e.g. Mark Sanchez vs Josh Freeman).

ANY/A is provided as a relative indicator of career performance. For reference, Aaron Rodgers has the second highest career ANY/A in NFL history at 7.42, Joe Flacco comes in at 5.64 and a QB WFT fans would like to forget, John Beck, had a paltry 3.81.


The Trades

New York Jets v New England Patriots Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

My first surprise is that trades within the top 10 of the draft for QBs are fairly rare. I only found 11 draft trades in the cap era that clearly met the criteria, and two more which could be argued to deserve inclusion or exclusion. Here they are:

1. 1998 San Diego Chargers trade up to select Ryan Leaf second overall

ANY/A: 2.71

Trade Cost: Chargers shipped their first and second round picks in 1998 (3rd and 33rd) and 1999 first round pick (8th) to Arizona plus RB Eric Metcalf and LB Patrick Sapp.

Net trade value: -383 (equivalent to 9th overall pick)

Talk about leading off with a bang. Ryan Leaf is generally regarded as one of the greatest draft busts of all time. But I did not realize when I began researching this article that San Diego gave away a ton of draft capital to trade up one position in the draft to select him. In hindsight, this is a move that rivals Vinny Cerrato’s best work.

In the lead up to the 1998 draft, the Peyton Manning versus Ryan Leaf debate dominated early media discussions. As the draft neared, Manning emerged as the consensus best QB prospect, but Leaf was still considered a worthy competitor. So, from the perspective of the time, it would be unfair to paint his selection with a top-three pick as a stupid move. What this selection does illustrate is the inherent uncertainty of projecting college players to the NFL, because just about everyone was wrong about Leaf.

After Manning, 1998 was not a great draft for QBs. However, Leaf’s NFL career was so terrible that practically any QB picked after San Diego’s original pick (3rd) would have been better. The best available QBs on the board at pick #3 were Brian Griese (picked 91st, ANY/A 5.37) and Matt Hasselbeck (picked #187, ANY/A 5.58). Even Charlie Batch (ANY/A 5.14), picked 60th overall, had a better NFL career than Leaf.

2001 Michael Vick and 2004 Eli Manning

I have lumped these two transactions together, because they are not really the types of draft trades that this article is intended to address. In both cases San Diego, picking first overall, selected the QB in question but was unable to reach a contract agreement before opening day of the draft, as was the practice at the time. San Diego then went looking for trade partners to bail them out of the situation they had found themselves in.

The situation driving these trades is a thing of the past, since the rookie wage scale was introduced in the 2011 collective bargaining agreement, streamlining draftee contract negotiations. But the story is so interesting I’m going to tell it, even though these trades may not be that informative about potential draft moves facing the WFT in 2021.

In both cases, the trade partner - who can be considered as the team trading up – achieved a net gain in draft capital out of the deal. In 2001, Atlanta sent its first and third-round picks (5th, 67th) and its 2002 second-round pick (48th) plus WR/KR Tim Dwight to San Diego, for a net gain of 336 trade value points (equivalent to pick #13). On top of gaining draft capital, Atlanta acquired the top rated QB prospect in the draft, Vick (ANY/A 5.46) whose career got off to a fine start until his arrest for running dog fights in 2007. Meanwhile, San Diego used the 5th overall pick it acquired in the deal to select Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson, then used its second round pick (32nd) to select future Hall of Fame QB, Drew Brees, as a consolation prize for missing out on Vick.

As hard as it is to believe now, Brees didn’t really solidify his role as starter in his first three seasons in San Diego, and in 2004 the team again selected the consensus top QB prospect, this time Eli Manning (ANY/A 5.92), first overall. Manning refused to play for San Diego, which by this point did not have the best reputation as a destination for QBs. The team did a deal with New York to swap Manning for Philip Rivers, picked 4th overall plus their third round pick (65th) in 2004 and first (12th) and fifth round (144th) selections in 2005.

San Diego came out of the deal, trading down, with a net loss of 71 trade value points, but landed the better quarterback in Rivers. But New York had the last laugh, as Manning led the team to two Super Bowl championships. Despite having a better QB for the length of Manning’s career, the Chargers remain one of the twelve NFL franchises that have never won a Super Bowl.

If any readers would like to count these transactions as trade ups, the best QB on the board at Atlanta’s original pick (5th) in 2001 was Drew Brees (ANY/A 7.10). And the best QBs on the board at New York’s original picks were Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger (ANY/A 6.68).

