If it felt a little disorienting watching Matthew Stafford change teams this offseason while, in the near background, Aaron Rodgers and Deshaun Watson tried their own best efforts to force their way out of town, you may want to buckle up. Quarterback movement is a new frontier in the NFL; while it still may take another year or two for the proverbial dam to break, we are in for something analogous to the NBA, where superstars are no longer beholden to the markets that selected them.
Watson’s situation remains unresolved as he faces sexual misconduct allegations, but it is not hard to imagine his wearing a different uniform the next time we see him in an actual game. Rodgers has returned to the Packers, but his press conferences and Instagram stories have told us plenty about where he sees himself in 2022.
While gigantic names, they may just be paving the way for more quietly dissatisfied teams or quarterbacks currently looking around the league and wondering whether the grass is greener elsewhere. As the 2021 season draws closer, here’s a look at some of the players who may publicly be all smiles right now, but could finish the winter thumbing through Zillow.
You can look at this list and say, Almost half the league is here; what’s the point? My response: Exactly. Quarterback movement, even in the slightest, can cause serious side effects for teams close enough to catch the debris. But there are a lot of situations in the league that are unstable at best. There are even more that are probably crumbling, though not outwardly enough to tip us off just yet.
Keep that in mind as you scroll through this list of the players and teams that may shape the 2022 QB carousel.
Russell Wilson, Seahawks
Wilson recently said that his relationship with Pete Carroll has never been better. This obviously stood in stark contrast with the offseason narrative that Wilson was available and that he had a list of teams he may be interested in. The Bears made Seattle a robust offer. No matter how real Wilson’s desires to leave actually were, it got to the point where a desperate general manager planned to empty the war chest. The cynic in us can couch all of this as a typical segment in the life cycle of the disgruntled superstar. Behind-the-scenes grief becomes anonymous public grief that spurs action, perhaps in this case an agreement to hand Wilson more responsibilities offensively, and eventually complementary public behavior.
But as we’ve seen with Aaron Rodgers, some of these long-running marital disputes never actually die; they just lay dormant for a little while. If Seattle has a down year and Wilson, at age 33, decides that his remaining years are best spent elsewhere, we could see the sandstorm kicked up again this offseason, especially with Wilson’s contract and dead money making him progressively more tradeable.
Kirk Cousins, Vikings
Drafting Kellen Mond looks like pragmatism from the outside. Minnesota desperately needed a backup quarterback, and Mond fits the bill as someone who can fill that role in the short term while possibly developing over the long term. But it could also be the Vikings’ way of nudging Cousins along, letting him know that the fully guaranteed contract they rolled out during free agency a few years back has not yielded the expected return (or, it could be their reaction to an inability to lock Cousins down to something longer and more flexible). The Vikings attempted to trade up into the top 10 for Justin Fields, though not aggressively enough to surrender a future first-round pick. So, this could have just been some aggressive window shopping. Or, it could be a preview of an issue that comes to a head sooner than expected. (All of this was true before Mike Zimmer lamented that his players, Cousins very much included, hadn’t gotten the COVID-19 vaccine.)
Minnesota has one of the league’s best receiver tandems and feels perpetually stuck between good and great. Cousins is an excellent player, though he may require more than what’s currently around him to win. On the other hand, the Vikings could be looking for the type of player who shifts those dynamics. Cousins, too.
Jared Goff, Lions
We know that Sean McVay tried to puppeteer Goff for as long as he could in L.A. but ultimately desired better processing ability, among other traits, for his offense moving forward. What we don’t know, really, is what Goff looks like sans McVay, outside of the disastrous, half-season window under Jeff Fisher in which Goff completed fewer than 55% of his passes over seven games as a rookie. He may be fine in Detroit. Chances are offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn is going to run the ball quite a bit, as his career tendencies have suggested. The offensive line should be solid. Goff could emerge as a capable middle-tier starter on a team that is more interested in building itself like the Titans. Goff could be Ryan Tannehill in the right offense.
