CHICAGO — After the first round of the NFL draft last week, Bears fans were gleeful the Packers traded up to select Utah State quarterback Jordan Love.
As the last 12 seasons have proved, Aaron Rodgers doesn’t always need a ton of help to maintain control of the NFC North rivalry. So instead of outfitting him with a playmaker or wide receiver from a deep draft class, Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst peered into the future and chose Love, putting Rodgers’ potential replacement in the same room as him sooner than anyone imagined.
Yes, Rodgers is 36 but signed a four-year, $134 million extension in August 2018 that runs through 2023. The Packers would face a crippling salary-cap penalty if it sent him packing before 2022, so that buys time for Love to learn on the job. The newcomer is in much the same position Rodgers was when he was selected in the first round in 2005 with 35-year-old Brett Favre entrenched as the starter.
When the draft ended, Bears fans were perplexed their team had not selected a quarterback to at least take a shot at developing. The Bears did use a pick on a quarterback, however, trading a fourth-round compensatory selection to the Jaguars for Nick Foles. He doesn’t arrive on a cost-controlled rookie contract, though.
General manager Ryan Pace has chosen one quarterback in six drafts, Mitch Trubisky, second overall in 2017, which the perfectly positioned Bears got wrong. It’s impossible to say what the future of the position is beyond this season. The Bears are expected to decline the fifth-year option in Trubisky’s contract for 2021, which will leave only Foles, who has displayed postseason magic but hasn’t held a starting job for an extended stretch. Foles never started more than nine consecutive regular-season games.
“It’s a good idea to add a quarterback every year,” Pace said at the 2015 NFL owners meeting. “It’s a critical position. Because of that you can take a swing every year at it. Increase your odds.”
Adding a quarterback can mean identifying an undrafted free agent, a scenario in which you can occasionally harvest gems such as Tony Romo. But the Bears haven’t done this. It’s a difficult goal to fulfill annually and it’s almost more cliche than practical roster management.
“It’s really good football business to acquire a young quarterback every year or every other year,” Lions GM Bob Quinn told the Detroit Free Press in April 2016. “There’s such a value in the position, and nowadays in college football there’s a lot of spread offenses, which means it’s a lot different than pro football. So it takes these young quarterbacks time to develop. If you can add a young quarterback every year or every other year to your roster, it’s good football business in my mind. You have time to develop them, either on the practice squad or as a backup, before eventually them having to play in a game.”
Under Quinn’s watch, the Lions have used sixth-round picks on Miami’s Brad Kaaya and Michigan’s Jake Rudock and traded for undrafted rookie David Blough last summer. That’s not exactly using much in the way of resources into building the position behind starter Matthew Stafford.
The Packers became the model franchise for drafting and developing quarterbacks in the 1990s under Hall of Fame general manager Ron Wolf. Shortly after arriving in Green Bay in 1992, he traded a first-round pick to the Falcons for Favre. That same year, Wolf drafted Ty Detmer, the first of seven quarterbacks he would choose in a span of eight years. The Packers drafted Mark Brunell in 1993, Matt Hasselbeck in 1998 and Aaron Brooks in 1999. All went on to have success, and Detmer lasted a decade in the league, primarily as a backup. Wolf was able to get return on his investments via trades.
Ted Thompson wasn’t quite as consistent when it came to adding quarterbacks but cemented himself in NFL history when he chose Rodgers in his first draft. Gutekunst was a scout for the team at the time, which only adds to the parallels between Favre/Rodgers and Rodgers/Love.
Thompson still regularly added to the position, drafting Brian Brohm (Round 2) and Matt Flynn (Round 7) in 2008, Rodgers’ first season as starter. Lately the Packers haven’t hit on developmental quarterbacks and have struggled mightily anytime Rodgers has been injured. It doesn’t count much when you give it a shot and it doesn’t work.
Since Favre’s arrival, the Packers have used 15 draft picks on quarterbacks, from Detmer to Love, solidifying the position with multiple options while enjoying the successes of one Hall of Fame quarterback and one future Hall of Famer. In that same span, the Bears have invested 10 draft picks on the position, from Will Furrer to Trubisky.
The numbers are more even over the last 20 drafts with the Packers picking eight quarterbacks and the Bears seven. The difference is the Packers have been seeking developmental players and planning ahead while the Bears still are seeking the next Sid Luckman.
Since Wolf, the idea of constantly seeking young talent at the position has become groupthink. Tom Brady was a sixth-round pick. Dak Prescott was a fourth-round pick and Russell Wilson went in Round 3, two as examples of the payoff that can be there. But actions speak louder than words, and when you look closely, it’s more of an ideal than a realistic approach.
Only four franchises have drafted a quarterback about every other year over the last 20 years. The Jets have drafted 11, seven in the last decade, and the Broncos have drafted 11 in the unending quest to replace John Elway. The Patriots and Redskins each have drafted 10. The Redskins have had a revolving door at the position, but the Patriots followed Wolf’s example while enjoying Brady’s dominance.
The Bears had glaring holes all over their roster when Pace took over in 2015. He could justify using draft picks elsewhere and the Bears thought they found their guy in Trubisky in 2017. A quarterback with projectable traits isn’t always around on Day 3, and the vast majority taken after Round 1 flame out quickly. Even first-rounders can be labeled busts quickly.
Favre weighed in on the dynamic in Green Bay on “The Rich Eisen Show” on Wednesday.
“He was, let’s just say, surprised that they went in that direction,” Favre said in reference to a conversation he had with Rodgers.
Favre went on to predict Rodgers will finish his career with another team. It’s fascinating that coming off an appearance in the NFC championship game, the Packers have the first candidate to be their quarterback of the future instead of a new weapon for Rodgers, the two-time MVP.
It took a ton of resolve from Gutekunst to make the move, and it’s worth wondering if in Green Bay, where the GM has no owner to answer to, it’s easier to make a call like this for the long-term benefit of the franchise than it would be for any of the 31 other teams.
Lost in the idea that this was a power play by management and second-year coach Matt LaFleur is the reality the Packers really liked Love. This wasn’t a flex by Gutekunst and LaFleur as much as it was them viewing this as potentially their best chance to position themselves for a post-Rodgers future.
Odds aren’t great Love will be a franchise quarterback. Nearly all first-round picks face an uphill battle to become that foundational piece. But if Love doesn’t work out, the Packers will move on and be able to do so at considerably less cost than the Bears’ investment in Trubisky. The Packers will have a player they developed when it comes time for Love to get his shot and won’t be left searching for a bridge to the next young quarterback, as so many teams wind up needing.
The cost for all of this is considerable. At the risk of ticking off Rodgers, the Packers have laid a plan for the future. It’s unlikely Love will contribute to the team’s success this season and maybe not even in 2021, whereas a wide receiver or an offensive lineman could have stepped in right away.
Right now, that benefits the Bears, who won’t have to worry about what Love might be for some time. Before his time arrives, maybe the Bears will take a few swings of their own.
©2020 Chicago Tribune
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.