No player in the NFL is creating more surplus value for his team than Dak Prescott, who appears to be an above-average quarterback in line to make less than $2 million combined over the next three years. Not far behind him is Carson Wentz, who should still be a massive bargain despite being guaranteed $21.8 million over the next three seasons (with a fifth-year option to come). When you consider that the free market guaranteed Brock Osweiler two years at an average of $14 million per year and Mike Glennon $18.5 million for one season, even the $7.3 million Wentz is going to earn is a relative pittance.
Teams know how valuable a franchise quarterback on a rookie deal can be, and on Thursday night, they put their draft picks where their mouths were. In a defense-heavy draft which purportedly didn’t have a single surefire performer among the QBs, three teams traded up to grab quarterbacks within the top 12 selections. And they all paid a hefty price. Two of those organizations — the Chiefs and Texans — were 2016 playoff teams who dealt away their 2018 first-round picks to try to find their long-term solution under center. Each of their moves are risky for different reasons.
The biggest trade of the night was the deal pushing the Bears from three to two, taking them to the head of the line for North Carolina quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. The 49ers didn’t appear to be interested in Trubisky, given they passed up their opportunity to draft the 22-year-old, but rookie general manager John Lynch successfully convinced the Bears that there was a trade market forming for Trubisky ahead of them at three. Given how much interest there was in the other quarterbacks, the 49ers probably weren’t bluffing. (I wrote about that right here.)
The most unexpected deal was the second quarterback trade of the night. Fitting his stewardship in Green Bay under Ted Thompson, Chiefs general manager John Dorsey has generally hoarded his draft picks and gone out of his way to gather extra selections in Kansas City. There were rumors the Chiefs were both interested in trading up and drafting Patrick Mahomes, and they pulled off both in one fell swoop by swapping first-rounders with the Bills.
The Chiefs sent the 27th and 91st overall picks in this year’s draft to the Bills, but crucially, they were forced to throw in their 2018 first-round pick to seal the deal. That’s an enormous haul for Buffalo. Given the Chiefs have consistently been a playoff contender under Andy Reid, let’s be conservative and treat that future first-rounder like its equivalent to the 24th selection in the draft. By the traditional Jimmy Johnson chart, the Chiefs sent 1,556 points of draft capital to the Bills, which is somewhere between the sixth and seventh picks. By Chase Stuart’s draft value chart, though, the 33.9 points Kansas City sent to Buffalo are closer to the value of the first overall pick (34.6 points).
Stuart’s estimate suggests the Bills were paid $1.70 on the dollar for this deal. From Buffalo’s perspective, this was a trade they absolutely had to make. The Bills have hemorrhaged picks in recent years in ill-fated trade-ups, sending a first-rounder away in the Sammy Watkins trade before giving away a pair of fourth-rounders in the Reggie Ragland swap last year. This was a much-needed opportunity to start atoning for those past mistakes. The Bills need to keep adding selections to replenish their roster.
The Chiefs chose a player who might be even more polarizing than Trubisky in adding Mahomes. It’s fascinating to see them draft a quarterback who, in many ways, is the polar opposite of their current quarterback. Alex Smith is a high-floor, low-ceiling quarterback who relies upon avoiding turnovers while keeping his offense on schedule to succeed. Mahomes was a big-play magnate at Texas Tech, even (and perhaps often) at the expense of making safer plays and wise decisions. Fans in Kansas City who wanted a quarterback capable of stretching the field and generating excitement have to be thrilled.
Mahomes needs work. His target date as a starter might be 2018 or even 2019, which eliminates a huge chunk of the surplus value he offers as a rookie quarterback, given that he could spend a couple of years on the bench behind Smith. He’s about as high-risk of a quarterback as anyone’s taken in this draft in years, although the Texas Tech product also obviously offers enormous upside. Drafting him incurs the opportunity cost of not upgrading with a wide receiver or a cornerback for a team which could be very close to competing for a Super Bowl right now.
The good news, if you’re Mahomes or somebody who wants to see him succeed, is that Andy Reid has done incredible work with just about every quarterback he’s touched during his time as a head coach. ESPN’s Jon Gruden gave Reid a lot of credit for molding Brett Favre while they were both in Green Bay during Favre’s formative years as a pro, but even if you don’t want to assign Reid a ton of the credit there, he’s either had an incredible run of luck with passers or knows exactly what he’s doing. Reid’s gotten the most out of everyone from Smith to Donovan McNabb to A.J. Feeley to Michael Vick during his time as a coach; the only players who got meaningful reps under Reid and performed better under another coach were Kevin Kolb and Nick Foles, the latter of whom had a career year under Chip Kelly.
McNabb, the last quarterback on whom Reid placed a similar sort of bet, was hardly a guaranteed success when Philadelphia took him with the second overall pick in 1999. Eagles fans memorably booed the pick, preferring Ricky Williams to the Syracuse quarterback. Like Mahomes, McNabb needed to adapt to a pro-style offense, although modern offenses look far more like college attacks than they did 17 years ago. If Mahomes is going to succeed anywhere, it seems safe to say he’ll do so in Kansas City.
