“Can you ever remember a year like this?” one long-time agent asked a veteran offensive coach at an Indianapolis steakhouse during the NFL Scouting Combine. The answer was no: People in and around the NFL are grappling to recall a time when this many high-profile quarterbacks were set to play musical chairs. Some may end up in the same seat, some a different one, but both the names and number of quarterbacks who could be on the move are significant. Less than two weeks from the start of free agency, a breakdown of each team’s QB situation, grouped by where they fall on the ever-scientific Intrigue Spectrum.
INTRIGUE LEVEL: EXTREME
NEW ENGLAND: Look no further than the fact that much of the sports media world spent more than 24 hours straining to read Tom Brady’s lips in a sideline interview with Julian Edelman at a Syracuse basketball game (NFL Network thankfully ended this debate by determining, via enhanced audio, that Brady actually said, “He’s got this,” in reply to a question about what he told Orange coach Jim Boeheim). The number of people with actual insight as to where Brady’s head is at right now is smaller than the number of working escalators in Indianapolis during the NFL Combine (read: very low). The decision will come down to this: How much do both Tom Brady and Bill Belichick want Tom Brady to be the quarterback for the Patriots in 2020? The $13.5 million dead cap hit that will register if Brady does not re-sign with New England by 4 p.m. on March 18 puts the squeeze on the timeline for a Brady decision, but that could ultimately be helpful. If Brady is coming back, the Patriots will get his deal done and move on to other business, such as acquiring the additional weapons he may require to sign. If he’s gone, they can turn their attention to another plan at QB. Teddy Bridgewater? Andy Dalton? Ryan Tannehill, if Brady goes to Tennessee? (Jimmy Garoppolo?!) At age 42, Brady has shown signs of diminished accuracy, and while some point to the legitimate dearth of skill talent around him last season, it’s also true that Brady is less positioned to overcome that than he was earlier in his career. However you see it, the game of QB musical chairs will be on pause until Brady takes a seat—whether it’s the one he’s been in for the last 20 years, or a different one.
INTRIGUE LEVEL: VERY HIGH
CAROLINA: New Panthers head coach Matt Rhule did his best last week to say a lot about Cam Newton without saying much of anything about Cam Newton. He didn’t commit to Newton—or any player, he made sure to add—as his starter. He didn’t give a timeline for Newton’s return from foot surgery, other than to say the QB doesn’t need to be full speed until September. Pressed on if he sees Newton on the Panthers’ roster in September, he said, he “absolutely” wants him in Carolina, adding, “When healthy, there's no doubt about who he is or what he can do.” Over the past few years, “when healthy” has become a major qualifier, with Newton needing two surgeries on his throwing shoulder in addition to the foot injury. It’s difficult for the Panthers, or any other interested team, to make a definitive decision on Newton while he’s still recovering from surgery. For now, they are buying time, and Rhule, who signed a seven-year contract with Carolina, has a lot of it.
LAS VEGAS: From the moment Jon Gruden was re-hired by the Raiders, there has been speculation about how committed he is to Derek Carr. The sense I get, though, is that the team prefers to continue building around Carr, who had career-highs last season in completion percentage and passing yards, than to, say, take part in a long-odds chase for Tom Brady. The Raiders are clearly still frustrated about Antonio Brown, whose bad behavior led to his being cut by the Raiders before the season began. But despite not having a true No. 1 receiver, the Raiders started to develop a core of young talent including running back Josh Jacobs, tight end Darren Waller and slot receiver Hunter Renfrow. Gruden has a wandering eye at QB, but my bet is they stick with Carr and add more around him.
L.A. CHARGERS: The Chargers moved on from Philip Rivers after a disappointing 5-11 season when the 38-year-old struggled with turnovers (20 interceptions) and was hampered by his lack of mobility behind an offensive line depleted by injuries. The team is confident in Tyrod Taylor as a bridge QB, which sets up for them to draft a young QB without the pressure for him to play immediately. With the No. 6 pick, the Chargers are well-positioned to take a passer (Oregon’s Justin Herbert and Utah State’s Jordan Love may be the top options if they stay in that spot), or perhaps they’d consider someone like Jalen Hurts in the second round. The Chargers could also get in on the Tom Brady chase, which would be a business-oriented move for their first year in the new L.A. stadium.
