The Possibly Intriguing NFL QB Trade Market

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Finding your starting quarterback on the trade market is a last resort. Virtually nobody ever trades a franchise quarterback without any notable flaws because nobody has two of them on the roster at the same time. There are only two current starting quarterbacks who were acquired via a trade that came after they had thrown their first NFL pass:1 Jay Cutler, who was dealt from Denver to Chicago after a personality clash with head coach Josh McDaniels, and Alex Smith, who went from San Francisco to Kansas City after Colin Kaepernick took the starting job.

And today, coincidentally, two of those names are among the quarterbacks who could theoretically find themselves available in an active trade market. The emergence of a relatively new style of quarterback contract for veteran passers will make trades a more palatable option for teams that might not be quite as in love with their franchise quarterback as they once were.

The Cutler deal serves as the quintessential example of this type of contract. While Cutler received $54 million guaranteed as part of his seven-year deal, the typical quarterback contract has most of that money paid up front as part of a signing bonus that is then spread across the length of the contract for cap purposes. Cutler’s deal has no such signing bonus. Instead, the Bears basically guaranteed the first three years of Cutler’s base salaries, which combine to hit that $54 million figure.2

Guaranteed base salaries make a player virtually uncuttable. If the Bears wanted to cut Cutler this offseason, they wouldn’t save a dime on his $16.5 million cap figure. In fact, since they’ve already restructured the deal once (converting part of Cutler’s 2014 base salary into a bonus), the remaining bonuses on the deal would accelerate onto Chicago’s 2015 cap, meaning the Bears would owe Cutler $19.5 million to not play for them. Even if they’re wildly frustrated with Cutler, that’s not going to happen.

Trading a player like that, though, wouldn’t be a problem. The Bears could deal Cutler, and the base salaries would become the responsibility of the new team. Chicago would only have the $4 million from that restructuring bonus accelerate onto its 2015 cap, meaning it would save $12.5 million in 2015 without owing Cutler a penny more in 2016 and beyond.

Cutler is one of a handful of quarterbacks, most of whom have this style of contract, who could be on the move this offseason. The individual chances of any one of these five quarterbacks being traded are pretty slim. As a unit, though, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see at least one of these guys make a move to fresh pastures this spring. There are too many teams in need of a starter, and the impact of Russell Wilson has shown teams just how valuable it can be to have a quarterback who makes a relative pittance while building a championship contender.

Let’s examine those five candidates, why their teams might consider trading them, what the savings would be, and what the market might be for them in a swap:

Robert Griffin III, Washington

Why Trade: You don’t need me to explain what’s happened to RG3. Let’s just say there’s a reason American Football songs start playing in my head when I think about what’s happened with Griffin and Washington. It’s been a rough time.

The Savings: Griffin is about to enter the fourth and final year of his rookie contract, which is fully guaranteed. His new team would be on the hook for the $3.3 million base salary remaining on his deal in 2015, while Washington would absorb $3.5 million in dead money from the final prorated year of Griffin’s signing bonus. The new team would also have the choice of offering Griffin a fifth-year rookie option at the cost of about $16 million or so, a deal it would be unlikely to make.

The Market: I wrote about the possible market for a Griffin trade two weeks ago, just before Washington officially benched him for Colt McCoy. In that article, I named 10 possible destinations, noting that the Rams, Bills, and even the Eagles would be among the top locales for Griffin, who is talented but entirely out of sorts mechanically.

Jay Cutler, Chicago

Why Trade: It’s possible they want to blow up the damn thing and totally rebuild in Chicago. I wrote in 2012 about how Cutler is never going to be the player people want him to be, that he’ll always be the guy with the impressive highs and the frustrating lows and the same body language that fills a million column inches. Cutler actually hasn’t been much worse in 2014 than he was in 2013 — his passer rating is actually up 2.5 points — but the disappointing nature of Chicago’s season has led some Bears fans to point the finger at their starting quarterback.

