Yogi Berra once said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” In a few months, New York Giants General Manager Joe Schoen, coach Brian Daboll, and other members of the Giants’ braintrust are going to be at one of those forks in the road. What they choose to do may affect the future of the franchise more than any other decision they ever make.
This is not going to be a post about whether Daniel Jones is “the guy” who can lead the Giants to a Super Bowl. That question has been debated endlessly, in the comment and Fanpost sections of Big Blue View, on Twitter, in every sports publication, talk show, or podcast that opines on the NFL, in homes, in bars, in the stands at MetLife, at work. Everyone has an opinion.
Like Jones? Here’s a statistic to support your case: Jones is the 11th-ranked QB in the NFL this season in expected points added (EPA), considered the gold standard for isolating a QB’s contribution to team success these days:
Other than Derek Carr, a good quarterback on a bad team, the other QBs ahead of Jones are mostly NFL royalty, plus a couple of others having career years this season. Almost all the contenders to win this season’s Super Bowl or at least make noise in the playoffs are on this list.
Don’t like Jones? Here’s a statistic for you. Jones is tied for 19th, i.e., below average, in the traditional NFL passer rating metric, which is based on measures such as yards, completion percentage, touchdown passes, and interceptions:
And around and around we go. But your opinion, or mine, plus $2.75, gets us a ride on the subway. The only opinions that matter are those inside 1925 Giants Drive.
The Giants’ quarterback situation is ambiguous - because of deficiencies in the offensive roster during Jones’ entire career, because of subpar coaching and play calling during the previous two seasons, because of injuries that have prevented him from ever playing a full season, and because of Jones’ own strengths and limitations. It’s possible that there will be no more clarity when the Giants’ season ends.
This piece is going to ask a different question. What is the best way for a team to get themselves a “franchise” quarterback - one good enough to be a big part of the reason a team wins a Super Bowl? Non-franchise QBs sometimes get to Super Bowls (Colin Kaepernick, Jared Goff, Jimmy Garoppolo) and even occasionally win them (Joe Flacco, Nick Foles). But most teams that win Super Bowls in the 21st Century are led by quarterbacks who will be or have potential to be in the Hall of Fame.
Trade for a veteran franchise quarterback?
The Los Angeles Rams made this work last season, trading Jared Goff plus two consecutive first round draft picks and a third round pick to the Detroit Lions for Matthew Stafford. They were rewarded with a Super Bowl Championship in February but are paying the bill now.
Other results have not been as good. The Indianapolis Colts have been looking for a QB ever since the surprise retirement of oft-injured Andrew Luck. They traded for Carson Wentz, giving first and third round picks to Philadelphia. One year of missing the playoffs later, Wentz was traded to Washington for several draft picks. Wentz lasted less than half a season before getting injured. His replacement, Taylor Heinecke, has led Washington’s recent resurgence and superseded Wentz as the starter. This year the Colts tried again, trading for Atlanta’s Matt Ryan. That went as well as the Wentz experiment, with Ryan being benched until head coach Frank Reich was replaced by Jeff Saturday.
This past winter, the Denver Broncos traded a bunch of players and draft picks to Seattle for future Hall of Fame QB Russell Wilson. That trade has backfired, with Denver having one of the league’s worst records due to a moribund offense and being stuck with Wilson’s $243M contract. Whether that is mostly Wilson’s fault or that of new head coach Nathaniel Hackett is unclear. Easily forgotten now is that many Giants fans and some in the press were advocating for the Giants to trade for Wilson this past winter.
Several days later, the Houston Texans traded QB Deshaun Watson to Cleveland, which gave up three consecutive years of first round picks. With Watson and his $230M fully guaranteed contract returning to the field after serving his suspension, we will see whether the upgrade at QB (over $5M free agent signing Jacoby Brissett, who is having an excellent season) is worth the weakening of the Browns’ future due to the lost draft picks, not to mention the effects of Watson’s serious off-field issues.
Sign a free agent franchise quarterback?
One advantage of going the free agent QB route is that there is no draft pick or player compensation to weaken the team elsewhere. The other advantage is that it has worked more than once in recent years.
After being benched in mid-season for rookie Eli Manning, Hall of Famer Kurt Warner got the Giants to void the second year of his contract so he could join the Arizona Cardinals. It took a few years, but in 2008 Warner almost led the Cardinals to his second Super Bowl ring.
Hall of Famer Peyton Manning was released by the Colts after missing the 2011 season and having neck fusion surgery. He signed with the Denver Broncos. Again, it took a few years but Manning finally got the Broncos a Super Bowl title in the 2015 season. The defense won that Super Bowl, though - Manning was a shell of his former self by that time.
