So here we are, on the cusp of one of the strangest months in recent NFL history. The top end of the 2015 quarterback draft class is (likely) being dumped into the free agency pool. The best quarterback in modern NFL history will (likely) entertain suitors for the first time in his career. The sixth-best statistical quarterback in NFL history—a likely Hall of Famer—is already on the market. The 2015 MVP has no concrete assurances from his team that he’ll be back in 2020.
With three (possibly four) projected starters entering the league in April via the draft, more than a quarter of the league could potentially be in flux. That makes the days leading into the combine, and the ones immediately following, consequential. Who will land where? Who is worth uprooting your current situation for?
In this space, we’re attempting to sort out the madness by ranking the best veteran options, assuming the current state of play remains as such.
Here are a few quirks and qualifications:
• I’m not including Dak Prescott on this list because Cowboys negotiations are always weird and mostly weird on purpose. Any delay is either a theatrical pause or some last-minute attempt at blustery hardball that is later laughed about over expensive scotch at the contract signing.
• I am including a few players who are under contract with other teams, either because there are already published reports of their teams eyeing another QB on the market (which would make them available), their teams are still waiting on health clarifications in order to decide whether or not to release them or there is a clear indication that the player and the team will likely part ways early in the new league year.
1. Tom Brady
While there is an argument to be made that part of Brady’s greatness comes from the fact that he has mastered an offense tailored to his strengths, there’s no evidence to suggest that arguably the greatest player in NFL history can’t evolve with another offense at the tail end of his career, especially one with a better set of skill position players. (Though one thing to keep in mind: Another team might have better weapons, but there is not a single coach in the league better than Bill Belichick at situationally adapting what pieces he does have to the broad strengths and weaknesses of his schedule.) While this is a short-term rental at best, it’s difficult to place any other available option above Brady.
Best option: Remaining with the New England Patriots. The fact that the Patriots have kept their power troika of Kraft, Belichick and Brady together for two decades is incredible and will never be replicated again in modern sports. However, like any relationship that lasts more than a few years, organic frustrations begin to develop. Putting those aside to cap the greatest run in sports history would truly be a testament to them.
Most fun: Signing a two-year, $70 million deal with the Las Vegas Raiders. As we mentioned before, there is going to be something Vegas-y about the new Raiders, so why not do what the city is famous for and gobble up an aging star and monopolize their remaining profitable years? Jon Gruden loves veteran quarterbacks. This is the most important one available in his lifetime.
2. Healthy Cam Newton
I’ll always wonder what may have happened with Cam Newton if he was born a few years later and came into the NFL at a time when milquetoast play-callers weren’t forcing the same burnt steak and potatoes on every signal caller in the league. Newton is 30 and while that seems young, a lifetime of football has already been pounded into his body thanks to the incredible number of hits he has taken. This could be why owner David Tepper was noncommittal at best about bringing Newton back.
Best option: Newton stays with the Panthers for the beginning of the Matt Rhule regime and hits unrestricted free agency in 2021. If the Giants could float Eli Manning for an entire season, paying Newton the $21 million cap hit and getting what they can out of him seems savvy by comparison. It would also give the Panthers a chance to give their one-time league MVP a proper send-off.
Most fun: Go to L.A. and make the Chargers great. I think Anthony Lynn is quietly one of the most adaptable offensive minds in the league and while this team will be competitive with a drafted, franchise-type quarterback or veteran option, it would be a lot of fun to see what he could do with Newton’s remaining years.
3. Derek Carr
A few recent reports have placed Tom Brady in Gruden’s crosshairs, theoretically leaving Carr as the odd man out. Carr is incredibly affordable, with cap hits of $21.5 million, $22.125 million and $19.877 million over the next three seasons, and plays like a top 10 quarterback. He is also just 28 years old, with plenty of good football left.
Best option: The best option for Gruden was always to realize that continuing to develop Carr while simultaneously curbing his wandering eye was best for the franchise quarterback, and the right move. Carr is good, young, affordable and established.
Most fun: Carr’s offensive coordinators since he’s been in the league:
• Greg Olson (no top 10 finishes in points/yards as OC)
• Bill Musgrave (no top 10 finishes in points/two top 10 finishes in yards as OC)
• Todd Downing (25th in points, 23rd in yards during only season as OC)
• Greg Olson/Jon Gruden
Wouldn’t it be interesting to see him under the tutelage of, say, Josh McDaniels in New England or Bruce Arians and Byron Leftwich in Tampa Bay, or Frank Reich and Nick Sirianni in Indianapolis? I think after a stop in one of those places, things might get really interesting concerning the perception of Carr around the league.
4. Philip Rivers
Rivers is going to be the perfect one- or two-year option for a team on the brink of contention. Luckily for him, there are a handful of clubs entering the QB sweepstakes this year who seem to fit that billing. I slotted him just below Carr for two reasons: He’s probably going to cost more in the short-term unless he takes an incredible deal to allow his new team to sign free agents, and he’s 38.
Best option: Sign with the Colts and make the AFC South total chaos. Rivers has worked with both Frank Reich and Nick Sirianni in San Diego and could walk in with a grip on the offense. He’d be surrounded with a more than capable supporting cast and immediately vault the Colts into the position they slated themselves to be in a few years ago: Contending with this current roster, with a veteran Pro Bowl quarterback under center.
Most fun: I’m going to have to resist the inclination to say “Patriots!” on every one of these because seeing anyone other than Tom Brady under center for the Patriots, especially someone as established as Rivers, would be a Madden fever dream. Pairing the notoriously prickly Rivers with a 67-year-old Bruce Arians in Tampa would be a beautiful buddy cop ballet to the very end. Arians goes from worrying about an interception 4.8% of the time to 3.4% of the time.
