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Many issues remain unresolved for teams making quarterback changes

The Bills, Texans, Jets, Browns, Eagles and Rams have all made quarterback changes this off-season, but have they made improvements?

So much has happened in the NFL’s quarterback market in recent days, so why does it feel like so little has really changed?

Like the big game of musical chairs that it is, the quarterback carousel has seen plenty of movement as the league’s personnel shopping season gets underway. But while the names have changed, the problems and questions remain. I challenge anyone to give me one team that ended the 2014 season with questions surrounding a clear-cut starting quarterback that has definitively solved the issue in the first two-plus months of 2015.

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I’m waiting.

Granted, the reshuffling of fallback plans at the game’s most crucial position have been plentiful. But there’s a certain rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic feel to it all so far this off-season. The league seems to have a permanent class of backups and part-time starting quarterbacks who receive new working addresses every year or so. We’ll call it the Ryan Fitzpatrick Brigade, and it’s been on the move.

To wit:

•​Buffalo saw its 2014 tandem of starter Kyle Orton and backup EJ Manuel disrupted by Orton’s retirement announcement, so it went out and traded for Minnesota’s Matt Cassel last week. Now Cassel, on his fourth NFL team, will be the one who gets to compete with Manuel, trying to push the 2013 first-round pick to the starting-job performance the Bills originally envisioned for him. From Orton-Manuel to Cassel-Manuel? That’s no real upgrade. If anything, Buffalo might have taken a slight step back at the position. And I think highly of Cassel, who was just replaced as the Vikings’ backup by another well-traveled veteran arm in ex-Ram Shaun Hill.

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•​​Houston on Wednesday finally did the expected and signed former Browns starter Brian Hoyer as a free agent addition, immediately sending ex-Texans starter Ryan Fitzpatrick to the Jets via trade. Houston also had re-signed Ryan Mallett this week, and traded reserve and part-time starter Case Keenum to St. Louis. End result? Hoyer and Mallett, the two former Patriots backups, will fight it out for the starting job for coach Bill O’Brien—who coached both in New England—while 2014 draft pick Tom Savage continues to develop. Maybe swapping in Hoyer for Fitzpatrick will be the answer in Houston. But nothing feels definitively settled in early March. 

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•​​The Jets obviously consider the QB tandem of Fitzpatrick with third-year starter Geno Smith as an upgrade over last year's Smith-Michael Vick duo, nominal though it may be. But with New York under new front office management and expected to be in pursuit of a starting quarterback option in the draft, (Oregon’s Marcus Mariota at No. 6?), this is one QB situation that figures to remain somewhat fluid as the offseason unfolds. New head coach Todd Bowles and new general manager Mike Maccagnan have no allegiances to Smith, and will probably make him clearly beat out Fitzpatrick in order to win the starting job. New offensive coordinator Chan Gailey knows what Fitzpatrick can do dating from their days together in Buffalo, both good and bad, as it was Fitzpatrick’s uneven play that helped get Gailey fired as the Bills head coach after the 2012 season.

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•Cleveland went from Hoyer and the rehabbing Johnny Manziel in the rollercoaster-like 2014 season to Josh McCown and Manziel (maybe) in 2015. McCown was released by Tampa Bay last month after just one disappointing season in town, and the former Bears backup/occasional starter chose to sign with the Browns in part because of the obvious wide-open starting opportunity. But then, there’s always a wide-open starting opportunity at quarterback in Cleveland. The Browns too could be a player in the draft’s quarterback market, depending on their level of faith in Manziel’s progress, both on and off the field.

•Philadelphia, where things are never boring, lost faith in Nick Foles as the franchise’s future and swung that blockbuster deal for the Rams’ Sam Bradford on Tuesday afternoon. Eagles head coach Chip Kelly came out Wednesday and said we can all now end that Mariota-to-Philly speculation, and seemed to consider his QB situation finally settled. Except that the enigmatic Bradford is perpetually injury prone, playing in the final year of his rookie contract in 2015, and still has to prove he can look and play better in Kelly’s fast-break offense than recently re-signed Eagles backup Mark Sanchez in order to stave off a QB controversy. That’s all.

[]•Then there’s St. Louis, which finally moved on after five eventful seasons with Bradford, the draft’s No. 1 overall pick in 2010. The Rams can talk confidently of Foles as their starter, but who really knows if they’ll get the ultra-productive 2013 version of him, or the disappointing and injury-plagued 2014 edition? And will he be capable of producing anywhere near his Philly standards with perhaps lesser skill-player weapons around him, and while not running Kelly’s offense, which tends to cast almost any quarterback in the best possible light and crank out impressive yardage and points totals? If Kelly gives up on you as a quarterback, that’s probably not seen as a ringing endorsement of what your future holds, although Foles’s career numbers are better than Bradford’s in key areas (62 to 59 in completion percentage, 46 touchdowns and 17 interceptions in 28 games, compared to Bradford’s 59/38 split in 49 games).

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In each case, the above listed teams ended last season not knowing exactly which direction they’d head at quarterback in 2015. All of them have gone on to make changes, but have they made improvements? That’s a much tougher topic to wrestle with. But I don’t see any clear-cut upgrades that end all debate for the QB-needy crowd. And other than via the draft, which is seen as thin at quarterback this year, there are not many options left on the table. Matt Flynn, Colt McCoy, Christian Ponder and Michael Vick are still out there and available, as is Washington’s Kirk Cousins via trade. But their phones aren’t ringing (even though Blaine Gabbert somehow got re-signed at a $1 million a year in San Francisco late Tuesday night. Go figure).

Chicago starter Jay Cutler could be had as well, if only someone other than the Bears would agree to have him. His $15.5 million guaranteed salary for 2015 (and another $10 million guaranteed in 2016) means Chicago is stuck with him for now, and that leaves new head coach John Fox’s team in the ultimate state of QB limbo. It looks like it’ll be Cutler and Jimmy Clausen (who re-signed with a one-year deal last week) once again on the Bears depth chart next season, and that spells Groundhog Day in Chicago.

Quarterback questions always abound in the NFL at this time of year. So far in 2015, there has been a serious game of trading places going on, but very little in the way of real answers.