- Heading into the 2018 season, all but a handful of NFL teams think they are set at the QB position for the next few years. Which teams are still up in the air? Plus, more on the Khalil Mack trade and Dez Bryant's situation.
Recently, I was talking with Will Cain who wanted to partner in exploring this premise: never before have so many NFL teams entered a season believing that they are set at quarterback for the near future.
Five teams have an elite QB who will be 35 or older by season’s end: Patriots (Tom Brady), Packers (Aaron Rodgers), Steelers (Ben Roethlisberger), Saints (Drew Brees) and Chargers (Philip Rivers). Retirement seems imminent for none of these quarterbacks. In fact, all five are arguably better now than they were seven or eight years ago.
Eight teams have drafted a first-round quarterback in the last two years: Browns (Baker Mayfield), Jets (Sam Darnold), Bills (Josh Allen), Cardinals (Josh Rosen), Ravens (Lamar Jackson), Bears (Mitchell Trubisky), Chiefs (Patrick Mahomes) and Texans (Deshaun Watson).
Another eight have a quarterback in his prime who has recently been to a Pro Bowl or signed a record-setting contract: Falcons (Matt Ryan), Colts (Andrew Luck), Raiders (Derek Carr), 49ers (Jimmy Garoppolo), Seahawks (Russell Wilson), Panthers (Cam Newton), Lions (Matthew Stafford) and Vikings (Kirk Cousins).
Three teams have young QBs approaching their prime: Eagles (Carson Wentz), Cowboys (Dak Prescott) and Rams (Jared Goff). Two other teams have recently signed their QB to a new long-term deal: Redskins (Alex Smith) and Jaguars (Blake Bortles).
This leaves six teams: the Buccaneers (Jameis Winston), Titans (Marcus Mariota), Giants (Eli Manning), Dolphins (Ryan Tannehill), Bengals (Andy Dalton) and Broncos (Case Keenum). There’s a case to be made that all six believe in their current quarterbacks’ imminent future.
• Buccaneers: Winston, who is suspended for the first three games of the season for sexually assaulting an Uber driver, is in a make-or-break year, but if he builds on the scintillating potential he showed as a rookie, Tampa Bay would gladly follow through on his fifth-year option in 2019.
• Titans: Mariota is in similar situation as Winston’s, only without the off-field concerns. If Mariota shows glimmers of hope under new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur (a reputed quarterback teacher), Tennessee would secure him long-term.
• Giants: Cain and I view Manning differently—Cain sees him as a 37-year-old in decline, while I see him as a 37-year-old whose career-long ups and downs were exacerbated in an injury-ravaged offense last year. Any physical decline—which I’ve yet to spot on film—is offset by Manning’s ability to control a game at the line of scrimmage. He’s essentially a lesser version of a 39-year-old Drew Brees. What matters, though, is how the Giants view Manning. Taking Saquon Barkley at No. 2 and passing on four first-round QBs suggests they’re comfortable with him under center for the next few years.
• Dolphins: Even though he’s already 30, we still don’t know about Tannehill. Knee injuries have kept him out of all but 13 games under quarterback whisperer Adam Gase, in whcih Miami went 8–5 in Tannehill’s starts (and 8–11 in other QBs’ starts). If Tannehill performs well in 2018, it’s hard to imagine the Dolphins cutting ties. Still, that’s a sizeable IF, so let’s count the Dolphins as the first team with an unsettled QB situation.
• Bengals: Severing the marriage with Dalton back in spring would have cost the Bengals just $2.4 million in dead cap money and put them in play for one of the five first-round QBs or maybe even free agents Kirk Cousins and Case Keenum. Instead, they retained a 30-year-old with average tools who over the last two years has helped them to a 13-18-1 record. It’s not a decision I agree with, but those actions suggest the Bengals are still relatively high (enough) on Dalton. That said, if Dalton flounders in 2018, the team will almost certainly move on. Let’s count the Bengals as the second team with an unsettled QB situation.
• Broncos: The 30-year-old Keenum got a solid two-year, $36 million contract, and if he plays in 2018 like he did in ’17 with the Vikings, that could be parlayed into a new long-term deal. Keenum’s success in Minnesota was genuine; his film was as good as his stats. But five years of mostly mid-level backup quarterbacking keeps the one-year-wonder question in play. You can bet Elway has already started researching possible 2019 first-round QBs.
A conservative estimate suggests at least two of these six QBs will play well enough in 2018 to stick around, which would leave just four teams with QB needs to address.
Unofficially, the only time this century that we’ve seen so many teams set at QB entering a season was 2012, when every team except the Chiefs (Matt Cassel), Cardinals (John Skelton) and maybe Bucs (Josh Freeman) and Bills (Ryan Fitzpatrick, though he’d just signed a new contract) believed their QB was a quality veteran or intriguing up-and-comer.
Of course, as 2012 reminds us, just because 28 teams appear set for the near future at QB doesn’t mean 28 teams will feel that way after this season. But for now, we must view the NFL from the standpoint that almost every team is comfortable with its situation under center. What are the implications of this? Does it mean that a dip in QB play would set a team back even quicker than usual?
