RGIII has crashed, Newton is hurting and Kaepernick is struggling. With more questions than answers at the top of the upcoming draft class, will teams back off the big investments in young quarterbacks?
I just have this feeling we’re headed for a quarterback mini-revolution in 2015. It’s part RG3-rebelliousness, part dissatisfaction with the status quo of the Cutler/Newton/Kaepernick crowd, part not being sold on Marcus Mariota, part being deathly afraid in the current domestic violence climate of Jameis Winston—who is in a Florida State disciplinary hearing this week for suspicion of sexually assaulting a fellow FSU student—and part… well, just the feeling that we might be headed for a bit of a market correction in how the position is played.
This is a complicated topic to write late in the 2014 season. We’re supposed to be in the midst of a changing of the guard at quarterback, with the mobile and versatile guys ruling how NFL teams read the position. But I’m not sure we are anymore.
“Let me tell you this,’’ Gil Brandt, the draft guru of draft gurus, said Tuesday night. “I think we’re slowly, slowly going back to the age of pocket quarterbacks.”
That factors in to this story. More and more general managers I speak with are hesitant about putting their quarterback at the kind of risk so many mobile quarterbacks are in these days. Look at the young, athletic playoff quarterbacks last year. Colin Kaepernick, declining. Cam Newton, declining. Russell Wilson, treading water. Andrew Luck is athletic but also effectively functions in the pocket; he’s certainly a rising star. But there’s been a hey-wait-a-minute moment when it comes to mobile quarterback as the wave of the future. And it’s because, obviously, mobile quarterbacks are getting the tar beaten out of them in the NFL today.
So… where to begin.
This column is about where NFL teams are headed in quarterback-gathering for 2015. The way I see it, 16 teams certainly will not be looking for quarterbacks high in the draft: Dallas, the New York Giants, Green Bay, Detroit, Minnesota, Atlanta, Seattle, New England, Miami, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Denver, San Diego and Oakland. The rest? They’re open for business. Or could be.
This is where we start, with the first pick in the draft.
Oakland is not taking a quarterback.
Unless Jim Harbaugh takes the Raiders job and is for some reason opposed to Derek Carr—which he won’t be—the Raiders will have to pull a heck of a fake on the rest of the league to convince teams they might take a quarterback No. 1 overall. With the Raiders facing four teams over .500 in the final four games of the season (including the 7-5 Chiefs and 9-3 Broncos on the road), it’s doubtful they finish any better than 2-14. Will either Mark Davis or GM Reggie McKenzie or the new coach or the new GM (are the Raiders ever building on something positive?) be able to bluff teams about their intentions on draft weekend? They shouldn’t be.
They are solidly behind Derek Carr, and I doubt they will be able to convince any team, through the draft-week lying process, that they might take a quarterback. The only thing the Raiders could do is be the way-station for a team that desperately wants a quarterback and has to trade ahead of the second overall pick. But that doesn’t create the same value as it would if teams thought Oakland was going to take a quarterback. This is all, of course, reliant on the Raiders staying bad in December and earning the first pick. It looks likely. Which brings us to…
The comparison to 2012 doesn’t work.
Indianapolis stayed at the top of the draft and picked the flawless Andrew Luck. Washington traded three first-round picks and a second-rounder to move up four spots to take Robert Griffin III. Could Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston generate a similar buzz near the top of the draft this year? Doubtful. Very doubtful.
As former longtime GM Bill Polian said, “If the Luck-RGIII year was a sellers’ market, this is more of a buyers’ market.” He is right—and there is something else to consider: Mariota is not as clean a prospect as Luck was, and Winston has excessive off-the-field baggage, which neither Luck nor Griffin had.
There was a frenzy around Luck and Griffin before the 2012 draft, and that could develop by February or March, because the draft process brings out the hype machines. But I can’t see anyone paying a Griffin-type ransom to move up four or six spots next spring. Now, if Philadelphia, for example, is sitting at 26 and wants to move up to get Mariota (Chip Kelly/Oregon factor), then trading first-round picks in 2015, ’16 and ’17 would be understandable because of the huge leap. That trade actually makes a lot of sense if Jacksonville, for example, had control of Mariota.
A bust isn’t as hurtful today as it was four years ago.
Teams shouldn’t be scared to deal for or take a risky quarterback, which could be good news for Winston. The reason is the difference in contract structures since the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement was signed. Formerly, first-round contracts had no compensation cap. Now the structure is carefully controlled.
