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The State of the Quarterback Position in the NFL

September 24, 2014

Recently I read that the NFL just broke a record for the highest combined QB Rating through 3 games of the regular season. I wasn’t surprised about this at all as the NFL is on its fourth straight year of an elite draft class of signal callers joining the league and these recent additions have created a historic level of depth at the quarterback position. I’ve been an avid fan of the NFL for a decade and a half and I’ve always been used to the fact that there were more teams than quality quarterbacks. Every year there were 4-8 teams in the NFL that had little to no chance of competing due to their atrocious lack of talent at the quarterback position. With the advent of 7 on 7 camps and leagues in Junior High and High School as well as the prevalence of spread offenses in the college game the NFL has seen a flux of quality talent in recent drafts at the quarterback position. I am of the opinion that the quarterback position is about to become less valuable as a capable starting quarterback will no longer be seen as a scarce resource by NFL franchises and they will stop overpaying for them. An elite quarterback will still be of the utmost value but a mid level quarterback like Joe Flacco, Andy Dalton or Jay Cutler will see their value, ie salary, drop as teams will have an abundance of cheaper options which would result in only a slight reduction in performance.

3 years later and five of the first six quarterbacks taken in the 2012 draft are still starters (Nick Foles not shown).

3 years later and five of the first six quarterbacks taken in the 2012 draft are still starters for their team (Nick Foles not shown).

In just the last three years the NFL saw 12 teams take a quarterback that has been productive enough to be a regular starter for them (Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III/Kirk Cousins, Ryan Tannehill, Russell Wilson, Nick Foles, EJ Manuel, Geno Smith and Mike Glennon.) In that 3 year time frame 12 new talented signal callers were added to the NFL as “starter caliber” and by my estimate only 2 left as Vince Young retired and Matt Hasselbeck became a permanent backup with the Colts and will retire at the end of this season.

How did a consummate professional like this end up as a draft bust?

How did a consummate professional like this end up as a draft bust?

