This April, the Dallas Cowboys sit in a curious position. It's a curious position that will not only set the course for the franchise going forward, but that could also have broad implications on the direction of the league going forward.
A year ago at this time, the team was on top of the world. The team had ridden Tony Romo, DeMarco Murray, and Dez Bryant, along with the league's best offensive line, to a deep January run. Despite losing Murray in free agency, the team was one of the consensus favorites in the NFC the next season. Of course, things didn’t turn out that way. Romo and Bryant spent the season injured and the team floundered to a 4-12 season, finishing last in the lowly NFC East.
With the fourth overall pick in this years draft, the Cowboys have two options. They could add an impact player like Joey Bosa, Miles Jack, or Jalen Ramsey who could potentially spark a Super Bowl type of season. After all, the core of the roster from a year ago still remains. However, many are calling for an alternative option. Romo is already 35 and has only finished one of the past three seasons. Dallas likely won’t be picking this high in the draft for a long while, leading many to believe that they could use that pick to draft Romo’s eventual successor as Quarterback.
Owner Jerry Jones has initially scoffed at such theories. “Jerry told me recently that he will unequivocally not take a quarterback at No. 4, where the Cowboys draft this year,” wrote NFL Media’s Gill Brandt. “I believe him. It makes sense if you think Romo will make a full recovery from off-season surgery, will be your starter for at least three more years, and your team has a window of opportunity that will remain open by filling more glaring needs with the top pick in the draft.”
If Jones is indeed telling the truth, this is a worrying statement for Cowboys fans. There aren’t enough quarterbacks in the league to go around as is and the Cowboys know the struggle of sifting through years of quarterback purgatory first hand. Teams like the Texans and Rams have let strong rosters go to waste for years while waiting for the next franchise quarterback.
“We still can’t find ourselves more than 16 to 20 guys at one given time to control and operate an NFL franchise at the quarterback position successfully,” said Rich Eisen on a broadcast of the NFL Combine. “It really is incredible how difficult this position is or to find somebody.”
This problem has always plagued NFL teams. There aren’t enough quarterbacks to go around. The teams with a true franchise quarterback are in a great position to contend for titles while the rest are left as afterthoughts, no matter how strong their roster is.
Except, nowadays, the problem has been more or less been solved for the bulk of the teams in the league. Almost every team in the league has an established starting quarterback on their roster. Due to the strength of recent drafts for the position, the problem doesn’t seem nearly as bad. Successful picks like Jameis Winston, Derick Carr, and Blake Bortles in recent drafts have given hope to once lost teams. At the moment, only the Browns, 49ers, Rams, Jets, and Broncos lack an established starter at the position. By the account of most draft experts, two of these teams will find a solution in the draft through either Jared Goff or Carson Wentz. When compared to even five years ago, when quarterbacks to the likes of Kyle Orton, Jason Campbell, Kevin Kolb, and Bruce Gradkowski, among others, entered the year as starters, the state of quarterbacks right now doesn't seem nearly as bad.
This won’t last long, however. A large number of the currently established starters are quarterbacks who will most likely be set to retire within the next five years, leaving massive holes in the position for a disturbingly large number of teams. Currently, there are seven established starting quarterbacks in the league who are at least 34 years of age, among them are Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Carson Palmer, Tony Romo, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, and Ben Roethlisberger.
Don’t let the longevity of Brady and Manning change expectations for how long quarterbacks last in the league. Those are generational talents that have been able to make up for their diminishing physical skill set with an exceptional mastery of the mental side of the game. Brees falls into this category as well. While players like Romo and Rivers have been fine players in the position for many years, they shouldn’t be considered in the same vein as those Hall of Fame talents.
All of these players would project to retire two to four years from now. That list doesn’t include guys like Jay Cutler and Alex Smith, who have been middling talents and may not last much longer than that in starting roles. Of course, Aaron Rodgers turned 32 this year and has had his own problems with injuries in recent years. His physical playing style may not lend to a long career like Brady. Throw in a few teams abandoning questionable type of players like Ryan Tannehill and Tyrod Taylor and there could easily be ten or more teams searching for a quarterback within a two or three year span.
Some teams have done their best to combat this issue by drafting mid-round quarterbacks as “heir apparents” to take over when their aging starter retires. Teams look at the story of Aaron Rodgers sitting behind Brett Farve for years and try to replicate those results on their own teams. The Saints just drafted Garrett Grayson in the third round. A year earlier, the Patriots took Jimmy Garoppolo in the second. The best example of this is the Broncos drafting Brock Osweiler, who went on to have success as their starter this past year before defecting to the Texans. However, such mid-round talents rarely pan out as starting options. For every Kirk Cousins, there’s a Ryan Mallett. 23 of the current starting quarterbacks in the league were drafted in the top 40 selections in the draft. Guys like Tom Brady, drafted outside of the top round of the draft to sit, are the exception and not the rule.
Of course, this all goes without mentioning the matter of college football as well. The days of ready-made, Andrew Luck type prospects coming out of college are ending quickly. More and more colleges are switching to spread style offenses, leaving less pro-ready prospects coming into the league with each passing year. The athletes in the draft are woefully unprepared to take on NFL level play books, drop back seven steps and read the field, line up under center, or even take command of a huddle.So, if the Cowboys do stick to the words of Jones and draft a position outside of quarterback with the fourth pick, they will be cursing themselves to the mad scramble for quarterbacks in the league-wide quarterback draught that is sure to come in the next few years. They won’t be picking this high in the draft again until it’s already too late.