2018 was supposed to be the year.
After an inconsistent and injury-plagued 2017 season, Marcus Mariota was going to take the next step in 2018. With a full offseason focused on improving, not rehabbing, and equipped with a retooled coaching staff, 2018 was supposed to be the year the former Heisman Trophy winner would become a superstar.
Well, we know how that story ended.
A nerve injury to Mariota’s throwing arm sustained less than 30 minutes into the season derailed those hopes pretty quickly. And the year-to-be never was.
Mike has detailed Mariota’s injury history here if you need a refresher, but the simple summary is that he has been unavailable far too often in his short career to be considered “reliable” going forward.
Injuries happen in the NFL. One of Mike Vrabel’s most-used catchphrases of his inaugural season was, “The injury rate in the NFL is 100%.” The Titans need to be prepared for Mariota to miss time in case it happens again, as the young signal-caller has missed parts or all of 16 games in four seasons due to injury.
Marcus Mariota will be the Titans starting quarterback in 2019, but the team needs a better player behind him.
Mariota’s Fifth-Year Option
Allow me to start here just to apply some context to what follows.
Before the start of the new league year at 4PM ET on March 13, 2019, Marcus Mariota must pass a physical, or else his 2019 fifth-year option salary of 20.9M dollars will become fully guaranteed.
That’s about 9 weeks away. Will Marcus Mariota be fully recovered from the multiple stingers, nerve injuries, and various other ailments (“abdomen,” “neck,” and a reportedly torn planter fascia) listed on injury reports over the final month of the season in time to pass that physical before March 13th?
Regardless, if Mariota is on the roster at all (healthy or not) after 4PM ET that day, his contract for 2019 becomes fully guaranteed. It would be the stunner of the offseason if the Titans outright cut Mariota before that date just to save $20.9M in cap space. Even if that was their plan (it’s not), again, he’d have to pass that physical or the team would owe him the money anyway.
So with that in mind, who might the Titans bring in to play back-up?
Let’s look at some of the potential free-agents-to-be the Titans might consider.
Something about Nick Foles gets people very excited. Super Bowl LII’s Most Valuable Player, Foles has bounced around the league a bit, but he always seems to shine when pressed into duty in Philadelphia.
It started with his magical 2013 season under Chip Kelly, in which he threw 27 touchdowns to just 2 interceptions after Michael Vick was injured. While Foles was the fortunate beneficiary of many dropped interceptions that season, in the end, the results were truly special.
Nick Foles in 2013: 27 TD, 2 INT.— ESPN (@espn) December 30, 2013
Best TD-INT ratio in NFL history.
More recently, Carson Wentz has suffered season-ending injuries in each of the last two years, and Nick Foles has answered the bell when called upon. He famously led the Eagles to a Super Bowl victory over Tom Brady last season, and this year, after a Week 14 overtime loss to the Cowboys dropped their playoff odds to just 11%, Foles again has the Eagles in position to make another improbable postseason run.
It certainly feels like good fortune follows Foles. In the recent NFC Wild Card playoff game at Soldier Field, Foles fought for a 1-point lead and then watched from the sidelines as Cody Parkey banged Chicago’s potential game-winning field goal off the left upright — and the crossbar — for the Eagles to emerge victorious. Foles had tossed the go-ahead touchdown pass to Golden Tate on the Eagles’ previous drive with just 56 seconds remaining in the contest.
But between all the magic, Nick Foles’ time as a starting quarterback in the NFL has been inconsistent. His 2014 season (and first stint in Philadelphia) ended with a broken collarbone that sent him to IR. He then spent 2015 in Saint Louis struggling under Jeff Fisher. Foles started 11 games that year before giving way to rookie Jared Goff. He’d make one more start before rejoining Philadelphia, this time for the Chiefs in relief of Alex Smith in 2016, a game that some have credited with reviving Foles’ career in the NFL.
The problem with acquiring him lies in the cost. Not only is Foles’ contract a bit tricky, with a double-option for 2019 (you can read about those complications here) — any interested team would be looking at paying him at least $20M for next season — he would also most likely require a draft pick (or two) to bring him to town (unless the Eagles or Foles decline his 2019 contract option). This recent report from Ian Rapoport says that the Eagles will look to trade the quarterback before the new league year begins in March.
