Home > NFL > Russell and Bengals: Good Fit or Waste of Time?

Russell and Bengals: Good Fit or Waste of Time?

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It’s going to be hard for a team to overpay to be a part of the JaMarcus Russell reunion tour, given that Russell is going to be offered a bunch of minimum level contract offers.  In fact, as a player with only three accrued seasons, he’s not even entitled to the veteran minimum contract.  Russell’s next contract will probably be in the range of one year/less than $700K.  Hardly a waste of money, even if he’s a waste of space.

Still, any team that is going to experiment with JaMarcus Russell has to realize that there’s no such thing as a “no downside” move.  Football offseasons offer a bunch of different resources: money, space, time, all of them finite.  Just because Russell’s contract would cost a team virtually nothing over a contract to an undrafted rookie doesn’t mean that the team wouldn’t be better off with the undrafted rookie.

Do the Bengals have a need at quarterback for the future?  That depends on how you look at it.  Carson Palmer is under contract through 2014, but it is a pretty team friendly contract.  He is scheduled to make $10.5 million in 2010, $11.5 million in 2011, $11.5 million in 2012, $13 million in 2013, and $14 million in 2014.  None of that money is guaranteed.  Now, Palmer is the best player on the Bengals’ offense, and he’s probably quite underrated as a player.  Based on a few forgettable seasons from 2007-09, it’s easy to forget just how good Palmer can be when he’s surrounded by general competence on offense.  However, he’s now 30.  The Bengals are probably the cheapest team in the NFL, and it’s a virtual certainty that Palmer will not play in Cincinnati through that contract.

While it’s true that Palmer is under contract with the Bengals for five more seasons, his contract status can practically be treated as 5 one year contract options.  The Bengals paid out $24 million in bonus money for the right to have him under contract through 2014, so it didn’t come cheaply, but the Bengals hold all the leverage with their quarterback from here on out.  There is a 5-year difference in age between Palmer and JaMarcus Russell, so already it makes some sense to pick up Russell as a “QB of the future” type.  In NFL life cycles, they’re practically from different eras, and Palmer’s era in Cincinnati is coming down to the last couple of years.

Still, if Russell has displayed anything in Oakland, it’s that people seriously should re-examine how much talent he truly has.  It’s not a stretch to say that there will come a day when Russell is a better player than Carson Palmer, but there’s a pretty enormous gap between them right now.  Basically, to see if there’s a need at the quarterback position that Russell might someday fill for Cincinnati, we’ll have to try to project an aging pattern for Palmer.

The similarity scores at pro football reference can help.  Career scores for a player who has started for six seasons (one of which he missed 12 games due to injury) isn’t helpful, but looking at his comparables through 5 and 6 seasons could be very helpful.  Here’s what they’ve got on him:

5 Donovan McNabb, Ken Anderson, Troy Aikman*, Boomer Esiason, Randall Cunningham, Mark Brunell, Jim Everett, Michael Vick, Joe Montana*, Drew Brees
6 Drew Brees, Troy Aikman*, Steve McNair, Randall Cunningham, Joe Namath*, Jim Everett, Mark Brunell, Ken Anderson, Tom Brady, Joe Montana*

That’s pretty neat company, but what we’re concerned about is not how good these players were, as we’ve already established that Palmer is quite good.  We’re concerned about their age 30-34 seasons, as those are the years covered by Palmer’s current deal.  If Russell to the Bengals makes any sense — and I’m operating off the assumption that they wouldn’t take him on as a backup and hope that he never has to play for them — there would have to be a reason to fear some serious decline over the next two or three seasons for Palmer.

I looked at seven of the names on that comparables list: guys who either came up in both years, or who have reached some sort of finality to their careers (which allows the Brunell comparable, even though he is likely to be the backup QB for the Jets this year).  Specifically, any generalizations made below will be based off the age 30-34 seasons of: Aikman, Anderson, Brunell, Esiason, Everett, McNair, and Namath.  I’ll also discount the results from Anderson, Brunell, and Esiason more because the others (including Palmer) are all high first round picks.  Those three were mid-round selections.

To a man, the comparables, specifically the first rounders, had one obvious trend in the five years starting at age 30: they all had quality seasons, and they all had non-quality seasons, usually interspersed.  Not one of them passed the test of time to make their prime seasons last into their mid-thirties.  Three different players managed pro bowl seasons at age 32: Esiason, McNair, and Anderson, with Kenny Anderson’s special 70.2% completion percentage (strike shortened) season coming the following year.

Based on everything I’ve seen with that list of players, Palmer is going to be in a high variance part of his career, but there’s no overt reason to suggest that he won’t be able to hold his position as starting quarterback of the Bengals through 2012.  At that point, and especially if the Bengals fail to return to the playoffs in the next three calendar years, it’s probable that the cheap Bengals might decide that they aren’t getting $13 million of performance out of Palmer, and release him at that point.

Is there any reason to suggest that a 28 year old Russell could be a viable alternative?  I don’t see it.  The only future that Russell might have as a Bengals quarterback is as a cheaper alternative, not as an improvement.  This is a bad time for the Bengals to buy on Russell as an option for the future.

They do have a dreadful backup QB situation.  Right now, the second best passer on the roster, all due respect to J.T. O’Sullivan, is another Palmer, Carson’s brother Jordan.  Russell (along with other FA QBs Marc Bulger, Daunte Culpepper, Jeff Garcia, Todd Collins, and Patrick Ramsey) could be the favorite to be the backup QB just by signing.  This also might not be a problem if the Bengals would invest themselves in a free agent quarterback that they liked from this year’s draft class, but hey, I’m not the boss of the Bengals’ personnel department.

In the end, Russell might find a niche as “just an arm” on this team who would prevent them from having to give $1.3 million to O’Sullivan this season, and then can battle it out with fellow 2007 draft choice Jordan Palmer for the backup quarterback job.  However, in spite of a contract that allows the team to get away from Carson Palmer whenever they may please, JaMarcus Russell gives the Bengals no prospective value at this time.  For the first time in his career, Russell makes sense, but only as a move to save a cheap team some money.

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