Moneyball, the 2003 Michael Lewis book later made into a movie, covered the Oakland Athletics under GM Billy Beane and their quest to find undervalued players and compete on a budget against large market teams. Yes, at the time, the things they found to be undervalued were players that didn’t fit the scouting mold (speed, athleticism) but produced on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Some of those ideas have become mainstream now, and so a Moneyball approach is finding inefficiencies and exploiting them–not just continuing to focus on on-base percentage.
Well, as I’m watching the Lamar Jackson draft season unfold, I’m left wondering–will any team take a Moneyball approach with Lamar Jackson?
Here’s what I mean by that. Just as Moneyball featured lots of scouting versus saber metrics conflicts, we see plenty of old school scouting opinions that are dismissive of Lamar Jackson. Former Colts GM Bill Polian said he should switch to receiver, and said he was too small (without knowing his size). We just heard this morning that some teams are asking him to do some WR drills. If, in fact, the market is down on Lamar Jackson, that presents an opportunity for a team willing to zig when others zag.
A primary market inefficiency right now is the rookie wage scale prices, and getting 4 years at those prices, versus the high cost of veteran quarterbacking. That market inefficiency becomes even more pronounced if the team going with the rookie doesn’t have to expend other resources (such as trading several picks) to make it happen.
Last year, due to injuries or just the cost impacting the roster, only 2 of the top 9 quarterbacks in cap charge had their team reach the postseason. It isn’t just a matter of “would you rather have Lamar Jackson or someone like Andy Dalton or Blake Bortles?” It’s “would you like to have Lamar Jackson and an extra $18 million to spend per year?”
That can buy you three top players at other positions. And here’s the thing: we’ve seen talking heads poo-poo teams for running college systems. It’s usually in regard to offenses that are working. We’ve seen more young quarterbacks make an impact since the rookie wage scale began in 2011, than over the previous 30 years. Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, DeShaun Watson, Dak Prescott, and Colin Kaepernick have all put up impressive seasons early in their careers. I saw one criticism of taking Jackson (which I cannot now find) by comparing him to Griffin. Griffin was Offensive Rookie of the Year and took an inept franchise to the postseason, before injuring his knee. If Lamar Jackson can enter the league like Griffin AND you don’t have to give up a bevy of picks to get him and get him in the 2nd round, that’s a great option.
Under my Moneyball approach, I would eschew paying quarterbacks and look for young guys who could produce on the rookie contract, and then move on. Lamar Jackson would probably not get the long term deal (by then, the next great thing entering college now might be an option), but he would get a chance to showcase and start, and dish it back to the folks wanting him to switch positions.
If you are a Miami or an Arizona, this plan would seem to be a good bridge option to the future. Neither of those teams are in position to draft the traditional next best pocket passer. Both are in quarterback no man’s land. Miami last year had the largest cap charge at quarterback combined. And look what it got them. They had money tied up in an injured Ryan Tannehill, who is the definition of mediocre. They had backup money tied up in Matt Moore, and then they went out and paid Jay Cutler. Going the Lamar Jackson route is a lot cheaper and probably a better payoff to boot.
Arizona had a large cap charge with Carson Palmer that is now off the books with his retirement, and they have a new coaching staff. Rather than spending $25-30 million on Kirk Cousins, they should try something new. Go cheap, and see if Jackson, with the combination of his legs and arm, can provide what Dak Prescott and Deshaun Watson have done over the last two years. Where others see questions and dream of a receiver, someone should see opportunity.