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Quarterback Value Can’t Be Assessed in a Vacuum

But while the NFL’s trade market for Tony Romo could be limited, the interest in Jimmy Garoppolo could start a bidding war

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Yesterday was LeBron Day — but today? It’s QB Day. We live in a world where two statements are simultaneously true: (1) Quarterbacks are more valuable than ever, and (2) Joe Flacco is on the verge of becoming the highest-paid player in the NFL. So, with the league set for an offseason featuring plenty of high-profile quarterback movement, we decided to devote a whole 24 hours to separating the signal-calling wheat from the chaff. You can find all of the posts here. And remember: No matter what happens, at least you don’t owe Brock Osweiler $37 million.

The series of events that was required for Tony Romo and the Cowboys to reach this point is still hard to grasp. To get here, Romo had to suffer significant injuries on three separate occasions during the past two seasons. The first pair of incidents, when Romo injured and then reinjured his collarbone in 2015, forced Dallas into a quarterback hell filled with Brandon Weeden, Matt Cassel, and Kellen Moore. That experience was scarring enough for the Cowboys to devise a real plan to find a backup, which led them to take Dak Prescott in the fourth round of the 2016 draft.

The back injury Romo sustained against the Seahawks in the Cowboys’ third 2016 preseason game pushed Prescott into the starting role, and no one could have imagined the Mississippi State product putting together the best statistical season a rookie quarterback has ever had. To approach the reality that Romo and the Cowboys now face — with a near-37-year-old passer who’s beloved by his team’s owner likely set to hit the open market — a rare confluence of circumstances had to occur. This year, it’s prompted one of several scenarios that’s forcing teams to consider the real value of acquiring a quarterback.

Romo switching teams would be the biggest QB-related news of the NFL offseason, but it’s far from the only move on the table. New England backup Jimmy Garoppolo, fresh off the first meaningful game action of his career, is probably available for the right price. Washington starter Kirk Cousins, who played on the franchise tag in 2016, is approaching free agency for the second straight season. And Buffalo quarterback Tyrod Taylor may be an option as well, given the Bills’ new coaching staff and the $15.9 million they would save on this year’s cap if he were released. More than any offseason in recent memory, there are paths to quarterback competency that don’t involve teams using a first-round pick. The question now is what it will cost an organization to ensure that it gets one of these guys in the door.

Romo’s track record makes him the most desirable option entering the 2017 season, but the combination of other factors surrounding him could make his trade market smaller than every other intriguing passer available. The quarterback-needy teams at the top of the draft — Cleveland, San Francisco, and Chicago — are unlikely to use draft capital or a sizable chunk of their salary cap to land a short-term, injury-prone rental who might play for only another season or two.

Any team in the mix for Romo has to be both desperate for a quarterback and close enough to championship contention to justify making a big splash. That leaves a group including the Texans, the Broncos, and to some extent, the Chiefs. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported this week that Dallas’s plan is to seek out a trade, but that no deal would be made without Romo’s approval. Romo’s $14 million base salary all but guarantees the Cowboys will release him if they can’t find a trade partner (that would likely be done as a post–June 1 designation, as it’d allow Dallas to spread the dead money out over two years); a franchise willing to give up a draft asset for Romo rather than wait for him to be cut would remove the uncertainty that’d come with letting him hit the market, but even a mid-round pick may prove too much for a team to give up if the Cowboys could cut him otherwise.

Tony Romo (Getty Images)
Tony Romo (Getty Images)

Aside from the age and injury concerns, Romo’s contract is also going to be a factor in whether a team is willing to give up an asset to get him. For the Cowboys, Romo would have a cap hit of $24.7 million, but because Dallas would be on the hook for the $10.7 million Romo is due in signing and restructure bonuses, his new team would only have to dole out his base salary of $14 million in 2017. That’s the same amount that Tom Brady — the 22nd-highest-paid QB in football this year — will make, and it’s more than $10 million cheaper than guys like Joe Flacco and Carson Palmer. Romo would become less affordable if a team has to give him a new deal, though, either because he’s released by Dallas or because he makes that a requirement before rubber-stamping any trade.

For the Chiefs or Texans to acquire Romo, compromise and creativity would be key. Houston owner Bob McNair said earlier this month that the team’s likeliest path to improving its quarterback play is through the draft. Part of that thinking is probably tied up in the idea that with Romo at $14 million (or something close to it) and Brock Osweiler at $19 million, the Texans would devote roughly one-fifth of their 2017 cap to two QBs. It’s easy to see why McNair and the franchise would find that unpalatable. But if Houston could construct a deal for Romo with a relatively small 2017 cap figure before he cashes in during the 2018 campaign (with Osweiler off the books), the idea of paying both would become easier to stomach. A similar solution would be critical in Kansas City, where the Chiefs would get $9.7 million in 2017 cap relief if they were to cut 2016 starter Alex Smith, an amount that would still leave them only about $15 million under the cap.