2. 2009 New York Jets trade up to select Mark Sanchez at pick #5

ANY/A: 4.82

Trade Cost: Jets sent their first and second round picks (17th, 52nd) plus players Kenyon Coleman, Brett Ratliff and Abram Elam to Cleveland in exchange for the 5th overall pick.

Net trade value: +63 (equivalent to 74th pick)

On the positive side, the Jets actually gained draft capital in the deal. 2009 was not a great draft for QBs. After Matt Stafford came off the board first overall, Josh Freeman and Mark Sanchez were the best available QBs at the destination pick (5th) and Freeman at the Jets original pick (17th). Freeman has a slight edge in career ANY/A (5.44 vs 4.82) but that’s really splitting hairs. It is at least not clear that the Jets would have been worse off at QB if they had stayed at 17.

The Redskins were not quiet about their interest in Sanchez at the time, but the cost of moving up was apparently too rich for Dan Snyder, if you can believe that.

3. 2011 Jacksonville Jaguars trade up to select Blaine Gabbert at pick #10

ANY/A: 4.34

Trade Cost: Jags sent their first and second round picks (16th, 49th) to Washington in exchange for pick #10.

Net trade value: -54 (equivalent to 82nd pick)

There was considerable debate about QB rankings heading into 2011 draft. Much of the media attention was focused on Cam Newton, who was a polarizing prospect. Gabbert was certainly in the conversation for best QB prospect, so it may have been more of a surprise that he was still on the board at #10 than that he was selected there.

In hindsight, Andy Dalton (picked 35th, ANY/A 6.01), Colin Kaepernick (picked 36th, ANY/A 6.07), and Tyrod Taylor (picked 180th, ANY/A 5.97) were better options available at Jacksonville’s original pick.

The Redskins used the first-round pick acquired in this trade to select Ryan Kerrigan.

4. 2012 Redskins trade up to select Robert Griffin III second overall

ANY/A: 5.64

Trade Cost: Washington sends 2012 first and third round picks (6th, 39th) and first round picks in 2013 (22nd) and 2014 (2nd) to St Louis Rams to in exchange for the 2nd overall pick.

Net trade value: -852 (equivalent value about midway between 1st and 2nd overall pick)

The costliest QB draft trade in the salary cap era targeted a super talented read-option QB, who was never able make the adjustment to pocket passing in the NFL, despite believing that he already had that skillset, or perhaps because he believed it. RG3’s adjustment to the NFL was not helped any by the meddling owner playing favorites, a Super Bowl winning head coach with his own ideas about what QB best fit his system, and his own propensity to heroics at the expense of protecting his body.

Hogs Haven readers probably do not need to be reminded that better QB options available at Washington’s original pick (6th) included Ryan Tannehill (picked 8th, ANY/A 6.11), Russell Wilson (picked 75th, ANY/A 6.99), and coach/GM Shanahan’s choice Kirk Cousins (picked 102nd, ANY/A 6.92). Even Nick Foles (ANY/A 5.94), picked 88th has managed to achieve better career highlights than the Redskins’ trade target. If there is any one lesson from this trade failure it is the importance of intangibles in evaluating QB talent.

5. 2016 LA Rams trade up to select Jared Goff first overall

ANY/A: 6.62

Trade Cost: LA shipped its first round (15th), two second round (43rd, 45th) and third round (76th) selections in 2016 and its first (5th) and third round (100th) selections in 2017 to Tennessee, in exchange for the Titans’ first (1st), fourth (113th) and sixth round (177th) selections in 2016.

Net trade value: -116 (equivalent to 50th pick)

It is tempting to think that the RG3 trade fiasco put a damper on teams trading up for QBs for a few years. If so, it is somewhat ironic that the Rams were the first team back in the water, after failing to translate the massive influx of new talent leveraged from that deal into any kind of success on the field.

LA did manage to target a good starting quarterback with this trade, even though the team decided to move on this offseason. The only better option available at the Rams’ original pick (15th) was Dak Prescott, who was overlooked by the entire NFL until the fourth round (picked 135th, ANY/A 7.00).

Washington Redskins v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

6. 2016 Philadelphia Football Team trades up to select Carson Wentz second overall

ANY/A: 5.87

Trade Cost: Philadelphia sent its first (8th), third (77th) and fourth round (100th) selections in 2016 plus its 2017 first round (12th) and 2018 second round (64th) picks to Cleveland in exchange for the Browns’ 2nd overall pick and a conditional fifth round pick in 2017 which converted to 139th overall.

