April is a fascinating month on the 2019 calendar. Not only do football fans get the NFL draft, the yearly event that gives supporters of every organization the chance to bet on the future — and hope — but fans of the HBO saga Game of Thrones were treated to the premier of the eighth and final season a few weeks before the draft.
In honor of that event, let’s take a spin through each division and analyze their quarterback situations, looking at teams that might need to address the position in the draft (whether for an immediate starter or an upgrade at the backup spot) with me serving as the Maester for each organization, offering my wise and sage counsel that is sure to be ignored, and likely to get me killed in the end.
Today we analyze the NFC North, where each club is set at the starting spot, for better or worse. A few of these teams might look to draft a quarterback to develop over the next few years just as a potential hedge for the future.
Rostered Quarterbacks: Mitchell Trubisky, Chase Daniel, Tyler Bray
Trubisky enjoyed somewhat of a breakout season last year, in his first year with head coach Matt Nagy. Trubisky helped lead the Bears to the playoffs (aided by an incredible defense) and earned a Pro Bowl selection ... an honor you can take with a grain of salt. But Year Two in Nagy’s system should complete Trubisky’s developmental turnaround, and expectations are high for him with good reason. As documented here at PFW, with some slight mechanical fixes (glaring at Trubisky’s left foot) he can truly take flight in Year Three.
Behind Trubisky, the Bears have the perfect backup situation. Daniel is the ideal veteran backup, who (as we saw last season) can step in and keep the team afloat over a stretch of a few games, while still helping the younger quarterback learn and develop as an additional voice of experience on the sidelines. In Bray, the team has a viable third quarterback option who can run Nagy’s offense should something happen to one of the top two guys.
Maester’s Counsel: The Bears are pretty set at the quarterback spot, Trubisky has shown enough growth for the organization to continue to build around him, and they have two ideal backups behind him with experience in Nagy’s system. The biggest question the organization faces regarding Trubisky is whether he can continue his developmental arc. Should he fix the lower body inconsistency, he can take another leap forward in the 2019 season.
Rostered Quarterbacks: Matthew Stafford, Connor Cook, Tom Savage
In contrast to the Bears’ situation, the Lions have some questions at the quarterback spot as they enter 2019.
Let’s start in the backup spots. Neither Cook nor Savage inspire great confidence behind the QB1 spot. Cook was a player I valued highly in the 2016 draft, ranking him fourth at the quarterback spot behind Jared Goff, Carson Wentz and Paxton Lynch. However, some questions regarding his attitude, some concerns about his robotic style of play, and other reasons saw him fall to the Oakland Raiders in the fourth round. He would start the season as the team’s third-string quarterback, but due to injuries would eventually make his first NFL start in the Raiders’ playoff game. Cook threw three interceptions in that game, and Oakland lost to the Houston Texans.
After the organization acquired AJ McCarron at the start of the 2018 season, Cook was waived by the Raiders. He bounced between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Carolina Panthers, before signing a futures/reserve contract with the Lions to start this season.
As for Savage, the veteran passer enters the 2019 season with a career completion percentage under 60 percent, with five career touchdown passes and seven career interceptions. Most notably was his start to the 2017 season for the Houston Texans. He was named the starter despite the organization drafting Deshaun Watson in the first round. In the season opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Savage was sacked six times and lost two fumbles, and was benched for Watson. Only when the rookie suffered a season-ending injury did Savage see the field again.
Then there is Stafford. The former Georgia Bulldog signed a five-year extension back in 2017 and is under contract through the 2022 season. However, he has yet to live up to the $135M contract he signed, and the Lions have yet to make the playoffs since the extension, finishing 9-7 in the 2017 season and 6-10 last year. Stafford still shows the ability to make incredible throws off many platforms, and can deliver in some comeback situations, but he and the Lions need to take a step forward soon. The organization can help the process by having a good draft and adding some weapons around him.
Maester’s Counsel: The Lions are a darkhorse team to go quarterback earlier than many expect in this draft. Yes, they have Stafford in place, but they could use a better option behind him, and it might be smart to grab an early developmental quarterback sometime late on Day 2 or early on Day 3 to start to groom. Stafford does not need replacing or anything, but looking to the future would be wise. Will Grier, Jarrett Stidham and Tyree Jackson are intriguing options for Detroit on Day 2.
Green Bay Packers
Rostered Quarterbacks: Aaron Rodgers, DeShone Kizer, Tim Boyle
Would it be the craziest idea for the Packers to draft a quarterback on the earlier side this season?
Conventional wisdom tells us that perhaps it would be. After all, it’s Aaron Rodgers. One of the most talented quarterbacks in the game and an elite passer. But the thing with conventional wisdom is that it’s just that ... conventional.
