Ten most significant quarterback moves this offseason
Despite a quarterback-laden 2014 NFL draft unfolding next month (Johnny, Blake or Teddy anyone?), it has been another typically active offseason on the league's ever-spinning quarterback carousel. By my count, 16 teams -- or half the league -- have experienced a change of some sort in either their starting or backup QB situations. Here's my quick-take ranking of the 10 most significant moves we've witnessed so far, in terms of clubs that have altered the look of their quarterback depth chart:
1. Tampa Bay signs free-agent Josh McCown -- This is no knock on Bucs incumbent Mike Glennon, who turned in some very commendable work as a rookie despite playing in a tough situation for an underachieving club that was nose-diving its way to 4-12. But there's a reason McCown was the most sought-after quarterback in free agency, and it had a lot to do with him clearly having outplayed starter Jay Cutler in Chicago last year. We all saw the same thing, so let's not even quibble any longer on that front.
McCown's game was undeniably boosted by the presence of Bears first-year head coach Marc Trestman in 2013, but it wasn't all coaching and a QB-friendly offense that accounted for his success. The career journeyman didn't fluke his way to 13 touchdowns against just one interception, with 1,829 passing yards and a 66.5 completion percentage in eight games. McCown played like a solid No. 1 quarterback, which is what he'll be for the improved Bucs as they fight for a return to relevancy under new head coach Lovie Smith.
2. New York Jets sign free-agent Michael Vick -- So much of what the Jets have done on the quarterback front hasn't made much sense from the Tebow trade of 2012 on, but this was one move that had all kinds of logic behind it. Given the uneven performance turned in by rookie Geno Smith last year, New York clearly needed a veteran 1A option to turn to in 2014, which shapes up as another potential win-or-else year for head coach Rex Ryan. So why not pair Vick and Smith and hope you get flashes of brilliance from both, knowing full well that 16 games of steady production from either one isn't happening. In addition, Vick's reunion with Jets offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg at least gives him a chance to resurrect some of the magic that tandem produced in Philadelphia in 2010.
3. Minnesota re-signs free-agent Matt Cassel -- Watching the Vikings handle Cassel in 2013 was like experiencing one long series of what-am-I-missing type of moments. He was clearly Minnesota's most reliable and productive quarterback, and yet the club kept trying to keep him off the field. In one puzzling three-week stretch, he went from Christian Ponder's backup, to the starter who earned the Vikings' first win of the season, to the team's inactive No. 3 passer behind Josh Freeman and Ponder. How'd that work out for you, Minnesota?
Obviously the Vikings could well be in the market to draft a quarterback somewhere in the top two rounds next month, and that rookie might find his way into the lineup at some point in 2014. But if he doesn't, Cassel is the Minnesota's best bet this year, and he'll enter training camp as the guy to beat for the starting job. Cassel played in all five of the Vikings' wins last season, leading the team in passing yards (1,807) and touchdowns (11). And with new head coach Mike Zimmer and veteran offensive coordinator Norv Turner now in charge and in his corner in Minnesota, Cassel's play should benefit from not having to endure a week-to-week game of musical chairs at the game's most pivotal position.
4. Oakland trades for Matt Schaub -- The Raiders have high hopes for Schaub, but I feel like we've seen this movie before. Carson Palmer came to Oakland with Pro Bowl trips and playoff games on his resume, but the Raiders' losing mojo didn't change. This feels roughly like the same type of career resurrection being attempted by Schaub, the ex-Texans' starter who saw his confidence shattered last season by that hail of pick-sixes he threw in September and October.
Despite the challenge of overcoming how his franchise-quarterback reputation unraveled in 2013, Schaub does upgrade the Raiders depth chart just by walking in the door. The inexperienced starting combination of Terrelle Pryor and Matt McGloin showed only selective glimpses of promise last season, with Pryor having requested a trade and likely to be released in the near future. Oakland could add to the mix with a quarterback in the draft, but I'm convinced Schaub's presence means no first-round passer will be selected for the must-win season that third-year head coach Dennis Allen and general manager Reggie McKenzie jointly face.
5. Jacksonville re-signs Chad Henne -- The Jaguars wisely prioritized Henne's re-signing because they realized he provides them with short-term stability at the position and flexibility in the draft. They don't have to reach for a quarterback at No. 3 overall with Henne back at a rate of $8 million over two years, and current thinking holds that Jacksonville probably won't take a QB until the second night of the draft. In that scenario, Henne in all likelihood opens the season as the No. 1 and buys time for the future franchise quarterback to develop, given how disastrously the results were when Jacksonville threw Blaine Gabbert to the wolves early in 2011.
For a team that started 0-8 last season and looked wholly overmatched doing it, Henne actually proved to be an obvious bright spot for the Jags in 2013. He started 13 games, going a hopeful 4-4 in the season's second half, and showed steady improvement in coordinator Jedd Fisch's offense. And while his 3,241 yards passing, 61 percent completion rate and 13 touchdown passes (with 14 interceptions) were far from spectacular, he emerged as an efficient and consistent player and clearly made Gabbert the odd man out in Jacksonville.
6. Philadelphia signs free-agent Mark Sanchez -- The Jets clearly got the best of the Michael Vick-for-Sanchez trade that wasn't really a trade, but it's not every day that a five-year veteran with four career road playoff wins to his credit can be picked up for cheap on the quarterback market. Sanchez isn't in Philadelphia to compete with starter Nick Foles, who broke through in a huge way last season and wound up earning offensive MVP honors in the Pro Bowl. He's in a different shade of green to continue his recovery from last year's season-ending shoulder surgery and provide more backup experience than fellow former USC quarterback Matt Barkley, the Eagles' No. 3 passer.
