INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Within the sprawling downtown Indianapolis hotel and convention complex, agents, coaches and personnel executives huddled over free agent possibilities, potential trades and draft information at the NFL Scouting Combine.
Without question, one position dominated those conversations through the week.
Cleveland head coach Hue Jackson fielded 17 questions about quarterbacks. Chicago’s John Fox was asked 10. New San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan was asked seven.
It’s the most important position in football, maybe half the league can say they have one.
Fewer believe they have two.
The 2017 draft has some intriguing prospects, but none are considered a solid bet. Which makes New England and Cincinnati, with tantalizing backups with limited but productive NFL experience, the belles of the offseason ball.
During the week, ESPN reported the Patriots will not deal 25-year-old Jimmy Garoppolo. The Bengals said their phones work, and their value of 26-year-old AJ McCarron is high. But they didn’t say he was unavailable.
The teams clearly are in no hurry to move them.
Others may become desperate to get them.
The cat and mouse game is on.
“The guy who can afford to walk away from the table has all the leverage,” said former Jacksonville vice president of football operations Michael Huyghe.
He would know. Huyghe traded third and fifth round picks for Green Bay backup Mark Brunell, who led the Jaguars to two AFC championship games and went to three Pro Bowls. Huyghe also dealt his backup Rob Johnson to Buffalo for first and fourth round picks.
“They couldn’t afford to walk away from the table,” Huyghe said. “And when you get a situation like that, you know you’re going to win.”
The short list
Trading for a backup is risky, and the sample size of success is small.
To put the market for McCarron (and Garoppolo) into proper context, The Enquirer researched the trading of backup quarterbacks and their likelihood for success under several parameters listed at the bottom of the story.
Under these parameters, in the 22 seasons between the 1994 and 2017 drafts, exactly 10 backup quarterbacks have been dealt:
1995: Jacksonville acquires Mark Brunell from Green Bay for third- and fifth-round picks.
1998: Buffalo acquires Rob Johnson from Jacksonville for first- and fourth-round picks.
1999: Carolina acquires Jeff Lewis from Denver for third- and fourth-round picks.
2000: New Orleans acquires Aaron Brooks and tight end Lamont Hall from Green Bay for a third round pick and linebacker K.D. Williams.
2001: Seattle acquires Matt Hasselbeck from Green Bay for a swap of first-round picks (the Packers moved up to No. 10 while the Seahawks went to No. 17) and a third-round pick.
2004: Miami acquires A.J. Feeley from Philadelphia for a second-round pick.
2007: Houston acquires Matt Schaub from Atlanta for a swap of first-round picks in 2007 (Atlanta moved from No. 10 to No. 8) and second round picks in 2007 and 2008.
2009: Kansas City acquires Matt Cassel and linebacker Mike Vrabel from New England for a second-round pick.
2010: Seattle acquires Charlie Whitehurst from San Diego swap of 2010 second-round picks and a 2011 third-round selection.
2011: Arizona acquires Kevin Kolb from Philadelphia for a second-round pick and Pro Bowl cornerback Domonique Rodgers-Cromartie.
Quarterbacks are obviously traded more often than this, but this proves teams are very hesitant to gamble on backups the like of McCarron (eight career games, three starts, 119 pass attempts) and Garoppolo (17 games, two starts, 94 pass attempts) who have so little track record.
Of the dozens of quarterbacks traded for draft picks (or even backups signed as unrestricted free agents to start) since 1994, almost all have a more established starting pedigree than the 10 quarterbacks listed above.
This presents a challenge for teams who may be looking to part with multiple draft picks – perhaps as high as a first-rounder – for one of those players.
“The less tape the harder it is, so you have to go off what you have,” Shanahan said. “If there’s not a lot of tape in pros you study everything in preseason, you study everything he’d done in college. You study everything that’s available. And you have to communicate with people and find things out. But you’ve got to find the tape to believe anything, and if you don’t have much NFL tape then you go off college.”
Known vs. Unknown
Shanahan knows of which he speaks. He was the Texans’ quarterbacks coach when they acquired Schaub after just 161 career pass attempts in Atlanta, and there was no direct tie to the quarterback to his new organization.
It’s a similar situation to what Huyghe and the Jaguars faced in 1995 when they sent third- and fifth-round picks to the Packers for their backup in Brunell, even though the quarterback had exactly two games and 27 pass attempts in the NFL under his belt behind Brett Favre as a rookie in 1994.
Huyghe and the rest of the Jaguars front office and coaching staff had no direct tie to Brunell, only their college scouting and what little information they gleaned – and assumed – from his year in Green Bay.
“Obviously he was being coached very well at the quarterback position,” Huyghe recalled. “And the team had a history of coaching. Mike (Holmgren) was obviously an exceptional coach with the quarterbacks, so that weighed heavily. Although he wasn’t playing in a lot of games, we knew he was being coached well and what we could see was a smart player, good strong arm, those kinds of things. And mobile. So, he was a young player and he was worth investing in.”
The Texans and Jaguars didn’t have direct ties to the quarterbacks they acquired but came out with the two biggest success stories. Schaub started for seven years, went to the playoffs once and earned two Pro Bowl trips.
While neither Schaub or Brunell were Hall of Famers or took their teams to the Super Bowl, it can be argued the clubs received value for the picks they traded.
But more often than not, the most success for a club making a deal for a backup comes from a deep familiarity with the player.
Take the trades for Brooks, Hasselbeck and Cassel for example.
In 2000, Randy Mueller was the general manager for the New Orleans Saints who scouted Brooks coming out of college. But that year his club hired former Packers quarterbacks coach Mike McCarthy to run the offense, and that added connection and knowledge compelled the Saints to send out a draft pick.
