- NFL teams used to have the luxury of allowing their rookie quarterbacks to sit on the bench and get up to speed with the pro game. But that seems to be a trend of the past.
The era of letting NFL quarterbacks drafted in the first round “sit and learn” is heading towards extinction. With two of the five quarterbacks drafted in the first round already recording starts this season, my strong sense is the other three will join them soon enough. Teams are less and less reverential to the old “common wisdom” about having young quarterbacks serve apprenticeships, for a variety of reasons.
During my nine years in Green Bay, even knowing Brett Favre’s unique ability to play through injury and never miss a snap, the Packers drafted several quarterbacks, including Aaron Brooks and Matt Hasselbeck (my former client prior to joining the Packers). Both players were evenutally traded, Brooks to the Saints and Hasselbeck to the Seahawks.
Drafting Aaron Rodgers in the first round in 2005, however, started an apprenticeship that no one knew how long would last. Both sides expressed concern to me—Favre’s camp was worried about Favre having to mentor his future replacement, and Rodgers’s camp wondered if the young QB would ever get to play in Green Bay, sensing that Favre wouldn’t retire for years to come. As it turned out, the apprenticeship lasted three years, only ending upon Brett’s retirement in 2008, a retirement that, as we know, was short-lived and followed by a messy divorce with the Packers.
That situation, however, was truly unique. I truly believe we will not see anywhere near a three-year apprenticeship again for a first-round pick quarterback.
The 2018 QB Class
The Jets opened the offseason re-signing Josh McCown for $10 million to serve as the placeholder for a future quarterback that they would draft, who turned out to be Sam Darnold. McCown’s status changed from placeholder to mentor backup quarterback before the season even began.
The Bills opened the offseason signing A.J. McCarron to a two-year, $10 million contract with a $4 million signing bonus, a sum they swallowed in trading McCarron to the Raiders. New starter Nathan Peterman lasted one week; the Bills have now handed the keys to the franchise to rookie Josh Allen one week into his professional career.
Lamar Jackson will probably not replace Joe Flacco as the starter in Baltimore this year, but the team is giving him reps in two-QB sets.
The Browns are paying Tyrod Taylor $16 million to be the placeholder before eventually giving way to Baker Mayfield. With Taylor under contract only through this season, that transition will happen, at the latest, next season, although it is hard to see it not happening before that. It is only a matter of time before Mayfield starts for the Browns.
Similarly to Cleveland, Sam Bradford—a true Hall-of-Famer in the business of football—is currently the placeholder starter with the Cardinals, earning $15 million in that role. However, the chances of the oft-injured and sometimes ineffective Bradford holding that position through the season, to me, are slim. Rosen will play this season, we know that.
Aaron Rodgers sat for three years, albeit behind a Hall of Fame quarterback. I doubt any of the quarterbacks drafted in the first round this year will sit even one year. And they shouldn’t…
Start the clock
The common wisdom to sit rookie quarterbacks can be outdated. To me, there is a decided advantage in learning curve by having quarterbacks—or any players—actually play compared to having them watch others play.
Yes, young quarterbacks go through the “growing pains” early in their careers, but that only accentuates the need to play. Why get those growing pains out of the way and start the clock on “games under his belt”? This “new thinking,” albeit hardly radical, is spurring teams to get these guys going.
In 2014, the Jaguars announced before the season that rookie quarterback Blake Bortles would sit and learn his entire rookie year. He took over the team after two games. In 2016 the Eagles were preparing to have Carson Wentz be the third quarterback for his entire rookie season. A week later, thanks in part to the Vikings desperation (trading a first-round pick for Sam Bradford), Wentz opened the season as the Eagles’ starter. Heck, even Johnny Manziel played for the Browns in his rookie year!
