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Is trading up in the first round to draft a quarterback worth the cost?

It can be, but don’t count on it

NFL: Preseason-New York Jets at New York Giants Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the New York Giants have been eliminated from the post-season, fans have naturally become fixated on the games that might affect the Giants’ draft position. Entering the final week, this is how things stand, per Tankathon:

Courtesy of Tankathon

The Giants currently have the No. 5 pick. They can fall no lower than No. 8, and they can possibly rise as high as No. 2, depending on the final weekend’s results. From a practical standpoint, moving much from No. 5 is highly unlikely:

This seems like great news, because the Giants are likely to be in the market for a quarterback in the coming draft. I believe that statement is fairly independent of what one thinks of the three current Giants’ quarterbacks:

  • Daniel Jones will almost surely be a Giant in 2024 because of his $47.1M cap hit and $69.3M in dead money, whereas he could be released in 2025 with only $22.2M in dead money. A trade is always possible, as Howie Roseman showed by swallowing Carson Wentz’s $33.8M in dead money to do it and creating a Super Bowl team nonetheless. More to the point, though, Joe Schoen and Brian Daboll thought enough of Jones after working with him for a year to sign him to that contract. They probably feel that Jones’ disastrous 2023 had a lot to do with the Giants’ tough early season schedule, combined with the horrendous play of the offensive line. What they cannot escape is Jones’ now-long injury history.
  • Tyrod Taylor has done some great things as the Giants’ backup. Most notably, he has shown that with a somewhat improved but still very poor offensive line it’s possible to connect with the Giants’ receiver group on deep passes on a fairly regular basis. Taylor has also shown, though, that his short game leaves a lot to be desired. Taylor, like Jones, has only won one game this season, and like Jones, he is inclined toward injuries because of his proclivity to scramble. Taylor has cost the Giants $11M over two years, with $1.4M of that dead money in a 2024 void year. He will also be 35 next year, so the odds of him returning are not good.
  • Tommy DeVito has been the Giants’. most successful quarterback this year, winning three games, making some clutch plays, and also throwing downfield. Once he started to face good defenses, though, the honeymoon was over. DeVito is under contract in 2024 for only $915K, and what he showed this year should convince the Giants that he is worth continuing to develop, but he cannot be relied on to start in 2024.

In the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust NFL of my youth, you could win an NFL Championship without elite quarterback play. No more, though. In the past 31 years, the only Super Bowls won by less-than-elite QBs were Trent Dilfer with Baltimore in 2000; Brad Johnson, a good QB with Tampa Bay in 2002; Joe Flacco, who wasn’t far from elite in his prime with Baltimore in 2012; and Nick Foles, backup to Carson Wentz in Philadelphia, in 2017. A few others have come close to winning Super Bowls, e.g., Jared Goff (who is pretty good) and Jimmy Garoppolo in recent years, but in general, success in today’s NFL requires elite quarterback play.

Schoen and Daboll may feel that Jones can still become elite, but realistically they cannot risk going into 2024 with the Giants’ current group of QBs, not least because of the injury history. NFL starting quarterbacks have been going down at what seems like an unprecedented rate this season: Aaron Rodgers, Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, Kirk Cousins, Deshaun Watson, Trevor Lawrence, Anthony Richardson, and C.J. Stroud, in addition to Jones. The Giants simply have to add a QB with the potential to be a high-end starter this off-season.

It doesn’t necessarily mean that quarterback will be the Day 1 starter in 2024. There are too many variables to know at this point. When will Jones be sufficiently healed to get back on the field? When he does, will he look like his 2022 or his 2023 self? How ready will the draftee be to play by the beginning of the season? How much did Schoen improve the offenive line this winter (whether players, or coaching, or both)? Drafting a quarterback this year gives them two options for how to proceed in 2025.

The Giants’ likely dilemma

Fortunately, 2024 is considered to be a deep draft class for quarterbacks. Chris Pflum has 7 of them in his top 32 right now. The question is, how many of them will become NFL championship-caliber pros, and which ones?

Virtually everyone ranks Caleb Williams and Drake Maye as QB1 and QB2 in the coming draft, in some order. If the Giants lose to Philadelphia and by some miracle Washington, New England, and Arizona all win, the Giants can rise to No. 2 and get one of those top two prospects if Schoen likes them both. It’s not likely that all four of those things happen, though, so Williams and Maye may be out of reach. Jayden Daniels has risen dramatically in pre-draft rankings and could be gone in the top five as well, similar to what happened with Anthony Richardson this year.

Thus the Giants may find themselves in the uncomfortable position of not having access to the QB prospect(s) they like best, though Schoen’s big board may or may not resemble those of the NFL draft intelligentsia. That leaves three choices:

  • Take the next best quarterback prospect with their first round pick, e.g., Michael Penix Jr. or Bo Nix, whom Chris has in his top 20.
  • Draft a player at another position of need (e.g., OT, WR, edge defender) whose perceived value seems worthy of a top 10 pick and get a QB in a later round.
  • Trade up to be in position to draft one of the top three QB prospects.

