Look, it is entirely understandable to go through the five stages of grief after the Colts announced that they traded WR Phillip Dorsett for third-string Patriots QB Jacoby Brissett. Fans in Indianapolis have been pummeled by first round draft failures in recent seasons.
Consider this list of first round players and how they have turned out.
In 2010, the Colts selected Jerry Hughes, a defensive end out of TCU to bolster an aging group of pass rushers. Through his rookie contract, he failed to produce in Indianapolis and after only one season with Ryan Grigson he was traded to the Buffalo Bills for ILB Kelvin Sheppard.
Since that trade, Hughes has been one of the Bills most productive pass rushers and Kelvin Sheppard lasted only one season on the roster before Indianapolis parted ways with him as well.
In 2013 the Colts selected Bjoern Werner, a defensive end for Florida State. Werner was added with the hopes that he could make a transition to outside linebacker and add to an aging group of pass rushers (sound familiar?). Unfortunately, Werner failed to ever make a meaningful contribution to the team and was waived shortly following the 2015 season. After an attempt to make his way back onto a roster in Jacksonville, he announced his “retirement” from the NFL in January of 2017.
The 2014 Colts first round pick was traded to the Cleveland Browns to acquire former 2012 third overall pick Trent Richardson. After a partial season in Indianapolis in 2014 and a full season in 2015 of being unproductive, showing a total lack of vision, and getting outplayed by every other running back on the depth chart, he was released in March of 2016. At this point, Richardson has received an offer from the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders but turned the opportunity down.
No NFL offers are likely to come his way.
In 2015 the Colts selected speedy wide receiver Phillip Dorsett out of Miami with hopes that he would be a deadly combination with veteran T.Y. Hilton and youngster Donte Moncrief. Instead, through two seasons he has only occasionally produced and did so almost exclusively as a deep threat. His speed allowed him to get separation, particularly because he was often overlooked by his opponents, but his route running never developed enough to make him a reliable option on other routes.
Even 2012 first round pick Andrew Luck and 2016 first round pick Ryan Kelly have been forced to miss time due to injury. Kelly is expected to miss at least the first couple of games — if not the first four — in 2017 and Luck has been battered, bruised, and broken enough that he has played with a bad shoulder for two seasons, suffered a lacerated kidney, and has missed 10 games over the last two years with a strong likelihood of missing at least two or three more games to start this season.
To say that the Colts have been somewhat cursed by injuries or simply bad decision-making in the first round for the better part of a decade would be an understatement.
So what about this move?
When you say that the Colts traded a first round draft pick for a Patriots third-string quarterback, it sounds awful. First round draft picks are supposed to be Pro Bowl caliber players who become difference-makers on offense or defense. Backup quarterbacks are never supposed to take the field. From a value perspective, fans have every right to feel upset.
However, let’s put some things into context and see if it helps at all.
First round pick or not, Phillip Dorsett’s time in Indianapolis has not been surrounded by legitimate reasons to feel he is on the cusp of breaking out or breaking through on the Colts wide receiver depth chart. While Chester Rogers is dealing with a hamstring injury, the undrafted rookie showed more reasons to be excited about his potential development in his rookie season than Dorsett has in two years.
Rogers received glowing reviews from his coaches over the summer and was the clear front-runner to be the third receiver in the Colts rotation. Nothing has changed since that opinion was formed other than the hamstring injury holding him out of practice.
What all of this means is that Dorsett was currently slated to be a “backup wide receiver” in the Colts offense. He might not see the field much and if the team felt like Aiken would be more often utilized in a red zone or possession role than Dorsett, he could actually be fifth on the depth chart and even less likely to receive snaps. It is also noteworthy that he received no special teams consideration as a returner and that a player like Quan Bray does have that ability.
That changes the perspective quite a bit. A Colts depth wide receiver who, regardless of draft position, was not in the team’s long-term plans was traded for the Patriots third-string quarterback. That feels a little better, but we’re not quite there yet.
It’s important to consider that Dorsett was not in the team’s long-term plans. Right now he has two seasons left on his rookie contract. That gives him more value from a trade piece than he will have next year. If you wait until the last year of the contract you risk that teams will simply allow him to be cut outright or you lose value because teams realize he’ll be wanting a larger contract after only one season to stick around. Lame ducks at any position tend to have less value than players who are on reasonable contracts for more than a season.
The point is — the timing was right if the Colts intended to move on from Dorsett, and they made it clear that they were entertaining options from other teams who were interested.
Now, what did the Colts receive in return?
Consider that, regardless of how ridiculous it was for Stephen Morris to not receive more of an opportunity to win the starting job, he was not in the team’s long-term plans either. He was no longer practice squad eligible and the team would have to start paying higher veteran minimum contracts as his years in the league continued to grow — over the next three years he would cost $2.4 million.
Backup quarterback Scott Tolzien has shown quite clearly that he is not a reliable long-term option backing up Luck either and he is in the final year of his contract — which takes up $2 million of the Colts cap space.
Instead, the Colts trade a wide receiver who is fourth or lower on their depth chart and not in the team’s long-term plans for a second-year backup quarterback with three years remaining on his rookie contract who will cost the team $2.2 million over three years. Okay, so from a contract value perspective that seems like a good step in the right direction, and clearly Brissett has more upside than Tolzien so there is good future value from a talent perspective as well.
Looking a bit closer though, the team is trading an over-drafted 2015 former first round draft pick for a 2016 former third round quarterback prospect who finds himself on a roster with Tom Brady and heir apparent Jimmy Garoppolo. The Patriots have invested four years into Garoppolo and chose to bring in another relatively high draft prospect at the position with Tom Brady facing a suspension heading into the 2016 season.
If the Indianapolis Colts spent a third round pick on a backup quarterback, there might be riots in Monument Circle. However, if the Colts can shrewdly pick up a third round quarterback who already has starting experience in the NFL, who already has picked up his first regular season win, and who is on a bargain contract — that doesn’t sound so bad.
If we skip now to the acceptance phase we might be able to realize some things as a fan base. Brissett is physically very similar to Luck in terms of size at 6’4”, 231 lbs versus Luck listed at 6’4”, 240 lbs. He is also similar in terms of what he does in the pocket and with his legs. He has a strong arm and throws a tight spiral and just came off of a very productive preseason game.
The upside here is that Ballard and the Colts have a shot at a legitimate long-term backup quarterback who had third round value as recently as the 2016 NFL draft. The Patriots thought highly enough of Brissett to invest a third round pick on him, despite the fact that they already had Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo on the roster.
That investment not only helped the team win a game when Garoppolo went down with an early season injury, it also has allowed them to bring a wide receiver into the fold that they were also reportedly targeting in the 2015 NFL Draft to help off-set the season-ending injury veteran wide receiver Julian Edelman suffered during preseason action.
Keep in mind that what happens from here will determine whether the trade was worth it. It won’t be dependent upon whether Dorsett scores touchdowns or continues to develop in New England. It will be determined by Brissett’s continued development and that he might give the team a legitimate backup option, which will save a valuable future draft pick so it can be used on another position — maybe even a wide receiver.