Bottom line is the bottom line
While the stakes involved with first-round quarterbacks are significant, they are nowhere near what they were prior to the current CBA coming on line in 2011. Before that, quarterbacks at the top of the draft, such as Matthew Stafford and Bradford, made up to $50 million guaranteed. Today, those top picks make up to $30 million; certainly not inconsequential amounts but only 60% of the investment made almost a decade ago
More importantly, teams with starting quarterbacks on their rookie contracts, even those taken at the top of the draft, have built-in financial advantages. Having a starting quarterback making even $6-7 million a year, the most a quarterback in his rookie contract would be making, gives a team incredible value at the sport’s most important position, and an advantaged ability to allocate resources elsewhere on their roster.
As an example, the Seahawks operated for two years with Russell Wilson as their quarterback earning roughly $600,000 and $700,000, allowing them to spend tens of millions on other parts of their roster before Wilson received a second contract in 2015. The same is true now with the Cowboys and Dak Prescott, now making $630,000—although the Cowboys’ loose spending in recent years (Tony Romo is still counting almost $9 million on their cap) prevents them from taking advantage of their windfall with Prescott as they should.
Even quarterbacks who are now playing that were drafted at the top of the draft give teams decided advantages in cash and cap allocations. The Bears are now paying three players outside the quarterback position—Khalil Mack, Allen Robinson and Kendall Fuller—a collective $76 million. If starting quarterback Mitchell Trubisky—making a bargain salary of $6.6 million—was on a veteran contract making, say, $25 million, the Bears would have four players accounting for over $100 million, a roughly 57% cash allotment of this year’s cap of $177 million. That spending is not sustainable without a quarterback on his rookie contract.
Finally, there is even further, and perhaps greater, value and reward to NFL teams for having young quarterbacks producing early in their careers. The present CBA does not allow renegotiations of rookie contracts until the player has completed three NFL seasons. Thus—using the example of Sam Darnold—even if the Jets wanted to reward Darnold with a new contract after this season or next, they can hide behind the CBA and decline to do so until after the 2020 season. This value-add, baked into the rookie compensation system, is a gift to NFL teams that keeps on giving.
I predict all five quarterbacks selected in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft will be playing by Halloween. With two of them starting now, that is certainly not a stretch. The days of waiting are over; the business of the NFL encourages it.
Five things I think
1. Le’Veon Bell has sacrificed over $1.7 million by sitting out the first two weeks of the NFL season and, as both a former team executive and former agent, I just don’t get it. I just don’t see how I could advise a player, especially a running back, to sacrifice nearly $1 million a week in the “hope” he can make it up next year in free agency. It assumes teams will think Hmm, because he missed some games in 2018 I’m going to pay him much more than we would have if he played. Bell will be a year older in 2019 than ’18; teams will care more about that than his usage in ’18.
2. I always say that greater talent allows for greater tolerance but, and the Browns’ moving on from Josh Gordon shows, even extraordinary talent cannot justify continued tolerance. However, he will find another team that cannot turn away from that temptation of great talent, no matter the baggage it brings.
3. You know my phrase: “Kickers are like lawyers; never fully appreciated until you need a good one.” Well, the Vikings and Browns, among others, really would appreciate a good kicker right now.
4. After the Supreme Court allowed for states to legalize sports betting in May, the NFL approached states regarding “integrity fees” for policing integrity of its product. All states have rejected that request thus far, but I wonder what the NFL would have provided for this fee. With Aaron Rodgers’s injury status a mystery last week, would the NFL have released more information about Rodgers with integrity fees? My sense is they would not have, making the argument for these fees even more spurious.
5. Ryan Fitzpatrick is a great story, not only for his present play but also for his ability to stay in the NFL as primarily a backup quarterback, earning these amounts over 14 seasons from these seven NFL teams:
Bengals: $1.362 million
Bills: $26.575 million
Titans: $3.25 million
Texans: $4 million
Jets: $15.312 million
Buccaneers: $7 million
Total: $58 million
More than 20% of NFL teams have had Ryan Fitzpatrick under contract since 2005. That doesn’t happen by accident. Kudos to him not only for his present success, but also for his steadfastness and perseverance in a business tilted against it.