The 2021 quarterback carousel is already off to an intriguing start, with Matthew Stafford on the move to Los Angeles and Jared Goff assuming a trial role as the starter in Detroit. This offseason is interesting in that it has blown up some of our commonly held assumptions about what kind of contracts are movable and what kind are immovable. Increased chatter on the Carson Wentz front is further proof that teams are willing and able to endure significant cap hits for the sake of lifting their organization beyond a less-than-ideal situation.
But it’s not just that a few high-priced players could be on the move, or that a few A-listers have made waves for comments about their own front offices. Perhaps the most striking thing about this offseason’s carousel is the sheer number of teams potentially looking to pluck a new QB off the market.
Consider this our attempt to lay out one of the many plausible scenarios that could unfold. While we could find ourselves on tap for a major change in consciousness—most likely if the market doesn’t develop as expected and teams quickly alter their negotiating, clinging tightly to their entrenched, but less-than-ideal starters—what is the fun in exploring that?
Here is one scenario that could easily ensnare a large chunk of the NFL and completely alter the league's balance of power with just a few quick moves:
I. Drew Brees retires
Sean Payton said he expects his long-time quarterback to have formal conversations with the team’s brass this week. New Orleans will probably pick a quiet time on the calendar to allow Brees’s phenomenal career to have its celebratory moment in the news cycle. Brees has already reduced his 2021 salary to the veteran’s minimum, which has all but signaled his intention to bow out and join a broadcast booth in 2021.
What happens next: The Saints would emerge on the market as one of the most attractive candidates to lure a talented veteran QB, albeit as a team with very little in the way of draft capital to make that happen. Payton is a quarterback kingmaker with a roster that is still ready to contend. This could mean trying to re-sign Jameis Winston on the cheap, with Winston’s interest being a Teddy Bridgewater–type vault back into relevance. The Saints could get Bridgewater back from the Panthers, who were very much in on the Stafford talks.
II. Ben Roethlisberger re-signs with the Steelers
This one seems obvious. As ESPN reported, the quarterback and team are expected to summit soon, which should produce a few key pieces of information: how, exactly, the Steelers are going to manipulate his contract moving forward and what they will have communicated to Roethlisberger in terms of their future plans. This offseason was clunky in that it involved some public posturing. Pittsburgh’s coming out and saying it could not have Roethlisberger back at his salary; Roethlisberger’s coming out and saying he would play for any amount of money, then the actual meeting.
What happens next: The Steelers will find a way to make their salary cap situation clear the threshold for 2021, extending Roethlisberger. They will likely have some more surgery to do on the cap with similarly high-priced veterans whom they’ll need to keep for one last climb toward a third Roethlisberger Super Bowl. It would make sense to see them dip their toes in the water of more developmental prospects like they already did with Dwayne Haskins.
III. Aaron Rodgers and the Packers appear in public together and pretend the whole fight didn’t happen
Pro Football Talk noted a few weeks back that Rodgers would like a contract that provides some clarity on Green Bay’s long-term plans. The Packers laughed the Rams off the phone when L.A. called about trading for Rodgers. And so we arrive at the logical conclusion, which is that Green Bay’s front office will bump Rodgers’s salary to the appropriate, non-Goff-ian stratosphere and set terms that outline a more peaceful transition of quarterback power.
What happens next: Maybe Green Bay will get a call about moving Jordan Love? This is doubtful, as he is an ideal long-term developmental project with high-upside backup ability.
IV. The Cowboys franchise tag Dak Prescott
Any pipe dreams of Prescott’s hitting the market will likely die on the vine the moment the Cowboys are allowed to stick their star quarterback with another franchise tag. It would be surprising to see Dallas fool around with Prescott again after watching their season tank in 2020 without him. Prescott is one of the five best quarterbacks in the NFL, whether or not Mike McCarthy & Co. are ready to admit that.
While there are no indications that Prescott would try to force his way out of Dallas à la Deshaun Watson—some reporting I’ve done about the baked-in financial benefits of being the Cowboys’ quarterback could remain significant—the precedent has been set. There would certainly be teams willing to deal a first-round pick for Prescott and complete the long-term deal on the other end.
What happens next: Any teams (if any) hoping to land Prescott would move to Plan B. Andy Dalton would also return to Dallas with Prescott still rehabilitating from a gruesome ankle injury.