In a perfect world, the Eagles get the pre-butt fumble version of Sanchez in limited playing time, and in Chip Kelly's innovative offense his game shows a level of growth and maturation that he never displayed in New York, perhaps setting him up to compete for a starting gig somewhere in 2015. That's the one-year win-win scenario that Sanchez and the Eagles both have in mind.
7. San Diego signs free-agent Kellen Clemens -- Not that the Chargers want to see Clemens start nine games in relief of Philip Rivers in 2014, but when he had to take over for more than half the season after Sam Bradford's knee injury in St. Louis last year, the Rams did anything but crash and burn. Clemens went a respectable 4-5 as Bradford's replacement, earning wins over quality opponents such as Indianapolis, Chicago and New Orleans in that span. And that mark includes an 0-4 record in the rugged NFC West, where Clemens lost twice to eventual Super Bowl champion Seattle, in addition to San Francisco and Arizona.
Clemens signed a two-year deal with San Diego and upgrades the Chargers' No. 2 position that previously belonged to Charlie Whitehurst (now the Titans' backup) in recent seasons. Whitehurst is just 1-3 as an NFL starter, compared to Clemens' 8-13 over eight seasons. With the Rams, Clemens completed 142 of 242 attempts last season, for just shy of 1,700 yards, with eight touchdowns, seven picks and a decent 78.8 passer rating. In the NFL, those kind of numbers put you in the upper tier among No. 2 quarterbacks.
8. Houston signs free-agent Ryan Fitzpatrick -- This was one of the more underrated moves of the NFL offseason. Like Clemens in St. Louis, Fitzpatrick wound up playing a ton in place of an injured starter last season, appearing in 11 games (with nine starts) for the oft-absent Jake Locker in Tennessee. The Titans were just 3-6 in Fitzpatrick's starts, and they wound up releasing him in a somewhat surprising move last month. But he's a nice pickup for the division-rival Texans, who traded Matt Schaub to Oakland and now have a depth chart of Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum (eight starts last year) and T.J. Yates.
Fitzpatrick has a wealth of starting experience (77 starts for four teams) and his presence figures to give Houston the benefit of more options in the draft, where the Texans are expected to select a quarterback at either No. 1 or No. 33, the first pick in the second round (which is my hunch). Either way, Fitzpatrick seems well-suited to play the "bridge'' quarterback role in Houston, and the Texans are easily the most talented team of the five to which he has belonged. Last year in Tennessee, he completed a career-best 62 percent of his passes, for 2,454 yards, with 14 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and an 82.0 rating. Nothing too shabby about that kind of production from a part-time starter.
9. Cincinnati signs free-agent Jason Campbell -- Don't downgrade Campbell too much for his one-year stint in Cleveland. No quarterback leaves the Browns with their reputation burnished. The Bengals had only the lightly-experienced Josh Johnson behind Andy Dalton last season, and from that perspective, Campbell is a significant upgrade, with 79 career starts (32-47). He threw for 2,015 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, with just eight interceptions, starting half of the Browns' games.
And don't forget, Hue Jackson is the Bengals' new offensive coordinator, having replaced the departed Jay Gruden. It was under Jackson in Oakland that Campbell had his greatest career success, going 11-7 over the course of 2010 and '11. Had Campbell stayed healthy as a Raider, Jackson might still be the team's head coach rather than the Bengals OC. When Campbell went down with a broken collarbone in October 2011, Jackson executed the ill-fated Carson Palmer trade with Cincinnati. Oakland missed the playoffs at 8-8, Jackson was fired, and history has come full circle with the tandem reunited as Bengals.
10. San Francisco trades for Blaine Gabbert -- This deal raised a few eyebrows early on in free agency, but I liked the thinking behind it. In reality the 49ers made a low-risk bet on the quarterback who went 10th overall in 2011, then flamed out in spectacular fashion for Jacksonville, going just 5-22 as a starter in his three seasons. The 49ers have picks to burn in this year's draft, so shipping a sixth-rounder to the Jaguars (and possibly another conditional pick in 2015) won't prove costly if Gabbert thrives under head coach Jim Harbaugh and nails down the backup job that ex-Browns starter Colt McCoy held without distinction in 2013.
Gabbert has this much going for him: His career trajectory isn't much different from that of ex-49ers No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith, and we all know how much Harbaugh's presence seemed to revive Smith's game in 2011 and the first half of '12. If Gabbert can duplicate that example and save a career that appeared all but lost, he's still young enough at 24 to earn a long-term opportunity somewhere in the league, even if it's as a veteran backup.
Harbaugh has taken him on as a bit of a personal challenge, and that could be a very fortuitous development for Gabbert.
"I believe this can be a really powerful opportunity, a powerful motivation for [Gabbert] to say, 'It wasn't me, it was my situation [in Jacksonville],''' Harbaugh said at last week's NFL annual meeting in Orlando. "And now he has that opportunity.''
NOTE: Six other teams lost quarterbacks who were backups or part-time starters in 2013. Some of those franchises potentially remain in the market for a new No. 2.
-- St. Louis signed free-agent Shaun Hill, replacing Kellen Clemens.
-- Tennessee signed free-agent Charlie Whitehurst, replacing Ryan Fitzpatrick.
-- Chicago lost Josh McCown, leaving Jordan Palmer as the backup to Jay Cutler.