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NFL Quarterback Trend: Over-the-Top Investment

Bears GM Ryan Pace reflects on both trading for and drafting a quarterback this offseason, and the similarities to what the Eagles did last year

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. — Ryan Pace knows how stunned you were. And the Bears GM is aware of how Chicago fans reacted to his trade of third-round and fourth-round picks to move up one spot and draft North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky, seven weeks after he signed 27-year-old ex-Buccaneer QB Mike Glennon to a three-year, $45 million deal.

It’s OK. He gets how you might feel, and he’ll even concede he feels a little differently about it now than he did in April.

“I was just thinking about that. In fact, it actually just feels better now,” Pace said, sitting in the atrium of the athletic building at Olivet Nazarene, where the Bears hold training camp. “I go to bed at night with a smile on my face. I just feel better. We all do. I think every thought we had, we’re seeing it now. The good thing, let’s face it, that can be tough for those guys. But they’ve all handled it awesome. And that’s really good to see.”

What are we seeing? Well, this isn’t just about the Bears. It’s about the Eagles too, and a trend that may well take off in the years to come among teams that are wandering around in the wilderness looking for their next franchise quarterback.

The Bears’ two new quarterbacks, Mitchell Trubisky (10) and Mike Glennon, have been under the microscope at training camp.

The Bears’ two new quarterbacks, Mitchell Trubisky (10) and Mike Glennon, have been under the microscope at training camp.

In this week’s Game Plan, from the camp trail, we’ll have an update on the knee of Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater; we’ll explain why Mike McCarthy is trying to carry the vibes of last fall over to this summer; we’ll get a way-too-early look at the potentially incredibly rich quarterback market of 2018; and we’ll also check in on the progress of Carson Wentz in Philly.

And we’re going to start with Wentz too. Because in a roundabout way, Wentz—and more specifically the way Philly acquired him—became a Bears story this offseason, Or, at least, that should’ve been the story once people got past the initial shock of Pace and his group moving aggressively for a rookie quarterback soon after handsomely rewarding a veteran at the position.

You may have forgotten, but the Eagles signed Sam Bradford to a two-year, $36 million deal and Chase Daniel to a three-year, $21 million deal last March before trading up twice in the first round to land Wentz. A year later, Wentz is the only one left. And if he’s what Howie Roseman and Doug Pederson think he is, no one will remember the rest.

Pace has proof, too. “I grew up in Dallas, and when they acquired (Troy) Aikman, they also brought in Steve Walsh.” The Cowboys got Walsh, as no one remembers, with a first-rounder in the 1989 supplemental draft. That wound up costing Jimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones the first pick in the 1990 draft. Aikman won three Super Bowls, made the Hall of Fame, and Dallas hasn’t heard much about Walsh or the forfeited pick since.

The point? If an over-the-top investment solves a team’s quarterback problem, no one will ask if it was worth it.  There’s no price too high for that.

“For us, it went back to that original thought—it’s just too important a position to mess around with,” Pace says now. “And god, if we’re able to create a scenario—and we always say ‘competition everywhere’, but this is bigger—where it works out where we have two good quarterbacks, that’s a great thing, coming off a situation where we really wanted to upgrade that position.

“And then as you start talking about it, we have an environment where we can handle it the right way, you don’t have to throw this guy out there right away.”

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That brings us to where the Bears quarterbacks are now. On most days, they’ll split the reps up 4-4-4, Glennon with the 1s, Mark Sanchez with the 2s, and Trubisky with the 3s. On Wednesday, for the first time, Trubisky took some snaps with the 2s. The idea here is entrench Glennon with the starters, and pace the development of Trubisky, who literally needed to learn to take a snap and call a play in the huddle.

But if it sounds like all of this worked out as Pace and Co. saw it back in January, as the Bears prepared to cut ties with Jay Cutler, that wouldn’t be quite right either.

Glennon was a target from the start. Pace had a high grade on him before the 2013 draft, and got to see him play for two years while working for the Bucs’ NFC South rivals in New Orleans. The Bears saw Glennon as a starting-quality quarterback who just needed a chance to play. Chicago would give it to him on a contract that would allow the club to bail after a year if the match didn’t work.

