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Offseason QB Carousel Doesn't Get Teams Closer to Achieving Super Bowl Aspirations

Brent SobleskiJuly 19, 2022

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How much would it take for the Kansas City Chiefs to even consider trading Patrick Mahomes? How many times would the Buffalo Bills laugh off offers before teams stopped calling about Josh Allen? Would the Los Angeles Chargers entertain a change behind center knowing the potential packed within Justin Herbert?

A true franchise quarterback is invaluable.

Teams spend years, even decades, trying to address the position. No price is too much to pay for one considered elite among his contemporaries. Just ask the Cleveland Browns.

The NFL experienced a seismic shift among starting quarterbacks this offseason, with Deshaun Watson landing in Cleveland, Russell Wilson being traded to the Denver Broncos, Matt Ryan now leading the Indianapolis Colts, Carson Wentz taking over the Washington Commanders and Baker Mayfield competing to start for the Carolina Panthers.

A person must ask themself whether these teams are any closer to achieving the ultimate goal after making these moves. Surely in different realities across the multiverse, all of these moves work out in their team's favor. But only one team wins the Super Bowl, and it's easy to envision all five squads falling short despite their investments in the game's most important position.

The fact of the matter is that there are only so many true franchise signal-callers, and the situation becomes vital to how they're nurtured and developed. Quick fixes are often attempted but rarely pan out in a team's favor.

Sure, the Los Angeles Rams won Super Bowl LVI with the help of Matthew Stafford, whom the team acquired in a trade from the Detroit Lions last offseason. A year prior, Tom Brady moved from the New England Patriots to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a free agent and captured yet another Lombardi Trophy.

In total, 13 different quarterbacks have helped win a Super Bowl during a season that began after the turn of the century. Of those 13, eight won a title with the team that originally drafted them. A ninth, Eli Manning, was traded on draft day. Obviously, Brady and Peyton Manning are all-time greats who won with a second franchise.

Trent Dilfer, Brad Johnson, Drew Brees and Stafford are the four examples over the last 20 years to start elsewhere, not experience championship-caliber play then lead another franchise to a title. The first two cases ended up being flukish based on a league that had yet to place so much emphasis on the position and won championships through the strength of their defenses.

Brees turned into an all-time great when paired with Sean Payton, and it still took four years before they reached the promised land. Stafford is the only case in recent history where an immediate return came in the form of a Lombardi Trophy.

As such, recency bias will tell everyone that it can be done again. Don't count on it, though.

An individual look at each situation with a new high-profile starter shows how they're not necessarily in a better position today, next year or in five years than they previously were.

A person doesn't need to agree with Cleveland's decision to send three first-round draft picks for Watson and then sign the quarterback to a league-record, fully guaranteed $230 million contract to understand why the franchise did what it did.

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The Browns' history of ineptitude at the quarterback position is well-documented. The franchise has been desperate to land a consistently good option for over two decades. Mayfield came close and helped turn the franchise around after its embarrassing 0-16 campaign.

Ultimately, the 2018 No. 1 overall pick fell short of expectations, and the team pursued Watson, who's viewed as a top-10 quarterback when he's on the field.

The final part of the previous statement is extremely important. Watson is currently awaiting league discipline after being accused of sexual misconduct. He faced 24 civil suits before agreeing to settle 20 of those cases.

"There's no question about the ability, and I'm assuming he's stayed in shape," an NFC scout told ESPN's Jeremy Fowler. "I have little concern that he can come back and be an elite player. ... I just don't know when he's going to play again."

A fine line can be drawn between elite and actually being a franchise quarterback. When Watson last took the field during the 2020 campaign, he set career highs with 4,823 passing yards, 33 touchdown tosses, an average of 8.9 yards per attempt and a 112.4 quarterback rating.

While those are impressive numbers, the Texans still struggled.

To be clear, Watson's skill set is superior to Mayfield's, hence why the Browns made the move knowing full well a player of the former's caliber, at just 26 years old, wouldn't have been available under normal circumstances. But Watson has yet to firmly establish himself among the league's true franchise quarterbacks.

"All I know is that when he had his best NFL season [in 2020], his team still went 4-12," an NFL front-office official told Fowler. "A good quarterback, but he still has a lot to show on the field."

Clearly, a path through the AFC must proceed through Kansas City, Buffalo or even Los Angeles, where three of the NFL's best quarterbacks reside. For Cleveland, the questions about Watson and how he fits among the conference's tapestry extend beyond a potential suspension this season.

