It already happened in Arizona. It’s happening this week in New York. And it’s about to happen in Washington.
The Cardinals started the season in rebuild mode, turning their franchise over to No. 1 overall pick Kyler Murray right out of the gate. The Giants have seen enough of Eli Manning this year, turning the page to first-rounder Daniel Jones beginning this week. And at 0-2, it’s only a matter of time before the Redskins realize that Case Keenum is a road to nowhere, so they might as well let rookie Dwayne Haskins learn on the job.
Those were the first three quarterbacks selected in the 2019 NFL Draft, deemed the future “face of the franchise” by their respective teams. For each, it’s a matter of when, not if, they’d take over as the starter. Two out of the three have already hit that point, with the other most likely only days away from joining the club.
The fourth quarterback taken in April, however, won’t see the field any time soon. Unlike his class of 2019 brethren, Drew Lock’s moment isn’t nearly here.
In part, that’s because of injury. Lock sprained his thumb during a preseason loss to the 49ers in mid-August, which landed the rookie on injured reserve at the end of training camp.
According to reports, the quarterback will start throwing next week. He’ll be eligible to practice with the team in Week 7 and could be added to the active roster two weeks later.
Even if he were on the active roster right now, however, the Broncos wouldn’t be tempted to do what the Giants did this week. They’re in a different situation.
Joe Flacco is playing well, even if the offense isn’t lighting up the scoreboard. And Denver has been in both of their games late in the fourth quarter, even if they are winless. That’s not the case in New York, where Eli Manning has been mediocre at best in two double-digit losses.
So even at 0-2, Vic Fangio wouldn’t be looking to get a jump on 2020 and beyond if Lock was healthy. The Broncos season isn’t lost, at least not yet. Even if they lose at Green Bay on Sunday, it still won’t be time to wave the white flag.
Denver follows the Packers game with three straight winnable games. A home tilt against Jacksonville, a team currently led by rookie quarterback Gardner Minshew, should be a victory. Then, a trip to Los Angeles isn’t mission impossible, given that there will be more Broncos fans in the stands than Chargers backers. And finally, a home game against a totally underwhelming Titans squad could result in a W.
At 3-3, Denver would very much be in the thick of things. They’d need to find another road win or two down the stretch, which isn’t impossible with teams like Indianapolis, Buffalo and Houston on the docket. That’d keep them in contention all season long.
But if things don’t go that way, if the Broncos don’t dig their way out of a potential 0-3 hole, then Fangio and Company will face an interesting situation. And what once looked like an easy decision has now become a less-than-obvious choice.
When the trade was made for Flacco in February, one of the selling points of the deal was the fact that the quarterback’s contract was extremely team friendly. While the former Super Bowl MVP was scheduled to earn a lot of money in 2019 ($18.5 million), 2020 ($20.25) and 2021 ($24.25), Denver could part ways with Flacco after any of those seasons without having to endure any dead money toward their salary cap in future years.
That is no longer the case, however. After restructuring the quarterback’s deal in early September in order to free up cap space for 2019, cutting or trading Flacco would now result in a lot of dead money.
So if the Broncos decide that they want to make a change after their bye week, using the last seven games of the season to get a jumpstart on next year in much the same way the Rams did with Jared Goff in 2016, there are now big financial implications. Flacco wouldn’t just be an expensive backup in 2019; he’d be costly well beyond the Dec. 29 finale against Oakland.
Denver isn’t going to pay him $20.25 million in salary next season, while carrying a $23.65 million cap hit, to back up Lock. Cutting or trading Flacco would result in $13.6 million in dead money in 2020, but that’s the least-painful option.
It’s why the decision to restructure made absolutely no sense. Yes, the Broncos were right up against the cap before the move, but they didn’t need to free up $13 million of space. Restructuring Todd Davis’ deal ($5 million cap number in 2019) would’ve made more sense, which was just one of multiple other options.
Instead, the Broncos tied themselves to Flacco, in one way or another, at least through 2020. More than likely, they’re hitched to the quarterback through ’21 or ’22. That’s a harsh reality that could make a rough season even harder to stomach.
If things go well and Denver rights the ship, Flacco will remain the guy, as he should. But if things continue to go poorly, the hope and optimism that comes from turning the page will be diminished if not eliminated entirely.
If the Broncos are 2-6 after a road game against the Colts, they should be looking toward the future. Veterans like Von Miller, Chris Harris Jr., Emmanuel Sanders and Derek Wolfe would rightfully be on the block leading up to the NFL’s trade deadline Oct. 29. And if a contender suddenly found itself in a pinch at quarterback (see New Orleans or Pittsburgh), Flacco would probably bring a decent haul in return from a team trying to save its season.
In that scenario, the final eight games of the season would be all about getting the next generation of Broncos ready to become the faces of the franchise. Suddenly, it would be Bradley Chubb, Courtland Sutton, Royce Freeman, Phillip Lindsay, Dalton Risner, Justin Simmons and Noah Fant who would be the focal point of the team down the stretch.
And it would be Drew Lock at the helm, taking over in 2019 so he’d be ready to hit the ground running in 2020.
Nobody is rooting for that scenario to unfold; that would mean Denver is losing this season. But if it does happen, at least the change at QB would provide a light at the end of the tunnel.
That’s what’s happening right now in Arizona and the Big Apple. And it’s what will soon happen in D.C. The Cardinals, Giants and Redskins stink, but at least they’re getting a glimpse of the future by playing rookie quarterbacks.
Will the Broncos join that group?
It’s highly possible that they won’t be very good this year, either. But there’s no guarantee that they’re going to turn the page to a young signal caller no matter how poorly the season goes.
That would be the most-frustrating result of all.
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