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Meanwhile, Pace knew his own feelings on Trubisky—after the fall, Pace felt like the first-year UNC starter was the best prospect in the class—but guarded them. Then, his colleague’s evaluations started pouring in.

“The area scout, the over-the-top scout, the director of player personnel, the college director—it was unanimous that he was the No. 1 quarterback in this year’s class,” Pace said. “And then to sit back quietly, and see our coaches come to the same conclusion, it gives you conviction. Because now, without me making them biased, and everyone on board like that, we can be aggressive and just go get it done.”

And part of his decision to be aggressive was, indeed, inspired by Philly.

“We liked Wentz too and to see a team aggressively go do that at a position of need? Hell yeah,” Pace said.” You’ve heard stories of ‘God, there’s a player right in front of them, and they don’t do it, and he goes and it deflates the room.’ I was in New Orleans when we traded up for Brandin Cooks, and last year when we traded up a couple spots for Leonard Floyd. If the room has conviction on a player, go get him.”

Another thing played into it, too. A couple days before the draft, the Bears started getting calls about their pick. They knew they were at the mercy of the Browns, who they worried would take Trubisky at 1, and they were confident the Niners wouldn’t take a quarterback at 2. But, Pace says, “people are calling, wanting to come up to our spot, and we had a pretty good idea of who it was for. So if they’re calling us …”

He figured they were calling the Niners, too, and that was enough to push him to fork over the two mid-round picks to move up one spot. He recovered one by moving back in the second round, and the truth is that if Trubisky is who Pace believes he can become, none of it will matter.

Pace saw Drew Brees up close for nine seasons in New Orleans. Pace told me that it taught him, first, to value traits like accuracy, an ability to process, and work ethic over arm strength and size. And it also drove home to him how much it means to have an elite quarterback.

“You could call them erasers, these top quarterbacks in the league that can erase flaws on your roster, make people around them better,” Pace said. “I feel like when you don’t have a quarterback, you almost have to be perfect in every personnel decision you make. When you have a quarterback, he can raise boats, there’s a little bit more margin for error.

“So now to look at the room, to have Mike Glennon, a guy we’ve liked since he came out of N.C. State, and to see him in a starting opportunity is awesome. And then go to Sanchez, a guy that we’ve always valued and I think he’s perfect in this role. And to get the top quarterback in the draft, what the quarterback room of the Chicago Bears looks like now compared to what it looked like not very long ago, it’s exciting.”

Time will tell if he’s right about Glennon. We probably won’t know for a couple years what the Bears have in Trubisky.

But the truth is, for how the Bears were criticized, and the Eagles took some heat last year, a trend rooted in common sense may well be emerging. Would anyone argue there’s a price too high to get it right at quarterback?

“I do think it could easily become a trend,” Pace said. “It’s just too important of a position, and you can increase your odds of success doing it this way.”

Hard to argue with that.

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Danielle Hunter had 12.5 sacks last season despite not starting any games for the Vikings.

Danielle Hunter had 12.5 sacks last season despite not starting any games for the Vikings.

1. At this point, it’s easy to see where Colin Kaepernick is stuck. In both cases this offseason where a team showed public interest in him, it became a referendum on the league and the organization in question. And that could well work against him now. Or at least make it so any interested party is very quiet in kicking the tires.

2. There’d be no shock in the Vikings organization if, by year’s end, third-year rusher Danielle Hunter is considered the best player on a defense teeming with talent. One staffer used a single word to describe him to me: “ridiculous.” Last year, Hunter had 12.5 sacks, despite playing about 40 percent of the snaps.

3. The people in Carolina are less than surprised that Kony Ealy, traded in March to New England, is struggling in his early days as a Patriot. His rep with the Panthers was that he was late for meetings off the field, busted assignments on it, and had excuses for all of that. He never fully bought into the program, and it’ll be interesting to see if Bill Belichick can get him to in Foxboro.

