Monday, January 2, 2017

A Quarterback Strategy for NFL Teams, especially the Vikings

A franchise quarterback is arguably the most important position in any sport. If your team is lucky enough to have one of the few true superstars at the position, you are a super bowl contender basically every season. 

Of course, there are exceptions and some teams have won Super Bowls without a true franchise quarterback, but that's usually because they had a truly dominating defense and avoided major injuries. However, you'd obviously prefer to have an elite quarterback and build the rest of the team around that player.

Quarterback play has improved from even a decade ago, there's no doubting that. Several "average" quarterbacks today have more velocity and more raw talent than most quarterbacks did in the past. Defenses have also evolved into very complicated schemes, tricking quarterbacks and making the game as much mental as it is physical. That strategy isn't new, but the way it's being employed today by defensive coordinators is much better than it's ever been (except if you're a Ryan brother, yikes)

Despite every NFL team being fully aware of the value of the quarterback position, teams routinely screw up their strategy when it comes to acquiring that kind of a player.

To be clear: It's very difficult to land a top tier quarterback, in any fashion. They are often top 5 picks, but first round quarterbacks bust ever year. So not only do you need to be bad enough to be in position to draft one, you also need to be bad in the right year. Luck plays a huge part in finding that player.

When NFL teams think they have a future franchise QB, for whatever reason, they often refuse to draft another quarterback. I don't know if teams think it would be a "wasted pick" because they already have their young, developmental quarterback or if they don't want to send mixed messages to their young starter, but either way these teams are doing it wrong.

One example that comes to mind is when the Washington Redskins gave up a massive bounty to trade up and draft quarterback Robert Griffin the 900th from Baylor. The Redskins first pick after they took Griffin was all the way in the 4th round, and with so many holes to fill many expected the team to target an offensive weapon that could develop with their new young quarterback.

Instead, Washington drafted... another quarterback! Kirk Cousins from Michigan State. The talking heads during the draft basically just lost their minds. They had just given up a ton of picks for a quarterback, their future franchise quarterback, and now they had just wasted ANOTHER pick on a quarterback? There was no way Kirk Cousins was ever going to be anything more than RGIII's backup, what a wasted pick... blah blah blah.

Obviously, you know by now how that turned out. RGIII failed as Washington's starting quarterback, and eventually Kirk Cousins not only replaced him but became their franchise quarterback. That "wasted pick" turned out to be a franchise changing decision for the better.

And while the Redskins and Mike Shanahan deserve credit for their pick, Shanahan's stubbornness is really what led to them taking Cousins, not some league-changing strategy. Shanahan reportedly was very angry that the ownership was going to trade up for RGIII, as he liked Cousins more and wanted to take him with a mid-round pick. When Cousins was still on the clock with Washington's 4th rounder, Shanahan picked his guy more as a "screw you" to Daniel Snyder. I'm not a Shanahan fan, but he was right.

The correct strategy NFL teams should employ to find a quarterback, in my opinion, is as follows:

Find a starting quarterback: Obviously, this is step #1. Because even average starting quarterbacks don't grow on trees, teams are likely to sign a veteran stop gap. Teams picking in the top 5 will likely draft a QB, which is fine. But the team needs a clear starter going into off-season workouts. If you have a "competition" in the off-season, you might as well just be saying "We plan to suck next year."

Draft a quarterback EVERY YEAR, until you have a top 5 QB: This is the part NFL teams fail at year after year. Despite scouts insisting which QBs can't play in the pros and which can, they're proven wrong almost every season. 

When the Minnesota Vikings drafted Christian Ponder with the 12th overall pick in 2011, they felt they had drafted their future starter. The 2011 team had the right idea, like most NFL teams: Donovan McNabb was brought in as the veteran starter, and they would develop Ponder behind him until they felt he was ready. For a rebuilding team, that strategy is fine. It may not always work, but it seems to give the young quarterback time to get acclimated with the complexity of the NFL. 

Where the Vikings screwed up, as most teams do, was the following season. McNabb had been terrible, so he was gone. Ponder was entrenched as the team's starting quarterback, which made sense after drafting him 12th overall and letting him get his feet wet in 2011. Unfortunately, the team decided to use Joe Webb as the backup quarterback; a player that some teams felt had to move to wide receiver. Webb was certainly a "development" quarterback and the kind of guy I liked to see the team develop, but he should've been the third quarterback. With Ponder still an unknown, drafting a quarterback until Ponder proves he's the guy would've been the optimal strategy.

