The cheat code to unlock a Super Bowl-caliber team in the modern NFL is to find a useful quarterback on a rookie deal. It has been clear going back to the early days of this collective bargaining agreement, when the Seahawks surrounded Russell Wilson with stars and nearly claimed consecutive championships. Last year, the Eagles built a team around Carson Wentz talented enough to win even after Wentz went down because of a torn ACL. Tom Brady is obviously not on a rookie deal, but the Patriots have made it to the Super Bowl four times under the current CBA with Brady on a below-market contract.
Teams have realized this, of course, which is why we've seen them go on a spending spree to surround their young quarterbacks with stars while they remain cheap:
The Rams traded up for Jared Goff in 2016 and then acquired Brandin Cooks, Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib and Ndamukong Suh this year, while signing Cooks, Todd Gurley and Aaron Donald to massive extensions while Goff is still making peanuts.
The Bears signed an entire receiving corps in free agency for Mitchell Trubisky.
The 4-0 Rams are a model to teams like the Bears and Browns, who are building around quarterbacks taken at or near the top of the draft. The Rams are structuring their extension schedule around Goff, who has two years and $16.5 million in cap charges remaining on his rookie deal. Los Angeles will have one more year of cost control in 2020 with Goff's unguaranteed fifth-year option, which comes to more than $25 million, though teams traditionally use that year to sign their star quarterback to a long-term contract extension.
Time is of the essence with these moves. Wilson eventually got a market-value deal, and while he has continued to play well, the Seahawks' roster has gotten worse around him. Joe Flacco signed a massive contract after playing out the fifth year of his rookie deal with the Ravens, who have been pinching pennies ever since. Cam Newton signed an extension with the Panthers before his 2015 MVP season and subsequent Super Bowl appearance, but his cap hit during that 2015 campaign was a relatively modest $13 million before jumping to $19.5 million and higher. He hasn't been back to the Super Bowl. Even Brady's cap hit -- which hadn't topped $15 million since 2010 -- jumped to $22 million this year, leaving the Patriots with what looks like a thin roster in spots during their indifferent start to the season.
Unless your quarterback is married to a supermodel with a net worth stretching into nine figures, though, the bargain doesn't last forever. The best-case scenario is that you get four seasons of excellent play at a below-market rate before locking up your franchise passer and hoping to find arbitrage opportunities elsewhere.
Well, that's the current best-case scenario. As @DamonGilmour posed on Twitter a couple of weeks ago, what if you could have a cheap quarterback ... forever?
Some team's going to try it. If you're the Rams, do you trade Jared Goff after year 3/4 and use the picks you get to grab another cheap QB to work with Sean McVay? https://t.co/t1AnJCGnSw— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) September 14, 2018
There's a fascinating idea here, and I think it deserves some thought. Is a talented quarterback on a rookie deal such a valuable proposition that an organization should get on a cycle of finding a quarterback in the draft before trading him once he gets expensive? Is that even a feasible plan? And if it is, which organizations could even realistically consider it? Let's run through a few reasonable questions about this theory and see what we find.
What if the new guy isn't any good?
This is the obvious question, and it's going to stop the most risk-averse teams from even exploring the possibilities. A general manager who trades away a useful quarterback entering his prime to draft a new passer who fails to win fans over is going to get fired. General managers do not want to get fired.
Of course, it's also fair to note that some executives are willing to be more aggressive. It's not an identical scenario, but the Chiefs were willing to trade up to grab Patrick Mahomes in the first round of the 2017 draft despite the presence of Alex Smith. Smith is older than the quarterbacks we're laying out in this scenario, but then-GM John Dorsey clearly felt as if the team had peaked with Smith under center and made the move to go after Mahomes. We're only four games into Mahomes' career, but the Chiefs look to have the scariest offense in football.
There's also the possibility that sticking on the current path with an expensive quarterback won't lead to further success. There was arguably no way the Ravens could have moved on from Flacco after he produced one of the best postseasons in league history during the 2012 playoffs, but the move has kneecapped Baltimore ever since. Flacco signed a six-year, $120.6 million deal that was structured to force an extension after three years. If the Ravens cut Flacco after the 2018 season as expected, they'll end up having paid him $124 million over six years for below-average play.
Baltimore also has been forced to restructure several deals to free up cap space and add talent as an aftereffect of the Flacco extension, so even after its longtime quarterback leaves, his impact will still be felt. The Ravens kept Flacco while moving on from Tyrod Taylor, who was a competent starter during his time in Buffalo, though he struggled in Cleveland this season.
Flacco is an example of a quarterback who entered the league before the current CBA was signed, but among the current-CBA passers, seven have signed meaningful extensions with the team that drafted them: Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick, Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Ryan Tannehill, Derek Carr and Blake Bortles. Of those seven, only Bortles' team made the playoffs last season, and that was while he was still on his rookie deal before signing an extension this offseason.
