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The controversial strategy of replacing your franchise quarterback

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NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Jacksonville Jaguars Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Amid a trade for Alex Smith and a divorce from Kirk Cousins, I think the Washington football team quietly made NFL history this offseason and nobody is really talking about it: they walked away from a traditional “franchise quarterback” in the middle of his career. This is simply something that is rarely ever allowed to happen, and trust that Washington did in fact “let it happen.” The NFL is designed in such a way that good quarterbacks are beholden to their franchises for years, and often don’t complain because they’re at least being rewarded with tens of millions of dollars.

Take a quarterback in the 2018 draft class for example, and for the sake of this argument, assume that the next CBA is similar to the current one.

If the Cleveland Browns select Sam Darnold, they own his rights for the next five years — four years and a team option for a fifth. They can then franchise him for the next three years if they have to, giving them eight years with Darnold, and about five in which to negotiate a long-term deal if he’s worth it. That puts Darnold in Cleveland from ages 21-29, and if he turns around the Browns, it’s safe to assume they’ll never let him leave.

Washington did not feel this way about Cousins, but almost every franchise in history would have caved into a long-term deal because they know how difficult it can be to even find a league-average QB. Cousins is above league-average, but barely. FootballOutsiders has him at 16th in DYAR, 18th in DVOA, and 19th in QBR, so they’d even say he’s right around the middle mark for starting quarterbacks, if not a little below. But most teams would not walk away from a quarterback doing this over the last three seasons on average:

67% completions, 27 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, 7.8 Y/A, 97.5 rating

Cousins ranks sixth in passer rating over the last three seasons and that includes losing his offensive coordinator and top two receivers in 2017, with little-to-no help in the run game. There’s little to complain about from Washington’s best passer since Joe Theismann’s last year in 1985, except for one important thing: you likely don’t win a Super Bowl because of Kirk Cousins. You can win a Super Bowl with him, and he may not hold you back, but he’s not one of these transcendent quarterbacks who you win because of and that’s a large reason why Washington has one playoff appearance (a loss) in the last three years.

You could argue the same for Alex Smith, but Smith’s APY with Washington came in at $23.5 million, with cap hits of $18.4, $20.4, and $21.4 million over the first three seasons. Cousins three cap hits in Minnesota on his three-year deal with the Vikings: $24, $29, and $31 million, and it’s all guaranteed.

Washington is saving $5.6, $8.6, and $10.4 million against the cap for the quarterback in the next three seasons and getting a comparable, arguably better, player. Smith’s passer rating in the last three seasons is 97.2, a tiny fraction below Cousins’, and with, I think, a poorer cast of characters around him, especially prior to the addition of Kareem Hunt in 2017.

So the only way for Washington to feel reasonably comfortable to let Cousins go was to acquire a cheaper, perhaps better option, but they did find a way to feel comfortable. And that is extremely important to note when watching what could transpire over the next few years in the NFL, especially with the costs of “franchise quarterbacks” rapidly rising and the value of cap space — and not allocating more than 12-15% of it on a single player — becomes increasingly more important.

Matt Ryan is set to be a free agent in 2019, while Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, Eli Manning, Jameis Winston, Tom Brady, Marcus Mariota, Drew Brees, and Dak Prescott will become available in 2020 if they don’t retire, get cut, or get extended before then. (Obviously, Brady, Ben, Manning, Brees, and Rivers will have the topic of retirement brought up a lot between now and 2020, but it could still be a fascinating year for free agency.) I am not an expert on the CBA, but I do know that expires after the 2020 season, and there’s a strong likelihood of a strike or lockout in 2021, but I don’t pretend to know what that could mean for this class of free agents other than I assume players will want to be able to test out free agency soon after the new CBA, not before.

Either way, I wonder how many teams might also want to consider cutting ties with “franchise quarterbacks” in the interest of saving considerable money and finding players of similar ability who are being undervalued because they aren’t as “shiny” or “en vogue” or they cost a draft pick (which at the moment could be over-hyped and over-valued depending on the pick). And that leads me to wonder if you could see more teams, with assumed “franchise quarterbacks” picking quarterbacks in the first and second round with more frequency and with an intention to hedge their bets on a financially-sensible future.

In fact, we already saw this happen in the first round of the 2017 draft but without much fanfare. And it also involved Alex Smith.

The Kansas City Chiefs had Smith, a two-time Pro Bowler, three-time playoff-appearer in his four seasons with the team, who was only 33, and they still traded two firsts and a third in order to move up for Patrick Mahomes. The Chiefs felt that a future first round pick and a third was worth acquiring a quarterback who they believed could take over the offense in a year from a very good QB, and if they’re right, nobody would second guess them. (Even though right now I think the majority sentiment is that not even Earl Thomas is worth a first and a third, let alone two firsts and a third, and Thomas is in the middle of a Hall of Fame career. I’m going to reiterate that draft picks are being over-valued, sometimes.)

Kansas City wanted to replace their quarterback with a cheaper option, so they made a trade. Washington wanted to replace their quarterback with a cheaper option, so they made a trade with the Chiefs for that same quarterback that KC wanted to replace. So who is smarter?

The Chiefs replacing Smith with Mahomes?

The Washington football team replacing Cousins with Smith?

The Vikings replacing Case Keenum (the $2 million man from 2017 who performed above league-average) with the $84 million ($24 million in 2018) Cousins?


Which team made the best move?

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  • 42%
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1245 votes total Vote Now

That moves us into the question of Russell Wilson and the 2018 class of quarterbacks.

