There is a fine line between seeing things that support a position and succumbing to confirmation bias. That seems appropriate to mention when discussing what the Dallas Cowboys are doing this year in many facets of building the 2016 roster. Drafting Ezekiel Elliott and relying on a group of athletically talented but largely unproven defensive linemen are two examples of approaches the team has taken that we hope will be very successful. but that also could fall short of our often lofty hopes and expectations. Another one is the drafting of Dak Prescott. Given the way the likelihood of long-term success declines the later a quarterback is drafted, there is an ongoing discussion of the wisdom of using a late fourth-round pick for a player whose ceiling may be as a serviceable backup.
This is, after all, a Cowboys fan site, and most of us want to see Dallas succeed. We dislike having any decision by the team turn out poorly. It would be absolutely wonderful if Prescott should develop into a true starting-caliber quarterback, but that is not the apparent plan for him, at least in the short-term. His role, as least for now, is seen as an upgrade to the QB2 position, currently held by Kellen Moore. That seems an entirely reasonable projection for Prescott, who has some good attributes for the job. But it still leaves the question of using a fairly valuable mid-round pick for that.
In light of that, an article by respected draftnik and NFL analyst Eric Galko on the increasing value of backup quarterbacks certainly seems to support the decision.
Why? Because the value of backup quarterbacks is at an all-time high. Between quarterback needs, rising contracts and ramifications of free agents and cost-effective mid-round quarterbacks, the smart teams will mine Day 3 of the draft to fill a crucial and, at times, pricey positional group.
No team in the NFL is more painfully aware of the pitfalls of not having a decent backup on the roster than the Cowboys. In all the problems that befell the team in 2015, none loom larger than the loss of Tony Romo to a broken clavicle, not once, but twice. With the unquestioned driving force of the offense sidelined, Dallas saw loss after loss pile up as Brandon Weeden and then Matt Cassel proved unable to move the ball or score with any effectiveness. While the overall success of this season will still hinge on Romo's health and ability, the team also has to be prepared to survive a shorter absence from him when there are only sixteen games that determine playoff eligibility. The addition of Elliiott and the expected return of a healthy Dez Bryant will greatly help any backup, but the better that fill-in can perform, the better the chances of getting another win or two.
The counter-argument to using a mid-round pick on a QB is that the chances are against him ever becoming a starter. Dallas certainly had other positions it could have invested the late fourth-round selection in. But at that point in the draft, you are really looking more for depth than a near-certain starter down the road, and quarterback depth may be the most valuable of all.
It is generally accepted that there are simply not enough true franchise quarterbacks to go around in the NFL. As the league has expanded to 32 teams, the supply has just not grown enough to provide one for each one, which has made the quest for that most valuable piece of the roster increasingly expensive, leading to this year's draft where two teams, the Los Angeles Rams and the Philadelphia Eagles, expended huge amounts of present and future draft capital to get a shot at possible quarterbacks of the future. Given recent history, they each have about a 50/50 chance of success. But if they did not believe that they had their quarterback already on the roster, they were backed into a real corner.
Dallas still has that future question facing them, but they are completely confident that they have the quarterback of today in Romo. When he is right, he is one of the absolute best in the league. With one of the best offensive lines to protect him, he can slice defenses to ribbons. And as we saw in 2014, when a dominating running attack keeps him from having to carry the entire load of the offense with his arm, the team can be one of the real powers in the league.
But the QB2 position is sometimes called the 12th starter for the team, and the results of 2015 bear that out in Dallas. Once, teams could find reasonably priced free agents to come in and be a good relief passer. The Cowboys did quite respectably with Jon Kitna, but since then, they have struggled. Kyle Orton turned into a malcontent, and we all saw the results of putting the team's faith in Weeden. Despite his vocal supporters, there is just no evidence that Moore is any real improvement over Weeden. He still may prove himself, but he has had a fairly long time in NFL terms to do so, and it hasn't happened yet. One strong outing (that was still a loss) against a team that was resting its starters for the playoffs is not nearly enough proof he is ready.
There are some indications that the backup QB market is undergoing the same kind of contraction as that for starters. And now there is new upward pressure on the cost of veteran backups. Chase Daniel is the biggest example. He signed a $7 million per year deal with the Eagles, who also committed a further $22 million over two years to Sam Bradford to serve as a (very disgruntled) bridge to Carson Wentz, the presumed future starter. While their huge level of investment in the quarterback position may pay off (typed with a totally straight face), the odds are not good. But every quarterback looking to sign on with a new team can now point to Daniel's contract and the $4 million a year Chad Henne got from the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Despite the yearly increases to the salary cap, there are limits to how much teams can afford to pay backup QBs, especially as the price of starters is also skyrocketing, with the next round of contracts for established, quality starters expected to be above $20 million a year, with no ceiling in sight. Now using a mid-round draft pick on a backup quarterback starts to make real sense. Assuming the team does a good job in scouting (not a given, of course), they can get a backup on a reasonable rookie deal. At the end of the deal, the team can decide to try and pay the price to keep him, or part ways. It would also need to have another QB in the pipeline, the way the New England Patriots have done for years. But using a draft pick every two or three years can be a much more effective way to go than having to get into free agent bidding for a player that you have to have. And there is always the chance you might hit the jackpot and find a future starter as well, which makes the cost equation very different indeed.
It remains to be seen if the Cowboys have changed their approach to acquiring quarterbacks, or if Prescott is just a one-time thing. For this year, however, Dallas has a real competition going for the backup job behind Romo. And Prescott may be able to fill that job for a few years, at least. In light of the escalating prices for veterans, his pick is looking better and better. It is an approach the team needs to consider seriously for the future as well. The challenge of finding a solid QB2 is not likely to get any easier.
Sometimes we seize on things to give us hope without there being a solid basis. But in this case, this may be a very good argument that the Cowboys got it right when they sent the card up with Prescott's name on it.