By Will Mirrer
Acquiring a franchise quarterback is hard work. NFL teams lucky enough to find one in the draft generally don’t let them hit free agency. But because the position is so important, general managers can never stop trying to find a talented signal caller. So what is a quarterback-needy team to do? Savvy fantasy football managers often pass on drafting an early-round quarterback, waiting until the later rounds to draft two passers with low floors, but immense upside, banking on a solid chance of at least one of them panning out. In 2015, that could have meant foregoing Andrew Luck or Aaron Rodgers at the top of the fantasy draft and instead taking Cam Newton and Phillip Rivers, or Carson Palmer and Jameis Winston, later on. Quarterbacks drafted so late naturally have a lower floor and higher variance in expected outcome. Yet in taking two (or even three) such quarterbacks, the odds increase dramatically that at least one will realize his potential for top tier performance. Can we draw any parallels from this strategy for NFL GMs stuck without a clear path to a franchise quarterback?
In the NFL’s 2016 free agency period, we saw many intriguing, but flawed quarterbacks hit the market all at once. Kirk Cousins, Sam Bradford, and Brock Osweiler were the consensus top targets, and all commanded big paychecks worth no less than $18 million annually. To varying degrees, they fit our paradigm of the low floor, high ceiling passer. Cousins played like one of the best quarterbacks around during a blistering finish to the 2015 season, with a 23:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio over his final ten games. But he hadn’t played nearly as well prior to that stretch, tossing 24 touchdowns and 27 interceptions in his career before the hot streak. Is his dramatic improvement in avoiding interceptions here to stay, or should we expect regression, as we saw after Nick Foles’ 27:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2013? Similarly, Osweiler’s upside stems from decent play for the Broncos last season, but what will happen in a larger sample size? And why was he benched for Manning before the playoffs? Meanwhile, Bradford’s perceived upside dates all the way back to his college heyday and status as the first pick in the 2010 draft, but his floor is obvious: he’s notoriously injury-prone, and even when he’s managed to stay on the field, he’s yet to log a healthy season at an average or better level.
Because of the difficulties in acquiring a franchise quarterback, swinging for the fences with Cousins or Osweiler is a defensible strategy. A safer course would be to snag both of them, and play the one who turns out to be the better talent. The glaring downside to this approach is that they are far too expensive. At no less than $18 million per year, a team simply cannot take on two such salaries at once: it’s fair to say that no one wants to pay 50% more than a top quarterback’s annual salary for the combination of Brock Osweiler and Sam Bradford. So, what do you do if you’re in desperate need of a field general and are not willing to bet on Osweiler or Bradford at $18 million a year? In this scenario, GMs have to dig deeper than the top of the free agent market.
After RGIII won the Heisman Trophy and went second in the 2012 NFL Draft, he led Washington to an unlikely playoff appearance. He won rookie of the year (besting Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson) and even made the Pro Bowl. Play at this high level for an entire season establishes RGIII’s immense upside. At his best, he played incredible football with plenty of room to grow. But a gruesome playoff knee injury required surgery after his rookie year, and RGIII regressed in his second season. In 2014, he was mostly hurt, but did not play particularly well in his few games. Then, in 2015, RGIII tumbled all the way to third on the Redskins’ quarterback depth chart, and he became a free agent this offseason. His fall from grace can be explained in part by his many injuries, by what has been described as a “prima donna attitude,” by failing to study enough tape and even allegedly telling Mike Shanahan which plays were (and were not) acceptable to run. That magical rookie season is just recent enough to provide the tantalizing upside GMs dream of, yet the series of red flags since then establish his unusually low floor — as a brittle, below-replacement level quarterback.