V. Carson Wentz moves to Chicago; Nick Foles returns to Philadelphia
It would seem that Wentz’s eventual destination is determined by which team (Chicago or Indianapolis) blinks first in the days leading up to Wentz’s roster bonus coming due, on March 20. The Bears have more enticing draft capital to offer right away and they are theoretically more desperate. There is little doubt that Matt Nagy and Ryan Pace won’t return in 2022 if the Bears don’t reach the postseason again. The deal with the Bears would be tidy enough, providing the Eagles with some increased draft flexibility in 2021 and giving the Bears a slightly better chance of weathering the brutal NFC North after they move on from Mitch Trubisky. Foles’s return to Philadelphia would pacify the fan base and give the Eagles the ideal mentor to maximize their evaluation period on Jalen Hurts, plus the ability to engrain Foles with the coaching staff, helping him to heal a clearly fractured and frustrated locker room.
What happens next: The Colts would become one of the most dangerous teams on the market, having been elbowed out of some early dealings with a clear desire to replace Philip Rivers with another veteran passer. Mitch Trubisky would hit the market looking for a good rehab spot with a quarterbacking guru, perhaps in Kansas City, Los Angeles (the Rams), San Francisco, Green Bay or Tampa Bay.
VI. The 49ers trade Jimmy Garoppolo back to the Patriots, who also re-sign Jacoby Brissett
San Francisco has concluded that it simply can’t make good music with Garoppolo anymore. The two franchises re-swap second-round picks, and Bill Belichick’s original Brady heir is back on the Patriots with Josh McDaniels. Favor returned. New England can also shop in the middle tier of an advantageous free agent market to upgrade the available weapons a bit and add Brissett as a long-term backup option. With uncertainty surrounding another season during COVID-19, Brissett would be an integral signing that could keep New England afloat in the AFC East.
What happens next: Rumors of the 49ers longing for one of the veteran QBs potentially available (like Kirk Cousins) persist, but could the Kyle Shanahan–John Lynch regime be eyeing a more permanent and sustainable solution at quarterback?
VII. The Texans trade Deshaun Watson to the Jets for three first-round picks, Sam Darnold and Quinnen Williams
The Texans attempt to find the sweet spot here, waiting long enough for their top suitors for Watson to get very desperate but also to show their players that they will not kowtow immediately to requests like this. So much of this deal will be about optics and the appearance of coming out as the smarter organization. The Jets will be gutted initially by the trade but have a bona fide superstar who can lead the team in its free-agent recruiting efforts.
The deal will send shockwaves throughout the league, ending one of the more tumultuous periods of player-team relations in recent history. Houston would get the chance to recoup some of its assets lost during the freewheeling days of Bill O’Brien’s general manager tenure.
What happens next: Sam Darnold would be paired with former mentor Josh McCown in Houston, who, perhaps better than some of Darnold’s early coordinators even, understood how best to use the former top prospect. Darnold would get the chance to operate outside of the New York spotlight and try to develop in a situation that has its pluses (McCown and retained offensive coordinator Tim Kelly) and minuses (a generally unhealthy organizational discord).
The Texans would also be in the market to turn the No. 2 pick into even more.
VIII. Houston trades the No. 2 pick to the 49ers for two first-round picks and a pass rusher
Maybe Shanahan is waiting out Matt Ryan and/or Kirk Cousins. Maybe he has seen the roster advantages of finding your own Patrick Mahomes and unleashing him on the NFL. Shanahan knows where NFL offense is headed and could want a quarterback who can further evolve his scheme and not come to San Francisco in his mid-to-late 30s with some athletic limitations. With a long-term future secure in San Francisco, it would seem Shanahan is one of the few coaches who can probably afford to bail on the veteran carousel, finding value in a potentially undervalued draft class.
Houston, which will also have dealt J.J. Watt by this point, can find San Francisco an amenable trade partner due to its glut of pass rushers who could potentially replace Watt (at least on the field).
What happens next: All eyes then turn to an utterly entrancing predraft process which, without the typical combine nightlife information generator, blankets the process in even more disinformation and subterfuge than years prior. Shanahan can emerge from the process with an athletic passer who can hit every part of the field on the move.
IX. Indianapolis trades for Derek Carr
Derek Carr’s brother, David, said on NFL Network that the Raiders have turned down offers for Derek. While that was probably meant to shut the door on the conversation, it was also noteworthy in that, hey, teams think he might be available and are making phone calls. Carr is extremely affordable in 2021 and carries a minimum dead-money charge if he’s cut or traded. If Jon Gruden was going to move on from Carr and try to pivot his offense around a rookie, now would be the time. Of course, Gruden has never been known for his ability to develop young passing talent, with Chris Simms being the only relatively high draft choice he made with Tampa Bay or Oakland in prior stops. However, Gruden may be pivoting into a second phase of his rebuild, incorrectly believing that he cannot become a playoff team with Carr under center.
