Sam Bradford (left), Matt Schaub (center) and Jay Cutler could find themselves on the market in 2014 in what could be one of the busiest offseasons for quarterbacks in recent memory. (Getty Images)
Patience is not a word associated with NFL teams and starting quarterbacks. All you have to do is look at how often teams change their Week 1 starters from one year to the next. As an example, from 2006 to ’11 the number of franchises making changes were 13, 13, 10, 11, 10 and 12. On average, that’s a third of the 32-team league each year.
But the carousel appeared to be slowing the past two seasons, when the figure dropped to nine teams in 2012 and only six this season. Finally, clubs could exhale. Or so we thought.
Cue the circus music and stand back, because one of the developing storylines for 2014 is that there could be nearly twice as many new opening-game starters at quarterback as there were this year. Normally I’d rant about how silly it is to look at 2014 when we’re only at the midpoint of the current season. However ...
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When you consider how important the position is in today’s game because of the rules changes/enforcements that have opened up the passing game; when you think about how teams have to make quicker judgments on quarterbacks because the new collective bargaining agreement limits rookie contracts to four years instead of five or six; and when you look at what transpired over the past couple weeks ... it’s hard to not pull out the binoculars.
Consider: In Week 7, St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford was lost for the year to a torn ACL and Chicago’s Jay Cutler was sidelined for at least four weeks with a torn groin. That same week, Minnesota’s Christian Ponder was benched in favor of Josh Freeman, who had only joined the team the previous week; of course, in Week 8, the Vikings went back to Ponder after Freeman had a bad debut and suffered a concussion. And let's not leave out the Browns, who promoted former third-stringer Jason Campbell ahead of 2012 first-round pick Brandon Weeden before Week 8.
Bradford, Cutler, Ponder and Freeman started for their teams in Week 1, but it’s reasonable to think that won’t be the case for them or a handful of other quarterbacks next season. They stand to be released, allowed to leave as free agents or relegated to backup status because of inconsistent/poor performances, money issues, health concerns or age. Or all of the above. Another factor is that next year’s draft is believed to be deep at quarterback, and teams are more willing to start rookie signal-callers because of the recent success of Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson, who went to the playoffs in their first season, and the flashes of promise from Geno Smith and E.J. Manuel this year.
“Supply and demand” is how one general manager explained it, speaking on the condition his name not be used. He continued, “When you find your franchise QB you keep them under contract as long as you can. Problem is, how many franchise QBs are there when you look at 32 teams? Certainly less than half of that, so you’re looking at somewhere in the neighborhood of at least 16 teams playing musical chairs.”
This year’s changes occurred in Arizona (from Kevin Kolb to Carson Palmer), Buffalo (Ryan Fitzpatrick to Manuel), Kansas City (Matt Cassel to Alex Smith), Oakland (Palmer to Terrelle Pryor), San Francisco (Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick) and the Jets (Mark Sanchez to Geno Smith). What changes could be on the horizon in 2014? Here's a look (teams listed alphabetically):
This one could be interesting. Cutler is an elite talent who was on pace for a career year before his injury. But he’s also taken a team to the playoffs just once since entering the league in 2006. If he looks for a mega-payday, I wouldn’t be surprised if first-year general manager Phil Emery and coach Marc Trestman chose to look elsewhere.
Weeden was thought to be the long-term answer after being drafted 22nd overall in 2012. But that was before a new management and a new coaching staff were brought in—and before he completed just 56.2 percent of his passes and confirmed he has trouble going through read progressions in a timely manner. The Browns have two first-round picks next year, and one of them undoubtedly will be used on a quarterback.
Matt Schaub is just 46-40 as Houston’s starter the past seven years. More notable is that he’s 1-1 in the postseason, missed six games with a foot injury in 2011, struggled down the stretch in 2012 and is on pace for a career-worst season this year, during which he threw pick-sixes in four consecutive games, a league-record. He’ll be 33 next season and will count $14.5 million against the cap, which isn’t huge by quarterback standards but could be unnecessary if the team believes youngster Case Keenum, who will get a second straight start in Week 9, is a capable replacement.
Like Cleveland, Jacksonville has changed management and coaching staff since drafting Blaine Gabbert 10th overall in 2011. Gabbert has been a major disappointment, to say the least. This year alone he has thrown seven interceptions with only one touchdown. He’s clearly not the answer; Chad Henne will start again this week even though Gabbert is healthy. Jacksonville (0-8) definitely will wind up with a high draft pick, if not the first pick overall, in May. It’s hard to image it won’t use the selection on a QB.
Minnesota used the 12th pick in the 2011 draft on Ponder, but it clearly no longer believes in him. If it did, it wouldn’t have started Freeman only one week after Freeman joined the team. That being said, Freeman might not be the answer, either. He’s on a one-year deal and was atrocious in his debut, though the staff and management deserve much of the blame for rushing him onto the field before he was ready.
Third-year pro Terrelle Pryor won the job this year even though that was not the organization’s plan (Oakland traded for Matt Flynn and designated him the starter coming into training camp). Pryor has had flashes of promise, even in defeat; but the staff believes he still has a ways to go as a passer before it can commit to him long-term. The fact that GM Reggie McKenzie tried to sign Josh Freeman after the Bucs released him speaks volumes that the Raiders are not completely satisfied at the position.
Michael Vick could be relegated to the bench in a backup role—and not necessarily with the Eagles—in 2014. (Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
Michael Vick isn’t the long-term solution. He’s in his 11th season, will be 34 next year and hasn’t played a full season since 2006, his last year with the Falcons. Father Time is undefeated against aging players, but he’s Mike Tyson vs. Michael Spinks when it comes to aging players who rely on their legs more than their arm.
St. Louis Rams
This might be the most interesting case of the offseason. Bradford was selected No. 1 overall in 2010 but had yet to play at a franchise level in his first three seasons. This year he was enjoying his best statistical season before an ACL tear in Week 7 against the Panthers brought his campaign to an end. Some of Bradford’s struggles have been due to a lack of perimeter playmakers his first couple seasons; this year the Rams have suffered in the running game and with unimaginative play-calling. Bradford’s base salary is $14.015 million next year and $12.985 million in 2015, and of course he faces a long offseason of rehab. St. Louis has two first-round picks in next year’s quarterback-rich draft and will have ammunition to trade up if they choose. They also could look to deal Bradford.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Third-round rookie Mike Glennon replaced Freeman as the starter late last month, and the organization hopes he can be the long-term solution. But here’s the issue: Because Glennon is limited athletically, inconsistent on the deep ball and completing just 58.5 percent of his passes, Tampa Bay would be foolish to pass up a shot at an elite college prospect with a high draft pick. At 0-7, the Bucs are currently battling 0-8 Jacksonville for the top pick in the 2014 draft.
We’re months away from knowing what will happen, but there’s no doubt the carousel is being oiled for use.