Home > Draft, NFL > Why Don’t Trade Ups for Quarterbacks Work More Often?

Why Don’t Trade Ups for Quarterbacks Work More Often?

With increasingly rare exception, quarterback trades in the NFL almost never work.  Specifically, draft trades for quarterbacks almost never work.  This seems particularly relevant because just this weekend, the Redskins gave up a bounty of draft picks for the second pick in the NFL draft, which they will use on either Baylor QB Robert Griffin III or Stanford QB Andrew Luck.  Since actually getting Luck would be a perfect storm of improbable — if not non-repeatable — events, this article will treat the Redskins trade as one for Baylor’s QB Griffin.  This article will focus on draft trades for quarterbacks (with “trading up” defined only as moving higher for a player than a team would have originally picked in that draft — so Tim Tebow, Joe Flacco, Brady Quinn, JP Losman, and Jason Campbell do not qualify), but will also look at trades for veteran quarterbacks.

Here is a chronological list of QB trades that qualify as ones that I am talking about in the context of this article:

  1. Washington trades a second round pick in 2012, and 2013 and 2014 first round picks to St. Louis to move from 6th to 2nd and draft Baylor QB Robert Griffin III/Stanford QB Andrew Luck (2012)
  2. Oakland trades a 2012 first round pick and 2013 second round pick to Cincinnati for Carson Palmer (2011)
  3. Arizona trades a 2012 second round pick and CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to the Philadelphia Eagles for Kevin Kolb (2011)
  4. Jacksonville trades a 2011 second round pick to Washington to move up from 16th to 10th and draft Missouri QB Blaine Gabbert (2011)
  5. Seattle trades a 2010 third round pick to San Diego for Charlie Whitehurst (2010)
  6. New York Jets trade a second round pick and DE Kenyon Coleman, QB Brett Ratliff, and S Abram Elam to Cleveland to move up from 17th to 5th and draft USC QB Mark Sanchez (2009)
  7. Chicago trades a 2009 first round pick. a 2009 third round pick, a 2010 first round pick, and QB Kyle Orton to Denver for Jay Cutler (2009)
  8. Kansas City trades a second round pick to New England for Matt Cassel and LB Mike Vrabel (2009)
  9. Cincinnati trades a seventh round pick in the 2008 draft to St. Louis for Ryan Fitzpatrick (2007)
  10. Miami trades a 5th round pick in 2008 to Kansas City for Trent Green (2007)
  11. Houston trades a second round pick in 2007 and a second round pick in 2008 to Atlanta for Matt Schaub (2007)
  12. Denver trades a 2006 third round pick to move up from 15th to 11th spots and select Vanderbilt QB Jay Cutler.  Denver had traded two mid-round picks in a three way trade with the Jets (John Abraham trade) to move from 29th to 15th with the Atlanta Falcons (2006)
  13. Miami trades a 2006 second round pick to Minnesota for Daunte Culpepper (2006)
  14. Oakland trades a 2005 fourth round pick to Seattle to move up from 26th to 23rd to draft Cal QB Aaron Rodgers. Oakland instead opted to change their selection to Nebraska CB Fabian Washington. Oakland had previously traded up into the first round by trading TE Doug Jolley to the NY Jets along with a second round pick (2005)
  15. Cleveland trades a 2005 4th round pick to Seattle for Trent Dilfer (2005)
  16. NY Giants trade a 2004 third round pick, a 2005 first round pick, and a 2005 fifth round pick to San Diego in order to swap QB prospects Eli Manning (1st overall) and Philip Rivers (4th overall) (2004)
  17. Dallas trades a 2005 third round pick to Houston for the rights to Michigan QB Drew Henson (2004)
  18. Miami trades a 2005 second round pick to Philadelphia for AJ Feeley (2004)
  19. Washington trades a third round pick to Jacksonville for Mark Brunell (2004)
  20. Buffalo trades a 2003 first round pick to New England for Drew Bledsoe (2002)
  21. Atlanta trades a 2001 second round pick, a 2002 second round pick, and WR Tim Dwight to San Diego to move up from 5th to 1st and draft Virginia Tech QB Michael Vick (2001)
  22. Kansas City trades a 2001 first round pick to St. Louis for a 2001 fifth round pick and Trent Green (2001)
  23. Seattle trades the 10th overall pick in 2001 and a third round pick in 2001 to Green Bay for the 17th overall pick in 2001, a seventh round pick in 2011 and Matt Hasselbeck (2001)
  24. New Orleans trades a 2001 third round pick and LB K.D. Williams to Green Bay for TE Lamont Hall and Aaron Brooks (2000)
  25. Baltimore trades a 2000 seventh round pick to St. Louis for Tony Banks (1999)
  26. Carolina trades a 1999 third round pick and a 2000 fourth round pick to Denver for Jeff Lewis (1999)
  27. Washington trades a 1999 first round pick, a 1999 3rd round pick, and a 2000 second round pick to Minnesota for Brad Johnson (1999)
  28. San Diego trades a 1998 second round pick, a 1999 first round pick, KR Eric Metcalf, and LB Patrick Sapp to Arizona to move up from 3rd to 2nd and draft Washington State QB Ryan Leaf (1998)
  29. Buffalo trades a 1998 first round pick and a 1998 fourth round pick to Jacksonville for Rob Johnson (1998)
  30. Chicago trades a 1997 first round pick to Seattle for a 1997 fourth round pick and Rick Mirer (1997)
  31. Atlanta trades a 1997 fourth round pick to the Houston Oilers for Chris Chandler (1997)
  32. Jacksonville trades a 1995 3rd round pick and a 1995 fifth round pick to Green Bay for Mark Brunell (1995)
  33. Atlanta trades a 1994 first round pick, a 1994 third round pick, and a 1995 first round pick to Indianapolis for Jeff George (1994)
  34. Green Bay trades a 1992 first round pick to Atlanta for Brett Favre (1992)
  35. San Diego trades a 1993 third round pick to Washington for Stan Humphries (1992)
  36. Indianapolis trades a 1991 first round pick, a 1990 fourth round pick, OT Chris Hinton, and WR Andre Rison to Atlanta first the 1st overall pick in 1990 to draft Illinois QB Jeff George (1990)
  37. Tampa Bay trades a 1992 first round pick to Indianapolis for Chris Chandler (1990)
  38. San Francisco trades a second round pick in 1987 and a fourth round pick in 1987 to Tampa Bay for Steve Young (1987)

