NFL's QB Elite Must Accept Mortality After 2017 Draft

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystMay 3, 2017

A la izquierda, el quarterback de los Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger, corre con el balón en un partido contra Kansas City el 15 de enero de 2017, en Kansas City, Missouri. A la derecha, el quarterback de los Patriots, Tom Brady, corre con el balón en un partido contra los Bengals el 16 de octubre de 2016, en Foxborough, Massachusetts. Los Steelers juegan contra los Patriots por el título de la AFC el domingo, 22 de enero de 2017. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson, File)
Uncredited/Associated Press

Everyone is the NFL is replaceable. 


Even the league's ballyhooed franchise quarterbacks must understand a football player's shelf life is finite. The clock is ticking, and organizations are always searching for replacements. 

After all, business comes first in professional athletics. 

Some will argue the New England Patriots will never move on from Tom Brady until he's ready to retire. Who are those people trying to kid? Bill Belichick yearns to find a competitive advantage at every avenue. If he feels a revered performer is no longer living up to expectations, the head coach will move on from the player. Just ask Bernie Kosar. 

The 2017 NFL draft proved teams aren't willing to just ride the wave of a quarterback's peak years and allow him to age gracefully without an heir apparent in place. Instead, multiple forward-thinking franchises took the initiative and addressed the game's most important position before it was too late. 

How the Kansas City Chiefs, New York Giants, Pittsburgh Steelers and even the Patriots approached this sticky subject varied. 

The Chiefs proved to be the most aggressive during the draft. General manager John Dorsey orchestrated a high-profile swap of first-round picks with the Buffalo Bills. In doing so, Kansas City gave up this year's first- and third-round picks and next year's first-round pick to move up 17 spots and select Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes. 

Mahomes is the anti-Alex Smith. 

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex SmithRick Scuteri/Associated Press

For years, Smith has been labeled a game manager. More than that, he's become the poster child for said term. A game manager at the quarterback position isn't viewed as a positive; it equates to being risk-averse.

Fans and media lionize gunslingers like Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, etc., for their ability to make plays with their big arms or when everything else around them is falling apart. 

Smith is more like a pass-first point guard in the ever-evolving NBA, where teams now want their lead guards to be playmakers. 

The 2005 No. 1 overall pick is coming off two of his most efficient seasons too. The two-time Pro Bowl quarterback completed over 65 percent of his passes during the last two campaigns and threw 35 touchdowns compared to 15 interceptions. But he hasn't provided the Chiefs with enough to be anything more than lower-tier playoff contender. 

Plus, Smith turns 33 years old Sunday. Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said the quarterback's age is an issue during an interview on PFT Live

We have complete confidence in Alex Smith, we love Alex Smith here, and we love the things that he's done and will continue to do for us. That's not an issue. The only issue is that we're all getting a little older. Unfortunately this happens in life, and Alex is getting up there at 32, and you’ve got to start thinking of — not that it’s happening right now — but you’ve got to think a little bit about the future there. Particularly at that position, you have to do that.

This year's 10th overall pick isn't going to challenge Smith in the near future. Mahomes is a long-term project with the most upside of any quarterback from this year's draft class. 

"There's going to be a day when Alex [Smith] isn't playing anymore, and you've got to have somebody that can step in and go," Reid said, per ESPN.com's Adam Teicher. "We feel like this kid, with some growth, will be in position to do that."

During the past two seasons, Mahomes was the ultimate gunslinger in Texas Tech's wide-open offense. The 6'2", 225-pound signal-caller amassed 9,705 passing yards, 77 touchdowns and 25 interceptions. He attempted 1,164 passes during that time frame and excelled when asked to plays outside the offensive structure. 

The young quarterback's time could come sooner than later if he shows significant progress. An option exists within Smith's contract after the 2017 campaign that allows the Chiefs to avoid his $20.6 million cap hit for the 2018 season, per Spotrac

Kansas City made its decision regarding its future, and Mahomes will be leading the way. 

The New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers took different approaches. They didn't actively pursue a particular quarterback prospect like Kansas City did. Instead, both teams allowed the draft to come to them. These quarterback additions won't be guaranteed starting spots, but the possibility exists both could eventually step into the starting lineups. 

New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning
New York Giants quarterback Eli ManningAlex Brandon/Associated Press

Davis Webb became the Giants' highest drafted quarterback since the organization chose Philip Rivers and traded him to the Chargers franchise for some guy named Eli Manning during the 2004 NFL draft. 

"It's more of a lightning-rod type of pick," Giants vice president of player evaluation Mark Ross said, per the New York Post's Paul Schwartz, "as opposed to picking a [defensive tackle] or corner and stuff like that. A quarterback has all these innuendos and questions about why you’re taking him and what you're going to do with him. It's the most important position in sports, so of course it's going to get the most attention."

The Cal product was considered a top-five quarterback prospect yet slipped to the 87th overall selection before the Giants halted his free fall. Prior to the draft, some scouts around the league believed Webb could be a late first-round pick, per SNY's Ralph Vacchiano. But a soft quarterback market after the top three selections and deficiencies in Webb's skill set pushed him down the board. 

Webb is similar to Manning in a couple of ways. They're both statuesque pocket passers who struggle with inconsistent accuracy for long stretches. This makes the incoming quarterback the perfect replacement, right?

