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The Case for Overpaying for QBs in NFL Draft Trades

The Eagles gambled their future to get the chance to pick Carson Wentz. His success begs the question: Does it make sense for a team to bet it all to take a star quarterback?

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz pointing at the camera Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s starting to look like I need to cop to being wrong about Carson Wentz.

In 2017, Wentz hasn’t just been good—he’s been one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. He continued his breakthrough campaign by turning in a brilliant performance in a 34-24 win over Washington on Monday Night Football, going 17-of-25 passing for 268 yards with four scores while pushing the Eagles to a league-best 6-1 record. He leads the NFL in touchdown passes (17) and has thrown just four interceptions; he’s fourth in yards per attempt (8.0) and passer rating (104.0). There is serious Wentz-as-MVP talk. The Wentz Wagon is so full that if you tried to try to float it across the river in Oregon Trail, this would happen.

I must confess: I doubted Carson Wentz. I am a longtime North Dakota State football aficionado, and I always felt like Wentz’s Bison won national championships because every one of their players was better than every one of their opponent’s players, not because they had exceptional play at quarterback. Sure, the Bison won titles with Wentz, but they also won titles with his predecessor, Brock Jensen, and went 8-0 with his backup, Easton Stick (not a piece of hockey equipment), when Wentz got injured during his senior year. I didn’t see why Wentz caused so much fuss, unlike all of the other quarterbacks who played and won at NDSU.

Carson Wentz throwing the football Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

But it wasn’t just that I didn’t think Wentz would be great: I thought that Philadelphia’s front office was foolish to take him second overall, directly ahead of Joey Bosa, Ezekiel Elliott, and Jalen Ramsey. And the Eagles didn’t just take Wentz second overall: They traded the Browns a slew of draft picks to acquire the rights to the no. 2 pick that they used on Wentz, and most analysts at the time agreed that Philly paid too steep a price. According to the draft value chart created by Football Perspective, the Eagles would have made a roughly fair deal if they had sent the Browns their first-, third-, and fourth-round 2016 draft picks in exchange for the package headlined by the no. 2 selection they used on Wentz. Philly did that—but also included a 2017 first-round pick and a 2018 second-rounder. That made the trade a rip-off, per projections.

I’ve long subscribed to the Belichickian mind-set that a team is better served by having more draft picks than by having a single high draft pick. The logic is twofold. The first part is that for as good as scouts are, drafting is a crapshoot. Players can get injured, have off-the-field problems, or—sit down for this one—simply fail to become as effective as scouts expected. You’re better off buying five lottery tickets than one really good lottery ticket. The second part comes down to basic roster math: A team needs 22 combined starters on offense and defense; if three are stars and 19 are replacement level, a team will be bad. A franchise can’t afford to routinely overspend.

The Eagles gave up valuable picks to select Wentz over soon-to-be elite NFL players. And it worked! A year and a half later, Philly is in first place in the NFC East largely because it made the Wentz deal. In the past, I’ve made the case that the Wentz trade was irrational. But perhaps his success shows that NFL teams can be warranted in acting irrationally about quarterbacks.

Let’s take a look at every draft trade made so that a team could select a quarterback in the top five over the last 20 years. (Some of the picks involved in these trades were later sent to another team; those picks are denoted with an asterisk.)

1998: The Chargers get no. 2 overall pick (Ryan Leaf) from the Cardinals for 1998 no. 3 pick (Andre Wadsworth), 1998 no. 33 pick (Corey Chavous), 1999 no. 8 pick (David Boston), Eric Metcalf, and Patrick Sapp

Obviously, we’re off to a bad start. Ryan Leaf was among the bustiest busts in bust history. Leaf would have been an awful no. 2 pick regardless of whether a trade was made. While Wadsworth’s career was brief and injury-riddled, that doesn’t make it better that the Chargers paid a lot to set their franchise backward.

2001: Falcons get no. 1 overall pick (Michael Vick) from the Chargers for 2001 no. 5 pick (LaDainian Tomlinson), 2001 no. 67 pick (Tay Cody), 2002 no. 48 pick (Reche Caldwell), and Tim Dwight

The Chargers went 1-15 just three seasons after taking Leaf, and—apparently taking a lesson from that debacle—decided to let another team pay heavily to pick a quarterback. It’s tough to say who won this trade, since both teams landed players who could be considered the most iconic in franchise history. Tomlinson was named the 2006 MVP; Vick was a four-time Pro Bowler who carried the team to the NFC title game after the 2004 campaign.

2004: Giants get no. 1 overall pick (Eli Manning) from the Chargers for 2004 no. 4 pick (Philip Rivers), 2004 no. 65 pick (Nate Kaeding), and 2005 no. 12 pick (Shawne Merriman), and 2005 no. 144 (Jerome Collins)*

The Chargers decided they weren’t leaving without a quarterback this time. And statistically speaking, Rivers has been slightly better than Manning over the course of their careers: Rivers has a higher touchdown percentage (5.3 to 4.7), a lower interception percentage (2.6 to 3.1), a higher average yards per attempt (7.7 to 7.0), a much better completion percentage (64.3 to 59.8), and, for the crowd that thinks QB wins are important, a higher winning percentage (54.6 to 52.9). The Chargers got Rivers and an All-Pro defender and a kicker who retired as one of the most accurate in NFL history. (You’re damn right I’m including a kicker as an asset. Fight me.)

Of course, Manning has won two Super Bowls, so pretty much every Giants fan will argue that this trade was a huge success.