INDIANAPOLIS: The Colts recovered well at first from Andrew Luck’s surprise training-camp retirement announcement, going 5-2 with Jacoby Brissett as their starter. But the team, and Brissett, stumbled down the stretch, losing five of their last seven games. “We still gotta find out more,” Colts GM Chris Ballard said of Brissett. Philip Rivers has been linked to the Colts, since he previously worked with both head coach Frank Reich and OC Nick Sirianni in San Diego. Perhaps Indianapolis’ sturdy offensive line would give the Colts confidence Rivers would fare better than he did last year in L.A. But a scenario that makes even more sense is the Colts trading for Nick Foles, who won a Super Bowl MVP with Reich in Philadelphia.
MIAMI: Brian Flores was too good of a coach, and Ryan Fitzpatrick too good of a QB, for the Dolphins to secure the No. 1 pick. But they still have a good chance at the player they’ve been linked to for months: Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa. The Dolphins have the No. 5 pick, as well as Nos. 18 and 26, two in the second round and extra first- and second-rounders in 2021. Joe Burrow has been penciled in for the Bengals at pick No. 1, but if the Dolphins want Tua, they have more than enough draft capital to go as high as they need to get him—provided, of course, Washington doesn’t decide to take him at No. 2. Last year, the Dolphins focused on wiping their books and accruing as much draft capital as possible. It’s time to start cashing that in, but the rest won’t matter if they don’t get the QB right.
TAMPA BAY: The story out of Tampa Bay has remained the same for five years: No one knows what to make of Jameis Winston. The former No. 1 overall pick has now befuddled three coaching staffs regarding his tendency to turn the ball over. In an interview with SiriusXM in Indy, Arians assigned blame to Winston for 20 of his 30 interceptions—yet, somehow, they are not closing the door on him. Some of that is the coaches still holding out hope that they can be the ones to fix his flaw, and that his talent will take over. More pragmatically, the uncertainty of this year’s QB market means that teams need to leave their options open. “I feel pretty good about our plan,” GM Jason Licht said, “whatever that ends up being.”
TENNESSEE: Mike Vrabel likes to troll, so it was no surprise he was captured FaceTiming Julian Edelman and Tom Brady at that Syracuse basketball game that has taken up space in our brains for far too long. That being said, of all the potential destinations outside of New England where Brady could possibly end up, the Titans make the most sense. A head coach who is one of his closest friends; an excellent supporting cast including A.J. Brown, Jonnu Smith and Derrick Henry (assuming they could retain the RB and sign Brady); and a team that was one half from the Super Bowl. My bet for the Titans’ Week 1 starter: Ryan Tannehill or Tom Brady.
INTRIGUE LEVEL: HIGH
CINCINNATI: Rival GM Eric DeCosta, when asked to describe the QB landscape in the AFC North, nonchalantly moved down the list from Baker Mayfield to Lamar Jackson to … Joe Burrow, whom he called, “one of the best QBs we’ve seen in a long time.” Indeed, it would be a stunner if the former LSU QB is not the No. 1 pick by Cincy, which is why we do not have the Bengals ranked in the “very high” category. Burrow did everything he could to publicly dispel speculation that he might not want to play for the Bengals, answering directly that yes, he would report and play for them if they draft him No. 1 overall. “You guys kind of took that narrative and ran with it,” Burrow said, “but there has never been anything like that from my end.” Other teams with a QB need and a high draft pick also dismissed the idea that Burrow could pull an Eli, further disputing the idea that there are any behind-the-scenes machinations. Assuming the Bengals feel secure in Burrow, how will they handle Andy Dalton? The nine-year starter in Cincy is under contract for one more year, owed $17.5 million with no guaranteed money. If they can’t trade him, they can cut him without penalty.
CHICAGO: The Bears have now on multiple occasions committed to Mitchell Trubisky as their 2020 starting quarterback. It’s a little bit like a public vow renewal—it’s rarely ever a good thing if you have to make sure everyone knows you are still committed. Now, GM Ryan Pace did allow that he is looking for the ubiquitous “competition” at the back-up spot. Trubisky’s back-up the past two seasons, Chase Daniel, had been in Matt Nagy’s QBs room in Kansas City and served as more of a mentor and assistant coach than someone to push Trubisky. The Athletic reported that the Bears have been in touch with the Bengals about trading for Andy Dalton. If they look to sign a back-up via free agency, their options could depend on how the role is being pitched: If it’s Trubisky’s job to lose, signing in Chicago may be less attractive to QBs both financially and situationally.
