There was an uproar in NFL media circles last week when it was reported that the Cleveland Browns did, in fact, have some interest in North Carolina quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and could use the first overall pick on a player other than Texas A&M pass rusher Myles Garrett.
Deadspin used the headline, “The Browns Can’t Possibly (Expletive) This Up … Right?” — and that was one of the less severe things said on Twitter in the aftermath. But here’s the crazy thing: The Browns would be wildly betraying their forward-thinking, analytics-based approach to assembling a team if they didn’t draft a quarterback they liked in the first round.
Apples to apples, you’d take Myles Garrett over Mitchell Trubisky and his 13 career starts 10 out of 10 times. Garrett, a guy former NFL GM Charley Casserly described as “the best defensive end to come out of college in 15 years” last week, is considered a can’t-miss prospect.
But when looking at the economics of a franchise quarterback and the value of taking one in the first round, there’s no question what the smart play is in the NFL Draft: If you like a quarterback, see him as a potential franchise quarterback and don’t currently have one on the roster, you take him.
Huh? Let me explain.
The 2011 CBA changed a lot of things for the league and the way players are compensated. One of the most glaring changes from the pre-2011 and post-2011 salary structures is rookie quarterback contracts. Sam Bradford, the last of the bonus baby pre-2011 CBA era quarterbacks selected first overall, was paid $76 million over six years on his rookie deal. Matthew Stafford signed a six-year, $72 million deal before he ever took a snap in 2009. By comparison, Cam Newton, the first selection of the post-2011 CBA contracts, signed a four-year, $22.1 million deal with the Panthers in 2011. EJ Manuel, the first quarterback selected in the 2013 NFL Draft, had a deal worth roughly $14 million over his first four years.
Rookie quarterbacks used to come with massive contracts and massive expectations. Nowadays? It’s wholesale versus retail. You’re paying rookie quarterbacks far, far less than you would a free agent veteran on the open market. The value is in the arms coming out of college.
Let’s use Sam Bradford as an example. Now on his third contract in the NFL, the former first overall pick is set to make $18 million from the Vikings in 2017. Jameis Winston, now entering the third year of his rookie contract, will make only $6.9 million from the Buccaneers. Not glaring enough? Mike Glennon, a quarterback with a 5-13 career record, is set to make $14 million next year for the Bears. Carson Wentz, Philadelphia’s No. 2 overall pick from 2016, will earn just $6.1 million. Wentz had his sixth career win at the end of October. Glennon is entering his fourth NFL season and is still looking for it. Is Mike Glennon more than two times the quarterback that Carson Wentz is? No. Is Andy Dalton ($15.7 million) worth more than twice what Marcus Mariota is ($6.6 million)? I’m one of the biggest Dalton supporters alive, and I’d flat out tell you the answer is no.
People were up in arms that the Rams traded a bushel of picks to get Jared Goff last year. “He isn’t as good as Jalen Ramsey or Joey Bosa!” was the common refrain.
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But comparing Bosa to Goff is comparing apples to oranges. If things go according to plan, Goff will start at quarterback for the Rams the next three seasons and will earn an average salary of $6.9 million over those three years. Brock Osweiler, a veteran quarterback who’s now on his third team in three years, is set to make an average annual salary of $18 million over those same three years. The Browns could draft quarterbacks with the first overall pick in the 2017 and 2018 NFL Drafts, and those combined salaries would still be less than what Osweiler is set to make this season.
When it comes to quarterbacks, the value is in the NFL Draft. And in a vacuum, just looking at the numbers, you could make the argument that drafting a quarterback in the first round every year until you find one you consider your franchise guy is the wise play.
But we know the NFL game — both on the field and off — is not played in a vacuum. There are fan reactions and season ticket holders looking for a return on their investment. There are owners with quick trigger fingers when it comes to coaches and GMs — Cleveland has had six head coaches in the last nine years and four GMs in six years — and a media corps looking to support teams when times are good (see the Cavs and Indians) and be critical when they’re not (see the Browns). Taking a quarterback the pundits don’t view worthy of a top pick has its consequences in a market such as Cleveland. You better get it right, or you’ll never hear the end of it. Facts are facts.
And Mitchell Trubisky isn’t viewed as a Jameis Winston, an Andrew Luck or even a Carson Wentz — the quarterback the Browns passed on when they traded the second overall pick for a king’s ransom a year ago at this time. Going with Trubisky over Garrett would be a real roll of the dice, both on the field, and in the minds of fans. The shock and awe of the pundits far and wide would put the Browns’ front office behind the 8-ball. Without the equity built up to take such a gamble, it could be disastrous for those making the decisions if things don’t go well.
The Browns new front office prides itself on forward-thinking principles and maximizing the most out of a system that could benefit those willing to be bold enough to operate asymmetrically. If there are those within the organization who do view Trubisky as a franchise quarterback, the smart money is to draft him — regardless of who else is available.
But what if the Browns could have their cake and eat it too this year? Incredibly, due to their many moves the past two years, I actually think they can. And this is not fantasy football.
If the Browns want to, I think they can get Garrett first overall, then use all the ammunition in picks they’ve built the past few years to also get Trubisky.
I’d target the San Francisco 49ers, a team who’s GM already said the team is “open for business” in listening to trade offers for the second overall pick, as my prospective swap partner.
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With the first pick, take Garrett. Crisis averted.
When San Francisco goes on the clock for the second overall selection, I’d offer the Browns’ 12th overall pick (courtesy of the Carson Wentz trade a year ago), this year’s 33rd overall pick, this year’s 65th overall pick, next year’s three second-round picks (Cleveland’s, Houston’s, and Tennessee’s) — the latter two which were accumulated over the last 12 months — and the Browns’ 2019 first-round selection. Looking at the draft value chart, I think that’d be enough to get a deal done, especially if San Francisco is looking to trade and doesn’t have a list of suitors knocking down its doors.
That would give the Browns Garrett and Trubisky (taken second overall) and would allow Cleveland to keep the 52nd overall pick (the Titans’ second-round selection) and next year’s first-round pick. San Francisco, a team that has already signed 21 free agents this offseason, would, then, have the 12th, 33rd, 34th, 66th, and 65th picks in this year’s NFL Draft. They’d also have four of the first 64 picks in 2018 and two first-round selections in 2019.
The Browns need a quarterback. Brock Osweiler, Cody Kessler, and Kevin Hogan are not the guys who’ll be leading them out of the AFC North basement and into the playoffs. And if the rumors of the building liking the local boy Trubisky more than Deshaun Watson or Patrick Mahomes are accurate (I think they are), they shouldn’t cross their fingers and hope the UNC quarterback slips to 12th overall. The last time three times the Browns took first-round quarterbacks outside of the top 10, it resulted in Brady Quinn, Brandon Weeden and Johnny Manziel. If you like Trubisky, go and get him. What else and who else are you accumulating picks for, if not for a franchise quarterback?
If I’m the Browns, I’d take Garrett and also make the moves needed to take the top QB on the board. Even the most cynical Browns fans would have to tip their hats at that one.