Last November, I spoke to a contact with the Eagles regarding the potential for a three quarterback strategy; up to that point in the season, it was clear to me that Sam Bradford was not someone they wanted to rely on as their quarterback of the future without another long-term option. It was a strategy I saw the 1989 Dallas Cowboys use when they selected Troy Aikman first overall in the draft and Steve Walsh in the first round of the supplemental draft. Rather than bet on one quarterback, they decreased the chance of being without a competent starter by acquiring two high potential guys.
I do not believe I influenced the Eagles decision to choose this path. I believe that they came to similar conclusions on their own, in their own way. They far outdid what I could have imagined back in November with the masterful moves they’ve made in securing Carson Wentz, their perfect system quarterback of the future, with a competent veteran back-up who knows the offense in Chase Daniel. Maybe my suggestion and the Caponomics data I’ve shared with them was a part of their decision making process, but I’m just excited to see a strategy like this executed with an understanding of the background thinking that went into it. Hopefully I can articulate that with this article.
At that time, Chip Kelly was still the head coach of the Eagles, so I believed it’d be Bradford and Mark Sanchez on the last year of his contract. My choice for their draft pick was Dak Prescott and it turns out that was a pretty good assessment considering how he’s looked in Dallas. People were scared away by the spread quarterback label and lost sight of his accuracy, mobility and lack of turnovers. I could have never foreseen what the Eagles have pulled off over this offseason, few could have.
They started with the #13 pick in the first round, they traded that pick with Byron Maxwell and Kiko Alonso to the Dolphins to move up to #8. They traded Demarco Murray to the Titans for the 110th pick, the second pick in the fourth round. In the trade with the Browns, they sent their #8 pick, a third rounder (#77 overall) and the fourth rounder they received from Tennessee, plus a 2017 first-round pick and a second-rounder in 2018. Cleveland sent them back the #2 pick they used on Wentz, plus a fourth-rounder in 2017. The tally at this point is five draft picks traded and two received.
With the Sam Bradford trade, they’ve recovered that 2017 first-rounder and gotten a fourth-round pick that could turn into a third if the Vikings make the NFC Championship Game and a second if they win the Super Bowl. This makes the final tally five draft picks lost and four recovered and, considering they no longer wanted Murray and received a pick for him, this trade essentially becomes even with $8.8 million in dead money attributed to Maxwell and Murray, plus Bradford’s $5.5 million dead money charges in 2016 and 2017. At between 3-4% of the cap, that $5.5 million isn’t too much of a cap suck considering the return they received on Bradford.
As Jason pointed out in his article yesterday, they’ve essentially paid $11 million extra for a first and fourth round pick. They also had to pay Bradford an additional $11 million in salary if he remained on the team, so they save themselves having to do that. They spent a lot of money on those three players, but they provided them with the opportunity to draft a player who seems to be their quarterback of the future without losing draft capital and you can’t put a price tag or monetary value on that.
The dead money charges are an obvious negative, but the rest of their roster has been well maintained with them locking in their core defensive players to contracts during the 2016 offseason and Wentz and Daniel now averaging between 3-5% of the cap on their contracts over the next three to four years. With their defense locked in, plus a starter and back-up at quarterback who won’t ever cost more than the 8.58% of the projected $178 million cap in 2018, the Eagles are in a good position to build a team around Wentz that can compete for championships as he grows into his role.
Important to note, the Eagles defense was ranked 28th in yards allowed and 30th in points allowed in 2015, but this was largely caused by their fast-paced offenses struggles. Their offense ran 1102 plays, which was second in the NFL and led to their defense facing a league high 1148 plays, which was 43 plays more than the New York Giants who were second. The Eagles faced 118 plays more than the NFL average of 1030.
Dividing 1030 by 16, we get the average number of plays an NFL offense and defense play per game, which is 64.375. This means that the Eagles defense played almost two games more worth of plays, so I believe they’ll see a huge improvement as they were clearly worn out during the second half of the season and they’ve added some great pieces like Rodney McLeod and Leodis McKelvin, plus they have new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz who did a great job with the Bills in 2014. The slower pace will pay huge dividends by itself as the Eagles gave up just 20.4 points per game during the first nine of 2015, but 35.1 over the last seven.
