NFL roster building: GMs on QB deals, salary cap, team culture

Before there was Michael Penix Jr., there was Jordan Love.

Four years before the Atlanta Falcons made the most confusing move of the 2024 draft -- selecting Penix eighth after signing Kirk Cousins to big money one month earlier -- the Green Bay Packers traded up in the first round to take Love. This set off a firestorm of criticism. How dare the Packers, with 36-year-old legend Aaron Rodgers still under contract for multiple seasons, use such valuable resources on a quarterback? They risked alienating Rodgers and could have used that pick on someone (a receiver?) who made the 2020 team better.

"You think about those things, but the value of the quarterback position in general really kind of trumps everything else," Packers GM Brian Gutekunst said last week. "If you have the opportunity to get a quarterback, you have to take it."

This is a core Packers philosophy, rooted in the early 1990s, when then-GM Ron Wolf established organizational priorities that still govern team decisions today. Even after trading for Brett Favre in February 1992, Wolf drafted Heisman-winning quarterback Ty Detmer in the ninth round of that year's draft. The following year, he drafted Mark Brunell in the fifth round. Over an eight-year stretch from 1992 to '99, there was only one year (1994) in which Wolf did not select a quarterback in the draft.

"You just don't ever know when you're going to need one," said Gutekunst, who joined the Packers as a scout in 1999. "We were lucky here for years that Brett and Aaron stayed healthy, but you never know. So you're really protecting the organization. Drafting quarterbacks, developing quarterbacks protects the organization."

The Love pick worked out on multiple levels. Rodgers earned MVP honors as the Packers won 13 games and the NFC North title in each of the next two seasons. After dipping to 8-9 in 2022, they traded Rodgers to the New York Jets and installed Love as the starter, and he led them to the second round of the playoffs last season.

Finding the right QB is just one piece of NFL roster building, a year-round jigsaw puzzle for decision-makers. Ideas on the best ways to build a contender vary from team to team. The Packers' approach has worked for them, but it is by no means the only way to do it.

Over the past several weeks, in interviews with a dozen NFL GMs, we tried to pull back the curtain on how NFL teams construct their rosters, digging deep on quarterbacks, contract structure, draft philosophies, free agency theories and the importance of culture. No one claims to have it all figured out, but there are a few common threads. And for most teams, it all starts in the same place.

Jump to a topic:
Finding the QB | Identifying value
Navigating the cap | Building culture

Finding the right quarterback