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The Impracticality of Drafting Developmental Quarterbacks

There's occasionally a discussion about the notion of drafting a developmental quarterback not unlike former GM Ron Wolf would do. Whether it's the Cleveland Browns or anyone else, the league has changed and made such a move impractical.

Every year there's a section of fans and media that advocates a team drafting a mid to late round quarterback prospect to develop behind their starter. For the Cleveland Browns, getting someone to develop behind Mayfield that can be a backup and maybe even a trade chip down the road. Unfortunately, the changes in the NFL, both in terms of how rosters are structured and changes to the collective bargaining agreement encourages teams to go big at quarterback early or not bother at all.

In the 1990s, Green Bay Packers general manager Ron Wolf was famous for drafting a quarterback every year. And although none of them ever started for the Packers who had Brett Favre, many of them went on to start and have productive careers for other teams. Matt Hasselbeck led the Seattle Seahawks to a Super Bowl. Mark Brunell and the Jacksonville Jaguars went to an AFC Championship as two examples.

Back then, the Packers might have four and five quarterbacks in training camp. There were far more practices in a given training camp. There was the time and freedom to really take time to evaluate quarterbacks in team reps.

The Philadelphia Eagles had a nice run of trading backup quarterbacks coached by Andy Reid in the 2000s for picks. They didn't work with their new teams, so it was a great way for to get extra draft picks without improving a potential rival.

Over the years, the amount of practice time, particularly padded practices has been dropped significantly, which has been great for the health of other players, who take the physical toll of two-a-day practices. It also reduces the amount of time and reps teams can afford to delve out to quarterbacks.

Fewer are brought into camp and much of their improvement is individual. They are coached in individuals drills, get to benefit from watching and listening to the quarterbacks going through reps and then have access to the film, but they aren't getting many team reps themselves.

In fact, one of the biggest selling points for Case Keenum, the Browns current backup quarterback, is that he doesn't require many practice reps because he's so fluent in the system already. That allowed the Browns to give every rep possible to Mayfield as he was learning Kevin Stefanski's offense in an abridged offseason.

The overarching result is there are fewer quarterbacks that are equipped to play in the NFL and when any number of backups are forced to enter games due to injury, some struggle to the point where it looks like they are playing a different sport.

When the NFL has had developmental leagues it could pull from, the overall play of the quarterback position improved. Look no further than John Wolford, who played in the American Alliance of Football, the AAF, who effectively supplanted Jared Goff as the starting quarterback of the Los Angeles Rams heading into the playoffs.

Kurt Warner and Jake Delhomme both played in NFL Europe when it existed. Far fewer teams were interested in tanking because they could find viable quarterbacks using multiple avenues.

Experience is incredibly valuable to the quarterback position and given the state of the NFL, this should encourage more quarterbacks to stay in college longer when that's an option where they can play rather sit in the NFL and watch. Too often, quarterbacks still enter the NFL Draft early with little experience and it can often lead to quarterbacks failing at the next level in spectacular fashion.

Having a significant amount of experience doesn't guarantee success, but the quarterbacks with it tend to be able to far likelier to hit the ground running and stick around. They have a far better sense of what to expect and the tools to muddle through early struggles.

The other major issue that discourages teams from developing quarterbacks, which impacts the Browns, is so many teams would rather have an extra roster spot than carry a third quarterback. An extra player that can help on special teams, another offensive lineman, an extra pass rusher. It's becoming easier and easier to release the third quarterback, utilizing the practice squad for a developmental option.

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The problem there is that if the quarterback is good enough or was drafted high enough, someone else is going to claim them or sign them. So rather than draft a quarterback in the fourth or fifth round they know ahead of time won't make the roster while hoping they can get to the practice squad, they opt for a position player and find an undrafted free agent or someone other teams have given up on in the past.

Better quarterbacks might become undrafted free agents and make the practice squad, but those players want to be drafted and want to make rosters. So now the NFL has situations where the price to go up a quarterback is getting higher and higher because there's less incentive to draft a quarterback later.

Teams having the ability to activate a quarterback from the practice squad on gameday is great for teams, but is further reason to simply stash a quarterback there rather than the active roster.

Teams want the fifth-year option for control of their rookies, because if they do hit when they drafted after round one, it's four years before they are getting what could be a massive extension. If that quarterback didn't start out of the gate as a rookie, the team may only have two years to evaluate them before coming to a decision on them. The franchise tag is an option, but is ridiculously expensive as both Kirk Cousins and Dak Prescott have shown.

Quarterbacks are increasingly disposable. Before the CBA dramatically reduced the amount rookies were paid, teams were effectively marrying top quarterback prospects because there was so much money involved. Sam Bradford was the last of those, getting a $50 dowry from the Rams..

If a quarterback doesn't work now, a team can move on and draft another one, able to get at least a decent return in a trade for the quarterback they are abandoning in the process. That's part of why the price of trading up for them has skyrocketed so much. Because teams are making the decision on quarterbacks quicker as they stay bad or get worse, they are candidates to take a top quarterback and now major hurdles for teams who want to take a quarterback behind them.

The New York Jets drafted Sam Darnold third overall in the 2018 NFL Draft. They then trade him to the Carolina Panthers because they have the second overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft where they are expected to take a quarterback. The San Francisco 49ers, not wanting to be shut out from a quarterback they want, then trade a total of three first round picks to move up nine spots in the first round to get the third overall pick.

Quarterbacks are going faster and earlier, reducing the amount of talent that is available later in the draft at that position.

So unless the Browns intend to trade Keenum, drafting a quarterback to develop doesn't really add up for them. Keenum has value to Mayfield as well as Stefanski. He knows the offense, operates as an extra set of eyes and sounding board, plus he doesn't require many, if any reps in practice.

Should they draft a quarterback anywhere from round one to round five, they are now basically forcing themselves to give that quarterback enough reps to develop them and thereby validate the pick, whether it's to be a backup, a starter down the road or a trade chip.

It may make sense in theory to take a quarterback to develop, few teams have the roster or the willingness to do it. The quarterbacks will have to do most of the improving on their own, potentially hiring private coaches in the offseason.

Perhaps a more viable developmental league will come along that can help with this problem. For now, the NFL isn't a great environment for developing any other quarterback than the one dubbed to be the franchise and any other successes are likely a case of the individual working hard enough to rise above those circumstances. 

As it is, so long as the Browns view Keenum a valuable part of this team, the Browns aren't likely to draft a quarterback before the sixth round when releasing them won't be viewed as a failure.

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