All-in-all, it seems like a steep price to pay for a streaky-at-best quarterback, even if he is one of the better back-ups in the league. Bringing in a player like Foles to push Marcus Mariota or, worst-case, to be a solid backup option sounds like a good idea in theory, until you consider the monetary restraints. I’ll dive into more detail about that further down, so for now let’s continue our assessment of the veteran quarterback options...
Although Ryan Tannehill is technically still under contract with the Miami Dolphins through 2020, recent reports have suggested that the Dolphins will be moving on from Tannehill next season as they attempt to clean house and start over.
Noted on Blake Bortles and we’ll get there in a minute, but let’s talk about Tannehill. From a pure talent perspective, Tannehill is one of best options of all these veteran quarterbacks.
Like Mariota, however, Tannehill has serious availability concerns. Since the start of 2016, Tannehill has missed 24 of a possible 48 starts after tearing the same ACL twice (once towards the end of 2016 and again before the start of the 2017 season), and suffering a capsule injury to his right shoulder that sidelined him for much of 2018.
On the field, Tannehill has been an effective starter, but not so convincing as to be a sure-fire franchise guy, especially with his recent injury concerns. Since the Dolphins spent the 8th overall pick on him in 2012, the team has experienced a winning season just once. I’m firmly in the camp that believes wins are not a QB stat, but there’s a reason Miami is ready to start over at the position.
Tannehill seems on the surface like another great option to push or back-up Marcus Mariota, but again, the financial constraints complicate the situation. More on that below...
Joe Flacco notoriously led the Ravens to a Super Bowl victory in the 2012 season, his 4th year in the league, with help from a tremendous defense and one of the best playoff performances by a quarterback in recent memory. That sensational run caused media and fans alike to wonder, “Is Joe Flacco elite?”
Six years later, it seems the answer is a resounding, “No.” Flacco was benched (er- injured, and then benched?) earlier this season for a rookie quarterback known more for his rushing than for his passing. Of course, Lamar Jackson’s playmaking with his legs revitalized the Ravens’ offense, and it was his elusive abilities and an elite defense that allowed the Ravens to turn their season around and make the playoffs.
Despite calls for Flacco’s return mid-way through the AFC Wild Card game, Jackson remained the starter for the duration of the game, signaling the Ravens’ commitment to the rookie and suggesting that Flacco has truly played his last snap in a Baltimore uniform.
But Flacco may be embracing the back-up quarterback role. The former Super Bowl MVP will turn 34 later this month, and it’s possible that he’s ready to move into this next stage of his career. Whatever you think of Flacco as a player, he certainly has a lot of experience, including in big-time moments, and could provide an intelligent voice in the quarterback room.
I was particularly impressed with this video of Flacco and Robert Griffin III giving advice to Lamar Jackson on the sidelines earlier this season.
Cost may be a prohibiting factor again, but if it’s not, you could do a lot worse than Joe Flacco as your backup quarterback. Just ask the Titans.
The backup to Joe Flacco on the Ravens’ Super Bowl winning team, Tyrod Taylor also has experience as a starting quarterback in the NFL. After leading the Bills to the playoffs (and a first-round exit) in 2017, he began the 2018 season as the Cleveland Browns’ starter.
But the Browns used the number one overall pick in 2018 on Baker Mayfield, meaning it was only a matter of time before Taylor would find himself back on the bench.
Taylor’s ability to extend plays with his legs and make things happen off-schedule are valuable assets, but his struggles to consistently throw the ball with accuracy and find his open receivers are real deficiencies, and those flaws finally caught up to Taylor as his time in Buffalo came to a close. Taylor has also dealt with his fair share of injuries as a starter, raising some of the familiar questions about availability. That said, I do think Taylor would make for a dependable and savvy backup quarterback.
Taylor’s athleticism makes him an intriguing option because in theory, he would be able to run the same types of mobile plays that Mariota can run. But who knows what the Titans’ scheme will look like after they hire a new offensive coordinator.