Could the Giants pass on a QB in Round 1?

It’s entirely possible. It doesn’t matter what any of us think, only what Schoen and Daboll think. They were the ones who decided to give Jones the big contract. It’s worth noting that Josh Allen didn’t necessarily look like he was worth sticking with after his first two years in the NFL (58.8% completion rate, 20 passing TDs, 38 sacks in his second year), though he got Buffalo to the first round of the playoffs. The Bills’ response was not to draft a potential replacement - instead they traded for Stefon Diggs and the rest is history.

Jones’ situation is not the same, since Daboll got him after he’d already had three years of “development,” if you want to call it that, under previous coaches, and because his injury-shortened 2023 prevented him from having a chance to build on the real progress he showed during his first year in the system. Really it depends on how they view the shortcomings others see - Jones’ slow processing, hesitance to throw deep, lack of pocket presence - and how much of his failures this year they place on the awful play of the offensive line early in the season. If they feel those are correctable, they could do what Buffalo did for Allen in 2020 and get Jones a potential elite receiver in Round 1, especially if someone like Marvin Harrison Jr. is still on the board.

That still leaves the possibility of taking a quarterback early in Round 2, if either Penix or Nix drop that far, or if another QB such as J.J. McCarthy (if he declares) is there. They could even wait until Day 3 and take an intriguing developmental prospect such as Cam Ward.

None of that is what a pretty large segment of Giants’ fandom wants, though. Fans want Schoen to trade up if necessary to ensure getting either Williams or Maye, who are viewed by many as “can’t miss” prospects.

The question is: Is the cost of moving up worth it?

A brief history of draft trade-ups

Giants fans will immediately say: Eli Manning. Yes, it’s worth it. No doubt, Eli paid off on the decision to go up and get him (though that wasn’t exactly what happened) with two Super Bowl rings.

Was it necessary, though, and did it justify the cost?

Philip Rivers, the player the Giants actually drafted but traded to San Diego, had a career that was statistically better than Eli’s, and he is considered a better bet to make the Hall of Fame than Eli is. Rivers never got to a Super Bowl, though, whether due to his own limitations or those of the Chargers organization. Here’s what various trade value charts have to say about the Giants-Chargers trade, courtesy of Joseph Jefe:

Courtesy: Jefe’s Handiwork

The Giants, in addition to swapping Rivers for Manning, gave San Diego their third-round pick, plus their 2005 first- and fifth-round picks. Older draft value charts like the original Jimmy Johnson chart that overvalue high draft picks see the Giants as winning the trade, while more recent ones based on actual draft historical outcomes (Over The Cap, PFF) see the Chargers as the clear winner, independent of the specific players involved. (The only player of note the Chargers got from the extra picks was linebacker Shawn Merriman, but that was due to their own ineptitude - they used the third-round pick on kicker Nate Kaeding.)

Of course the Giants could have saved themselves the picks and just drafted Ben Roethlisberger, who went at No. 11 to Pittsburgh and arguably had the best career of the three big QBs in that draft.

In recent years, though, trading up into the top 5 to get a quarterback has been more problematic:

  • 2017: Chicago trades from No. 3 up to No. 2 with San Francisco, giving up No. 67, No. 111, and a 2018 third-round pick, to select Mitchell Trubisky. They could have had Patrick Mahomes or Deshaun Watson without trading up.
  • 2018: The Jets move up from No. 6 to No. 3 in a trade with Indianapolis, giving up No. 37 and No. 49 plus a 2019 2nd round pick, to select Sam Darnold. The Colts turned that into offensive linemen Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith, plus cornerback Rock-Ya Sin. The Jets could have had Josh Allen without trading up.
  • 2021: The 49ers move up from No. 12 to No. 3 in a trade with Miami, giving up first- and third-round picks plus a 2022 first-round pick, to select Trey Lance. The seemingly deep 2021 QB draft class has turned out to be a huge disappointment, but the 49ers could at least have had Justin Fields without giving up picks. Miami went wheeling and dealing several times with the picks they received, but in the end, the picks they got partly allowed them to acquire Jaylen Waddle, Tyreek Hill, and Bradley Chubb.
  • 2023: The Panthers move up from No. 9 to No. 1 in a trade with Chicago, giving up wide receiver D.J. Moore, the No. 61 pick, what turned out to be the 2024 No. 1 pick, and a 2025 second-round pick, to draft Bryce Young. The Bears for some reason traded down from No. 9 to No. 10 to take offensive takle Darnell Wright and let the Eagles have Jalen Carter at No. 9, but the net result of the trade has been to just defer having the No. 1 pick in the draft by one year, getting an elite receiver and three high draft picks in exchange.

