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The NFL’s QB Cycle Is Spinning Faster Than Some Teams Can Keep Up

Admission to the draft’s quarterback sweepstakes was expensive, as the 49ers and Bears learned. Not participating might be even costlier, a lesson some teams might learn the hard way.  

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

In the fall of 2017, Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers needed a quarterback. They had prepared to pursue Kirk Cousins after the season in free agency, but then Bill Belichick called. He made Jimmy Garoppolo, the Patriots backup, available for a second-round draft pick. So the 49ers did what NFL teams usually do when quarterbacks who they believe can be quality starters for them are available at prices they can afford to pay—they went for it, and tore up their old plan and drafted a new one that involved Garoppolo.

This week, in the lead-up to opening night of the NFL draft, the 49ers needed a quarterback. They were prepared to take one with the no. 3 pick after trading up into that slot in March, at great cost. (Somewhat ironically, of course, the move was motivated by the 49ers’ desire to move on from Garoppolo as their starter.) Then San Francisco heard that Aaron Rodgers might be looking for a new employer. So, the 49ers did the reasonable thing and called Green Bay. The Packers responded to their query with a resounding no. “It was a quick end to the conversation, it wasn’t happening,” 49ers general manager John Lynch said Thursday night after selecting North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance. The specter of Rodgers’s availability alone, though, threw the kind of chaos into the mix that only quarterbacks of his caliber can. San Francisco gave up a king’s ransom to get the third pick, and which quarterback it wanted was the biggest story of the first round. But for a moment, at least, it seemed like the Niners were entertaining the idea of completely changing plans once again. Rodgers is a much better quarterback than Garoppolo; Lance might end up being much better too. The 49ers’ willingness to entertain a pivot for the right passer was similar to their situation in 2017 with one crucial difference: The league moves faster, and more aggressively, when it comes to quarterbacks than it did even in 2017.

As the picks came in Thursday night, the NFL’s ongoing tango with what teams are willing to spend on quarterbacks danced forward and back.

That metaphor is probably too generous, at least in its implication of smooth coordination: The draft was a quarterback frenzy, musical chairs played while tripping acid. The range of teams potentially looking for quarterbacks is widening before our eyes; cost, risk, reward, and chaos are increasing with it.

The first three picks, all quarterbacks, went to teams that were only considering that position. Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence went first to Jacksonville, BYU’s Zach Wilson went second to the Jets, and Lance went third to San Francisco. That left Ohio State’s Justin Fields and Alabama’s Mac Jones on the board, with a mix of quarterback-needy, quarterback-settled, and twist-my-arm teams waiting.

The Falcons, who have made serious financial commitments to Matt Ryan for the next two seasons, took Florida tight end Kyle Pitts, considered a generational talent and now the highest-drafted player ever at his position. The Bengals, who took Joe Burrow with the top pick in last year’s draft, selected his former LSU teammate, receiver Ja’Marr Chase. The Dolphins took speedy Alabama wide receiver Jaylen Waddle with the sixth pick, and the Lions took Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell with the seventh.

Then things got really interesting. The Panthers and the Broncos held the eighth and ninth picks, respectively. Both have paid close attention to available quarterbacks this offseason; both had already made trades, for Sam Darnold and Teddy Bridgewater, respectively, that didn’t require the type of resource commitment that would preclude them from drafting another one.

Neither did. Carolina took South Carolina cornerback Jaycee Horn and Denver took Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain II. In theory, this should have had the effect of making the quarterback market less competitive, since two teams that were rumored buyers shopped elsewhere. (Denver was also rumored to be in trade talks for Rodgers on Thursday night, but nothing has come to fruition yet.)