This all adds up to mean Romo has the unique ability to help determine where he goes, even via trade. And his willingness to shape a new deal around a team’s needs could bring even more (desirable) destinations into the fold. At this point, though, there’s a reason that Denver has come up so often as a logical landing spot. Unlike the Texans and Chiefs, the Broncos have very little money tied up in quarterbacks. Paxton Lynch and Trevor Siemian will make a combined $2.8 million in 2017, and right now the Broncos have about $32 million in cap space. Based on team needs and available resources, Denver makes more sense than anywhere else.

The question that John Elway has to answer is whether ensuring that no other team could get into the mix for Romo (either via a trade or if he’s released) is worth sending assets to Dallas. At this point, given the talent the Broncos still have on defense, it seems like the answer could be yes. Taking Romo’s age, injury history, and salary cap situation into account, a mid-round pick feels like the expected going rate. He’s the most established option available, but also the one least likely to start a bidding war.

In the case of Garoppolo, the other quarterback guaranteed to dominate the news cycle over the next month, the question isn’t whether a team might be willing to trade away a draft pick. It’s how high a pick a team might be willing to give up. All three teams at the top of the 2017 draft have been mentioned as possible suitors for Garoppolo, although it remains unclear if they’ll deem a top-three pick too steep of a price to pay for a quarterback with only 94 career pass attempts to his name.

The concern about exchanging a high pick for Garoppolo goes beyond mere sample size, though. What he accomplished during Tom Brady’s suspension (68.3 percent completion rate on 63 attempts with four touchdowns and no interceptions) is enough to lock him in at a higher performance floor than Deshaun Watson, DeShone Kizer, or any other quarterback who could be selected in April. The difference is that those players will be cost-controlled on rookie contracts for the next five seasons. The 62nd pick from the 2014 draft, Garoppolo is entering the final year of his rookie deal, which means that any team that trades for him will have to almost immediately sign him to an extension. Based on the market Osweiler set for mostly unproven but sought-after quarterbacks, it’s hard to imagine Garoppolo getting less than the $18 million annual salary Osweiler has in Houston.

Jimmy Garoppolo (Getty Images)
Jimmy Garoppolo (Getty Images)

Forgoing the type of player that could be available in the top three picks and losing out on the chance to retain that player at a reasonable price for five seasons makes the idea of Cleveland, San Francisco, or Chicago trading their top pick for Garoppolo seem like a foolish use of resources. Even the 12th pick in the draft, which the Browns own as a result of last year’s trade for Carson Wentz, is a lot to give up for a single year of a QB on a rookie deal. The option that may make the most sense is one that was mentioned in connection with the Bears earlier this offseason. Just before the Super Bowl, CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora reported that Chicago was willing to offer a package that included “multiple second-round picks” for Garoppolo. That’s a similar price to the one the Chiefs paid to pry Alex Smith away from the 49ers four years ago.

Multiple second-rounders would be a lot for a Garoppolo suitor to give up, but the difference between the third and the 36th pick in the draft (the two picks that Chicago has this year) can be the difference between landing Joey Bosa and Myles Jack. And it’s worth noting that second-rounders have only four seasons on their rookie contracts. While picks at the top of the second round ideally net NFL starters, the notion of a team sacrificing two to find a quarterback is more justifiable than it missing out on a franchise-altering talent available in the top five.

How the Garoppolo decision — and the rest of the league’s quarterback carousel — shakes out won’t become clear for at least another two weeks. Each of these moves is linked to the others, in some respect. The Garoppolo market will be affected by what ultimately happens with Cousins and Taylor. If the two can’t come to long-term agreements with their respective teams, the understanding is that Washington will probably franchise-tag Cousins for the second straight year — this time at the low, low price of $23.9 million. And Rapoport reported earlier this week that it’s now looking likely that Buffalo will keep Taylor and restructure his deal.

In that scenario, a team hoping to bring in Taylor (without giving up any draft picks) could instead become interested in Garoppolo. That type of shrinking quarterback supply would only increase the chances of Patriots head coach Bill Belichick getting the type of monster offer he wants. It’s basic economics: If the QB pool thins out to just Romo, Garoppolo, free agent Mike Glennon, and the soon-to-be-released Jay Cutler, then both the prices for those passers and teams’ willingness to pay them would increase.

Debating quarterback value in a vacuum typically lends to balking at lofty prices. But when the negotiations for landing a QB arrive, we’ve seen time and again that teams are willing to spend whatever it takes. Logic would indicate that Romo could fetch a mid-round draft pick and that Garoppolo could be had for a package involving multiple second-rounders. Logic is helpless in the face of desperation, though, and nothing incites NFL desperation like teams lacking an answer under center.