A year ago, the NFL's quarterback market moved like never before.
There was a blockbuster trade at the Super Bowl, which led to the biggest fully-guaranteed contract in NFL history, and that was the precursor to more QB trades and signings that was punctuated, finally, by a record-tying five passers being selected in the first round of the draft. And now, already, less than a full 12 months after much of it went down, many of those transactions are already unraveling.
Welcome to the NFL! It's where far too often inefficiency is king, and, well, even if you are general manager who can't identify the most important position in the sport, just keep firing the head coach and staying nice and chummy with the owner! Job preservation, baby!
Shockingly enough, several of the clubs that made a significant quarterback acquisition in 2018 are already doing so again in 2019 – before the league year has even officially begun – and others are being strongly linked to new quarterbacks once the free agency and draft actually begin. Actually, if you have been paying attention to how many of these front offices have been handling this position, it is anything but a surprise that Denver is back in the news for trading for Joe Flacco and the Cardinals are on a social-media rampage trying to stamp out rumors they will select a QB first overall a year after trading up to grab one at 10, and the Jaguars are still contemplating how to recover after Bortl-ing themselves a year ago.
It's been, if anything, a continuation of a theme.
It got me thinking back to those heady times of February, with Blake Bortles fresh off a contract extension and Alex Smith getting a massive payday from the Skins despite having a bargain-basement year left on his deal and Kirk Cousins shattering the glass ceiling with $84M fully guaranteed and Sam Bradford getting another $20M to lose his job in September and the Bills trading Tyrod Taylor and wave of ancillary transactions about to go down. And while a year isn't nearly long enough of a portal to judge the five quarterbacks selected in the first round, it is enough time to evaluate the returns – or lack thereof – that those maneuvers netted in their first year. And for many teams it is not a pretty picture.
I'll evaluate the trades by grading them from the perspective of both teams involved – Spoiler Alert: Skins, Cardinals, Broncos and Jags fans may want to avert their eyes – and, remember, the grades on the draft picks are for the rookie's progress and development through a one-year body of work and not an evaluation of what his entire career portends to be. (For the sake of common sense and time, I am going to ignore the bevy of insignificant trades of 6th and 7th round picks for the likes of Cody Kessler and Brett Hundley, and the loads of non-impactful lower-level signings of the likes of Brock Osweiler and Chad Henne that didn't really impact much last season or moving forward, either, for the teams that signed them).
Most of these moves, viewed one year later, are decidedly feast or famine, and are a portal into why some teams rose in 2018, and others are still plummeting:
Chiefs trade Alex Smith to Redskins for CB Kendall Fuller, third-round pick
CHIEFS: A. They made room for Patrick Mahomes, moved a heavy contract over a month before the league year, and got back a starting-caliber slot corner on a budget rookie contract for a needy defense and got far above the comp-pick value had Smith simply left as a free agent in 2020. Home run.
SKINS: F. They over-reacted to butchering their negotiations with Kirk Cousins for years, freaked at the contract Cousins was about to sign, and gave Smith a massive extension at a time when they could have rented him for $17M for one year and then franchised him if need be. Furthermore, they removed themselves from an epic QB draft, now will likely pay Smith another $54M never to play football again, and could end up signing a guy like Tyrod Taylor or Teddy Bridgewater – either of whom would have made more sense for the rebuilding-ish team than trading for Smith did a year ago.
Bills trade Tyrod Taylor to Browns for a third-round pick
BILLS: A. They got one of the first picks in the third round for a QB they were clearly moving on from and who lost his job to, gulp, Nathan Peterman at one point. The Ravens couldn't get more than a fourth-rounder for a former Super Bowl MVP and the Chiefs got a third-round pick for Smith in a year in which he played like an MVP candidate for three months. For a team that would be exhausting draft capital to move up and take Josh Allen, this was big.
BROWNS: B-. They are going to get a comp pick in the 2020 draft to offset this a bit, once Taylor likely signs elsewhere in a few weeks. He was a total pro and showed Baker Mayfield how to be a pro with his work ethic and demeanor. Sure, he didn't play well and Mayfield quickly took over and put the team on his shoulders, but Taylor more than served his purpose. Had they got him for a fourth-round pick, they woulda got an A.
Browns trade DeShone Kizer to Packers for Damarious Randall
BROWNS: A. Dorsey and his staff have strong ties to the Packers and they absolutely fleeced them here. Randall had an excellent season as a ground-covering safety for the surging Browns – to the point where he should have a long-term future there – while Kizer was already broken and damaged by Browns coach Hue Jackson and had to go.
PACKERS: F. They had another down season and had issues on the back end, got caught up in their hubris about being able to fix and remake struggling QBs and were damn lucky Aaron Rodgers didn't miss time with a knee problem, because Kizer ain't the guy. Time to spend some money and get some true insurance behind Rodgers.
JETS: A. It was already clear by then that Sam Darnold was starting from Day One and Josh McCown was the perfect veteran mentor for him. Smart to sign Teddy, and to get a third-round pick for him was excellent work. You can never have too many competent QBs, and had Darnold not been ready they were prepared.
SAINTS: B-. Similar to the Taylor trade, this was a great insurance move. Saints were all-in on winning a Super Bowl last season and just may have if not for one of the worst officiating atrocities in NFL history in the NFC title game. With Drew Brees aging they needed real security behind him; the team loved and embraced Bridgewater and will get a comp pick for him in 2020, as he gets a chance to start elsewhere this season. Sean Payton went bold here, which I tend to like.