In the AFC North alone, the Cincinnati Bengals' Joe Burrow already helped lead his team to a Super Bowl. The Baltimore Ravens' Lamar Jackson is a former league MVP. The Browns might claim one of the league's most talented rosters, but they could still find themselves third in the division behind their rivals.

The same can be said of Watson behind Burrow and Jackson. Some may argue that Jackson didn't play well last season, and he didn't, thanks to injuries to his ankle and throughout the Ravens' roster. If that's the case, though, everyone must account for the fact that Watson didn't play at all last year.

Over the long haul, the Browns will have a better on-field product with Watson behind center. General manager Andrew Berry is brilliant in his roster management, and Kevin Stefanski is one year removed from winning NFL Coach of the Year. However, the Browns might have sacrificed draft picks, fans and a whole lot of guaranteed money to still fall outside the realm of a true contender.

The Colts present more short-term promise, though their problems have only been presented with a short-term solution.

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Ryan immediately enters the AFC South as the division's best quarterback, but he's 37 years old. Indianapolis' brass hopes he has more than one season in him. Owner Jim Irsay even went as far as to say Ryan "might stick around for four years," according to FOX59 Sports' Mike Chappell.

What Indianapolis really needs isn't a quarterback still capable of winning an MVP—rather a steadying force is vital after three years of the upheaval upon Andrew Luck's abrupt retirement.

"Matt was unbelievable," head coach Frank Reich told reporters after mandatory minicamp. "Really, A-Z, he did everything right. Just great leadership, great play. I mean, the whole way he took command … "

With Derrick Henry coming off a foot injury, A.J. Brown being traded to the Philadelphia Eagles and holes at left guard and right tackle, the Tennessee Titans are prime regression candidate. The Colts can take the division crown from their rival, and Ryan will be a big part of any success they experience.

Nevertheless, Indianapolis still falls short when it comes to the AFC's elite because they're not as explosive offensively at quarterback or wide receiver.

Meanwhile, the Broncos are simply placed between a rock and a hard place. The AFC West will be brutal this season. In an effort to offset the strenuous path the team must undertake in its division, new head coach Nathaniel Hackett plans to let Russ cook.

"I think you'll see a rejuvenated Russ [with the Broncos]," an AFC personnel evaluator told Fowler. "They are tailoring things around him. He'll have more ownership of the offense and a good supporting cast. He will get his spot back."

Even as a future Hall of Fame quarterback, he's not enough in a loaded division where he's arguably the third-best option behind Mahomes and Herbert.

Age isn't the same factor for Wilson as it is for Ryan, yet the nine-time Pro Bowl selection turns 34 in November. For comparison, Derek Carr is the next-oldest AFC West quarterback, and he's three years younger. Mahomes is 26, while Herbert turned 24 four months ago.

At best, the Broncos could surprise this year or next before Wilson starts to age out against some of the league's best quarterback play.

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Wentz and Mayfield are almost not worth discussing because neither is in a position to elevate their new squads to uncharted territory.

The 2016 second overall draft experienced an identity crisis in back-to-back years. The first came in Philadelphia, where he tried to play hero ball all the time. The other happened in Indianapolis, where he struggled to operate within Reich's offense and simply didn't attempt or complete the throws he was supposed to make.

Conversely, Mayfield operates at his best when he's doubted. The 2018 first-overall draft pick experienced his ups and downs with the Browns. An injury-plagued campaign proved to be his last in Cleveland.

Now he enters a situation where A) the owner appears to be impatient, B) the head coach enters the season on the hot seat, C) he must learn another offense after dealing with multiple coordinators and coaches in Cleveland and D) no guarantees exist whether he'll even start to open the season or be with the Panthers beyond this year.

Carolina hasn't made a significant commitment one way or the other after flipping a 2024 fifth-round pick to Cleveland and only guaranteeing $4.85 million of this year's salary. Plenty of talent can be found on Carolina's roster, but Mayfield probably isn't the one to lead it to anywhere of consequence.

Bottom line, every single one of these quarterbacks was available for a reason. None of the names counted among those who switched teams should be considered a true franchise quarterback. Each still has plenty to prove if they're going to reach the rarified air as Mahomes, Allen, Brady, Aaron Rodgers of the likes of Burrow and Herbert, who both sit right on the cusp of all-time quarterback play.

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.

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