Fixing the quarterback position: Rookies versus veterans

Geno Smith could be a wise investment for a quarterback-needy team. - Jeff Zelevansky

Both the Jacksonville Jaguars and Kansas City Chiefs had major issues at quarterback in 2012, and both teams are addressing the quarterback through different means. Which method is correct?

Quarterback is the single most important position in football -- especially in today's NFL. If you don't have a successful quarterback, the chances are very high that your team isn't going to be successful -- unless Adrian Peterson is having an historic season in your backfield.

There are still teams with atrocious quarterback situations. Two of the NFL's worst passing teams in 2012 -- Jacksonville and Kansas City -- either addressed the quarterback situation already this offseason, or appear poised to do so through the draft.

Both the Chiefs and the Jaguars have brand-new coaching staffs, as Andy Reid brings his passing offense to Kansas City, while Gus Bradley brings his defensive mind to Jacksonville. Both coaches decided to address the quarterback situation for each franchise in different fashions, as the Chiefs acquired Alex Smith in a trade with the San Francisco 49ers; the Jaguars appear to be targeting West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith in the NFL Draft.

Which move makes more sense?

Recent history doesn't offer a definitive answer -- but it can serve as a guide.

In 2010, the four worst passing teams in the league by quarterback rating were the Seattle Seahawks, Minnesota Vikings, Arizona Cardinals and Carolina Panthers. In 2009, the Raiders were ranked No. 29 in passer rating, and marginally improved in 2010. Each team took a different approach during the offseason regarding the quarterback position, and the results were mixed.

Cleveland's Mess

Perhaps no team has been as consistently poor at quarterback in recent history as the Cleveland Browns. Since 2009, the Browns have finished the season ranked No. 32, 27, 29 and 29 in quarterback rating. Cleveland has taken a number of half-measures in its attempt to remedy the team's quarterback quandary.

The 2009 Browns featured the tag-team duo of Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson in Cleveland, before the Browns shifted to Colt McCoy, Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace in 2010. McCoy and Wallace received another shot in 2011, before the Browns used a first-round draft pick on Brandon Weeden -- who many do not view as Cleveland's franchise quarterback.

Cleveland's mess is as unique as it is unfocused. The Browns attempted to stay young at the position with McCoy after the league's worst passing offense in the league in 2009, but McCoy simply doesn't have the arm to be a starting NFL quarterback. In two seasons of work with the Browns, McCoy's downfield accuracy on passes of 20 yards or more topped out at 43 percent in 2010. Weeden, who was a 29-year-old rookie, will likely be on a short leash with Cleveland's new coaching staff and front office going forward.

The Browns ended the McCoy era on Monday, trading the former Longhorns quarterback to the 49ers. Cleveland enters the 2013 NFL Draft with Weeden, Jason Campbell and Thaddeus Lewis as quarterbacks on its roster -- and none figure to be the long-term quarterback for the Browns.


(Photo via Andrew Weber - USA Today Sports Images)

Seattle's 180°

Seattle said goodbye to Matt Hasselbeck, and instead used Tarvaris Jackson as its primary quarterback in 2011. The Seahawks finished No. 29 in quarterback rating in 2010 with Hasselbeck as the primary signal caller, and improved to No. 20 in 2011 with Jackson as the stopgap. While it's an improvement, Seattle still finished in the bottom half of the league in passing with Jackson under center.

Pete Carroll wasted no time replacing Jackson in '12, despite Seattle's improvement, investing in both Matt Flynn and Russel Wilson through free agency and the draft. While Seattle improved with a veteran under center in 2011, it simply wasn't good enough -- and Jackson's ceiling was already limited. Carroll ultimately decided to change, and ended up hitting the lottery with Wilson in the 2012 NFL Draft.

