There have been interesting discussions lately about how teams in need of a quarterback should go about improving the position this offseason. Whether it’s through free agency, the draft or both – all options come with caveats. Depending on your team’s organizational philosophy there will be different ways decision makers go about filling the need at the most important position.
The 2018 free agent period is arguably the most QB friendly group since modern free agency began in 1992. Drew Brees, Kirk Cousins, Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Bradford and Case Keenum (plus in all likelihood Tyrod Taylor) range from exceptional to solid options. With the assumption Drew Brees is re-signed by the Saints – Cousins becomes the most sought after free agent of the off-season.
Add in a crop of very intriguing draft prospects at the position, like Josh Rosen, Lamar Jackson, Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield, Josh Allen, and others, and franchises like the Browns, Broncos, Jets, Bills, Jaguars and Vikings have difficult decisions to make on how to propel their rosters to the next level via the QB position.
One debate being posed around the NFL landscape is one general managers John Dorsey, John Elway and Mike Maccagnan in particular have to actually take a stance on. Sign Kirk Cousins or draft one of the highly graded QB prospects with the 1st (or 4th), 5th and 6th selections, respectively?
Cousins’ free agent destination will likely determine how the other QB needy teams move forward in free agency and the draft. The soon to be free agent is heading into his age 30 season. Meaning, barring injury – Cousins has a lot of years left to play. Whichever team he agrees to put pen to paper with will consider him a franchise QB and most definitely will pay him like one too.
The latter point of that last sentence is how Cousins arrived in this situation to begin with. Washington did not perceive Cousins to be worth the substantial figure he’ll now command on the open market. Apparently the Redskins organization felt Alex Smith was more worthy of a contract of that magnitude. Washington traded for Smith in late January and immediately agreed in principle to sign him to a 4 year extension worth $70 million guaranteed.
Perception and valuation of the players in question are the key to how NFL organizations will act from today through late April. Cousins offers teams a valuable opportunity. The opportunity to know exactly what you’re getting at the QB position. You can plug Cousins in right away and expect him put up 65% completion, 4,000+ yards, 27 touchdowns and 12 interceptions for the season. Quality QBs do not hit free agency often and Cousins is the most sure thing a team in need of a QB can acquire over the next few months. Generally speaking, Cousins is the more risk averse option. He is what he is at this point in his career. His skills and abilities aren’t going to drastically change until he wakes up on the wrong side of the age curve. Which, as I stated earlier, should be a while. With an average roster a team should be able to contend for a playoff spot in most seasons with Cousins at the helm.
But how much is stability worth to an NFL organization? Cousins’ contract is going to surpass Jimmy Garoppolo’s freshly minted 5 year $137.5 million deal, averaging $27.5 million per season, despite Garoppolo having a higher talent ceiling than Cousins. Talent wise, Cousins is the most risk averse option, but no so much financially. A significant portion of a team’s cap space is going to be taken up by Cousins’ contract, hurting their overall ability to sign free agents and retain key players whose contracts have expired. A team like the Denver Broncos may value the stability Cousins presents, as their roster has pieces that make them more likely to compete than either the Browns or Jets in 2018. The same could be said for the Minnesota Vikings, who have more cap space than Denver and are arguably closer to a Super Bowl victory than any of Cousins’ other suitors.
Allowing him to immediately join a team with Super Bowl aspirations maximizes Cousins’ value. Cousins is a player you win with; not a player with you because of. The structure in place in Minnesota, Jacksonville and Denver make those options more enticing for both the team and the player. Teams like Minnesota, Jacksonville and to a far lesser extent Denver, who could be amidst a rebuild depending on the result of this very decision – have excellent rosters. It’s time to add the missing piece to the puzzle – the QB.
On the other hand, should things go awry as players regress and injuries strike other highly paid players, Cousins isn’t going to save the day all by himself. His future team will now be saddled with a burdensome contract and an inability to do much about it. Washington wasn’t the most well rounded team, but he doesn’t display the traits of an upper echelon QB to routinely carry an entire roster with weaknesses at multiple units. That’s okay for a team competing for the chance at a playoff berth once every couple seasons. However, if a team is consistently trying to compete for a Super Bowl the general manager is going to need to dabble in some risk.
That risk being to take a QB with a high draft pick or even riskier – to trade up for a QB. A team like the Browns has less risk than the Broncos and Jets. With Cleveland holding the 1st and 4th overall picks, Dorsey can take his QB at 1 and then select a blue chip caliber player who’ll be a day one starter at 4. The Broncos and Jets, who hold the 5th and 6th picks, may need to trade up for their preferred QB.
While the effects of wasting valuable draft capital on a QB who may never pan out can set a franchise back a number of seasons there are positives to taking the risk. Should that QB develop into the player a team projected him to be, they’ll benefit from having a franchise QB at a low cost.
Here are some notable 1st round QBs taken in the last two drafts and their cap hits for 2016-2020.
Each of these teams traded into those slots where they took their QB and traded future first round picks to do so. That’s gambling for the ultimate reward. It looks promising for a lot of these players – especially Jared Goff, Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson. Goff has turned into an excellent passer with the help of Sean McVay. Wentz was apart of a Super Bowl winning team in his second season and could have led the Eagles there himself if not for a knee injury late in the season. Watson, the least costly of all the QBs listed, was well on his way to becoming the 2017 NFL Rookie of the Year before a non contact injury put him on season ending IR.
Assuming rehab goes as expected for Wentz and Watson – the Rams, Eagles and Texans all have the flexibility to build quality rosters around their star QBs during this low cost window. The difference between the high draft pick QB route and signing a player like Cousins is that when these players are up for an extension you’re confident the team will win because of them.
The 2018 class has a lot of talented QBs in it. All have strong traits that flash franchise QB potential, but there are flags that are a cause for concern. The good news for teams needing to use a high pick on a QB is that coaches are more flexible in their schemes than in years past. No longer are coaches plugging QBs in rigid schemes scratching their heads why their QB didn’t live up to expectations and how come they’re fired seasons later. Tailoring the offense to your QBs strengths is how to maximize the potential and increase the 1st round QB success rate. It doesn’t make much sense to use Lamar Jackson in an offense that doesn’t emphasize his athletic ability. The same goes for Mayfield with his ability to make plays outside the pocket. Scheme fit plays a major role in the decision making process as well.
Essentially, context and situation helps decide the answer to this question. Out of all the teams that could sign Cousins the Vikings and Jaguars are the teams that can get the most out of him with an excellent roster already in place. Denver falls somewhere in the middle of signing Cousins and drafting a QB in round 1.
The Browns and Jets may not give Cousins the foundation needed to succeed right away. Unless you’re a believer in Cousins + picks 1, 4, 33 being impact players from the get-go. It’s best for these franchises to attempt to take the QB of the future. Design an offense that fits his strengths and develop the attainable traits the best the organization can.