In one sense, though, the opposite happened. Teams that didn’t previously have enough draft capital to think about trading into the first handful of picks suddenly smelled opportunity. Things got weird. It should have been obvious that market forces were out of whack when the Cowboys traded their no. 10 pick to their division-rival Eagles, who took Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith (Dallas must have figured that Smith would go to the Giants at no. 11 and be in division anyway). It should have been even more obvious when the Giants, for the first time under general manager Dave Gettleman, traded back, sending their 11th pick to the Bears, who finally pulled a chair out of the circle.

Chicago gave up the no. 20 pick and a fifth-round pick this year, plus first- and fourth-round picks next year to move up nine slots in the first round and take Fields with the no. 11 pick. It’s a significant price, especially considering that 2022 picks carried greater-than-normal value this draft since more normal scouting conditions and better information are expected for next year’s group of players, but the cost Chicago paid will seem like a steal if the pick is right. The Bears moved up for Mitch Trubisky too, after all.

One factor that froze the market and helped Fields and Jones fall out of the top 10 was the high price the 49ers paid for the third pick. Chicago had to pay up to get Fields. Carolina and Denver may have taken great players at good value and preserved capital to use in the future, or they may have missed an opportunity. The same could be said for teams like Washington or New Orleans, who could conceivably have made a move like Chicago did.

One undercurrent of the conversation surrounding San Francisco’s decision on the third pick, though, was a debate over just how good is good enough when it comes to quarterbacks. The most significant factor in the 49ers’ desire to move on from Garoppolo is his injury history, but another is the sense—heightened due to the unpleasant aftertaste of Super Bowl LIV—that he’s a player Shanahan needs to carry with scheme and play design, not one who can carry a roster to a championship. It’s an ongoing debate around the league: Quarterbacks like Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Baker Mayfield, and Garoppolo are either evidence that in the right situation, a quarterback with limitations can still thrive, or evidence that without an elite one, it takes a miracle of Folesian proportions to win a Super Bowl. That, in part, is what gave the Rodgers news so many ripple effects—teams can’t count on any of the quarterbacks in this year’s draft class to become Aaron Rodgers. That alone may have been enough to spook a team into thinking that there’s opportunity cost in drafting a good-enough quarterback prospect when the reigning MVP might be available.

“There’s a risk any season you go into without a top-five QB,” Shanahan said in March.

Maybe that’s why Jones was still on the board when the Patriots got on the clock at no. 15. New England got Jones without having to trade up—an anomaly in this year’s first round. Unsurprisingly, this was met with some eye-rolling from the rest of the league. The Patriots, masters of value, got a first-round quarterback when they needed one without giving up any future picks. If they restart their run of success with Jones, it will have been a coup and a testament to the patience and restraint that often characterize decision-making in Foxborough. When the Jets traded up for USC guard Alijah Vera-Tucker at no. 14, the jokes that they should draft Jones instead just to block him from joining the Patriots seemed only half-kidding.

That’s one possibility (and a very funny one, if we’re being honest). Another that shouldn’t be overlooked, though, is that having to expend draft capital to get a quarterback isn’t really so bad. It’s nice not to overpay; it’s much nicer to have a top-tier starter, however you get him in the building. Jones fell into Belichick’s lap, though you could say the same about Garoppolo and the 49ers. If Jones is great, that will be his value, and the fact that New England didn’t have to trade to get him only enhances it. If Fields is much better, however, saving some future picks might not be much of a consolation prize.

The Patriots bucked one of this year’s trends by getting a quarterback without needing to make a big splash—whether that’s a sustainable strategy in a league that’s increasingly aggressive about quarterback acquisition remains to be seen. The point is less whether the Panthers will regret not taking a quarterback or the Bears will regret trading up for one and more how quickly all of this is happening. A half-dozen teams, through action or inaction, likely changed the course of their franchises Thursday night, with quarterbacks at the center of each one of those ripple pools. It’s likely we’ll know the answers to those questions fairly soon. Darnold, Carolina’s presumed starter, is 23, just a year older than Jones. The quarterback carousel is always spinning, but the first round of the draft was real-time evidence that the turn rate has sped up.