Anonymous sources from inside Chicago’s front office suggest that the Bears have a serious case of buyer’s remorse, and that they would like to move on from the final six years remaining in Cutler’s seven-year, $126 million contract. As I mentioned earlier, cutting Cutler would be cost-prohibitive and impossible to justify. If the Bears want to move on from Cutler, the only way to do so before 2017 would be via trade.

The Savings: The Bears would have $4 million in dead money on their cap in 2015 with a trade but would save $12.5 million versus what they would pay Cutler to stay on the team. In addition, if they trade him before March, they wouldn’t be responsible for any of Cutler’s guarantees in 2016, which are likely to rise to $16 million. Cutler’s new team would have its starting quarterback on what basically amounts to a two-year, $31.5 million deal with four one-year options ranging between $12.5 million and $19.2 million.

The Market: If the Bears did decide to deal Cutler, he would likely be the most-talented and best-regarded quarterback on the market, with the usual quarterback-hungry suspects like the Jets, Texans, and Titans all interested. Teams picking in the top 10 wouldn’t likely give up a 2015 first-rounder for Cutler, and he won’t require the haul the Bears gave up to acquire Cutler in 2009.3 A team like Tennessee would more likely agree to a deal that includes a 2015 second-rounder and a future second-rounder that would turn into a first-rounder if Cutler and/or his new team hit certain thresholds of success.

There’s one dark horse that doesn’t make a lot of sense but entertains me: What if Cutler went to the Browns? I strongly doubt that the Browns are ready to move on from Johnny Manziel, who will make his first start this weekend, but there have at least been rumors this year that some members of the Cleveland organization have been disappointed with how he has prepared. Cleveland offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan wasn’t with his dad in Denver when Mike Shanahan drafted Cutler, but you have to figure they have some similarities in how they scout and judge quarterbacks. If the Bears are going to blow things up, getting Manziel back as part of a trade would at least give them an interesting option under center.

I doubt that Cutler will end up getting traded, if only because the Bears won’t be in a great spot to replace him.

Nick Foles, Philadelphia

Why Trade: It hasn’t been a great 2014 for Foles, who might have been exposed by the competency of Mark Sanchez. After Foles put together otherworldly numbers during a brief season in 2013, most Eagles fans had high hopes. But Foles came crashing down in 2014, with his numbers resembling the merely competent stat line he posted as a rookie under Andy Reid. Foles’s touchdown-to-interception ratio, a gaudy 27:2 in 2013, was a marginal 13:10 before he broke his collarbone in November.

Sanchez hasn’t been dominant, but his numbers are similar to or better than what Foles posted this year in just about every category. If Chip Kelly’s system can make the previously mediocre Sanchez look this good, it doesn’t make Foles look like much of a quarterback. Instead, stories leaked after Foles’s injury suggesting that general manager Howie Roseman had already begun to sour on Foles as he struggled in 2014.

The Savings: The Eagles wouldn’t save much at all by trading Foles, who has a very team-friendly deal per his third-round rookie contract. The Eagles will owe Foles just $815,880 in the upcoming fourth and final year of his rookie deal, at which point Foles will become an unrestricted free agent.4 Philly would save $660,000 by trading Foles, but that’s chump change for a team that perennially leaves millions in cap space available for flexibility’s sake.

The Market: The Eagles would really only want to trade Foles if they felt like they were set at quarterback (either by signing Sanchez to a new deal after his one-year contract runs out this offseason or by acquiring another passer) and wanted to acquire some sort of asset for their former starter before Foles hits free agency in 2016. This would be a tactical move, not a financial one.

Unlike Griffin, I don’t think a team would be acquiring Foles as a one-year rental; while Foles has now missed time with injuries in each of his three professional seasons and really only has that one outlier season in 2013 to suggest he’s a superstar in the making, he’s exhibited enough to justify a multiyear commitment, if not necessarily a lengthy one. A team that trades for him could try to use the leverage created by that final year of his deal to renegotiate friendlier terms on a long-term contract, in a similar vein to what the Cardinals did with Kevin Kolb after trading for him in 2011.