4. Under-the-radar position battle to watch: Raiders right tackle. The team is encouraged with rookie David Sharpe, who’s pushing veteran Marshall Newhouse at the position, with second-year man Vadal Alexander factoring into the equation too. The Raiders’ o-line was among the league’s best last year, and how this shakes will go a long way in determining whether they get back there.

5. That, of course, assumes that holdout Donald Penn is in place at left tackle. It’s hard to blame 30-somethings like Penn and Houston left tackle Duane Brown for trying to get one more bite of the financial apple. It’s also hard to see these holdouts actually keeping either guy off the field when the games actually count.

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6. Along those lines, Branden Albert’s attempt at squeezing some money out of the Jaguars—Jacksonville traded for him in March—was worth a shot. Now that he’s retired, rookie Cam Robinson gets the left tackle assignment. We wrote on him in May, with this from an AFC scouting director: “Athletically, he’s good enough, he’s a great bender. Is he an elite left tackle? No. But he can be an elite guard or an elite right tackle. He’s gonna be a good player, and he’s every bit as good as the guy the Giants took a couple years ago at 10—he’s a better athlete than (Ereck) Flowers.”

7. The Jets are pretty pleased with the early camp returns they’ve gotten from Christian Hackenberg, whose mechanical work with QB coach Jeremy Bates seems to be paying off. Hackenberg has taken a significant step from last year, in cleaning up his footwork, accuracy and delivery. He needs to be more consistent still, but the big question is whether the changes will hold up when the bullets are flying.

8. The Lions left tackle situation, with Taylor Decker on the shelf, is still up in the air and is one worth watching. Decker’s not expected back until midseason, at the earliest, and big-ticket free-agent right tackle Ricky Wagner lacks the flexibility to flip sides.

9. Just terrible injury luck for the Chargers, after enduring similar fortune over the past two years, with the torn ACL to second-round pick Forrest Lamp. That means their top two picks (WR Mike Williams being the other) may not play this year, and those guys came in a draft year where Los Angeles was trying to play it safe with medicals—shying away from Ohio State’s Malik Hooker and Alabama’s Jonathan Allen as a result.

10. After being at Bears practice Wednesday, I can give you two rookies you should keep an eye on. One of them is gigantic: 6-foot-6, 270-pound tight end Adam Shaheen. The other is not: 5-foot-6, 181-pound scatback Tarik Cohen. I’d expect both will find roles as rookies.

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Odell Beckham is in the fourth year of his rookie contract with the Giants.

Odell Beckham is in the fourth year of his rookie contract with the Giants.

1. Spoiler alert: Beckham won’t be the NFL’s highest paid player.We can all argue until we’re blue in the face about whether Giants star Odell Beckham is worth more than Joe Flacco or Matt Ryan or whichever quarterback you want to cherry-pick. In the end, it’ll be irrelevant to what he gets paid. Because what matters isn’t worth, but leverage, and it’d be almost impossible (absent something crazy like a season-long holdout) for any player at any other position to get into the same leverage neighborhood in which quarterbacks reside.

Some simple math can explain it. Beckham is due $1.84 million this fall, and his fifth-year option for 2018 should be worth around $8 million. In 2019, the Giants could franchise him. The 2017 receiver tag was set at $15.68 million, and it’s gone up about $1 million per year over the course of the current CBA. So let’s just say that number, for argument’s sake, is $18 million for 2019. That means the Giants can likely keep Beckham for the next three years for less than $28 million, which is a major leverage point in that the team would have to be motivated to move off that position. To be the highest paid player in the NFL, Beckham would have to make almost that much per season.

If Beckham waits, of course, he incurs injury risk, and his leverage increases. And it’s certainly reasonable to envision a scenario where he could become the NFL’s first $20 million per year receiver if he chooses to be patient. But the idea that he’s going to catch the quarterbacks makes no sense. And beyond just that, if he really wants to help other players, there’s a good way—chase a contract with a high percentage full guarantee, rather than getting caught up in the raw dollar figure.