Most notably, Tom Brady signed a free agent contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for two years and $50M, a very reasonable price motivated by his desire to win without Bill Belichick. He won a Super Bowl for Tampa Bay in his first season and was barely knocked out by eventual champion Los Angeles last season.
Draft a future franchise quarterback?
On the surface this seems like the easiest and most cost-effective solution. When it’s a team’s turn to pick, they have complete control. Select the best quarterback available, and know that you will have him at a reasonable cost for four years (five with the fifth-year option if he was drafted in the first round).
The problem is that this is easier said than done. Fans fall in love with certain college quarterbacks each fall. But no one knows which college QB will become a great pro. No one. Not draft experts, not scouts, not general managers. Want proof? Here are the QB prospect rankings from several recent years from NFL.com’s respected draft analyst Lance Zierlein. Here are his comments about the top three QB prospects in one class:
(NAME) is a high-end quarterback prospect who possesses NFL size, a big arm and the ability to throw with accuracy from the pocket or on the move. Despite playing in a spread-based offense, he’s a full-field reader who does a very good job of getting an early read on the safeties before crafting his course of action. (NAME) will have to become much more pocket aware and do a better job of recognizing and attacking blitzes to back NFL defensive coordinators off. He hasn’t put all the pieces together yet, but the puzzle is all right in front. (NAME) projects as a good starting quarterback with a high floor and the potential to be great. NFL comparison: Matthew Stafford
Teams will have to weigh the inconsistent field vision and decision-making against his size, athleticism, leadership and production. While not perfect, teams can add checks to both arm and accuracy boxes for (NAME). However, discussions about whether or not his areas of improvement can be corrected will likely determine whether a team will view him as a high-upside prospect or a franchise quarterback. (NAME)’s transition from (SCHOOL)’s offense to a pro-style attack will obviously take time, but his combination of intangibles and athletic ability make him worth a first-round selection. NFL comparison: Marcus Mariota
(NAME) is a big, confident quarterback who brings a variety of physical tools to the party, but he’s developed some bad habits and doesn’t have a very repeatable process as a passer. (NAME)’s ability to improvise and extend plays can lead to big plays for his offense, but he will have to prove he can operate with better anticipation and be willing to take what the defense gives him in order to win from the pocket. (NAME) will be a work in progress, but he’s a high ceiling, low floor prospect. NFL comparison: Jay Cutler
Here is the NFL.com grading scale for reference:
And here are the QBs whose descriptions are given above, along with their scores:
The first description is for Mitch Trubisky. The Chicago Bears were criticized for trading up in the draft from No. 3 to No. 2 and giving up three draft picks to select him, but Trubisky was the only QB rated by Zierlein as a “Pro Bowl talent” (7.0), and was compared to Matthew Stafford.
The second description is for Deshaun Watson, taken by the Houston Texans after they traded up from No. 25 to No. 12. Likened to Marcus Mariota by Zierlein, Watson has turned out to be a much more talented QB than either Mariota or Trubisky.
The third description is for Patrick Mahomes, selected by the Kansas City Chiefs after trading up from No. 27 to No. 10. I think Mahomes has turned out to be a little better than Jay Cutler, Zierlein’s comparison for him. More notably, Zierlein ranked DeShone Kizer, who lasted only two seasons and never won a game in the NFL, as Mahomes’ equal.
If you read the descriptions knowing whom they refer to, you can recognize some of the traits that Zierlein highlighted, e.g., “big, confident quarterback” and “ability to improvise and extend plays can lead to big plays” for Mahomes. So it’s not as if he was unable to size up the quarterbacks he was assessing. The difficult part is figuring out how those traits will translate to an NFL offense and competition against NFL defenses.
I’m not just cherry-picking 2017. Here are Zierlein’s 2018 QB rankings:
Sam Darnold was ranked highest at 7.1 (“Pro Bowl talent”) and compared by Zierlein to Andrew Luck. The best 2018 QBs, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson, were tied for fourth in the rankings and given a grade of 6.4, “Will become good starter in two years.” That description was spot on for both Allen and Jackson, who did not shine as passers in their rookie seasons, but it did not anticipate the great players that both eventually would become. Allen’s comparison was Jake Locker; no comment necessary. Meanwhile Jackson’s comparison was Michael Vick; better, but someone whose career Jackson will probably surpass in a few years. Both were ranked lower than Josh Rosen, who has never had any kind of NFL success; Baker Mayfield, who was taken first and had some success before cratering the past two years; and Darnold, who has yet to show what he was thought to have.
Among other QBs in that draft, Mike White was ranked No. 8 at 6.10 (“good backup with the potential to develop into starter”). It sort of looked that way against Chicago last Sunday. White lasted until Round 5, taken long after the Giants selected Kyle Lauletta in Round 4.