All of these trades have been bad news so far for the team trading up for three simple reasons:

  1. Unlike other positions, where getting a pretty good player in a trade is good enough, in today’s NFL only an elite quarterback suffices to get a team a Super Bowl victory.
  2. No one, including NFL general managers, really knows how to project the success of college quarterbacks to the NFL level - so much so that QBs thought to be among the best entering the draft may not just wind up ordinary, but can be complete failures.
  3. There are so few elite quarterbacks at any time that the odds of picking the right one are slim. No. 1 and No. 2 have not been especially kind to teams in need of a quarterback in the past decade: Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, Wentz, Trubisky, Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, Zach Wilson. As Ed Valentine pointed out a few weeks ago, only about one-third of QBs selected in the first round are successful.

The jury is still out on Young, and for that matter Lance, but the verdict is in on Trubisky and Darnold. GMs wanting to trade up at the cost of significant future resources need to ask themselves Dirty Harry’s question: “Do I feel lucky today?”

It doesn’t always work out badly for the team trading up. In 2018, Baltimore traded back into the first round (No. 32) with Philadelphia to select Lamar Jackson. They gave up the No. 52 pick and a 2019 second-round pick and exchanged fourth-round picks with the Eagles to do it. That’s significant but not the haul that the teams trading up into the top 5 had to give up. The Eagles used those picks to draft Avonte Maddox and Miles Sanders and in their own trade-up to draft Dallas Goedert. My guess is that the Ravens don’t regret it. The amazing thing is that Baltimore had the No. 25 pick in that draft and used it on tight end Hayden Hurst rather than Jackson. I’m not sure I understand that thought process, but all’s well that ends well, I guess.

What is a fair price for the Giants to pay to move up?

Let’s imagine that the Giants wind up at their current No. 5 place in the draft and that there’s only one QB they like enough to sacrifice resources for. Here is a proposed trade for No. 1 that requires the Giants to give up No. 5, No. 39, and their first- and third-round picks in 2025:

Courtesy of Jefe’s Handiwork

This nicely illustrates the problem. The proposed trade is fairly realistic in the eyes of older trade value charts (Johnson, Rich Hill) that overly value high picks - it is judged as overpaying by about a third round pick in one of them, and underpaying by about a third round pick in the other. Teams are apparently still guided by the Johnson chart and its variants, so those charts may capture the reality of what it takes to move up. To the more recent trade value charts that are based on actual outcomes of player value at each draft position, the Bears are committing highway robbery by getting that much - the equivalent of getting an extra high first round pick for nothing. It’s a seller’s market, though, so the Bears can demand and get what they want. They’ll be in the catbird seat (H/T: Red Barber) come April.

Joe Schoen may remember a lesson he learned at the feet of Buffalo GM Brandon Beane. After deciding that Tyrod Taylor, who had led the Bills to the playoffs in 2017, was not the long-term answer, Beane traded up with New Orleans from No. 12 to No. 7 after the 2018 draft began and after Baker Mayfield and Darnold were off the board, giving up the Bills’ two second round picks. According to all the trade chart calculators the trade was a good deal for the Saints, but Buffalo wound up with Josh Allen, which I assume they do not regret. Bills’ fans, however, were not all enamored of the trade-up and selection:

Surely Giants fandom will react as soberly to any trade-up Schoen makes. Instead, let’s do something less drastic and trade back into the bottom of the first round with the (maybe) to-be Super Bowl champion Ravens, as the Ravens themselves did in 2018, to select one of the QBs that falls that far (maybe Penix, Nix, or McCarthy). We’ll give up the Giants’ fifth-round pick (No. 141) to do so:

Courtesy of Jefe’s Handiwork

This trade is even-steven in the older trade charts and slightly advantageous for the Ravens in the newer charts. It doesn’t mortgage the Giants’ future the way the trade-up to No. 1 does, but it does give them a chance to add a potential future starter to the QB room. It’s not much different from the two trade-ups Joe Schoen made in the 2023 draft to secure Tae Banks and Jalin Hyatt. It leaves the Giants free to grab an elite wide receiver like Harrison or Malik Nabers at No. 5, and it leaves them with the Seattle Round 2 pick to use on an offensive lineman, edge defender, or interior defensive lineman.

Of course there’s no guarantee that any of the quarterbacks still on the board at No. 32 will be the answer to the Giants’ needs.

You’re kidding yourself, though, if you’re sure that Williams, Maye, or Daniels are the answer either. Just ask the Bears, Jets, 49ers, and Panthers. The best strategy? It’s probably taking the remaining quarterback you like most at No. 5, or wherever the Giants wind up, and not getting too cute.