Toss in the no-win situations (literally) unfolding at quarterback in Indianapolis (Curtis Painter vs. Dan Orlovsky) and Washington (Rex Grossman vs. John Beck), the growing debate on whether the Jets are losing faith in Mark Sanchez and the fascinating lab experiment that is being conducted in Denver with Tim Tebow, and there's no shortage of quarterback issues to keep track of in the stretch drive of the 2011 NFL season.
But while the here and now is plenty interesting, the biggest quarterback questions are still to come this offseason, when the NFL always undergoes a reshuffling of sorts at the game's most pivotal and high-profile position. Andrew Luck is waiting to be had, of course, but there are far more subplots to follow than just the Luck Sweepstakes. Like which QB-desperate team wins the race for USC junior Matt Barkley, should he turn pro? And can Oklahoma junior Landry Jones join his two fellow QB classmates in the top 10 of April's draft? (The smart money these days is to always count on quarterbacks being pushed up the board).
Here then is a quick summation of the quarterback questions that await around the league, with an early projection on some of the teams that will be in the market for a new passer, how they might choose to address that need, and who are the QB names to know:
Hate to be a buzz kill right off the top, but if the Luck Sweepstakes were a radio station contest, this would be when you get the old line, "No more calls, please, we have a winner.'' Unless the winless and hopeless Colts stun us with either a six-week turnaround of monumental scope, or Peyton Manning some how heals and flips the switch on the win machine in Indy in the season's final month, Stanford's Luck is going to be wearing blue and white next season. It's approaching slam dunk territory.
At 0-10, the Colts have at least a two-game lead on all their serious competitors for the No. 1 overall pick: Miami (2-7), Minnesota (2-7), St. Louis (2-7) and Carolina (2-7). Seattle, Arizona, Washington, Philadelphia, Jacksonville and Cleveland are in the three-win crowd and have to be considered the longest of long shots. You've seen the Colts play this season, do you think they can win half of their remaining six games? Neither do I.
The Colts are even starting to signal their intentions. This week, Indy's vice chairman Bill Polian said on the radio he has already spoken with Manning about the possibility of drafting a first-round quarterback next spring and Manning understands and has no objections.
"The bottom line is that if the right person is there, and it has to be the right person, then now is the time to make that choice,'' said Polian, who will not discuss Luck, a junior, specifically because NFL rules bar teams from talking about underclassmen before they declare for the draft. "Peyton and I have spoken about that, and he's okay with that.''
With Manning's health status still up in the air, how exactly he and the Colts work out the details of the $28 million bonus that he's due next year remains to be seen, but Polian and Colts owner Jim Irsay have repeatedly said they believe Manning has some good years left. Just last weekend Polian declared that he expects Manning to play next year. Earlier this fall, Irsay said he could foresee a scenario in which the team drafted a first-round quarterback, but then follow an Aaron Rodgers-Brett Favre timeline in which the younger QB could take two or three years to fully break into the starting lineup.
Add it all up, and Luck to Indy looks like a lock.
This is where the fun really starts. The USC junior is expected to turn pro and then wind up in the top five of next year's draft. Assuming Luck goes to the Colts, I can think of four other QB-needy teams right now that would salivate at the chance to be Barkley's landing spot: Miami, Washington, Seattle and Denver. The Dolphins' and Redskins' starting quarterback needs are obvious. Chad Henne might be back next year in Miami once he's healthy again, if a new coaching staff wants him, but at the very least it will be with competition from another strong starting possibility. In Washington, after this year's failed experiment, neither Grossman or Beck figure to be anything other than contenders for the backup job.
In Seattle, while Tarvaris Jackson has had his moments this season, he has nailed nothing down in regards to the future and it's a foregone conclusion Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll would jump at the chance to draft Barkley, who he coached and recruited to USC. Seattle decision-makers are said to be privately still kicking themselves for passing on TCU's Andy Dalton -- the league's potential Offensive Rookie of the Year -- late in last year's first round, in favor of Alabama offensive tackle James Carpenter at No. 25. Seattle, which has been adrift at quarterback for two years now, won't make that mistake again.
In Denver, despite its recent success in that Tebow-led option offense, you can bank on the fact the Broncos will be drafting a quarterback very high. General manager John Elway and head coach John Fox are making do at the moment with Tebow's strengths, and they'll see where his story goes over the next seven games, but another starting quarterback option is the real option game they want to pursue. And Barkley is the kind of big-armed prospect Elway could really fall hard for.