Finally, let’s look at 2019:
Kyler Murray (comparison: Russell Wilson) and Dwayne Haskins (comparison: Drew Bledsoe) were both ranked as “Year 1 starters,” although only Murray became one for long. Drew Lock (comparison: Matthew Stafford) was rated “Will become good starter within two years,” though that hasn’t worked out yet in year four.
Daniel Jones was ranked 6.30 (“Will eventually become plus starter”) and compared to ... wait for it ... Ryan Tannehill. Where have we heard that before? Here is Zierlein’s description:
Three-year starter who operates with a rare level of quality mechanics coming from the college game. Jones doesn’t have special arm talent, but he can make pro throws and has the ability to attack deep with accuracy. He completed just 59.9 percent of his career passes, but his receivers — who dropped 38 passes this year alone — really struggled to get open at times. Jones has good football IQ and is relatively mobile, but he appears to be more of a game manager than “franchise” talent. He’s more of a Day 2 draft pick than Day 1.
I’d say that’s a pretty accurate assessment of Jones - right down to the dropped passes and struggle to get open by his receivers. But Jones was taken on Day 1, not Day 2, and very high on Day 1, which contributes to some of the negative impressions about him by fans and experts alike.
Looking back at that 2019 class four years later, though, is Jones any worse than the second best QB? We’ll never know if Haskins might have developed into the special quarterback that his physical gifts hinted at because of his tragic death. But it may equally be true that Murray’s, Haskins’, and Jones’ (in his previous two seasons) developments were all hindered by the coaching staffs they landed with.
The bottom line is: Would you like to see Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud, Will Levis, Anthony Richardson, or Hendon Hooker in Giants blue? At least three of them and maybe more will be gone by the time the Giants draft, unless they make a dramatic trade-up. More to the point, history says that the odds of finding your franchise QB in the draft are uncomfortably small - not because there aren’t any, but because only a few, or one, or even none, come out of any draft, and no one knows which ones they are before they play in the NFL.
A strategy for the quarterback position
It’s this uncertainty that makes the quarterback decision so difficult. It’s much easier to identify a QB you want to get rid of than to identify a replacement who will take your team to the Super Bowl. Even the Tom Brady free agent signing by Tampa Bay was not a slam dunk. Several teams didn’t want to take a chance on him - that turned out to be very wrong. But it’s also true that 2022 Brady, without several of the weapons he had in 2020, doesn’t look as good. You may have thought that Denver gave up too much to acquire Russell Wilson, but did anyone expect their offense to be so terrible with Wilson?
Is there an existing quarterback clearly better than Daniel Jones that the Giants could trade for or sign as a free agent? Tom Brady in Giants blue? Probably not. Derek Carr? Perhaps. Carr’s contract has cap hits of $34.9M, $43.9M, and $43.2M in the next three years - but with NONE of it guaranteed. The Raiders could just release him over the winter with no dead money. Or they could trade him, with his new team renegotiating those last three years to make them cheaper but with some money guaranteed. It might not require much draft compensation since neither Las Vegas (who won’t want to pay those final years) nor Carr (who could be out in the cold and who hasn’t been elevated his team this year) are in positions of strength.
Mac Jones? If New England wants to ride with rookie Bailey Zappe instead, maybe, but is Mac better than the Jones the Giants already have? Lamar Jackson? He’s going to cost a bundle if he decides to test free agency. Jimmy Garoppolo? He’ll cost less, and he’s been to a Super Bowl, but he’s the classic “win with but not because of” quarterback. Jacoby Brissett? He has had a very good season but is at a level similar to Jones rather than being an upgrade.
Given the available options, the best strategy for getting a franchise quarterback may instead be to embrace the uncertainty and take out insurance against it. We’ve seen some successful teams do just that:
- Kansas City drafted Mahomes while they still had QB Alex Smith. Smith almost took the 49ers to the Super Bowl one year (were it not for the Giants) and perennially got the Chiefs to the playoffs. They let Mahomes sit for a year and develop, even though they saw his insane talent in training camp as a rookie. Then they traded Smith to Washington, getting cornerback Kendall Fuller and a third-round pick in return. The cost to trade up for Mahomes was high but the Chiefs recouped some of it.
- Philadelphia drafted Jalen Hurts in Round 2 only a year after signing Carson Wentz to a four-year $128M deal. It seemed not to make sense to use a high pick on a QB when you have recently committed so much money to your incumbent. But once the Eagles were convinced of Hurts’ potential, they managed to get a great draft haul from Indianapolis for Wentz a year later at the cost of swallowing a lot of dead money, and Hurts is now in the conversation for MVP.
