Saturday, January 29, 2011

Redskins QB conundrum

When it comes to the Redskins drafting a quarterback in the first round of the upcoming NFL Draft, most fans seem to be in one camp or the other: either feeling that 1) the Skins need to draft a quarterback early no matter what, or 2) completely opposing taking a quarterback at any point in the first round. I'm more in the middle ground: if they end up taking a quarterback, that's fine, but they should at least recognize and consider other possibilities (taking another position, picking the best player available, or trading down). That seems like a non-controversial position to take, but the Redskins do have a lot of problems to fix and are not one player away from contention.

NFL teams do not have a foolproof system of evaluating quarterbacks (or really anyone, for that matter). Except for a very select group of players, there is no sure-thing quarterback prospect. Plenty of immensely talented, early selected quarterbacks have failed spectacularly, and many others flourished after dropping to teams that were better able to utilize their talents and nurture their pro growth effectively.

Just take a look at Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers was thought to be one of the top quarterback prospects in the 2005 NFL Draft. In actuality, he was: He was the second quarterback taken overall after Alex Smith, who was selected No. 1 by the 49ers. But lots of teams passed on Rodgers -- they either weren't sold on his abilities or were content to fill other positions instead. Rodgers was finally selected by the Packers with the 24th selection. And yet, that was just the beginning. As the backup to Brett Favre for his first three seasons, Rodgers had plenty of time to be coached up on how to play the position properly. And when he finally received the full support of the entire Packers organization in 2008, Rodgers flourished. In his first three seasons, Rodgers has thrown for at least 3,922 yards and 28 touchdowns in each season. Now that's productivity.

But what would have happened if, for some reason, the 49ers had selected Rodgers instead of Smith? Would Rodgers have been as effective? Would he still be in the NFL? It's impossible to know, but each situation a quarterback is placed in is different. We'd like to think that a tremendously skilled quarterback would play well no matter what team he's on -- such as, would Peyton Manning be just as awesome if he were playing on the Redskins instead of the Colts. There are plenty of questions like that that just can't be answered.

While no one would argue that quarterback is not the most important position on the field, that doesn't mean that it's not important to still strive for a well-rounded team. Most of the best quarterbacks in the league are former first-round picks, but some can still be found later in the draft. Often it's about getting lucky, but that's what can happen when teams save their picks or acquire draft choices from other teams. The Redskins don't operate that way.

To shift gears a little bit, let's take a look at the top 15 quarterbacks this season in terms of QB ranking and in what spot they were drafted.

1. Tom Brady (6th round, No. 199)
2. Philip Rivers (1st, 4)
3. Aaron Rodgers (1st, 24)
4. Michael Vick (1st, 1)
5. Ben Roethlisberger (1st, 11)
6. Josh Freeman (1st, 17)
7. Joe Flacco (1st, 18)
8. Matt Cassel (7th, 230)
9. Matt Schaub (3rd, 90)
10. Peyton Manning (1st, 1)
11. Matt Ryan (1st, 3)
12. Drew Brees (2nd, 32)
13. David Garrard (4th, 108)
14. Jon Kitna (undrafted free agent)
15. Kyle Orton (4th, 106)

Of those 15 quarterbacks, eight were first-round picks. Also, two of the guys taken in later rounds were drafted by the Patriots, who seem to be pretty good at this whole drafting thing. (Also, three of the picks above were made by the Falcons, and two were made by the Chargers.) I'm not going to break down each quarterback and the situation he was drafted into -- especially since the list is only looking at a single year -- but I do think it's possible to draw a couple of conclusions:

1) If the Redskins held onto more of their draft picks, they could have taken more chances on late-round selections. Because the Skins trade away so many of their picks for other teams' older players, they rarely have the luxury of taking a chance on a player in the middle rounds. When they do have picks, they're under so much pressure to hit a home run because Redskins' teams of the last decade or so are usually old and also thin in terms of depth. Seldom do the Redskins have extra picks -- fewer draft choices mean fewer chances to unearth a hidden gem of a player.

2) It is possible to wait until after the first round to find a decent quarterback. He may not be able to start from day one and take charge of the offense immediately, but that guy can be found. That player may not be as gifted as the guys selected before him, so the team's offense may need to be built around his strengths. And that's something that the Redskins haven't done well -- e.g., making Donovan McNabb throw a ton of short passes rather than letting him throw deep more often.

3) For many, it comes down to nature vs. nurture -- do you believe that a talented player will find a way to be great no matter what, or do you think that the situation he's drafted into plays a huge role in his development? It's probably a combination of both, but no two players are the same.

I don't really have an overarching point in this discussion. Bad teams don't necessarily need to pigeonhole their first-round pick; there's nothing wrong with keeping an open mind and waiting to jump on a positive situation when it arises. Could Cam Newton end up being a solid quarterback? Sure. But if another team thinks so too and makes a solid offer to move into the Redskins' slot at No. 10 -- either for Newton or any other player --  the Skins should definitely be listening.

Mike and Kyle Shanahan would love to have a young, promising quarterback on the team's roster. But more than that, they want to win. The best way to do that is to keep getting rid of the old, overpaid players on the current roster and bringing in new, younger talent. If that means drafting a quarterback 10th, that's OK -- but the organization better hit on that pick, or else it's back to the drawing board yet again. Because when a team drafts a quarterback that early, they're investing lots of time and money into making sure that guy learns quickly and develops into the face of the franchise.

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