Guest Post by Sean Meusch | @FF_SMeusch
Over the past week and continuing forward, Daniel Short has gone into excellent detail examining whether the Los Angeles Chargers can find a successor to quarterback Philip Rivers from this 2017 draft class. You can find his pieces on Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly and Tennessee signal-caller Joshua Dobbs, and I encourage giving both a read. However, the question I would pose and like to explore is whether the Chargers should be looking to draft a successor for Rivers this year.
From the get-go I want to stress that this is not going to be me making a case for some pie-in-the-sky scenario to “go all-in” in 2018 for Southern Cal’s Sam Darnold, who depending on who you ask was the early talk of the 2017 Combine despite not even being draft-eligible:
Text from NFL exec-- biggest talk at Combine, and it's not close--USC QB is rare. (It's tough to ignore him when you're studying other guys)— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) March 1, 2017
Anyone who knows me knows that even in my day job, I’m someone who is fascinated with statistics, particularly as they relate to identifying and predicting trends. And it is with that in mind that I want to take examine whether this is the best time for the Chargers to be drafting “someone to groom to take over” for #17.
Now don’t get me wrong, I understand the very real fear of what life may be like in post-Rivers life and that there’s a very obvious appeal to having a next-man-up waiting in the wings to be the face of the franchise for the next decade-plus. But I’m here to tell you that what you’re asking for when held up against reality, is the proverbial needle in a haystack. I realize that Dak Prescott has everybody’s jimmies rustled up into believing that scenarios like this – bridging from an aging quarterback to a late Draft Day 2 quarterback with relative ease – aren’t the exception to the rule, but that’s simply not the case. The last time this happened to the tune of any sustained success was almost fifteen years ago in 2004 with the transition of Mark Brunell to David Garrard (4th round selection in the 2002 draft) – and that’s assuming we ignore the hiccup of a failed 1st round selection by the Jaguars of Byron Leftwich, which delayed Garrard’s out and out claim on the starter’s spot until 2006. And in the end, this was still David Garrard who the club felt was replaceable by Blaine Gabbert (let that sink in; reread the name if you have to).
I don’t often agree with NFL Network’s Mike Mayock, but one soundbite he provided during Saturday’s portion of the combine, in reference to Cal’s Davis Webb, is that “all these guys with tools are going to go earlier (in the draft) than people expect.” Those draft simulators telling you that quarterbacks like Webb and Pittsburgh’s Nathan Peterman are going to be sitting there for the taking on Day 3 are leading you on. We only need to look back at the last several drafts to see that, however raw or however much of a “project” they may be, toolsy quarterback prospects are getting plucked up by teams earlier and earlier: Christian Hackenberg (2nd round), Cardale Jones (4th round), Logan Thomas (4th round), Garrett Grayson (3rd round).
This illustrates my first takeaway: Want a guy with franchise quarterback potential, you need to make a premium investment, even if it means the guys you’re thinking of “grooming” or see as “a project.” The kind of guys the Chargers have brought in as rookie QB’s of recent – your Mike Bercovici’s and Jonathan Crompton’s – are camp arms. I’m not even sure I can respectfully call them Quick Pick lotto tickets because even with a Quick Pick ticket you’re getting the same odds of winning the jackpot (or even some kind of money) with your $1 investment as anyone else. The talent pool is almost always so dry by the time that the odds of a quarterback drafted in the 6th or 7th round or signed as an undrafted free agent coming good as a productive starter are on par with putting the minimum bet to play a single line on a video slot machine are of paying out anything, much less the jackpot.
But there’s another aspect I want to look at that is almost wholesale ignored, not just by fans but by the draft pundits and media as well. With continuing ballooning of veteran contracts, particularly for those starters of any note and even more particularly for the quarterback position, you want to be as certain as possible about your investment before you commit to it. Consider the situation the Washington Redskins are in currently. They have a quarterback who is not-so-arguably the best they’ve had since Joe Gibb’s first stint with the team in the 90’s. However, because of the scarcity of viable starters, said player who is more arguably in the top 40th-percentile of starters at his position is demanding top 15th-percentile (Top 5) type of money, largely because he could fetch that on the open market due to demand. We’re talking $22 million in average annual value of the contract – and this number will only continue to increase as the salary cap continues to increase and more and more quarterbacks sign second- and third contracts. TLDR version: Tying down your franchise quarterback is like Southern California housing market expensive.
The reason I bring this up is that Philip Rivers currently has three years left on his current contract. Rivers is also one of the NFL’s resident ironmen at the quarterback position, second currently to only Eli Manning (cursed be his name), with 176 consecutive starts. Barring a freak injury which can happen to any player, the odds suggest that Rivers is going to play out the remaining games on his contract; this isn’t a player who is walking away from a deal he’s made unless injuries force him to, that’s just the kind of man Phil is.
Now, any rookie player drafted outside the 1st round this year will sign a 4-year contract, per the current NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement. This means that any quarterback drafted this year to “groom behind Rivers” will, most likely, only be allotted one year as a starter for the Chargers to prove that he’s worth being paid like a top starting quarterback in the league. And conversely, the Chargers will have a sample size of only one season of starts to determine whether that player is worth that kind of investment. This is not a favorable scenario, especially if you consider that if the quarterback is good enough to even give you pause (again, see Cousins and Washington), there’s a very good likelihood that the team is not going to be in a draft position to remotely sniff the top quarterback prospects in that year.
Even more intriguing is when I started looking at how the most successful teams – by that I mean the ones who have managed to sustain success to the tune of at least one Lombardi Trophy over more than a decade's worth of time since finding their franchise quarterback – have approached this conundrum. In this case, I have charted the Patriots, Steelers, Giants, and Packers. And, the reality is they all seem to function around a very visible approach: When their starting quarterback is two years away from his contract expiring, they bring in a rookie, most often with a Day 2 pick.
To sum up, what this allows these teams to do is – in the event that they were to lose their presumptive starter, be it to free agency, retirement, or what-have-you – they would have two years to evaluate the player they thought highly enough to draft in the middle rounds, who had also had two years within their system to learn and develop, before he would be in a position to command starting quarterback money.
Now, I’m not arguing that this is the route the Chargers will go. For whatever it’s worth, it was reported that the team met with prospect Patrick Mahomes – definitely a toolsy, “project” – at the combine; however, it should be noted that the Chargers, like many teams, tend to use these meetings as a means to rule out guys that were tentative on their list, to begin with. At the 2016 NFL Combine, the Chargers met with 27 prospects, only two of whom they drafted (Joey Bosa and Donavon Clark), while a number of those they did meet with went undrafted and unsigned by the club.
Everyone is entitled to form their own opinion. Mine, however, would be that it is a much sounder – and grounded in tried and true practices by success-sustaining franchises – to wait until 2018, when the team is hopefully (God, can you hear me? It’s Sean…) in a better position to develop a young signal-caller, to invest that 2nd or 3rd round pick in a potential Rivers successor. Probability tells us, however, that the more likely scenario – whether a developmental guy is drafted this year, next year, or whenever – is that once Philip Rivers and the team do part ways, the Chargers are likely going to have to go the route that the majority of NFL teams have had to go to get to their next/current franchise QB: Either do so poorly one season that they’re picking in the Top 2 of a draft, or send a sweetheart deal (almost certainly leveraging the immediate future of draft capital) to move up into a position to acquire one of the top QB prospects in a class whom they deem to be worthy. Just because I’m an optimist in life doesn’t mean that I’m not also a realist when it comes to sports.