Good teams almost invariably have good quarterback. Bad teams pick near the top of the draft and have the opportunity to select a top signal-caller. But what about teams in the middle, teams that are neither championship contenders, nor poor enough to have a chance at a franchise-changing QB?
The 2016 Philadelphia Eagles found themselves in this position. They finished the 2015 season 7-9, missing the playoffs but landing only the 13th pick, not nearly high enough to nab either of the top signal-callers, California’s Jared Goff or North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz. Incumbent starting quarterback Sam Bradford was due to hit free agency, leaving only backup Mark Sanchez under contract.
The Eagles struck early and often, re-signing Bradford to a market deal and adding veteran backup Chase Daniel, who had worked with new coach Doug Pederson in his previous stint in Kansas City. That solidified the position in theory, but general manager Howie Roseman had his eyes on a different prize. He dealt veterans Byron Maxwell and Kiko Alonso to the Miami Dolphins, in part for cap relief, but also for an exchange of first-round picks. The Eagles moved from 13 up to 8, still not close enough for a premier passer, but within striking distance for a subsequent trade.
That shoe dropped a month later when Roseman cut a deal with the Cleveland Browns, who owned the draft’s second pick and were looking to add draft capital as part of a rebuilding effort. The quarterback-needy Los Angeles Rams had already given a king’s ransom to move up for #1, so the Eagles would have to settle for whichever passer they didn’t select. In light of the uncertainty around the Rams’ ultimate choice, Roseman explained, “You have to be very comfortable with both of those quarterbacks and believe that they have a shot to be great.”
Roseman must have felt very comfortable, because he paid a pretty penny to move up six slots. In addition to the eighth selection, the Eagles dealt their third- and fourth- round picks, a 2017 first-rounder, and a 2018 second-rounder. They also received a 2017 fourth. That was less than the Rams paid to move up from #15 to #1 (two firsts, two seconds, and two thirds), but not a lot less.
Most pundits believed that the Rams were set on Goff, leaving Wentz to the Eagles. That’s how things played out. History has told us something about Wentz the NFL player, but it’s worth looking back at Wentz the prospect. A product of FCS North Dakota State who had missed half his senior year with a broken wrist, Wentz wasn’t a typical top-of-the-draft passer. His statistics—64% completion rate, 8.4 yards per attempt, 45 touchdowns to 14 interceptions—were very good, but not outstanding, particularly for an NFL prospect playing in a top-tier offense in the Missouri Valley Conference.
Wentz had a lot of other outstanding qualities, however. At over 6’5” and 237 pounds, he had ideal size, with excellent athletic traits to go with it:
To Roseman, Wentz checked plenty of other boxes, too: a high school valedictorian with a 42 Wonderlic score, he was mentally capable. A captain with leadership abilities, he checked the intangible boxes as well. Scouting reports, such as this one by our own Mark Schofield, praised his mechanics and arm talent. He played in a pro-style offense where he got lots of reps under center, a rarity in this spread-dominant age.
Still, there were questions, specifically around Wentz’ level of competition. Pundits often associate Roseman with the analytics movement, but as he put it, “there’s no analytical model that shows any sort of history for a player like this.” That uncertainty led the numbers-savvy Browns to prefer Philadelphia’s picks package to staying pat and choosing Wentz.
Ultimately, Roseman recognized the choice was a gamble, but he saw the downside of staying pat, too—getting stuck in a “purgatory” where the team wasn’t bad enough to get a top pick but not truly good enough to compete either. Without a top quarterback, Roseman did not believe they could challenge the top teams in the NFC on a consistent basis.
While the team was making a major investment in Wentz, they weren’t counting on him stepping in as a starter year one. With Bradford and Daniels in the fold, Wentz could start as the third-string quarterback without the need to push him into action early.
Wentz showed promise throughout the offseason, and then a stroke of bad luck hit—bad luck for the Minnesota Vikings, who lost quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to a non-contact knee injury late in the preseason. Between Minnesota’s desperation and Wentz’ precociousness, Roseman saw an opportunity to deal Bradford. The Vikings parted with a 2017 first-round pick, effectively replacing one of the picks given up for Wentz. The quarterback depth that the Eagles compiled let them develop Wentz at his pace, but they were also able to convert the surplus into assets later.
Wentz showed promise but typical rookie inconsistency in his first year, then broke out with an MVP-caliber season that ended prematurely in 2017. His performance helped the Eagles to the first seed in the NFC, and they rode homefield all the way to the Super Bowl, where they won the franchise’s first title since the pre-merger era. Despite some additional injury woes in year three, Wentz continued to show he is one of the top young signal-callers in the game, and the Eagles have doubled down on their investment with a long term contract during the 2019 offseason.
Two elements of Philadelphia’s strategy have taken legs throughout the league: stockpiling veteran quarterbacks even while planning to draft a quarterback highly, and making a big move up to secure a rookie QB in the draft.
The year after the Eagles’ machinations for Wentz, the Chicago Bears signed Sanchez and Mike Glennon, then traded up from the third pick to the second to select Mitchell Trubisky. A year after that, the New York Jets acquired veteran Josh McCown and reclamation project Bridgewater to go with their tradeup from six to three for Sam Darnold. They were able to parlay a strong preseason from Bridgewater into a third-round pick. Also in 2018, the Cardinals signed Bradford to a 1-year, $20 MM deal and then traded from 15 up to 10 to pick Josh Rosen. Few teams actually sit their rookie quarterbacks all season, but most are giving themselves veteran options so that they can. Patrick Mahomes (Chiefs, 2017), Lamar Jackson (Ravens, 2018), Daniel Jones (Giants, 2019) were all drafted into situations that already had veterans (Alex Smith, Joe Flacco, and Eli Manning, respectively).
Roseman can’t take full credit for inspiring tradeups for quarterbacks, as plenty of general managers have done the same in fairly recent history; the Giants for Manning, the Falcons for Michael Vick, and Washington for Robert Griffin III stand out. Still, all those were moves from near the top of the draft to the first or second pick. The only recent precedent for the Goff and Wentz trades is the Jets’ jump from 17 to the fifth pick in 2009 for Sanchez. But plenty of teams have emulated the big moves by Rams and Eagles with similar big jumps for quarterbacks:
Big deals for Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, and Josh Allen, all involving jumps of more than 10 picks, followed in the wake of the Goff and Wentz trades. While the Goff, Wentz, Mahomes, and Watson deals all involved a future first, the tradeups for Allen, Darnold, and Rosen managed to avoid this price, suggesting something of a course correction already. Still, teams that lack a franchise quarterback need to get one, and they tend to be found early in the draft. Of the quarterbacks with 200 pass attempts in 2018, nearly a quarter (eight of 33) were first overall picks, with seven more coming in the top five. First-rounders make up 23 of the 33 passers, all-in-all.
It is certainly possible to get a starting quarterback without a high pick, but the odds suggest that it’s unlikely. We will likely continue to see savvy teams move up the board to secure their quarterback of the future.
Such a move does come with risk. To make a big trade up for a quarterback, a team needs a willing trade partner, and teams aren’t likely to be willing to trade back from a bulletproof Andrew-Luck-type prospect. That means the quarterback is going to have some flaws. The drafting team must assess that risk and manage that player’s development. Not all such quarterbacks will succeed, and the GMs that bet wrong will likely pay with their jobs. But is that worse than being stuck at 7-9 for years? Roseman and the Eagles thought not, and their big move for Wentz has changed the landscape of the NFL.