The new contracts for first-round quarterbacks provides a huge opportunity to build a team that grows with the quarterback. I have been a huge proponent of using the new low-costs of first round quarterbacks to build a strong rushing offense and defense around them. Once the quarterback starts to get into his late-twenties and early-thirties, the team can begin to shift the spending to him at 10-12% of the cap and decide on where to spend the rest.
Examples of this rookie quarterback strategy include the Titans who have built a powerful running game to give Marcus Mariota something to lean on, the Buccaneers have done the same for Winston. Due to the low-costs of their contracts, we’re starting to see teams execute the strategy the 2013 Seahawks used with Russell Wilson. The Wilson, Matt Flynn, and Tavaris Jackson group is being replicated by the Browns as they’ve got Cody Kessler as the rookie third-round pick, Robert Griffin III as the free agent, and Josh McCown as the veteran holdover from the previous year.
The important aspect of all this was the Eagles wanted to mitigate risk by having options at quarterback; they did not want to be in a position where they had this solid roster with no quarterback. Pederson is a disciple of Andy Reid, so this offense needs a Donavan McNabb or Alex Smith type quarterback. At 6’5”, 237-pounds with his mobility, accuracy and lack of turnovers in college, they’re hoping Wentz can be a bigger and better version of Alex Smith, who has been terrific for the Chiefs. Too often fans look at a player in binary terms as good or bad, but Bradford just wasn’t going to be the best fit for what the Eagles need, so the writing was on the wall once Pederson was signed.
From 2002 through 2008, McNabb cost the Eagles an average of 8.82% of the cap before jumping to 16.48% in 2009. (The Super Bowl record is Steve Young at 13.08% in 1994 with Peyton Manning at 12.21% in 2015 at number two and Tom Brady at 11.13% in 2014.) While the Eagles went 11-5 in 2009, they ended up losing to the Cowboys in the first round of the playoffs 34-14. When you spend that much on your quarterback, something is going to suffer and they had a defense that ranked 19th in the NFL that season. While they hadn’t won a Super Bowl, going to four straight NFC Championship Games during the early-2000s is a feat with lessons to learn from.
With a $23.5 million cap hit in 2017, which comes out to 14.20% of the projected $165.5 million cap, there was no way that Bradford was going to be an Eagle in 2017. The second year of that contact helped get Bradford $22 million in guaranteed money, which was more than the franchise tag of $19,953,000, while also providing the Eagles with a manageable 2016 number as Bradford was slated to take up 8.05% of the cap at $12.5 million.
Daniel coming over with Pederson from Kansas City was instrumental as it gave them a bridge should Wentz need more time to develop, plus providing them with a spot starter who can win games if needed. His knowledge of the offense makes him prepared and gives Wentz a veteran to learn from. With Daniel in hand and once they moved up to draft Wentz, Bradford’s days were numbered.
I’ve started to re-frame the quarterback position in my mind like we’ve seen Bill Belichick re-frame the running back position in terms of the total production you’re trying to gain from a group. In Sunday night’s Notre Dame at Texas game, we saw Charlie Strong use freshman passer Shane Buechele and senior runner Tyrone Swoopes to combine for a stat line of 16-27 (59.0%) for 280 yards with two touchdowns and one interception, plus 18 carries for 86 yards and four touchdowns. While everyone was marveling at the six touchdowns DeShone Kizer gave the Fighting Irish, Texas had the same amount with more yards in the air and on the ground. I’m not suggestion every team use two quarterbacks, but it may be time to look at the quarterback position differently.
When I look at the current Eagles system, I think of Alex Smith for ideal production as he’s been the most efficient quarterback Reid has ever had. Over the last three years, the Chiefs have had a completion percentage of 63.8% with 218 passing yards per game and 125 rushing yards per game for a total of 343 per game, which is two yards more than the league average in 2015. During 11-5 campaigns in 2013 and 2015, Smith averaged 28.7 and 31.1 yards per game, which is something Bradford can’t provide and something I believe is critical to this system. Since Bradford couldn’t provide that, the move to Wentz was necessary and that mobility is something that is becoming more of a requirement for NFL offenses every year. In my opinion, coaches should establish what ideal production in their system looks like, then build a roster to implement it.
