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Hear me out
Over the course of the past week, I’ve written quite a bit about the top paid quarterbacks in NFL, first looking at championship contenders and then doing a deeper dive into the highest paid QBs as a function of cap space. Lots of great conversations have come out of those pieces, and a variety of quarterback retention theories have arisen out of them. One consistent point of agreement, however, has been, as one poster put it: “Don’t pay average QBs a lot of money. Break the bank for a legit top 5 QB.”
For the sake of this discussion, at this point in time, anything north of $30M/yr generally constitutes “a lot of money.” But, how do we discern those few elite QBs worth breaking the bank for?
The Greatest Young QBs Tend to Get to the Super Bowl in the First 4 Seasons as a Starter
Looking at the truly elite quarterbacks, the guys who have occupied that hallowed “top five” status for years on end, and who will probably end up in the Hall of Fame, we see a very interesting trend: A significant majority of them won their first Super Bowl within their first four seasons as a starter.
- Tom Brady – First season as a starter (2nd season)
- Ben Roethlisberger – Second season
- Aaron Rodgers – Third season as a starter (6th season)
- Russell Wilson – Second season
- Patrick Mahomes – Second season as a starter (3rd season)
All of the quarterbacks above – except Rodgers, who is a special case, having sat behind Brett Favre for three years – won their first (and in some cases, only) Super Bowl on their rookie contracts, which afforded their team the ability to spend more generously on the roster elsewhere. They all showed their ability to lead their teams to greatness very early on in their careers.
Many may not be inclined to include him in this august group, but even two-time Super Bowl winner Eli Manning won his first Lombardi on his rookie contract.
- Eli Manning – 4th season
Another interesting case, is Jimmy Garoppolo, who got to the Super Bowl in his third season as a starter, though he ended up losing. He has the chance to go back again if he wins this weekend. Is Garoppolo “elite?” I’ll leave that to you to decide, but he did show considerable success early in his career as a starter.
- Jimmy Garoppolo – Third season as a starter (6th season)
Two notable outliers to this trend were Drew Brees and Peyton Manning. In some senses, Brees had two careers, a short, stunted one, marked by injury with the Chargers, and the 15-year campaign with the Saints that we all associate him with. Brees didn’t win his Super Bowl until his 9th overall season – his 4th with the Saints.
Manning struggled with playoff success early in his career, going 0-3 before finally winning his first playoff game in 2003. He eventually won his first Super Bowl after nine season in the league.
- Drew Brees – 9th season
- Peyton Manning – 9th season
Who Among the Young Crop of QBs Qualifies?
Winning a Super Bowl, for anyone, is an incredibly high bar, and may be more exclusive than we really need to be. There are also several young, up and coming QBs who aren’t yet through their rookie deals.
So, if we were looking at those guys, who among them might meet this threshold? Mahomes, in his fourth year, has already destroyed the bar. Signing him to a massive deal made sense under the criteria above. But, how about if we drop the threshold to “appear in a Championship game” in their first four seasons?
That ropes in the Bills’ Josh Allen, who appeared in the AFC Championship game in his third season, and who was extended to a huge deal last offseason.
It also brings in the Bengals’ Joe Burrow, who has achieved – at least – a similar feat this season. His team plays for a chance at the Super Bowl this weekend. Burrow, at this point, looks like a pretty safe bet for a massive extension after the 2022 season.
There are certainly other young QBs, Justin Herbert or Mac Jones, to name a couple, who could enter this conversation over the next few years, but they aren’t there yet.
Decision Time is Now For the QB Class of 2018
The quarterback class of 2018 was one of the most heralded in recent memory, with 5 QBs selected in first round of the draft. Josh Allen, as described above, was the third QB drafted but has stood head and shoulders about the rest. The Bills’ wisely rewarded him with a significant extension last offseason.
Josh Rosen, originally drafted by the Cardinals, has been a bust by any measure, and is currently a back-up on the Falcons. Sam Darnold, the second QB taken in the draft, was destroyed by the Jets. He was given another chance to salvage his career by the Panthers this season, but squandered that as well.
The other two quarterbacks taken that year are the subject of the conundrum above.
