Even for NFL teams fortunate enough to own legitimate franchise quarterbacks, the search for the next great player at that position is a neverending quest. That's how the Packers wound up with Aaron Rodgers ready to step in for Brett Favre, after all, and why the Saints reportedly will consider using a high draft pick at QB this April despite Drew Brees' presence.
In a glass-half-full world, around 20 franchises probably are satisfied with their starting-QB situation heading into 2015. That assumes, however, that some of those franchises are content banking on guys like Alex Smith and Andy Dalton when -- hey, who knows? -- the next Rodgers or Tom Brady might somehow be available.
"Everybody is tagged with, 'Is he a franchise quarterback?'" Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley said back at the 2014 NFL combine. "That's really difficult. ... You're going to make some mistakes, but you hope it's limited and especially at that position."
The easiest path (if we can call it that) to uncovering a star QB is to do so through the draft. Former NFL head coach/GM Mike Holmgren told The MMQB that the draft can be the only legitimate option for teams with a conundrum under center.
"You’ve got to take one," Holmgren said. "You’ve got to, unfortunately."
But what if, as is the case with Buffalo and St. Louis and Cleveland this year, a team pushes itself behind several QB-needy teams in the draft order by having some regular-season success? And what if the quarterback draft class itself is rather thin, as appears to be the case in 2015?
Well, then it's on to free agency or the trade market, each a crapshoot in its own right. Every once in a long while a Peyton Manning-level player may walk through that door, as he did when Indianapolis released him in 2011; even a Jay Cutler could spur some action, if the Bears look to deal him.
Most times, the answers are far more difficult to find.
"Quarterback, I think inherently, is the most important on any team," Cleveland GM Ray Horton said in a Q-and-A with the Plain Dealer, "and probably the most important position in sports."
So what are the options on the table for teams headed into this upcoming offseason?
• Marcus Mariota, Oregon: Tampa Bay, Tennessee, Jacksonville, the Jets and Oakland all sit tied with two wins through 14 weeks. At least three of those teams (New York, Tampa Bay and Tennessee) figure to be hunting for a quarterback this offseason. So the "race" to land the No. 1 pick -- more colloquially known in a few spots as the "Suck for the Duck" campaign -- comes with high stakes.
Mariota stands atop a potentially talent-starved 2015 QB class (assuming, as everyone is, that he declares for the draft). The Heisman Trophy frontrunner has his team in the inaugural playoff after posting a 38-to-2 TD:INT differential this season.
Better yet for his NFL hopes, Mariota does not have to be a scheme-specific fit. He can use his feet and throw on the run, but he's just as dangerous spreading the ball around from the pocket. If he slips out of the top-five, past those teams listed above, it would be a shock.
Of course, there is the fun-to-discuss yet unlikely scenario of ex-Oregon coach Chip Kelly pushing Philadelphia toward a blockbuster trade so he can pair with Mariota again.
• Jameis Winston, Florida State: Winston's current record as the Florida State starter is 26-0. While he clearly benefits from playing on an uber-talented roster, several of those wins have come thanks to Winston's knack for responding when the odds are stacked against the Seminoles. He has responded time and again to difficult circumstances.
Two big issues for NFL teams moving forward, if Winston enters the draft: 1. His much-publicized behavior off the field; and 2. The turnover-induced slow starts -- Winston has 17 interceptions this season. Still, for whichever of those QB-needy teams miss on Mariota, Winston has to be a prominent Plan B.
• Connor Cook, Michigan State: Cook has said he plans to return for his senior season. Could he change his mind as he hears repeated talk of his NFL upside? The Spartans' signal-caller has to improve upon his decision-making, yet carries the size and arm strength to be a coveted prospect.
St. Louis or Houston could be intriguing mid-Round 1 landing spots. In Round 2 and beyond, Cook might stack up as a steal.
• Bryce Petty, Baylor: Petty came into the season guns ablazin', saw his perceived stock slip and now has leveled out again. The Baylor QB has thrown for 7,500 yards and 58 touchdowns combined over the past two seasons, though those numbers -- in a very QB-friendly offense -- will not mask the deficiencies in his game down the road.
Petty could be the pick for a team hoping to develop talent with a veteran already in place. Keep an eye on the Saints. Reports have them wanting to find Drew Brees' eventual replacement, and their spread-passing attack could pair well with Petty's skillset.
• Brett Hundley, UCLA: The year-to-year improvement has not been evident for Hundley, once considered a potential top-20 pick on his upside alone. Now, he's more likely to be a Round 2-or-later selection if he bolts UCLA. Hundley possesses talent. How quickly could an NFL coaching staff turn it into production?
• Everett Golson, Notre Dame: Golson sat out all of the 2013 season because of academic issues, so perhaps his fall back to earth over Notre Dame's second half should not have come as a surprise. He is far too turnover-prone, which could push him back to South Bend for his senior year. At his best, however, Golson gives off a Russell Wilson-type vibe with his athleticism and arm strength.
• Cody Kessler, USC: Before Kessler said recently that he was considering the draft, there was minimal expectation that he would turn pro this year. He may be hoping to cash in on what appears to be a weak class. Kessler will not blow anyone away with his measureables but could be a solid mid-round choice.
• Other options: Sean Mannion, Oregon State; Shane Carden, East Carolina; Dak Prescott, Mississippi State; Brandon Bridge, South Alabama; Garrett Grayson, Colorado State.
