The most vital piece to an NFL roster is the starting quarterback. A quality signal caller can provide stability for a decade or more, while the inability to locate one can lead to a team making regime changes every few years. More than anything else, general managers are evaluated based on whether they can find an answer under center.
That's why it's rare for a team with an answer at quarterback to consider making a change. However, that's exactly what the San Diego Chargers find themselves doing, according to a report by Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Per Acee, Rivers does not currently seek a contract extension with the Chargers. His current deal expires after the upcoming season. That isn't because the 33-year-old quarterback plans to retire anytime soon. Rather, Rivers has reservations about moving his family to Los Angeles, a place the Chargers could move to in the near future.
At the same time, the Chargers have suddenly developed an interest in reigning Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota. The team has scheduled a workout with Mariota, something that Acee argues wouldn't happen unless San Diego was serious about drafting him. The Oregon quarterback is expected to be selected early in the 2015 NFL Draft, and could provide some team with a long-term solution under center.
But how realistic is it for the Chargers to move on from a Pro Bowl quarterback like Philip Rivers for an unproven rookie like Marcus Mariota? Let's evaluate.
Why the Chargers pursuing Mariota makes sense
1. Rivers could net a fair return in a trade
It's easy to forget after the unforgettable seasons by Aaron Rodgers and J.J. Watt, but it was actually Rivers who garnered the most MVP attention through the first six weeks of 2014. He was masterful during the Chargers' 5-1 run, completing nearly 70 percent of his passes for 1,756 yards, while throwing 15 touchdowns and just two interceptions. More impressively, his performance came behind an offensive line slammed by injuries and without multiple top running backs. Rivers' season didn't trail off until a back injury midway through the season.
While his age suggests he only has a few years left as a top shelf signal caller, teams would be lining up to add the former N.C. State product, perhaps even trading a top pick to get him.
2. Chargers have a natural trade partner
Since trading away Steve McNair in 2006, the Tennessee Titans have struggled at the quarterback position. Vince Young failed to find consistency after his rookie year, Kerry Collins and Matt Hasselbeck were over the hill when he arrived and Jake Locker lasted just four seasons before retiring. Ken Whisenhunt would like to see that change before his time as head coach is up.
Whisenhunt, of course, was the offensive coordinator for the Chargers in 2013, one of Rivers' best seasons as a professional. Not only is he familiar with Rivers' skills, but he generally likes to build his offense around tall, traditional drop back passers. The 6'5" Rivers fits that bill, and could allow the Titans to compete in a division that has been one of the NFL's weakest for several years.
3. Tennessee can give the Chargers the means to acquire Mariota
The Titans finished with the second-worst record in football last year, earning them the right to pick No. 2 overall. For weeks, the assumption has been that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, owners of the top pick, will select Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. That means the action for Mariota begins with Tennessee.
If Whisenhunt is sold on Rivers, the Titans could swap their first-round pick in order to acquire him. That would provide the Chargers with the extremely rare situation of losing a top-flight signal caller at the exact same time a well-regarded quarterback prospect falls into their lap, à la the Indianapolis Colts with Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck.
SB Nation presents: San Diego's needs in the NFL Draft
Why the Chargers pursuing Mariota doesn't make sense
1. Rivers is a known commodity, Mariota isn't
When a team doesn't have a reliable starter under center, investing a top draft pick in a quarterback prospect makes considerable sense. However, the same cannot be said for a club that has a proven commodity at the position.
Even if Rivers never repeats his hot 2014 start, he's better than all but a few quarterbacks in the league. Mariota may reach those heights one day, but that isn't guaranteed. The Chargers would be taking on a tremendous risk by effectively swapping the two.
2. Rivers might not be enough for the No. 2 overall pick
Even though Whisenhunt might want Rivers, that doesn't mean the team will mortgage the future for a quarterback on the wrong side of 30. Even in the best-case scenario, Rivers has four more seasons playing at his current level. That's certainly preferable to a lot of options, but it may not be worth the price of the No. 2 overall pick.
That could mean the Titans will hold out for more from the Chargers. That scenario becomes even easier to envision when considering teams like the Philadelphia Eagles and St. Louis Rams may also attempt to trade for Tennessee's pick. That may be too rich for San Diego to consider.
3. The AFC West is wide open now
Even if Mariota develops into a great quarterback, it likely won't be for a few seasons. Meanwhile, the AFC West is open right now, a window the Chargers don't want to miss.
The Denver Broncos have owned the division since the arrival of Peyton Manning. However, Manning's decline during the final stretch of last season suggests that their run at the top could be over at any time. The Broncos also lost a cavalcade of valuable players, including tight end Julius Thomas and offensive lineman Orlando Franklin. Denver could still win the division, but it won't be easy.
Meanwhile, the Chargers improved their offensive line by signing away Franklin and have added wide receiver Stevie Johnson to the mix. With the draft yet to come, they could conceivably compete with any team in the division, perhaps even giving the New England Patriots a run for the conference.
Likelihood of Chargers trading up for Mariota: 3/10
While Rivers' hesitance to commit to the Chargers raises important questions, the club isn't left without any recourse if he won't sign an extension. The franchise tag can be applied after this season, a strategy that leaves Rivers with no options but to play for the Chargers to sit out. With as much money as the tag provides, the most likely choice will be the former.