In 2015, we saw a record number of quarterbacks go down, so that added to the concern for not relying solely on Bradford. This year we’ve already seen Teddy Bridgewater and Tony Romo go down, which put both in the market for a quarterback and led to the Vikings over-paying. With Kellen Moore breaking his ankle, Dallas was without both veterans, so they brought in Mark Sanchez who the Broncos had brought in as a part of their own three-person tryout. Sanchez wasn’t bad during his time with the Broncos as he had a 66.7% completion percentage this preseason, but they’d likely placed an expectation of what they’d need to see from him to keep him with a $4.5 million cap hit and a sixth-round pick tied to him if he made the roster. Like I said about Bradford, it’s much less about putting a label of good or bad on a player and really a question of the value placed on him. With Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch performing well, the Broncos decided Sanchez wasn’t worth the $3.5 million they saved by cutting him and a sixth round pick.
An issue that both the Cowboys and Vikings face is their Air Coryell offense. While both have had success with the system that Norv Turner first installed in Dallas in 1991 and now uses in Minnesota, its deep passing concepts make it harder to find a formidable back-up due to a lack of supply of big-armed quarterbacks. Looking at the teams that have executed two or three quarterback strategies this offseason we see the Eagles, Broncos, Browns and Chiefs who run the West Coast offense and Belichick’s Erhardt-Perkins system. Accuracy has long been something that can be found in the mid to late-rounds of the draft since Bill Walsh found both Ken Anderson with the Bengals and Joe Montana for the 49ers in the third round. Belichick similarly found Brady in the sixth round. In 2015 the Redskins led the NFL in completion percentage with fifth round pick Kirk Cousins, while the Seahawks were third with third round pick Wilson. Both teams run West Coast systems.
The reason why Walsh created the West Coast offense was because his big-armed, prototypical 6’4” quarterback Greg Cook tore his rotator cuff, so he needed to make do with what he could get. This led him to signing the mobile journeyman Virgil Carter who he hoped would be accurate and protect the football as well. The former sixth round pick ended up leading the NFL in completion percentage in 1971 at 62.2% and ever since then completion percentages have steadily increased with Cousins leading the NFL at 69.8% last year.
Quarterback is the most highly valued position in the NFL, so having a surplus of serviceable quarterbacks provides a team with tradable assets that will gain far more than their worth as with the Bradford trade. Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman told Peter King of Sports Illustrated that he had asked Eagles GM Howie Roseman at a leadership conference in the spring if he was willing to part with one of his quarterbacks, but Roseman waited until the demand was at its highest and there was no way that Minnesota was going to open up a new stadium with Shaun Hill as their only option under center.
To the Vikings credit, they’ve made a move that makes sense for them. We can’t know how long it will take Bridgewater to recover and, as Spielman pointed out, Bradford has never had a great rushing offense; he won’t have to carry the team, but can rely on a running game and defense.
Again, I don’t think I am the reason the Eagles made these moves, but it was cool to see something I believed in executed in a way that I couldn’t have imagined. With the need for stability at quarterback, it’s my belief that this will become the new normal for how the quarterback position is managed until an organization finds their Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady, as it should be. The Redskins drafted Cousins during the same draft they selected RG3 number two overall. The low-costs of first-round picks, plus the ability to find accuracy late makes this a possible strategy for every team in the NFL who doesn’t have a quarterback. All it takes is a high-percentage passing offense and an ability to identify quarterbacks who can execute, which becomes much easier when you’re not going all in on one guy.
Zack Moore is a writer for OverTheCap.com, author of the upcoming book titled, “Caponomics: The Blueprint for Building Super Bowl Champions” and host of The Zack Moore Show podcast on iTunes and Soundcloud. He graduated from Rutgers Business School in 2015 with a double concentration in entrepreneurship and marketing after playing football at the University of Rhode Island where he graduated with a degree in communications and business. Follow him @ZackMooreNFL on Twitter.