Two picks later, the Texans completed the quarterback trades by making their second swap with the Browns in a matter of months. Houston sent the 25th pick and their 2018 first-round selection to the Browns to move up to the 12th slot of the first round and take Deshaun Watson. I’d be a little more cautious in valuing that 2018 first-rounder as a playoff pick for reasons I’ll get to in a moment. If we treat it like the 20th pick, the Texans sent 1,570 points of draft capital to the Browns by the Johnson chart, which is right in line with what the Chiefs sent for the 10th pick. By the Stuart chart, though, Houston sent 29.6 points, which is just below the value of the second overall pick (30.2).
Think about that: in a draft which wasn’t supposed to have any surefire quarterbacks, teams traded up and valued quarterbacks as being worth in excess of the first overall pick (Trubisky) and just below the values of the first overall pick (Mahomes) and second pick (Watson).
The Browns may take flak for not coming away with a quarterback, but if they didn’t think that any of the quarterbacks available were worth paying a premium to grab, they did the right thing. They will run the 2018 draft, given that they now have two first-round picks, three second-rounders, and two fourth-round choices. If the Texans bomb, the Browns will be in incredible shape, given that they have both Houston’s first- and second-round picks.
Just as his head coach might be the best argument in favor of Mahomes succeeding, it’s fair to wonder whether Watson’s new head coach might get in the way of his success at the professional level. Bill O’Brien has a sterling reputation with quarterbacks after spending time with Tom Brady and getting the most out of Matt McGloin and Christian Hackenberg in Penn State, but his work with quarterbacks as Texans head coach has left much to be desired.
O’Brien pieced together a competent season from journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2014, albeit one not as impressive as the one he would post in New York under Chan Gailey the following year. In 2015, O’Brien oscillated back and forth between Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett, eventually settling on Hoyer, who self-destructed in the playoffs. The Texans let him leave in free agency and targeted Brock Osweiler, and you know how that went. Hoyer was the far better quarterback in Chicago. Houston also sprinkled in Tom Savage, who has shown little aptitude for the position since being drafted in the fourth round of the 2014 draft.
Watson has been a team leader and a winner at Clemson and may very well have the most upside of any of the quarterbacks O’Brien’s been given access to, although I suspect the Texans thought Osweiler was a franchise signal-caller this time last year. He also struggled with his accuracy throwing downfield, lacked consistency, and made too many poor decisions which led to interceptions. Those are problems each of O’Brien’s previous Houston quarterbacks have had, and the former Patriots coach hasn’t been able to fix their issues. It’s very fair to be skeptical he can do the same for Watson.
The other argument surrounding this trade is that the Texans might be one quarterback away from taking a huge leap forward and making the Super Bowl. I can’t, in good conscience, go along with that logic. The Texans did go 9-7 and win a playoff game last year, but a closer look suggests they were one of the luckiest teams in the league. Houston went a staggering 8-2 in games decided by seven points or less, with their only win by more than a touchdown coming by a mere nine points in the season opener at home against the lowly Browns. They had the point differential of a 6.5-win team, which is historically a better predictor of their future win-loss record than their actual win-loss record from the previous season. They were a brutally low 29th in DVOA, finishing between the 49ers and Rams.
You can make a case that the Texans should improve in some ways in 2017. They were 32nd in special teams DVOA, and special teams tends to be more inconsistent from year-to-year than offense or defense. They spent virtually the entire season without J.J. Watt, and the future Hall of Famer should return in 2017 to form a terrifying pass rush with Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus. The Texans were also so bad at quarterback with Osweiler and Savage under center that even a mediocre rookie season from Watson could be an improvement. The Texans could look like the 2009 Jets, who rode their luck and a dominant defense while overcoming a mistake-filled rookie season from Mark Sanchez to make it to the AFC Championship Game.
All of those factors are true, but fans who start with the Texans in their heads as a 9-7 team and then apply those arguments to push them into the 11-win sphere are fooling themselves. It’s far more likely that the Texans are a 7-win team getting the benefit of those improvements, and they’re doing so in a division which should be better in 2017. The Titans outplayed Houston by advanced metrics and supplemented their roster with two first-round picks. The Jaguars grossly underperformed their point differential, going 3-13 with a 5.9-win Pythagorean Expectation, and made massive upgrades in free agency. Even the Colts managed to invest in their defense as part of the transition from Ryan Grigson to Chris Ballard, and they still have the best quarterback in the division.
Nine wins might not be enough to win the AFC South next year, and Watson might not even be enough to get the Texans there. You can’t blame Houston general manager Rick Smith for throwing resources at what continues to be his team’s biggest problem, and Watson could very well end up as the next Marcus Mariota, but the Texans themselves might be their own worst enemy. They’ll need to defy the history of teams who dominate in close games and O’Brien’s recent track record of developing quarterbacks to keep Watson playing for championships in the years to come.