It has long been a truism that the quarterback is the most important position in the NFL. As the game has evolved to favor the pass more than ever, having a good passer and a strong leader taking the snaps is one of the best predictors of success. Given the cost of acquiring and retaining those players, getting it right is one of the most crucial tasks for teams. They are hard to come by, and teams often have tried to work with and develop QBs that they had to pay a lot in draft capital, cap space, or both to get. But things have changed. As Stephen Holder of The Athletic wrote in a recent article, there is an unprecedented amount of turnover at the position throughout the league. The Dallas Cowboys are a notable exception.
Among the most notable observations here: Just three quarterbacks, Aaron Rodgers, Dak Prescott and Derek Carr, have been their current team’s starter for five or more seasons.
It’s quite remarkable when placed in historic context. Had a similar list been compiled 10 years ago, there would have been 10 such quarterbacks.
Part of this is a new willingness for established QBs to move on from their old teams. Both Tom Brady and Matt Stafford led new teams to Super Bowl titles in their first year there. They got there by different paths, with Brady a free agent and Stafford part of a blockbuster trade, but both were looking for new homes. Stafford pushed for his trade. But, as Holder notes, it also reflects a new willingness of franchises to move on.
Eight of the 18 quarterbacks selected in the top 10 selections of the NFL Draft since 2015 have already changed teams or are expected to be replaced as starters. In the case of Marcus Mariota, Carson Wentz, Mitchell Trubisky and Josh Rosen, they’ve changed teams on multiple occasions.
This is despite the high cost of doing so, with teams that part ways often absorbing large dead money hits and those gaining a new passer taking on huge contract obligations. The situation of the Cleveland Browns is a glaring example of both. They are clearly looking to move on from Baker Mayfield despite $18 million plus in dead cap. Their planned successor, Deshaun Watson, has a simply staggering contract that they have taken on.
Deshaun Watson’s dead money cap figure made me choke on my water pic.twitter.com/9hmy34ZK7k— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) May 17, 2022
That is despite the team anticipating that Watson will face a suspension due to his off field incidents.
There is always heated discussion in media, both traditional and social, about just how good Prescott is. The team has made the decision that he is the long-term answer at the position. Last season he guided them to a 12-5 record and the playoffs despite coming back from a devastating ankle injury and then suffering a minor calf injury that still seemed to negatively impact his performance. This year, he is expected to be fully healthy from the start of OTAs. If he is back to his best level, he could be the key to elevating a roster that is, on paper at least, a bit depleted from the one in 2021 that looked to be among the best in the NFL.
Is this a low point for overall QB retention that will revert back in a few seasons? The success of some less-tenured quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, and Lamar Jackson would argue that it should. But even for players with some skins on the wall, teams are showing a willingness to consider other options. It will be interesting to see the structures of future deals. Even Mahomes’ record ten-year deal, signed in 2020, can be gotten out of after 2024 with relatively little dead money cost. Prescott’s own deal involves voidable years in 2025 and 2026 to spread out the cap hits. It will require something to be done by then, assuming he is still playing at a high level. But the structure showed that the team wanted to have some way to get out of things just in case.
Hopefully, Prescott’s performance will justify a third contract and he will become the longest-tenured quarterback in the league. If stability at the position is truly a positive thing, he is potentially even more valuable to the Cowboys than most think.
2022 may turn out to be something of an aberration. Or maybe not.
But more than anything, here’s what this bit of research proves: Quarterback upheaval is an undeniable reality of life in today’s NFL. And if recent events are any indication, this trend is going to continue. The current offseason, marked by the trades of Pro Bowl quarterbacks Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson and Matt Ryan, suggests this level of turnover could be here to stay. This offseason was a continuation of other recent offseasons. Between 2020 and 2021, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Matthew Stafford and Carson Wentz changed teams.