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A history of trading up for a franchise QB

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If the Bills were to make the move, they’d be treading dangerous ground.

A lot has been made of the scouting the Buffalo Bills have been doing in the last week when it comes to the top quarterbacks in the NFL Draft. The Bills have met with all of the top prospects, and team owner Terry Pegula was even involved in some of the workouts.

As a result, despite (or perhaps because of) the renegotiation of incumbent starter Tyrod Taylor’s contract, it’s become a trend to have the Bills selecting either North Carolina’s Mitchell Trubisky or Clemson’s Deshaun Watson at tenth overall.

I went over why I feel that’s a bad idea a while ago (long story short: a good quarterback means little without a good roster around him). I might, however, be able to begrudgingly accept the fact that the team may pick one at ten.

What I am staunchly against, however, is the idea of trading up for one. Some mock drafts and rumored projections out there have the Bills doing just that, moving ahead of the New York Jets (who are widely expected to take a quarterback) to ensure they “get their guy.”

Out of curiosity, I decided to look back in NFL history to see what’s happened whenever teams have traded up into the top 10 of the draft in order to draft their presumptive quarterback of the future. This is an all-inclusive* list of what’s happened when teams have made a move up in the top 10 picks of the draft for that QB over the last twenty years.

* I’m not including Eli Manning for a couple reasons. First, he had already been picked before he was traded, so it’s technically not “moving up” so much as it is “trading for the guy.” More importantly, however, he had a well-publicized issue with the Chargers, who probably wouldn’t have traded him otherwise. I’m focusing on trades where the initiative came from the team moving up, not the team moving on.

2016: Jared Goff (Los Angeles Rams, 1st overall)

The situation: The Rams finished 7-9 for the umpteenth time since last making the playoffs in 2004, and longtime head coach Jeff Fisher’s job was on the line. The team had traded former first overall pick Sam Bradford to the Eagles (more on him in a minute) in exchange for Nick Foles, who was two years removed from throwing 27 touchdown passes to only two interceptions. Foles wasn’t able to capture that magic in St. Louis, however, and he lost his job to former UDFA Case Keenum (he regained it temporarily when Keenum was injured, but didn’t hold on to it). Looking to strengthen the position in time for their move to Los Angeles, the Rams made a trade for the Cal product, Goff.

The trade (overall draft position in parenthesis)
Tennessee Titans receive: 2016 1st (15), 2016 2nd (43), 2016 2nd (45), 2016 3rd (76), 2017 1st, 2017 3rd
Los Angeles Rams receive: 2016 1st (1), 2016 4th (113), 2016 6th (177)

The result: While the jury is still out on Goff, the initial returns were less than inspiring. Keenum opened the season as a starter, possibly because of Fisher’s preference for veterans in key roles but possibly because Goff simply wasn’t ready for the job. When he finally did take the reigns of the 4-5 Rams, he failed to inspire a whole lot of confidence. While he did throw for three touchdowns in his second start (against the New Orleans Saints’ league-worst pass defense), he threw for more than 200 yards only twice in seven starts (all losses) and finished with more interceptions (seven) than touchdowns (five). Perhaps new head coach Sean McVay can work some magic with him, but at this point it looks like an uphill battle.

2016: Carson Wentz (Philadelphia Eagles, 2nd overall)

The situation: Having just traded Foles to the Rams for Bradford, who hadn’t played a regular season game in a season and a half due to injuries, the Eagles were banking on big returns to help embattled head coach Chip Kelly return the team to the playoffs. Bradford played reasonably well in 2015, throwing for 3,725 yards and 19 touchdowns, but the Eagles’ middling running attack (featuring a criminally underutilized DeMarco Murray) and woebegone defense (28th in scoring, 30th in yardage) led to Kelly’s firing with one game left in the season. Looking to secure a franchise quarterback for new head coach Doug Pedersen, the Eagles made the move to acquire FCS phenom Wentz.

The trade
Cleveland Browns receive: 2016 1st (8), 2016 3rd (77), 2016 4th (100), 2017 1st, 2018 2nd
Philadelphia Eagles receive: 2016 1st (2), 2017 4th

The result: The initial plan was to have Wentz ride the pine behind Bradford for a season, but a freakish injury to Minnesota’s Teddy Bridgewater led the Eagles to ship out Bradford for a first round pick and hand the starting job to Wentz. Wentz certainly had a better season than Goff, starting all 16 games and throwing for 3,782 yards with 16 touchdowns to 14 interceptions, and the Eagles even managed to win their first three games. Wentz wore down as the season went on, however, and the Eagles finished 7-9.

