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QB SCRUTINY IS PRUDENT ON THE DAY LAMAR JACKSON GETS $260 MILLION
When 11 NFL quarterbacks make at least $40 million a year on average, it’s no wonder teams did their due diligence on Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud, Anthony Richardson and … Good Will (Levis) Waiting
Though a case should be made for heart surgeons, first responders and President Biden’s sleep therapist, NFL quarterbacks are supreme in America’s jackpot economy. More dignified than Kardashians, more honest than crypto creeps and fentanyl dealers, the money explosion explains why so much skullwork and espionage dominates draft preparation.
How fitting that Lamar Jackson’s new deal — $260 million, $185 guaranteed — came hours before Roger Goodell put down his barbecue plate in Kansas City and welcomed three new fraternity members in the first round. The contract, which makes Jackson the league’s highest-paid player until he’s one-upped soon by the next history-maker, was a reminder that no personnel decision in sports is more important than identifying a QB. Make the right call and a team will contend for years, if not win championships. Screw it up? People are fired, fans are apoplectic, and a bottom-feeding existence sinks civic morale worse than an incompetent mayor.
By locking in Jackson, the Baltimore Ravens have a proven elite performer who will keep them in title contention, while not having to pay him the same $230 million in guarantees promised to a tainted Deshaun Watson by the Cleveland Browns. Had they not cut a deal, after months of back-and-forth discord between the parties, the Ravens would have faded from view with a sub-standard replacement while facing an enraged fan base.
“For the last few months, there has been a lot of he said, she said,” Jackson said in a video, posted by the Ravens on their Twitter feed. “A lot of nail-biting. A lot of head-scratching going on. But for the next five years, it's a lot of 'flock' going on."
Not sure what he means by “flock” — Ravens traveling together, I assume — but it sure beats crock. Such dramas are why more than 11 million watched the proceedings on four networks Thursday night. No position in team sports is more important than quarterback, particularly as football evolves and rules favor safety and prolific offenses. And if a team doesn’t have a potential force like Jackson, it had better damned well find one, which is why team owners sit nervously in their war rooms as TV cameras peek in.
With this immensity of stress hanging thick over the heartland, after Patrick Mahomes opened the proceedings with touchdown-pass partner Travis Kelce, Bryce Young was selected first, as expected. How encouraging that he didn’t ask for a booster seat or stand on his tip-toes in his sneakers, amid non-stop consternation about his smallish stature. “I definitely didn’t shrink any time recently,” he said, adding, “I’m comfortable with myself. I’m confident in my abilities.”
All of which set up, minutes later, a philosophical competition that will determine the fate of two franchises. The Carolina Panthers chose Young because of his mind, his stability, his passing accuracy, his quick-twitch guile and his overall character — and not because of his height (5-10 1/8) and weight (195 pounds, give or take a french fry) and arm power (average). Next, the Houston Texans took C.J. Stroud because of his size (6-3 and 220), his arm strength, his dynamic abilities and his four touchdown passes against almighty Georgia in the national semifinals — and not because of his data scores, if you believe in something known as the S2 Cognition Test. Last year, the NFL phased out the Wonderlic test after complaints of racial and cultural biases, yet similar claims could be made about new tests centered around visual and instinctive learning, decision-making skill and distraction and impulse control.
In what seemed a leak to poison his pre-draft standing — what, you thought sports agents were saints? — Stroud reportedly scored very low, in the 18th percentile. In the same story, Young’s score was reported to be in the 98th percentile. Would the Texans use this as a reason not to draft Stroud? As it was, he’s represented by the same agent who repped Watson, and owner Cal McNair supposedly wanted no part of David Mulugheta after a contentious breakup and eventual trade of their troubled QB. Stroud, who has admitted in the past to caring too much about social-media commentary, was upset on draft eve and vented to a Charlotte Observer columnist.
“I'm not a test taker. I play football," he said. “At the end of the day, I don’t have nothing to prove to nobody. I’m not (going to) sit here and explain how I process football. The people who are making the picks know what I can do, so that’s all the matters to me. There’s a whole bunch of people who know how to coach better, know how to play quarterback better, know how to do everything on social media. But the man in the arena, that’s what tough is stepping into the arena 10 toes. And I’m going to stand on that. I know what I can do, I know what I can process. If I’m not the smartest quarterback in this draft, I know I’m one of the smartest quarterbacks in the NFL when I step in there tomorrow.