A former first round pick (barely), Teddy Bridgewater worked hard to come back from a devastating knee injury that had many pundits wondering if he would ever be able to play football again.
That injury ultimately caused the Vikings to move on from Bridgewater, and now his current abilities as a quarterback are largely unknown. After signing a one-year deal with the Jets, Bridgewater was traded to the Saints to back up Drew Brees.
He has only one regular-season start since 2015, although his preseason performance with the Jets in August suggested no lingering effects from his injury. Bridgewater was always an efficient quarterback in Minnesota, but he’s also a conservative passer who doesn’t take many risks or downfield shots.
With the Saints locked into the number one overall seed prior to Week 17, they elected to rest Drew Brees and give Bridgewater a shot to prove he can still play in this league. Against the NFL’s 24th-ranked DVOA defense, the Carolina Panthers, Bridgewater did not impress, completing 14 of his 22 pass attempts for 118 yards, 1 touchdown, and 1 interception in a blowout loss.
Considering the Saints gave up a 3rd-round draft pick for Bridgewater (they also received a 6th-rounder back from the Jets), I’d expect they try to sign him to an extension this offseason (assuming they want to keep him around). If they don’t, and he isn’t too expensive, the Titans might look at Bridgewater as a backup option with upside.
Largely viewed as the piece that held back a talented Jacksonville team for the past two seasons, Bortles has struggled to remain the Jaguars’ starting quarterback over that period.
During the 2017 preseason, he was reportedly competing for the starting job with Chad Henne. Bortles eventually won that job and technically led the Jaguars to their best season since 2007. However, it was the defense that really carried the team with 6 scores of their own on the year.
Bortles rushed for more yards than he passed for in the Jaguars’ playoff win over Tyrod Taylor’s Bills last season. Then, in a strange twist, Bortles actually performed admirably in the 2017 AFC Championship game. He did everything he could to beat the Patriots, but the defense that had carried the team all season let the Patriots come back and win the game, sending New England to Super Bowl LII and the Jaguars into complete turmoil (see: Jacksonville’s 2018 season).
Blake Bortles is technically under contract through the 2020 season, but as the tweet above indicates, the Jaguars appear to be ready to move on. The classic arc for Jacksonville quarterbacks — that is, flaming out as the starter after a few years and then settling in as a career backup — seems now to be in effect for Blake Bortles. Where will he land in 2019?
Robert Griffin III
The last guy in my write-up worthy of his own picture is former Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III. If you’re worried about a backup quarterback staying healthy, RGIII probably isn’t the best choice. However, if you want someone athletic enough to run the same concepts as Marcus Mariota, well... that’s the argument that also favors the Ravens re-signing Griffin this offseason.
Nonetheless, RGIII is set to be an unrestricted free-agent in March. After multiple knee injuries ended his tenure in Washington, Griffin spent 2016 with Cleveland and then sat out the 2017 season. This article from the Washington Post is an interesting read on Griffin’s decision to sit out for that season despite reported offers from Arizona and Baltimore. RGIII eventually did end up signing with the Ravens last April and spent the year backing up Flacco and Jackson.
Griffin reportedly would be happy to return to Baltimore in 2019, but if the Titans are looking for a bargain backup, RGIII might have the highest upside of the bunch, at least athletically.
I wanted to talk about his connection to the Titans’ coaching staff, but his former quarterback coach Matt LaFleur is now gone to Green Bay, so that connection no longer exists.
If none of the above quarterbacks strike your fancy, perhaps one of Josh McCown or Ryan Fitzpatrick will interest you?
McCown would offer the veteran “leadership” qualities usually sought after in a backup, while the return of Ryan Fitzpatrick would bring along a gunslinger mentality that may be beneficial to Mariota’s own development.
Another interesting name is Trevor Siemian. The Vikings traded for Siemian, who just played the final year of his contract, last March. No doubt he’d be cheaper than any of the above options, and he’s at least serviceable with room to continue improving.
Brett Hundley is also a guy with a relative amount of starting experience who may not command the same kind of salary as the pictured quarterbacks above, and he’s another option that could run the mobile-oriented offense best suited for Mariota.
