The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Quarterback is the No. 1 NFL priority. But it’s okay to pick one last.

Kenny Pickett, center, poses with Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin, left, and team owner Art Rooney II. Pickett was the only quarterback selected in the first round. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)
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In this NFL draft, patience defeated desperation for once. Quarterback-deprived teams heeded the warnings and didn’t reach for the first passer they saw throw a spiral.

It was expected, and the discipline still was revelatory.

You can explain away the lack of interest in rookie quarterbacks with a few standard reasons. This class had long been derided as uninspiring, and the pool of teams craving quarterbacks was smaller because, in the previous two drafts, nine were selected in the first round, eight of whom are expected to be starters this season. Before the draft, several other needy teams had gone wild, snagging big-name veterans during an unusually frenzied trade market.

And so, for just the second time in two decades, one signal caller heard his name in the first round. After Pittsburgh took Kenny Pickett with the 20th pick, the next quarterback wasn’t selected until Round 3, when Desmond Ridder went at No. 74.

However, it wasn’t as random as perceived. If you resist looking at the offseason in isolation, you will realize the current situation is an exaggerated representation of a decade-long shift in NFL roster-building ideology.

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The change involves sequencing. Teams are getting smarter about setting the table for a quarterback to come in and make an immediate impact. In the most triumphant recent tales, he is a capstone acquisition and not the initiator of a fruitful rebuild.

The foundational piece doesn’t have to come first anymore. There are fewer examples now of lowly organizations starting their rebuilding effort by using a high first-round draft pick on a quarterback and then going through every painstaking step with that young player to try to build a winning team. In some of the most celebrated examples, the franchise acquired its most important piece near the end of a roster overhaul.

It’s an undisputed principle: True, long-term contention cannot begin until a qualified quarterback is under center. But there’s a difference between searching for a franchise quarterback and waiting for a savior. It matters what a team does before that leader materializes — if he ever does — and organizations are showing greater savvy in building around the vacancy.

Exceptions still exist. In leading Cincinnati to the Super Bowl last season, Joe Burrow burst into prominence as the classic franchise quarterback. The Bengals were 2-14 in 2019. They took Burrow with the first pick in 2020, and at the end of his second season, they were playing for the championship. It’s an astounding rise, but Burrow’s ascension might be impossible to replicate. It’s a better practice to look at how two other high-level AFC teams, Kansas City and Buffalo, achieved sustainable success.

Both the Chiefs and Bills made the playoffs with other quarterbacks before turning to Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen to complete them. Mahomes inherited a team he could immediately take to a championship level. Allen needed more time, but as he learned on the job, the Bills cushioned him with a solid roster that evolved into a great one. Then Allen vaulted to the elite tier, and Buffalo is now in Super Bowl-chasing mode.

It can seem counterintuitive to prioritize pursuing the hardest position in sports to find a star and then focus on building around the player before you even know his name or how he plays. But that’s how some shrewd teams are getting ahead. They are showing the discipline to wait, the scouting eye to identify stopgap quarterbacks who can help them progress and the sense of timing to know when to go for it — and how to go for it.

Consider the past three Super Bowl champions: Kansas City, Tampa Bay and the Los Angeles Rams. Mahomes was the highly coveted standout quarterback on a rookie contract, which allowed the Chiefs the salary cap flexibility to put a complete team around him. Brady left New England for the Buccaneers as a free agent, recognizing the talent there that he could magnify. The Bucs were ready for him after five years of accumulating weapons to help former No. 1 pick Jameis Winston. And in Los Angeles, aggressive general manager Les Snead traded Jared Goff to Detroit to get Matthew Stafford, and the quarterback upgrade finished the Rams’ process.

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In every case, the teams were lucky, for certain. But they also planned so they could capitalize when that luck arrived. For too long, teams had grown too content to draft project quarterbacks and live off false hope until everybody got fired. They were passive and hoping to see what they had before making significant roster upgrades. They subjected their developing quarterbacks to so much early failure that they could never recover.

In the endless search for top-notch quarterbacks, there is no universal strategy that makes the mission easier. But inflexibility hinders success. With general managers getting younger and players wanting to move around, trades and quarterback shuffling could become more common. Those deals aren’t always going to include mega-talents such as Russell Wilson, Matt Ryan and Deshaun Watson, but fluidity will be a part of the equation. And that’s a potential game changer in deterring teams from overreaching in the draft.

There’s a recency bias to consider. The hyped 2021 class struggled after five quarterbacks were taken in the first 15 picks. New England’s Mac Jones was the only one of the group to make the playoffs and perform consistently at a high level. The group’s woes made it even harder for the 2022 crop to be appreciated.

When the 2022 season begins, the effectiveness of all those trades will be scrutinized. And as blockbuster deals gain popularity, it’s not the biggest names who will dictate the future movement as much as players such as Carson Wentz in Washington or even the continuing reclamation project of Sam Darnold with Carolina.

Then there’s the quarterback competition in Pittsburgh. The Steelers signed former No. 2 overall pick Mitchell Trubisky to a modest two-year deal in free agency. They drafted Pickett. And they still have Mason Rudolph, their 2018 third-round pick, who has a 5-4-1 career record as a starter.

In declaring that all three will vie for Ben Roethlisberger’s old job, Pittsburgh Coach Mike Tomlin told reporters: “It’s really nothing to handle. Those guys are competitors. We’re in a competitors’ business. They understand that. They understand that we’re building the construction of the team to win.”

No team is made for the challenge of starting over at quarterback. But the Steelers, a model franchise, are certain to maintain their holistic approach to team building. They don’t have hopes. They have plans. And in the NFL’s incessant QB search, the most resourceful organizations tend to survive.