But whether the Lions decide they don’t want Goffa-hill, or they are somewhere near the top of the draft next spring with a handful of intriguing prospects already lined up, would they opt to keep this experiment going or would they take the opportunity to avoid sunken cost? We believed, somewhat, that the Lions could be players at the quarterback position in this year’s draft, but they ultimately decided to shore up their offensive line first. If that unit performs up to expectations, they could also make themselves something of a destination for a quarterback hitting the free-agent market. Teddy Bridgewater, Marcus Mariota, Taysom Hill, Jameis Winston and Cam Newton will all be on the market (theoretically).
Tua Tagovailoa, Dolphins
If Brian Flores continues coaching above expectations and Chris Grier keeps accumulating a roster primed to take over the AFC East (save for the quarterback), they will not be patient with an underperforming player no matter how highly he was selected. I agree with most who say we are far too quick to judge Tagovailoa. I also agree with how Flores handled his rookie season, which was dotted by a few instances in which he made it clear that he did not yet trust Tagovailoa in critical moments.
The Dolphins went out this offseason and signed Jacoby Brissett, who, like Ryan Fitzpatrick, is a high-end backup/fringe starter who can win games with the right system. Brissett will likely be familiar with the core tenets of the offense run by George Godsey, a steward of the Patriot Way. This signals a similarly short window of patience for Tagovailoa at the outset.
It’s not hard to imagine the Colts’ finding success with Carson Wentz. While Philip Rivers played some wonderfully efficient football a year ago, Wentz’s mobility adds a different dynamic to the offense and allows Frank Reich to explore the space a bit more than he has been able to. He can also put the guardrails back onto Wentz after a handful of seasons in Philadelphia where Wentz was basically asked to be Patrick Mahomes without the arm, the health or the weapons.
So, we’re putting them here tentatively. Remember, there is a provision in Wentz’s contract that, should he play fewer than 75% of the snaps, or fewer than 70% if the Colts make the playoffs, the main pick in the Eagles-Colts deal downgrades to a second-rounder. And there are already concerns about his ability to hit that number, given his preseason foot surgery. General manager Chris Ballard is no fool and has built a deep and talented roster atop a very winnable division. He’ll have some options and won’t let the Colts dig too deeply into a relationship that won’t yield victories.
The Colts have a quarterback-forward coaching staff, good receivers, a great running game and an excellent offensive line. It’s why Rivers chose to end his career there. If more quarterbacks begin to peel away from their rosters, Reich and Ballard would be a destination.
There are some important people in Philadelphia who want Jalen Hurts to succeed, so keep that in mind as the cards begin to unfold over the course of this season. General manager Howie Roseman has played the situation brilliantly, pairing Hurts with two first-round pick wide receivers (DeVonta Smith and Jalen Reagor) and an elite tight end (Dallas Goedert, and possibly Zach Ertz, given that a trade has not yet materialized), giving him a lost season to prove his worth. If Hurts cannot perform? The Eagles are currently sitting with four picks inside the top 40, or enough capital to move just about anywhere in next year’s draft (outside of, potentially, No. 1 if they win a few games). Or, if the situation with Watson is adjudicated, that is certainly the kind of capital the 2020 Jets had that we thought could land the former Texans star.
Derek Carr, Raiders
These could be unexpected dominoes, especially if the Raiders miss the playoffs this year and Jon Gruden is searching for someone to scapegoat. Gruden has previously looked at Kyler Murray. He was, at least somewhat, interested in Tom Brady. In Tampa Bay, he had a reputation for thirsting over veteran passers not on his roster. He has a Rolodex of quarterback phone numbers from his years hosting Gruden’s QB Camp. All of this to say that we cannot be sure what he’ll do if he fails to win again in 2021. We know he won’t be fired, and ultimately that the franchise’s ebbs and flows are at his whim. Now that every other position has been turned over and tilled aggressively, what will he do next?