Then there’s Mark Sanchez, Brock Osweiler, Matt Schaub, Geno Smith, Ryan Griffin, and a bunch of guys in the Austin Davis/Kevin Hogan/Tom Savage range. Talk about looking for a bargain...
Financial Constraints of the QB Market
Knowing all the options, let’s discuss the reality of adding one of these guys to the Titans quarterback group.
The biggest value Blaine Gabbert provides as a backup over a free agent was going to be system familiarity, but now that Matt LaFleur is gone, what reason do the Titans have to stick with Gabbert?
On the other hand, with Mariota’s soon-to-be-guaranteed $20.9M already sunk into the QB position for 2019, a high-priced veteran quarterback would really restrict the Titans’ other options in free agency.
We must consider what kind of deal Ryan Tannehill or Joe Flacco (or any of the above options) will command on the open market. Under the 2018 NFL Salary Cap (which is lower than 2019’s), Case Keenum received $25M guaranteed for a two-year contract worth up to $18M per year. Sam Bradford was paid $15M to get cut mid-season after signing a one-year deal worth up to $20M.
Even if a player like Tannehill were to sign for a deal as “low” as Sam Bradford’s, the best-case scenario in terms of savings — AKA, the cheapest outcome — is that you completely waste $15M.
If things work out like you hope they do (i.e., if you don’t end up cutting him mid-season because he’s a complete disaster), you’re likely spending much more than $15M... for a backup! Nick Foles’ current contract, if picked up for 2019, would pay him $20M for 2019. If Foles hits the open market, I’d expect that to be the starting point for negotiations.
With his age-31 season approaching, odds are that Ryan Tannehill will sign a two- or three-year contract worth at least the same $25M guarantee that Case Keenum was paid, and that’s likely with a chance to be a starter. Flacco will probably sign in that same range, also hoping to compete for a starting job somewhere.
Is it worth it for the Titans to sink $40-45M (or more) into the quarterback position for a single season? The short answer is “no”, but let’s assess...
According to Over The Cap, the Titans will have about $43M total in available cap space for 2019, including the $20.9M already tied to Mariota ($43M accounts for the team’s the top 51 contracts. NFL teams have to have their “top-51” under the salary cap by March 13 at 4PM ET, so it makes sense for us to use that number rather than the $37M currently listed on Spotrac).
There are some veteran players the Titans could part ways with to save some money, but that would only open more holes in the roster (cutting Darren Bates, Ben Jones, Wesley Woodyard, Dion Lewis, and Johnathan Cyprien would save the team about $18M in cap space, but how much would it cost to replace those roles?).
A much-deserved extension for Kevin Byard will probably cost the team around $13M-$14M. Re-signing Kenny Vaccaro seems likely, and they’ll need a veteran edge defender unless they just re-sign Derrick Morgan, either of which would cost money. Hopefully they can get both of these players back for less than $10M per year. The team will need to keep $6M or $7M in the reserves for rookies, IR, and any late offseason emergency signings.
The team could also save another $1.5M by cutting Blaine Gabbert, money that could be put towards the contract for a new backup.
All told, that would put the Titans in the $15M-$20M range of available space before they have to start cutting players. Realistically, even if the team used all of their cap space after parting ways with or restructuring some currently-under-contract vets, you’re looking at maybe two high-profile free agents plus a handful of depth signings to replace any cap casualties or guys with expiring contracts.
With so few free agent signings even possible, is quarterback the position they should prioritize? Over wide receiver, interior offensive line, pass rusher, and defensive line?
Whether or not you think Mariota is “the guy” going forward, whoever is the quarterback charged with running the Titans offense could use help in all of those areas. The Titans as a team could use improvements at each of those positions, probably more so than at quarterback.
That pretty much rules out the Ryan Tannehill’s, Joe Flacco’s, and Nick Foles(‘s?)-range of options purely from a cost/salary cap standpoint. It’s not fiscally possible for the Titans to sign someone who could realistically threaten Mariota’s starting job.
