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Some Dramatic Quarterback Successions Start at the N.F.L. Draft

If the draft last week revealed anything, it was that there’s no tactful way to replace a healthy starting quarterback.

Replacing a franchise quarterback is not as simple as drafting his successor. It’s more like selecting the heir to the throne of some ancient empire: full of drama, intrigue, careful diplomacy and the constant threat of open rebellion.

The teams that chose possible successors to established quarterbacks in the 2021 N.F.L. draft must all proceed with some degree of caution, knowing that one false move might plunge their kingdoms into a dark age.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted a potential heir to 43-year-old Tom Brady in Kyle Trask of the University of Florida with the final pick of the second round. Brady does not like to be surrounded by reminders of his mortality, but Trask’s credentials are unassuming enough that the Buccaneers can pass him off as a lowly intern for the next few months, sparing him from banishment to the labyrinth beneath the TB12 compound.

The New England Patriots wisely waited until Brady was gone for a year before drafting his likely successor: the 15th overall pick, Mac Jones, who led Alabama to the national championship last season. Cam Newton has helmed the Patriots in the interim like a distant noble cousin (the 11th Earl of Ascots) retrieved from the hinterlands to keep the throne warm.

The Minnesota Vikings drafted Kellen Mond of Texas A&M as a possible replacement for Kirk Cousins with the second pick of the third round. Cousins hasn’t faced a challenger for his starting job for many years. Instead of trying to replace Cousins, employers typically cope with his brand of ordinary but overpriced play by paying him more and lowering their expectations.

General Manager Rick Spielman played down Mond’s role as a challenger to Cousins after the selection. Quarterback succession ceremonies often begin with this type of ritualized, ego-soothing denial of the obvious.

The Houston Texans used a third-round pick (their highest selection in the draft) on Stanford’s Davis Mills, a possible replacement for Deshaun Watson, who faces 22 civil suits alleging lewd and coercive sexual behavior, two of which also accuse him of sexual assault. He has denied the claims. Before those suits were filed, Watson was seeking a trade from the mismanaged, scuffling Texans, who signed Tyrod Taylor in case Watson held out.

Under those tumultuous circumstances, Mills faces more of a potential starting crisis than a starting opportunity.

Terrible teams usually don’t have to worry about delicate transfers of power. The top two picks in the draft, Trevor Lawrence of Clemson and Zach Wilson of Brigham Young are now the unquestioned starting quarterbacks of the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Jets. Trey Lance (North Dakota State) must only supplant Jimmy Garoppolo, who likely updated his LinkedIn profile in March when the San Francisco 49ers traded two future first-round picks for the third overall pick. The Chicago Bears selected Justin Fields of Ohio State with the 11th pick, leaving the journeymen Andy Dalton and Nick Foles to arm wrestle for the role of overpaid mentor.

For a successful franchise, however, a bungled succession plan can result in disaster. The Green Bay Packers prematurely drafted Utah State’s Jordan Love as an eventual heir to Aaron Rodgers last year, when Rodgers expected that they would add a much-needed wide receiver. The rift between Rodgers, who is likely to be a future Hall of Famer, and the organization now appears irreconcilable. The Packers appear unwilling to trade Rodgers, though they did draft Clemson receiver Amari Rodgers in the third round, which seems like a belated apology: “See, we got you what you wanted, and we even had it engraved!”

Aaron Rodgers’s situation illustrates why so many teams procrastinate instead of seeking an heir apparent for a distinguished veteran. The New Orleans Saints are in deep denial about Drew Brees’s recent retirement; the team’s fourth-round pick, Ian Book of Notre Dame, is less of a successor than a nonthreatening option who’ll make the dueling underqualified claimants Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston look good by comparison.

Instead of a challenger to Matt Ryan, 35, the Atlanta Falcons drafted Florida tight end Kyle Pitts in their latest effort to resuscitate a Super Bowl opportunity that died on Feb. 5, 2017. The Pittsburgh Steelers are waiting for Ben Roethlisberger to crash before having the talk about surrendering his driver’s license.

Even the most successful succession plans are rarely smooth: Joe Montana and Steve Young clashed for six years in San Francisco, and Rodgers learned the art of epic melodrama at the feet of Brett Favre. Most quarterback successions are more like Cousins-to-Mond than Montana-to-Young: not worth the hassle until necessary.

The Giants were lucky when the Eli Manning-to-Daniel Jones transition was relatively smooth — at least in public — in 2019. With the rites of succession behind them, the Giants concentrated on adding potential impact players like wide receiver Kadarius Toney, defensive end Azeez Ojulari and cornerback Aaron Robinson instead in this year’s draft.

And if those newcomers cannot help the Giants return to the playoffs, the team will start searching for Jones’s replacement next year.

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