Foles could very well appeal to a team that doesn’t want to give up a first-round pick but also wants to upgrade at quarterback. If the Rams move on from Sam Bradford this offseason as most expect, would they be willing to sacrifice a second-rounder to try to find their quarterback of the future? With the Bills giving up on EJ Manuel and spending the first round of the 2015 draft on the sideline after the Sammy Watkins deal, could they have interest in dealing a midround pick or two for Foles?

Andy Dalton, Cincinnati

Why Trade: Dalton melted down earlier this season, most notably in a 24-3 loss to the Browns during which he threw three interceptions and went just 10-of-33 for 86 yards. It hasn’t been his only bad start. His teammates bailed him out during Week 13’s win over Tampa Bay, and there’s still that public perception that Dalton can’t win in prime time or in the playoffs, most recently fueled by the 43-17 shellacking Dalton’s Bengals took from the Patriots in Week 5.

It was one thing to accept Dalton’s limitations when he was still on his rookie contract and making less than a million dollars per season. Dalton signed a six-year deal that’s listed as being worth $96 million, and while he’s not actually going to see most of that money, he will see some of it.

The Savings: It’s really unlikely the Bengals will deal Dalton, because they won’t really be saving anything by doing so. Dalton’s deal is sort of a hybrid between the Cutler style and a more traditional deal, as he received a $12 million signing bonus. Dalton’s 2015 base salary is only $3 million, but he has a $4 million roster bonus (paid out by the team on the third day of the league year) and $9.6 million in remaining signing bonuses left on Cincinnati’s cap. If the Bengals traded Dalton after the third day of the new league year (three days into free agency), they would owe $13.6 million in dead money, more than the $9.4 million they would currently be in line to pay Dalton.

The Bengals could theoretically afford it, given how conservative the organization is about paying for talent. They have nearly $9 million in cap space available this year and should be in good shape for 2015, even if they did decide to trade Dalton to play a new quarterback. The new team would have Dalton signed for just $3 million in 2015 before an unguaranteed base kicks in from 2016 to 2021, starting at $10.5 million and eventually rising to $17.5 million. His new team would be able to cut him at any point without owing him another dime.

More likely, the Bengals will review Dalton before 2016, when they could save almost $6 million by releasing him.

The Market: I wonder if there’s an obvious landing point for Dalton if Jay Gruden sticks around in Washington. Even this disappointing season for Dalton would be an enormous upgrade over what Washington’s done under center, both on and off the field, and it would give Washington a passable starter while it figures out what it wants to do about the position in the long term. By the time 2016 rolls around, though, Gruden might not have the Washington job, which would make it a less appetizing opportunity for his former starter.

Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco

Why Trade: Kaepernick’s star has dimmed significantly, as the fourth-year man has been disappointing this year in San Francisco. I wrote on Monday about how Kaepernick’s problems might very well be a reflection of the team around him, but he has to take some of the blame for an offense that’s wasted some of the best defensive work in football.

The Savings: The 49ers do actually have the option of cutting Kaepernick, as his base salary for 2015 only guarantees on April 1, but they would owe $9.9 million in accelerated signing bonuses that would go on their 2015 cap. They would also avoid paying a $2 million roster bonus, so would ultimately save about $5.4 million on next year’s cap by moving on from their starter. That figure rises to about $9.4 million in 2016, making then a more likely time for a Kaepernick swap.

The Market: It depends on what teams are looking for and how Kaepernick plays before the deal. My expectation is that he’ll look better with improved offensive line play (and improved offensive line health) in 2015, even if Jim Harbaugh leaves. Kaepernick is still just 27 years old and only about two years removed from a trip to the Super Bowl, so he would have the highest trade value of anybody on this list. I imagine it would take a first-round pick, if not more, to grab Kaepernick. Like Dalton, I think he gets another year as the starter in his current digs in 2015.

Filed Under: NFL, Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins, Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears, Nick Foles, Philadelphia Eagles, Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals, Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell