NFL Draft: You Have to Move up for a Quarterback

by Justis Mosqueda

If you are rooting for your team to draft a franchise quarterback in 2019, I have some bad news for you: Your first-round pick (alone) probably is not going to be enough to snatch one up. A quality rookie contract quarterback is the golden ticket to legitimate team-building under the current NFL structure, and teams are finally starting to accept this reality.

Here is basically how this feedback loop works:

  1. Under a salary cap system, especially one where lower-middle-class veterans get squeezed out like under this current collective bargaining agreement, "team-building" becomes more of a battle for good contracts rather than good players. In September, I talked to NFL agents who believe that superstar pass-rushers and defensive linemen are not players that every franchise can look at, because of how much guaranteed money they are owed and how much veteran quarterbacks across the board are owed. In essence, it was their idea that superstar pass-rushers and defensive linemen can really only be matched up (at least if their contracts are coming up relatively near each other) with rookie contract passers. Because of how much every veteran quarterback makes, the NFL functions in a way that generally redistributes non-quarterback talent around the league within two to four years. It's why the Chicago Bears are so clearly better than any other defense in football this year. Rookie contract quarterback? Check. Early veteran contract or rookie contract ("good contracts") defenders? Check. Unfortunately, most teams cannot build a roster this way anymore because of the guaranteed money tied up to passers.
  2. The NFL is incentivizing passing efficiency as the method of winning football games now more than ever. In 1980, the NFL's Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt (AY/A), which treats touchdowns as +20 yards and interceptions as -45 yards, was 5.8. In 2003, it was 6.0. For the most part, passing was stagnant for over two decades. Since then, passing efficiency has exploded, due to rule changes. The only teams this year passing under a 6.0 AY/A, the NFL average in 2003, are the New York Jets, Arizona Cardinals and Buffalo Bills, who are a collective 11-28 with rookie quarterbacks. If you aren't keeping up in the ever-increasing passing efficiency arms race, it is costing you games. As mentioned before, the practical use of the NFL's salary cap system is redistributing non-quarterback talent, meaning that the position is the only firm way to build a team long-term and quarterback is only meaning more and more with every passing season.

Now, you can go ahead and be mad at this reality if you want. You can complain that these decisions have been made in boardrooms to alter, drastically, what the NFL looked like from pre-2004 to now, but it has to be accepted as the reality of the NFL moving forward (at least under this CBA.) Short-term, a starting-level rookie contract quarterback gives you a cap advantage (not just in cap room but also how much guaranteed money you have tied up long-term) to build up the 21 non-quarterback positions on your team. Long-term, a starting-level quarterback is really the only thing you can hang your hat on in terms of retaining talent that wins you ball games. Your offensive line is going to be spread out around the league in two to four years if you have a really good unit. Your defensive is going to be spread out around the league in two to four years if you have a really good unit. The game is the game.

This is why NFL teams do not just let other teams sit back and draft a quarterback who is falling in the first round anymore. Over the last five draft classes, only four of the 16 first-round quarterbacks drafted were selected by teams in their original draft slots. Those quarterbacks are Jameis Winston, Baker Mayfield, Marcus Mariota and Blake Bortles. Winston and Mayfield were selected first overall, with teams in an impossible situation to move up. Mariota was selected second overall behind Winston, a situation where no non-quarterbacks were taken ahead of him. In five years, with 16 quarterbacks taken in the first round, Jacksonville's selection of Blake Bortles, which was a surprise "reach" at the time, is the only data point we have of the NFL allowing a team to sit back and take a quarterback once non-quarterbacks have already come off the board.

On the flip side, 12 of the 16 first-round quarterbacks drafted in the first round of the draft over the last five seasons were selected after teams traded up, jumping specific teams who might also be in the quarterback market. The 12 passers in this bucket are Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Mitchell Trubisky, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes, Josh Rosen, Deshaun Watson, Johnny Manziel, Paxton Lynch, Teddy Bridgewater and Lamar Jackson. No first-round quarterback in the last five draft classes has been a product of a trade down.

Why are teams more aggressively moving up for quarterbacks in the draft now? Because they finally realize how valuable their contracts are in the short-term and how valuable quarterbacks are in the long-term.

In this upcoming offseason, there are going to be plenty of players in the quarterback market, with the potential to trade up or select a passer in the first round. At the moment, Jacksonville looks like they are going to move on from Blake Bortles, leaving them with a quarterback room of Cody Kessler and Tanner Lee. Teams like the New York Giants, Oakland Raiders, Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos, Miami Dolphins and even Tampa Bay Buccaneers could be in a position to have selections in the first half of the first round with the potential to move around to finally lock in a franchise quarterback. Teams with quality aging quarterbacks, like the Los Angeles Chargers, New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers, are less likely to be able to make these moves, because of where they are projected to draft, but are not in an impossible position to move up from.

With this many teams eye-balling quarterbacks, the key to winning football games based on how NFL executives have purposely structured the league, it's no wonder why you almost always have to trade up for a first-round quarterback if you aren't drafting first overall. Take this as an example of how the NFL's draft process at the quarterback position works: It has been alleged that one reason for the Denver Broncos trading up for Paxton Lynch, which didn't pan out for them, was because the AFC West rival Kansas City Chiefs were interested in him. The Chiefs were sitting at pick 28, so the Broncos moved up from pick 31 to pick 26.

When looking at the 2019 quarterback class, this presents some interesting dynamics to think about. Jacksonville is in the worst spot for the quarterback position going into the 2019 season. (Don't worry about the rookie quarterbacks; They always start extremely slow and get better.) At the moment, the Jaguars are picking in the seventh slot of the draft and are more than a touchdown favorite this weekend against Washington Redskins QB4 Josh Johnson...which could potentially move that pick further down the draft by the end of the season. At the moment, it looks like Dwayne Haskins of Ohio State is going to be the only clear first-round quarterback in the draft, with reports that Oregon's Justin Herbert is going to return to school for his senior season. If Jacksonville is sitting at the seventh pick and Haskins is still on the board at the fifth, it should be expected that other teams (like Cincinnati, New York, Denver, etc.) get into the mix for a trade up and he goes to the highest bidder. A top-10 pick in a one-quarterback draft when we know teams aren't afraid to move up for a quarterback just doesn't mean as much now compared to when there was a legitimate possibility of an Aaron Rodgers falling down the draft. That is not reality now.

So, what should a team like Jacksonville do now? There are a couple of scenarios you can work through if you're operating under the assumption that there's not a 100 percent chance that you can land the golden ticket of Haskins with your pick.

  1. I do not believe that NFL teams have tanked before. With that being said, there's a really easy way to move up the draft if your primary focus is landing who you think could be a franchise quarterback. If you lose out the season, that would put you in a much more advantageous situation to move up (or have a quarterback drop to you). There's a better chance of you being the highest bidder in a trade if you have the shortest distance for a team to drop back. It's simple.
  2. You can aggressively trade up for the top pick well before the draft. A comparison to the 2018 New York Jets isn't exactly apples to apples because the team traded for the third overall pick in a draft with five first-round quarterbacks, but them moving up for a top pick that early took signaled that they were going to take a passer. In a one-quarterback class, you probably have to move up for the first overall pick right after the first free agency wave of quarterbacks take teams out of the bidding war.
  3. You accept that your chances are slim to land Haskins in your draft slot and go into the veteran quarterback free agency market for any sort of improvement over Kessler. Jacksonville would have to gut their secondary of contracts and start shipping away defensive linemen for picks to clear the cap for 1) a Bortles release, 2) a signing of a veteran quarterback and 3) the ability to sign rookies, but this is not an impossibility.
  4. Play the odds. If Haskins isn't on the board by your pick, accept that you won't be winning much with Kessler and hope that your odds to draft a quarterback in 2020, when the class is expected to be deeper at the position, will be better. This takes some level of confidence in job security for decision makers not to worry about what could happen in the short-term, but could be on the table.

Quarterback movement is what makes or breaks teams and teams have turned the draft from a simple "he's the best player on the board when we were on the clock" player personnel meeting into three-dimensional chess. At this point, if you think a quarterback is just going to fall into your lap, you are mistaken.