DALLAS: Dak Prescott will be the Cowboys’ QB in 2020. The drama here is how, and when, the long-running contract saga will resolve. The sides may disagree on Prescott’s value—like in pretty much every contract negotiation—but they are in this spot because Jerry Jones prioritized a six-year contract for a running back who’s carried a heavy workload and has been suspended for violent behavior off the field, over an extension for his quarterback.
JACKSONVILLE: The Jaguars’ line has been that they will let Gardner Minshew and Nick Foles compete for the starting job in 2020. But multiple reports—including from Peter King, in his FMIA column—indicate that the Jags would like to move forward with the sixth-round pick as their starter. That means it’s likely that Foles, who signed a four-year, $88 million extension with Jacksonville, would be on the trade block. As mentioned earlier, Indy, while in the same division as Jacksonville, makes a lot of sense as a destination. The Jaguars would be paying Foles a fully guaranteed base salary of $15.125 million, plus $750,000 in roster and workout bonuses, if they kept him, or would eat an $18.75 million cap hit if they trade him.
NEW ORLEANS: Drew Brees announced that he’ll return to the Saints for his 20th NFL season, but the sides still need to work out a contract before March 18, when he is set to be an unrestricted free agent. The Saints will also have to decide how to proceed with Taysom Hill, the 29-year-old gadget back-up QB who announced his aspirations of being a franchise QB earlier this offseason, thereby setting off a media frenzy. Prediction: The Brees extension will be completed once there is clarity on the CBA and work rules for 2020; Teddy Bridgewater, an unrestricted free agent, will sign elsewhere to be a starter; and the Saints will sign Hill, a restricted free agent, to a second-round tender. He will receive no other offers.
SAN FRANCISCO: Jimmy Garoppolo helped lead the 49ers to the Super Bowl, but there has been plenty of speculation about his future in the Bay Area after the loss to the Chiefs. Garoppolo passed just eight times in the NFC championship game win against Green Bay, and Shanahan’s trust in his QB was called into question when he let the clock run at the end of the first half of Super Bowl LIV, instead of using all of his timeouts to try to take a lead into the locker room. “He’s our guy,” John Lynch declared of Garoppolo, and there have been no tangible indications they are going in another direction. One interesting piece of info to keep in mind regarding Garoppolo moving forward, though, is the smart way in which the 49ers structured the five-year contract he signed in 2018, giving them great flexibility after the first two years. If the team cut him today—certainly not suggesting that will happen—they would incur only a $4.2 million dead cap hit from his prorated signing bonus.
WASHINGTON: The Cardinals taking Kyler Murray No. 1 overall last year, one year after the team drafted Josh Rosen in the first round, reminded us that teams will do whatever they need to do to get the QB right. In Washington, Dwayne Haskins is coming off of a bumpy rookie year, and his current head coach, Ron Rivera, wasn’t part of drafting him to Washington. The question for a team in their position is if they believe Tua Tagovailoa, with the question marks about his injury history factored in, is much more likely to be a significantly more successful QB than Haskins. Odds are on them picking Ohio State defensive end Chase Young, who is widely regarded as the best player in this draft; working to keep developing Haskins, with new QBs coach Ken Zampese, Baker Mayfield’s position coach during his successful rookie year; and adding a veteran QB to the roster.
INTRIGUE LEVEL: MEDIUM
CLEVELAND: After a promising rookie season in 2018, Baker Mayfield will now be playing for his fourth head coach and offensive coordinator in the NFL. As new head coach Kevin Stefanski works to start over with Mayfield, Mary Kay Cabot, the plugged-in Browns reporter for Cleveland.com, suggested a possible addition to the QB room: Case Keenum, who played under Stefanski in 2017, helping to lead the team to the NFC Championship.
DETROIT: Lions GM Bob Quinn said to reporters last week that he told Matthew Stafford: “We’re not trading you, period.” A trade wouldn’t have made much sense, considering that team brass wrote in an open letter to Lions fans in December that Quinn and head coach Matt Patricia would be staying on, but that they expected the Lions to be a playoff contender in 2020. Certainly, Stafford gives the Lions the best chance of that happening. But Stafford, 32, has suffered broken bones in his back each of the past two seasons, so the team needs to be exploring contingencies. Using the No. 3 overall pick on a QB, though, seems counterintuitive to a win-now approach.