“I have confidence in myself. I don’t think you can play at Ohio State and not be smart. I don’t have nothing to prove to nobody man. At the end of the day, if you don’t trust and believe in me, I’ll tell you to watch this.”
His tears, as he walked onto the stage wearing his Texans cap, answered all questions about his new team’s commitment to him. Good for the Texans. The way Stroud played against Georgia, the closest facsimile to an NFL team in the college game, is a definitive response to test scores. Just as we should wait a full season or two before assuming Young is too small, let’s watch Stroud on Sundays before declaring him as cognitively challenged.
“God has battle tested me. It’s something that I feel like it’s in me, not on me. He’s scarred me, so I’ve been battle tested,” Stroud said after he was picked. “I have the armor of God on me. So everything I’ve been through is preparing me for this moment right here. … Believe in yourself. There was a point where no one believed in me, but I put my trust in God and my family and what I did and I had discipline. Just consistency, man. I’m a living testimony that you can really do anything because I came from nothing. I’m blessed to be on this stage.”
Said Texans general manager Nick Caserio: “C.J. is a really productive player. We had him in the building for a visit. He's a competitive a player (and) has an edge about him in a good way. He loves football, wants to compete, wants to be great.”
Another philosophical competition was about to begin. The Indianapolis Colts, out of sync since they were gobsmacked by Andrew Luck’s retirement, could have reset with Will Levis. He has a big arm and bigger ambitions. “I want to be the greatest of all time,” he said. “I think you are crazy if you don’t think that way.” The Colts instead opted for Anthony Richardson, the athletic freak who does backflips and could dunk a basketball in middle school and, if they want, will throw a football to Terre Haute and sprint nearly as fast as an Indy car. Problem is, Richardson hasn’t played much football and often misses receivers with simple passes. He is a project.
Levis could have played immediately. The Colts didn’t want him — perhaps due to a left toe issue, more likely because he reminds them of the failed Carson Wentz. Their new coach, Shane Steichen, developed Jalen Hurts in Philadelphia and envisions a similar learning arc for Richardson. So where would Levis go? Hours passed in the green room. Cameras showed him waiting nervously with his parents and girlfriend, the now-famous Gia Duddy, who asked at one point, “What time is it?” As solace, Levis knew Aaron Rodgers had to sweat until the 24th pick for his name to be called in 2005. Levis waited.
All night. He’ll be taken in the second round, presumably.
You can’t blame NFL teams for turning over every stone, analyzing every piece of data and investigating every rumor. Jackson’s new contract means 11 QBs carry an average annual salary of at least $40 million. Mahomes, at $45 million, is actually underpaid. Rodgers, at $50.3 million, is overpaid but already demanding more from the New York Jets. Watson makes a guaranteed $46 million despite settlements with 23 female therapists who say he wanted more than massages. Newly minted, Hurts deserves his $51 million. Russell Wilson, after an abysmal first season in Denver, hasn’t earned his $48.5 million. Daniel Jones makes $40 million though he was considered a bust before last season. Dak Prescott, also making $40 million, is something of a fraud who has yet to play in a conference championship game. Kyler Murray had to sign a clause, agreeing to study more and watch fewer video games, before getting his $46.1 million prematurely.
So when the Chicago Bears faced a decision — draft Young and trade Justin Fields, still more a track star than a polished all-around performer — they no doubt looked at Young’s size in deciding to keep Fields and trade the No. 1 pick to Carolina. Just the same, the Bears did their homework on Jalen Carter. They could have downplayed his role in a street-racing crash that took the lives of two people, including his Georgia teammate, after a ceremony celebrating the team’s national title. Despite pleading guilty to two misdemeanor charges of reckless driving and racing, Carter would have looked great in the middle of a start-from-scratch defense. The Bears passed at No. 9, swapping picks with the Eagles, who have community equity after a Super Bowl appearance to take a risk-reward plunge. When pushed by his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, to speak to Eagles brass Thursday, Carter urged them to take “the best player in the draft.”
“When I get there,” he said after the pick, tears on his face, “it’s time to work and win a Super Bowl.”
Fly, Eagles, fly.
Sell your soul on the road to victory.
Football is such an institution in this country, every draft story could be a movie. In this case, the soundtrack for Bryce Young could be Randy Newman’s “Short People (have no reason to live).” For C.J. Stroud, it could be “Smarter Than You.” For Jalen Carter, it could be, “Too Late to Apologize.” And the working title for Levis?
Good Will Waiting.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.