Allen Park — Landing a franchise quarterback is everything in the NFL. It’s almost impossible to consistently compete without one. Just ask the Cleveland Browns, Buffalo Bills and Houston Texans, three organizations who have been spinning their wheels the past decade trying to find an answer.
But some franchises aren’t content with simply having a star under center. Those teams draft and develop depth behind the faces of their franchise, first and foremost as an insurance policy in a league where you’re one wrong hit away from a season-ending injury, and secondly, as a future bargaining chip.
This should explain the Detroit Lions’ selection of Brad Kaaya.
The Lions already have their franchise quarterback in Matthew Stafford, and presumably by the end of the offseason, he’ll have a shiny new contract extension to show for it.
Prior to the draft, Detroit also appeared to have a quality, young backup in place with Jake Rudock, a sixth-round pick last year out of Michigan. The team likes what Rudock has to offer, with above-average arm strength and mobility, combined with a year in the system. It’s why roster space was cleared last season when the Chicago Bears tried to poach him off the practice squad.
But when the Lions were on the clock with the 215th selection earlier this month, and Kaaya was still sitting on the board, the talent and potential was simply too much for the Lions to pass up. Remember, this was a guy some analysts pegged as a potential first-round selection a year ago.
“He was a guy that was like sticking out on the board for most of the day and he kept falling and falling,” general manager Bob Quinn said. “At one point in time you’ve just got to trust your judgment and just follow the board. Didn’t really go into this draft saying I had to draft a quarterback.”
Kaaya isn’t without his warts as a prospect, but the slide to the sixth round surprised most. In his first year in a new scheme in 2016, he posted the best numbers of his collegiate career, completing 62 percent of his throws for 3,532 yards and an impressive 27-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
There are questions about his accuracy and decision-making, which led to taking too many sacks, but both negatives were emphasized by the subpar protection provided of the Hurricanes offensive line.
Even though the Lions didn’t go into the draft targeting a quarterback, it’s not like Quinn didn’t suggest he wasn’t always on the lookout for talent at the position. He said as much just after the team drafted Rudock last year.
“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,” Quinn said at the annual member summit for season-ticket holders in 2016. “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.”
That’s a philosophy Quinn clearly picked up during his formative years in the New England Patriots’ organization, where he spent 16 years before joining the Lions.
The Patriots, as they have in many areas, set the standard for making the most of their backup quarterback spot. Take Jimmy Garoppolo, for example. Few generated more buzz this offseason than Tom Brady’s clipboard holder. Despite throwing fewer than 100 passes during his three-year professional career, teams were reportedly dangling early-round draft picks to acquire Garoppolo in a trade.
New England ultimately rebuffed the offers, but this isn’t new territory for the franchise. In 2009, the team shipped backup Matt Cassell to Kansas City, along with 12-year veteran linebacker Mike Vrabel, in exchange for the No. 34 overall pick.
Prior to the trade, Cassell played the role of insurance policy to near-perfection, leading the Patriots to a 10-5 mark when Brady went down with a knee injury in the season opener.
And while not as dramatic, the team turned Ryan Mallett into a conditional late-round pick in 2014 after he was jumped on the depth chart by Garoppolo.
In Detroit, Rudock and Kaaya will battle to be Stafford’s backup, and hypothetically, the competition should push both to be better. And if something ever happened to Stafford, who has started a franchise-record 96 games at the position, the hope is the drop-off in quarterback play would be survivable.
And while neither Rudock or Kaaya are a likely heir to Stafford, who turned 29 in February, both offer potential trade value down the road, so don’t be surprised if the Lions keep three quarterbacks this year.