Carr is only 30 years old and is entering the penultimate year of a very affordable contract. He’d be an interesting piece for a contending franchise in 2022, even though Las Vegas’s best bet would be to try to build around that contract.
If some teams were tiptoeing around the quarterback market this offseason, the Panthers were stumbling around in the dark, knocking over various lamps and end tables as they tried to feel their way around the space. They would have loved Stafford. They would have loved Watson. Instead, they have Sam Darnold, for whom they overpaid. If they don’t win with Darnold, Matt Rhule enters year three of a six-year deal with no playoff berths and a less-polished reputation. That, as we’ve seen in Chicago and elsewhere, can lead to some desperation on the quarterback front.
Aaron Rodgers and Jordan Love, Packers
Aaron Rodgers will be in Green Bay for at least one more season and possibly more. His soft reconciliation with management, pieced together with a last-minute trade for Randall Cobb, was meant to give the impression that somehow Rodgers won this stare-down. Meanwhile, the Packers did not truly have to commit or sacrifice much beyond some public discomfort. Rodgers often gives off myriad impressions: that he would be content walking away, that he would be fine playing somewhere else, that the Packers do not treat him or their other stars properly and that Green Bay does a good job of routinely putting together winning rosters. It’s impossible to know what frame of mind he’ll be in entering the 2022 offseason. Maybe the Packers will win the Super Bowl, both sides will get sentimental, and the Packers will decide to readjust his contract accordingly and trade Jordan Love. Maybe the Packers will burn out this year, failing to make the playoffs or bouncing early in the postseason, emboldening Rodgers to continue his offseason crusade.
Underneath it all, Love’s progress behind the scenes looms large. His preseason debut was efficient and promising, though as of press time we are not sure if a shoulder injury sustained last week will keep him out of future preseason snaps. Love looked like one of the better "rookie" quarterbacks in his debut, clearly with a leg up on his knowledge of the system. What happens if he takes that to another level this preseason? What happens if we don't see him again? What happens if we do see him and he doesn't play well? All of this matters.
The Texans are not only going to eventually deal Watson, but they should find themselves contending for the No. 1 pick in 2022, a selection that Bill O’Brien cannot come back and somehow trade away. So that leaves them with their first draft pick of ’21, Davis Mills, Watson and perhaps the right to take Spencer Rattler with the No. 1 pick. If Watson is eventually tradable, this would be unheard-of capital to play with, which may explain some of the long-term thinking exhibited by general manager Nick Caserio. Why would you leave New England for a place like this? That’s why. Let’s say Watson commands three first-round picks, plus a handful of midround selections. Houston could be sitting atop the draft board with No. 1 + a high first-rounder in ’22, multiple first-round picks in ’23 and multiple first-round picks in ’24.
Mason Rudolph, Steelers
This could end up as anticlimactic as we imagine it might be: Mason Rudolph could get a year in 2022 to succeed Ben Roethlisberger due to his familiarity with the offense and the fact that Mike Tomlin’s current defense still has some life left in it. After a year, if the team flounders, it could have the draft capital to get Roethlisberger’s true successor. If the team succeeds, it could ride Rudolph until reaching a sensible decision point. Like other teams on this list, though, Pittsburgh would represent a high pillar for some quarterbacks entering the free-agent market. Jobs at blueblood franchises don’t open that often, and there would be a major appeal in playing for both Tomlin and offensive coordinator Matt Canada. Entering a situation with a revered coach and stable franchise is ideal for players who want to wind down their careers responsibly or for a middle-tier free agent with upside hoping to plan his next move.
Washington Football Team
Ultimate nomad Ryan Fitzpatrick could very well shove Washington into the playoffs again this year, though we are conditioned to understand this is merely a short-term window. His highs, be it in Buffalo or with the Jets, are fleeting. Eventually, a more permanent solution is required. Washington will have a likable, veteran coach, a great offensive line and maybe the best defensive line in the sport. It’ll have, minus the receiving weapons, a kind of bare-bones setup reminiscent of the Buccaneers’ roster before the Tom Brady train arrived.
