A changing of the guard at the quarterback position has been in the forecast for the NFL. Philip Rivers announced his retirement this offseason and Drew Brees could follow shortly. Eli and Peyton Manning had already elected to hang up the cleats while Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan and Ben Roethlisberger shoulder the weight of carrying the torch late in their careers.
Teams are annually presented with a decision: take a quarterback early in the NFL draft or punt on the proposition and try to make the most of the veteran's twilight years. There is no overarching rule that applies to every situation, but rather it's handled on a case-by-case basis.
Since drafting Tom Brady in 2000, the Patriots have used four Day 2 selections on the position: Ryan Mallett, Jacoby Brissett, Jimmy Garoppolo and Kevin O'Connell. All of those players were drafted in 2008 or later, after Brady turned 30 years old. As everyone knows, Brady outlasted all of them in Foxborough. From the 2011 season, when O'Connell was selected, those four players made a combined four starts for the team that drafted them. Brady has made 140 starts for the Patriots since that draft. The team was able to trade Brissett and Garoppolo for a return similar to what they invested, whereas Mallett and O'Connell were essentially sunk costs.
There is no guarantee that a second- or third-round pick will make an impact in the NFL, but the Patriots could have used those picks on other positions to upgrade the roster. Hindsight is 20-20, however, and there is value to having a competent backup on the roster. If the Eagles had not had Nick Foles in 2017, they likely would have fallen short of winning the franchise's first Super Bowl.
Should NFL teams opt to use draft picks exclusively on other positions when they have an accomplished leader? The Packers were able to parlay a trade for Brett Favre and the selection of Aaron Rodgers into nearly three decades of success. Green Bay is hoping that last year's pick of Jordan Love in the first round brings another decade of sustained success. Two players manning one position for the better part of 30 years is a mirage to parched teams wandering through the quarterback desert. Only four Packers seasons have ended with a sub .500 record since Favre took the helm in 1992. From a business perspective, teams should aspire to reach that level of consistency at the expense of hurting someone's feelings.
If selecting a quarterback is not going to rattle the locker room too much, then teams would be wise to continue adding players at the position. In the cases of Pittsburgh and Green Bay, the incumbent starters were reportedly not big fans of the recent quarterback additions. The choices could understandably be perceived as a threat, but reigning NFL MVP Rodgers will stave off Love as long as he continues playing at an All-Pro level. Roethlisberger appears to be holding on by a thread and the team does not have a viable replacement on the roster, regardless of how much the organization attempts to project confidence in Mason Rudolph. There is also the cost-benefit analysis of sacrificing resources that could be utilized in a proverbial Super Bowl window.
New Orleans does have a potential starter on the roster in the form of Jameis Winston after signing him last season. Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay are essentially up a creek without a paddle if either Roethlisberger or Brady get hurt. In some cases, teams might be able to find a reasonable option on the trade block or in free agency, but the cost of retaining a player of quality is much higher than drafting and stashing a quarterback on his rookie contract. Some guy named Patrick Mahomes has done pretty well for himself in Kansas City despite the Chiefs having Alex Smith at the time he was drafted. Dak Prescott has been immensely successful in Dallas as well.
Fans are familiar with the quarterback-needy teams atop the draft, but there are always teams with a veteran that are forced to make a decision. Pittsburgh needs to add a quarterback, but the franchise's draft position in the first round makes it nearly impossible to take one of the premier college quarterbacks. They should make a move to add Stanford's Davis Mills, Florida's Kyle Trask or another second-tier option, but Roethlisberger likely has expectations for what the team will do after accepting a pay cut for one final run at a Super Bowl.
Atlanta should absolutely take advantage of their position (No. 4 overall) in the 2021 NFL Draft and take a quarterback. Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and New Orleans should all minimally invest a Day 2 selection on the position, but there are different mindsets and contributing factors that go into that decision.
With less than two months before the 2021 NFL Draft, it will not be long before each of those franchises make a statement with their selections.