Home > NFL > Roster Construction Issues in Baltimore: Quarterbacks Edition

Roster Construction Issues in Baltimore: Quarterbacks Edition

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Today, the Baltimore Ravens signed long-time St. Louis quarterback Marc Bulger to be the backup to third year breakout candidate Joe Flacco.  The one year deal is worth between $4 and $5.5 million, which is more than the going rate for a backup (about $3 million per season), but well below starters money.

It’s worth noting that Flacco’s base contract for this season including a one year prorated portion of his signing bonus puts his total Ravens committment at just a hair over $4.3 million for the 2010 season.  Flacco, who is under contract through 2012 and is due another $6 million dollars over the next two years, is comfortably the starter going into his critical third year.  By comfortable, it’s assumed that if Flacco goes out and completes passes and wins games in the process, there won’t be anything Marc Bulger can do to get on the field.

It’s really the best thing that can happen for all parties involved, because as much as the Ravens would like Joe Flacco to succeed at quarterback, he now sits on 32 professional starts in two years, which is just two starts less than he had at Delaware between 2006 and 2007.  Flacco hasn’t missed a football game in four years, which is excellent.  It also means that he’s at the point in his experience/age curve where he needs to be able to ride the bike without the training wheels.  As Flacco’s rookie contract winds to a close, there needs to be some sort of return on the Ravens investment in him.

The 2008 NFL Draft’s quarterback class is off to a very fast start.  Flacco is 3-2 as a playoff quarterback in his first two seasons.  Matt Ryan had an explosive rookie season, and after a minor setback as a sophomore, is primed to make the jump to a pro bowl level quarterback in year 3.  Chad Henne took over the Dolphins offense in Week 4 of last season, and has already provided quality wins on the strength of his arm.  He’s at least where Flacco is as a quarterback in his development after just 13 starts.  Brian Brohm, whose career looked over when he washed out of Green Bay after just one season, is apparently even money to win the Bills QB job this season.  Beyond them, it’s too early to write off either Dennis Dixon or Josh Johnson as non-prospects based on 5 combined starts in 2009.  Though he was drafted second, and has the only 3 playoff victories of this class, Flacco seems to sit at third overall in this class in the minds of most.  Good enough to stick in Baltimore if the wins continue, but if he struggles this year, moving forward without him is an easy way to save $6 million over the next two seasons.

It’s that kind of awkward positioning for the starter that makes the Marc Bulger addition nonsensical.  He’s a similar player to Flacco, which is probably good if Flacco gets hurt — but clearly the guy has durability as a strength.  More to the point, the Ravens, who were successful last year even when not throwing the football, are a team that needs nothing to do with a veteran quarterback because, in the event that Joe Flacco ends up not being the answer at quarterback, all you’ve done is blocked the backups role with another guy who isn’t the long term answer at quarterback.

The mistake is fairly common, but for the Ravens, it’s probably inexcusable.  This can’t be spun as a move where Bulger’s veteran expertise is supposed to rub off on Flacco, because the Ravens never made a move to get a veteran when Flacco was in his developmental years, and those went over pretty smoothly.  Bulger’s only being brought in for reasons regarding the quarterback play on the field, and the thing is that any situation where Bulger would play for Baltimore would represent a significant downturn in their fortunes anyway.  Such a move would be acceptable for a more valuable player, but Bulger’s value as a player is limited to offensive systems he is familiar with, which he will be learning a new one in Baltimore.

Here’s an exercise we can play, the last season in which Marc Bulger ranked above statistical benchmarks in certain categories for the Rams:

  • 60% Completion Percentage: 2006 (62.9%)
  • 6% sack rate: 2009 (5.4%)
  • 80.0 QB Rating: 2006 (92.9)
  • 4.5% TD Rate: 2005 (4.9)
  • 8.0 yards per attempt: 2004 (8.2)
  • 7.0 net yards per attempt: 2002 (7.6)

Having a quarterback that can produce at numbers in those ranges is good, and provides legitimate competition for the young gun.  But Bulger hasn’t been that kind of player in years.  He provides no helpful competition for Flacco, and there won’t be a competition between Bulger and Troy Smith (who wishes to be traded) or Bulger and John Beck.

The assumption being made by the Ravens — implicit with his signing — is that they are upgrading the backup quarterback position and that’s all that matters here.  This assumption is inconsistent with the concept of replacement level, which Bulger has not seen in his last three years in St. Louis.  Perhaps not having to go through the season as a starter will be good for Bulger’s health and will improve his performance.  While that is possible, it’s also probably not all that important.  If the Ravens had done a half-decent job with their QB scouting, they probably already had one or two quarterbacks on the roster behind Joe Flacco who would do a better job than Bulger when called on.  The only reason to think Bulger might actually improve the Ravens is if you believe the team’s roster of quarterbacks included a bunch of sub-replacement guys who don’t really belong in the NFL.

If that’s the case, you have a problem with the way the Ravens have been and are evaluating their backup quarterback prospects.  Which is to say: your position is in line with my stance here.  The Baltimore Ravens are a model franchise in the way they use the draft and manage their roster, but figuring out the quarterback position has long been their Achilles heel, and if Joe Flacco doesn’t do everything that is expected of him this season, plan B is going to signal a move back to the same old story for the Ravens: top defense and no trigger man to get them deep into the postseason.

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