L.A. RAMS: One year after helping the Rams advance to the Super Bowl, Jared Goff was booed at a Clippers game. He and the Rams offense fell back in 2019, as the team missed the playoffs (though they would have made it in the proposed expanded field!). Sean McVay asserted at the combine, “we’re very confident in Jared.” They need to be, because the contract extension he signed last year would be financially cumbersome to get out of any time soon.
PITTSBURGH: Before the combine, the Steelers posted a five-second video of Ben Roethlisberger throwing a football indoors about five months after his season-ending elbow surgery. The Steelers expect him to be ready for Week 1, and GM Kevin Colbert even went so far as to say, “we might have a better Ben Roethlisberger coming out of this surgery.” Only time will tell if there is any truth to that strong assertion, but clearly, the Steelers have full confidence in the return of their 38-year-old QB.
INTRIGUE LEVEL: MILD
DENVER: John Elway sounded downright exuberant about Drew Lock, the second-round pick who was a late-season revelation for the Broncos, winning four of his five starts. “Where we sit right now, there is no question that Drew is the guy that we’re looking to,” said Elway. When asked about Tom Brady, he added, “I think that we’re happy with what we have with Drew.” That means they’ll have to make a decision on Joe Flacco, who is currently recovering from a neck injury: They could try to restructure his deal and keep him as a back-up; test the trade market; or cut him, saving about $10 million in cap space.
MINNESOTA: Kirk Cousins is entering the final year of the fully guaranteed three-year contract he signed as a free agent in 2018. The sides are expected to discuss an extension this offseason after what head coach Mike Zimmer called Cousins’ “best season as a professional.” Cousins counts for $31 million against the cap this season, and doing an extension could potentially open up some cap space for the team to use in free agency. But for Cousins—who has, through his career, smartly used his leverage to maximize his value and land the rare fully guaranteed contract—there might be value in waiting.
N.Y. GIANTS: Not sure what to make of Joe Judge not using any of his players’ names in a public setting yet? Yeah, me neither. It seems likelier to backfire or make no impact, than to net a positive one, but to each his own. Despite the fact that it has inevitably created self-induced skepticism about how the new head coach feels about Daniel Jones, the Giants are committed to the QB they drafted No. 6 overall last year.
N.Y. JETS: The first year of the Adam Gase era got off to a bumpy start when Sam Darnold was sidelined with mono for a month, and back-up Trevor Siemien suffered a season-ending ankle injury just a few plays into his relief duty. All eyes will be on Darnold’s development in his third season, and his second playing for Gase, but also high on the list for the Jets this offseason is the back-up QB position. Darnold missed six games in his first two seasons, and the Jets were winless in those games.
KANSAS CITY and HOUSTON: The reason they are in this category, rather than low intrigue, is that both teams have a star young QB who became eligible for a contract extension this year. The status of the new CBA will be one factor in the timeline for the negotiations, but it will be interesting to see how Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, the young star QBs picked two slots apart, play off each other as they work to reset the market at their position.
INTRIGUE LEVEL: LOW
ARIZONA: After drafting a QB in the first round for two straight years, it’s safe to say the Cardinals will be selecting a different position group on night one. Help for Kyler Murray, in the form of an offensive tackle or a receiver, would be at the top of the list for that selection.
ATLANTA: Matt Ryan, 34, is under contract through 2023, and the Falcons picked up Matt Schaub’s option for another year. They could look in the draft for a mid to late-round pick to develop.
BALTIMORE: Lamar Jackson was named league MVP in his first full season as a starter. Robert Griffin III is under contract for one more season, inexpensively, but turned 30 this offseason.
BUFFALO: It wasn’t always pretty, but Josh Allen led the Bills back to the playoffs in his second year. They’ll continue to try to add pieces around Allen to bolster the offense, which ranked in the bottom third of the league in points scored.
GREEN BAY: Aaron Rodgers will turn 40 at the end of his current contract, which runs through 2023. Asked last month he’d consider taking a QB with the No. 30 pick, GM Brian Gutekunst told beat reporters, “sure,” though it seems more likely they’d use that selection to fill one of the roster holes—say, receiver—that could help them advance one round farther in the playoffs.
PHILADELPHIA: Behind Carson Wentz, Doug Pederson said he’s comfortable with Nate Sudfeld as the back-up QB, but Sudfeld will have a chance to explore other options as a free agent. As the Eagles know from the Super Bowl run, it’s an important position.
SEATTLE: The Seahawks re-did Russell Wilson’s contract last year, signing him through the 2023 season. This offseason, he made a plea for his front office to sign “superstars” to help him maximize the prime of his career.
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