The Washington Post

QBS remain the priority but can still be the final piece


In this NFL draft, patience defeated desperatio­n for once. Quarterbac­kdeprived teams heeded the warnings and didn’t reach for the first passer they saw throw a spiral.

It was expected, and the discipline still was revelatory.

You can explain away the lack of interest in rookie quarterbac­ks with a few standard reasons. This class had long been derided as uninspirin­g, and the pool of teams craving quarterbac­ks was smaller because, in the previous two drafts, nine were selected in the first round, eight of whom are expected to be starters this season. Before the draft, several other needy teams had gone wild, snagging big-name veterans during an unusually frenzied trade market.

And so, for just the second time in two decades, one signal caller heard his name in the first round. After Pittsburgh took Kenny Pickett with the 20th pick, the next quarterbac­k wasn’t selected until Round 3, when Desmond Ridder went at No. 74.

However, it wasn’t as random as perceived. If you resist looking at the offseason in isolation, you will realize the current situation is an exaggerate­d representa­tion of a decade-long shift in NFL roster-building ideology.

The change involves sequencing. Teams are getting smarter about setting the table for a quarterbac­k to come in and make an immediate impact. In the most triumphant recent tales, he is a capstone acquisitio­n and not the initiator of a fruitful rebuild.

The foundation­al piece doesn’t have to come first anymore. There are fewer examples now of lowly organizati­ons starting their rebuilding effort by using a high first-round draft pick on a quarterbac­k and then going through every painstakin­g step with that young player to try to build a winning team. In some of the most celebrated examples, the franchise acquired its most

important piece near the end of a roster overhaul.

It’s an undisputed principle: True, long-term contention cannot begin until a qualified quarterbac­k is under center. But there’s a difference between searching for a franchise quarterbac­k and waiting for a savior. It matters what a team does before that leader materializ­es — if he ever does — and organizati­ons are showing greater savvy in building around the vacancy.

Exceptions still exist. In leading Cincinnati to the Super Bowl last season, Joe Burrow burst into prominence as the classic franchise quarterbac­k. The Bengals were 2-14 in 2019. They took Burrow with the first pick in 2020, and at the end of his second season, they were playing for the championsh­ip. It’s an astounding rise, but Burrow’s ascension might be impossible to replicate. It’s a better practice to look at how two other high-level AFC teams, Kansas City and Buffalo, achieved sustainabl­e success.

Both the Chiefs and Bills made the playoffs with other quarterbac­ks before turning to Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen to complete them. Mahomes inherited a team he could immediatel­y take to a championsh­ip level. Allen needed more time, but as he learned on the job, the Bills cushioned him with a solid roster that evolved into a great one. Then Allen vaulted to the elite tier, and Buffalo is now in Super Bowl-chasing mode.

It can seem counterint­uitive to prioritize pursuing the hardest position in sports to find a star and then focus on building around the player before you even know his name or how he plays. But that’s how some shrewd teams are getting ahead. They are showing the discipline to wait, the scouting eye to identify stopgap quarterbac­ks who can help them progress and the sense of timing to know when to go for it — and how to go for it.

Consider the past three Super Bowl champions: Kansas City, Tampa Bay and the Los Angeles Rams.

Mahomes was the highly coveted standout quarterbac­k on a rookie contract, which allowed the Chiefs the salary cap flexibilit­y to put a complete team around him. Brady left New England for the Buccaneers as a free agent, recognizin­g the talent there that he could magnify. The Bucs were ready for him after five years of accumulati­ng weapons to help former No. 1 pick Jameis Winston. And in Los Angeles, aggressive general manager Les Snead traded Jared Goff to Detroit to get Matthew Stafford, and the quarterbac­k upgrade finished the Rams’ process.

In every case, the teams were lucky, for certain. But they also planned so they could capitalize when that luck arrived. For too long, teams had grown too content to draft project quarterbac­ks and live off false hope until everybody got fired. They were passive and hoping to see what they had before making significan­t roster upgrades. They subjected their developing quarterbac­ks to so much early failure that they could never recover.

In the endless search for topnotch quarterbac­ks, there is no universal strategy that makes the mission easier. But inflexibil­ity hinders success. With general managers getting younger and players wanting to move around, trades and quarterbac­k shuffling could become more common. Those deals aren’t always going to include mega-talents such as Russell Wilson, Matt Ryan and Deshaun Watson, but fluidity will be a part of the equation. And that’s a potential game changer in deterring teams from overreachi­ng in the draft.

There’s a recency bias to consider. The hyped 2021 class struggled after five quarterbac­ks were taken in the first 15 picks. New England’s Mac Jones was the only one of the group to make the playoffs and perform consistent­ly at a high level. The group’s woes made it even harder for the 2022 crop to be appreciate­d.

When the 2022 season begins, the effectiven­ess of all those trades will be scrutinize­d. And as blockbuste­r deals gain popularity, it’s not the biggest names who will dictate the future movement as much as players such as Carson Wentz in Washington or even the continuing reclamatio­n project of Sam Darnold with Carolina.

Then there’s the quarterbac­k competitio­n in Pittsburgh. The Steelers signed former No. 2 overall pick Mitchell Trubisky to a modest two-year deal in free agency. They drafted Pickett. And they still have Mason Rudolph, their 2018 third-round pick, who has a 5-4-1 career record as a starter.

In declaring that all three will vie for Ben Roethlisbe­rger’s old job, Pittsburgh Coach Mike Tomlin told reporters: “It’s really nothing to handle. Those guys are competitor­s. We’re in a competitor­s’ business. They understand that. They understand that we’re building the constructi­on of the team to win.”

No team is made for the challenge of starting over at quarterbac­k. But the Steelers, a model franchise, are certain to maintain their holistic approach to team building. They don’t have hopes. They have plans. And in the NFL’S incessant quarterbac­k search, the most resourcefu­l organizati­ons tend to survive.

 ?? ?? Jerry Brewer
Jerry Brewer
 ?? GENE J. PUSKAR/ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? Kenny Pickett, drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers with the 20th pick, was the only quarterbac­k taken in the first round this year.
GENE J. PUSKAR/ASSOCIATED PRESS Kenny Pickett, drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers with the 20th pick, was the only quarterbac­k taken in the first round this year.

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