Despite being five months away (exactly 175 days on Nov. 2), the 2024 NFL Draft is front and center for teams.
College scouts have been on the road since August, filing reports continuously with team headquarters. Although there still is plenty of work to do, initial draft boards are coming together.
The tops of most NFL teams' draft boards more than likely have the same names. There usually are four or five players viewed as franchise changers, and often many of them are quarterbacks. If you have one of those quarterbacks, the question becomes who do you surround him with?
Bengals Faced This Decision in 2021
A couple of recent drafts illustrate how one team went about its team-building when it possessed high draft picks in consecutive years.
The Cincinnati Bengals answered their franchise quarterback question in 2020 when they selected Joe Burrow first overall out of LSU. Burrow came off an incredible season in which he led the Tigers to the National Championship while completing 76.3 percent of his passes for 5,671 yards and a 60-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Selecting Burrow was a slam dunk, and it changed the course of the Bengals franchise.
The 2021 NFL Draft, however, presented a challenge.
The Jacksonville Jaguars picked Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence first overall. Lawrence is an ascending quarterback with many franchise player traits. Next, the New York Jets picked BYU QB Zach Wilson, and the San Francisco 49ers traded first-round picks in three consecutive years plus a 2022 third-round pick to move from No. 12 to No. 3 to draft Trey Lance of North Dakota State.
Once the three quarterbacks were off the board, the debate began — which position, tackle or wide receiver, is more valuable to build around a young quarterback? The Atlanta Falcons, at No. 4, decided to pick Kyle Pitts, a tight end from Florida with rare measurables.
That brings us to the Bengals, who had two great options to choose from. It was a tough decision because the best receiver in the draft — Burrow's LSU teammate Ja'Marr Chase — and the best tackle — Oregon's Penei Sewell — were available. Both players were projected to be Pro Bowl-caliber, which came true. But which position was more important to build around Burrow?
Hindsight tells us the Bengals made the right call in selecting Chase. Chase became the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year after making 81 catches for 1,455 yards and 13 touchdowns. The Bengals advanced to the Super Bowl and nearly won it. Chase was a Pro Bowl pick in each of his first two seasons, and now that Burrow is healthy, Chase appears on course to three-peat.
Other Franchises Took Note
That is not the only notable example of how an elite wide receiver can help a young franchise quarterback. Two more examples stand out.
At the 2022 draft, the Philadelphia Eagles traded a first-round pick (18th overall) and the 101st pick to the Tennessee Titans for A.J. Brown. The Eagles signed him to a four-year, $100 million contract. Where did Philadelphia's season end? In the Super Bowl. Brown also elevated QB Jalen Hurts.
Before Brown, Hurts had a 9-10 record and completed 342 of 580 passes (59 percent) for 4,205 yards. His TD-to-INT ratio was 22-13, and he took 39 sacks in those 19 games.
Since acquiring Brown, Hurts is 21-2 and has gone 499-for-742 passing (67.3 percent) for 5,841 yards. His TD-to-INT ratio is similar (35-14) and he has taken 57 sacks in 23 games.
Brown wasn't the only elite receiver traded in 2022. The Miami Dolphins acquired Tyreek Hill from the Kansas City Chiefs for five draft picks, including No. 29 overall and a second-round pick in 2022. The others were two fourth-rounders and a sixth. Hill teamed up with Tua Tagovailoa, and the result is the Dolphins are on track to have one of the most productive offenses of all time.
Tagovailoa was 13-8 without Hill and is 14-7 with him. His completion percentages are roughly equal (66.2 without, 67.1 with). The big difference has come in yardage and touchdowns. Without Hill, Tagovailoa passed for about 213 yards per game. With him, that has jumped to 284.
In 21 games without Hill, Tagovailoa had 27 TDs and 15 interceptions. In 21 games with Hill, he's thrown 43 TDs and the same number of picks. Tagovailoa also has taken eight fewer sacks in the same number of games with Hill.
These examples reinforce the idea that an elite wide receiver can have a major impact on a developing young quarterback.
Get Rid of Elite Receiver at Your Own Risk
With Brown, Tannehill was 30-13 and completed 67.3 percent of his passes (873-1,298) for 10,295 yards (approximately 240 per game). His TD-to-INT ratio was 76-27 and he took 102 sacks in 43 games. The Titans reached the AFC Championship in January 2020 with Brown.
Without Brown, Tannehill is 8-10. His completion percentage is 64.2 percent (310 of 483), but his yardage dipped to 3,664 (about 204 per game) and his TD-INT ratio is 15-12. He's taken 52 sacks.
So the Titans are passing for 36 fewer yards per game, and Tannehill's TD-INT ratio has gone from roughly 3-1 to 1-1.
How 2024 Draft Might Play Out
The 2024 draft, as the order stands through Week 8, could pose the same question that the 2021 draft did for the Bengals.
The Arizona Cardinals have the No. 1 overall pick, and they could decide to draft USC QB Caleb Williams, who won the Heisman Trophy last season as a sophomore.
The Chicago Bears possess the next two selections — the Carolina Panthers', which the Bears obtained when they dealt the 2023 No. 1 overall pick — and their own. Let's assume the Bears have decided to move on from QB Justin Fields and select their next potential franchise quarterback in North Carolina's Drake Maye.
The Bears then have the same decision the Bengals made in 2021. Do you draft an elite wide receiver, in this case, Ohio State's Marvin Harrison Jr.? Or do you pick an elite left tackle in Penn State's Olu Fashanu?
Pairing an elite left tackle with a franchise quarterback can increase a team's odds of winning a Super Bowl. Still, in today's NFL, an elite quarterback/wide receiver combination increases those odds even more.
Rick Spielman is a former general manager of the Dolphins and Vikings, and winner of the NFL Executive of the Year award by Pro Football Weekly in 2017. Follow him on Twitter @spielman_rick