Daily Archives: February 15, 2013

The QB quandary for NFL’s have-nots

VinceYour quarterbacks suck. You know it, and your fans sure know it.

So you’re desperate to upgrade this very off-season.

But how?

At least half a dozen NFL teams are in this boat, by our reckoning. Not coincidentally, all six missed the playoffs and are among the first to pick in April’s entry draft: the Kansas City Chiefs (1st overall), Jacksonville Jaguars (2nd), Oakland Raiders (3rd), Arizona Cardinals (7th), Buffalo Bills (8th) and New York Jets (9th).

Their sad-sack incumbents: Matt Cassel or Brady Quinn (Chiefs), Chad Henne or Blaine Gabbert (Jags), Carson Palmer (Raiders), Kevin Kolb (Cardinals), Ryan Fitzpatrick (Bills) and Mark Sanchez (Jets).

There are always three ways to upgrade.

First, via free agency. But this year? Not so much.

There’s no way the world champion Baltimore Ravens won’t either re-sign Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco to a nine-figure contract, or slap a one-year franchise tag on him before he’d become an unrestricted free agent on March 12.

After Flacco, the free-agency pond contains only carp such as Matt Moore, David Garrard, Jason Campbell and Vince Young (my Bills camp photo with Fitzpatrick, above, last August).

Eesh.

The other two options? Either draft a rookie April 25-27, or trade for an accomplished backup once the new league year begins March 12.

Here’s the rub. Several of the top analysts in the biz explained in telephone interviews this week why pickings in those ponds this year aren’t much better, and why both are fraught with uncertainty, risk and, in the case of trades, steep costs.

 

THE DRAFT ROUTE

“I can tell you for a fact the league does not view this year’s draft class as being very good,” said Greg Cosell, a senior producer at NFL Films and on ESPN’s NFL Matchup X’s-and-O’s show.

That’s quite the contrast from 2011 and 2012. Not only did Cam Newton, RG3, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson enjoy instant, record-setting success, but 16 newbie QBs started at least one game.

“The last two years have been a high-water mark for NFL rookie quarterbacks,” said Rob Rang, senior NFL draft analyst for CBSSports.com.

“This draft class is being a little bit unfairly portrayed as a draft class that lacks talent. There’s significant talent there – it’s just a bit more of a roll of the dice.”

Josh Norris, NFL draft writer for Rotoworld and NBC Sports, put it this way: “I really feel like we’ll look back at this class five years from now and see a group of adequate starters.

“I don’t think an adequate starter is such a bad thing. The NFL needs them right now.”

Most experts have these two quarterbacks rated highest: bazooka-armed Geno Smith of West Virginia, and four-year starter Matt Barkley of Southern Cal.

Next, in this approximate order: strong-armed but inconsistent string-bean Mike Glennon of North Carolina State; mediocre-armed but accurate Tyler Wilson of Arkansas; the multi-talented, rope-rippin’ E.J. Manuel of Florida State; short-range fastballer Ryan Nassib of Syracuse; enigmatic Landry Jones of Oklahoma; scattershot Zac Dysert of Miami (Ohio); and talented under-achiever Tyler Bray of Tennessee.

Are any of these prospects an option for the Chiefs at No. 1overall?

“No, I don’t see any way,” ESPN’s college-talent analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said Wednesday on a conference call. “When you talk to people in the league, nobody tells me that there’s any chance of that. Even at (7 to 9 overall) I’ve had teams say no. But maybe 20 to 22, possibly.

“I had one team tell me, ‘I wouldn’t take (any of these quarterbacks) in the first round.’”

In his latest mock draft, Kiper has Smith and Barkley slotted to go between 20th and 32nd overall.

Both have warning-light issues that concern NFL talent experts.

Smith’s: poor footwork on his throws, and a disturbing knack for rarely throwing until a receiver gets open, rather than anticipating when that will happen and throwing it ahead of time.

Barkley’s: a weak arm, and concrete feet in the pocket.

Neither Smith nor Barkley might ever develop into anything beyond middling.

“So the question is, What is the value of an adequate quarterback?” Norris said. “And where do you take them? … We just have no clue this year.

“I would be equally as unsurprised for three quarterbacks to go in the Top 10, as only one in the entire first round. Just prepare yourself for everything.”

 

THE TRADE ROUTE

Is this the surer way to go? Perhaps, if trades can even be arranged.

But this is the much costlier option – with less pizzazz, less upside.

The two backups most often mentioned as trade bait are Alex Smith of the San Francisco 49ers and Matt Flynn of the Seattle Seahawks.