In some cases, it's not even about the quarterback playing poorly. Wilson has continued to play at a high level in Seattle, but the infrastructure around him has fallen apart. The Seahawks took away the money they spent on Wilson from the offensive line, hoping that offensive line coach Tom Cable could develop athletes and draft picks into useful players. He couldn't, and when that plan failed, the next step was to spend on the likes of Luke Joeckel, Duane Brown and Justin Britt while saving money on defense, which led to Richard Sherman and Sheldon Richardson leaving town.
If you're thinking about this as if it's a question of quarterback vs. quarterback, you're doing it wrong. It's not, to pick a quarterback, four years of Derek Carr versus four years with a random rookie. It's four years of Carr versus four years with a rookie and whatever else you can get with the money you save by not spending a premium for a quarterback.
Imagine a scenario in which the Raiders didn't re-sign Carr and then traded him to the Jets before the 2017 draft for the sixth overall pick, which they then used on Deshaun Watson. Carr's contract is roughly $25 million per year. The sixth overall pick in the 2017 draft makes right around $5.5 million, leaving a difference of $19.5 million per year with which to work. Instead of Carr vs. Watson, it's a question of whether the Raiders would rather have Carr or, say, a trio of Watson, Calais Campbell and Dion Lewis, which adds up to $25.5 million in annual salaries. Alternately, an extra $19.5 million would have gone a long way toward paying Khalil Mack, whose new deal averages $23.5 million per season. Carr and Johnathan Hankins ($27 million), or Watson and Mack ($28 million)? The Raiders got back two draft picks for Mack, but they also would have picked up a haul for Carr last offseason, too.
How would a team even go about making the quarterback change?
Well, the first thing you do is scout. You have to think about this sort of move months in advance, extending through the college football season. You have to find a quarterback who you think is good enough to come in and take over for a successful starter, which means you have to scout as if you're looking for a No. 1 quarterback. Remember that the Eagles, who were undergoing a regime change, re-signed Sam Bradford and gave Chase Daniel a lucrative deal for a backup before falling in love with Wentz and trading up with the Browns to make him the second overall pick.
You can make a case that a team might want to just draft a quarterback in the middle of the draft and see if it can develop him into a starter, as the Patriots did with Jimmy Garoppolo. I'm not as enthused by that idea, if only because quarterbacks taken after the first round don't have a high success rate. The Patriots used the 62nd pick on Garoppolo, which was the highest selection they've used on a quarterback in the Brady era, but they didn't get much out of passers they drafted in a similar range, like Ryan Mallett (74), Jacoby Brissett (91), and Kevin O'Connell (94). I think a team can make this sort of trade only if it is extremely confident it's coming away with a franchise quarterback, as the Chiefs were with Mahomes.
As a result, you can't really telegraph the move by acquiring your new quarterback a year in advance, unless you're absolutely flush with draft picks like the early-'90s Cowboys or the pre-Dorsey Browns. If the Rams were going to trade Goff, as an example, they couldn't trade up in the 2019 draft to grab a passer with the intention of letting him sit on the bench for a year before trading Goff in 2020. It would erode Goff's confidence and dramatically reduce the team's leverage when it did decide to make a trade.
So what sort of trade should the team make?
The solution, then, is that you trade your old starter for your new starter. If you are entering the fifth-year option of a first-round pick or the fourth year of a player taken after the first round, you should at least sniff around to see if there's a quarterback you like at a price point you can afford.
Young, successful quarterbacks should be valuable enough to get just about any pick imaginable. The Patriots got only a second for Garoppolo last season during the final year of his contract, but that was after the Patriots waited until the last possible second to trade him, reportedly limited his market, and dealt a player who had thrown only 94 career passes.
Let's say that Goff was entering the fifth year of his rookie deal after playing at the level we saw in 2017 for several years, and coach Sean McVay simultaneously fell in love with Baker Mayfield as he looked to borrow things from Oklahoma's playbook. Mayfield would have more upside given that he would be relatively cheap, but the Browns have $80 million in cap space next year. If the Rams came and offered the Browns a successful Goff for the first overall pick in the draft, wouldn't Dorsey at least consider it?
My suspicion is that it would be difficult to pull this off, but long-suffering teams like the Browns and Jets might prefer the stability of a quarterback who already has proved he can pull off playing at the NFL level, even if it means paying full freight for his services.
Who would be brave enough to draft a quarterback who might be a bust?
It would take an incredibly aggressive franchise to trade away a franchise quarterback in his prime. Even a post-Brady Bill Belichick might have second thoughts. You would need incredible job security. You might also need a Chiefs-esque narrative over the past several years where your quarterback impresses during the regular season but fails to move the needle during the postseason to at least convince some elements of your fan base that you can justify making a move. You have to be good but not so good that you've won a Super Bowl.