I actually don’t think the decision on the first overall pick in the draft, the Browns Baker Mayfield, is that difficult. Mayfield has been 29-30 over the course of his career thus far, and he won a playoff game in 2020, but I don’t think there’s any reasonable case to be made that he’s a top 5 (or even top 10) quarterback in the league. Signing Mayfield to a large extension would absolutely feel like paying “an average QB a lot of money.”
Mayfield currently has one more season under his rookie contract – his fifth year option – so if the Browns want to keep him into the future, they either need to extend him soon or risk the franchise tag escalator they would be faced with entering after 2022. The issue for the Browns is, coming off (non-throwing arm) shoulder surgery this offseason, what sort of trade value might Mayfield have? On the trade block, I’d imagine Mayfield brings a 3rd or 4th round pick under his current situation.
Is that level of trade return worth entering the QB carousel again in 2022. I have my doubts that that’s the road GM Andrew Berry and head coach Kevin Stefanski want to go down for such a small payoff. However, if I were them, I would certainly considering drafting a Plan B in the coming draft, unless they want to remain a team that flirts with playoff berths every year with Mayfield at the helm. If they want to compete for Super Bowls, they’re probably going to need someone better, but trading Mayfield now is unlikely to help much in that regard.
The situation of the final quarterback taken in the first round of that 2018 draft is the one I find the most interesting. By most conventional metrics, Lamar Jackson has been a phenomenal talent for the Baltimore Ravens. He was NFL MVP in 2019. He’s taken the team to the playoffs in 3 of his first 4 seasons. He won a playoff game in 2020. Jackson was injured in 2021 though, and only ended up playing in 12 games (he went 7-5), and the Ravens lacked the juice to make the playoffs without him.
Jackson, unlike Mayfield, is a star. When he’s on, he’s absolutely in the discussion of being a potential top 10 quarterback in the league. His unique combination of being a passing and rushing threat constantly keeps opponents on their toes. But, even at his best, as he was in 2019, he wasn’t able to carry his team when it mattered most, against the best competition.
I have no illusions that Lamar Jackson is going to be traded this offseason, but if Eric DeCosta and John Harbaugh decided to do it – and if anyone might, it would probably be them – I would applaud the maneuver. Here’s why:
- Lamar Jackson, even on just his 5th year option, would surely draw massive attention from front offices around the league. As trade discussions about Deshaun Watson, Russell Wilson, and Aaron Rodgers frequently involve estimates of up to three first round draft picks (+) in compensation, I think that Jackson would be in that same realm if he was made available.
- Jackson has shown the ability to execute top level individual performances in his first several years in the league, but he hasn’t had any of the early team-level success of the truly great quarterbacks profiled at the beginning of this piece.
- Tyler Huntley, the Ravens’ back-up, is an exclusive rights free agent this offseason who the Ravens can easily sign at a very reasonable price. Huntley is no Jackson, but he could probably keep the Ravens’ respectable in 2022, particularly with the Steelers re-loading at the QB position and the Browns in disarray.
- The Ravens have the 14th pick in this years draft. With 2 (perhaps 3) additional first rounders, they would easily have the ability to move up in this year’s draft to grab virtually any quarterback they want, or be ridiculously loaded up to have their pick of the litter in the 2023 draft.
- Moving Jackson gives the team an additional $30-40M per year in cap space, beginning in 2023, to continue building the team around the QB position.
There’s no question that the move proposed above would be ultra high stakes. The chances are, if the Ravens extend Lamar Jackson, they will be threat to be on the edge of the playoffs for several more years – though his play style does put him at constant risk for severe injury, which would likely greatly reduce his effectiveness.
If they trade him, there are absolutely no guarantees that the player(s) they bring in to replace him will be as good as he is. There is, of course, also the chance that they use one (or more) of those additional draft picks to select the next Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen or Russell Wilson.
After all, Eric DeCosta is the author of one of my favorite draft-associated quotes:
We look at the draft as, in some respects, a luck-driven process. The more picks you have, the more chances you have to get a good player. When we look at teams that draft well, it’s not necessarily that they’re drafting better than anybody else. It seems to be that they have more picks. There’s definitely a correlation between the amount of picks and drafting good players.
Would you risk being good to have a chance at being great? That’s the question that is before the Baltimore Ravens this offseason.
Originally posted on Hogs Haven