Similar highs and lows accompany Colin Kaepernick’s time in the NFL. After replacing Alex Smith during the 2012 season, Kaepernick took the 49ers to the playoffs. In his first playoff start, Kaep eviscerated the Packers through the air and especially on the ground, rushing for an incredible 181 yards and two touchdowns. He went on to take his team to the Super Bowl, where the 49ers nearly beat the Ravens and a super hero version of Joe Flacco. Kaepernick then played well in the 2013 season before narrowly falling to the Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game. In 2014, Kaepernick’s quarterback rating dipped a bit as the 49ers took a big step backward as a team after losing key contributors on both sides of the ball. In 2015, after Coach Harbaugh left for the Wolverines, Kaep regressed dramatically and was even benched for Blaine Gabbert. The 2012 and 2013 seasons firmly established Kaep’s upside as someone who could single-handedly destroy a playoff team like the Packers, and as someone who could win a Super Bowl. And everything since 2013 has suggested a lower and lower floor to the point at which, like RGIII, it’s no longer clear if Kaepernick is even a starting-caliber quarterback. Kaep and RGIII’s recent struggles have significantly lowered their respective going rates in the NFL marketplace.
The Cleveland Browns acquired RGIII this offseason for $15 million over two years. By way of comparison, the Eagles retained Sam Bradford for two years and $35 million. RGIII is now one of the lowest paid starting quarterbacks not on a cost-controlled rookie contract. His cap hit this year is just $5 million, and should RGIII bomb out and the Browns cut him in the 2017 offseason, they’ll have only $1.75 million in dead money counting against next year’s cap. For the Browns, whose adjusted salary cap is $176.69 million, RGIII’s $5 million cap hit is just 2.8% of the cap, a pittance for the most important position in the game. At such a low price, the Browns’ signing of RGIII represents a lottery ticket. He may never recreate his old magic, but the Browns aren’t sacrificing much cap flexibility in finding out. And if the old RGIII is lurking somewhere, well, the Browns will have hit a home run with one of the most valuable contracts in football. It’s a lot like taking your quarterback in the 10th round of your fantasy draft – he might bomb, but you’re not investing much to find out, and if you’re right, you’ve got yourself a steal. Yet the risk inherent in signing RGIII has two components. The contract itself is all upside, with very little financial risk. But from an on-field performance perspective, putting all your eggs in one basket with RGIII at quarterback is as risky as it gets, with a high chance of injury or ineffective play dooming the Browns’ season. So why not take a second quarterback in the 11th round of your fantasy draft, so to speak? Why not invest similarly paltry assets in a second quarterback with upside? Why not double the chances that a quarterback pans out by acquiring a second lottery ticket, such as by pairing RGIII with Colin Kaepernick?
Colin Kaepernick wouldn’t come quite as cheap. There is some evidence he’s valued on the same tier as RGIII, as the Broncos offered Kaep $7 million a year for 2016 and 2017 during trade negotiations. However, he’s under contract with the 49ers with a current salary of $11.9 million this year, and Kaepernick would have to agree to a restructured deal as part of a trade in order for a team to pay him less. While Kaep turned down $7 million a year, he publicly admitted he’d consider a deal “slightly below his salary” if traded, presumably due to his deteriorating relationship with the 49ers’ front office. He had leverage given his guaranteed $11.9 million price tag, but so did teams negotiating a trade this past offseason, knowing how badly Kaepernick wanted out of the Bay Area. Given his willingness to take a pay cut from his $11.9 million rate, and given his rejection of a $7 million a year offer, it seems reasonable to split the difference and expect that teams could have traded for Kaepernick at a $9-10 million price tag for 2016. That’s still less than almost all starting quarterbacks aside from those on cost-controlled rookie deals. Even after a disappointing 2014 season, observers had pegged Kaepernick’s trade value at a first round pick, or possibly more. Just a year later, Kaepernick was seemingly available for just a 3rd or 4th rounder.