Net trade value: -197 (equivalent to 30th pick)

I have long maintained that Carson Wentz is overrated because he is fragile, and I am glad that people are starting to see it. For his first four years in the league this trade appeared to have been on target, but the shine came off in 2020, with what appears to have been a sharp regression. Perhaps the change of scenery in Indianapolis will allow him to rebound.

As with Goff, the only better option available at Philadelphia’s original pick (8th) was Dak, who was still available in the fourth round.

7. 2017 Chicago Bears trade up to select Mitchell Trubisky second overall

ANY/A: 5.64

Trade Cost: Chicago sent its first (3rd), third (67th) and fourth round (111th) selections in 2017 plus its 2018 third round (70th) pick to San Francisco in exchange for the 49ers’ 2nd overall pick.

Net trade value: +30 (equivalent to gaining a 107th pick)

The Bears moved up one spot in the top 3 to select Trubisky and actually gained draft capital in the transaction. Unfortunately, the first year starter Chicago acquired in the trade has yet to establish that he was worth taking with the 2nd overall pick. But he is young and there is a still time for him to improve. He makes an interesting challenge for any team that is not put off by a QB who has yet to establish that he is a legitimate starter by the end of his fourth year in the league.

The killer here is that two of the NFL’s current elite QBs were on the board at Chicago’s original pick: Patrick Mahomes (picked 10th, ANY/A 8.49) and Deshaun Watson (picked 12th, ANY/A 7.26).

8. 2017 Kansas City Chiefs trade up to select Patrick Mahomes at pick #10

ANY/A: 8.49

Trade Cost: KC sent its first (27th), third (91st) round selections in 2017 plus its 2018 first round (22nd) picks to Buffalo in exchange for the Bills’ 10th overall pick.

Net trade value: -144 (equivalent to the 41st pick)

The Chief’s Director of Player Personnel, Brett Veach, identified Mahomes as a player of interest while scouting Texas Tech linemen in 2015. Veach essentially scouted him for two years and lobbied team management to target him prior to the 2017 draft. The team had reason to believe that the Saints had interest at pick #11 and made a bold, but not outlandish move past the competition to pick their future franchise QB.

No better QB was available at the Chief’s original pick (27th) or in any subsequent draft. This was the best top ten trade targeting a QB in the salary cap era. Only the rare diehard Alex Smith fan would criticize the Chief’s for giving away the equivalent of a second round pick to trade up for Mahomes.

9. 2018 New York Jets trade up to select Sam Darnold third overall

ANY/A: 5.01

Trade Cost: The Jets sent their first (6th) and two second (37th, 49th) round picks in 2018 and a 2019 second round (34th) pick to Indianapolis in exchange for the Colts’ 3rd overall pick.

Net trade value: -387 (equivalent to the 9th pick)

In the second costliest trade of its type in the cap era, the Jets targeted the consensus top QB prospect in the draft class. Like many top QB prospects before him, Darnold has not lived up to his draft status in New York. However, based on the high level of interest that NFL teams have expressed in trading for him, it appears that at least eight NFL front offices might blame on the decade’s worst NFL team, rather than its young signal caller. It will be interesting to see if another team can turn his career around.

Better QBs available at the Jets’ original pick (6th) included Josh Allen (picked 7th, ANY/A 6.26), Lamar Jackson (picked 32nd, ANY/A 7.19), and even Mason Rudolph (picked 76th, ANY/A 5.28).

10. 2018 Buffalo Bills trade up to select Josh Allen at pick #7

ANY/A: 6.26

Trade Cost: The Bills sent their first (12th) and two second (53rd, 56th) round picks to Tampa in exchange for the Bucs’ 7th and 255th picks.

Net trade value: -124 (equivalent to the 47th pick)

Josh Allen entered the 2018 draft with top-ten buzz, but was still considered fairly raw for the NFL. The Bills took a chance on the small-school QB prospect and were rewarded with a franchise QB who has developed into one of the better young signal callers in the NFL, and is still improving.

Lamar Jackson was available at the Bills’ original pick (12th) and has turned out to be an even better QB, at least for now.