You can never be 100 percent sure you'll avoid drafting a disappointing quarterback. Ozzie Newsome traded up to grab Kyle Boller. The Patriots nearly took Tim Rattay over Brady. As I wrote before this year's draft, the evidence tells us that we really aren't very good at identifying which quarterbacks are going to turn into stars until they actually line up on the field for money. NFL executives (and reporters, too) want to believe that they can sense an "it factor" with quarterbacks, but more often than not, they're wrong.
The best way to draft a successful quarterback is to put the right pieces around him. You'd want a brilliant offensive mind as a head coach, preferably one with a track record of developing young quarterbacks and an open mind about his scheme. There have to be weapons, of course; great receivers and an effective running game would make this quarterback's life easier. A solid, stable offensive line would help the rookie settle in without developing a nervous tic about the pass rush a la David Carr in Houston.
Simply put, our ideal team to make this sort of trade would already have a ton of talent around the new quarterback. Naturally, paying their quarterback a relative pittance would allow our organization to both retain its own talent and target new players.
Which team would be willing to make the plunge?
Let's run through the eight teams with quarterbacks on rookie deals who aren't actually in their debut seasons. Before we get started, to be clear, I'm not saying these teams should trade their quarterbacks. I'm just trying to figure out whether these teams would be viable for this sort of move given their circumstances.
The Rams are a great example of why this might make sense. Obviously, they have the personnel worth paying if those players continue to play at a high level around Jared Goff. Even if they re-sign players such as Marcus Peters, Cooper Kupp and Lamarcus Joyner to extensions over the next couple of seasons, the Rams will see Goff get expensive right around the time that they need to start rebuilding his offensive line after Andrew Whitworth and John Sullivan retire.
Sean McVay's presence here is also critical. The 32-year-old coach isn't going anywhere anytime soon, and while his scheme could suddenly lose its effectiveness, McVay is already regarded as arguably the most impressive offensive mind in the league. He inherited Goff after a disastrous rookie season under Jeff Fisher's reign in Los Angeles and immediately turned around the Cal product. The Rams added Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods and Kupp last offseason, but McVay is rightfully being lauded as the architect of Goff's turnaround.
If McVay could do that with Goff, what's to say he couldn't pull it off with another young quarterback? I'm sure McVay loves his star pupil, but it's not as if he drafted Goff. The 23-year-old continues to improve and is averaging in excess of nine yards per attempt so far this season, but what if the Rams could trade Goff in 2020, acquire a star rookie to place under McVay's tutelage, and use the savings to go after a franchise left tackle or an edge rusher to play alongside Aaron Donald?
A trade like this would depend on how Goff develops. If he turns into a face-of-the-franchise superstar, I don't think you could make a trade. If Goff settles in as a Tier II starter and fails to win a playoff game by the end of 2019? I don't think the Rams would make that trade, but I don't think they would be crazy to consider a swap under those circumstances if they see a passer they love at the top of the draft.
I can't imagine the Eagles trading Carson Wentz. I suspect it would make Eagles fans very upset to suggest that they would consider trading Wentz. I'm not saying this to make Eagles fans upset, I promise. It also seems worth pointing out that the infrastructure they've built around Wentz was strong enough to win a Super Bowl after Wentz went down because of a torn ACL. That's one of the hidden benefits of having a quarterback on a rookie deal. It's easier to compete when you're missing a player who costs $6 million in cap space (like Wentz) than it is when you lose a player who occupies $20.3 million in room, like Aaron Rodgers did a year ago, because you're less likely to lose the multiple players you use that leftover $14.3 million on to injury.
Like the Rams, the Eagles also have a great offensive mind in coach Doug Pederson. They already spend so much on their offensive and defensive line that they're basically getting by with players on rookie contracts or otherwise modest deals at running back, cornerback and linebacker, with Nigel Bradham's deal really not kicking in until 2019 (unless the Eagles release him). The money for a Wentz deal is going to have to come at the expense of another position, probably wide receiver or safety.
Assuming Wentz returns to MVP-level form he was showing before the knee injury, he's too good for the Eagles to trade. The best three or four quarterbacks in the league are perennially underpaid. Rodgers is making $33.5 million per year, and there are about 25 teams who would be delighted to pay him $40 million per year if they had the chance in free agency. The chances of finding a useful quarterback in the draft are one thing; the odds of finding an MVP, even at the top of the draft, are too low to forgo the one you have.
The Chiefs were already aggressive enough to make the move to go after Mahomes and trade away Alex Smith, which I think most teams would be afraid to try. That was under the Dorsey administration, but Andy Reid didn't have any qualms about moving on from Donovan McNabb in his mid-30s, so perhaps it shouldn't have been as surprising that the Chiefs made the move for Mahomes.