Jacoby Brissett, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Andy Dalton, Jimmy Garoppolo, Ryan Tannehill, Sam Darnold, Jared Goff, Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill
These are just a few names—some speculative, some not—that could end up comprising the NFL’s roving middle class. These are players who could easily start and latch on somewhere or players who could end up being a bridge to a rookie quarterback in future years. Most or all of them should be made expendable after this season, save for whomever takes the reins in New Orleans. Also, this depends on whether Ryan Tannehill maintains a firm grip on the starting job in Nashville. Could there develop a conversation surrounding the should-be Pro Bowler if the Titans cannot maximize their roster? Would he fall into a Kirk Cousins–like middle ground? Would the Titans become a destination for a QB searching for a punishing running game and a top-five wide receiver, which could cause them to explore the market?
To expand on that point, the Titans’ defense is only accumulating more talent. Their offense is at the middle to end of its window. Should they be able to continue their expert imitation of the 49ers’ outside zone offense, which will continue to put Derrick Henry on the fast track to Canton, it would make a great deal of sense to view them as a hub for QB chatter. A.J. Brown is a No. 1 wide receiver. They have elite-level offensive linemen at nearly every spot. While the draft capital is not there to swing a trade for a player of Watson’s caliber, the Titans would be high on most veterans’ wish lists. Much like the Rams had a magnetic pull on the market this year, one could view the Titans as looming players if they decide to be.
There are some smart people in the NFL who are buying Daniel Jones’s stock on the cheap. The former No. 6 pick is tough, accurate and can move enough to add a rushing threat to their zone rushing concepts. He now has two good tight ends, three good-to-excellent wide receivers and an offensive line that should be good enough to keep him upright. All of this means that, if he doesn’t succeed and coach Joe Judge is entering the final year of a fair evaluation period, he could go the way of Sam Darnold. Judge comes from a Patriots school that teaches avoiding sentimentality when it comes to the roster. He doesn’t have to be loyal to a pick he didn’t make and could have the organizational sway at that point to make it so.
Matt Ryan, Falcons
If you’re Matt Ryan, you probably walked into 2021 with some mixed feelings. The best receiver you’ve ever played with was dealt for a second-round pick. He was replaced by Kyle Pitts, a tight end with receiver versatility, at the No. 4 slot. You’ll be coached by Arthur Smith, the former Titans offensive coordinator who brings with him a deep knowledge of the system that last brought you to the Super Bowl.
In the best-case scenario, the Falcons can pick up where 2017 left off and go on a bit of a run, leading Ryan to believe there is immediate upside and this is the perfect place to finish his career. If Smith struggles as a head coach, Ryan could get a firsthand look at what he doesn’t want, and hand the Falcons’ management a tutorial on how to make $40 million in dead money disappear. While the market for Ryan may not be what it was a year ago, there would still be a handful of teams in a better position to win games—Washington, Eagles, Giants, Steelers—that could offer him a unique end-of-career situation. Although Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers are probably out of the realm of possibility now thanks to the Trey Lance selection, Ryan has a lot of fans in the league, and a quick-processing quarterback with good arm strength still stands out on the market.
Any player, any team
I promise not to use this subhead as a soapbox from which to take credit if another stunning Andrew Luck–type retirement takes place. This is merely an acknowledgement that it will happen in the next two or three years. Over that period of time, some quarterback will prematurely decide to hang it up or leave the game. Some quarterback will get hurt beyond repair and replaced. Some ascending talent will be shoved into an unfriendly scheme, bottom out and get cut.
The only thing we know in the NFL is that we truly know nothing. These are 32 microsocieties with their own unique problems, pressures, salary issues and palace intrigue. Talent gets squandered. Apathy and disinterest can spread like wildfire. The right player interaction could push someone who was on the fence about another season to call an impromptu press conference and walk away.
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