- Dallas drafted Dak Prescott in Round 4 after starter Tony Romo broke his collarbone in 2015. Romo was expected to start again in 2016 but he suffered another injury, Prescott stepped in as the starter, and became a borderline top 10 NFL QB.
- Baltimore moved up to take Jackson No. 32 in the first round while they still had Super Bowl-winning QB Joe Flacco as their starter. Few expected Jackson to thrive in the NFL as a run-first QB, but the Ravens redesigned their offense around his skill set, Jackson worked to become a better passer, and he is now one of the top QBs in the NFL.
- Green Bay drafted insurance for an aging Aaron Rodgers in Jordan Love, but they fumbled the process: By not even letting the proud Rodgers know they were going to do it, and by using a late first round pick when Love surely would have still been available in Round 2. Meanwhile Green Bay drafted no wide receiver to help Rodgers out. Rodgers came into the NFL with a chip on his shoulder when he dropped to No. 24 after Alex Smith was taken No. 1. The Packers took Rodgers despite having Hall of Famer Brett Favre, and Rodgers sat for three years before becoming the starter.
- San Francisco drafted Trey Lance with Garoppolo under contract and had Lance sit for most of 2021. They then handed the job to Lance in the off-season and tried unsuccessfully to trade Garoppolo. In the end they re-worked the final year of Garoppolo’s contract to keep him at a cost of only $6.5M, but with incentives that could increase it to as much as $16M. Sure enough, Lance was injured in Week 2, and Garoppolo was there to take over.
All of these examples suggest that simply letting Daniel Jones walk at the end of the season, with no compensation and with only Tyrod Taylor on the roster, is not an optimal strategy for the Giants. Taylor is a great backup QB but is not going to win a Super Bowl. Trading up to get into the top 10 is no guarantee of success even if you can do it, because several of the most promising prospects may be gone and because history tells us that the seemingly best prospects often disappoint.
Just look at 2021, with five QBs selected in Round 1, two of them being the result of trade-ups. None of them has yet shown that he is a franchise QB, although No. 1 Trevor Lawrence has shown some promise. One of them, Zach Wilson (rated 6.5 by Zierlein, who described him as “reminiscent of a blend between Jake Plummer and Johnny Manziel” - yikes!), has already been benched.
The counter-example is 2020, which may have produced four franchise QBs in Joe Burrow (rated 7.07, “Pro Bowl talent”), Tua Tagovailoa (6.77, “Year 1 starter”), Justin Herbert (6.45, “Good starter within two years”), and Jalen Hurts (6.14, “Good backup with the potential to develop into starter”). But that is the exception rather than the norm. And even then, Jordan Love, Jacob Eason, and Jake Fromm were all rated ahead of Hurts.
What the Giants might do instead is to lean into the uncertainty without risking their 2023 season. Sign Daniel Jones to a modest ($15-20M+ per year) deal if possible for two or three years and place a stronger offensive line and receiver corps around him. Then use a Day 2 or 3 draft pick to select a work-in-progress quarterback. That’s what Atlanta (Desmond Ridder, Round 3), Tennessee (Malik Willis, Round 3), Carolina (Matt Corral, Round 3), New England (Bailey Zappe, Round 4), and Washington (Sam Howell, Round 5) did in 2022. Will any of them become franchise quarterbacks? No one knows. That’s just the deal with QBs. But each gives their team another option at little cost. Having a rookie draftee on the roster if Jones shows he cannot excel with a better supporting cast would do the same.
The Giants have not drafted a quarterback since selecting Jones in 2019 and only three in the past nine years (Davis Webb and Kyle Lauletta being the others). The New England Patriots by comparison have drafted six in nine years: Jimmy Garoppolo, Jacoby Brissett, Danny Etling, Jarrett Stidham, Mac Jones, and Bailey Zappe. None are Brady (himself a No. 199 pick) but all are still in the NFL, and three of the four who are no longer Patriots were good enough for the Patriots to receive something in return by trading them. Both Jones and Zappe would have significant trade value if the Patriots were to decide to get rid of either one, because NFL-caliber QBs are a scarce resource. Are Jones or Zappe franchise QBs? Maybe not. But New England will keep taking swings and remain a playoff team while they do. That’s the best you can expect when so few franchise QBs are out there.
If Daniel Jones becomes the top 10 QB that his EPA ranking suggests he could be with a better supporting cast, then a 2023 draftee either becomes a capable backup or a piece in a future trade. If Jones’ ceiling is as a mediocre, bottom half of the NFL QB as his passer rating suggests, he will still be of interest to a contending team in a trade either as insurance or as a replacement for an injured starter.
Either way, the Giants would give themselves two chances to have the starting QB they need on the roster, which is better than one chance. It has worked for Philadelphia and Dallas, either of whom might win it all with a QB they drafted after Day 1.