At the present moment, there are roughly 14 quarterbacks in the NFL who are consistently immune from discussions regarding the general idea that their team could stand to upgrade.
Beyond that, it seems the league has reverted into its perpetual state of dusty, barren quarterback wasteland, where the competition for adequate starting talent forces owners and general managers into some twisted plots. This offseason alone, an owner, a recently retired coach and a semiretired quarterback reportedly hatched a scheme to give Tom Brady minority ownership in a franchise and install him under center. Another owner, Jimmy Haslam, approved the pursuit and signing of a quarterback credibly accused of sexual assault or misconduct by 22 women. The Browns were not the only team that pursued Deshaun Watson, but they’re the ones that signed him to the most lucrative contract in the history of the NFL.
Teams such as the Vikings cling tightly to the idea of Kirk Cousins, for fear that there is nothing better out there. The Steelers wrung out Ben Roethlisberger like a towel they were trying to hand dry, straining to get every drop of capable quarterback play out of the aging star instead of searching for his replacement. The Giants were in such denial of Eli Manning’s decline that they ignored frantic pleas from then head coach Ben McAdoo to draft Patrick Mahomes.
At what point does this become a crisis? At what point would those involved realize there is a solution to this problem that most teams are simply too scared to embrace?
The second quarterback selected in this year’s draft, Desmond Ridder, was taken by the Falcons at pick no. 74. That was 54 picks after the Steelers took Kenny Pickett. Malik Willis, believed by plenty of credible draftniks in the fall to be worthy of the No. 1 pick, plummeted to pick No. 86, when the Titans stopped his slide. Matt Corral finally went to the Panthers at No. 94. It seems the whispers about teams being a little underwhelmed with this year’s class were more like primal screams.
Of course, this should never have happened. As FiveThirtyEight pointed out, by compiling the Approximate Value (AV) of quarterbacks by draft class, this year’s group came in with about as much hype as the maligned 2011 class (Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, Jake Locker, Christian Ponder, Blaine Gabbert, Colin Kaepernick , Tyrod Taylor, Terrelle Pryor). That class produced more than three times the career AV of the ’07 class (JaMarcus Russell, Brady Quinn, Kevin Kolb, John Beck, Drew Stanton, Trent Edwards) which, back then, was viewed as a legitimately solid crop of future NFL starters .
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What happened this draft season was not merely a drop-off in talent, it was a drop-off in imagination. It was a drop-off in a willingness to coach, to change your scheme, to exercise a little bit of patience and alter your philosophy to include someone a little different.
It’s almost as if the league has forgotten about Lamar Jackson and the Ravens already. That team picked up the passer no one wanted from the would-be legendary class of 2018, installed a fever-dream playbook full of concepts from the Naval Academy and turned him into the MVP. It’s almost as if teams have forgotten that nine franchises passed on Mahomes back in ’17 because there wasn’t a blueprint on the widespread adoption of Air Raid concepts into the NFL. Now, Air Raid disciples are coaching NFL teams. Air Raid quarterbacks (Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray) went no. 1 in back-to-back years. It’s almost as if we’ve forgotten about Russell Wilson, the third-round pick in ’12 who started from Week 1.
Ridder, Willis, Corral and Sam Howell (who slipped into the draft’s third day) are all perfectly talented players. Maybe they are not Mahomes or Jackson or Wilson, but in the right system they are capable of adding to the NFL quarterback zeitgeist. Teams don’t have to hang breathlessly on Jimmy Garoppolo’s repairing muscle tissue to upgrade at the quarterback position. They can spend a few hours watching Liberty film, talking to Willis and building an offense that could turn loose his unique combination of athleticism and touch.
Their collective fall may represent a windfall of surplus value, which will probably be evident in favorable draft grades. But the lack of interest — so different from the years teams trade up the board to land their targets — brings fears they won’t devote the serious time and effort typically invested in early picks. It may take an injury, or another 6–11 season, before any of these guys get their own tailor-made offense.
So many NFL staffs are vast beyond our imagination. There are quality-control assistants who have quality-control assistants. There are coaches and analysts whose jobs may entail watching every third-and-10 explosive play in the NFL and NCAA from the left hash in opposing territory with bad weather, and compiling a list of concepts to borrow or steal. Do we really think that a professional football staff couldn’t spend a few weeks this spring figuring out how to move the football with a guy who did this?
How much better is life as John Harbaugh than life as Dennis Allen? Allen, after watching his franchise pine for Watson, is hoping he can finally be the guy who streamlines things for the woefully erratic Jameis Winston.
There’s such a Mad Max feeling to it all, when a little effort and imagination would replenish the landscape year after year. The health of the league depends on a thriving quarterback class. Right now, there is nothing more than a faux-capitalistic game of Hungry Hungry Hippos taking place. Thinking outside the box sure as hell beats thinking of ways to somehow steal an already talented quarterback from someone else.
More NFL draft coverage:
• Grading All 32 First-Round Draft Picks
• Baalke Stakes Reputation on No. 1 Pick Walker
• Hutchinson Can Lift Lions to Legitimacy
• Steelers Get Top QB Choice Pickett in Their Laps