First of all, I would be shocked if the Atlanta Falcons moved on from Matt Ryan in any capacity, if only because he’s proven to be a class or two above Smith and Cousins. That doesn’t mean that moving on from Ryan — as I will note with any quarterback — is indefensible or that you couldn’t make an argument that sometimes when teams do what they believe they should do, because it’s what teams have always done, that it’s right. Teams should go for it on fourth down more often, but they don’t. Because what if they fail? Law of averages might say that you need to take the fails with the wins though, and you need to be able to swallow the fact that you’ll be wrong sometimes.

Washington might be wrong to walk away from Cousins because there’s a non-zero chance that he’s in the middle of a Hall of Fame career (unlikely, but non-zero), and they could still be making the right choice to part ways. Kansas City could be wrong about their evaluations of Smith and Mahomes and their paths in the next 3-5 years, but taking the chance is saving them $20 million per year.

Will there be a team that sees that opportunity with a quarterback in the 2018 class?

The first team up with a chance to do that is the New York Giants at pick two, with Eli Manning turning 37 in January and not being all that great to begin with. Taking a quarterback to replace Eli could save them $17 million in 2019 (if they release him in a year) and perhaps more after that depending on what Manning decides to do at that point.

The Denver Broncos could take a quarterback at five to replace Keenum in a year or two.

The Oakland Raiders made a mistake when they gave Derek Carr a $125 million contract extension in 2017, but they can already start saving considerably in 2019 if they decide to release Carr ($15 million) and Jon Gruden — ever-loving of a QB prospect — might want to build his own QB in this or the next draft.

The Miami Dolphins are already being rumored to be interested in quarterbacks in this class, despite Ryan Tannehill only turning 30 and posting Cousins-lite numbers in his career.

The Green Bay Packers are looking at having to pay Rodgers $30-$35 million per season on his next contract, at which point he could be in his age 36-40 years. That worked for Brady, but Brady is the exception, and he also took about half of his market value. This is the same franchise that drafted Rodgers when Brett Favre was 36, and they know that even the presence of an internal second option gives them much-needed leverage. (Is DeShone Kizer really going to do that?)

The Baltimore Ravens, LA Chargers, Seattle Seahawks, Cincinnati Bengals, Carolina Panthers, Tennessee Titans, Falcons, New Orleans Saints, Pittsburgh Steelers, Jacksonville Jaguars, and New England Patriots are other teams I see as I run down the first round that could be looking to gain options or leverage with a “surprise” quarterback pick this year in a class that could have five or six QBs off the board in round one. There’s little way to know which quarterbacks will fall where, but Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson seem to be two names that could fall into a range where a team with a supposed solid “franchise” QB already in the fold could decide to hedge their bets.

Including the Seahawks.

I don’t think that Seattle would necessarily use pick 18 to select Jackson when they are clearly trying to compete in 2018 and would essentially be giving up any presumed 2018 value by selecting a quarterback (since he would be a backup barring a disaster), but I do think that John Schneider is the type of general manager who would take a franchise quarterback if he thought that one was available to the Seahawks (Schneider’s job in 2005? The Packers’ personnel analyst to GM Ted Thompson when they selected Rodgers) and that player overwhelmingly impressed him and Pete Carroll.

This is how they were rumored to feel about Mahomes before the Chiefs traded up to pick him to essentially “steal” the same idea that Seattle may have had with Mahomes.

Not that the Seahawks would have traded Wilson to Washington this year like Kansas City did, but I think they love to have options. Having two quarterbacks they liked instead of one would give them all kinds of options and value, as it would any franchise. And we also know that Seattle — the team that let Sheldon Richardson, Jimmy Graham, and Paul Richardson walk so they could sign 13 players for the cost of about two of those guys — loves value. They saw the impact that a rookie-contract Wilson had for them from 2012-2015 and I don’t think they’re at all opposed to seeing something like that happen again. If Wilson doesn’t see a Brady-like salary ceiling in his future, then the Seahawks have to evaluate what a “franchise QB” is really worth to them.

Two years ago, it was a four-year, $87.5 million deal. A contract that bumps up from $14.6 in 2017 to $23.7 in 2018 and $25.2 in 2019. What will they be willing to pay Wilson in 2020? $32 million? $35? It’s not the type of spending that has typically resulted in Super Bowls for other franchises, though the absence of a quarterback as talented as Wilson also doesn’t tend to result in success.

There’s no question it is a catch-22 (assuming I am perfectly on point with what a catch-22 is) and more of one than most people seem to give it credit for: you can’t afford to lose your quarterback but oftentimes you can’t afford to keep him either. Not just literally (in some ways literally), but mega-contracts, even for great quarterbacks, can ultimately hurt teams.

Seattle, and many teams like them, must decide if their “franchise QB” is actually good for the franchise. Or if they should try to go in another direction when the contract numbers become too exorbitant.

Observations or speculations that the Seahawks would trade Wilson in 2018 are absolutely ridiculous, because Seattle desperately needs Russell Wilson. As of 2018, Wilson is the franchise. He’s the best player on the team, the best quarterback in franchise history, and only 29. Historically speaking, the Seahawks would then plan on keeping Wilson for at least another 6-8 years, but as I said in the beginning, the course of the league and how teams handle the futures of “franchise quarterbacks” may be changing.

The Packers couldn’t live without Favre in 2004.

Washington franchised Cousins in 2016, 2017.

The Chiefs had no future at quarterback before the 2017 draft.

It would be crazy for Seattle to think of a world without Wilson because he is the world to them. That can change though, if they make the decision for it to change, and with the rising cost of players and the increasing importance of a well-managed cap that decision is not nearly as bold as it used to be.


Who should Seahawks backup QB be?

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  • 28%
    A low-ceiling vet
    (388 votes)
  • 54%
    A low-risk rookie (Day 3, UDFA)
    (732 votes)
  • 16%
    A high-ceiling rookie (Day 1, Day 2 trade)
    (218 votes)
1338 votes total Vote Now