So we turn to the backup-caliber options... how much will Tyrod Taylor’s next contract be worth? He signed a two-year, $30M deal with Buffalo in March of 2017, a rich contract that was then traded to Cleveland. Is $15M/year the baseline for Tyrod Taylor, or would he accept less? That is yet to be seen.
Blake Bortles signed a 3-year contract worth up to $54M last February, with $26.5M guaranteed! He’ll carry a $16.5M dead cap hit for 2019 that will be on the Jaguars’ books regardless of his status with the team (it’s actually $21M if they don’t cut him, so they can “save” almost $5M by moving on).
Bortles hasn’t yet been paid the full $26.5M guaranteed from Jacksonville, meaning that regardless of which team he ends up playing for in 2019, the Jaguars are going to be paying him. I wonder if that might help sway Bortles to take a cheaper deal, especially if he could do so to the benefit of a Jaguars’ division rival?
What about Teddy Bridgewater? His previous contract was heavily laden with incentives, but because he only started one game, he ended up receiving only $5M for his services in 2019.
$5M is probably the maximum amount the Titans can afford to pay a backup quarterback for 2019 if they want to address their other areas of need. More than that would put them in a bind. Blaine Gabbert signed a two-year, $4M contract last offseason ($2M/year), but perhaps Jon Robinson is willing to pay a little bit more for a better insurance policy going forward.
It would be a wise investment for a team that has turned to its backup quarterback at some point in every season since 2012.
Other Quarterback Suitors
When assessing how much these quarterbacks will command on the market, it’s important to understand exactly who will be paying those salaries. Naturally, the more teams there are involved in a bidding war, the steeper the contracts will be.
Guys don’t get paid $20M to be back-ups, usually that is. Nick Foles is a strange exception. That said, let’s look at the teams searching for a new starter for next season.
The Giants, Steelers, Patriots, Saints, and Chargers are all teams with aging veterans that may be looking for replacements soon. But outside of the Saints and Teddy Bridgewater, I don’t think any of these teams are looking to sign a high-profile veteran, a la a Ryan Tannehill-type, to sit on the bench until their current starters are ready to call it quits. That’d be an interesting use of salary cap space, assuming each of these teams wants to make one more run at a Super Bowl before those guys retire.
The first team that jumps out as immediately needing a new quarterback is the Jacksonville Jaguars. As of today, the Jaguars are expected to be in the negatives when it comes to available cap space for 2019. They will be making some cuts to avoid that, obviously (including the hilarious voiding of Leonard Fournette’s guarantees), but that still doesn’t give them a lot of room to play. They certainly don’t have the funds to doll out $20M+ AAV contracts. Perhaps that’s why the Jaguars have already been pegged as the early favorite to target Ohio State product Dwayne Haskins.
Miami will also be looking for a quarterback. With a new general manager and currently in the hunt for a new head coach, the likeliest course for the Dolphins is to sign a veteran in free agency and then draft a rookie, with the expectation that the rookie would learn from the vet until he is ready. For this reason, I’d expect the Dolphins to go after an experienced veteran. Someone like Flacco or Foles if they are willing to pay up, or someone like Josh McCown if they aren’t.
Cutting Ryan Tannehill, Devante Parker, and Andre Branch — as the Dolphins are rumored to be planning — would save them nearly $30M in cap space, so they definitely have the money to lead the bidding war for a veteran if they choose to do so.
Washington is in a pretty interesting position. Alex Smith’s injury, coupled with his $55M-guaranteed contract, makes for a complicated situation. The bottom line, for our purposes, is that Washington would find it very difficult to pay another veteran quarterback anything close to market value with the money they already have devoted to Alex Smith.
The Cincinnati Bengals will be in an interesting position. I’ll be curious to see how the new coaching staff — assuming that’s not just Hue Jackson — handles Andy Dalton. The Bengals owe him $16.5M for 2019, somewhat of a bargain with today’s going rates, but they would have zero dead money if they decided to move on from the Red Rifle. Even with Dalton on the roster in 2019, they’d still have nearly $50M in available cap space. Could they possibly be players for one of the high-priced veterans?
