Overpay or else for topflight QB

Ben Roethlisberger's recent signing of an eight-year, $102 million contract was obviously a huge story in Pittsburgh, but it also has long-term consequences for teams still looking for a quarterback.

Besides Big Ben, 13 other starting quarterbacks drafted between 2004 to 2007 will play out their rookie contracts in the not-too-distant future and receive extensions. Next up are the Giants' Eli Manning and the Chargers' Philip Rivers, first-rounders who established themselves as franchise quarterbacks because of their success in the playoffs. Expect them to strike huge deals before the end of the 2009 season.

My advice: If a team values a veteran starting quarterback, pay the big money. If need be, overpay in cash or overpay in draft choice trades to get one. Unless you do, the chance of getting a topflight starter in unrestricted free agency is remote, and the draft -- especially this year -- is a crapshoot.

More than ever, the success of a team is determined by the success of the quarterback. It's a passing league and the gold standard is Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. To get to or win a Super Bowl, you must have a quarterback who can compete or win against them.

Look at the available quarterbacks in the 2008 free-agent class. Backups Cleo Lemon, Josh McCown and Mark Brunell were the only unrestricted free-agent quarterbacks to move. Teams don't want to let good starting quarterbacks hit the free-agent market.

Cleveland lucked into Derek Anderson, who had an excellent 2007 season, on a waiver claim in 2005. Browns general manager Phil Savage, being no fool, locked him into a three-year, $24 million deal even though he drafted the top quarterback in last year's draft, Brady Quinn.

In this year's draft, Boston College's Matt Ryan is the top-rated QB. The Dolphins or Falcons --- who own the first and third choices in the draft -- probably have no choice but to take Ryan, with the Falcons being the leading contender. But if he doesn't work out, the franchise that takes him that high is blowing $50 million to $60 million in a contract, which is hard to recover from. (The Dolphins passed on Quinn in last year's draft and waited for John Beck in the second round, and you saw how well that worked out for Cam Cameron, who was fired after one season as head coach.)

In 2007, the Texans traded two second-round draft picks to Atlanta for Matt Schaub, who got a six-year, $48 million contract. But what choice did they have? David Carr was getting sacked too many times, and the offense was deteriorating around him.

Since the start of the new millennium, there have been only five chances to snag a starting quarterback in unrestricted free agency. New Orleans was the biggest winner, gambling that Drew Brees could come back from major shoulder surgery in 2006. Jake Plummer (Denver), Jake Delhomme (Carolina), Jon Kitna (Detroit) and Jeff Garcia (who signed with Tampa Bay at age 37) were the only other unrestricted free-agent success stories in the 2000s.

The rest of the league is left to take chances on quarterbacks discarded by the teams that drafted or signed them. The Browns got lucky on Anderson, who was cut by Baltimore. The Rams struck gold with Marc Bulger, who was discarded by the Saints. And, after a long wait, the Cowboys found that they had a steal with Tony Romo. All three are locked up in long-term deals in excess of $8 million a year.

The Jaguars are trying feverishly to secure a contract extension with David Garrard, who will be a free agent after this season. Garrard, drafted by the Jaguars, signed a four-year extension as a backup in 2005. When given the chance to start last year, he took the Jaguars to the playoffs and won a game. He won't be allowed to hit the streets because if the Jaguars can't get a long-term deal done, they still can franchise him next year.
Except for Garrard, the only other starting quarterback available in 2009 will be Garcia, who will turn 39 next year.

Where will there be starting quarterback opportunities, then?

In the next three seasons, I see only two, and one would be a major blunder if the Bills are wrong in their assessment of J.P. Losman. Now a backup, Losman will be a free agent in 2009 after playing behind Trent Edwards this season. He asked for a trade, but no deal was struck.

The next opportunity will be when the Browns decide whether Anderson or Quinn will be their long-term quarterback. Financially, Cleveland could wait until 2010 before deciding whether to trade one of the two, and if it does, it should get a ransom of draft choices.

It will be interesting to follow the careers of the remaining 13 starting quarterbacks playing out their rookie contracts and see what happens to those franchises. As the quarterback goes, so goes the franchise.

John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.