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What does it take to find a franchise quarterback?

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A closer look at the long road to finding your franchise quarterback in today’s NFL?

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Until Denver finds the ever elusive long-term replacement for Peyton Manning, we’ll be here talking about quarterbacks in Broncos Country year after year.

This offseason, like the one before it, the Denver Broncos, and specifically John Elway, have received a lot of criticism for their inability to “find a franchise quarterback.” The unspoken (or perhaps spoken) implication there is that there are franchise quarterbacks available, Denver is just bad at finding them.

This is a bit of the angle I took in January when I wrote about what I think John Elway’s biggest issue has been when attempting to fill the quarterback position. In that piece, I made the argument that since Peyton Manning retired, eleven teams have found who they would consider their franchise guys. So, a third of the league has found what Denver has been looking for since 2015.

However, while three years seems like a long time for us fans who have been subjected to watching Paxton Lynch and Trevor Siemian “battle” for the starting quarterback job, when you look at the teams who have recently filled their vacant franchise quarterback spots it becomes clear that finding a franchise quarterback is a lot easier said than done, and everyone across the league seems equally as good (or bad) at it.

Let’s start with the list I laid out in my previous piece (with a few tweaks upon further review):

2016

Los Angeles Rams - Jared Goff

Philadelphia Eagles - Carson Wentz

Dallas Cowboys - Dak Prescott

2017

Chicago Bears - Mitchell Trubisky

Kansas City Chiefs - Patrick Mahomes

Houston Texans - Deshaun Watson

San Francisco 49ers - Jimmy Garoppolo

2018

Minnesota Vikings - Kirk Cousins

Cleveland Browns - Baker Mayfield

New York Jets - Sam Darnold

Buffalo Bills - Josh Allen

Arizona Cardinals - Josh Rosen

These teams have all presumably “found” their franchise QBs (except maybe the Cardinals). But a quick look at history shows a pretty ugly, arduous journey at the position before finding their saviors.

Los Angeles Rams - Jared Goff

We’ll start with the Rams, who traded a haul of two firsts, two seconds, and two thirds to move up from #15 overall, to the #1 overall pick in 2016 to select Jared Goff.

Before Goff, the Rams spent another #1 overall pick on Sam Bradford in 2010. Bradford struggled with injuries and a poor supporting cast, and the Rams never went over .500. During the Bradford era, the Rams saw Bradford, A.J. Feeley, Kellen Clemens, Austin Davis, and Shaun Hill all start games from 2010 - 2014.

In 2015, the Rams finally traded Bradford to the Eagles for Nick Foles, as well as acquiring Case Keenum from the Texans. Foles would go on to start 11 games before being benched for Case Keenum. Keenum would actually start nine games in 2016 before the Jared Goff era officially began.

Philadelphia Eagles - Carson Wentz

The Eagles were the second blockbuster trade of 2016 moving up to #2 to select Carson Wentz.

It had been a rocky road in Philly at quarterback leading up to landing Wentz. 2010 saw the return of Michael Vick to the league, after starter Kevin Kolb went down with injury. Vick would lose his starting job to 3rd round selection Nick Foles in 2012, but regained in 2013 when new head coach Chip Kelly declared an open competition between Foles, Vick, and Matt Barkley in camp.

However, the success didn’t last long, and Vick eventually was benched once again for Nick Foles, and Foles went on to have his crazy 2013 run of 27 touchdowns to two interceptions and a 119 passer rating.

In 2014, Foles was the starter, but broke his collarbone midway through the season, so the Eagles turned to Mark Sanchez who led them to a 10-6 record.

If you followed the timeline from the Rams section above, you’ll know this is where the Eagles and Rams paths merge as Nick Foles was traded for Sam Bradford. Bradford started 14 games of the 2015 season and Chip Kelly was fired mid-season, setting the stage for new head coach, Doug Pederson and general manager Howie Roseman to trade up for Carson Wentz.

