An Unusual Signing

Yesterday marked one of the more unusual signings of the NFL year. It isn’t one that’s likely to have any impact on any team’s future performance.

Dallas signed journeyman Garrett Gilbert to a one-year deal worth about $750,000. Presumably, injured starter Dak Prescott, who is definitely out until around the start of next year’s training camp, will go on Injured Reserve.

Gilbert won’t start – that job goes to veteran Andy Dalton, who is third only to Joe Flacco and Alex Smith in career wins by an active quarterback who wasn’t starting prior to last week. In fact, Gilbert has never started an NFL game and has attempted only six passes in his pro career. He’ll likely move ahead of project Ben DiNucci on the QB depth chart. DiNucci was drafted in the seventh round this year, out of James Madison, where he lit up scoreboards but didn’t have to face FBS defenses.

Gilbert was as heralded a high-school signing as anyone, and chose Texas. He didn’t perform well for the Longhorns, and transferred to Southern Methodist, where he had one bad season and one decent season. He has all the obvious tools, and that merited a sixth-round pick from the Rams in 2014. But he was cut before the season even started. He had stints with four other teams, spending almost no time on active rosters, until last year. While it’s impossible to call a sixth-round pick in the NFL a bust, it’s rare that one remains in the league six years without ever seeing meaningful action.

Gilbert joined the Alliance of American Football in early 2019 and proceeded to dominate the league. Since there aren’t many opportunities for players to compete in live games against decent competition once college is over, this was notable and Gilbert earned another look in the NFL. The Browns signed him when the league went under, and they kept him as Baker Mayfield’s backup last season.

Still, Gilbert didn’t impress enough to prevent the Browns from bringing on journeyman Case Keenum in March, and putting Gilbert on the newly expanded practice squad after training camp. That’s where he was until yesterday, when the Cowboys signed him to their active roster.

OK, then. Why is this signing unusual? The NFL rules surrounding practice squads are a bit confusing. Players receive a small portion of the minimum salary and can practice with the team. Any other team is free to sign them at any time, as long as they are signed to an active roster. Each week, teams can protect up to four of their practice squad players. Those players, too, can be signed away, but there’s only a limited window for these transactions – essentially until early Tuesday.

Gilbert had been protected in this fashion by the Browns, but the Cowboys made the signing during the window. Why? This has to greatly annoy the Browns because he’s a quarterback who has spent 18 months in Cleveland and has learned the system as Mayfield has learned it. That has some value. But he’s in that magic bubble between succeeding in the NFL and being so hopeless in practice that teams won’t invest the time. That probably describes about 40-50 quarterbacks right now. Guys who are in shape, healthy, can learn a system, but you don’t want them on the field.

I don’t know of any feuds between the Cowboys and Browns. They played each other a couple of weeks ago and Cleveland embarrassed the Cowboys on their home field. The following day, the Cowboys signed lineman Greg Senat off of the Browns’ practice squad. Generally, feuds don’t begin because one team is historically bad on defense in a game, but one has to wonder if something happened to warrant this reaction. In what’s looking like a lost season in Dallas, stirring stuff up has only the downside of attracting some negative attention. But, for Cleveland, enjoying a solid start that could lead to their first playoff victory since their opponent was New England and Bill Belichick was the head coach on their sidelines, this is an unwelcome distraction.

There is clearly a need for more quarterbacks in the NFL. Anyone who sees any level of success on the field will continue to see new opportunities. Just being able to learn an NFL offense and run it on the field without being overwhelmed by the speed of the game is one of the most challenging tasks in professional sports. Teams like to carry three quarterbacks, and most, unless they’re protecting a young prospect who isn’t quite experienced enough for second string, stash the third one on the practice squad. Dallas could have chosen from the 20-or-so quarterbacks recently released by other teams. They didn’t, and Cleveland will have to find a new third quarterback.

There’s no rule against poaching practice squad players or targeting a particular opponent. And there’s no proof this was anything other than the Cowboys wanting Gilbert because their scouts saw something in those AAF performances. But it’s unusual, and especially with Cooper Rush, who spent 2017-19 with the Cowboys in this capacity, available after being released by the Giants, it’s a situation worth watching.

Author: Jim Gindin

Founder and Lead Developer, Solecismic Software