Monday, March 4, 2013

NFL Free Agency 2013: Where are the Quarterbacks?


Every now and then I get an uncontrollable craving for the sugary, heavily caffeinated goodness that is Amp Energy drink. And by “every now and then” I really mean several times a week. When these urges hit, there’s very little I can do to fight it, making the acquisition of said drink the highest priority. It would happen to be my good fortune to live less than two miles from a rather large and well stocked Speedway. I say ‘well stocked’ because, for the most part, they always have what I’m looking for. But once every few months, when my unfortunate physical dependence on Amp is at its peak, they don’t have any. None. Completely out.

As you can imagine, this is demoralizing to me. Seeing the empty space where dozens of Amps are supposed to be lined up is like tearing open a promising-looking Christmas present, only to reveal the ugliest cardigan you’ve ever seen in your life. Sheer disappointment. Borderline devastation.

The new NFL calendar year is nearly upon us, with free agency set to open on March 12, and I can only imagine that QB needy teams feel much the same way. They’ve got a need, a literal craving in some cases, and all they’re met with is a blank shelf where starter quality QB’s are supposed to be stacked. Last year, those shelves contained Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck, and Robert Griffin; three franchise guys nearly any team in the league would kill to have. Add in a strong – though somewhat controversial, at the time – top 10 talent in Ryan Tannehill and the surprise emergence of Russell Wilson, and it’s easy to see why 2012 was a great year to be looking for a QB.

2013? Not so much.

Joe Flacco was the top player heading into things, but won’t actually see the open market after signing that obscene deal with Baltimore. Likewise, Michael Vick would have been sought after given his past performance, but is staying put after signing an anti-Flacco contract with Philly. At the end of the day, the only clear cut starter quality QB to switch teams will be Alex Smith.  That’s quite a bleak reality for the rest of the league’s QB needy teams. The Flacco/Smith/Vick trio was already a mediocre enough group, and now a handful of teams have to choose between the leftovers of that? Even the draft is like picking through spare parts this season!

Unfortunately, with only one QB having switched teams, there are plenty of teams in that situation. The demand for starting QB’s is high, but the supply is painfully limited. So, with the first dominoes having already fallen, what’s left out there for the Cleveland’s, Buffalo’s, and Arizona’s of the world?

(Hint: Not much…)

Veterans

Jason Campbell. Tarvaris Jackson. Matt Moore. Matt Cassel.

There are some quality reserves here, but not much more. At best, a struggling franchise like Arizona could use a Jason Campbell or a Matt Moore as a stop gap until they come up with a long term solution.

The Draft

If you’re a Kansas City Chiefs fan, aren’t you this close to cutting your wrists with leftover rib bones? If you had tanked a year earlier, you could have had Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin! Instead, you have to give up two premium picks for a glorified game manager and try like heck to sell on what is, perhaps, the most worthless #1 pick since…well, since Alex Smith was the #1 pick! Irony.

Seriously though, this is a historically bad QB draft. There haven’t been fewer than two first round QB’s since 2001, but even that doesn’t really count since Drew Brees went #32. A better comparison would be 2000, which also marks the last time no QB’s were taken in the top 10. In that year, Chad Pennington was the top guy, taken #18, and the draft was so devoid of talent that the next QB wouldn’t be selected until the third round.  (Note: Tom Brady went in the sixth round, so it wasn’t all bad!)

This draft is shaping up similarly, with the highest rated QB (Geno Smith, the only guy rated as a first rounder) currently projected to go in the mid to late teens. Apart from him, and potentially Matt Barkley, everyone is viewed as either a backup or a long term development project. Heck, even Geno is somewhat of a project. There just isn’t the type of obvious franchise player we’re used to seeing at the top of the draft.

Trade

This market, to me at least, is the most intriguing. It's also the most divisive, given some of the more recent failures. The soon-to-be-released Matt Cassel is Exhibit A for those opposed to swapping picks for, say, a player like Nick Foles. Once upon a time, Cassel was also an intriguing young player that only needed an opportunity. Only after Kansas City surrendered a high second round pick and a boatload of money did they discover what he really was -- a noodle armed walking turnover.

Not surprisingly, the idea of swapping picks for a young, unproven talent has taken on an ill reputation. Is that an accurate view? I put together a list of similar acquisitions (including big free agent contracts to unproven backups) since 1992 to see if a larger sample of results is representative of the current line of thinking. The results were...surprising:


1992 - ATL trades Brett Favre to GB for 1st round pick (#17 overall)

The guy Atlanta ended up with lasted only three or four seasons. Favre became a Green Bay icon.

1993 - LA Raiders sign Jeff Hostetler to 3 year $7.5M contract

Hostetler, the longtime Giants backup, made one Pro Bowl and had a winning record as a starter in all four seasons with the Raiders. Granted, QB Wins is not a real stat, but the Raiders were a miserable 1-8 with Hostetler out of the lineup and 33-22 with him. Yeah, he earned his contract.

1994 - DET signs Scott Mitchell to 3 year $11M contract

Mitchell got off to a brutal start in Detroit, completing under 50% of his passes and starting just 9 games in his first season, but did rebound with a 32 TD season the next year. After that, it was three more years of bad. 

