Prior to the draft, only four of the league’s 32 teams still had question marks at the quarterback position in 2016 (I’m excluding the Eagles from this group, who have the “too many quarterbacks” problem rather than the “not enough” version). Those four teams who might therefore have looked to add a quarterback during the Draft are the Broncos, the 49ers, the Browns, and the Jets.
- The 49ers did not address the quarterback position in the Draft (unless you want to count selecting Jeff Driskel in the sixth round), which means it looks like Colin Kaepernick (or maybe Blaine Gabbert?) will be the starter come opening day.
- The Browns did take a quarterback, USC’s Cody Kessler, in round three, leaving one of RG3, Josh McCown, or Kessler as the opening day starter.
- The Broncos had Mark Sanchez, but made the bold move to trade up for Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch at the end of the first round. That puts Denver out of the veteran quarterback market.
- That leaves the Jets, who look to be the last buyer standing. New York did draft Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg in the second round, but it seems unlikely that he will be the starter in 2016. The other quarterbacks on the roster, Geno Smith and Bryce Petty, would have a leg up on Hackenberg, but it is unlikely the Jets just stick with those three players.
From a demand side, there simply isn’t much there for veteran quarterbacks. The Jets are the only team truly left in this market. The 49ers could still trade Kaepernick, which would put San Francisco back in the game, but his only plausible suitor at this point would be the Jets.
The supply side? That’s a different story. The top remaining quarterback, of course, is Ryan Fitzpatrick, who started and played well for the Jets last year. Brian Hoyer just signed with the Bears (after a workout with the Jets), but that still leaves Sam Bradford and Nick Foles, by virtue of what happened at the top of the Draft, along with Fitzpatrick (and perhaps Kaepernick) as 2015 starting quarterbacks now looking for a new home.
The quarterback market exploded this off-season, leaving no real middle class of quarterbacks. Brock Osweiler signed a four year contract with Houston Texans worth $72 million, including $37 million in fully guaranteed salary and a $12 million signing bonus. Washington gave Kirk Cousins the franchise tag, which puts him on a one-year deal worth $20 million. Even Bradford signed a large contract: a two year, $35 million deal which has $22 million fully guaranteed and another $4 million guaranteed for injury.
As of prior to the draft (i.e., so this number is only going up), the average team had $16.9M in salary cap dollars tied up at the quarterback position. Twenty-two teams have one quarterback who counts for at least $10M against the cap this year, with 18 of those counting for at least $14M. The Rams have $8.75 on the books for Foles, and will be now be paying Jared Goff, too. Of the other nine teams, over half have quarterbacks on a rookie contract (the Jaguars, Buccaneers, Titans, Vikings, and Raiders), which may be the best value in all of football when things work out.
That leaves four teams that are in more isolated situations. The Browns actually have $12.7M tied up at the position, as neither Griffin nor McCown came cheaply. The Bills hit a home run with Tyrod Taylor, allowing Buffalo (for now) to spend money elsewhere. And, of course, both Buffalo (EJ Manuel) and Cleveland (Johnny Manziel) both tried to be in the situation teams like Minnesota and Oakland are in now. The Broncos were paying at the top of the quarterback market until Peyton Manning retired; Denver has since retooled by going all-in on Lynch, making the Broncos similar now to the Jacksonvilles and Tampa Bays of the world.
And then you have the Jets. Before signing Hackenberg (or Fitzpatrick), the Jets have just $2.7M invested in the quarterback position as far as 2016 salary cap dollars go. That’s the fewest in the NFL, and 1.95 standard deviations below the league average. With quarterback salaries spiraling (some would say out of control), there’s an argument to be made that going cheap at quarterback could be the “Moneyball” move: if there’s a market inefficiency, zag instead of zig.
The Jets rank 5th in salary cap dollars spent on offense and defense, with most of that coming on defense where the team has spent more 2016 salary cap dollars than anyone else. That’s mostly due to the cornerback position, where the Jets lead the league by about $5M, and the defensive line, where the Jets rank 9th despite playing a 3-4. The Jets also rank 6th in WR salary cap dollars, 8th in OL salary cap dollars, and 13th in RB salary cap dollars. In other words, by going very cheap at quarterback, the Jets have been able to spend lots of money elsewhere. Here’s another way to think of it: the Jets have a league-high $152M in 2016 salary cap dollars not spent at quarterback; the only other teams above $140M in that area are Minnesota, Tampa Bay, and Washington.
The ideal scenario is to hit on a rookie quarterback in the draft, a strategy the Jets have tried many times but which has yet to bring a success. The next-best option would be to pay for a great quarterback, but those don’t exactly grow on trees: you can’t go into free agency and choose to pay star quarterbacks top dollar, because they don’t hit.
That leaves teams with the decision of what’s the next best alternative. Is it to pay $12-20M to a middle-of-the-road starter? Is it to keep trying in the Draft until you hit? Or is it to go cheap at quarterback and build the rest of the roster? It looks like the Jets are going with a little of option 2 and a little of option 3, with the corollary that by waiting out the market, New York could still upgrade on Geno Smith due to supply and demand. The Jets are the only team playing this game right now, which makes it an interesting game regardless of whether it’s the right one.