Dallas Cowboys - Dak Prescott

Dallas is a relatively simple story. The team draft Dak Prescott in the 4th round of the 2016 draft, and he took over the starting quarterback role after longtime starter, Tony Romo went down in the preseason with an injury.

Chicago Bears - Mitch Trubisky

Let’s move into the 2017 draft picks. The Chicago Bears acquired Jay Cutler in a trade with Denver in 2009. The Cutler era in Chicago peaked in 2010 with a conference championship appearance and a first place division finish, but began a downward slide shortly after. The Bears finished 3rd place in their division the next two years, and head coach Lovie Smith was fired.

After an 8-8 finish in 2013, the Bears extended Jay Cutler with a 7-year $126 million contract with $54 million guaranteed. This netted Chicago three straight years of last place division finishes and a 2016 triumvirate of Cutler, Matt Barkley, and Brian Hoyer that led to them owning the #3 overall pick, which they then traded into the #2 pick to select Mitch Trubisky.

The same year they drafted Trubisky, however, they also signed Mike Glennon to an $18.5 million contract. Glennon would start four games in 2017 before being inevitably benched for the rookie, Trubisky.

Kansas City Chiefs - Patrick Mahomes

This one is a little bit more straight forward as well. After rolling through Tyler Palko, Kyle Orton, Matt Cassell, and Brady Quinn in 2011 and 2012, the Chiefs traded for Alex Smith to begin the 2013 offseason. Smith instantly improved the team, and Kansas City never had a losing season under Alex Smith as starter.

After getting repeatedly bounced in the playoffs, however, the Chiefs realized what everyone else in the league knew, they were never going to win a Super Bowl with Alex Smith at the helm.

So, in the 2017 draft, they moved from #27 to #10 to select Patrick Mahomes, sitting him for a year behind Smith, and eventually trading Mr. Smith to Washington the past year.

Houston Texans - Deshaun Watson

The Texans had a solid starter in Matt Schaub who led them to a wildcard win and divisional game appearance in 2012. In 2013, the wheels began to come off as Schaub set an NFL record with four straight games throwing a pick six.

After hurting his ankle, backup T.J. Yates then extended the streak to a fifth game with a pick six, and although Schaub regained his health, he never regained his starting role. 3rd string quarterback, Case Keenum, was tapped to finish out the remaining eight games of the year

The next three years would see the Texans cycle through Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Mallett, Case Keenum, Brian Hoyer, T.J. Yates, Brandon Weeden, Brock Osweiler, and Tom Savage. That’s 8 quarterbacks who started a game for the Texans in a three year span.

We all know about the Brock Osweiler saga in Houston, so no need to rehash that here. After trading Osweiler to Cleveland after only one season in Houston, the Texans moved up from #25 to #12 to select Deshaun Watson in 2017.

However, they couldn’t just hand the starting job to a rookie, as that would provide too much stability at the quarterback position so they named Tom Savage the starter heading into the season, until benching him two games later and handing over the keys to their rookie.

San Francisco 49ers - Jimmy Garoppolo

After signing the promising young quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, to a six-year extension, the 49ers went 8-8 in 2014 and missed the playoff for the first time since 2010.

Kaepernick continued to struggle in 2015 and was benched midway through the season for Blaine Gabbert. Gabbert would then begin the 2016 season as the starter, until being benched himself and Kaepernick reinstated. The 49ers would finish 2-14 that season.

2017 began with Kaepernick opting out of his contract for free agency, and the 49ers started Brian Hoyer and C.J. Beathard before trading a 2nd round pick to the Patriots for backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

Minnesota Vikings - Kirk Cousins

After Brett Favre’s heroic defeat in the 2009 playoffs and disappointing 2010 season, the Vikings drafted Christian Ponder in 2011. Veteran Donovan McNabb would start the first six games of the season before being benched for the rookie, Ponder.

