No shortage of suitors for late-blooming QB McCown

Tuesday March 11th, 2014

For the first time in his 11-year career, 34-year-old Josh McCown finds himself in high demand.
Jeff Haynes/SI

Throughout his eventful 11-year NFL career, Michael Vick and his out-sized reputation have often commanded far more attention than his on-field production deserved. But I don't foresee history repeating itself with Vick in the case of this year's modest free-agent class of quarterbacks. In the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately NFL, Josh McCown has done far more of late than Vick, and I think his market in free agency will deservedly reflect that.

When the NFL's annual free-agent shopping season cranks to life in earnest Tuesday afternoon, at least three teams -- and possibly more -- are expected to make quick offers to McCown as a potential starter, and the former Bears backup could make visits to two or three clubs in the coming few days, perhaps signing with a team by Thursday or Friday, a league source said.

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Tampa Bay, Houston and the Jets are all said to be pursuing McCown and view him as a competitor to start in 2014. Where he lands could have implications for everything from the Texans' No. 1 pick in May's draft to where Vick himself plays this season. Chicago is also very interested in retaining McCown -- who played so well in relief of the injured Jay Cutler last season -- but only in the backup role he has held down since late 2011.

By comparison, Vick's best starting opportunity might be with the Jets, who are seeking a veteran option alongside second-year quarterback Geno Smith, or the Raiders, if Oakland finds itself unable to or electing not to acquire either Houston's Matt Schaub or ex-Viking Josh Freeman.

By all indications, McCown will have the more motivated suitors in a quarterback market that last week saw veterans Matt Cassel (Minnesota) and Chad Henne (Jacksonville) re-sign with their current teams.

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Tampa Bay is thought to be the team that feels the greatest sense of urgency in the pursuit of McCown and is expected to be the most aggressive suitor right out of the box in free agency, perhaps scheduling a visit with the 34-year-old within the opening 24 hours of the signing season. The Bucs' new coach, Lovie Smith, is familiar with McCown from their time together in Chicago, and Tampa Bay has made it clear that 2013 third-round pick Mike Glennon will not inherit the team's starting job without a veteran challenger.

While the Bucs make the most sense as the favorite, both Houston and the Jets are expected to invite McCown for early free-agent visits and stay competitive in the running to land him. The Texans clearly could offer McCown a starting opportunity as a "bridge quarterback,'' allowing them to bypass taking a quarterback at the top of the draft and select a defensive star like South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney or Buffalo's Khalil Mack. Houston would presumably then use its second-round pick -- No. 33 overall -- to take a future franchise quarterback (Eastern Illinois' Jimmy Garoppolo?), giving him perhaps a season of grooming behind McCown.

From that perspective, both the Bucs and Jets would offer McCown the potential of longer-term starting chances, with neither Glennon nor Smith having definitively proven they are clear-cut No. 1 quarterbacks. New York, especially, is in win-now mode, as coach Rex Ryan is again working in the second-to-last year of his contract and probably needs to snap his team's three-year playoff drought in order to return in 2015.

McCown is thought to be first and foremost interested in finding the team that will fully commit to him as a starter if he earns the job in a preseason competition. While this is also likely to be the last significant contract of his NFL career, and any salary offer must reflect his starting potential, McCown is eager to lead a team of his own and continue what has been by far the best stretch of performances in his journeyman 11-year career.

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McCown was a surprising revelation last season, even prompting a brief debate in Chicago about whether he or Cutler was the team's best bet going forward on the franchise quarterback front. The Bears eventually re-signed Cutler to a long-term deal that included $54 million guaranteed, keeping him out of this year's free-agency market, but McCown's statistics actually bested the Chicago incumbent in 2013.

McCown started five games in place of Cutler last season and appeared in eight games overall, compiling the league's third-best passer rating at 109.0 -- the highest in Bears single-season history. He threw for 13 touchdowns with just one interception (his one pick on 224 attempts produced an NFL-best 0.4 interception percentage) and set team records with three consecutive 300-yard passing games, a 66.5 completion percentage on the season and 36 completions in a single game. McCown went 3-2 as the team's starter, compared to Cutler's 5-6 mark.t

Though many have credited McCown's career year to the quarterback-guru talents of Bears head coach Marc Trestman, who debuted with the team in 2013, Trestman's touch didn't transform Cutler's game in any similar way. Cutler had 19 touchdowns and 12 interceptions last season, completing 63 percent of his passes, but he didn't match McCown's production, and the Bears were a more efficient and explosive offense when the former Cardinal, Raider and Panther was under center.

McCown's late-career emergence -- he played for Hartford in the UFL in 2010 and spent most of the 2011 season coaching high school football -- has been compared to other late-blooming quarterbacks such as Oakland's Rich Gannon or Tennessee's Kerry Collins, both of whom enjoyed highly productive spurts in their early to mid-30s. McCown will turn 35 on July 4 but has started just 38 games in his NFL career after going to Arizona in the third round in 2002.

While other teams such as Oakland, Cleveland, Buffalo and perhaps Tennessee could join the Bucs, Texans and Jets in pursuit of McCown, his asking price is likely to be at least $4 million per season. McCown made just $870,000 in Chicago last season, but the market for veteran potential starters was set last week when Minnesota re-signed Cassel to a two-year, $10 million contract and Henne re-joined Jacksonville, receiving two years at $8 million, with $4.5 million guaranteed.

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