The Vikings have too much money tied up in Kirk Cousins to even consider another option. The Broncos could save $11M by cutting Case Keenum, but they’d still have $10M of his salary on the books as dead cap for 2019. That puts a bit of a ceiling on what they could pay another QB this offseason.
That’s pretty much it for teams that have no viable quarterbacks currently on their roster. Miami might actually be the only team in position to overpay to land their first-choice veteran quarterback, assuming that’s even the route they’d want to take, with Cincinnati the most likely second bidder.
Based on the general quarterback situations around the league — remember that a lot of teams drafted their hopeful “franchise guy” in the last couple seasons — there remains a slim chance that a guy like Flacco simply doesn’t have the market we’re currently anticipating.
That’s good news for the Titans. Obviously, this doesn’t mean some other unknown team won’t be willing to pony up for a reliable backup (or even for someone to compete with their starter— looking at you, Tampa Bay), but it’s miles better than last season’s quarterback market, which offered less options and more QB-needy teams.
Whatever happens, I’ll be watching the free agent quarterbacks closely. After everything I’ve said about the 2019 market, I’m very curious to see what kind of contracts get handed out this offseason, and to whom.
What About the Draft?
What about drafting someone to back up or compete with Mariota? It’d certainly be cheaper than an expensive free agent.
This is where the Titans must think about the future of their franchise. Unless you’re drafting someone to be a significant improvement over Mariota himself, you have to consider the cost of spending an early-round pick on a rookie who will undoubtedly experience growing pains as he transitions to the NFL.
Tua Tagovailoa and Trevor Lawrence aren’t draft eligible until 2020 and 2021, respectively, so what rookies are really going to make a difference in 2019?
Justin Herbert, who was expected to be the top quarterback prospect, is going to play his senior season at Oregon next year. That leaves the likes of Dwayne Haskins, WVU’s Will Grier, Mizzou’s Drew Lock, Boise State’s Brett Rypien, and Duke’s Daniel Jones as the current consensus top-5 guys.
For the sake of argument, let’s pretend Dwayne Haskins (who officially declared for the draft on Monday) is the Titans guy. As the perceived top quarterback in the class, many expect him to go in the top 10 (I mentioned the Jaguars-Haskins rumors above).
I’ve watched a small bit of Haskins and I must say I have plenty of questions about his ability to play at a consistent high level in the NFL, but we can set that aside for now and just discuss why, from a philosophical point of view, it would be a poor decision for the team’s future to draft a first-round quarterback.
Let’s start with the opportunity cost. I learned in 11th grade economics that “opportunity cost” is the benefit you miss when you choose one alternative over another.
In order to secure a player like Haskins, the Titans would almost assuredly need to trade up from the 19th pick in the draft into the top 10, probably higher to jump Jacksonville at No. 7, or possibly even the Giants at No. 6 (Haskins recently said he hopes to land in New York).
Trading into the top 5 from No. 19 is not cheap. That’s a ton of draft capital to give up for a quarterback when you already have one on the roster making over $20M, especially for a team that only made four selections a year ago. But more importantly (the opportunity cost), it takes away valuable draft capital that could be used on other positions.
This particular draft class happens to be fairly loaded at DL, EDGE rusher, and wide receiver, three large areas of need for the Titans. It also happens to be pretty lacking in the quarterback department.
If you're looking for quarterbacks in my top 150, I don't think you'll find many, sorry.— Jon Ledyard (@LedyardNFLDraft) January 3, 2019
What you will find is plenty of WRs, TEs, IDL and Edge Defenders, as my latest top 150 big board for the 2019 #NFLDraft is now LIVE @DraftNetworkLLC!https://t.co/PXesxBgEVt
Another (very basic) lesson borrowed from economics class: when supply goes down, cost goes up. If there’s only so many quarterbacks worth drafting, the cost to obtain them increases, whether that means reaching for a player or offering up more picks in a trade.
It’s the inverse of the free agent quarterback market. I mentioned a handful of teams with aging veterans who will be looking for that next-in-line franchise guy. Those teams may not be big players in free agency, but they’ll certainly have their eyes on this year’s draft class in an attempt to plan for their respective futures.