It's still absolutely way too early to figure out what they might or might not do with Mahomes, who has been the best quarterback in football through three weeks. If Mahomes continues to play at this level, of course, there's no way they could conceivably trade their budding franchise quarterback.
I don't see this happening for a few reasons. One is that the futures of Mitchell Trubisky and general manager Ryan Pace seem tied together. If Trubisky develops into a star, Pace probably will want to keep him around, given that the former Saints executive loved Trubisky enough to trade up and draft the North Carolina product over Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. If Trubisky fails to develop, Pace probably will be fired and coach Matt Nagy will get to work with a new quarterback. In that scenario, Trubisky doesn't have the trade value for this sort of deal to make sense.
This would depend on whether Deshaun Watson recaptures the level of play we saw during those first six starts of the 2017 season. In a similar vein to the Bears, Watson and Bill O'Brien are probably tied at the hip for the long term, given that new general manager Brian Gaine wasn't in the organization when the Texans traded up to draft Watson. If Watson gets back to his old level of play, the Texans won't be willing to deal him for anything. Anything less and a possible move would depend upon the makeup of the organization by the time we get to 2021, when Watson would be entering his fifth year as a pro.
Jameis Winston's future remains up in the air. There are certainly teams that wouldn't want to trade for a player with Winston's history of off-field misconduct toward women and make him the face of their franchise, and while Winston improved on the field last season, he's sitting behind journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick after his return from suspension. The idea of trading Winston and going after a new quarterback in next year's draft to develop behind Fitzpatrick makes sense, but Winston doesn't have the trade value to get the Bucs into the first round.
This could actually be quite interesting. The Tennessee braintrust of Jon Robinson and Mike Vrabel didn't draft Marcus Mariota, who was taken out of Oregon in 2015. Mariota is already on his third coach and has certainly flashed moments of brilliance, but injuries and (arguably) subpar coaching have limited his effectiveness as a passer. New offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur seems like the most modern coach Mariota has been able to work with, but the 24-year-old suffered an elbow injury in the opener that has limited his ability to throw.
The Titans have their big decision with Mariota looming next spring. While it seems likely that Tennessee would be comfortable letting Mariota play out his fifth-year option at $20.9 million, have they been sufficiently impressed with Mariota to hand him a long-term contract approaching $30 million per season?
To throw a scenario out there, former Oregon coach Mark Helfrich is now the offensive coordinator in Chicago. The Bears don't have the draft picks to trade for Mariota after trading two first-rounders for Khalil Mack, but if Helfrich succeeds with Trubisky, he could become a hot head-coaching candidate by 2020. If the Titans don't extend Mariota next offseason and let him play out his fifth-year option in advance of either franchising him, letting him go, or signing him to an extension after the 2019 season, would they consider franchising-and-trading him to Helfrich's new digs in Cincinnati or Denver for a pick in the middle of the first round? This seems plausible, if not necessarily likely.
There's certainly a subset of Cowboys fans who are frustrated with Dak Prescott. The third-year quarterback has produced middling numbers over the second half of 2017 and the first few games of 2018, although it's also fair to note that he is throwing to what must surely be the least-imposing group of receivers in the league. Dez Bryant is only the most prominent ex-Cowboys player to raise concerns about the scheme from coach Jason Garrett and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. Garrett has now lasted nine years in the job when no other head coach under Jerry Jones made it past year five, and while the former Cowboys quarterback won the division in 2016, he has won exactly one playoff game in nearly a decade.
Another disappointing season might be the end for Garrett, and while Prescott might not be at fault for the scheme or the receiving corps, Dallas' starting quarterback could be scapegoated amid the regime change. It's worth remembering that the Cowboys hardly fell in love with Prescott during the draft but instead took him in the fourth round after failing to move up and grab Paxton Lynch or Connor Cook. If Prescott has an uneven season and the Cowboys hire a coach like Jim Harbaugh or Urban Meyer, would they consider simultaneously making a change at quarterback?
Prescott's timeline is accelerated by the nature of his contract; while he has been cheaper than the likes of Goff and Wentz over the course of his rookie deal, the lack of a fifth-year option in his contract means that the Cowboys have to start thinking about a Prescott extension this upcoming offseason. He would theoretically be an unrestricted free agent in 2020, and while the Cowboys could franchise Prescott, they might not want to start the Kirk Cousins Clock and risk upsetting a player who could be the most important piece of the franchise over the next decade.
There's a possibility here, although Prescott probably has done enough to justify a long-term extension from the Cowboys, who will be in decent cap shape next season. If there are questions about Prescott's ability to carry the team to a Super Bowl, he probably deserves a chance to pull it off with a receiving corps with better players than the ones he has had to work with as a pro. There's also a chance that a new coach comes in and cleans house, sending Prescott away in the process.