11. 2018 Arizona Cardinals trade up to select Josh Rosen at pick #10

ANY/A: 3.23

Trade Cost: The Cards sent their first (15th), third (79th) and fifth (152nd) round picks to Oakland in exchange for the Raiders’ 10th overall pick.

Net trade value: -14 (equivalent to the 139th pick)

What started with a bang, closes with a whimper. This trade was not very costly in terms of draft capital, but the draft selection as a whole was, because Arizona moved on from Rosen the following year.

Better QBs available at Arizona’s original pick were Lamar Jackson and Mason Rudolph.


Super Bowl LIV - San Francisco 49ers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Discussion

Now it’s time to tally the results and answer the two questions I posed at the start. Teams making costly moves to trade up in the top ten picks of the draft must do so because they are confident that the prospect they are targeting is the QB of the future. But should they be? And second, is that really what teams with picks later in the first round need to do to select their next franchise QB?

The first question equates to: How often have teams trading up succeeded in selecting a future franchise QB? This gets a little complicated, so let’s start with the clear-cut cases. There are 2/11 clear successes: Mahomes and Josh Allen. That rises to 4/13 if we also count Michael Vick and Eli Manning with the other trade up targets. There are 5/11 (or 5/13) clear-cut busts: Ryan Leaf, Mark Sanchez, Blaine Gabbert, RG3, Josh Rosen.

Then there are four trade-up targets in a bit of a grey zone. Jared Goff is a better than average starting-caliber QB. But he clearly did not meet the Rams’ expectations of a starting QB, because they have decided to move on. Carson Wentz started out looking like a franchise QB, but appears to have regressed, and shows signs of being a problem in the locker room.

Mitch Trubisky and Sam Darnold were drafted fairly recently and have yet to demonstrate they deserve to be long-term starters. That argument seems like a bit of a stretch for QBs with four and three years of NFL starting experience, respectively. But it’s possible that one or both are being held back by bad teams, like Tannehill in Miami, and that they could develop further with the right teams.

In my opinion, the answer to the first question is that 2/11 teams (or 4/13, counting ATL/Vick and NYG/Manning) succeeded in selecting a QB that met their expectations by trading up in the top 10. All the other cases were either clear busts, or failed to meet the team’s expectations of a QB selected in the top 10. However, I am sure that others will have different opinions, particularly of Trubisky and Darnold, and I encourage readers to share their views in the comments.

The second question comes down to how often the QB targeted in the trade up was the best option available? If there were better QBs available at the team’s original pick, there was really no point in trading up. In fact, it was counterproductive.

The answer to that question is 2/11 times (18%), if we give the benefit of the doubt to the 2009 Jets and say that Mark Sanchez was a better QB than Josh Freeman. That drops to 1/10 (10%) if you call Sanchez versus Freeman a toss-up or too meaningless to matter. The answer becomes 2/13 times (15%) if we count Atlanta’s 2001 trade for Michael Vick and the Giants’ 2004 trade for Eli Manning with the others. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the team trading up would have been better off staying where they were and picking the best QB available.

Summary/Conclusion

Trading into the top ten to select one of the top QB prospects has proven to be an exceptionally poor strategy for teams seeking to find their QB of the future. The success rate for teams trading up to draft a franchise QB is low (18 to 31%, depending how you look at it), and in nearly every case a better QB prospect has been available at the team’s original pick. For most teams trading up has been a waste of draft capital, which could have been better spent building the supporting cast or taking more shots at finding the QBOTF.

Acknowledgment

As usual, this article was greatly improved by expert advice on analytics from James Dorsett, in addition to his thorough editorial support.


Poll

How will the WFT find its QB of the future?

This poll is closed

  • 5%
    Drafted in the top 10
    (37 votes)
  • 12%
    Drafted later in round 1
    (80 votes)
  • 48%
    Drafted after round 1
    (325 votes)
  • 10%
    He’s already on the roster
    (70 votes)
  • 7%
    Trade
    (49 votes)
  • 15%
    Ask me again in 30 years
    (105 votes)
666 votes total Vote Now

Poll

What do you like best about signing Fitzmagic?

This poll is closed

  • 6%
    The beard
    (82 votes)
  • 2%
    The chest hair
    (29 votes)
  • 68%
    Having a QB who’s not afraid to throw downfield
    (913 votes)
  • 20%
    One year contract
    (278 votes)
  • 2%
    I hate everything about it
    (31 votes)
1333 votes total Vote Now