Broncos shuffle deck from Keenum to Flacco, but is it progress?

Baltimore Ravens, Denver Broncos, NFL

Denver’s decision to trade for Joe Flacco could shed light on the team’s longer-term quarterback plans.

On Wednesday morning, ESPN’s Adam Schefter broke the news that the Denver Broncos will be trading for Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco once the NFL league year begins March 13. Though details of the trade aren’t officially known, NFL Network insider Ian Rapoport says the compensation will be a mid-round draft pick; Rapoport also noted that Flacco will be reworking his current contract.

That is a financially prudent decision by the Broncos. Flacco currently has a 2019 base salary of $18.5 million on a deal that runs through 2021. In 2020, that base salary blooms to $20.25 million and to $24.25 million in the final year of his contract. Even if Denver releases 2018 starter Case Keenum — which they likely will, given his $18 million salary for 2019 and $21 million overall cap hit — that will still cost the team $10 million in dead money. This trade definitely requires the Broncos to clear cap space.

Still, it is a curious move, given that it seemed the Broncos were at least comfortable with if not confident enough in Keenum to give him $25 million in guaranteed money on a two-year, $36 million deal. Flacco has a Super Bowl MVP to his name, yes, but that was also seven years ago. In between, he’s suffered a torn ACL, has had back issues and had a hip sprain in 2018 that took him off the field and sent him down the depth chart behind Lamar Jackson, the Ravens’ quarterback of the future.

Flacco’s height and big arm are certainly a draw for Broncos general manager John Elway. He’s five inches taller than Keenum and his deep passing skills could certainly play well in the thin air of the Rockies. But Flacco isn’t a savior. His peak in Baltimore, Super Bowl aside, was never all that high, his plateau was long and his decline has been evident over the last few seasons. In 2017, the last time Flacco played a full 16-game slate, he averaged just 5.7 yards per pass attempt, compared to Keenum’s 6.6-yard average in 2018.

Flacco isn’t a points producer, with a touchdown percentage hovering around 3.0 over the past three years, not dissimilar to Keenum in 2018 (and also not good). He has never thrown more than 27 touchdowns in a season despite starting 163 games over 11 years. His work ethic could also be an issue with Elway once the quarterback arrives later this spring. He’s not a first-in-last-out kind of quarterback, which means a leadership vacuum could persist for the Broncos’ offense.

One key piece that is currently missing is the nature of Flacco’s restructured deal. If the framework of the length still stands even as the salary is reduced, that means both Flacco and the Broncos are comfortable with him serving as a longer-term starter. But given that Denver has been linked to drafting a quarterback this year, Flacco would not likely agree to go anywhere for multiple years while staring down the possibility of being shelved again by a young replacement.

Reducing both the salary and the time, such as turning what remains on his Ravens contract into a one-year deal, gives Flacco an opportunity to rebuild his on-field reputation. Should he succeed, he will put himself in place for another big-money long-term deal, whether in Denver or elsewhere. The length of Flacco’s restructured deal will shed light on not just what the Broncos’ strategy is for their quarterback position moving forward but also what Flacco wants the rest of his career to look like.

The 34-year old has bet on himself in the past and won. His 11-touchdown, zero-interception playoff performance that landed the Ravens another Lombardi Trophy happened conveniently in his last contract year. The result was a six-year, $120.6 million extension. A good year in Denver could produce yet another good payday for the quarterback.

At some point, though, the Broncos will need to cease the stopgap approach to the quarterback position and draft someone who can become a homegrown franchise player. While Flacco now has an opportunity to prove he still has many good years ahead of him, his body of work thus far points to him being Keenum-but-taller in Denver and little more. The saving grace for both sides is that Flacco is no stranger to proving himself when it matters most. That is apparently the gamble both Flacco and the Broncos are willing to make.

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