Saturday, April 25

Handicapping the Quarterback Derby

The time until the NFL draft is now being measured in hours and minutes, and as we close in on one of the NFL's signature events, the crystal ball which contains the Browns' first pick is no less foggy. A combination of misdirection from inside Berea, and a very legitimate uncertainty as to how the dominoes will fall before the Browns go on the clock leaves us with a veritable smorgasbord of possibilities. Crabtree, Orakpo, Sanchez, Curry, Jackson, Raji, Monroe, Oher, either Smith; it wouldn't be a shock to hear any of their names called at number five.

Of that list, and within the context of the draft itself, Sanchez's name may be that most fascinating. During the last few weeks, the talented, charismatic, and extremely green signal-caller from SoCal has been one of the hottest and most volatile properties in this draft.

Supposedly Eric Mangini spent four hours breaking down film with Sanchez, which cannot be taken lightly. Then again, the Mangini/Kokinis duo has made misinforming the press into an art form this spring. If the Browns didn't already have two quarterbacks on their roster in which they've invested substantial time, treasure (Anderson), and draft choices (Quinn), you'd have to believe their interest in Sanchez was genuine. Then again, the new regime didn't pick either of the incumbents.

But given the general weakness of the balance of the roster, and the fact that investing a high first round choice and boatloads of guaranteed cash in Sanchez might not do much to change their current predicament, one can't help but wonder if the Browns are simply trying to grease the wheels for a trade. Let's take a closer look at the two quarterbacks on the Browns' roster at present, the passer they're supposedly flirting with, and try to determine what the Cleveland brass is actually thinking.

Brady Quinn
We'll start with the golden boy; Quinn, the (relatively) hometown hero with soap opera good looks, who lit up the scoreboard for one of college football's most-storied programs. There were murmurs about Quinn's accuracy coming out of Notre Dame, and whispers about his arm strength. His arm strength isn't an issue, but it was made into one because the two quarterbacks he's been measured against most often, JaMarcus Russell and Derek Anderson, have two of the strongest arms in the game.

In spite of the Browns investing a first round pick and a high second round pick in Quinn, he's never been given the keys to the offense for an entire season. Most highly-touted prospects get at least a season (usually two, three, or four) where they're unequivocally "the guy," but Quinn hasn't had that privelege. Instead, Quinn's only real shot came when Romeo Crennel made a "quarterback change" (fancy way of saying he was forced by Phil Savage and/or Randy Lerner) when the Browns had been all but mathematically eliminated from the playoffs.

At least partially due to his contract hold out in the summer of 2007, Romeo Crennel banished Quinn to the bench, and BQ was never given a fair shot at the starting job in training camp. It's likely that the situation frustrated Quinn, who easily could have marched into Cleveland with Tim Couch's sense of entitlement. In spite of the vexing circumstances, Quinn never voiced one iota of irritation. Thus far, Quinn's only response has been to hit the weights, the books, and the film room even harder, and for that he should be commended.

Quinn's contract is very club-friendly, and its incentive-based nature has made it even more so, as Quinn has barely seen the field in his first two seasons. In the 2006 draft class, Quinn universally hailed by draft pundits as either the number one or number two quarterback on the board. You don't just get rid of those guys without at least getting a glimpse of what they can do. To have a player like that, with a contract that has virtually no risk in the event that he fails, and to never give him a fighting chance to be your franchise quarterback is not simply foolish, it's downright certifiable.

If I'm Eric Mangini, I'm giving Brady Quinn this season. If he shows me enough to prove that he's my guy, that's great. If he flops, I can cut him lose with very few repercussions and draft a quarterback next season. This season is going to be lost to player development anyway, so why not use it to give Quinn an honest evaluation?
Chance to be the '09 starter: 75%

Derek Anderson
Just think: had Phil Savage dealt DA for draft picks when he had the chance, he might still have a job right now. Following his sixteenth-alternate-twice-removed "Pro Bowl" season in 2007 (so many guys opt out of Hawaii, the "Pro Bowler" label is pretty worthless), Anderson was one of several reasons for the colossal disappointment of last year's team. Derek Anderson isn't your quarterback of the future. At this point, we know who Anderson is. Unfortunately, as evidenced by the lack of a trade so far, it appears that the rest of the league does, too.

Let's assume that the Browns are trying to trade Anderson, and given the Jedi mind tricks they've been trying to pull on opposing front offices when talking about Anderson in the press (the starting job is an open competition...these aren't the droids you're looking for...), there's no reason to think that isn't the case. The fact that they haven't gotten a deal done has to make you think that the market for Anderson is so low (a fifth or sixth round pick, maybe?) that Mangini figures it's more valuable to simply keep the somewhat-estranged quarterback.

It shouldn't be total surprise that the market for Anderson is practically non-existent. For all his numbers in '07, Anderson struggled in the last few games of his "Pro Bowl" year, and that carried into 2008. Anderson was exposed as inconsistent, inaccurate, and mentally weak. Derek Anderson is a good backup, and maybe even a stopgap starter, but a potential franchise quarterback he is not.