After discovering Ponder was not the guy, the Vikings cycled through Matt Cassell, Josh Freeman, and Teddy Bridgewater who looked promising before suffering a gruesome injury.

They were then visited by the traveling minstrel, Sam Bradford, and after he was inevitably hurt in 2017, Case Keenum became their starter leading them to an unexpected playoff run to the NFC Championship game.

Despite his end of season heroics, the Vikings knew what Denver would discover the hard way, Case Keenum was not a guy to build your franchise around, so they pursued Kirk Cousins in free agency, handing him the largest amount of guaranteed money on a contract in the history of the NFL.

Cleveland Browns - Baker Mayfield

Since their last winning season in 2007, the Browns started 21 different quarterbacks and were the perpetual laughing stock of the league until their long game finally worked. They landed the #1 overall pick, and didn’t trade out of it, when Heisman winner Baker Mayfield was coming into the draft.

So they did the smart thing and selected him.

New York Jets - Sam Darnold

Before trading up to draft Sam Darnold #3 overall in 2018, the Jets featured talents such as Mark Sanchez, Geno Smith, Michael Vick, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Bryce Petty, and Josh McCown at quarterback from 2012 - 2017.

Buffalo Bills - Josh Allen

Rivaling the Jets with for most quarterback turnover in the division, the Bills cycled through Ryan Fitzpatrick, E.J. Manuel (who they drafted #16 overall in 2013), Thad Lewis, Jeff Tuel, Kyle Orton, Matt Cassel, Tyrod Taylor, and Nathan Peterman from 2012 - 2017.

The Bills then traded up from #12 to #7 overall to take Josh Allen in 2018.

Arizona Cardinals - Josh Rosen

Finally, we have the Arizona Cardinals who, since Kurt Warner retired, have trotted out Derek Anderson, John Skelton, Max Hall (who?), Kevin Kolb, Ryan Lindley, Brian Hoyer, Drew Stanton, Blaine Gabbert, and Sam Bradford; and signed everyone’s favorite backup, Mike Glennon.

Ironically, after all that, and trading up from #15 to #10 to select Josh Rosen, the Cardinals may be poised to take Kyler Murray at #1 this year and move on from Rosen, if the rumor mill is correct.

Takeways

It’s not easy

So what is the point of all this? Finding a quarterback is HARD! No one is good at it. Some get lucky and hit on one, or luck into the right place in the draft for a guy to fall to them, but no one has cracked the code.

There’s no formula - everyone’s bad at it

This has been a list of the (potential) franchise quarterbacks found in the last three years since Denver has been searching. The teams that found their talented rookies didn’t all of the sudden realize how to scout quarterbacks so they were able to get these guys. They kept swinging at everything they could until finally getting the right pitch to hit out of the park.

This list shows that there is no magic formula, and finding the next franchise quarterback for your team is a whole lot of weeding through junk at the position, recycling guys like Bradford, Keenum, Foles, and Fitzpatrick, and hoping to be lucky enough to be within reach of a top quarterback in the draft, and then further hoping they pan out.

It takes time

Two teams have been to Super Bowls recently from this list, but leading up to that they endured years of turnover, bad players, and multiple coaching changes to finally get to where they are now.

Aside from a few exceptions, most of these teams have been scrambling at the quarterback position for at least the last five years.

So I guess the message to Denver fans is - take heart. We’re not the only ones who have experienced the frustration of searching for that next long-term answer at quarterback, and we won’t be the last. Hopefully it won’t take Denver 5+ years to find their next guy like some of these teams, but it does put it in perspective. Three years post-Super Bowl win is not really that long of a time to find the next replacement for your Hall of Fame quarterback.

So I get that it’s in vogue to trash on Elway for not being able to conjure a franchise quarterback out of thin air over the last three years, but hopefully this offers some broader perspective, and makes Paxton Lynch, Trevor Siemian, and Case Keenum over the last three years seem mild in comparison.