2012: Robert Griffin III (Washington Redskins, 2nd overall)

The situation: After winning two Super Bowls with John Elway and coaxing Pro Bowl seasons out of Brian Griese (!), Jake Plummer, and Jay Cutler, it must have been rough on Mike Shanahan to suffer through the likes of John Beck and Rex Grossman in his first two seasons in Washington. Washington’s 26th-ranked scoring offense needed a boost, and the team decided it should come in the form of the Heisman Trophy-winning Griffin, who had just finished a phenomenal career at Baylor.

The trade
St. Louis Rams receive: 2012 1st (6), 2012 2nd (39), 2013 1st, 2014 1st
Washington Redskins receive: 2012 1st (2)

The result: For one year, it looked like magic. RG3 set the league on fire with both his arm (3,200 yards, 20 TDs to only five picks) and legs (817 rushing yards and seven rushing TDs). Despite having the league’s 28th-ranked defense, Washington cruised to an NFC East title with a 10-6 record, and Griffin ran away with Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. However, his knees had taken a beating over the course of the season, and his status for the team’s opening playoff game was in question. Griffin started the game, but left after tearing his ACL and LCL. He was never quite the same player after that, and both the quarterback and team regressed over the next few seasons. Griffin famously was inactive for almost the entire 2015 season despite being cleared to play, and moved on to Cleveland after being released in 2016. One injury-shortened season with the Browns later, and Griffin is still a free agent.

2011: Blaine Gabbert (Jacksonville Jaguars, 10th overall)

The situation: Jacksonville was coming off an 8-8 finish in 2010, and still had longtime starter David Garrard, one year removed from a Pro Bowl, in the fold. Garrard was 32, however, and battling the effects of Crohn’s Disease, so Jacksonville management and longtime head coach Jack Del Rio apparently saw fit to find his successor sooner rather than later.

The trade
Washington Redskins receive: 2011 1st (16), 2011 2nd (49)
Jacksonville Jaguars receive: 2011 1st (10)

The result: Garrard was cut close to the beginning of the season (he never played another regular season game), and the starting job was handed to...Luke McCown. After McCown spent two game showing Gabbert how to not be an NFL quarterback, Gabbert took the reins in Week 3. The Jags won four of his 14 starts, and Gabbert (who wasn’t helped by the fact that Mike Thomas was Jacksonville’s best wideout that year) threw for only 2,214 yards and 12 touchdowns. The situation didn’t improve over the near future, and Jacksonville spent the third overall pick on Blake Bortles just three seasons later. Gabbert spent three years in San Francisco, earning the starting job by default late in 2015 and leading the 49ers to a 4-9 record through the early part of 2016. He’s now a free agent, however, as San Francisco moved on from both Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick in favor of Brian Hoyer.

2009: Mark Sanchez (New York Jets, 5th overall)

The situation: The Jets opened 2008 by winning eight of their first 11 games with the legendary Brett Favre under center. Favre and the Jets faltered at the end of the season, however, losing four of their final five to finish 9-7 and on the outside of the playoffs. The 39-year-old Favre was traded to Minnesota in the offseason, and head coach Eric Mangini was fired. The team brought in a brash new head coach in Rex Ryan, and they also made a move in the draft to give him a franchise quarterback.

The trade:
Cleveland Browns receive: DE Kenyon Coleman, QB Brett Ratliff, S Abram Elam, 2009 1st (17), 2009 2nd (52)
New York Jets receive: 2009 1st (5)

The result: The Sanchize spent four years with the Jets, leading them to back-to-back AFC Championship games in his first two seasons. Of course, one could argue that the Jets’ stifling defense led them to those playoff runs, and Sanchez (who threw 33 interceptions to only 29 touchdowns in his first two seasons) was just along for the ride. Turnovers became a bigger issue in his final two seasons, and after the infamous “butt fumble” Sanchez was off to Philadelphia. He played fairly well in spot duty with the Eagles, then headed off to Dallas to sit behind rookie sensation Dak Prescott in 2016. The Jets, as I mentioned earlier, are likely to take a shot at a quarterback early in this draft.