With Minnesota, St. Louis and Carolina all drafting first-round quarterbacks in the past two years, the Dolphins are the lone two-win team that needs one. Miami is playing well after its 0-7 start and could continue to improve its record, thereby falling further in the first round, but Barkley to the Dolphins makes solid sense at the moment. Miami has been looking for a franchise QB since Dan Marino retired, and Barkley's experience at a glamour school like Southern Cal even seem to fit the celebrity-buzz factor that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross openly craves.
If the Colts and Dolphins wind up with the two top passers in what is expected to be an unusually QB-rich draft, the next prize is expected to be Oklahoma's Jones, a 6-foot-4, 230-pound prospect with a big arm. ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer predicts Jones will get pushed into the top 10 in part due to the recent success of other tall, strong-armed first-round picks such as Baltimore's Joe Flacco, Tampa Bay's Josh Freeman and St. Louis' Sam Bradford.
"I think you're going to have Luck, Barkley and Landry Jones all as top 10 picks, based on what we've learned in the last four years,'' Dilfer said. "Because almost all of the young quarterbacks taken early since 2008 are having immediate impact. We don't know yet if they're all going to be stars, or even what they're going to be. But they're having immediate impact, and you're able to win with them and also build around them. Because of that, you're going to see more guys go in the first round, and guys go higher in the draft, based on that premise.''
Other collegiate quarterbacks who will factor into the second tier of draft prospects, but still present teams with a potential starting option next spring include Michigan State's Kirk Cousins, Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill and Baylor's Robert Griffin. A bit further down the list, but intriguing for teams looking to draft and groom a quarterback for a year or two will be San Diego State's Ryan Lindley and Boise State's Kellen Moore.
"I happen to think Cousins is going to really make a push and he could get into the first round, once people do his tape, learn about him, see him and meet him,'' Dilfer said. "And I'm told Tannehill has all the ingredients, is the real deal, and people will love what they see. Griffin will be in the mix, and Lindley, someone is going to fall in love with him because he's huge, 6-4, 250, runs 4.5 and can throw it through a wall.
"With Moore, he's going to be a third-round guy, but he'll be that guy that a team that already has a quarterback will draft. He'll be a project for two or three years, and he'll be a starting option and a safety net down the road for a team like the Jets, the Bills or the Chargers. They can't take a quarterback high, but they can take someone in the middle rounds. My point is, it's a huge crop, and they're all good. From an early look, it's as good a crop as I've seen, and not just because Luck's at the top.''
The draft is never the only source of starting quarterback options, of course. Next year's Kevin Kolb might well be Packers backup Matt Flynn, the fourth-year former LSU starter who was a seventh-round pick in 2008. Flynn played fairly well in a two-game relief stint of the injured Aaron Rodgers late last year, just before the start of the playoffs, and he now has the imprint of the Packers' Super Bowl success attached to his name.
Dilfer makes a compelling case for how some teams in the market for a new starting option might find Flynn their most attractive candidate.
"The big wrench in the whole quarterback market could be Matt Flynn,'' Dilfer said. "What happens when a superstar quarterback like Aaron Rodgers has a signature year with a signature coaching staff, and all the offensive coaches on that team then start finally getting their due? In that situation, the backup quarterback sometimes all of a sudden becomes a prized commodity. Especially when Aaron, one of his best friends, starts telling everybody, 'This dude can play. He's just like me when I was a backup for Brett Favre. He does all the same things I did when I was a backup.'
"He's kind of like an Aaron Rodgers clone the same way Rodgers looked a little like a Favre clone, and the way Matt Hasselbeck in Green Bay looked like a Favre clone. His value is going to be off the charts for some teams. They may not evaluate all the college quarterbacks and say, 'Okay, what's the easy fix? Matt Flynn, let's go get him. Because we'll coach him just like he was coached in Green Bay.' They may or may not do that, but he'll be a player in this thing, in this market.''
Two scenarios that sound plausible in terms of Flynn are Cleveland and Miami. Browns football czar Mike Holmgren may not think he has the time or inclination to go the rookie quarterback development route again, and that's where Flynn's experience level becomes more attractive. Even as strong competition for McCoy, Flynn might fit well in Cleveland.