5. Teddy Bridgewater
It’s weird to be talking about the difficulty in ranking Bridgewater over Tannehill on this list but here we are. Both quarterbacks are young or young-ish and both saw career transformations under better play-callers and better surrounding personnel. I’ll give Bridgewater the nod simply because he is four years younger than Tannehill and may end up having a higher ceiling.
Best option: Slide onto Chicago’s roster as legitimate spring competition. Bridgewater is the first of two quarterbacks I’ll suggest this for. His time in New Orleans showed an incredible ability to spot start and also keep the peace behind the scenes. Bridgewater could be both a calming presence and legitimate competition for Mitchell Trubisky, who needs to be pushed heading into Year 4.
Most fun: I think if I were Matt Rhule and the financial decision to move on from Cam Newton had already been made, there’s no available quarterback on this list that I’d rather start from Ground Zero with than Bridgewater. He would be perfect as both a short- to mid-range starting option and a great mentor for the team’s young quarterbacks, or an ideal scheme fit who would be drafted in 2020.
6. Ryan Tannehill
Ryan Tannehill’s career transformation in Tennessee was enjoyable to watch. Coordinator Arthur Smith did a brilliant job revamping the wide zone offense and installing a quarterback who could make solid—but sometimes perfectly aggressive—decisions off bootleg action
Best option: Wait out the Tom Brady/Philip Rivers hailstorm and dig in as Tennessee’s starter for 2020. Yes, more teams will have film on the Titans. Yes, Derrick Henry will be expensive (if on the roster at all) and coming off a dreaded 386-carry season. But the Titans are also developing some young stars at wide receiver that now have a relationship with Tannehill, too.
Most fun: Replace Tom Brady in New England and face Adam Gase twice a year as part of Bill Belichick’s deeply rooted plan to embarrass the franchise continuously.
7. Andy Dalton
Dalton is a front-running candidate to be the hidden gem in all of this quarterback chaos. Buried in an increasingly punchless Bengals offense, Dalton has made no secret about his eagerness to play where he is wanted. At his best, Dalton is a 25-12 quarterback, who still makes mistakes but is more efficient than a rookie from outside the top five.
Best option: Take a one-year internship and back up a dynamic quarterback on a playoff-bound team before cutting loose on a slightly less chaotic 2021 free agency field. The high-end backup market is good work if you can get it, especially on teams with older quarterbacks who are not averse to a serious late-season injury. The Eagles, Jets, Chiefs, Saints and Falcons come to mind immediately.
Most fun: Become Sean McVay’s latest pet project in L.A. With Blake Bortles set to become a free agent, we’re left wondering who will be the next quarterback in place to possibly challenge Jared Goff if the offensive machine continues to slow down.
8. Marcus Mariota
The savvy shopper likely stops here and considers Mariota’s wildly diverse slate of (ultimately ineffective) play-callers in his past and how injuries and a formerly bad offensive line contributed to a bad start to his professional career. He can move the football and was, at one time, considered one of the more promising young arms in football.
Best option: Sign with the Bears and win the starting job in August. I think we forget that the Bears, like a lot of teams, subscribe to the theory that they must win their title before the quarterback gets too expensive and topples the roster. Mitchell Trubisky is not signing a big money extension in Chicago, but the Bears did spend on the surrounding roster like he one day might. I like Mariota, who has a bit of Alex Smith in him, and can mesh ideally with Matt Nagy, a play-caller with a flair for the exotic.
Most fun: What if Tampa Bay gets a chance to live out their do-over fantasy and take Mariota, avenging their rocky past with Winston and freeing the doomed reputation of the 2015 quarterback class?
9. Jameis Winston
Now with corrective eye surgery!
Best option: If I were a quarterback this offseason, I’d be lobbying for the chance to work with Frank Reich in Indianapolis. The former quarterback is not a fixer with the same reputation as Winston’s former coach, Bruce Arians, but Winston’s raw skill set could add a different element to the Colts’ attack and help expand the roles of some of their best playmakers.
Most fun: The most fun option was always for Winston to stay in Tampa Bay. There was nothing more fun than watching him gun 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in a season. Every game was like cracking open an (original) FourLoko, leaving the rest of the 60 minutes a complete mystery.
10. Jacoby Brissett
If the Colts didn’t want Brissett on this list, all they had to do was take themselves out of the quarterback conversation when Brissett struggled at the end of the 2019 season. They did not do that. I tend to agree with Andy Benoit, who called Brissett’s mini-extension one of the better bargains in the NFL. Under different circumstances that still may end up being true.
Best option: Remain in Indianapolis and compete. If the Colts decide to upgrade and go after either Tom Brady or Philip Rivers, Brissett is in a good spot to marinate for a season and hit the free agent market in 2021.
Most fun: Return to New England and win a championship, proving true every Tom Brady hater in the universe who feels like the quarterback spot in this offense is simply a placeholder and can be held effectively by anyone.
11. Taysom Hill
Thankfully the narrative that Taysom Hill was a legitimate NFL starting quarterback has died down. He is a player with immense value, but if a general manager forks over a high pick to match a tender, they would be doing their roster an immense disservice.
Best option: Obviously to remain in New Orleans. What other coach is going to put in the time and effort to create something like the situation he had the last two years?
Most fun: Sign with the Ravens and create true hell. Imagine Taysom Hill Taysom-Hilling in an offense with Lamar Jackson and three good tight ends. It would be like trying to defend a school of tiger sharks on every play.
Question or comment? Email us at email@example.com.