Seattle used its third-round draft pick on Wilson, and was ready to use its second-round pick on Wilson -- but the Seahawks gambled, and figured he would be there in the third round. Carroll's decision to use an early-round pick suggests that he knew Flynn wasn't going to be Seattle's long-term answer, and, at the very least, wanted competition for his free-agent signing. With just one season under his belt, albeit a record-breaking one, Wilson looks the part of a franchise quarterback. Another win for Seattle's front office.

Deserted quarterbacks

Like Seattle, Arizona went out and acquired a quarterback -- though, unlike Seattle, Arizona acquired its 2011 quarterback via trade. The Cardinals entered the 2011 season expecting Kevin Kolb to be the starting quarterback, but Kolb succumbed to injuries, and Arizona ended up with John Skelton starting seven games. Skelton, who started four games for Arizona in 2010, went 5-2 as a starter in 2011, while the newly acquired Kolb went 3-6 as a starter.

Consequently, Arizona went from a team ranked No. 31 in passer rating in '10 to No. 23 in '11 -- a marginal improvement, especially since Kolb played so poorly. The Cardinals went into 2012 again hoping Kolb would be the answer, but Arizona ended up starting four different quarterbacks, which ultimately led to Ken Whisenhunt's dismissal as head coach.


(Photo via Mark J. Rebilas - USA Today Sports Images)

Arizona acquired a different veteran quarterback for 2013 -- Carson Palmer. Bruce Arians' offense is built to spread the field, and though Palmer will turn 34 by the end of the season, he should still have enough in his arm to adequately fit Arians' offense.

After two subpar years in Oakland, it's fair to question what Palmer has left in the tank. Even if he plays well in 2013, he's simply too old to be Arizona's franchise quarterback -- and the Cardinals will eventually look for another quarterback sooner rather than later.

Veteran mediocrity

Once the NFL's symbol of greatness -- and "commitment to excellence" -- the Raiders have fallen on hard times lately, and have struggled to win more than eight games a season since 2002. It comes as no surprise that Oakland's quarterbacks have been below-average the last four years.

2009: No. 29 -- JaMarcus Russell, Bruce Gradkowski, Charlie Frye
2010: No. 23 -- Jason Campbell, Bruce Gradkowski
2011: No. 17 -- Jason Campbell, Carson Palmer, Kyle Boller
2012: No. 18 -- Carson Palmer, Terrelle Pryor

Russell simply never panned out for Oakland, and it is definitely worth noting that the Raiders selected Russell with the No. 1 overall pick of the 2007 NFL Draft. The team's investment in Russell hamstrung the team's efforts to make over the roster thanks to a six-year, $61 million contract with $32 million guaranteed. The Raiders went through four head coaches between 2006-11, which is simply not conducive to grooming a franchise quarterback.

Oakland acquired another veteran on Monday, trading a 2014 draft pick and conditional 2015 pick to Seattle in exchange for Matt Flynn. Flynn is a five-year veteran with just 141 passing attempts in his career, and will now learn his third offense in as many seasons.

Flynn could emerge as Oakland's long-term answer at quarterback, but will have to beat out Pryor during training camp, just as he was tasked with beating out Wilson last season for Seattle. Given Flynn will have to acclimate himself with a new coaching staff, teammates and offense (again), it seems unlikely he'll have a high level of success in 2013.

Rookie risks

The NFL's worst passing team in 2010 took a different approach, as the Panthers used the No. 1 overall pick of the 2011 NFL Draft on Auburn quarterback Cam Newton. The results couldn't have been better for the Panthers in 2011, as the Panthers went from being ranked No. 32 in quarterback rating and yards to No. 13 under Newton.

Though the Panthers haven't made the playoffs under Newton yet, they at least have a franchise quarterback -- and an exciting one at that.

Like the Raiders, the Lions used a No. 1 overall choice on a quarterback -- but it worked out much better. Detroit selected Matthew Stafford with the first pick of the 2009 draft, but it took patience for the Lions and Lions fans alike. Stafford eventually took over for Daunte Culpepper in 2009, but Detroit boasted the second-worst passing offense in the league.

Stafford and the Lions moved up to No. 19 in 2010 before really taking flight in 2011, finishing No. 5 in quarterback rating, and leading the Lions to the playoffs.

Detroit's NFC North rival rook a similar path, as the Vikings selected Christian Ponder with the No. 12 pick of the 2011 NFL Draft. Like the Lions, the Vikings started a washed-up quarterback to start the year, as Donovan McNabb started Minnesota's first six games. After the Vikings started 1-5, Minnesota turned to Ponder.

The jury is still out on Ponder. Minnesota's offense runs through Adrian Peterson, but the Vikings need more out of the passing game if they're going to turn into a Super Bowl contender. Now entering his third season, and second full offseason, the pressure will be on Ponder to improve.

The 2013 Quarterback Class

Many throughout the NFL aren't smitten with the 2013 quarterback class, which features Geno Smith as the top talent. Matt Barkley, Ryan Nassib and E.J. Manuel are solid, but unspectacular prospects as well. Unlike the 2012 class, there are no clear, slam-dunk talents like an Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III -- but that is rarely the case.

Though the Chiefs already acquired Alex Smith, they're willing to do due diligence on Geno Smith, and will bring him in for a private workout. Smokescreen or not, Kansas City scouts are "fascinated" by Smith, and compare him to a young Donovan McNabb -- the same McNabb that was successful in Andy Reid's system for years.

Even if a quarterback-needy team addresses other needs in the first round, players like Manuel, Barkley and Nassib will be there in the second and third rounds. Recent history suggests solid quarterbacks can be found in the second and third rounds, as Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson were all selected in either the second or third round.

For Kansas City, the decision simply wasn't Alex Smith or Geno Smith -- it was Alex Smith versus a rookie quarterback and draft choices. The Chiefs surrendered a second-round pick in 2013 and a conditional mid-round pick in 2014 to acquire Alex Smith, whereas they could have simply selected a quarterback in the first, second or third round of the draft while addressing other team needs via the draft.

Is Alex Smith that good? Smith had a career half-year in 2012, after a very respectable 2011 -- but despite his recent success, he hasn't proven to be a franchise quarterback. 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh traded Smith after benching him for his own second-round pick in Kaepernick. Prior to Harbaugh's tutelage, the former first overall pick struggled with a revolving door of coaches and coordinators.

Recent history illustrates that plug-and-play veteran quarterbacks prove to be nothing but a stopgap -- and the Chiefs paid a second and mid-round price for their stopgap quarterback, unless, of course, Smith proves to be a franchise quarterback.

The days of building a team first and then adding the quarterback as a finishing touch are gone. Teams need to be built around the quarterback. Is Joe Flacco worth the money he received? Probably not. Would he have received that contract 10, 15 years ago? Almost certainly not. But he's a quarterback that the Ravens can build around, and he has already proven he can lead them to the ultimate prize.

If Gus Bradley truly believes in Geno Smith, then the Jaguars would be foolish to pass on him. At least Smith can galvanize Jacksonville's fan base. At best, Smith provides Jacksonville with a franchise quarterback, and a quarterback that Bradley can believe in.

Maybe Jacksonville isn't smitten with Smith. Maybe they address another need in the first round, and select a quarterback in the second or third round. That's perfectly fine, too, and recent history suggests that Jacksonville can find a capable quarterback there.

Either way, it's imperative that Bradley has his own guy at quarterback, not a retread, and not somebody else's quarterback, like Blaine Gabbert.

For every success story, there's a JaMarcus Russell and Ryan Leaf waiting in the wings to remind us of prior draft busts. But the NFL is a league where risk-taking is rewarded. Teams running the read-option offense took a risk and found success the last two seasons. Jim Harbaugh took a risk inserting Colin Kaepernick as his starting quarterback, and was nearly rewarded with a Super Bowl title.

Selecting Geno Smith with a top-ten pick is risky, and it's exactly what the Jaguars -- or Cardinals, if Jacksonville passes -- should do.

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