Agent's Take: Let the buyer beware when drafting a quarterback in the first round of the NFL Draft



Quarterback is the most important position on a football team. It’s why a premium is placed on quarterbacks in the NFL Draft.

The incentives for selecting quarterbacks changed after the 2011 NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement drastically reduced salaries for the first few picks by implementing a rookie wage scale. Teams have been more willing to take quarterbacks extremely early since unproven commodities are no longer paid like Pro Bowlers without playing an NFL game.

The 2024 NFL Draft should be a prime example. Quarterbacks are expected to be the first three picks. Some mock drafts on CBSSports.com have history being made with four straight quarterbacks taken to start the selection process.

USC’s Caleb Williams is the presumptive first overall pick of the Chicago Bears. LSU’s Jayden Daniels, UNC’s Drake Maye and Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy could go second, third and fourth (not necessarily in that order). As many as six quarterbacks could be chosen among the first 32 picks as Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. and Oregon’s Bo Nix are also considered first-round possibilities.

Potential franchise quarterbacks on rookie contracts are the most valuable commodities in the NFL. Having quarterbacks on cost-contained rookie contracts allows for talented rosters that couldn’t otherwise be constructed.

A review of the first 10 years quarterbacks taken in the first round playing under the rookie wage scale (2011 through 2020) can provide an idea of whether teams are getting a good return on their investment. The number of multi-year contract extensions and re-signings after the expiration of a rookie contract are being examined.

The 2021 first-round quarterback draft class that’s particularly disappointing has been excluded because the deadline to exercise fifth-year options for 2025 is May 2. Five quarterbacks were taken in the first 15 picks in 2021. Trevor Lawrence, who was the first overall pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars, is the only one whose fifth-year option will be picked up. He is also the only one in a position to get a contract extension.

Three of the other four quarterbacks (Trey Lance, third overall pick; Justin Fields, 11th overall pick; and Mac Jones-15th overall pick) have been traded. The New York Jets have put second overall pick Zach Wilson on the trading block. The only one of the four with any chance to open the 2024 regular season as a starting quarterback, barring injury, is Fields with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Pittsburgh starting job is Russell Wilson’s to lose.

Second contracts

Only 13 of the 32 quarterbacks have gotten multi-year second contracts from their drafting team. The number is expected to increase to 15 before the 2024 regular season starts. A contract extension with the Miami Dolphins is reportedly in the works for Tua Tagovailoa, 2020’s fifth overall pick. Absent a new deal, Tagovailoa will play the 2024 season under his fully guaranteed $23.171 million fifth-year option. Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst revealed last week at the NFL annual owners meeting that there have been preliminary discussions with Jordan Love’s representatives about 2020’s 26th overall pick getting a new deal. The second contract rate will be 46.9% assuming these two reach new agreements.

Contracts for draft choices can’t be renegotiated until the conclusion of a player’s third regular season. Nine of the extensions came at the earliest possible instance as Josh Allen, Joe Burrow, Jared Goff, Justin Herbert, Patrick Mahomes, Kyler Murray, Ryan Tannehill, Deshaun Watson and Carson Wentz didn’t play their fourth NFL seasons under rookie contracts.

Andrew Luck and Cam Newton signed extensions in their option year. Daniel Jones also got a new deal after four years. His breakout 2022 season led to the New York Giants signing him to a four-year, $160 million contract (worth up to $195 million through incentives and salary escalators) after his fully guaranteed $22.384 million fifth-year option was declined.

Lamar Jackson is the only one of the 13 that played under a fifth-year option. The Baltimore Ravens placed a non-exclusive franchise tag on Jackson last year before signing him to a five-year, $260 million contract averaging $52 million per year a few weeks later. 

Several of the second contracts haven’t panned out for the drafting teams for a variety of reasons. The Indianapolis Colts seemingly had a franchise quarterback for the foreseeable future when Luck became the NFL’s highest-paid player in 2016 on a five-year extension averaging $24.594 million per year. Luck retired because of injuries shortly before the 2019 regular season started.

The Houston Texans thought they were set at quarterback when signing Watson to a four-year, $156 million extension averaging $39 million per year in 2020. The relationship between Watson and the Texans deteriorated so much that he was dealt to the Cleveland Browns along with a 2024 sixth-round pick in March 2022 for 2022, 2023 and 2024 first-round picks, a 2022 fourth-round pick, a 2023 third-round pick and a 2024 fourth-round pick. Surprisingly, the Browns gave Watson a fully guaranteed five-year, $230 million contract in connection with the trade.

There have been three other trades besides Watson’s. Tannehill and a 2019 sixth-round pick were dealt to the Tennessee Titans in March 2019 for a 2019 seventh-round pick and 2020 fourth-round pick after playing two of the four extension years. He took a pay cut and his 2020 contract year was deleted to facilitate the trade.

Tannehill resurrected his career in 2019 after replacing 2015 second-overall pick Marcus Mariota at quarterback six games into the season. He was named 2019’s NFL Comeback Player of the Year and signed a four year, $118 million to remain with the Titans.

The Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles developed buyer’s remorse with 2016’s first- and second-overall picks Jared Goff and Carson Wentz. The Eagles signed Wentz to a four-year, $128 million extension worth up to $144 million through salary escalators in June 2019. Goff signed a four-year, $134 million extension worth as much as $148 million because of incentives and salary escalators a couple of months later.

Both were dealt in 2021 without playing any of the new contract years for their original teams. The Eagles took a then-record $33,820,611 in dead money, which is a salary cap charge for a player no longer on a team’s roster, for an individual player in a league year with Wentz’s trade to the Indianapolis Colts.

Rams head coach Sean McVay felt he needed an upgrade at quarterback despite Goff’s extension. Goff was thought to be a throw-in or a salary dump who would just be a “bridge” quarterback for the Detroit Lions in the Rams’ trade for Matthew Stafford. Wentz’s and Goff’s careers have gone in opposite directions since being dealt from their original teams. Goff has put himself in position for an extension before the 2024 season starts that could average in excess of $50 million per year. Wentz has become a journeyman with his continued regression.

The Giants also seem to have buyer’s remorse with Jones because of ineffectiveness last season prior to him tearing the ACL in his right knee during a Week 8 contest versus the Las Vegas Raiders. Taking a quarterback with the sixth-overall pick isn’t out of the question for the Giants if one of the top four passers is still available.

Final thoughts

Based on history, there’s a better chance that a team selecting a quarterback in the 2024 first round won’t get a good return on their investment from the pick than they will. There are only seven (Allen, Burrow, Herbert, Jackson, Luck, Mahomes and Newton) who can definitively qualify as franchise quarterbacks. Some may find Newton’s inclusion questionable. The end of Newton’s career doesn’t detract from what he did with the Carolina Panthers over his first nine NFL seasons. Newton led the Panthers to Super Bowl 50 while earning NFL MVP honors during the 2015 season.

Only Burrow and Mahomes have taken teams to the Super Bowl besides Newton with Mahomes being the only winner. Mahomes is the NFL’s gold standard. He’s won three Super Bowls while being named Super Bowl MVP each time and two NFL MVPs in his seven seasons with the Chiefs. Jackson was named NFL MVP in 2019 and 2023 to join Mahomes and Newton as the only league MVP winners among this group.

A case can be made for Goff because he has played the best football of his NFL career with the Lions. Goff has proved he’s more than just a product of McVay’s offensive system. Watson easily fit the bill before his trade to the Browns. He’ll need to regain the form he displayed with the Texans to be considered one again. The jury is still out on Lawrence, Love, Murray and Tagovailoa.





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