Charging Forward: How San Diego Could Move On From Philip Rivers

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Is this Philip Rivers thing actually happening? It’s been easy to discount the spring rumors suggesting the Chargers were about to split with their longtime star quarterback, because they didn’t seem to make any sense. With no quarterback of the future on the roster, the move didn’t compute for the Chargers. And while the 33-year-old Rivers could justifiably consider retiring, the public speculation about his future seemed like a way to try to gain leverage in his coming contract talks, with the five-time Pro Bowler about to enter the final season of the seven-year extension he signed in 2009.

I’m not sure I’m at the point where I think a Rivers trade is likely, but the smoke is now impossible to ignore. The Chargers, who pick 17th in this year’s draft, are very publicly doing their due diligence on a player who could be their future quarterback, Marcus Mariota. The team’s brain trust flew to Eugene on Monday and spent two days with the former Oregon star. That doesn’t happen unless both sides think there’s a serious chance Mariota ends up in Southern California at the end of this month.

Rivers’s side isn’t exactly denying the rumors either. In March, Rivers told Chargers beat writer Kevin Acee he had no intention of signing a contract extension before the end of 2015, tying it to concerns about the San Diego franchise moving to Los Angeles.1 “The good thing is I’m not under contract in a year where we’d potentially be in Los Angeles,” said Rivers, who then proceeded to hum “Why You’d Want to Live Here” ominously.

Then, on Tuesday morning, a follow-up piece by Acee took things a step further. While acknowledging his respect for Rivers, Acee wrote that it was time for the Chargers to cut ties with their quarterback. While some of that is about obtaining value for a player who doesn’t want to play for the Los Angeles Chargers, Acee convincingly argues that the timing is right for a trade that could make both the team and its quarterback happy.

So, how would that work? What would the Chargers expect in return for Rivers? Is it a move they should make? And if not, what should general manager Tom Telesco do with his team’s most important player?

Rivers the Titan

The most logical trade possibility would be a deal that makes Rivers a member of the Tennessee Titans. Given Rivers’s aversion to raising his family in Los Angeles, Nashville would likely stand as his ideal NFL landing point. Acee notes that Nashville is both near Rivers’s in-laws and 90 minutes away from Rivers’s childhood home in Decatur, Alabama. He even goes as far as suggesting that Rivers will end up in Nashville once the Chargers move to Los Angeles, whether he does so as an active member of the Titans or as a retired quarterback turned high school football coach.

Professionally, while Rivers wouldn’t necessarily be enthused about moving to a team that just went 2-14, he would have the benefit of working with Ken Whisenhunt. The Tennessee head coach spent 2013 as San Diego’s offensive coordinator and helped inspire Rivers’s career resurgence, working with head coach Mike McCoy to install a shorter passing attack that played to his quarterback’s accuracy and overcame the offensive line’s mediocrity. Rivers was unhappy with suggestions that he needed to be “fixed” before the 2013 season, but there’s no doubt that Whisenhunt helped him return to his best.

From Tennessee’s perspective, there’s the likelihood the team might not be all that infatuated with Mariota. Whisenhunt has historically favored the traditional quarterback archetype during his time as a decision-maker. It’s fair to say he prefers tall, strong-armed pocket passers, especially if they bear some resemblance to Tom Brady.

The 6-foot-4 Mariota has a strong arm, but he played in a spread offense that doesn’t really fit with what Whisenhunt has done in the past. Whisenhunt could shift his scheme to incorporate more of the spread concepts while simultaneously employing Mariota more frequently as a running threat, but he might also be of the opinion that Mariota isn’t worth the hassle. We won’t know the answer on that one until the Titans decide what to do with their pick.

Given Tennessee’s six-year run of anonymous mediocrity and the likelihood that general manager Ruston Webster will see his future come down to what he does in this year’s draft, you could understand why the Titans might prefer the “sure thing” in Rivers, even if it means passing up a possible 10-year starter like Mariota.

And it could even make sense for San Diego. The Chargers have been competitive over the past two seasons with Rivers at the helm, which leaves them in an unenviable no-man’s-land in terms of finding their next quarterback. Stay the course with Rivers and they’ll be a good team again in 2015, but then they’re stuck with a quarterback who doesn’t want to move to L.A. and who isn’t willing to sign a contract that could lead to that result. They could keep Rivers for 2016 by franchise tagging him, but that would cost the Chargers $20.9 million. The following year, that number would rise to $25.1 million, which would be the second-largest cap hit in football.

There’s also a nonzero chance that Rivers would retire if the Chargers slapped him with the franchise tag, a move that would prevent San Diego from obtaining any sort of value for its signal-caller. It would also force the Chargers to find a new starting quarterback without the sorts of assets needed to acquire an important contributor; they would likely have to rely on a veteran free agent, a buy-low trade acquisition, or a quarterback taken in the 2016 draft.

