Like the Alex Smith trade during Super Bowl week a year ago, there are some maneuvers that are so critical to a team’s planning that they often get done before the start of the new league year.
On Wednesday ESPN reported that Joe Flacco will end up with the Denver Broncos come March 13, and our Albert Breer reported that the Broncos are sending their 2019 fourth-round pick back to Baltimore. While Flacco’s impending departure isn’t a surprise—head coach John Harbaugh admitted as much following the Ravens’ season-ending loss to the Chargers, signaling a full-on rebuild around Lamar Jackson—it is surprising to again see Broncos president John Elway take a major swing for a quarterback in free agency.
Here’s what the deal means for Denver, Baltimore and the rest of the NFL:
1. Elway is still in win-now mode (...kind of).
If we thought the Demaryius Thomas trade was evidence that Elway was finally stripping down his Super Bowl-winning team from 2015, well, think again. The pivot to Flacco signals that the Broncos are still believe their roster is good enough to contend in the all-of-a-sudden insane AFC West—or that the the team is good enough to stay afloat. Denver’s current set of personnel would represent one of the more talented units Flacco has played with (especially given the Broncos’ resurgent running game and very talented backfield), though depending on the health of Denver’s offensive line, he may see a bit of a decline in protection.
This is a small- to medium-level gamble for the Broncos, who take on a 34-year-old quarterback who has had injury concerns in each of the last four seasons (Torn ACL in 2015, shoulder discomfort in ’16, back issues in ’17 and hip problems in ’18) and is set to make more than $18 million in ’19. Does he represent enough of a marked improvement from Case Keenum to constitute an upgrade, or is this another example of a competitive general manager allowing his inner-player to get the best of him?
The good news for Denver is that Flacco’s contract is very simple to get out of in 2019, so this could represent another one-year trial should the Broncos be interested in waiting to draft a successor quarterback.
2. Familiarity probably played a role.
Flacco arrived in Baltimore in 2008, which was Broncos new head coach Vic Fangio’s last year as the assistant head coach (he stayed on in Baltimore in ’09 as a linebackers coach). As Mike Sando over at ESPN also noted, there are tentacles leading back to Gary Kubiak in Denver. Not only did Flacco perform well under Kubiak when he was the Ravens’ offensive coordinator in 2014, but there is also connection between Kubiak’s system and the one run by current 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan (Shanahan worked on Kubiak’s staff in Houston from 2006-09 where some of his offensive concepts were cemented). To bring it full circle, Denver’s current offensive coordinator, Rich Scangarello, spent the last two years as Shanahan’s quarterbacks coach in San Francisco.
While above-average quarterback play is essential, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Elway views Flacco as a quarterback who is smart and experienced enough to play damage-free football and complement a defense that is expected to set the pace. This system would allow Denver to play that style of football.
3. What will the Ravens do now?
This trade adds a wrinkle to the backup quarterback scramble. Harbaugh said during his season-ending address that there would obviously be a focus on developing Lamar Jackson as a passer, though there would also be a concerted effort in finding coaches and players who fit the clock-sapping, ball-control offense that propelled Baltimore into the playoffs late last season. Flacco was never going to fit into that scheme, and since Jackson plays the position in a physical manner as well as a finesse manner, there will be a high premium on backups who can run a version of that scheme in case he goes down.
The most likely option would be Jackson’s third-stringer (and sometimes backup) in 2018, Robert Griffin III—Jeff Zrebiec of the Athletic reported mutual interest in a reunion back in early January. It’s difficult to pingeonhole any of the other free agents into a similar system, which could put the Ravens in a position to take a third passer come draft time. Without a full arsenal of picks, they shouldn’t reasonably be able to consider a quarterback until at least the third round. However, this draft especially, with a wide array of talents and an even more wide open view on their pro readiness, could benefit them in the later rounds.
4. How does the price tag on Nick Foles change?
Does the best quarterback remaining control the market, or will he suffer because of it? Remember, we’re still a few days ahead of teams being able to franchise players. Nick Foles declined his player option, which sets up the Eagles’ decision to either let him hit free agency and take the compensatory pick, or tag him and try to control his destination via trade. There has been some momentum for the second option given that both of Philadelphia’s division rivals, Washington and the Giants, could use a quarterback. However, the Eagles’ cap situation is a complicating factor, and franchising a quarterback is expensive.
In the short term, this probably alters the market a little bit for the Super Bowl LII MVP. Along with Washington and New York, the Jaguars and the Dolphins—should they move on from Ryan Tannehill—are on the list of teams that need a quarterback. As that list shrinks, or opts for the much cheaper option of signing a quality backup and drafting a rookie, we could also get some clarity on Foles’s future.
5. Is this an indictment of the rookie class?
A good nugget here from Eric Edholm of Pro Football Weekly, providing some breadcrumbs to follow: Elway apparently told Missouri quarterback Drew Lock that he’d be a top-10 pick at the Senior Bowl. The Broncos hold a top-10 pick. Is this trade a reflection of how Elway sees the top of the draft lining up ahead of him (meaning, does he think a few passers will be taken with picks one through nine), or is he just hedging his bets?
Let’s follow one scenario all the way through: Imagine this means the Broncos are all-in with Flacco and do not take a quarterback at 10 (Broncos beat writer Ryan O’Halloran mentioned offensive line and cornerbacks as the highest positions on their wish list). That leaves two teams—the Giants and the Jaguars—as kind-of-sort-of destinations for the best two rookie passers in the draft and only a handful of other teams (Washington, Miami, New England, Tennessee) who may be even remotely interested in the first round.
If nothing else, this move is a strong cup of coffee for the where-is-Kyler-Murray-landing crowd.
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