Acquiring both RGIII (2016 cap hit: $5 million) and Kaepernick (estimated restructured deal at $9-10 million), then, would cost approximately $14-15 million combined, and a mid-round draft pick. Remember, Sam Bradford got $18 million per year. Osweiler got $72 million over 4 years. That doesn’t necessarily mean teams should prefer Kaep & RGIII to one of these other free agents, but it does illustrate that acquiring both former stars still represents only a modest investment at the quarterback position. Bradford gives you a higher floor (when healthy) than either RGIII or Kaepernick. Yet RGIII and Kaepernick each have more upside, given that we’ve actually seen each of them perform at an elite level in the past, unlike Bradford. While Osweiler has performed adequately far more recently than our two fallen stars, he’s still a rich venture into the unknown at $18 million per year for 4 long years with $37 million guaranteed. On the other hand, Kaepernick and RGIII together, fighting it out for the starting job in training camp, would cost less combined than even average veteran quarterbacks fetch these days. By acquiring two affordable high variance options, a QB-hungry team could effectively double the chances of finding a diamond in the rough. It helps that RGIII and Kaep play a similar style as dual-threats through the air or on the ground, minimizing transition costs should one of the passers falter or get hurt. And with relatively little guaranteed money committed beyond 2016, teams would have the flexibility to move on from the two passers quickly without damaging their cap sheets.
After letting several free agents walk, the Browns are flush with cap space. They would have no problem fitting both passers under the cap, with cap flexibility moving forward to boot. One could argue they’d balk at the mid-round draft pick it’d take to nab Kaepernick, given their focus on acquiring draft picks to build for the future. And yet, the Browns were willing to use one of their three third-round picks on Cody Kessler, a quarterback scouts weren’t too excited about. Very few quarterbacks every play at an elite level in the pros. Kaepernick appears more likely to regain his former glory, or at least produce average NFL quarterback play, than does a total unknown mid-rounder in Cody Kessler. Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but the Jets, currently stuck at an impasse with Ryan Fitzpatrick, could have made another ideal destination for the Kaep-RGIII package. Even the 49ers, who have decided to keep Kaepernick, could have traded for RGIII. They, too, have the cap space to fit both, and a quarterback competition between RGIII and Kaepernick provides a higher ceiling than settling for Blaine Gabbert.
It’s of course possible that both Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick are completely finished. RGIII has tons of talent, but perhaps some combination of injuries, alleged attitude issues and questionable film habits have left him a shell of his former self. Kaepernick looked like a bona fide star in his first couple seasons, but he’s backslid since then, most dramatically in 2015, when he had lost his coach and supporting cast. Was the brilliant Jim Harbaugh merely coaching him up? We just don’t know. RGIII is 26. Kaepernick is 28. Father Time, at the very least, is not the cause of their respective declines. It’s at least plausible that the Browns’ Hue Jackson could coach up Griffin or Kaep, as he did for Andy Dalton this past season in Cincinnati.
In a league in which quarterback dwarfs the value of any other position, and top-caliber talent at the position is scarce, just the chance of finding a decent starting quarterback can overheat the market. That’s why Brock Osweiler and Sam Bradford make nearly $20 million a year. But if you’re not convinced Osweiler or Bradford is the next star, perhaps you’re not willing to commit so much guaranteed money. Handing Kirk Cousins a long-term deal with the kind of guarantees Aaron Rodgers got from Ted Thompson might similarly be too financially risky. The Browns instead went for what is financially a low risk, high reward contract in signing RGIII. But by now we know the kind of risk RGIII presents on the field. Adding Kaepernick to the mix would have halved their on-field risk – perhaps RGIII bombs or gets hurt, and Kaepernick plays well, or vice versa. Given the on-field risk in signing either one, they came so cheap that a forward-thinking team could have affordably signed both to reap the upside, with insurance against realizing the downside. The Browns are taking a reasonable risk on RGIII’s promise. But awash with cap space, acquiring both Kaep and RGIII would have significantly improved Cleveland’s chance of ending up with a franchise quarterback, or at least a competent signal caller. Anytime you can give yourself more chances at finding a quarterback without destroying your cap sheet, that’s a risk well worth taking.