Bills trade AJ McCarron to Raiders for a fifth-round pick
BILLS: A. McCarron got beat out by Josh Allen and, double-gulp, Nathan Peterman and was also the last QB of note to get a contract after all of those trades and signings were made a year ago. To get anything for him was well done; to get something above a sixth- or seventh-rounder was very well done.
RAIDERS: D. Compared to some of their other moves – dealing a third-round pick for Martavis Bryant??? – I have to grade on a curve here, I suppose. The Bills were not going to keep three QBs and the Raiders did them a nice favor here.
Kirk Cousins to Vikings for $84M fully guaranteed
VIKINGS: D. They have a chance to redeem this in 2019, but last year was brutal. They regressed in general and Cousins had similar numbers to what Case Keenum provided for $2M the year before. It took two offensive coordinators to get through the season and then another overhaul on that side of the ball in the offseason, and if they don't win in January next season the whole place might blow up.
Jaguars extend Blake Bortles
JAGUARS: F--. Yeah, that's an F-minus, minus. We don't play around here. Not only did they punt on an entire draft class of QBs, and bought back into Bortles, they amplified their problems by trading for Cody Kessler and pretending he was an NFL backup (of course, he ended up starting when Bortles was inevitably benched!) and scoffed at the Jets when they offered Bridgewater, straight-up, for Dante Fowler before the season (they ended up dealing Fowler to the Rams for picks). Bridgewater may have saved their season. Now they will likely land Nick Foles and pray he can do for 16 weeks what we know he can do for four. Tom Coughlin has botched the QB position to this point, no other way to say it.
Broncos sign Case Keenum for two-years, $25M guaranteed
BRONCOS: F. It took a lot for John Elway to get here – nearly trading for Colin Kaepernick, over-drafting Paxton Lynch and Brock Osweiler, drafting Trevor Siemian, nearly breaking the bank to keep Osweiler – and a year later this move looks even wore. After trading for Joe Flacco this week, now the Broncos need to find a way to somehow move Keenum's contract, which is worth $18M this season with $7M fully guaranteed. Good luck getting any value there. Keenum could not replicate his breakthrough 2017 with a lesser cast around him, Elway was in position to land a potential franchise QB a year ago and passed and, if he's smart, will try finding a long-term solution in the draft this year.
Cardinals sign Sam Bradford ($15M guaranteed) and Mike Glennon ($5M)
CARDINALS: F--. There you go, Jags. Find some solace in not being alone. These are organizational grades, and when you factor in that the Cards gave Carson Palmer extensions far longer than they should have and passed on several strong QB draft classes and then threw crazy money at these two, only to have to turn it over to a rookie in October, that is an unmitigated disaster that got a coach fired after one year and somehow re-empowered the GM to the point where he is staffing the coaching staff for Kliff Kingsbury. Thoughts and prayers, Cards fans.
Cardinals move up to 10th overall, select Josh Rosen
CARDINALS: D. Remember, these are organizational grades. So when you have the worst team in football and the GM is in jail for extreme DUI and suspended for your first training camp, and they've hired a coach the very guys who hired him believe is quickly overwhelmed, and you fire the OC less than half way through the season and then the coach at the end of the season, and your best player demands a trade and you end up playing Rosen like a month into the season when the backups you overpaid for can't play, um, that smells like failure to me. Rosen looked overwhelmed and helpless many weeks – no indictment on him but rather the institutional collapse he was thrust into. And now they are trying to swat away rumblings about taking Kyler Murray with the first overall pick because the (potentially-overwhelmed) coach they just hired proclaimed Murray should be the top-overall pick back when Kingsbury never thought he'd ever be in position actually use it in the NFL. Well … thoughts and prayers, Josh Rosen. As far as first years in the league go, I'd call that rough.
Browns take Baker Mayfield No. 1
BROWNS: A+. We forget how much of a shocker this was when it finally went down last spring. Taking the QB with the top pick was anything but a slam dunk, but he exceeded any reasonable expectations, survived a ridiculous arranged marriage with Hue Jackson and looks like a true salvation for an owner who has been a laughingstock since he purchased the team.
Jets move up to No. 3 to take Sam Darnold
JETS: A. They were incredibly proactive in realizing well before the draft that the sixth pick wasn't high enough to ensure they got one of the top two QBs. So they jumped up to the Colts pick – a move that worked out perfectly for Indy as well – and when Darnold was still there it was high-fives all around. He flashed like a future franchise QB as a rookie.
Bills move up to No. 7 to take Josh Allen
BILLS: B. Every move this front office made from the time it was assembled two years back was with this in mind – getting a top-10 QB. Allen showed his accuracy and mechanics still need work, but his athleticism immediately gave the Bills hope. He brought energy to the huddle and his teammates rallied around him.
Ravens move up to No. 32 to take Lamar Jackson
RAVENS: A+. No one knows what the future holds for Jackson, who must hone his fundamentals and motion, but no one could have asked for anything more than what he did. Baltimore had to get a QB in 2018, and did, and with Flacco hurt again and the team stumbling at 4-5 and lacking any real weapons on offense, the rookie came in and saved the season and likely jobs as well. He went 6-1, turning the Ravens from the second-worst rushing team in the league into the best, putting them top-eight in yards from scrimmage since he took over and losing only at Arrowhead, in OT. He led the Ravens to a most-improbable division crown. Only Mayfield had a similar immediate impact. Coupled with a smart, uber-cheap signing of Robert Griffin III and now getting a fourth-rounder for Flacco, who they would have cut otherwise, the Ravens and Browns best worked the QB position this past year.