1995 - GB trades Mark Brunell to JAX for 3rd and 5th round picks

Nine seasons, three Pro Bowls, and 144 touchdowns later, Mark Brunell is still the best thing to ever happen to Jacksonville.

1998 - JAX trades Rob Johnson to BUF for 1st and 4th round picks

I had totally forgot about the Jags fleecing Buffalo in the Rob Johnson deal! Classic Bills. Hey, at least they weren't dumb enough to immediately hand him a a 5 year $25M contract! And at least they weren't dumb enough to bench Flutie for him in a playoff game that ended in complete heartbreak! And at least that first round pick didn't turn out to be FRED TAYLOR!!! Phew, the Bills dodged a bullet on this one.

1999 - DEN trades Jeff Lewis to CAR for a 3rd round pick and a 2000 4th round pick

Jeff who? 

2000 - GB trades Aaron Brooks to NO for 2001 3rd round pick

You know what, this was a good deal for New Orleans. Yeah, it's fun to laugh at Brooks now, but he actually gave them 4.5 years of solid QB play before falling off a cliff. Maybe if they didn't have dopey Jim Haslett as their coach, things would have turned out better.

2001 - STL trades Trent Green and 5th round pick to KC for 1st round pick (#12 overall)

The first rounder turned out to be Damione Lewis, but that's hardly relevant considering the return KC got in this deal. After a rocky first season, Green settled down and posted the best four year stretch in franchise history. This included two Pro Bowl selections, three 4000 yard seasons, nearly 100 TD's, and a key role in engineering a franchise record tying 13 wins in 2003.

2001 - GB trades Matt Hasselbeck and 1st round pick (#17 overall) to SEA for 1st round pick (#10 overall) and 3rd round pick.

With the 10th overall pick they received from Seattle, GB selected Jamal Reynolds. Reynolds played in just 18 games. With the 17th overall pick, Seattle selected Steve Hutchinson. Hutchinson made two All-Pro teams with Seattle, and has made another three with Minnesota. Oh yeah, and Seattle also got a QB who started for 10 years, made three Pro Bowls, and led the team to its only Super Bowl berth. Good trade!

2004 - PHI trades A.J. Feeley to MIA for 2005 2nd round pick

Was there a single person alive who thought this was a good idea? Did the Dolphins even think this was a good idea?

2007 - ATL trades Matt Schaub and 2007 1st round pick (#10 overall) to HOU for 1st round pick (#8 overall), 2nd round pick, and 2008 2nd round pick.

Schaub was exactly the type of preseason wonder everyone is skittish about nowadays, and I distinctly remember some serious criticism being levied Houston's way over this deal. In the six season since, Schaub has made himself into one of the best QB's in the entire league, eliminating any doubt whether Houston made the right call. Ironically, the Falcons would quickly regret this deal after Michael Vick ended up in prison.

2009 - NE trades Matt Cassel and Mike Vrabel to KC for 2nd round pick

The pick (eventually Patrick Chung) given up isn't so much criticized as the enormous 6 year $63M contract given to Cassel upon agreeing on a deal. All in all, this couldn't have turned out any more poorly for the Chiefs, who have essentially wasted four years of their existence on this guy.

2010 - SD trades Charlie Whitehurst and 2nd round pick (#60 overall) to SEA for 2nd round pick (#40 overall) and 2011 3rd round pick

This deal was widely panned even as it was happening, and hindsight certainly hasn't helped it any. Whitehurst was given four completely disastrous starts before Seattle moved on from him and his creepy hair.

2011 - PHI trades Kevin Kolb to ARI for 2nd round pick and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie

Also, Arizona gave Kolb a massive 5 year $64m contract. Just two years later, we're not even sure Kolb will be kept on the team. Complete disaster all the way around.

2012 - SEA signs Matt Flynn to 3 year $26m contract

The money is steep given the fact that he never actually won the starting job. Then again, it's tough to characterize a guy as "bad" because he couldn't start over Russell Wilson. How many guys could? 

Ironically, Flynn is one of the key guys available in this years trade market, and, as you can see, past history gives us very little reason to think that market is any more risky than free agency or the draft. By  my count, about 50% of these deals worked out - some of them rather spectacularly - which holds up pretty well against the odds of a draft pick working out. Plus, you often don't have to even invest a first round pick to land one of these guys.

This year, deals can be had for Matt Flynn, Ryan Mallett, and Nick Foles that would cost significantly less than it would to obtain Geno Smith (and probably Matt Barkley). Obviously, there's no guarantee any of those three guys will turn out to be long term starters, but given the weakness of the rest of the market, it just seems more prudent to make a smaller investment in one of these guys rather than spending a high draft pick. If I'm Arizona or Cleveland, and I can land Foles or Flynn for a 3rd or 4th round pick, I'm jumping on that. I feel more confident that one of those two will be ready to start from Day 1, and I could sleep much better at night knowing I'm out very little if things don't work out. It's a great way to hedge your bets when there isn't a good horse to wager on. 


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