Rather than join the early-round quarterback competition, the Titans could try to improve the other weaknesses on the roster. But hey, for the sake of argument, let’s say the Titans do elect to use a high pick — or even multiple picks in a trade scenario — to secure a quarterback in the 2019 draft. What are the odds that he will be, you know, any good?
The ESPN beat writer for Jacksonville, Michael DiRocco, recently published a piece that examined the success rate for quarterbacks drafted between 2000 and 2015. It’s a pretty interesting read.
Here’s an excerpt from that article:
Only nine quarterbacks drafted from 2000 to 2015 match that criteria: Tom Brady, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, and Russell Wilson. Four other players also made multiple Pro Bowls and multiple playoff appearances, but they’ve done it for more than one team: Alex Smith, Carson Palmer, Michael Vick and Drew Brees. Tony Romo also fits that criteria, but he was an undrafted free agent.
So not counting Romo, only 13 of the 195 quarterbacks -- just 6.7 percent -- drafted from 2000 to 2015 made multiple Pro Bowls and multiple playoff appearances. Only seven of the 42 quarterbacks -- 14 percent -- drafted in the first round over that same span qualify: Manning, Rivers, Roethlisberger, Rodgers, Ryan, Newton and Luck.
DiRocco’s somewhat-subjective criteria eliminates Peyton Manning — there has to be a cut-off somewhere — because he was drafted in 1998, but using this research as evidence (coupled with basic common sense), we can see that even by spending a first-round pick on a quarterback, there is (obviously) no guarantee they will be capable of playing the position at a high level.
If you pass on a potential game-changer in the early rounds in favor of a quarterback who turns out to be no good, that would be a borderline draft disaster.
Of course, the 35 first-round failures drafted from 2000-2015 have no bearing on how the 2019 quarterbacks will perform, and yes, the Titans would still have Marcus Mariota to play in front of the rookie. But that takes us back to the opportunity cost.
It is no secret that the Titans have done a poor job surrounding Mariota with quality playmakers, the 2018 injuries notwithstanding.
Forgoing other areas of need to bring in a new quarterback would mean said new guy inherits all the same deficiencies and disadvantages that Mariota has been dealing with for years.
If we’re talking about spending a mid- to late-round pick on a high-upside quarterback who could be an upgrade over Blaine Gabbert, and maybe one day take Mariota’s position as the starter if things don’t work out, that’s another discussion, and one that makes more sense. Even so, this is a hypothetical “high-upside player” that may or may not even exist.
Still, that’s ultimately an avenue I expect Robinson to consider after the Luke Falk experiment crashed and burned before the season even started. Address the more important needs with blue chip talent, and later, if a quarterback prospect you love falls in your lap, you scoop him up.
The Bottom Line
The way I see it, the Titans have a few different options.
Option 1: they can sign a high-priced veteran quarterback to back up, compete with, or outright take the starting job from Mariota, but they’d be doing so at the expense of improving the overall roster while gambling that their replacement would actually improve the team.
Option 2: they can spend valuable draft capital on a new quarterback who waits in the wings in case Mariota gets injured or continues to struggle, again at the expense of upgrading other positions, all while hoping that draft capital doesn’t end up wasted on a prospect who either flames out or is never needed.
Option 3: they can roll with Mariota for 2019, maybe draft a mid-to-late round quarterback who can (hopefully) function as Mariota’s primary backup (no more Luke Falks, please), and/or sign a competent backup who has had at least a modicum of success in the league (no more Matt Cassels or Blaine Gabberts, please), and use their other resources to surround their current quarterback with a more talented supporting cast.
Give Marcus Mariota a chance in 2019 with an improved roster around him to show that he either is or is not the guy you need him to be.
If Mariota gets injured again or fails to improve, well, at least the new guy won’t be required to carry the offense on his shoulders because he’ll have that talent you acquired this offseason from the get-go.
Regardless of what you think of Marcus Mariota’s abilities (I happen to think — er, hope — that he will prove himself to be “the guy” in 2019), the best move the Titans can make for the future of their franchise is to run it back with Mariota in 2019 while simultaneously preparing for life without him by acquiring a capable, but not too expensive, backup quarterback.