2. If he makes it back, don’t undersell what Teddy Bridgewater accomplished. The Vikings didn’t say it, when Bridgewater suffered his freak knee injury late last August, just before their opener. But now the truth can come out: There was concern at the time that the former first-round pick would never play football again. That came up when I asked Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer the other day if, based on what he’s seen the last few months, he’s confident Bridgewater will eventually get all the way back.

“I think he’s gonna be able to get back and play,” Zimmer told me. “Again, I don’t know when it’ll be, no one does. But we’re all hopeful that he will, and not only for us, but Teddy. He’s such a great kid, works hard. If you asked me that last August, I might have said, ‘I don’t know if he’ll ever play again.’ But now I think he’ll play, just because of the progress he’s made, the work he’s put in and the kid he is.”

In recounting the day he went down, Zimmer also provided a reminder on how well Bridgewater showed (12-16, 161 yards, TD, 0 INT) in the team’s preseason game against the Chargers two days before the injury. That, plus their institutional knowledge of who he is as a person, sent Minnesota’s hopes for a breakout year from their young QB into the stratosphere. And that may seem like a long time ago, but the way Bridgewater’s handled the aftermath has again revealed some of those traits they were counting on. “It just confirms who he is, what his fiber is made of,” GM Rick Spielman told me. “It wasn’t just a regular ACL, it was potentially, we thought, a career-ending injury. But his demeanor never changed. I’m sure he had his up days and his down days going through the process. But his demeanor never changed. His interaction with the team, with the coaches, with myself, never swayed. It was Teddy.”

And it’s that Teddy that has the Vikings thinking there may be hope yet of all that anticipation and excitement of last summer being rekindled.

3. Last year’s run setting the stage for this year’s Packers? We did a larger story Wednesday on Mike McCarthy’s longevity as Packers coach. And in the course of my talk with him, he offered interesting insight about his feelings for last year’s team, which plays into his enthusiasm to remain in his job for the foreseeable future.

“Yeah, ’16 will be one, when I’m sitting on the porch, doing one more interview with you, the ’16 team will come up,” McCarthy says. “They’ll always hold a special place in my heart, because they fought. They fought and they fought and they fought. They got better as the year went on. That’s all you can ask for as a coach. … That team last year, if we’d won it all, I’d be sitting here and telling you it was the best team I’d ever coached. It still might be the best team I’ve ever coached as far as the team’s mindset, attitude, work ethic. Those guys, we haven’t talked about all the stuff we went through, but boy, that was an incredible locker room.”

So the obvious next question is whether it can carry over. “Lessons from the past carry over but you have to be really careful,” McCarthy responded. “You can’t count on it. There’s a difference. You got the authors of the book in the locker room, so you can say, ‘Look, remember, we went through something similar last year. This is how we handled it, this is the result. The people that experienced it are there. It helps. It’s better to tell a story about the people that are in the room than share a story about people outside the room. It definitely helps. But every year is different, every challenge is different.”

Here’s the good news: That eight-game winning streak showed things that were sustainable. Aaron Rodgers’ play is one. Ty Montgomery’s emergence as a do-everything back—one Green Bay staffer called him “an offensive coach’s dream”—is another. The line came together. The young defense needs a few key guys (watch sophomore DL Dean Lowry) to develop. But after hearing what McCarthy thinks of the makeup of the group, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be there fighting to get to Minnesota in February at the very end.

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4. Reason to be bullish on Carson Wentz.He got a day off during the first week of camp, and because it’s Philly and it’s the Eagles, there was a ripple in the news cycle. The reality is i’s more a reflection of how he’s been carefully managed—Nick Foles got the day off too—over his first offseason as a pro.

“I want him fresh and ready to go,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson says. “Coming off a whole offseason last year where he threw a ton of balls, he was constantly going from his last days at North Dakota State through this process and on into OTAs and camp. So come back fresh.”

As for the rest, I’m with most other people on this. If the mechanical tweaks that Wentz made this offseason (he focused on his footwork and holding the ball a little higher) take and he’s more accurate downfield, then I’d bet he’s in for a big year. His leveling off last year lines up with the Eagles having lost right tackle Lane Johnson to suspension. Conversely, Philly is now so deep up front that they had no place for Allen Barbre, who started 28 games for them the past two years, on the roster. They dealt Barbre to Denver on Wednesday, after letting it be known they were planning to cut him. And at the skill positions, big ticket free-agent Alshon Jeffrey was a monster in the spring and is playing for a contract, and Torrey Smith’s speed should help clear things out for the team’s crew of scatbacks and tight ends.

All of that is to say, the pieces around Wentz should be more than a little bit better than they were when he was a rookie, and now he just needs to be, too. And the way he’s come back more confident as a player, and more assured as a leader in Year 2, is a start.

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Jimmy Garoppolo’s expiring contract could result in the young quarterback getting a shot at the open market in 2018.

Jimmy Garoppolo’s expiring contract could result in the young quarterback getting a shot at the open market in 2018.

Derek Carr and Jimmy Garoppolo were separated by 26 picks in the 2014 draft.

This fall, Carr will make $25 million. Garoppolo will make less than $900,000.

“I don’t think about it too much,” Garoppolo said, when I asked him about it the other day. “I’m happy for Derek. I know him from playing in the Senior Bowl and going through the draft process. It’s tremendous. He deserved it. It’s just one of those things. You’ve gotta go about your business.

“You start thinking about those things, you’ll get your head all twisted up worrying about the wrong things. When that time comes, I’ll approach that and go about my business that way.”

What’s uncertain is what’ll happen when that time comes at the end of this season. And that part is complicated, which is our lesson for this week: There are a number of teams facing tricky franchise-tag situations with veteran quarterbacks for 2018.

Here’s a rundown …

• Patriots: New England could effectively kick the long-term QB decision can down the road for another year by tagging Garoppolo at about $22 million in 2018. The issue there? Tom Brady is slated to make $15 million. So, to make this work, does New England have to give Brady a raise in the neighborhood of $8 million? And even if you got that worked out, and were willing to allocate $45 million to two players, would Garoppolo be OK with sitting another year while the team waits to see what a 41-year-old Brady looks like? It seems more likely this is an either/or proposition.

• Vikings: Both Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater are in contract years, and there’s only one franchise tag between them. When I asked GM Rick Spielman about it, he said, “We haven’t made any decisions yet. But I know through our roster planning and our cap planning, we have plans in place to have that position taken care of.” If Bridgewater sits out the year and his contract tolls—there could be a dispute over that down the line—Minnesota may be able to delay a long-term decision another here. At least for now, it seems that chances would be that one or the other will be a free agent.

• Saints: Drew Brees is in a contract year, publicly says he’s not worried about getting an extension done now, and has a no-franchise-tag provision in his contract for 2018. So in a way, New Orleans will have to prove to him that it’s still the right place for a quarterback who will be 39 years old when the free-agent gates open in March. And Sean Payton’s future beyond this year probably will play into that call, too.

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• Redskins: This one’s been well-covered. It’d cost Washington a market-busting $34.47 million to franchise Cousins again, and $28.73 million for the team just to retain matching rights (with no compensation coming back if he leaves) via the transition tag. Meanwhile, Cousins knows he’ll have one natural landing spot (San Francisco) and might have two (Los Angeles, depending on Jared Goff’s play).

• Lions: Matthew Stafford is the other big quarterbacking name in a contract year, and by far the least likely guy on this list to change addresses. Detroit will get something done with him, but Stafford’s franchise number is high ($26.4 million), because his expiring deal has a big cap number for 2017. That, on paper, gives him the leverage to ask for close to $30 million per (2 tags = $58.08 million). Or he could give a little back there and ask for more cash to be guaranteed. Either way, he’s in a good spot.

So what does all this mean? Well, because so many of these quarterbacks have an open lane on the highway to free agency, and the draft class (Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Josh Allen, etc.) is expected to be really solid, 2018 may be the first offseason that I can remember where supply at the game’s most important position could exceed demand.

And if it plays out that way, watching the dominoes fall from there will be fascinating.

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