Add in the fact that DA's price tag is about $8 million per year, most of which is built into guarantees, and you've got an overpriced backup that won't command much of a return. Unfortunately, because so much of that money is guaranteed (and trading him would also accelerate his bonuses), cutting Derek Anderson only saves the Browns about $600,000 this season. Considering that Anderson is an asset who still has value, albeit depleted, it seems unlikely that Eric Mangini will cut bait with DA. From Mangini's perspective, retaining Anderson if a favorable trade doesn't materialize probably makes sense.

Look at it from Mangini's point of view. If Brady Quinn fails or is injured, you've got a guy who can step in and play. If Anderson stinks up the joint for the rest of the year, you can cut him when the season's over, and you've only spent $600,000 more than if you'd traded or cut him earlier. If Anderson knocks your socks off, however unlikely, you've found your starter. And if Anderson plays decent football, maybe you increase his value for a possible trade next season.

It looks more and more likely that we're stuck with Anderson, in some capacity, for one more season. The only good news is that he'll probably be wearing a baseball cap most of the time. The only scenarios in which Anderson starts for the Browns this year are if Brady Quinn is injured, or if the Browns draft Mark Sanchez and feel that he isn't ready to start.
Chance to be the '09 starter: 20%

Mark Sanchez

Ever since it's come out that Eric Mangini was left disenchanted with Michael Crabtree following their recent meeting, there has been a ton of buzz surrounding the Browns and USC's Mark Sanchez. It seems unlikely that the Browns' interest in the junior quarterback is real.

Sanchez is far less proven at the college level than Quinn. Quinn started 46 games in college, whereas Sanchez only started 16. While Sanchez was impressive in his season as the starter, quarterbacks with more college starts tend to have a higher rate of success in the pros, as do passers who stay for their senior years, like Quinn did. Although underclassmen have only been able to enter draft for about 20 years, it's worth noting that Ben Roethlisberger is the only quarterback to enter the draft as a junior and win the Super Bowl with the team that drafted him.

Choosing Sanchez would also be very costly. Not only would it require the investment of another premium draft choice in a quarterback, but it would mean that the Browns would be throwing somewhere in the neighborhood of $25-30 million in guaranteed money at Marky Mark. By comparison, JaMarcus Russell received $31.5 million guaranteed in 2007 (number one pick), and Matt Ryan cashed in for $34.75 million guaranteed after last year's draft (number three pick). The Lions just inked Matthew Stafford for $41.7 million guaranteed. Considering the high failure rate of first round quarterbacks, regardless of college pedigree, that's a very risky investment.

No, it's more likely that the Browns are creating another elaborate facade, from which they hope to reap some sort of benefit. Mark Sanchez is a hot commodity right now, and it's not an exaggeration to say that as many as three teams (Broncos, Jets, Redskins) could make a serious play to trade up for the young gun. Eric Mangini is nobody's fool, and he must realize that Sanchez presents the most likely scenario for the Browns to trade down and accumulate more draft picks, which is probably Mangini's preference.

While it may have been genuine, it seemed a little suspicious that the Browns would trash Michael Crabtree so publicly after their meeting with him. Mangini played his hand well, but it might just be more deception. If other team's think the Browns have soured on Crabtree, they'll probably think that it's even more likely that the Browns are seriousy considering Sanchez. If a team like Dan Snyder's Redskins, for example, is as infatuated with Sanchez as we've been led to believe, they might blink, deal some extra draft picks to the Browns, and not risk calling the Browns' bluff.

In my book, the trade down is the ideal draft day scenario, although it's also unlikely. Teams just don't want to pay the price to trade into the top five, and have to pay the top five contract, as well. However unlikely, if a trade down did materialize the Browns would save some money, they could select a player of similar quality to those available at number five (Maualuga, Wells, Jenkins, Oher, etc.), and they'd add at least one more valuable draft pick.

Things could get very interesting if Sanchez is on the board at number five and nobody bites on a trade offer. If I'm Eric Mangini, I take Sanchez anyway, and force other teams to let me trade down, not unlike what the Chargers did a few years back with Eli Manning. Between the Broncos, Jets, and Redskins, one team will probably bite. And even if you get less than fair value per the "draft trade value chart," who cares? You still save the money and get a player of comparable ability.

The bottom line is that there's a very slim chance that Sanchez is actually part of Eric Mangini's plan for rebuilding the Browns, unless it's as a bargaining chip. Regardless of who's under center, the Browns will probably struggle this season, and next year offers a much better quarterback class including names like Texas' Colt McCoy and Oklahoma's Sam Bradford. The Browns would likely be in a position to make a play for one of the top passers in next year's draft.

Even if the Browns decide to go with Sanchez and trade Quinn, Sanchez would likely sit for a season behind Derek Anderson.
Chance to be the '09 starter: 5%

Nobody really knows what Eric Mangini and George Kokinis are thinking. Their goal has been to keep the media, fans, and most importantly, other organizations, totally in the dark. They've succeeded. The good news is that when the dust settles from the first two rounds of the draft this evening, we'll know the dynamic duo's plans for the quarterback position. Let's hope they've put as much thought into the decision itself as they obviously have into their propaganda campaign.


Andy said...

Go Cavs!

Andy said...

I don't remember anyone questioning Quinn's accuracy - didn't he complete a pretty high % at ND?

If I was Derek Anderson, and I read this article, and ever met you in person, I would punch you. This "mentally weak" thing is one of your stranger assessments. The dude just isn't good at short passing.