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QB Churn: How NFL Team Building Has Changed at the Most Important Position

Matthew Stafford, Los Angeles Rams

New Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford is the headliner of the latest wave of turnover at the game's marquee position

When Sam Huard arrived on Washington’s campus in early April for spring practice, he did so with an almost royal Husky pedigree. His father, Damon, and his uncle, Brock, were both three-year starting quarterbacks at UW — Damon also played five games as a freshman — so his lineage was quite impressive.

Sam has strong genetics, but he has much more. He started four years as a high schooler. He was competing in 7-on-7 games even before that. He was attending sessions with a biomechanics expert since seventh grade. The DNA is there, but so is modern training that the earlier generation of Huard passers didn’t have.

“He’s so much more advanced than we were,” says Brock, a Fox NFL analyst and Sirius Radio host. “[Seahawks head coach] Pete Carroll said that in the last decade or so, the quarterbacks coming out of college are better prepared than ever. Trevor Lawrence played [56] high school games. I played two years of high school football. The breadth and depth of the experience he had coming out of high school was well past any level quarterbacks had decades ago.”

In today’s NFL, franchises are far less reluctant to hand the reins to a young QB like Lawrence. Nor are they hesistant when they don’t think a quarterback is the right fit anymore. Today, in fact, the churn under center has reached new levels. The Rams got this offseason started by trading Jared Goff plus two first-round picks for Matthew Stafford. Leading the team to a Super Bowl two years ago wasn’t enough to save someone’s starting job, and perhaps no contract is too big to be moved. And the moves only escalated from there.

The Eagles dished Carson Wentz to Indianapolis. The Jets sent Sam Darnold to Carolina after the third overall pick in 2018 spent just three seasons in Gotham. There were rumors that Miami was considering trading Tua Tagovailoa — after one season. Deshaun Watson demanded a trade from Houston (and was dogged by lawsuits related to alleged sexual assault). So did Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay. Russell Wilson expressed dissatisfaction in Seattle — and the Seahawks responded by not mentioning him in an offseason letter sent to season ticketholders. It’s one thing for Ryan Fitzpatrick to add a ninth team’s sticker to his suitcase and another for teams to trade highly paid starters.

After watching QBs like Drew Brees, Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger spend 15 or more seasons with one team, fans must now worry about their teams’ QB situations, even if the franchises have signed the passers to fat, long-term contracts. What’s next, Kansas City ships off Patrick Mahomes for a couple draft picks?

“I would have never imagined a divorce between Bill Belichick and Tom Brady,” Huard says. “They had enjoyed unparalleled success. I know it was late in the game, and they had stuck together for the kids, but I figured they would just continue to fight, not get a divorce.”

It almost seems like the NFL has decided that it needed to add a little juice to its offseason, a la the NBA, and move some of its biggest names around. It’s not that easy or calculated — we hope — but it sure seems that way. However, there is more at work here than a desire to create drama. Like money.

NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger believes one of the reasons teams are so eager to let go of quarterbacks is that spending $30-40 million a year on one position, even if it is the most important in all of team sports, makes it more difficult to build the rest of the team. Although the Rams took on the remaining two years and $43 million on Stafford’s contract, it’s still cheaper than the Goff deal, which Detroit restructured. The salary cap is expected to soar next year, due to the massive increase in TV revenues the NFL negotiated with its broadcast partners, but teams are still not interested in overpaying their passers.

“Part of it right now is the cost of quarterbacks and the fact that, outside of Tom Brady, who is the ultimate outlier, teams are winning Super Bowls with quarterbacks on rookie contracts,” Baldinger says. “If you build a team around a quarterback on a rookie contract, you have more cap space.”

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When Justin Fields was in high school, he had a chance to get the kind of coaching that college QBs can only imagine. Of course, since some of them joined Fields at the Quarterback Collective, a series of camps for elite prep prospects that include NFL head coaches and top assistants, they probably didn’t have to stretch their cognitive abilities too far. Because of the Collective and specialty training opportunities like it, players like Fields have been receiving NFL-style instruction for years.

It wasn’t that long ago that many of the QBs coming out of college had played in offenses that were almost 180 degrees different from what they would encounter as professionals. They weren’t under center. They didn’t have to navigate route trees. Now, not only are they exposed to NFL concepts as teenagers, but the NFL-college offense relationship has also changed. Pro teams are now spreading the field and using RPO concepts that fans see on Saturdays. There are still big differences in talent and complexity of defensive schemes faced, but the similarities are there. It’s impossible to conceive of a pro team adopting veer principles in the late ’70s and early ’80s, but it’s obvious that plenty of spread tactics are part of NFL playbooks right now. So, when younger — and cheaper — quarterbacks enter the league, they’re not facing a ridiculous adjustment. Oh, it’s still tough, but teams aren’t as reluctant to start rookies anymore.