It’s pretty easy to do the math when it is +12 and -2 to see that the NFL’s long standing deficit of starting quarterbacks is quickly coming to an end. Add in the 2014 NFL Draft which saw four quarterbacks (Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater and Derek Carr) taken in the first 36 picks, three of whom took the majority of their team’s snaps this past weekend, and the depth of talent at the QB position could be considered at an all time high. I went through NFL teams depth charts and found that 23 of the 32 teams wouldn’t even consider a QB change which left only 9 teams “potentially” in the hunt for a QB in 2015. Of those teams 3 (Giants, Cardinals, Rams) have veteran quarterbacks that have been productive at times but appear to be on the decline and in need of replacement, 5 have young quarterbacks that the team (Bucs, Bills, Jets, Dolphins, Titans) pretty recently spent a 1st or 2nd round draft pick on yet are still on the fence about and 1 team (Texans) which had nothing but stop gaps in place and would surely be in the market for a quarterback next year. What does this all mean? I think the first thing it means is that the average starting salary for a mid level quarterback will soon be decreasing. Andy Dalton, Alex Smith, Jay Cutler and Colin Kaepernick all got extensions this offseason with many analysts being surprised at how mediocre some of the numbers were. I was not as the difference between Alex Smith and Jake Locker is minimal in my opinion so Smith should be praising his agent that he was given a 4 year $68 million extension after his 89.1 QB Rating in 2013 while Jake Locker will possibly be replaced in 2015 as his 86.7 QB Rating in 2013 wasn’t considered good enough. Last year the Bears ran into this issue when Jay Cutler went down with an injury and Josh McCown took his place as the backup actually played better than the starter. I was intrigued at the possibility that an NFL team would finally bite the bullet and downgrade their QB in exchange for an improved salary cap situation yet in the end the Bears were unwilling to be pioneers and test out this new idea. Instead they rewarded Cutler with a 7 year $126 million extension and watched McCown leave for a measly 2 year $10 million deal from the Bucs. This despite Cutler having a middling career QB Rating of 85.1, being 31 years old which usually begins to lead to a decline in performance from most quarterbacks and the fact that McCown’s 109 QB Rating in 2013 easily trumped Cutler’s 89.2 QB Rating while they played with the exact same supporting cast, coaching staff and offensive scheme. The Bears probably thought long and hard about stiffing Cutler and moving on but took the predictable route and who can blame them as NFL franchises have been making similar decisions for decades now. With the number of quality starting quarterbacks closing in on the important number of 32 I suspect that we won’t be waiting much longer for a similar situation to arise and an NFL franchise to finally make the logical choice of going with a $5 mil a year Chad Henne, Matt Cassel, or Josh McCown type over a $17 mil a year Alex Smith, an $18 mil a year Jay Cutler or a $20.1 mil a year Joe Flacco. The improvement from a low 80’s to a mid to high 80’s QB Rating isn’t worth the 3 to 4 fold increase in salary and with so many cheap and talented quarterbacks coming into the NFL via the draft there is no longer a need to pay these ransoms for mediocre talent. My analysis is controversial as it would necessitate a 180 degree change from where quarterbacks salaries are currently heading but if the next 3 NFL Drafts yield a comparable number of “starting caliber” quarterbacks as the past 3 NFL Drafts have then the quarterback position could soon become similar to the running back position where a few elite talents (Adrian Peterson, LeSean McCoy, Jamaal Charles, Matt Forte, Arian Foster) make big money but the rest of the starters are on rookie contracts or undermarket secondary deals due to the oversupply of talent on the market. Aaron Rodgers and Andrew Luck will continue to break the bank but in 3 years the current contracts of the mid level quarterback (Alex Smith, Joe Flacco, Colin Kaepernick, Jay Cutler, Matthew Stafford, Eli Manning) will seem laughable and teams will no longer feel abliged to overpay for these mediocre players. The tipping point I suspect would be when there is an NFL Draft with 3 or more 1st round talents at quarterback but only 1 or 2 teams with a legitimate need. A few of those 1st round talents would drop into Round 2 or even Round 3 and suddenly a team would be faced with the decision of whether to keep their good but expensive starter or draft the young, talented quarterback who comes with a 4 year $2.198 million contract like Russell Wilson did in 2012. That would begin a game of musical chairs at the quarterback position as teams would no longer be scrambling just to make sure they had a quality starter but now would have two or three to choose from and could drive a hard bargain in free agency or wait an extra round in the draft before selecting their signal caller. Since this would be an epochal shift it is difficult to time but I suspect that the groundwork will be laid for this shift in the 2015 NFL Draft with Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston, Brett Hundley, Kevin Hogan and Connor Cook combining with the 4 quarterbacks of this past draft to put further pressure on the job security of mid level quarterbacks. A few teams would begin the experimentation, possibly an innovator like Chip Kelly would be the first as I could see him not being convinced that Nick Foles was worth $20 mil a year since below average quarterbacks like Mark Sanchez put up video game numbers in his system each preseason, and then a glut of quarterbacks would arise in free agency which would lead to salary declines in mass. Restructurings would break out across the league, the franchise tag would only be used on the elite quarterbacks and each new wave of quarterbacks from the college ranks would be less and less promoted as 1st round talents would now almost always be drafted by teams that already had a capable starter in place. Year long mentorships of young quarterbacks would be in vogue again and quarterbacks being injured for a large stretch of games would no longer result in a team’s season being ruined. The NFL would still be a quarterback driven league but I expect it to soon be one in which there is a plethora of talented quarterbacks and the end result will be an even greater level of parity, something the league will love. Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees have dominated the league for years and many commentators have talked about how much the NFL will miss them when they retire in a few seasons. I suspect the league won’t miss them at all as the quarterback position will be in better shape than ever due partly to quality like Andrew Luck but mainly to quantity as the NFL is about to be overrun with quarterbacks. The league will never be the same.

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