“In that particular case we were able to gather, way more, than the normal trade,” said Mueller, who is currently in the Los Angeles Chargers’ front office. “So, there was less guesswork for us. I remember watching Aaron Brooks’ interview tapes from the combine from the year before. So I felt like I had a pretty good view of this kid and then it made it easy with Mike having spent a whole year with him. So the combination of the two is rare, for one thing, the dots don’t get that connected that easily. I’ve been at it 30-some years, and that was probably as much information I’ve ever had on anybody I’ve ever traded for.”
Brooks went on to lead the Saints to their first playoff victory in 2000 and set numerous franchise passing records in his six years as a starter.
Cassel was acquired by former Patriots executive Scott Pioli, who was then the general manager in Kansas City. The quarterback went on to go to one Pro Bowl and make one trip to the playoffs with the Chiefs in three full seasons as a starter before injuries cut short his final two starting campaigns.
Mike Holmgren had drafted Hasselbeck in Green Bay in 1998, and then three years later that intimate knowledge of the player helped drive him to acquire the backup after just 29 career pass attempts to lead the Seahawks in 2001.
He would go on to start for Seattle for the next decade, going to three Pro Bowls and one Super Bowl to become the standard-bearer for all trades of an unproven backup.
The success of Brooks, Cassel and Hasselbeck in relation to the picks made to get them were all based on one thing: that familiarity.
That is one thing most personnel executives can agree on as far as needing to be in place to make a deal, on either end.
“Oh, it’s huge,” said current Seahawks general manager John Schneider, who traded for Whitehurst without that connection, but signed former Packers backup Matt Flynn to a $26 million deal after 132 career pass attempts in four years.
“Having that relationship with people and getting to know who they are at their core, it helps a ton, especially at the quarterback position when you’re putting … it’s a big deal.”
Desperation over diligence
They are the strongest words any executive and coach involved in these decisions can use. Tape evaluation. Ideally a personal familiarity and comfort.
But, sometimes, one word is more powerful than those.
And that can change the game.
Take Minnesota’s situation last year, when they sent a first and fourth round pick to Philadelphia for Bradford. The Vikings did call Cincinnati to open a line of communication on McCarron, but quickly moved on to Philadelphia for two rational reasons:
Bradford had a long history of starting in the NFL.
Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur had that all-important intimate knowledge of the quarterback, having coached him in St. Louis in 2010 and Philadelphia in 2015.
But with the season around the corner, desperation forced general manager Rick Spielman’s hand to a degree – he had to get Bradford.
“It was a very short window before we were starting the season,” said Spielman, who was the general manager in Miami that acquired Feeley from Philadelphia in 2004 without that knowledge of the player.
“And we went through our pro personnel department and I did a lot of phone calling during that time and it was amazing how my brethren here feel bad for you for what happened to Teddy but how much they are asking for some of their backup quarterbacks at the same time.”
Spielman chuckled knowingly at his predicament.
It’s the same one Huyghe used to his advantage in 1998 when he got a first and fourth round pick out of Buffalo for his backup, Rob Johnson. Johnson had just 35 career pass attempts but the Bills were looking to make a splash with new head coach Wade Phillips.
“It was leverage,” Huyghe said. “At the time, Buffalo really needed a quarterback. I think under other circumstances we might have given him away for a much lesser price tag. But, it sort of like free agency: you want a guy to get caught up because another team is bidding and you’re no longer bidding for the guy you’re bidding against another team.
“That’s when the teams are the most dangerous with each other -- when the competition is among themselves they actually lose sight of the value of the player. And I think Buffalo really felt like they had to come up with a player and we sensed that that was true as well.”
The Bills ended up signing free agent Doug Flutie as well, and he beat out Johnson for the starting job. Buffalo won 10 games that year, but Johnson would never establish himself as the franchise quarterback the haul the Bills traded for him would have indicated.
And this is where things could get interesting for the Bengals and Patriots in 2017 – is a team that isn’t as familiar with them desperate enough to roll the dice and try to swim upstream when it comes to finding that true franchise-type player?
“(There are) different types of evaluations and different risks that you have to manage in terms of how you acquire players, but that’s just a part of player acquisition and a part of roster building,” said Houston general manager Rick Smith, who traded for Schaub but also signed Brock Osweiler to a $72-million deal last offseason despite having thrown 305 passes in Denver in four years.
“That’s what we do. We project, we evaluate and that’s how we do our jobs.”
1994 was chosen as the starting point.
The reliance on the passing game and what quarterbacks were being asked to do at the line of scrimmage and within offenses began to increase by that time, but that was also the first year the draft was reduced to seven rounds, thus making comparisons of trading draft picks more comparable in terms of their value.
The quarterback being traded for had to spend the majority of his career as a backup.
For example, the trade of Sam Bradford from Philadelphia to Minnesota last year would not be considered because he has always been a starter. But the thinking of trading such a player could be used as a reference point.
First round picks were not considered
If a team invested a first-round pick on a quarterback at any point, even if he turned out backup for some time, he was once considered a franchise-type player.
The backup had to be a player where the team acquired him to compete to be the “franchise quarterback.”
For example, Steve Bono being traded from San Francisco to Kansas City in 1995 to backup Joe Montana, then assuming a starting role after Montana retired, or Josh McCown being traded from Detroit to Oakland in 2007 to serve as a bridge to No. 1 pick JaMarcus Russell would not be considered.
The Enquirer cross-checked transactions with documented reports of the trade detailing the intentions behind the deal, the player history on pro-football-reference.com and prosportstransactions.com.