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The NFL’s Offensive Revolution Could Reset the Trade Market for Rookie QBs

How do you land the next Patrick Mahomes II or Jared Goff? Trade up to draft him, just like the Chiefs and Rams did. But as demand for these blockbusters rises, so will the asking price — and that brings in plenty of complications.

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Not long after Monday night’s masterpiece between the Rams and Chiefs concluded, the NFL replaced the banner image on its Twitter page with a photo of Jared Goff and Patrick Mahomes II embracing in the game’s aftermath. The 105-point explosion at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum was a coup for the league, an ideal presentation of its product in front of a national audience. And Goff and Mahomes—the league’s two most exciting young QBs—were at the center of that exhibition.

The two passers have plenty in common. Both come from Air Raid college systems. Both of their fathers played Major League Baseball. Both guys make throwing a football 60 yards on the fly look easy. But for franchises attempting to replicate the formulas displayed on Monday night, the most relevant similarity between the two is that they landed on their respective teams because of daring trades up the draft. In 2016, Rams general manager Les Snead sent two first-round picks, two second-round picks, and two third-round picks to Tennessee to move from no. 15 to no. 1 in the draft, and he eventually used that position to take Goff. The following year, Kansas City sent its first- and third-round picks and a 2018 first-rounder to the Bills in exchange for the 10th overall pick, which the Chiefs used to snag Mahomes.

Both the Rams and Chiefs have reaped the rewards of those deals, but historically draft-day trades for quarterbacks have produced mixed results. The Chargers gave up first- and second-round picks for the right to select Ryan Leaf in 1998. We know how that worked out. Washington sent a bounty of draft capital to the Rams for the no. 2 pick in 2012, which it used to draft Robert Griffin III. Though Griffin had a thrilling rookie season for the Redskins, injuries quickly tore his career apart. Six years later, Washington is still toiling in the NFL’s middle class.

Recently, though, the returns on these types of trades have been significantly more fruitful. Along with Goff and Mahomes, both Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson landed with their current franchises because of bold moves up the draft board. On any list of the NFL’s best young passers, those four QBs would be at or near the top. And while their teams have experienced varying levels of success during their respective tenures, and some roster deficiencies have emerged as a result of the trades—Houston’s offensive line, for example, is a disaster in part because the Texans dealt away their 2018 first-round pick in the deal that netted Watson—it’s a safe bet that all four clubs would gladly make the same moves again.

As decision-makers around the league have seen encouraging results roll in from these big swings, other teams have tried to emulate that success. Buffalo and Arizona each rolled the dice in the 2018 draft in hopes of landing their QBs of the future, with the Bills maneuvering from no. 21 all the way up to no. 7 to draft Josh Allen, and the Cardinals sending their first-, third-, and fifth-round picks to Oakland to jump five spots and snatch Josh Rosen. It’s unclear whether those gambles will pay off, but it’s a safe bet that more are on the horizon. Monday night’s thriller offered a glimpse of the league’s future, and NFL owners are losing patience in the rush to construct dominant offenses of their own.

Take the Buccaneers, for example. Tampa Bay is 3-7 and cruising toward its seventh last-place finish in the NFC South in the past eight years. A new GM and head coach are probably on the way, and with nothing but injury guarantees left on Jameis Winston’s rookie contract, the team could also look to start over at quarterback. The Bucs’ record right now has the team in line for the seventh overall pick, but if it was willing to embrace the Rams’ and Chiefs’ mode of thinking—and if it’s interested in a highly touted QB prospect like Oregon’s Justin Herbert—it may be willing to pay an increasingly steep price to move from no. 7 into the top three.

With a full-scale rebuild likely looming, the Bucs are a prime candidate for this type of trade. But in the league’s current climate, virtually any team without a long-term plan at quarterback could crash the party. Kansas City hardly seemed like a QB buyer in 2017, considering the team’s financial commitment to Alex Smith. But the Chiefs saw an opportunity to take Mahomes and pounced on it. The Eagles were slated to pay Sam Bradford $17.5 million in 2016, but that didn’t stop them from going all in for Wentz. With those outcomes in mind, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a team like the Jaguars—who owe Blake Bortles $16.5 million in dead money next season if he’s cut—make a play for a QB like West Virginia’s Will Grier next spring.

