NFL teams are getting less and less patient at the quarterback position.
The Los Angeles Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers proved in consecutive seasons that acquiring a star veteran quarterback can be a shortcut to the Super Bowl. And in 2022, teams attempted to replicate that formula with a massive turnover under center. The Denver Broncos, Washington Commanders, Cleveland Browns and Indianapolis Colts all traded for experienced quarterbacks, while other QB-needy teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers and Atlanta Falcons signed former first-round castoffs.
But once the draft ends, as many as 11 teams this year will start a different quarterback in Week 1. We already have at least nine after the bevy of trades and signings that saw the likes of Russell Wilson, Carson Wentz, Matt Ryan and Deshaun Watson switch teams. That’s slightly less than the 13 teams that deployed new quarterbacks in 2021, and well above the norm of typical quarterback movement in the NFL.
“Unless you drafted one recently or last year, or unless you have a star already — which there aren’t a lot of — everybody’s always going to be looking for that position,” former Vikings general manager Rick Spielman told Yahoo Sports. “Everybody is going to always try to see if they can find a Tom Brady.”
Spielman would know. He signed Kirk Cousins in 2018 to a fully guaranteed three-year, $84 million deal, which was an NFL first at the time. That was despite making the NFC title game the year before with Case Keenum at quarterback.
“Rarely does someone like that become a free agent,” Spielman said. “So we felt very strongly about trying to be as aggressive as we can with having most of our roster coming back from the previous year.”
This trend wasn’t always the norm. The NFL averaged around seven starting quarterback changes per season from 2012-2020 and very rarely saw big names change teams. The occasional veteran would be moved or hit the open market (Cousins, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are the big ones), but most teams would find quarterback replacements in the draft or stick with their previous season’s starter rather than look elsewhere.
But the quarterback carousel quickly sped up in 2021 and only got faster in 2022 as big names hit the open market and teams looked to transform their Super Bowl aspirations overnight. Aaron Rodgers didn’t move after signing a massive extension with the Green Bay Packers, but five Pro Bowl quarterbacks did, one of whom has won an MVP and another who’s won a Super Bowl.
A weak quarterback draft class coupled with a growing sense of urgency among teams created this newfound strategy of shipping copious amounts of draft capital for a proven veteran. With the success of the Rams and Buccaneers, it shouldn’t be shocking that teams salivate at the idea of quickly changing their fortune with a veteran quarterback rather than waiting for a young prospect to bloom in two or three seasons.
“There is such a lack of patience, especially if you draft [a quarterback],” Spielman said. “Everybody expects instant success but every team is always trying to find that guy that’s going to be their franchise guy — the Aaron Rodgerses of the world or the Russell Wilsons of the world.”
NFL teams shift QB ideology
For years, owners and team-builders alike refused to move on from an incumbent quarterback. Whether they were worried about failure or shame, teams usually just stuck it out with their current guy until the wheels fell off or the price to keep them got too steep. That changed when the Bucs dumped Jameis Winston and acquired Brady in 2020, followed by the Rams trading away Jared Goff — the team’s No. 1 overall pick in 2016 — for Stafford in 2021. Each move resulted in a championship season. Suddenly, teams understood this was a strategy that not only worked but was somewhat realistic to attain.
“I believe, and I think that it’s a good thing, that in today’s world and today’s NFL, people understand it’s a ‘Not For Long’ league and they’re going to do everything at all cost to get the quarterback situation right. Even if it means having egg on their face by moving one of their big picks,” former Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff told Yahoo Sports. “If they come out on the other side with wins … then their moves can be forgiven. Now I don’t believe that was the way 20 years ago.”
This new idea isn’t just about the quarterback, though that is a major component. By sacrificing early round picks for a proven commodity under center, Dimitroff says teams are able to focus their draft prospect evaluation strategy on the middle rounds with the comfort of knowing what they already have locked down at the most important position in football.
“You’re not worrying about the precariousness of the [first-round quarterback] draft pick. You’re not worried about cultivating the evolution of that quarterback. You work around the positives and the very well-known shortcomings of that quarterback,” Dimitroff said. “That’s a very secure feeling as an organization.”
Will NFL teams continue to look to trades, free agency for QB upgrades?
The lack of consensus in this quarterback draft class helps explain all the QB moves in 2022. There is no Trevor Lawrence or Joe Burrow or Andrew Luck for a team to trade up and build their franchise around. Coupled with the psychological change spurred by the Stafford trade and the urgency of general managers to win now, it created the perfect storm for perhaps the wildest NFL offseason ever.
“Teams realize that their desperation at that position makes it OK to swing and miss. It’s more acceptable now just because of the climate,” former Saints and Dolphins GM Randy Mueller told Yahoo Sports. “There are more moves this year because of the lack of quality in the draft. I think it’s forced a lot of these teams’ hands sooner than later because they see that the fallback has always been the draft and that may not be an option for a lot of teams.”
But Mueller, Dimitroff and Spielman have somewhat differing opinions on the longevity of this strategy. Mueller and Dimitroff agree that the quarterback carousel trend is here to stay, while Spielman believes it will likely revert to the norm once more young quarterbacks settle in and teams build better around them — like the Chiefs did with Patrick Mahomes and the Bills did with Josh Allen.
“The more people see the success of these moves and if they continue to be successful and/or fairly successful, they’re going to continue to make the moves,” Dimitroff said. “I don’t think it’s a function of the quarterbacks available. This is a big business with a lot of money involved. It’s more high-stress than it’s ever been, it’s more high stakes than it’s ever been, on that side. It’s not easy to walk away without taking your best shot. You best believe head coaches and GMs today are looking to take their best shot and not sit back on their hands and hope something works out well enough.”