Unlike Manning, Webb wasn't groomed from day one to be a pro-style quarterback. Instead, he spent the last five years in variations of Air Raid offenses. There's no denying the young man's ability to sling the pigskin around the yard. His raw arm talent is unquestioned. During his only season on Cal's campus, the Texas Tech transfer completed 61.6 percent of his passes for 4,295 yards and 37 touchdowns. 

His feel for the game, however, is lacking. This is what separated him as an eventual third-round pick compared to his predecessor, Jared Goff, who became the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 draft. 

Time isn't on Manning side, though. Not only is the two-time Super Bowl champion 36 years old, but he only has two remaining seasons before an opt-out clause in his contract enters the equation. Manning is also coming off a poor campaign in which his yards per pass attempt reached pre-2009 levels coupled with 16 interceptions, which tied for fourth-worst among starting quarterbacks. 

"We hope that Eli continues to play at a high level and this guy can develop," general manager Reese said, per NFL.com's Conor Orr. "That is what we hope for. You never know what is going to happen, but that is what we hope for."

Elite can't be spelled without Eli, but the aging signal-caller is willing to accept Webb's presence and plans to mentor his possible replacement. According to the New York Post's Steve Serby, Manning reached out to the incoming rookie after his selection.

"Having a guy in your corner, that's worth millions right there," Webb's father, Matt, said. "Whether you're first round, third round or seventh round, the people that are going to help you develop is going to determine how successful you are far more than what round you're drafted in."

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben RoethlisbergerFred Vuich/Associated Press

Roethlisberger took a similar approach just after the Steelers chose Tennessee's Joshua Dobbs with the 135th overall pick by congratulating him on social media and immediately accepting a mentor's role: 

BigBen7.com @_BigBen7

Big congrats to @josh_dobbs1! Welcome to the family. Excited to help you learn and pass along any knowledge I can. - Ben. #Steelers

A year ago, Dak Prescott developed into a franchise quarterback after being selected in the same exact spot. The Steelers shouldn't expect lightning to strike twice, but Dobbs presents a certain amount of upside. 

The organization liked his potential enough to cut former backup Zach Mettenberger two days after it drafted Dobbs, per ESPN's Adam Schefter

Like other quarterbacks coming into the league, the Tennessee product is a work in progress. During his four seasons on Rocky Top, Dobbs completed for 61.5 percent of his passes for 7,138 yards, 53 touchdowns and 29 interceptions. The quarterback's issues stem from inconsistencies found within his mechanics, his accuracy and his decision-making. 

NFL coaches loved his mentality, though. Dobbs is a brilliant young man who is set to earn his degree in aeronautical engineering. His ability to retain and apply information allows him to quickly adjust even after being told only one time to do so. Strong NFL coaching could help mold him into a starter. 

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin pointed toward Dobbs' mentality as a big selling point for the Steelers, per All 22's Ryan Wooden

He’s a smart guy. He’s driven in all the right ways. He’s properly motivated. He’s got natural leadership skills. A lot has been written and said about his academic prowess, but I think he carries that same mentality in terms of how he approaches football.

Roethlisberger turned 35 years old in March. He's been beat up throughout his career and flirted with retirement before announcing his return. The Steelers needed a replacement plan and chose Dobbs. 

With these new signal-callers in place, the Chiefs, Giants and Steelers can take a similar path the Patriots already chose. 

New England didn't draft a quarterback this year because the team had Brady's replacement ready to go in 2014 second-round pick Jimmy Garoppolo. 

"Anything that we do, we're always going to do what we think is in the best interest of our football team, and that's how we approach it," Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio said when asked about the 25-year-old quarterback prior to this year's draft, per the Boston Herald's Jeff Howe

The team's unwillingness to move the intriguing quarterback commodity obviously falls in its best interest because his trade value decreases with each passing month. Garoppolo is a free agent after the 2017 campaign. Multiple franchises will bid to acquire his services if he hits the open market. The Patriots even had a chance to trade him during the first round of the 2017 draft, per Schefter.

A move never materialized. 

New England Patriots quarterbacks Tom Brady (left) and Jimmy Garoppolo (right)
New England Patriots quarterbacks Tom Brady (left) and Jimmy Garoppolo (right)Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

This places the Patriots in a predicament after this season. Brady doesn't appear to be slowing down even though he turns 40 years old in August. Garoppolo will demand a pretty penny once he hits free agency. Will New England try to keep both signal-callers beyond the 2017 campaign? 

Brady has been phenomenal during his career's twilight. His play in 2016 was as good or better than any preceding campaign and resulted in his fifth Super Bowl victory. Time will eventually catch up with him, though.

The fact a trade wasn't consummated during the draft indicates the Patriots want Garoppolo to succeed the 12-time Pro Bowl signal-caller. If Belichick and Co. believe he's a potential franchise quarterback, the organization will find a way to retain him until Brady no longer presents any value. 

Nothing in football is more valuable than a franchise quarterback. Even teams with one already on the roster are willing to make sacrifices to obtain what they believe can be another. 

For those team's incumbents, it's easy to take offense and rebel against such long-term planning because they're driven by their competitiveness.

A better path is accepting the reality of the situation and embracing the opportunity to help these incoming quarterbacks. A player can further cement his legacy by preparing the next generation instead of being thrown out the door. 

The expiration date for the NFL's old guard will pass sooner rather than later. 

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


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