The starting point for looking back at Ryan Pace’s draft day trade with the San Francisco 49ers in 2017 should be this:
Of the 25 first-round quarterbacks drafted since the NFL adopted the rookie wage scale in 2011, 14 were acquired because the team drafting them traded up either within the first round, or to get back into the first round. Only one team over the last three years did not trade up to draft a first-round quarterback — that being the Cleveland Browns, who stuck with the No. 1 overall pick this year and drafted Baker Mayfield.
It’s easy to see why there’s been such a stampede to lock in young quarterbacks through the draft lately when looking at the league standings. The Bears (Trubisky), Kansas City Chiefs (Patrick Mahomes), Los Angeles Rams (Jared Goff) and Houston Texans (DeShaun Watson) are all going to the playoffs with first-round quarterbacks on rookie contracts; the Baltimore Ravens (Lamar Jackson), Tennessee Titans (Marcus Mariota), Philadelphia Eagles (Carson Wentz) are in the hunt, too. The NFC East-leading Dallas Cowboys still have Dak Prescott on a ridiculously cheap fourth-round contract, too.
This isn’t to say the age of the mega-rich quarterback contract is over; far from it. But only two of the 10 quarterbacks with the largest contracts — Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck (No. 6) and Seattle’s Russell Wilson (No. 10) — are in the playoff hunt. By average annual value, only Kirk Cousins (No. 3), Drew Brees (No. 7) and Luck (No. 8) are either in the playoffs or fighting for a playoff spot.
The 49ers — who passed on drafting a quarterback in 2017 — traded a second-round pick for Jimmy Garoppolo and signed him to a five-year, $137.5 million extension. Garoppolo tore his ACL in Week 3 and very well could wind up being a playoff quarterback as soon as 2019, but he’s only played nine games for San Francisco. And that’s a lot of money to have committed to a currently-injured player.
Or take Washington, which traded for and signed Alex Smith to a four-year, $94 million extension with $71 million guaranteed earlier this year. Smith’s career is in doubt after suffering a gruesome leg injury in November, and while his own health is the most important thing here, that contract is the kind that could set an organization back years.
Meanwhile, the total value of the combined contracts of Goff, Wentz, Trubisky, Mahomes and Watson is $113,926,502 — less than the total value of six quarterbacks’ contracts (Matt Ryan, Garoppolo, Matthew Stafford, Aaron Rodgers, Derek Carr and Luck). If the Colts miss the playoffs, all six of those players would not be playing into January.
Perhaps the recent crop of young quarterbacks will thrive after commanding massive contract extensions in 2020 and beyond, if that’s the direction the Bears and these other teams go. But unless you’re running the Saints or Steelers or Chargers or Patriots — teams with productive late-30’s/early-40’s quarterbacks — perhaps the best way to build a contender is to draft a quarterback and build around him.
That’s what Pace did with Trubisky. The offseason moves to retain Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara and bring in Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Trey Burton and Khalil Mack all couldn’t have happened without Trubisky on a rookie contract.
What happened with the picks?
The 49ers used the Bears’ No. 3 overall pick to draft Solomon Thomas, who’s been an adept run-stuffer but hasn’t made the kind of pass-rushing impact expected from a defensive lineman picked that high (four sacks in 28 games).
San Francisco used the fourth-round pick the Bears traded them to pair with a second-round pick and trade back into the first round to draft linebacker Reuben Foster No. 31 overall. Foster was released in November after he was arrested on a charge of misdemeanor domestic violence, the latest in a string of off-field incidents for the former Alabama standout.
The third-round pick the Bears traded to the 49ers turned into cornerback Akhello Witherspoon, who had a solid rookie year but tailed off in 2018, not tallying an interception with only one pass break-up. He was placed on injured reserve this week.
With the Bears’ 2018 third-round pick, the 49ers drafted linebacker Fred Warner, who’s had a good start to his NFL career with 104 tackles so far in 2018.
The Bears, too, didn’t necessarily suffer from losing the three picks they didn’t replace. Pace re-couped a fourth-round pick when he traded down from No. 36 to No. 45 in the second round, using that second round pick on Adam Shaheen and the fourth-round pick (No. 119) on 2018 Pro Bowler Tarik Cohen. Pace also used the sixth-round pick he acquired while trading down in the second round to trade up five spots in the fourth round to take another 2018 Pro Bowler in Eddie Jackson.
The butterfly effect
History can’t be re-written, so consider this: If Pace doesn’t trade up one spot to draft Trubisky, perhaps he doesn’t wind up drafting Jackson and Cohen in the fourth round.
Or if the Bears drafted Watson instead of Trubisky, what if Watson is good enough in 2017 — say, leading the Bears to a 7-9 record — that John Fox and Dowell Loggains keep their jobs?
Or if the pick were Mahomes, what’s to say he’d be having MVP-level success after operating 2017’s dour offense for a dozen games, as Trubisky did?
You can claim to know the answers to these questions. Mahomes probably would work out anywhere. Watson maybe wouldn’t have been good enough with 2017’s group of receivers to get this team to seven wins. Maybe the Bears could’ve been fine without two of the most exciting players this franchise has had in recent memory in Cohen and Jackson.
But here’s the thing that matters the most: The Bears, in 2018, are going to the playoffs. Calling them a legitimate Super Bowl contender isn’t hyperbole. And they’re doing it with Trubisky as their quarterback.
Isn’t that enough?
“I don’t think many people saw that coming but what a great move by Ryan to do that,” coach Matt Nagy said. “That’s what’s so neat about that draft. I always love listening to all the pundits talking about 10 minutes after the draft ends, ‘it was a great draft or it was a poor draft.’ I’ve always been amazed by that. I don’t know how that happens. They haven’t even played a play yet in the NFL. I’ll figure it out sometime. I just remember that night as being a great night for everybody and it was a unique night. Pretty cool.”