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Will trading for Case Keenum help or hurt Washington more in the long run?

Keenum lasted one 6-10 season in Denver.

Los Angeles Chargers v Denver Broncos Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Case Keenum was supposed to get a two-year tryout with the Broncos to prove his breakout 2017 season was no fluke. One season was all Denver general manager John Elway needed to see.

Elway is reportedly closing in on a deal that would trade Keenum to Washington along with a 2020 seventh-round pick in exchange for a 2020 sixth-rounder:

The deal can’t become official until the new league year starts on March 13.

It’s a move that would pave the way for Joe Flacco to enter 2019 as the Broncos’ starting quarterback and clear Keenum to join the fifth team of his eight-year NFL career.

The swap is a barter between two franchises lost at sea. Keenum exits Colorado following the least prosperous stretch in Broncos’ history. Denver had never had back-to-back losing seasons — a span that covered 46 years — before 2017 and 2018. With his franchise foundering, Elway made another bold move in his quest to find Peyton Manning’s spiritual successor at the helm of a would-be AFC West powerhouse.

For Washington, the move insulates a team without a starting quarterback. Alex Smith’s severely broken leg means he’s unlikely to play in 2019 and may never take the field again. Adding Keenum gives the club an extra quarterback option and a stopgap solution should Dan Snyder’s team fail to add its franchise passer in this year’s draft. But it comes at a price — one Washington might not have needed to pay.

What is Washington doing here?

2019 looks like a tailor-made year for Washington to sink to the bottom of the NFC, collect a high draft pick, and begin its rebuild in earnest. Instead, it’s trying to stay afloat in a competitive NFC East by gambling on the Press Your Luck board of quarterbacks, Case Keenum. The team traded down from the sixth round to the seventh (admittedly, not much of a move) to get him in an offseason where:

a) the Broncos were likely to release him anyway
b) several other similar veteran options are likely to hit the free agent market.

Is he so much better than potential free agents like Ryan Tannehill or (gulp) Sam Bradford?

Washington is betting he is.

Keenum excelled in a 2017 Minnesota offense that made the most of his strengths, peppering defenses with a litany of short passes before taking shots downfield to targets like Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Washington’s top three returning targets are Jordan Reed, Josh Doctson, and Jamison Crowder. No wide receiver on the roster had more than 532 receiving yards.

And Washington is betting that Reed-Doctson-Crowder connection will be enough to have a Minnesota-esque effect on the big-armed journeyman.

Rather than tearing it all down, the team is struggling its hardest to tread water, fighting against the riptide rather than letting it carry them out to sea to find an easier path back to the beach of contention. Keenum is a fine addition in most cases; while he’s not going to be any team’s savior, he’s still a high-value backup who can start multiple games in a pinch.

But there’s some logic to Washington’s low-risk addition

The good news is having Keenum insulates a team who, as a result of a 7-9 2018, isn’t in a great position to pick up its quarterback of the future in the 2019 NFL Draft. Washington has the 15th selection in this year’s draft, a spot by which this season’s top two rookie passers — Kyler Murray and Dwayne Haskins — will almost certainly be gone.

Most mock drafts assume Drew Lock, the No. 3 option in this year’s event, will be snapped up by then as well. If the club can’t find a top three passer, doesn’t want to pay a premium to move up, and isn’t thrilled with the idea of taking the steadily sinking Daniel Jones at No. 15, it can go into the 2019 season knowing Keenum and Colt McCoy can likely give them at least replacement-level QB play behind center. That’ll get them through to 2020, where Smith could return or the club can take another crack at a passer in the draft or free agency.

In a vacuum, Washington gave up roughly 30 spots at the tail end of the 2020 draft for a quarterback one season removed from a top 10-adjacent season. And he’ll only cost $3.5 million. That’s a win. The bad news is Keenum is more likely to be 2013-2016 Keenum thanks to an uninspiring supporting cast. And even that level of play could be just good enough to keep the club from getting the top quarterback in 2020, too.

What does this mean for the Broncos?

Denver kicked off the season by trading for a veteran quarterback loaded with questions, and now the circle is complete as Elway trades away his own questionable veteran QB. The Broncos will turn the reins of its offense over to Flacco, a 34-year-old quarterback with impressive postseason bonafides but limited success over his past five seasons. The former Raven was relieved of his duties backing up rising sensation Lamar Jackson in Baltimore for the low cost of a fourth-round pick, giving the Broncos their latest bridge passer as they careen into an uncertain future.

This would have been a monumental move in 2013. In 2019, it was worth a shrug and the gentle whistle of air being sucked over clenched teeth.

Flacco answered any question about his eliteness by pairing his low-impact passing game with one of the league’s shallowest receiving corps from 2014-2018, leaving the Ravens’ offense an inefficient mess in the process. While the veteran quarterback remained accurate, his game dropped somewhere between “early 49ers Alex Smith” and “Brock Osweiler” in terms of production.

Elway’s search for an upgrade at quarterback somehow landed a quarterback with worse numbers than the guy he’s replacing:

Joe Flacco vs. Case Keenum, 2015-2018

Quarterback Starts QBrec Cmp% Yds TD TD% Int Int% Y/A AY/A Y/C Y/G Rate
Quarterback Starts QBrec Cmp% Yds TD TD% Int Int% Y/A AY/A Y/C Y/G Rate
Joe Flacco 51 24-27-0 63.9 12714 64 3.2 46 2.3 6.3 5.9 9.9 249.3 82.7
Case Keenum 44 24-20-0 63.5 10466 53 3.5 34 2.2 6.9 6.6 10.9 222.7 86.1

It cost the Broncos a fourth-round pick to acquire Flacco. They’ll get a bump from the seventh round to the sixth — and some salary cap relief — to get rid of Keenum. Now Elway is free to draft whichever 6’5 or taller quarterback his heart desires either this spring or next.

What can Keenum bring to Washington?

Keenum took advantage of a massive opportunity in 2017, rising from Minnesota’s emergency option to plant his flag as an above-average starting quarterback. Injuries to Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater gave him the opportunity to star in then-offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur’s offense, and the well-traveled quarterback exceeded all expectations in a season where he went 12-3 as his team’s primary QB.

Keenum’s 2017 passer rating of 98.3 was seventh-best in the league, ahead of Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers, Russell Wilson, and Matt Ryan. His 1.5 percent interception rate was fifth-lowest in the league. And while his previous ceiling of “spot starter, decent backup” made teams cautious about signing him in 2018 and ultimately pushed the Vikings into signing Kirk Cousins, Elway rolled the dice by rewarding Keenum with a two-year, $36 million contract.

The deal failed to work out as either side expected. Removing Keenum from Minnesota pushed him back to his pre-Vikings form, leaving Denver languished at 6-10 and in need of a better solution at quarterback. In the process, any questions about whether the 31-year-old can be an above-average plug-and-play passer were answered with a “no.”

Thursday’s prospective trade gives him another chance to change that narrative. He’ll compete for snaps with another journeyman backup in the nation’s capital — 32-year-old Colt McCoy. McCoy made three appearances in 2018 while subbing in for Alex Smith, putting together slightly worse stats than Keenum and then breaking his leg.

The former Bronco may not wind up much of an upgrade, however. Keenum’s pre-Vikings career passer rating is 78.4 — a half point lower than McCoy’s. If his 2017 season was indeed an oasis in a desert of mediocrity, Washington may have just traded away a minor asset in order to roster two different quarterbacks capable of finishing the season with a 15:17 TD:INT ratio. That should be just good enough to keep the team from being the Cardinals, but just bad enough to ensure no one cares about Washington when January rolls around.