Breaking down the Joe Flacco trade from all sides
From the moment the Baltimore Ravens selected Lamar Jackson, the franchise revealed its intentions for Super Bowl XLVII MVP Joe Flacco. Those intentions manifested as a trade agreement with the Denver Broncos on the eve of Valentine’s Day, netting Flacco’s soon-to-be former team a fourth-round pick once the deal becomes official. The veteran quarterback’s departure signals the end of arguably the most successful stretch in Ravens history.
Considering that everyone in and around the NFL knew Flacco had played his final down for Baltimore prior to the trade, the return of a fourth-round pick registers as a pretty significant coup. Though the selection falls outside the top 100, the Ravens have routinely found starters like Alex Lewis, Za’Darius Smith, and Ricky Wagner on the third day of the draft. Those high-impact, low-cost contributors can make a world of difference for a team dealing with some cap limitations.
Of course, those limitations will lessen as the result of the trade. The Ravens will absorb $16 million in dead money onto their books in 2019 but realize $10.5 million in cap relief. Those additional funds push their total available cap space to approximately $32.5 million, according to Over the Cap. Baltimore could use that money to pursue impact free agents later this offseason or invest it in new contracts for players already on its roster. The list of in-house extension candidates includes John Brown, Terrell Suggs, and the aforementioned Smith.
[Discuss the article on the BSL message board]
Conversely, the Broncos come out of the Flacco deal with far more questions than answers. Though Flacco’s résumé makes him the most accomplished quarterback in Denver’s stable since Peyton Manning, his present-day abilities don’t represent a marked improvement over that of incumbent Case Keenum. Keenum and Flacco finished last season ranked 30th and 31st, respectively, in yards per throw among passers with at least 200 attempts. Likewise, they finished with near-identical touchdown percentages (3.1 for Keenum versus 3.2 for Flacco). Only the quarterbacks’ interception rates show any meaningful separation (2.6 versus 1.6).
Still, even if grading Flacco’s skills and fit with his new team generously, the Broncos will pay an exorbitant price next season for subpar quarterback play. The moment his contract hits Denver’s books, the team will have a total cap hit of $39.5 tied up in Flacco and Keenum, an amount nearly equivalent to that of Jimmy Garoppolo and Alex Smith combined. Even if the Broncos trade or release Keenum, they will still carry no less than $21.5 million on their cap without an obvious top-shelf signal-caller to show for it.
Until proven otherwise, the trade serves as the latest indictment of Broncos general manager John Elway’s talent evaluation. Since convincing Manning to sign in Denver more than half a decade ago, Elway has trotted out a forgettable stable of quarterbacks that includes Brock Osweiler, Paxton Lynch, Trevor Simian, and the aforementioned Keenum.
To make matters worse, Elway avoided his biggest gaffe merely by accident. After Manning retired following Super Bowl 50, Denver offered Osweiler a multiyear deal averaging $16 million per year, a contract that would have ranked among the highest in the NFL at the time and would have killed any flexibility the already cap-strapped team possessed. Instead, Osweiler took a slightly larger offer from the Houston Texans, saving Elway and the Broncos from themselves.
Flacco’s contract, which includes no guaranteed money moving forward, can’t flatten the Broncos as badly as Osweiler’s would have. Still, it remains unclear how the team will approach the quarterback position after the trade. Rumors swirled that Elway has coveted Missouri draft prospect Drew Lock since the Senior Bowl, but spending an early draft pick on a signal-caller would only further inflate Denver’s already substantial financial investment under center. Even so, a Broncos source recently told Bleacher Report that the team will still “take the best player on our board when the pick comes up. Period.” That could conceivably include Lock or another quarterback.
Regardless of whether Elway adds another passer this offseason, Flacco can expect to inherit one of the NFL’s least-talented offensive supporting staffs. The receiving corps features Emmanuel Sanders, Courtland Sutton and little else. That group could potentially lose Sanders as Denver looks to slash expenses. Meanwhile, the pass protection yielded pressure on 35.5 of dropbacks, the 11th-worst rate in the league last season. Further, the offensive line could lose starting center Matt Paradis to free agency. Running back Phillip Lindsay offers hope as a multi-purpose weapon, but he will spend much of the offseason recovering from a season-ending wrist injury.
If hope exists for a Flacco next season, it comes from the offensive scheme he will operate in Denver. New Broncos offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello comes from the coaching staff of Kyle Shanahan, himself a former understudy of Gary Kubiak. Kubiak, of course, served as the Ravens offensive coordinator in 2014, Flacco’s best individual season. Scangarello’s offense will deviate from the one Kubiak deployed in certain ways, but the underlying concepts (heavy use of play-action from under center, pre- and post-snap misdirection) remain similar. Even if Flacco doesn’t reclaim his peak form, he could see a bump in performance due to the scheme change.
Back in Baltimore, Flacco’s departure pushes his former backup into a leadership role. Jackson, who replaced Flacco as the starting quarterback last November, now becomes the undisputed face of the franchise at the tender age of 22.
Jackson exhibited more cause for optimism than concern during his rookie season. The Ravens offense finished the season 15th in DVOA, up from 21st the year before. That success directly ties to Jackson ascension into the starting lineup. His athleticism transformed the running attack, an area in which Baltimore had struggled up to that point. Not only did Jackson contribute 695 yards and five touchdowns by himself, but the threat of his legs also slowed opposing defenses’ pursuit of the Ravens’ running backs. In particular, Gus Edwards became a late-season revelation, leading the team with 718 rushing yards and averaging a robust 5.2 yards per attempt.
And though Jackson’s passing numbers look rather meager for a quarterback with seven starts, Ravens offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg limited the rookie’s opportunities to showcase his throwing talent. Those restrictions contributed to Mornhinweg’s departure earlier this offseason. Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh tabbed Greg Roman, an assistant with a successful track record with dual-threat quarterbacks, as Jackson’s new offensive play-caller.
More change will come to Baltimore over the course of the offseason as general manager Eric DeCosta remakes Jackson’s supporting cast. Multiple receivers could leave while the draft could provide rookie wideouts better suited to the young quarterback’s skill set. The backfield could likewise see an influx of talent with Javorius Allen and Ty Montgomery headed to free agency. Jackson will adjust his game as he takes reps under his new offensive coordinator.
Still, no move will leave a more indelible mark on the franchise than the trade that brought the official end to the Flacco era in Baltimore.
Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning sports journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. He has bylines at SB Nation, Sports on Earth, and other outlets. He also serves as the senior writer and editor for Acme Packing Company, a Green Bay Packers blog.