2001: Michael Vick (Atlanta Falcons, 1st overall)

The situation: Atlanta had been in the Super Bowl just two seasons earlier, but longtime starter Chris Chandler was 35 and deep in decline. Star running back Jamal Anderson had also lost his shine (he would suffer a career-ending ACL tear just three games into the 2001 season), and the Falcons needed a new identity. They decided that it would come in the form of transcendent Virginia Tech star Michael Vick, who had the athletic ability to redefine the quarterback position in the NFL.

The trade
San Diego Chargers receive: WR Tim Dwight, 2001 1st (5), 2001 3rd (67), 2002 2nd
Atlanta Falcons receive: 2001 1st (1)

The result: Vick did, indeed, redefine the quarterback position in the NFL. Prior to Vick (who sat behind Chandler for most of 2001 before taking the starting job for good the next year), mobility was more or less just a nice thing for a quarterback to have. Vick turned it into a weapon. Vick threw for just under 3,000 yards in 2002 while running for 777, and the 9-6-1 Falcons proceeded to make history as the first team to ever win a road playoff game at Lambeau Field in the Wild Card round. A preseason injury caused him to miss all but four games in 2003 (where he led the 2-10 Falcons to a 3-1 finish), but the Falcons returned to the playoffs in 2004. Vick made history again in 2006 by becoming the only quarterback to ever rush for 1,000 yards in a season.

Of course, the story takes a major turn at this point. Vick was convicted of running a dogfighting ring and spent nearly two years in prison. He lost his $100 million contract with the Falcons, and upon his release was traded to the Eagles, where he worked to rehabilitate his image while playing some of the best football of his career. He soon fell out of favor, however, and bounced around the AFC before retiring after a forgettable stint in Pittsburgh. The Falcons, meanwhile used the third overall pick in 2008 on Matt Ryan, who led the team to the Super Bowl in 2016 while being named NFL MVP.

1998: Ryan Leaf (San Diego Chargers, 2nd overall)

The situation: The 1997 Chargers were a team at a crossroads. Stan Humphries, who led them to a Super Bowl appearance in 1994, was 32 years old and in the final season of a concussion-filled career. Craig Whelihan was not fit to take his job for the long term, going 0-7 to give the team a 4-12 record and the third pick in the draft. The defense still had stars Rodney Harrison and Junior Seau, so the thought was that a good quarterback might be able to put the team back into playoff contention. Unfortunately, at third overall the Chargers weren’t in position to draft one of the two franchise players at the top of the draft, so...

The trade
Arizona Cardinals receive: WR Eric Metcalf, LB Patrick Sapp, 1998 1st (3), 1998 2nd (33), 1999 1st
San Diego Chargers receive: 1998 1st (2)

The result: The Chargers gave up a future first, a second, and two players (including All Pro return man Metcalf) to move up one spot in the draft. After the Colts chose Tennessee’s Peyton Manning, the Chargers happily selected Washington State product Leaf, who finished third in Heisman Trophy voting the previous season. Leaf proceeded to become the poster child for NFL draft busts by spectacularly flaming out both on and off the field. Among his career highlights: four wins in 25 starts, more than twice as many interceptions (36) as touchdowns (14), and an impossibly bad game against the Chiefs where he almost threw for more interceptions (2) than yards (4) on 15 attempts. He also had an infamous blowup with his coach before being released, which led him to four games with the Cowboys before washing out of the NFL and into prison (he seems to be doing much better with his life these days, though, so good for him).

Conclusion

As you can see, trading up for a quarterback is a move that, historically, has been unsuccessful. Going back to the merger in 1970, a trade into the top ten for a QB has happened twelve times. Two of those quarterbacks won a playoff game with the team that drafted them. Three have spent time in prison, which I don’t expect for any of these quarterbacks but serves as a cautionary tale nonetheless.

Trading up into the top ten for a quarterback requires two things that should give teams pause. The first is (usually) an inordinate amount of resources that set the team back and make it hard for anybody to win, much less a rookie quarterback who is probably going to be thrown right into the fire. The second is a willing trade partner, meaning there’s another team out there who sees that quarterback and is fine with passing on him. In this year’s draft, the 49ers have a glaring need at QB and pick second overall. If they don’t take one of these guys, why should anybody sell the farm to move up for one?

Unless some team wants to move up to tenth overall, in which case: go right ahead.