2009: Jets get no. 5 overall pick (Mark Sanchez) from the Browns for no. 17 pick (Josh Freeman)*, no. 52 pick (David Veikune), Kenyon Coleman, Abram Elam, and Brett Ratliff

Sanchez was not the quarterback the Jets hoped he’d be, but this trade still wasn’t so awful. The 2009 draft class was bad, producing just one future Pro Bowler (Matt Stafford, the first overall pick) and two unmitigated busts (Jason Smith and Aaron Curry) in the top five picks. Laugh at Sanchez all you want, but he’s the only quarterback other than Stafford from this draft class who is still in the league.

The Jets also didn’t lose many key assets in this swap: They could afford to give up parts from a defense that was still good enough to carry the team to the 2009 and 2010 AFC title games.

2012: Washington gets no. 2 overall pick (Robert Griffin III) from the Rams for 2012 no. 6 pick (Morris Claiborne)*, 2012 no. 39 pick (Janoris Jenkins), 2013 no. 22 pick (Desmond Trufant)*, and 2014 no. 2 pick (Greg Robinson)

This trade has been roundly panned. Griffin flamed out of the NFL, while the four picks that Washington gave up turned into three solid players and Greg Robinson. The Rams notably flaunted their victory in this trade by making the six players acquired with picks from the Griffin trade (or picks acquired with picks from the Griffin trade) captains for the team’s 2014 game against Washington.

But was this really a bad deal? Griffin was a can’t-miss talent who had an exceptional rookie campaign before injuries wrecked his career. While the Rams acquired a haul of steady players in return, Washington had more success in that one dazzling Griffin season—primarily because of Griffin’s play—than the Rams have had in any season since making this trade.

2016: Rams get no. 1 overall pick (Jared Goff), no. 113 pick (Nick Kwiatkoski)* and no. 177 pick (Temarrick Hemingway) from the Titans for 2016 no. 15 pick (Corey Coleman)*, 2016 no. 43 pick (Austin Johnson), 2016 no. 45 pick (Derrick Henry), 2016 no. 76 pick (Shon Coleman), 2017 no. 5 pick (Corey Davis), and 2017 no. 100 pick (Jonnu Smith)

The early read on this was that the Rams messed up massively. Goff looked hideous as a rookie and was labeled as an instant bust. But he’s made major strides in his second season, throwing for 1,719 yards with nine touchdowns and four interceptions while leading Los Angeles to a 5-2 start. He still doesn’t seem to be worth the hefty package that the Rams gave up to grab him—I mean, come on, the Rams gave up two Colemans and two wide receivers named Corey. But Goff has potential. He seems to be jelling with first-year head coach Sean McVay, and the Rams already had running back Todd Gurley and a defense that can maul. Quarterback was the missing piece, and Goff looks like he could turn out to be a good one.

2016: Eagles get no. 2 overall pick (Carson Wentz) and 2017 no. 139 pick (Jehu Chesson)* from the Browns for 2016 no. 8 pick (Jack Conklin)*, 2016 no. 77 pick (Daryl Worley)*, 2016 no. 100 pick (Connor Cook)*, 2017 no. 12 pick (Deshaun Watson)*, and 2018 second-round pick

We’ve already talked about the Eagles, so here’s a comical sidenote: The Browns didn’t keep any of the players taken with the five draft picks they got from Philadelphia. Trading down can be a good thing—perhaps the Browns can be good one day if they ever decide to field a football team instead of building a museum-worthy collection of future picks.

2017: Bears get no. 2 overall pick (Mitchell Trubisky) from the 49ers for 2017 no. 3 pick (Solomon Thomas), 2017 no. 67 pick (Alvin Kamara)*, 2017 no. 111 pick (Tedric Thompson)*, and a 2018 third-round pick

Bears head coach John Fox isn’t really letting Trubisky throw yet, which might be a bad sign for Chicago’s future. But it’s definitely too early to offer judgment on this move. That said, two third-rounders and a fourth-rounder were a lot to part with to move up a single spot, especially considering that San Francisco reportedly wasn’t interested in taking Trubisky anyway.

It’s tough to glean any definitive takeaway from those trades: The Leaf deal was a disaster; the Manning and Vick deals delivered their teams franchise players at high costs; the Sanchez deal feels like a wash; the Griffin deal leaves a complicated legacy; and the other three deals are too recent to call. The only trend I’d note is that teams are making trades to move into the top five and select quarterbacks with increasing frequency—it’s happened three times in the past two years alone—and these moves don’t seem as lopsided as I would’ve guessed at first blush.

Meanwhile, here is a complete list of non-quarterbacks who were targeted and taken with top-five picks acquired via trades over the last 20 drafts: wide receiver Sammy Watkins, defensive end Dion Jordan, wide receiver Justin Blackmon, running back Trent Richardson, defensive tackle Dewayne Robertson, offensive tackle Chris Samuels, and running back Ricky Williams. (The Ricky Williams trade is the only transaction I’ve seen that has its own Wikipedia page, if you want to know how bad it was.) Many of these players turned out to be busts, and I think it’s fair to say that none were worth the massive premiums that front offices paid for the right to select them.

No team should give up a bushel of picks for a sought-after running back or receiver. That’s not worth it. But a great quarterback can be the difference between a successful and irrelevant franchise. Our understanding of value has to be different for quarterbacks, because the value of quarterbacks surpasses anything else that other players can provide. Yes, the potential for a bust is high with these trades. Yet a team isn’t going to win without a good QB. If a player looks like a true game-changer, isn’t a risk worth it?

I’ve had a change of heart. Football deserves the intense analytical scrutiny it gets in 2017—it’s multifaceted and fascinating. But if Carson Wentz has taught me anything, it’s that the outsize importance of the quarterback position deserves a little lunacy.