Choosing a quarterback? Good luck
It’s the hardest position in sports to evaluate, and many teams can’t get it right
Go back to the NFL draft on the night of April 27, 2017. The Bills were on the clock in the 10th spot, needing a franchise quarterback.
So they traded away the pick that became Patrick Mahomes.
Maybe this will work out over the long haul for the Bills, now hitched to rookie quarterback Josh Allen, chosen with the seventh pick in April. Yet the way Mahomes has lit it up through five weeks as Andy Reid’s new wingman, leading the league with 14 touchdown passes, makes me wonder whether Coach Andy suckered a former assistant, Bills coach Sean McDermott, to land the ultimate prize.
The decision to pass on Mahomes and for that matter, Deshaun Watson — selected by the Texans two slots after Mahomes, could haunt the Bills franchise for years.
“I’m reminded of what Bill Walsh once told me,” Mike Lombardi, former NFL general manager, told USA TODAY, dropping the name of the late Hall of Famer who built the 49ers dynasty of the 1980s. “The hardest position to evaluate is quarterback, and it’s even harder to coach. In the draft, so few really know. But Andy knew exactly what he was getting with Mahomes.”
The axiom that hindsight is 20-20 can be especially true when it comes to the crucial decision to draft a quarterback and if so, which one?
The influx of young quarterbacks who have come on the NFL stage within the past three years will undoubtedly weigh heavily on the fortunes of several teams, with much fodder attached to comparisons of their development or lack thereof.
“If Deshaun Watson was with the Jaguars, they might be the best team in the league,” said Lombardi, who writes for TheAthletic.com. “How about the Bears? They traded a bundle to move up. Was (Mitchell) Trubisky the best quarterback in the draft?”
Yes, there were a few quarterbackneedy teams that passed on Patrick Passer.
“Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch, it didn’t fit their narrative,” Lombardi added of the 49ers coach and GM. “They wanted to make a run at Kirk Cousins.”
Ah, Cousins. If you saw the Vikings’ $84 million man throw down at the Linc on Sunday, then caught Alex Smith in one of the worst games of his career on Monday night in New Orleans, it raises questions about how Dan Snyder & Co. bungled that one. Smith was surely seen by Washington as an upgrade, with attractiveness bolstered by the time spent with the quarterback guru in Kansas City.
Looks like a downgrade at the moment.
The comparisons won’t end for Smith, who came into the NFL as the No. 1 pick overall in 2005 with the 49ers. The next quarterback drafted, Aaron Rodgers, fell all the way to the 24th slot, where the Packers found their successor to Brett Favre. Decisions, decisions.
Perhaps the Jaguars, equipped with one of the NFL’s best defenses (albeit a unit shredded by Mahomes on Sunday) will rue the decision to not only pass on Watson and Mahomes and select injury-riddled running back Leonard Fournette with the fourth pick, but also the rationale to stand pat with Blake Bortles. Jacksonville had a chance last offseason to cut salary-cap bait with Bortles but instead re-upped him at three years, $54 million to go with a solid supporting cast.
Coaching might be the quintessential X factor. Jared Goff, No. 1 overall by the Rams in 2016, epitomizes that. He seemed like a bust as a rookie. Then along comes whiz kid coach Sean McVay, and a star was born. Goff leads the NFL with 1,727 passing yards and ranks second behind Drew Brees with a 119.7 passer rating.
In Buffalo’s case, after passing on Mahomes, at least there was another crack with Allen. The Browns can relate. Cleveland traded the second pick overall to Philadelphia in 2016 and had to watch Carson Wentz play like the MVP last season until he blew out his knee. Now the Browns are energized by Baker Mayfield.
Still, there’s some gray area when assessing just how Buffalo arrived at the decision that allowed the Chiefs to move up 17 slots in the first round to snag Mahomes. Speculation persists that McDermott was the most influential power broker during that draft. It seems more plausible with then-GM Doug Whaley fired the day after the three-day draft concluded, quickly replaced by Brandon Beane, who worked with McDermott in Carolina.
In any event, it’s odd that the Bills were not among several teams — in- cluding the Giants, Arizona, Houston and New Orleans, according to agent Leigh Steinberg — showing significant interest in Mahomes.
“It’s the most critical decision that an organization will make,” Steinberg told USA TODAY. “You have to make a projection that can hold up for the next 10 years. … And if not now, when?”
Steinberg, reflecting on Mahomes’ rise, praised Smith for helping his understudy for a year transition to the NFL. More striking, though, are the fingerprints of John Dorsey on two of the NFL’s most prominent rising stars. It was Dorsey, then the Chiefs GM, working the phone on the draft-night trade with Whaley. Now Dorsey is the new Browns GM who picked Mayfield rather than Sam Darnold with the first pick overall.
Time and circumstances will tell. A few weeks into the season, it looks like the right pick.
Said Steinberg, “The pressure and premature judgment on these quarterbacks is enormous.”
And so are the decisions. They can make you or break you and your heart.
Buffalo could have selected Patrick Mahomes but traded the draft pick to Kansas City.