There’s also this philosophical question: is a team’s QB situation relative to other teams’ QB situations? Or is it relative to other teams’ defenses? As I said to Cain, when the Packers play the Lions, it’s not Rodgers vs. Stafford. It’s Rodgers versus Detroit’s defense and Stafford versus Green Bay’s defense. Right now, 28 teams believe they have a quarterback who can help their offense outplay their opponent’s defense. However, Cain said we can all agree that Rodgers is better than Stafford. And so we can reason that the Packers with Rodgers could score, say, 31 points against Detroit’s D and the Lions with Stafford could score, say, 27 points against Green Bay’s D.
With so many teams comfortable at the quarterback position, we also must factor in the money. The Seahawks were dominant from 2012-15 because Russell Wilson was on his rookie deal for three years and his new contract in 2015 had a cap hit of just $7 million that year. With such a cheap QB, the Seahawks could afford to keep their star-studded defense intact and put respectable offensive weapons around Wilson.
Today, Wilson’s cap number is $23.8 million and the Seahawks are rebuilding through the draft. That may have happened anyway; some of their star defenders got older or injured. But there’s no doubt that Wilson’s affordable contract was an advantage in those early years. By comparison, one could reason that Wilson’s current contract is a disadvantage—especially since teams like the Rams, Eagles, Bears and others have started stockpiling expensive stars while their QB is on his rookie deal.
Last week on our new NFL Deep Dive podcast, Gary Gramling brought to my attention a fascinating tidbit from our own Albert Breer: no team has ever won a Super Bowl with a $20 million QB. Initially, I dismissed this. The NFL’s first $20 million QB didn’t come until 2013 (Eli Manning). But Gary said consider the more general point: recently, expensive QBs have not won many Super Bowls. Indeed, look at the where the cap numbers ranked for the seven Super Bowl winning QBs under the current collective bargaining agreement, which made rookie QB deals like Russell Wilson’s cheap:
2017: Carson Wentz/Nick Foles, ranked 28th and 47th in QB salary
2016: Tom Brady, 18th
2015: Peyton Manning, 6th
2014: Tom Brady, 11th
2013: Russell Wilson, 52nd
2012: Joe Flacco, 16th
2011: Eli Manning, 4th
This doesn’t mean top-dollar QBs can’t win a title. It DOES mean careful thought should go into breaking the bank for your QB. The NFL is a quarterback-driven league, but what you can put around your QB might matter more.
TWO THINGS TO CONSIDER BEFORE BASHING THE RAIDERS
1. I’ve loved Khalil Mack since the first snap. He’s unequivocally a top-shelf superstar. But trading him may not have been the insane move people think it is. In Mack’s four seasons, the Raiders defense has ranked 20th, 20th, 22nd and 32nd in scoring. Mack certainly isn’t the reason why; without him, those defenses may have ranked 32nd each year. Still, the data shows that Mack with a mediocre supporting casts is not enough to carry a D.
2. The Raiders got a respectable package for Mack: essentially two first-rounders and a third-rounder in exchange for their second-rounder. The list of players who have been dealt for multiple first-round picks is short:
QB Jay Cutler from Denver to Chicago in 2009
RB Ricky Williams from New Orleans to Miami in 2002
WR Keyshawn Johnson from New York to Tampa Bay in 2000
QB Jeff George from Atlanta to Indianapolis in 1994
RB Herschel Walker from Minnesota to Dallas in 1989
LB Fredd Young from Seattle to Indianapolis in 1988
RB Eric Dickerson from Los Angeles Rams to Indianapolis in 1987
None of those traded players wound up being worth multiple first-round picks for their new team.
I believe this, which is why I’d declare the Mack trade a win-win for Oakland and Chicago, with Chicago getting the bigger win. Yes, I’m aware that Niners linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman were better than what we can expect Bears linebackers Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan to be. But Chicago’s secondary is also better than that 2012 San Fran secondary was. The trio of Mack, Leonard Floyd and Akiem Hicks are comparable to the trio of Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks and Justin Smith.
It’s understandable that people remain perplexed about Dez Bryant beginning this season unemployed. Bryant is only 29 and was once considered to be perhaps the league’s best receiver. But the last three years he has averaged just 678 yards receiving, and Tony Romo’s absence was not the sole reason why. Bryant is a build-up speed runner who lacks quickness and twitch. He’s also never been an overly refined route runner, and his experience is almost solely from playing on the outside. He was not used diversely in Dallas’s schematically straightforward passing game. This all suggests Bryant is one of those players who might lose 40% of his effectiveness if you take just 10% off the top of his athletic ability. He’s no longer a quality starter, and because he’s inexperienced in the slot, he’s incapable of fulfilling No. 3 receiver duties for many teams. And so what you have is an outspoken No. 4 receiver who probably believes he’s still at least a No. 2 and has become a loose cannon on Twitter. Or, in other words, an unemployed player.
NON-FOOTBALL THING ON MY MIND
Use of the word “literally” has spun wildly out of control. It used to be people would say “literally” when they meant “figuratively.” I literally ran around in circles for two hours, an undeveloped storyteller might say of his afternoon running errands. Today, that storyteller wouldn’t misapply literally, but he’d sprinkle it on needlessly. He no longer gets stuck in traffic for 45 minutes during those errands, he gets stuck in traffic for literally 45 minutes. Ugh.
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