After last year’s pitiful showing, The Houston Texans are on the clock – but it’s unlikely that we’ll get any hints about their probable selection anytime soon. Led by new head coach Bill O’Brien, the Texans find themselves with a tough decision at the first overall pick. While historically many teams selecting first overall opt for a new franchise signal caller, the quarterbacks in this draft, while loaded with potential, are considered to be raw and might need some time before they are ready for a starting job. Adding to an already tough decision is the presence of defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who is widely considered a “once in a decade” prospect. Passing on a quarterback for the best defensive player is a decision that worked for the Texans before when they selected Mario Williams, but will they do it again? The Texans are just the first of many teams in the Top 10 that will be faced with a similar decision. Defense wins championships, but everyone is hoping to snag the next Andrew Luck – making the upcoming NFL draft a complete mystery. What these first few teams decide will have a domino effect on the rest of the draft and could inadvertently make some of the NFL’s most talent-rich teams unexpectedly richer.
In the first ten picks of the draft there are five teams that are in desperate need of a new franchise quarterback: the Texans, Jaguars, Browns, Raiders and the Vikings. Knowing team needs, the question is more of WHEN they will select a QB as opposed to if they will. Each of these teams has a veteran quarterback in place as a fallback option, but almost of all of them have hinted or openly admitted their desire to upgrade the position in this year’s draft. While some teams like the Browns have only signaled their interest by working out a majority of the top QB prospects1 , others like the Jaguars have made their interest clear. “Everybody knows we’re going to draft a quarterback – maybe two,” said new Jaguar’s owner Shad Khan, making zero attempts to hide his team’s deficiencies at the position.2
Even with an abundance of QB-needy teams in the top 10, speculation suggests that many of these teams could, and will, bypass a quarterback for one of the many top tier defensive prospects. Many draftniks, like Mel Kiper3, don’t consider any QBs to be among the top 10 prospects in the draft. While teams may have different rankings, this begs the questions of whether teams would be willing to reach for a QB in the Top 10 if they have evaluated the QBs similarly. Teams could decide to draft a consensus elite player like Jadeveon Clowney, Khalil Mack, or Sammy Watkins in the first round, using their second round selection to gamble on a QB, even though they desperately need an upgrade at the spot.
Most analysts seem to agree that Johnny Manziel, Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater and Derek Carr are the top tier QBs in the draft and are most likely to be selected in the first round.4 Other quarterbacks such as Jimmy Garoppolo, Zach Mettenberger or AJ McCarron are generally considered the next tier, expected to be drafted on Day 2 (Rounds 2 and 3). If only two or fewer teams in the Top 10 decide to take one of these tier-one QBs, there’s a fair chance that the other tier-one QBs will start to fall in the draft. And when you consider the elite talent at other positions, this scenario begins to sound like a real possibility.
So if some of the top QBs fall, where would they most likely end up? Most of the teams that select in the middle portion of the first round already have franchises QBs in place, so the likelihood that they spend a first round pick on a backup is small. Teams like the Bears or the Steelers have no need for a first round QB. The Rams, who have a second first round pick at #13, have the potential to surprise people and select a QB as insurance for Sam Bradford, but the consensus seems to be that they won’t be looking for that insurance until the middle rounds.
With the 20th pick, the Arizona Cardinals are the only team I can see drafting a QB after the top 10, though this is just my gut talking – no information from the organization has suggested such. The Cardinals have Carson Palmer but badly need a QB for the future as Palmer is 34 and only under contract until 20155 – but there’s more to Arizona’s reality. After just missing the playoffs last season, the Cardinals are in “win now” mode and will probably instead opt to add talent around Palmer with their first round pick in an attempt to make a hopeful playoff push. Basically, it’s extremely unlikely that any quarterbacks are going to be drafted in the middle of round one.
If this year’s NFL draft gets very interesting, given our scenario, it’s going to be towards the end of the first round. Most of the teams that are at the tail end of the round are there for a reason – they’re the more talented teams. These teams aren’t desperate to add talent and generally are willing to move out of the first round if they get the right offer. If a few of the top tier QBs are available when teams like the Patriots, 49ers, or Seahawks are on the clock, look for some quick-fire trades on draft day. Every draft day there tends to be a lot of movement at the end of day one. Hell, last year alone four of the final eight picks in the first round changed hands. Many of the top 10 teams that decided to pass on QBs could very well want to trade for another first round pick, securing one of the remaining tier-one QBs before their rivals snag them in the next round.
The teams interested in trading back into the first round also have a financial motive. The new NFL CBA “stipulates that all first-year players will be given a four-year contract but all allows for the team option of adding a fifth year for players drafted in the first round.”6 This clause is a huge factor that will only help push teams to try and find a way to get an extra first-rounder to have the option of that fifth contract year, securing a hopeful QB for a tad bit longer. Plus, NFL quarterbacks are making more money by the year. By selecting a QB in the first round, teams have the ability to lock up a QB for a fifth year at a cheaper price than what they could potentially get on the open market. That fifth year price, if a team picks up the option, is “the average salary of the third-highest quarterback through the 25th player in that position” at the time the option is picked up. While still expensive compared to most QB salaries, it’s a far cheaper price then most teams would have to pay if the QB was to become a FA (assuming the QB is worth keeping).
Due to these factors, the end of the first round could become a “sweet spot,” if you will, for trades. High demand for the most valuable position in football will do that. Last year, the Vikings traded back into the first round with the Patriots, but at what cost? A 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 7th round selection. That was a huge bounty for the Patriots (a team notorious for trading down in drafts) who were looking to gather more picks in a year where they had few. Teams trading for an extra pick in this year’s first round will pay a similar price, though the price will vary based on where teams are trading up from. Teams like the Texans or Browns, who hold one of the first three picks in the second round, will have to give up a lot less than the Jaguars or Vikings who are farther back.
If I’ve learned anything over the years from following the NFL draft, it’s to expect the unexpected. However, the chances of this first-round shuffle scenario happening are very real. The decisions made by teams in the top 10 will have a domino effect on the rest of the draft, especially in the “sweet spot” at the end of the first round. Do teams decide to pass on elite talent to reach for a QB? Or do they reverse and hope the risk is worth the reward? We won’t know the answer until draft day, but there are a lot of teams salivating at this year’s cornucopia of possibilities.