If you compare those trades to the average first round draft pick at QB not in that group, as well as the average free agent starter signing at quarterback, it’s clear that teams who were trading up have gotten a raw deal.  When you go back far enough, you do see how teams used to be able to pluck young quarterbacks from other teams and turn them into starters.  But it’s clear that trades like that don’t work out well anymore.  There are no Steve Youngs, Brett Favres, Trent Greens, or Matt Hasselbeck’s being thrown around anymore, just Kevin Kolbs, Charlie Whitehursts, and Matt Cassels.

If you define a success as a guy who gets to his second contract with the team acquiring him (while defining any extension as a result of the trade as a ‘first’ contract), here are the list of trades since the 2001 draft which have worked:

Atlanta trades up for Michael Vick (San Diego got LaDainian Tomlinson).
New York Giants trade up for Eli Manning (San Diego got Philip Rivers).
*Houston trades two picks for Matt Schaub.
**New York trade up for Mark Sanchez

*(prospectively) Schaub is in the last year of his trade extension in 2010, and looks like a good bet to get another contract.

**Probably not a success by most definitions, so you’d be better off putting the Denver Broncos’ trade up to get Jay Cutler in 2006 here instead.

A lot of times, the biggest issue is a commitment problem.  The Jets’ front office that drafted Mark Sanchez is still employed and are tied to Sanchez anyway, so it made sense for them to remain loyal to Sanchez.  Cutler’s front office got fired, and then he got traded for picks by a less trusting front office that inherited him.  The guy who Denver received in the Cutler trade, Kyle Orton, lost his job similarly when a new front office came in, he didn’t play great in five games, and they weren’t committed to him.

Most ways you can slide it, trade ups (or trade for) quarterbacks get you to a second contract in the modern game about 20% of the time.  What if we isolate just draft trades where compensation exceeded a single mid round pick (as not to call Joe Flacco and Josh Freeman “trade ups” when the team was just re-positioning itself two spaces)?  That leaves us with these cases:

  • Robert Griffin III
  • Gabbert
  • Tim Tebow
  • Mark Sanchez
  • Brady Quinn
  • Jay Cutler
  • Jason Campbell
  • Eli Manning
  • Michael Vick
  • Ryan Leaf

I have it scored as this: one case (Cutler) where the team clearly won, two cases (Vick and Manning) where it’s not clear the team won (both probably lost), but they likely don’t regret it too much because the player earned an extension, and a whole lot of trades where the team trading up didn’t win, either by it’s own decision to not extend/to trade (Campbell, Tebow, Quinn, and Cutler really here as well), or by misevaluation (Leaf, Sanchez, and maybe Gabbert).

Draft trades and trades in general for quarterbacks don’t work out, but clear and utter failure is rare, and occurs on average once every six or seven years.   And that’s where we are at with the Griffin trade, where the Redskins gave up 3 first round picks and a 2nd rounder to get the second pick in the draft — moving up just four spots in the process.  We know the hit rate on similar moves is between 20-30%, but we also know that the standards are low enough (getting a second contract) where not all the failures are comparable to Griffin as prospects.

If you look at just situations where a team traded into the top three to get a QB, that’s hasn’t happened since the Eli Manning trade, and includes the Michael Vick deal, the Ryan Leaf trade, and you have to go all the way back to Jeff George, Bernie Kosar, and John Elway to find similar players.

So the Redskins’ success rate goes up considerably heading to the top of the draft.  Problem is that the hit rate on first round quarterbacks is much higher for teams that draft the best available QB at the value of their given first round draft choice.  Starting in 2009 and going back, here’s every first round QB that wasn’t part of a trade up (defined as by a second round pick or more to land him).