As for the Dolphins, perhaps they win their way out of the draft position to land Barkley or Jones, and Flynn becomes their fallback plan. If Miami fires head coach Tony Sparano as expected, someone off Mike McCarthy's staff in Green Bay could get interviewed, given that the Packers' program is the current NFL gold standard. Maybe quarterbacks coach Tom Clements or offensive coordinator Joe Philbin is the next Dolphins head coach, and Flynn becomes a viable starting alternative in Miami. That's the way the NFL often works.
Reading the current tea leaves, here's how we see the rest of the quarterback issues around the league, besides those teams we've already mentioned:
• Cleveland -- The Browns don't seem convinced Colt McCoy is their long-term answer at the position, but it's also not likely Holmgren would go shopping in the first round for another quarterback. Holmgren is a big believer in the idea that you can find QB talent in the second or third round, without paying a first-round premium at the position.
How McCoy ends his second season in Cleveland could play a significant factor in the Browns' plans, but if the above-mentioned pursuit of Flynn doesn't materialize, the most likely scenario would be for Holmgren to zero in on the second tier of prospects, such as Cousins, Griffin, Tannehill or Lindley.
• New York Jets -- There's a growing sentiment within the league that Sanchez's development might never get much past the point it's at now. Perhaps midway through his third NFL season, Sanchez already is who he's going to be as a starting quarterback: Sometimes very good, but sometimes maddeningly inconsistent. With that in mind, quarterback has to be on New York's radar screen at some level.
"I'm becoming more convinced that I was wrong in believing Sanchez can be one of the very good ones,'' Dilfer said. "He might just be a good one. But even so, the Jets aren't going to take a first-round quarterback again. They might take one later, in that second-tier group. They could draft a high upside guy, a guy with a lot of tools but who's raw.
"They should draft that guy they feel has a lot of future upside, knowing it's Mark's team for a couple more years at least. You've got to be married to Mark for at least that long. If you make a change from a first-round pick this early, you're going to give the job to a veteran. You're not drafting another first-rounder.''
• Kansas City -- I wouldn't be surprised if the Chiefs investigated quarterback options this offseason. I don't see them cutting ties with starter Cassel, but I could see them seeking to upgrade the position in terms of depth and bringing in either a veteran or a draft pick to compete with Cassel. A second- or third-round prospect makes the most sense if Kansas City goes the draft route. Cassel has been solid and had a strong 2010 season, but the Chiefs do not believe he'll ever be in the elite class. They might be tempted to find their next starter next spring.
• San Francisco -- Alex Smith is enjoying a Comeback Player of the Year level season for the 49ers, and he's doing it on a one-year contract. He has exceeded expectations, but new head coach Jim Harbaugh consistently said he could win with Smith, and both sides have benefited from the relationship. Look for San Francisco to extend Smith's contract, maybe in the range of just south of Buffalo's recent Ryan Fitzpatrick deal. The contract would likely have plenty of guaranteed money included, but it also could be structured in a way that gives the 49ers an out in a year or two if they think 2010 second-round pick Colin Kaepernick is ready to take over the job.
At the moment, Kaepernick isn't ready, and the 49ers know it. The plan all along was to use Smith as a bridge quarterback to Kaepernick, but it just may be that the bridge period lasts two or three years, longer than anyone first expected.
• Arizona -- With John Skelton, a 2010 fifth-round draft pick, 2-0 as a starter in place of the injured Kevin Kolb, it's natural to wonder where the Cardinals are headed on their quarterback front. But the reality is Arizona gave up too much and is paying Kolb too much to pull the rip cord on him this early. It's probably more likely that Arizona would walk away from head coach Ken Whisenhunt before it would cut ties with Kolb and admit failure in this summer's blockbuster trade with Philadelphia.
In the short term, Skelton's strong play presents a delicate situation for Whisenhunt and the Cardinals front office. In the long term, Kolb is going to get some time and patience in regards to his learning curve.
• Buffalo -- Like Arizona, the Bills just made a sizable commitment to their starter, showing their faith in Fitzpatrick with last month's contract extension. While his play has cooled off considerably the past two weeks in Buffalo defeats, he's still a great fit for Chan Gailey's offense and will get the benefit of the doubt for now. Look for Buffalo to draft a quarterback prospect in the second to fourth rounds, but this is still Fitzpatrick's team for the foreseeable future.