Business of Football: After the Matthew Stafford Trade, the QB Carousel Will Stop Spinning

Many prominent names are caught in the rumor mill, but Aaron Rodgers, Carson Wentz and even Deshaun Watson will stay put this offseason.
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Never mind that there is still this little thing called the Super Bowl to be played; the NFL offseason—the busy season for the business of football—has begun. And the overriding media message for this 2021 offseason is one of change and chaos at the game’s marquee position. It is now hard to turn on any sports programming—television, radio, podcasts, etc.—and not hear a segment about a quarterback who has been the face of his franchise being Photoshopped into different uniforms, leading to more commentary about trade compensation, weapons on the new team, blah, blah, blah.

I get it, as I am part of the media (sort of), but please. Someone has to be a voice of reason to slow down this fantasy football speculation train, and it may as well be me. Beyond the quarterback movement that just happened over the weekend, I don’t see much, if any, change. Let’s examine.

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The one that happened

The first pick in the 2009 draft, Matthew Stafford, was willingly sent from the Lions to the Rams in exchange for the first pick in the 2016 draft, Jared Goff. The Rams had to include a lot more in the deal: two future first-rounders and a third-rounder. And both players leave quite a trail of dead cap money on their former teams’ books for 2021. Indeed, here is how the quarterback situations for the two teams’ 2021 caps will look:

Lions: Goff: $21 million; Stafford: $19 million
Rams: Goff: $22 million; Stafford: $20 million

Unlike the quarterbacks discussed below, Stafford and the Lions mutually agreed to part, as he and his agents came to the Lions and said, in so many words: “Hey, we’ve had a nice run, but it’s time for a change.” Stafford still has an elite arm, and quarterback is, in my opinion, an arm position. Thus, the Lions were able to leverage multiple offers into a nice haul from the Rams, with one of those future first-round picks probably seen partially as an “incentive” to take on Goff’s remaining $43 million in future guarantees.

The Rams have shown us to be the NFL team least worried about first-round picks and dead cap money on their roster. Most teams view first-round picks as precious assets; the Rams have given five away in total for Brandin Cooks, Jalen Ramsey and now Stafford. As to dead cap—charges on the team’s salary cap for players no longer there—the Rams now have the two highest charges in NFL history, more than $21 million for Cooks and more than $22 million for Goff.

The fact that the Lions had so many teams interested in Stafford is because, in my unpopular opinion, teams know that Stafford was and will be the only marquee quarterback on the trade market. I know it’s fun to speculate, “Well, if they can get that for Stafford, imagine what [fill in the blank] could fetch!” Well, my opinion is they got that for Stafford, because [fill in the blank] is not available.

Let’s look at a few of those names.

Carson Wentz

Remember way back in December 2020, when weeks of Sunday morning NFL programming were focused on hot takes about Carson Wentz? Remember when the Eagles were sending him to the Colts into the waiting arms of his former coordinator Frank Reich? Remember when Wentz was going to pay the Eagles back tens of millions of dollars, only to have that repaid by the Colts when they traded for him? Please.

As I countered that noise at the time, the Eagles were not going to trade Wentz due to the massive organizational investment in him and the $34 million in dead money that would be left behind (a different dead-money neighborhood than even Goff). Their investment in Wentz dwarfed the investment in the coaching staff, which was jettisoned. Instead of sending Wentz to the Colts, they brought the Colts to Wentz (in the form of new head coach and Reich protégé Nick Sirianni). Now the hot-take rumor mill that had so much energy about Wentz not being an Eagle has moved on to other targets (and the thousands who came at me on social media for standing firm that Wentz would not be traded have gone curiously quiet).

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Deshaun Watson

With reports that Watson desperately wants out of Houston, no matter the new coach, the Photoshopping of Watson in different jerseys is rampant and the fantasy football trade discussions are out of control.

I’ll stand on the same lonely and unpopular hill that I stood on for Wentz: Watson will not go anywhere. The Texans may be bad communicators and curiously starstruck by an evangelist EVP of football operations, but they are not stupid enough to trade their best asset, no matter the return compensation. This does not even mention the reality of a dead-money hit that exceeds even that of Goff if they somehow traded Watson after paying him $30 million for one year of service. The surest way for the new general manager to become the old general manager is to trade away the most valuable person and player in the organization.