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Take the Chargers’ Justin Herbert. It can be argued that if Tyrod Taylor hadn’t suffered a punctured lung while receiving a painkilling injection before L.A.’s Sept. 20 game against the Chiefs, Herbert wouldn’t have become the starter. But it was clear the job would ultimately be his, if not in that moment, then definitely by the dawn of 2021. Some thought Taylor would return to the top position once his lung healed, but that didn’t happen. Instead Herbert, the sixth overall pick in the 2020 draft, became the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year, set an NFL record for TD passes thrown by a rookie and became just the fourth first-year passer to throw for more than 4,000 yards.

But by the time he faced the Chiefs again in the final week of the season, Herbert didn’t feel much more comfortable than he had felt in his debut.

Huard was on the broadcast team for the second Kansas City-Los Angeles game and remembers speaking to Herbert beforehand.

“I asked him, ‘After 15 games, has it slowed down?’” Huard says. “He said, ‘Are you crazy? No.’ The game is faster than ever. But quarterbacks are protected more than ever. That’s why Tom and Drew and Ben can play into their 40s. They aren’t being pile-driven into the ground like [coach] Buddy Ryan’s teams did to quarterbacks in the 1980s and ’90s.”

Still, it appears as if teams are willing to take chances with younger quarterbacks, even if it means they must wait for them to develop. The payoff is that talented passers get early starts, with confidence in them based on their training, and teams get flexibility throughout the rest of their roster.

“Look at Washington,” Baldinger says. “They are building around a stopgap quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and a defense that was ranked fourth last year. They are getting better. They added [receiver] Curtis Samuel. When the time is right, they will get a quarterback.”

Another factor is the growing power of those who play the position, particularly those with large contracts. During the offseason, Seattle’s Wilson provided input on the team’s selection of its offensive coordinator. However, the quarterback power-play dynamic is in its nascent stage, and the nature of the league’s trade market could preclude such power plays down the road.

Still, it’s obvious that things are changing in regard to the position. Teams are looking to manage salaries, and players are trying to maximize their leverage. The upshot? Don’t spend too much money on the QB’s jersey from your favorite team because he might not be around for too long.

“I think quarterbacks will have more power,” Baldinger says. “It’s not a bad thing to have collaboration with your quarterback. It just means that he has more power.”

And maybe soon, he’ll have a new address.

On the Move

Matt Barkley

Buffalo >> Tennessee (FA)

CJ. Beathard

San Francisco >> Jacksonville (FA)

Tim Boyle

Green Bay >> Detroit (FA)

Teddy Bridgewater

Carolina >> Denver (Trade)

Jacoby Brissett

Indianapolis >> Miami (FA)

Andy Dalton

Dallas >> Chicago (FA)

Chase Daniel

Detroit >> L.A. Chargers (FA)

Sam Darnold

N.Y. Jets >> Carolina (Trade)

Jeff Driskel

Denver >> Houston (FA)

Ryan Fitzpatrick

Miami >> Washington (FA)

Joe Flacco

N.Y. Jets >> Philadelphia (FA)

Mike Glennon

Jacksonville >> N.Y. Giants (FA)

Jared Goff

L.A. Rams >> Detroit (Trade)

Brett Hundley

Arizona >> Indianapolis (FA)

AJ McCarron

Houston >> Atlanta (FA)

Colt McCoy

N.Y. Giants >> Arizona (FA)

Nick Mullens

San Francisco >> Philadelphia (FA)

Matthew Stafford

Detroit >> L.A. Rams (Trade)

Nate Sudfeld

Philadelphia >> San Francisco (FA)

Tyrod Taylor

L.A. Chargers >> Houston (FA)

Mitchell Trubisky

Chicago >> Buffalo (FA)

Carson Wentz

Philadelphia >> Indianapolis (Trade)

Staying Put

Brandon Allen

Re-signed with Cincinnati

Blaine Gabbert

Re-signed with Tampa Bay

Josh Dobbs

Re-signed with Pittsburgh

Ryan Griffin

Re-signed with Tampa Bay

Brian Hoyer

Re-signed with New England

Cam Newton

Re-signed with New England

Dak Prescott

Re-signed with Dallas

Geno Smith

Re-signed with Seattle

Jameis Winston

Re-signed with New Orleans

— Written by Michael Bradley (@DailyHombre) for Athlon Sports' 2021 Pro Football Magazine.