  1. Josh Freeman
  2. Matthew Stafford
  3. Joe Flacco
  4. Matt Ryan
  5. JaMarcus Russell
  6. Matt Leinart
  7. Vince Young
  8. Aaron Rodgers
  9. Alex Smith
  10. JP Losman
  11. Ben Roethlisberger
  12. Philip Rivers

Four different members of the 4,000 yard passing club are on that list, and three more are likely to join them, someday.  Even with the other five, Alex Smith got a second contract, and Vince Young was pretty effective for a guy no one would entrust their franchise two.  With good drafting and development techniques, teams turn first round prospects into franchise guys at a 75% clip (once you throw out teams that trade up and lose draft pick value) and of the remaining 25%, only half of those guys end up as JP Losman or JaMarcus Russell or Rex Grossman or Kyle Boller.  Most failures end up more like Byron Leftwich or David Carr: they didn’t succeed, but you can point to one thing (injury, pocket presence respectively) and suggest that scouts missed on that, not on the guy as a prospect entirely.

This suggests that had the Redskins kept the picks and selected Ryan Tannehill with the 6th overall pick, that they would have had a pretty good chance of ending up with a guy deserving of a contract extension come 2015.  In that context, the favorable probabilities to go to the top of the draft and get Robert Griffin are not all that favorable.  The big issue seems to be this: in the sixth pick, the Redskins already had an avenue to make that a franchise changing pick.   They didn’t need to trade with anyone to get their QB of the future.  They only needed to trade to get this one guy, Robert Griffin.

Here’s a question: how often does the actual compensation package in getting a player limit a team from building fully around him while he’s under contract?  With trades for veteran quarterbacks, the answer is pretty often.  The Chicago Bears are just now giving Jay Cutler an offensive line that will allow him to set his feet when he throws, and just this week signed a competent QB to back him up, something that took them three years to do.  Atlanta never really got a competent supporting cast around Michael Vick until Roddy White emerged…after Vick was serving a prison sentence.  The New York Giants signed Plaxico Burress in free agency to help Manning, and then just had to live with years of offensive consistency.  Manning reached his no. 1 overall draft potential four years later, after Burress was incarcerated.  And even though they gave up just a second round pick for their quarterbacks, the Jets and Jaguars have done a woefully inadequate job of putting offensive pieces out of the college ranks around their quarterbacks.  Same with the Bucs and Ravens perhaps?  Just getting a quarterback you like in the draft isn’t an ending to the offensive uncertaintly, it’s a beginning.

However, drafted quarterbacks by competent organizations do typically overcome the cost it took to get them.  The salary structure of rookie first rounders doesn’t limit moves to help them, and building around an established quarterback is easier for a quality personnel man than grabbing pieces here and there to fit a quarterback and coaching staff you don’t necessarily believe in.

It’s highly debatable whether the Washington Redskins represent the ideals of a competent football organization in 2012, and trading a lot of picks to get Robert Griffin won’t change that.  But if you use Michael Vick as a comparable and suggest that Griffin is polished enough of a passer to give a slight schematic advantage to Redskins O.C. Kyle Shanahan in 2012, the Redskins do have something here in the short term.  The Redskins, however, lack a player development machine, and instead will try to make developmental assets out of Pierre Garcon, Fred Davis, and Joshua Morgan; guys who aside from Davis, may do more to stall Griffin as a prospect than to help him.

Furthermore, the Washington-specific problem here is that to date, Mike and Kyle Shanahan have majored in excuse making and have blamed their struggle on inadequate personnel, when the source of the problem may or may not be more closely related to inadequacies in the coaching staff.  Griffin changes the personnel equation, but it’s possible that he will find that the problems still exist in Washington.

Through the analyses in this article, we can conclude that Griffin’s Redskin tenure is likely to be a Roarsach test of sorts: any hinderance in his development due to anything discussed here, be it overvaluing Griffin in his college prospect stage, trading too much future value to get him, or misevaluating his actual performance by undervaluing the struggles of the Redskins from a schematic perspective, it would seem unlikely that Griffin will hit his potential immediately in Washington.

And so if Griffin’s career begins very similarly to that of Michael Vick’s Atlanta Falcons career, it will be key to remember why teams fell in love with Griffin as a prospect and that he’s a virtual certainty to outlast all of his Washington teammates on offense for one simple reason: he is believed to be a greater talent, a generational talent, the kind of talent that at least two teams tried to give up three first round picks for.  It’s going to be a long while between draft day, and the day where Griffin is the most senior member of the Redskins offense.  And while the current leadership of the Redskins has a tendency to want to look good/smart compared to the other professionals in the NFL, the only thing that truly matters for the Redskins and Griffin isn’t winning an unwinnable trade.  It’s simply to make it safely to the other side with their prized prospect as a bona fide franchise quarterback.

If the Redskins reach that point — at any point — they will have beaten the odds.

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