I know what you are saying: “But Andrew, Watson is serious. He’s furious and won’t play for them!” Deep breaths. It’s the beginning of February; the team doesn’t even gather for three months; there is not a meaningful snap in a game for eight months. What, exactly, is Watson’s leverage over the next six months: He’s going to boycott the team’s Zoom meetings? Will he have leverage if he still feels this way in September? Perhaps. But that is a long way away.

My mentor at the Packers, Ron Wolf, used to say this when we had a disgruntled player or players in the offseason: “I don’t care about harmony in March; I care about harmony in December.” Time will tell.

Speaking of my old team …

Aaron Rodgers

I watched three prominent ESPN personalities tell me last week that Rodgers had played his last game for the Packers. I heard about Aaron’s home in Los Angeles and how he is from the San Francisco area. Please. He’s not going anywhere (this year).

First, the obvious: The Packers will not trade the best player in the NFL, not to mention incurring the cap-busting $32 million in dead money if they did. They are not stupid. Although there is this: Unlike the Texans and Watson, there will be a separation between the Packers and their star QB, one I have predicted since April. The only question is whether that will come in 2022 or 2023.

The Packers’ selection of quarterback Jordan Love in the first round of the 2020 draft made me say something I thought I would never say: There is an expiration date on Rodgers and the Packers. First-round quarterbacks play. They don’t back up, they don’t get traded, they all play—the only question is when. Aaron sat for three long years; no other first-round quarterback since has sat for nearly that long. I predicted a two-year apprenticeship for Love back in April, and—if forced to choose a date of transfer—I still predict that.

Aaron was much more compliant about the selection of a first-round quarterback in 2020 than Brett Favre was in 2005 when we took Rodgers. That selection caused an immediate negative response from Favre and his agent, not to mention fans and media.

Rodgers’s statements since the NFC championship game have illustrated the need for an open and honest conversation between the Packers and Rodgers about the future. If I were Aaron’s agents, I would say this to the team: “O.K., Jordan is going to play, I get it. When? 2022? 2023?” Transparency breeds trust.

Many have speculated that Rodgers may want a contract adjustment or extension. An adjustment? Perhaps. An extension? Unlikely.

I wrote about the conundrum of Rodgers’s contract negotiation in 2018. There was talk about the possibility of unprecedented terms in that contract: adjustability to the marketplace, percentage of the cap, multiple future guaranteed years, etc. And, in my opinion, had Rodgers waited until he got closer to free agency, those groundbreaking precedents would have been in play. But the Packers were smart: They threw a ton of money at him—including a record $58 million signing bonus—and he signed as they maintained their cherished structure.

Rodgers has three years left on that deal. Extending it solely to push out cap room is not a “Packers” thing to do. When I managed their cap, I had a real reluctance to push out cap pain, always cognizant of leaving the team in the best position to succeed. They still have that philosophy.

I can see the Packers adding no-strings-attached money into this year’s compensation. The extra money would not—or should not—be proratable bonus that adds to future cap pain; rather, it should simply be salary or roster bonus (nonproratable). Why do this? Well, Rodgers is, to put it bluntly, both the NFL MVP and a placeholder for Love. The Packers have had it both ways this year; next year may not be as easy.

The bottom line for Rodgers is the same as for Wentz and the Eagles and Watson and the Texans: He won’t go anywhere. I know I’m lonely on this hill, but I’m embracing the rationality.

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Young quarterbacks also staying

Sam Darnold: won’t go anywhere. The Jets made him the third pick in the draft a couple of years ago; they’re not pivoting now.

Tua Tagovailoa: won’t go anywhere. The Dolphins made him the fifth pick in the draft nine months ago; they’re not pivoting now.

Drew Lock: won’t go anywhere. The Broncos invested their second-round pick a couple of years ago and like what they have seen; they’re not pivoting now.

Quarterbacks cheaper to keep than leave

Matt Ryan: Ryan, with the same agent as Stafford, could have said the same thing to the Falcons as Stafford said to the Lions, but there is a complication here. Ryan’s dead-money charge of nearly $50 million dwarfs Stafford’s $19 million. The Falcons may want to start over with another quarterback, but the cap ramifications of doing so are binding.

Ben Roethlisberger: The Ryan situation applies here too. Even as Roethlisberger’s days are waning in Pittsburgh, the Steelers’ repeated cap restructures have given him protection from release. He is cheaper to keep.

Thus, according to this writer, in the wild quarterback carousel that the media has been touting for weeks, there is one prominent name changing teams: Stafford (and a less prominent one in Goff). I know I’m lonely in this stance, but I don’t like crowds, anyway.

Sorry for the lack of drama but hey, we all need less drama in our lives.