What happens next: The chairs on the floor would begin to dwindle as the spring of upheaval continues. Indianapolis would give Carr the chance to accentuate his skills with the best quarterback coach he’ll have had during his time in the NFL.
X. Las Vegas trades with Cincinnati for the No. 5 pick in the draft and exercises Marcus Mariota’s option
With the Bengals likely missing out on prized tackle Penei Sewell (in this scenario, he has been snatched up by the Falcons at No. 4), Cincinnati can opt to find another way to help Joe Burrow by multiplying some of its mid-round selections this year and adding a first-round pick in 2022. Gruden, feeling energized after donning his old Gruden QB Camp jacket and rolling through film with top prospects, has his eye set on Las Vegas’s quarterback of the future. It is a two-birds-with-one-stone maneuver that can provide Vegas with a budget opportunity to market a young star in its new stadium, which can finally include fans.
Mariota still provides a fair-cost bridge option, and he looked good during replacement duty last year.
What happens next: Gruden can make his case (not that there is any pressure) for sticking around despite missing the playoffs in his first three years with a veteran quarterback and one of the best offensive lines in the sport. With his front five aging, retiring or succumbing to cap casualties, it’s the strategic time to make a move.
XI. Washington signs Cam Newton and releases Alex Smith
Despite winning the division last year and emerging from the fray as a competent organization, Washington has struggled in this timeline to nudge its way into high-profile trade discussions, which can lead Cam Newton back to Ron Rivera and the Turner family offensive tree. If Newton is healthier than he was a year ago in New England (and with better weapons), this could be a fortuitous short-term pairing between a coach and quarterback who have had success together in the past.
What happens next: Rivera can give Smith his wish and allow the inspirational quarterback to hit the market, where he can position his young family for life after retirement.
XII. Jacksonville drafts Trevor Lawrence with the first pick
What happens next: Well ...
XIII. Jacksonville signs Alex Smith
Smith can reunite with his college head coach, Urban Meyer, and help the NFL greenhorn transition to the pro game. Smith would become an invaluable asset for Trevor Lawrence, much in the way he was instrumental in the making of Mahomes in Kansas City.
What happens next: The Jaguars, long a quarterback wasteland, would quickly establish themselves as one of the most envied depth charts in the sport.
XIV. New Orleans signs Winston and Trubisky
The Saints will be able to make chicken salad out of this troika of quarterbacks (Taysom Hill included), especially with both Winston and Trubisky singing on at a low cost for the chance to rehab their careers with starter snaps in this offense. It’s the best of a difficult situation for the Saints, who don’t have a ton of draft capital to throw at the veteran trade market and don’t have a ton of salary cap space either. Could one of these quarterbacks be the long-term answer in New Orleans, or would this simply be a bridge season for Payton as well before he eventually heads back to Texas and takes over the Cowboys? (A carousel for another time.)
What happens next: Payton’s open arms will be attractive for a slew of reasons. He turned Teddy Bridgewater and Hill into legitimate options. What could he do with raw material like Winston? Could he maximize Trubisky?
XV. Carolina moves up to No. 3 and trades Bridgewater to the Dolphins
The Panthers made their intentions on Bridgewater public the moment they entered the Matt Stafford sweepstakes. While I would not underestimate Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady as a recruiting chip for another veteran quarterback, the Panthers would be left with no choice but to find their quarterback of the future in the draft behind San Francisco. This is most certainly a comfort zone for both Matt Rhule and Brady, whose knowledge of college quarterbacks is far more relevant and current than any other coach in the NFL, Urban Meyer included.
What happens next: The Dolphins had interest in Bridgewater before the quarterback opted to return to New Orleans. Now that Brian Flores has established a winning culture in Miami, Bridgewater can sign on to help mentor, or perhaps supplant, Tua Tagovailoa.
XVI. Carolina signs Ryan Fitzpatrick
There is no quarterback alternate universe without the gravitational pull of Ryan Fitzpatrick, who is the beginning and end of all things in the football universe. Carolina’s rookie quarterback will have the privilege of working with the league’s consummate bridge starter/bearded on-field Wildman.
What happens next: The Broncos would theoretically be the lone team left off the carousel, which means they could either draft competition for Drew Lock or double down on his prospects as a starter. Given that their name surfaced in discussions for Stafford as well, they could be a major factor in one or more of these discussions.