Unless the Chargers unexpectedly collapse this year, that would be a quarterback chosen in the middle of the first round or with a later pick, and it’s fair to say they would be unlikely to find a passer anywhere near as good as Rivers. If they didn’t address the position, they would likely have to struggle through a brutal 2016 with the likes of Kellen Clemens under center before taking a quarterback early in the 2017 draft.

The alternative to that seems pretty appealing. If the Chargers like Mariota (and don’t think Rivers is bluffing), they could deal Rivers while his value remains high without having to struggle through a transitional season or risking a scenario in which they lose him for nothing. They are exceedingly unlikely to end up with a draft pick or a young passer with a better pedigree than Mariota in the years to come, at least not without having a season where everything goes to hell. And if Mariota succeeds, they could have a franchise quarterback and $15 million in found cap space to invest elsewhere during the 2016 season.

Trade Fair

What would a Rivers-Mariota deal look like? Since the deal would likely hinge upon Mariota actually being available with the second overall pick, the trade would have to wait until draft day, given that the Buccaneers could choose to draft Mariota themselves or trade the pick to some other team with an interest in taking him.2 That’s clear. In terms of the return, though, it’s hard to say.

Pro Bowl quarterbacks just don’t get traded all that frequently. When you get a quarterback like Rivers, you generally hold on to him for dear life until he gets injured, retires, or suffers a drastic drop-off in performance. Really, these guys get traded only when they become distressed assets, which you’ll see in the list of comparable trades I’m going to bring up in a moment. Rivers isn’t distressed in terms of his level of play or health, but given that the Chargers are running a serious risk of losing him for nothing as early as next year, they don’t have the sort of leverage that would come if they just decided to trade Rivers solely for performance reasons.

Start with the idea that the Chargers are dealing Rivers for the second overall pick. Using Chase Stuart’s Draft Value Chart, we can estimate that the second overall pick is worth 30.2 points of Adjusted Value over the first five years of that player’s pro career. That figure is the best gauge of what a team might actually expect to receive in a return, but here, it’s probably better to use the traditional Jimmy Johnson draft value chart for two reasons.

One is that we’re measuring a pro team’s estimate of trade value, and while there are teams who have built their own charts to estimate draft pick returns, most teams still rely on the Johnson chart, especially on draft day. The other reason is that the Johnson chart specifically overvalues the picks at the very top of the draft, and if there’s ever a reason to treat the first few picks as more valuable than normal, it’s when there’s a franchise quarterback to be had with one of those selections.

I’ve gone through some notable trades of veteran quarterbacks for draft picks and estimated what the return looked like in terms of draft value, to see if we can get a comparable look at what a Rivers-Mariota deal might look like in 2015. In the cases where these picks involved future selections3 or conditional picks,4 I’ve estimated where the acquiring team might have figured the picks to land at the time it made the deal.

In each of these deals, the team getting the prominent quarterback gave up less in terms of draft value than the Titans would be sending to the Chargers for Rivers. The no. 2 pick is worth 2,600 points of draft value; the closest deal to that would be the Cutler swap, which was for a far younger player than Rivers.

The closest comparison I could make to Rivers, in terms of his ability and likely future at this point in his career, would probably be somewhere between Palmer and Bledsoe. They were each dealt for lesser first-round picks, with a desperate Raiders team adding a future second-round pick to acquire Palmer in a misguided midseason deal. The Chargers have more leverage with Rivers than either of those teams did with their veteran quarterbacks, but not so much more that it justifies nearly double the return in terms of draft value.

Given these figures, the Chargers would likely need to send something back to Tennessee in addition to Rivers. They probably wouldn’t want to include their first-round pick (no. 16), but it wouldn’t be out of the question for San Diego to give up the 48th overall selection. That would be worth 420 points and value Rivers at 2,180 points. Add a conditional late-round pick if the Chargers win a certain number of games with Mariota and you get to a reasonable estimate of Rivers’s trade value.

There are other ways these teams could maximize their value. The Titans could hold a bidding war and deal the no. 2 pick to the Browns, who could send them 2,075 points of draft value with their two first-round picks in this year’s draft, or the Jets, who could offer about 2,600 points of value by sending the no. 6 pick and their first-rounder in next year’s draft. If the Chargers just want to get the largest maximum return for Rivers and don’t care for Mariota, they could send the former NC State star to the Browns or Jets for either of those offers while picking up a project like Geno Smith or Johnny Manziel in the process.

More than anything, though, this comes down to how these two teams read the situation. If the Chargers really feel like Rivers has one foot out the door and isn’t going to follow the franchise out of San Diego (and if they truly believe in Mariota), this is probably the best deal they can make for a quarterback of the future. And if the Titans aren’t so sure about Mariota and want to turn things around quickly, they’re never going to find a better proven quarterback available on the free market than they would with Rivers. Everyone can see the smoke. Now, we wait to see if there’s fire.

Filed Under: NFL, Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers, Marcus Mariota, 2015 NFL Draft

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell