I submit the following premise: when making personnel decisions around the quarterback position, NFL teams should divide everyone into three groups:
A) Quarterbacks who can elevate lesser teams to Super Bowl status. In the current century, this group includes Tom Brady, Aaron Rogers, peak Peyton Manning, and maybe Drew Brees.
B) Quarterbacks who, if given a roster with Super Bowl talent, won’t screw it up. Eli Manning is the classic example of this group. At any given point, there are generally between five and ten guys in this category. Some guys move in and out. Joe Flacco was maybe even in group A for about a month.
C) Everyone else.
Because when you choose your quarterback, what else matters? The goal for every team in every season is to win the Super Bowl. Maybe for some teams, that’s more realistic in 2022 than it is right now, but it’s still the goal, and every NFL team is either moving closer to that goal or further away. And the most important factor in which direction you are moving is the decision you make with your quarterback.
Case in point: Andy Dalton. Six years ago the Bengals drafted him in the second round and handed him the keys to the franchise. Since then he’s been a perfectly decent quarterback who will probably retire with every Bengals career passing record. But for most of that time, he had a roster around him that was the equal of any in the AFC and he never won a playoff game, let alone a Super Bowl. Now, because of age and free agency, the Bengals have hemorrhaged enough talent over the past two offseasons that they are no longer a Super Bowl contender. Dalton will turn thirty in October, which means that he is likely to be in the decline phase of his career by the time the roster is replenished. Dalton, therefore, belongs firmly in Group C and is a lesson in what happens when you bet your franchise on the wrong guy.
This is an important thing to remember when critiquing decisions made around the draft. You will search far and wide—and fail—to find a so-called expert who said prior to the draft that there was a franchise quarterback available in this draft. When ranked purely on talent, no quarterbacks were listed among the top twenty players. All of that analysis may be flawed. At this point last year nobody expected Dak Prescott to win thirteen games, and it is entirely possible that by this time next year we are talking about Mitch Trubisky or Patrick Mahomes or Deshaun Watson in similarly exalted terms.
But the teams that drafted these guys have already paid an opportunity cost of foregoing help at other positions, and they will spend the next three or four years determining whether they have made the right choice. If they are wrong, the cost to their future ability to contend will be enormous. Therefore any team that looked at these guys and was not extremely confident in their ability to become franchise quarterbacks made the right decision in not drafting them.
Which brings us to the Cleveland Browns. There was abundant analysis after the first round of the draft that the quarterback position in Cleveland is such a black hole that the Browns should have drafted someone – anyone – to begin the process of development so that when the rest of the roster holes were filled in they would have a quarterback ready to lead them. It is, in fact, entirely possible that Cleveland would have traded up to take Trubisky if the Bears had not beat them to it. Either way, the Browns evidently made the determination that there was not a Super Bowl quarterback available when they drafted. If that is the case, they should be commended for not reaching for a guy who would have done more harm than good.
The Browns not only abstained from drafting a quarterback; for the second straight year they exploited another team’s eagerness to grab a quarterback to make a trade for a bevy of draft picks. This is straight from the Moneyball playbook that chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta learned from Billy Beane in Oakland. The main principle of Moneyball, for those of you who didn’t see the movie, is to exploit market inefficiencies to maximize your return on draft picks, trades, and payroll dollars. The Browns obviously feel that the league-wide lust for quarterbacks creates a market inefficiency that they can utilize to their advantage. Last year they trade the number two overall pick, which turned out to be Carson Wentz for multiple picks; then they did the same this year with the twelfth pick when Houston coveted Deshaun Watson. The picks that Cleveland hoarded through these deals, if used properly, will be instrumental in rebuilding their roster.
Of course, if Wentz or Watson is hoisting a Super Bowl trophy while the Browns are still aimlessly searching for a quarterback, they will be the subject of relentless ridicule. It won’t be the first time for the Browns. But that would be an error in player evaluation, not of strategy, and it would be an error that virtually everyone who assessed this draft made, as well.
Eventually, there is a limit to how far the Browns can go with this. No matter how much they use these trades to fortify the rest of their roster, it will all be wasted if they don’t find the right quarterback. And those who portray the situation as having some degree of urgency do have a point. With 22 draft picks between this year and next, the Browns could literally field an entirely new starting lineup by September 2018. The best case scenario would be to have a franchise quarterback on the roster and well along the developmental curve by that point. If they wait another year or two to acquire the quarterback, they risk having him still learning the position while the rest of their core is reaching its peak, then having everyone else at the end of their rookie contracts and getting too expensive when the quarterback is ready. This may be happening right now with the Rams, who have built a roster of high draft picks but may have to wait another year or two for Jared Goff to figure it out, or maybe even have to find another quarterback, either of which may waste the best years of all those draft picks.
Sometimes it just never happens. For all that I have derided the Bengals for sticking with Andy Dalton, I can’t point to a scenario where they might have chosen someone better. The best case I can make is that if they had not drafted Dalton they might have sucked badly enough for another year to draft Andrew Luck, but unless they got the first pick they might have also drafted Robert Griffin or Ryan Tannehill. The Steelers, after all, weren’t so much brilliant in drafting Ben Roethlisberger as ten other teams were stupid in not drafting him, and none of that would have mattered if 2004 wasn’t the only year in the past twenty that the Steelers were drafting as high as eleventh.
If second round pick DeShone Kizer turns out to have the brains of Tom Brady and the athleticism of Cam Newton, as he boasted prior to the draft, the Browns will have given themselves the best of both worlds, by leveraging their first round picks well and finding a franchise quarterback. There are those who believe that Kizer has as much upside as any of the quarterbacks selected in the first round. At worst, Kizer will compete with Cody Kessler and maybe Brock Osweiler for the starting position and keep the spot warm until the Browns find THE GUY. In the meantime, in not hamstringing their future by committing to their version of Andy Dalton, the Browns may have done the smartest possible thing.