Example: If Washington trades the under-performing Robert Griffin III after this season, his third in the league, it would cost them only $3.45 million on its 2015 cap (his remaining pro-rated signing bonus in the last year of his four-year contract). If the Rams tried to trade an under-performing Sam Bradford after the third year of his contract, well, there would have been no takers—because Bradford would have had three years and $36 million left on the deal that the acquiring team would have to honor. The upside on Winston could mean teams are willing to roll the dice, knowing that if he had to be cut after the third year of, say, a four-year, $22-million deal, the cap hit would be relatively minimal.
The RGIII Factor.
I think teams will be less aggressive to chase the Holy Grail of a quarterback after Griffin’s struggles. But Polian doesn’t. “I’m not sure RGIII’s difficulties devalue it all that much,’’ Polian said. “But I will say that I wouldn’t pay RGIII value for Jameis. With Jameis, you’re paying for some issues.’’
“The elixir of hope.”
Those are the words of former Tampa Bay GM Mark Dominik, about his belief that teams can do some pretty aggressive maneuvering if they believe one player will make a huge difference.
“You get closer to the draft, and you study players, and the one thing you can sell with the draft is hope,’’ said Dominik. He’s right: We need to remember that when teams leave the scouting combine, players like Pat White and Stephen Hill become much bigger stars than they ever were as college players.
It’s a lesson driven home every year: We overvalue players entering the draft, and it keeps getting worse. The smart teams make some bedrock decisions in November and December that look great in the long haul. During the 2011 season, Seattle GM John Schneider fell in love with a couple of players, linebacker Bobby Wagner of Utah State and quarterback Russell Wilson of Wisconsin. Wagner made sense to take where Seattle took him, midway through the second round. But most NFL people thought Schneider reached for the smallish Wilson in the third. Schneider didn’t care, and in Pete Carroll he had a coach who believed in Wilson too. Wagner and Wilson, of course, became cornerstone players for a Super Bowl champion.
There could be some veteran quarterbacks available.
Will the Bears stay married to quarterbacking yo-yo Jay Cutler? Will the (presumably) new coach in San Francisco want to keep Colin Kaepernick? Will the Eagles test the market for Nick Foles? And what of Cam Newton?
Newton is a big question mark now, after a poor season for Newton and the Panthers. I tend to pass it off as a year in which any quarterback would struggle, seeing that both his offensive line and receiver corps were denuded after the 2013 season. If I’m Carolina GM Dave Gettleman, I may just let Newton play out his final season, at $14.7 million, and see where he is this time next year. “Cam is the most interesting guy right now,’’ said Polian. “When it comes down to it, he hasn’t proven much yet, except he can get hurt. He’s got some tread off his tire already.’’
Speaking of Newton (and Kaepernick, and Wilson)…
“What we’re seeing this year is the incredible erosion of the running quarterback,’’ said Polian. We very well may be. Kaepernick hasn’t had a 40-yard rushing game since September. Griffin has gone bust, for now. Newton is gimpy and trying to stay in the pocket. The only quarterback making a good living outside the pocket in 2014 is Seattle’s Wilson, and at 5-11 and 208, that cannot go on forever.
The one thing about Wilson is he doesn’t seem to take many killer shots when he’s running; he has a knack for avoiding them. But it only takes one. So if you’re an NFL GM, and you get word this offseason that San Francisco may listen to offers for Kaepernick, or Carolina might think of trading Newton, you have to ask yourself: Am I willing to pay a significant pick or picks for a mobile quarterback who may not be so mobile anymore—either by necessity or the simple football reality of wanting to keep him upright?
Teams are going to get excited about someone in college football we can’t see right now—maybe Connor Cook.
Cook, the 6-4 Michigan State redshirt junior, said in October he would return for his senior year at MSU. College players with eligibility left often say that mid-season; we’ll see how Cook feels after the Spartans’ bowl game. But he’s a big guy in a pro-style offense who has been accurate and productive (44 touchdown passes, 12 interceptions over the past two years), and could slip into the first round and be the kind of Joe Flacco prospect teams feel they don’t have to trade up to get.
And we haven’t even mentioned Jake Locker.
Or Brian Hoyer. Or Mark Sanchez. There are some interesting—I will stop short of using “intriguing”—prospects who in the right hands (Chip Kelly’s? Jim Harbaugh’s?) could be productive somewhere in 2015. Again, it only takes one team.
In all, it’s going to be a fascinating first four months of 2015 on the quarterback front. And the last month of this season—when we should see more of Johnny Manziel and Cleveland should have more clarity on its quarterback issues, and teams like Philadelphia will know whether the quarterback of the future is in-house—will be important too. We could see some seismic action with the most important position in the game in 2015.
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