This has nothing to do with the recent stories about Rodgers in Bleacher Report, but rather with data. Digging into Rodgers’ performance the past few seasons uncovers something that flies in the face of conventional thinking: Rodgers is not performing up to his usual standards. Take for example this piece by Scott Barrett, who does great work for Pro Football Focus. Barrett looked at depth-adjusted completion percentage, a metric first unveiled by Mike Clay back in 2013. As Barrett terms it, this metric “provides more nuance than raw completion percentage.” It accomplishes this goal by stripping out throwaways, batted passes, and plays where the quarterback was hit at the throw. It also treats drops as completions. It then measures the quarterback’s now-adjusted completion percentage in contrast to the expected completion percentage for throws by distance.
Rodgers does not fare as well as the other elite passers in this study, and is a middle-of-the pack quarterback. In 2018 he posted a completion percentage of 74.4%, against an expected completion percentage of 73.2%, or an increase of just 1.2% over expectations. That put him on par with quarterbacks like Joe Flacco and Jameis Winston. By contrast, Drew Brees led the league in this metric by posting a completion percentage of 83% against an expected completion percentage of 75.0%, a jump of 8%.
As Barrett puts it: “Still, I think there’s cause for concern. Rodgers ranked below average here, and has underwhelmed in depth-adjusted completion percentage for four straight years. He also led the NFL in throwaways last season with 59 (at least 19 more than any other team) and would have ranked much worse here if we didn’t exclude those. In all honesty, it might be time to consider selling high on Rodgers in dynasty leagues.”
Barrett drives the point home with this analysis:
Aaron Rodgers -- Rank by Depth Adjusted Completion Percentage— Scott Barrett (@ScottBarrettDFB) April 4, 2019
Barrett is not alone. Ben Baldwin, who does fantastic work for The Athletic - Seattle, has also been pointing out that Rodgers’ production the past few seasons does not match the conventional wisdom regarding his career. For example, Baldwin recently pointed out that Matt Ryan has been more efficient on a per play basis than Rodgers over the past few seasons:
Now, this could be due in part to the scheme under Mike McCarthy getting stale. Some caution is probably merited in the near term, letting things play out under a new head coach and offensive play caller. However, it does merit watching. If Rodgers continues to underwhem as these numbers bear out, it would create quite the vexing decision for the organization prior to the 2020 draft…
Behind Rodgers, the team has Kizer and Boyle on the roster. Kizer is a serviceable backup, while Boyle is perhaps a developmental prospect in the third spot.
Maester’s Counsel: I would not want Green Bay to draft a quarterback with either of its first round selections, unless a player like Drew Lock falls to the Packers at 30. But if it turns out that Rodgers’ level of production remains somewhat stagnant in a new offense, addressing the position early is not out of the question in 2020.
Rostered Quarterbacks: Kirk Cousins, Kyle Sloter
Well, let’s put it this way: The arranged marriage between Cousins and the Minnesota Vikings has at least one more year to play out. Minnesota signed Cousins to a three-year, $84M fully guaranteed contract prior to the 2018 season. The organization will at least roll with him for the 2019 season, because cutting him prior to June 1 would create $60M in dead cap and count against the cap to the tune of $31M. Should the organization decide to move on from him prior to the 2020 season, the financial situation gets a bit better, as that would create “just” $31M in dead cap and not generate a dime of savings under the cap.
So, for probably the next two seasons, he’s their man.
Behind him the Vikings have Sloter, a prospect from Northern Colorado who had some fans in the draft community. He showed glimpses of ability during some preseason performances, and is in the driver’s seat for the backup spot right now. Coming out of Northern Colorado he showed some good footwork in the pocket, as well as some NFL-level arm strength.
Maester’s Counsel: Given the numbers at work, going quarterback early in this draft is probably not an option. For better or worse, Cousins is the guy over the next two seasons, and if he truly struggles there might be a need for a new quarterback for the 2021 season. So, the team has two options: Worry about it if they have to then, or draft a developmental quarterback now and have another option behind Sloter waiting in the wings. I always counsel teams to prepare years ahead of time, because trying to replace a quarterback when it is a true position of need might not always work out. The talent might not be there in the future class, the cost might be too high in terms of draft capital, and tanking does not always pan out. Minnesota should consider using one of its later-round picks, perhaps its fourth-round selection (No. 121 overall) or its first sixth-rounder (192), on a developmental player. Someone like Boise State's Brett Rypien or Gardner Minshew of Washington State would provide another depth option while giving Minnesota someone to groom just in case...
Previous Divisional QB counsels from Maester: