Broncos' Search for a QB: Learning From the Past

If the Broncos are going to finally find their long-term quarterback, the lessons from the past must be taken to heart.
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The 2021 NFL draft is just a few weeks away and Denver Broncos fans may be asking themselves this question: Is it time for the team to get aggressive and trade up to ensure it gets a quarterback?

Whether you think that Drew Lock has a chance to be the long-term guy, or whether you think a QB in the 2021 draft class would be a better option, it's important to understand that, if you really want to find that QB, you have to do more than just get a signal-caller. You need to get your QB.

I've spent time looking at past moves made to get a QB and examined which moves paid off and which ones didn't. My research was to determine why certain moves to get QBs paid off and why others failed.

While I understand the view that teams should keep drafting QBs until they find the right guy, I see that as no different than telling a QB to keep throwing passes until he completes them or doesn't throw an interception. It doesn't really address the issues at hand.

To get a QB to complete more passes or throw fewer interceptions, he needs to figure out what he's doing wrong and correct it. The same is true with NFL teams: If you aren't finding your QB, you need to figure out what you are doing wrong and correct it.

That brings me to the bold moves of the past to land quarterbacks. I examined past moves since 1993 that involved either drafting a QB, in which the team drafted one that fell to him, or drafted by trading up, or trading for a veteran or signing a high-priced free agent.

Why did I start with 1993? First, that's when actual free agency came to the NFL, so there was a greater chance that desirable players would hit the open market. Second, that's a point when the NFL shifted to more emphasis on the passing game, thus the value of QBs went up.

My definition of a bold move for a QB is one that involves a first-round pick or involves a big contract that indicates the player will likely start. Therefore, I'm not including QB drafts or trades that involved a second-round pick or less in my comparisons. I did, however, include trades back into the first round, whether the team trading up sent a first-round pick in the deal or not.

I scored the drafts and trades on whether the QB was with the acquiring team for at least six seasons, whether the team posted a winning record in 50 percent of the seasons the player was with the team and whether the team reached the playoffs in 40 percent of the seasons the signal-caller was with the team (the playoff stat accounts for the possibility of a loaded division or conference).

For free agents, I replaced the 'six-season' rule with the QB needing to play a length of time amounting to at least one year less than the contract length. As an example, if the QB signed for five years, he needed to be with the team at least four.

One thing I did account for is that QBs drafted in 2017 or later haven't yet reached their sixth season, so I didn't include them in my tallies unless the QB is already gone from the team. I'll note which ones I didn't include later (though I made one exception).

In scoring QBs that were taken in the first with no trade up, I found 14-of-39 such QBs who either met at least two of the criteria, or who fell just short but could be argued as being a modest success. Case in point is Steve McNair, who met just one of the criteria, but I don't think anyone would call him a bust.

For QBs acquired in a trade-up the board or equivalent thereof, I found 4-of-16 who met at least two of the criteria. One of them is Patrick Mahomes, who hasn't reached his sixth season in the NFL, but all indications are he'll be with the Chiefs by that point. Another is Eli Manning, who was acquired in the equivalent of a draft-day trade up the board, even though the trade happened after he and Philip Rivers had been selected.

When it came to trades for veterans QBs, there have been just 11 such trades, not including the recent Matthew Stafford trade, that involved a first-round pick. The only trade that clearly worked out was the Seattle Seahawks acquiring Matt Hasselbeck from the Green Bay Packers, and that involved a swap of first-round picks, with the Seahawks sending a third to the Packers. 

Two others might be argued as successes, those for Matt Schaub (another first-round swap, with the Houston Texans sending two seconds to the Atlanta Falcons) and Joe Montana (the Niners-Chiefs trade in which the Chiefs sent a first to the Niners and got a third back).

Finally, we come to free agency, with 23 major signings and just seven which arguably worked out, with only two that were clear hits for the acquiring teams.

One group of QBs I didn't examine was an unusual group — those that teams drafted after trading down or the equivalent thereof. Rivers is one example of this, and he worked out pretty well. The same cannot be said, though, of two QBs taken after teams made a straight move down the board: Patrick Ramsey and E.J. Manuel.

From a percentage standpoint, if you include every move that arguably worked out, you don't see much of a difference between the four paths. However, that brings us to recent drafts, in which we need to look at those taken in 2017 and beyond (other than Mahomes).

In 2017, Deshaun Watson was taken after a trade up the board. In 2018, Baker Mayfield was taken No. 1 overall, while Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson were taken after trades up. The 2019 and 2020 first-round QBs weren't taken in trades up (there is the trade for Drew Lock, but that was in the second round).

If more of the QBs taken in 2017 or later stick around with their current teams for six seasons, we'll see a higher level of success for drafting QBs, whether staying put or trading up. This is why I believe that, ultimately, drafting a QB is the best way to find one.

Furthermore, because drafted QBs come on cheaper contracts, it's better to go that route than to go to free agency, in which you may overspend for a player, or to trade for a veteran QB, in which he may come with a pricey contract and come at the cost of too much draft capital. Elite QBs seldom hit free agency or the trading block these days, so it's tougher to find one that will pay off there.

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The Broncos are no exception when it comes to making bold moves for QBs. 

Broncos Bold QB Moves Since 1993

Jake Plummer: He signed a seven-year, $40.7M contract in 2003 and spent four seasons with the team. The Broncos had a winning record and made the playoffs three straight seasons before the next QB on the list came along.

Jay Cutler: In 2006, the Broncos moved up the first round before draft day, then made another move on draft day to get the 11th overall pick, sending the 15th overall pick and a third-round pick to the Rams. He lasted three seasons and the Broncos never made the playoffs with him as the starter. He was traded to the Chicago Bears, along with a fifth-round pick, for two firsts, a third, and Kyle Orton. I'll talk more about Cutler in my next installment.

Tim Tebow: The Broncos traded back into the first round in 2010, getting the 25th overall pick from the Ravens for the 43rd overall pick, plus third and fourth-round picks. He lasted two seasons with one playoff trip, and while that playoff game was fun, I don't think most Broncos fans would say the move was a clear success.

Peyton Manning: After being released by the Indianapolis Colts in 2012, Manning eventually signed a five-year, $96M contract. He spent four seasons with the Broncos, who made the playoff each season, went to two Super Bowls, and won one. While a great signing, and easily the Broncos' best bold move for a QB, it may have caused some fans to think free agency is the answer to QB woes when this was really a case of the team being fortunate that an elite QB had hit the open market.

Paxton Lynch: The Broncos swapped firsts with the Seahawks in 2016, getting the 26th overall pick for the 31st pick and the 94th pick, a third-rounder. After two seasons of poor play, Lynch was waived prior to the start of the 2018 season, easily making this the biggest bust among Broncos bold moves for a QB.

Case Keenum: One of the few two-year deals I included in my tally because most short-term deals were for backups at a low cost. Keenum, though, got $36M with $25M fully guaranteed in the deal he signed in 2018. He lasted just one season before he was traded to Washington. The only reason he isn't as big of a bust as Lynch was that he played well at times, just not well enough to get the Broncos to the playoffs.

Bottom Line

These aren't the only moves involving the Broncos and a quarterback, but they were the most significant or ones involving a first-round pick if drafted or traded. Given the Broncos have just one clear winner (Manning) and two that will be debated (Plummer, Cutler), and the rest have been misses, it may explain why some Broncos fans are leery about trading up in the 2021 draft to get a QB.

But what can we learn from past moves for a QB that didn't work out? I'll talk more about that in my next installment, in which I'll primarily focus on one guy in particular: Jay Cutler.


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