No one in this final grouping screams "Day 1 NFL starter," at least not for a team with a relatively settled QB situation. A few solid contributors could emerge -- Carden is one to keep an eye on as April approaches. He would be a fit for a team willing to take its time with him, and don't be shocked if he carves out a career as a steady backup ... or better.
• Mark Sanchez, Eagles: Has Sanchez done enough in five starts (and counting) to earn a big-money contract elsewhere? Would he even want to leave Philadelphia given his relative success there and his previous experience in NYC? It is not out of the question that Sanchez and Nick Foles return in 2015, thanks to Foles still being on his cheap rookie contract.
• Brian Hoyer, Browns: Given more than his fair shot at a full-time starting gig, Hoyer may have proven he is better served as an experienced backup. His NFL background -- Tom Brady's backup, brief stop in Arizona and 16 starts with Cleveland -- will earn him a contract, maybe even with the Browns as Johnny Manziel's No. 2.
• Austin Davis, Rams: Davis will be a restricted free agent and current St. Louis starter Shaun Hill is an impeding free agent himself, so the Rams may opt to hold onto Davis. The 25-year-old QB showed some promise despite being benched in favor of Hill.
• Matt Moore, Dolphins: Moore probably could have taken a No. 1 job two years ago when he hit free agency. He re-signed with Miami instead, at two years and $8 million, then sat behind Ryan Tannehill. Moore has talent, but he hasn't played meaningful snaps in three seasons.
• Sam Bradford, Rams: Bradford's contract runs through next season, so it is possible St. Louis gives him his millionth chance at being the starter there. The likelier scenario sees the Rams releasing him (and his nearly $13 million salary for next season) at a cap hit of around $3.5 million. If he can get back from his latest ACL injury, Bradford would be worth a flier in 2015.
Any of those names move the needle? Maybe Orton, a well-respected (and well-traveled) veteran who is 5-4 as Buffalo's starter this season. The Bills may opt to hang onto him through next season -- he signed a two-year deal with them in August, but 2015 is voidable by the team.
• Jay Cutler, Bears: Less than a year ago, the Bears signed Cutler to a seven-year, $126 million contract extension. Now? It's almost a foregone conclusion they would listen if another team came calling about their starting quarterback.
Chicago reportedly could save $12.5 million off next year's cap by unloading Cutler, though the larger hurdle is that Cutler still has six years and more than $100 million owed to him. ($54 million of the extension was guaranteed.) Is there a franchise willing to take on that commitment and hand draft picks to Chicago?
Call it an extreme longshot -- so you can't count out Daniel Snyder. The most obvious connection is in Tampa Bay, where Cutler's former coach, Lovie Smith, has to find a QB this offseason. What happens if the Buccaneers miss out on Mariota and Winston?
• Eli Manning, Giants: With any front office overhaul comes the possibility that a new coach or GM will want to handpick a quarterback. The Giants could be facing that dilemma soon, if Tom Coughlin and/or Jerry Reese is shown the door. Manning, 34 next month, has one year left on his contract at $17 million.
If the Giants -- whether or not it's Coughlin calling the shots -- for some reason feel that they can compete again in 2015, they'll be hard-pressed to find a stronger option than Manning, even with the two-time Super Bowl MVP merely a shell of his former self. If the plan is for a full rebuild or a new offense, it might be time to move along.
• Nick Foles, Eagles: This idea is contingent on A) Philadelphia ponying up some cash to keep Sanchez as its starter; and B) Some team offering the Eagles more value than they'd get by keeping Foles at an $815K cap hit next season.
Both of those occurrences could happen, though Foles' shaky play this season (13 touchdowns to 10 interceptions and a career-low 59.8 completion percentage) was a substantial drop-off from what he delivered in 2013. That much regression in what is supposed to be a very favorable offense may limit the number of suitors.
• Robert Griffin III, Redskins: You knew we'd make it here, right? Griffin's career roller coaster has reached an early crossroads, three seasons removed from Washington selling the farm to draft him. Recent reports had owner Daniel Snyder and the front office weighing a choice between Griffin and current head coach Jay Gruden, whose first year in D.C. has been a nightmare.
The princely sum Washington sent St. Louis to draft Griffin could be fueling a lean toward the QB. Is Snyder really willing to give up and move on?
RGIII has one fully guaranteed year left on his rookie contract (approximately $6.7 million total; $3.27 million in base salary). Washington also has until May 3, 2015 to pick up its fifth-year option on Griffin, locking him in through the 2016 season. The expected price tag for year No. 5: between $17-$18 million. That is a potentially massive commitment on the heels of Griffin's rocky, injury-plagued 2013 and '14 seasons.
But in the right circumstances, Griffin might be able to rediscover his rookie-year magic. Could he thrive in Buffalo or Tennessee? How about on a rising St. Louis team? Maybe Chip Kelly would like to see what he could do with Griffin or Bruce Arians believes he could rework Griffin's mechanics next season with an eye on replacing Carson Palmer in 2016.
Who knows how this one ends. All that seems certain is the status quo in Washington will change again soon.
The incentives for the Jets or Bills to trade Smith or Manuel, respectively, may not be motivating enough -- both guys are young, relatively cheap and would fall into the notorious sell-low category.
Fitzpatrick really has been no better, no worse than what Houston should have expected headed into this season. The Texans reportedly want Ryan Mallett back in 2015 and head coach Bill O'Brien likely will explore all other available QB options, so Fitzpatrick could be squeezed out. He may simply be cut, leaving a small $625K dead-money hit (per OvertheCap.com). A $3.25 base salary, however, does make him somewhat affordable.