In the 2012 draft, quarterbacks Russell Wilson, Nick Foles and Kirk Cousins were drafted between the third and fourth rounds. While it's impossible to know who the Vikings may have targeted, any one of those 3 would've been a better option than Joe Webb in the playoff game at Lambeau, and even Foles, who burned out quickly, had a better career than Ponder.

Don't Pay Average QBs: Quarterbacks like Joe Flacco and Sam Bradford, who get paid like franchise quarterbacks but aren't at that level, are franchise killers. The Ravens admittedly were in a tough spot, as Flacco's 4 best games of his career came in the playoffs right before his contract expired. It's really tough to let your quarterback, who just helped you win a Super Bowl, become a free agent. But it would've been the prudent decision from a team-building standpoint.

For the salary cap charge that Joe Flacco is costing Baltimore, the team could've signed two or three very good players at less expensive positions. While a starting quarterback is massively important, unless he's good enough to carry a lesser team (Like Aaron Rodgers) you can't afford to spend a huge chunk of your salary cap on one position.
This is another reason drafting a quarterback every year is so important. Starting quarterbacks who are still on their rookie contract are possibly the best bargain in sports, as they make pennies on the dollar for their production and it allows the team to spend big around the talented youngster. Had Baltimore been able to develop just one quarterback in the five years Flacco was around, they could've simply franchised Flacco and traded him following his Super Bowl run, and handed the keys to their other developed quarterback for a fraction of the cost.

Even this past season, the Vikings proved why this strategy can be so beneficial. The team felt Teddy Bridgewater was their franchise quarterback, so they had no reason to draft a quarterback in the middle rounds. Once Bridgewater tore his knee, however, the team had to give up first AND fourth round picks for the one thing NFL teams should be avoiding: Average starting quarterbacks* that have huge contracts. Had the team targeted a rookie quarterback between the third and fourth rounds, as I suggest teams always should, they could have drafted one of Jacoby Brissett, Connor Cook, Cody Kessler or Dak Prescott. Expecting them to draft Dak Prescott is a bit of a pipe dream, of course, as he's been better as a Cowboy than he ever was in college. But even if they had one of the other 3, they likely wouldn't have had to panic and trade for Sam Bradford. A Shaun Hill/rookie combo wouldn't have been a Super Bowl contender, but to be frank neither was a Sam Bradford led team, despite the Vikings insisting otherwise. Losing that first round pick when the offense is in dire need of several playmakers is going to be very costly.

And, interestingly enough, the Redskins have a tough decision of their own, as they need to determine if Kirk Cousins is simply "average" or if they should spend the money to keep him. If I were Washington, I would simply franchise tag Cousins for another season and delay the decision by one more season.

*Despite Vikings fans arguing otherwise, Bradford is nothing more than an average NFL quarterback. Yes, his passer rating and completion percentage look great in the box score, and yes, the offensive line was a mess. But franchise quarterbacks overcome poor offensive lines basically every season; Aaron Rodgers has had a terrible line for the majority of his career. Sam Bradford will never be Aaron Rodgers, obviously.

The Vikings seem to plan on Bradford being the starting quarterback next season, while Bridgewater continues his slow return from that terrible knee injury. Personally, I think Bradford is a little better than Bridgewater, but they're similar enough I wouldn't argue with someone if they liked Bridgewater more.

The ideal scenario would see the Vikings trade Bradford to a team that needs a starting quarterback and values his completion percentage and high draft pick pedigree. I honestly have no idea what Bradford's value would be, especially with his cap hit jumping to $18 million, but a 2nd or 3rd round pick seems like it'd be the least the team could get, in my opinion.

Use any 3rd or 4th round pick on your highest rated quarterback remaining, relative to pick value. Allow the rookie to get most first team reps as Bridgewater continues to rehab. Ideally Bridgewater would be ready by the season opener, giving the Vikings an average quarterback at a massive bargain, instead of an average quarterback that costs way too much. This kind of strategy would also allow the team to potentially add a good offensive lineman, whether it be through free agency or a trade. It's rare to find a starting lineman in year 1 from the draft.

However, there's little chance the Vikings think outside the box to find their franchise quarterback. It's much more likely they will continue to support Sam Bradford, blinded by the cost of acquiring him prior to the season. And it's just as likely we see the Vikings fighting for another 9 or 10 win season next year, at best.



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