Citadel v Alabama
Tua Tagovailoa
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

With so many teams liable to chase a quarterback at the top of the draft, the asking price for top picks could reach new heights. The 2019 QB crop may not be the best litmus test for this kind of trade, as it’s generally regarded as the weakest class in several years. But the group coming up behind them lends itself to a world of speculation and possibility. If a team like the Jets or Cardinals—both of whom just invested in young QBs—were to wind up with the no. 1 overall pick in 2020, the bidding war for Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa could be unlike anything the league has seen in this era. After the Rams and Eagles hit the jackpot by dealing two first-rounders and more for their picks that became quarterbacks, it wouldn’t seem implausible to see a team up the ante and spend even more to secure the best QB prospect to come along in some time. It may not be long before the first NFL team is willing to part with two future first-round picks to get its guy.

Not all of these trades can be success stories, though, and if this trend does continue, some unlucky franchise (or franchises) will end up heartbroken. Our first QB draft trade disaster since RGIII may already be underway with Allen and the Bills. After Allen’s first six starts, the Bills were on pace to finish with the worst offense ever recorded in the DVOA era. He’s missed Buffalo’s past four games with an elbow injury, and the results in his absence haven’t been much better. But even if Allen eventually comes out the other side of this nightmare unscathed and ready to lead the franchise, the Bills brass’s inability to build an offense around its rookie QB is a telling example of how this plan can go awry.

It’s tempting to see the success that Goff and Mahomes have had and think that finding the right guy to lead the offense is the quickest way to becoming a contender. But the real takeaway from the Rams-Chiefs fireworks show is that it’s paramount to surround that QB with an infrastructure that allows him to flourish. The Bills traded away left tackle Cordy Glenn and two second-round picks to move up 14 spots for Allen. When the season began, Buffalo had arguably the league’s worst offensive line and its poorest receiving corps. At best, general manager Brandon Beane dropped his top-10 pick into untenable circumstances that would make it impossible for him to succeed. At worst, he stunted Allen’s development and sabotaged his own long-term plan before it ever had a chance to work. Buffalo wasn’t alone in that regard. The Cardinals and Jets also tied anvils to their high-priced rookies, threw them into a pool of sharks, and said, “Good luck.” Rosen found himself surrounded by Mike McCoy (now Byron Leftwich, as McCoy was fired last month), Christian Kirk, and Ricky Seals-Jones. Mahomes gets Andy Reid, Tyreek Hill, and Travis Kelce. The talent of QBs’ supporting casts, more than any disparity between the passers themselves, is the most important factor in determining whether a young QB succeeds or fails.

Watson has already produced in the NFL, but Houston’s deal to get him has had consequences. Watson has been brilliant at times during his second season, but he’s also spent a lot of games running for his life because the Texans were unable to add any offensive line talent this offseason. After they missed out on former Patriots left tackle Nate Solder in free agency, Houston didn’t have a high enough draft pick to shore up the line in a meaningful way. Still, the move has been a boon for the team’s roster construction in other ways. Houston currently has more than $19 million in salary cap space, and that’s after using a combined $11.5 million of the money it likely had earmarked for Solder on free-agent safety Tyrann Mathieu and recently acquired wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. The recent explosion in the salary cap has played a role in the Texans’ cap flexibility, but so does Watson’s meager $3.1 million cap hit this season.

As much as their play, the financial wiggle room that a QB on a rookie contract provides makes it worthwhile to surrender draft capital to move up. The Chiefs may not have had a first-round pick in 2018 after trading for Mahomes, but they did save nearly $15 million toward the cap by making the move from Alex Smith to the second-year QB. So while Mahomes cost Kansas City one type of resource, he gave the Chiefs another. Goff has given the Rams similar leeway. His $8.9 million cap hit is part of the reason Snead could give massive extensions to the likes of Aaron Donald, Brandin Cooks, and Todd Gurley without blinking an eye.

Those hidden benefits, combined with the astounding on-field success that teams like the Chiefs and Rams have enjoyed with their young QBs, could lead to a cascade of draft trades in the coming years. The era of 105-point offensive explosions is here; so, too, may be the era of we’ll-give-you-anything-for-the-right-to-pick-our-guy blockbusters.