Smith inked a three-year, $24-million deal last spring. He started San Fran’s first nine games, suffered a concussion in November, missed one game, then lost his job to Colin Kaepernick, who led San Fran to the Super Bowl.

Flynn started twice while backing up Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay in 2010 and ’11, famously carving up both the Patriots and Lions for a combined 734 yards and nine touchdowns.

The Seahawks signed the free-agent Flynn to a three-year, $19.5-million contract last March. But rookie phenom Russell Wilson beat him.

No one even knows if the Niners and Seahawks are willing to trade their high-priced backups. Even if they are, there are issues.

“The problem is, you know what Alex Smith and Matt Flynn are,” Cosell said. “They are, for want of a better term, system quarterbacks. You’re hopeful that a Ryan Nassib can become more than that. Or that an E.J. Manuel, who is extremely talented, can become more than that.

“Put it this way: you’re dealing with quarterbacks who require a lot of team around them, who require a complete offence, who require a good defence.”

And the Desperate Six wouldn’t be picking in the Top 10 if they had such supporting casts already.

Then there’s trade-market demand.

Andrew Brandt, a Packers vice-president from 1999 to 2008 and now ESPN’s NFL business analyst, said Smith “would have a bigger market than Flynn, because Flynn only has the (two-game) resume.”

“And then it depends on how many teams are interested. I think maybe people over-estimate how many teams are in the trade market for a quarterback. Beyond potentially Kansas City … I just don’t know who would be in that market.”

The reason? Trading for a non-elite QB is significantly costlier nowadays than drafting one.

Smith and Flynn are paid much more compared to, say, a late second-round pick – thanks to the 2011 CBA.

For instance, Denver’s backup QB is Brock Osweiler, whom the club selected last year in the second round, 57th overall. Over four years he’s set to earn $3.5 million – less than what Smith earns in half a season in his new deal.

“Draft picks are like gold now – young talent for a cheap price,” Brandt said. “You have rights to a player for four years at a very high value and low money rate, compared to veteran contracts.”

So, to trade for Smith or Flynn, you’d likely be giving up a draft pick, or picks, to bring in a high-priced quarterback who might or might not be a bit better than the stiff you’re already stuck with.

 

* * *

 

The Eagles and new head coach Chip Kelly mulled the above draft and trade options, and this week reached what really shouldn’t come as a surprising conclusion.

VickThat is, the quarterbacks already on their roster might remain the best options after all. The Eagles decided to keep Michael Vick (left, my 2012 camp photo), albeit at a renegotiated, much cheaper 2013 salary – $7 million instead of $15 million.

It’s the same conclusion that some of the Desperate Six might wind up reaching, as well. Such as the Bills, who on Friday announced (1) the surprise re-signing of third-stringer Tarvaris Jackson, and (2) that Jackson and Fitzpatrick will have an “open competition” for the starter’s job.

Jackson didn’t dress for a single game last season in Buffalo, after the Bills acquired him from Seattle.

“It’s easy to say, ‘Gee, we need a better quarterback.’” Cosell said. “But they don’t fall out of the sky, and it’s not college football where you can just go recruit the specific guy you need.

“Chip Kelly looked at the quarterbacks on the Eagles roster – Vick and (Nick) Foles – and he looked around the league at the Alex Smiths … and you know what he said? He said, ‘Michael Vick is the most talented of that group who can best run my offence – the vision I have for my offence.’

“So it’s easy to rip him in Philadelphia, which of course is happening. But you have to line up with someone you feel comfortable running your offence. It’s always easy to talk about what a guy WILL become when he hasn’t become that yet, which is why fans get so excited about the draft.”

Brandt agreed.

“People in New York are so down on Mark Sanchez,” Brandt said. “Even forgetting the financial implications of releasing Mark Sanchez, people don’t realize he’s probably the best option. Buffalo, the same thing. A lot of people are down on Fitzpatrick, but you have to think about this: What’s the better option?”

Norris suggests the course for a team still intent on pressing the QB-reset button might be to follow what head coach Pete Carroll, GM John Schneider and the Seahawks have done the past three years.

“They threw a lot of darts, and finally hit it,” Norris said.

Indeed, Seattle acquired Charlie Whitehurst in a trade with San Diego in 2010; he didn’t pan out. They signed free-agent Jackson in 2011; he didn’t pan out. Then last year they signed Flynn and drafted Wilson.

Bull’s-eye with No. 4, Wilson.

“So instead of saying, ‘Let’s get Alex Smith OR a certain rookie quarterback,’ I think the best step would be, ‘Let’s get Alex Smith AND a rookie quarterback.’” Norris said.

And if, in two or three years, neither pans out? Then just throw more darts.