Another wild quarterback offseason is creeping upon us. The regular season is nearing its end, most of the teams in the NFL will be done playing football for a long time and quickly the focus will shift to what is to come in 2021.
And, much like a year ago, it will feature a whirlwind of quarterback activity. There will be many of the same faces that highlighted last year's quarterback class back on the market again (Philip Rivers, Cam Newton, Jameis Winston, to name a few). There will be no shortage of free agent options at all price points, to say nothing of a robust trade market and, as always, a handful of passers targeted in the first round (most likely, four).
The carousel will be swirling, and many of the quarterback situations that were unresolved in 2020 -- like the Cowboys' ongoing dalliance with Dak Prescott -- will be right back in the news, ad nauseum, through at least a month or two of 2021 as well, one presumes. It's going to be wild and it's closer than you think, and in a week in which some of those whose futures are in doubt -- Dwayne Haskins, Jimmy Garoppolo, Carson Wentz -- find themselves very much in the headlines, I figured no better time than the present to take a first peek into every team's 2021 QB situation.
I came up with four categories to create clusters of teams based on the relative drama, or lack thereof, to come at this most critical position next year. We are taking a holistic look at the QB room in terms of turmoil, performance, potential for change, contract issues or pending negotiations and also factoring in the head coach and GM vacancies we are already aware of, and those that will come in the next few weeks.
In the end I settled on these groupings: Nothing To See Here, Mild Intrigue, Change In The Air, and It Could Get Ugly. There are going to be some awkward exit interviews and some critical personnel meetings ahead for many of the franchises in the NFL. Winning in this league without a quality QB is almost impossible, Father Time remains undefeated, and the trend toward younger and more athletic quarterbacks is not reversing anytime soon.
Nothing To See Here
There are some common denominators here. These teams either have a potential franchise QB still too early in their rookie deals to get a new contract, or elite veterans with years to go on their contracts, or, in the case of Jacksonville, the team is sitting on a winning lottery ticket to Trevor Lawrence if it manages to lose two more games after having not won a football game in more than three months.
This list is also indicative of the growing trend of the AFC cashing in more and more in young passers who have top notch potential ... which also helps explain why an 11-5 team might miss the expanded playoffs in that conference while someone at 6-10 could host a playoff game in the NFC. Besides swapping out some backups, this is about as ho-hum as it gets.
There are some ties that bind here as well, though it's not wrapped up in quite as tight of a package. This list includes the highest-drafted QBs of the 2018 draft class -- Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold -- for starters. All four are eligible for extensions having completed three seasons in the NFL; not all will get them. The Jets have an asterisk and if they get locked into the second overall pick then I suspect they stick with Darnold, rather than select a QB second overall. If they somehow get back to the top spot, then kick them down to category three and slot in Trevor Lawrence here.
The Bengals would be in the first group if not for the significant knee surgery Joe Burrow required after barely getting through half the season and taking a heavy pounding most weeks. That will be worthy of some contemplation of how best to deploy and protect him and could result in a delayed start to the season for him. That qualifies as intrigue. And while Tom Brady still has one year left on his deal -- and short of winning a Super Bowl I very much expect him to play in 2022 -- that scheme ain't a fit and some serious rethinks are in order for the Bucs passing game moving forward.
The Cowboys have no choice but to pay Prescott, and his injury -- and their complete collapse without him -- only reaffirms he can demand over $40M a season. He'll get that second franchise tag and at some point in 2022 Jerry Jones will sign him to a four-or-five-year deal. The endgame won't ever be much in doubt, but there will be plenty of, you guessed it, drama and intrigue, until it's done.
The Raiders have flirted with drafting QBs before. Derek Carr's second half of the season was not as good as the first half and they did rush out and throw $7.5M at Marcus Mariota early in free agency while everyone else was spending pennies on QBs. That's noteworthy. The contracts the Rams and Vikings have with their quarterbacks -- Jared Goff and Kirk Cousins -- most likely preclude any real movement if either team was eyeing a potential upgrade. But these team didn't quite fit in the top category. Teddy Bridgewater signed a bridge contract with the Panthers, and while $13M of his deal for 2021 is guaranteed, it's hardly out of the question that they explore other options with a new GM incoming.
As for the Broncos, Drew Lock is not progressing, John Elway's selections of young QBs has been fairly disastrous and the specter of this team's ownership situation becoming a front-burner issue at some point in 2021 is looming over all in Denver. Can they just give Lock the job again next season? Elway and Joe Ellis are pretty much able to do as they please on personnel matters, but nothing lasts forever and the Broncos are now in a four-year malaise. Landing a high-end backup, at the very least, seems in order.
Overall, the bottom line with this category is it would be surprising if any of these teams made a fundamental change at the starting QB spot, but in most cases you can't 100 percent rule them out looking around a little.
Change In The Air
The Patriots, Colts and Saints all opted to rent and not own at the QB position in 2020. All had older, or older-ish, one-year options at quarterback, none of whom was making top dollar compared to what he made in his prime. None of them is exactly crushing it, and none of them banked on the guy they have under center being any sort of long-term solution to the QB problem.
Cam Newton has had a very rough season by and large, and though he could be back in some capacity, as the staff there really likes him, it's hard to see him back without real competition (and I would not rule out a Garoppolo trade at all). San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan is always mulling other QB options, Jimmy G has missed a ton of games since signing a mega-contract and the 49ers may not want to spend $25M a year on him anymore (I'd be surprised if he's back). And if it meant a return to New England, in particular, I don't see Garoppolo's exit being messy.
Drew Brees seems certain to slide into a broadcasting career in 2021 and Rivers, at his age and with his lack of mobility, may not be ideal for a Colts team that needs to find the successor to Andrew Luck as someone to build around for years to come.
The WFT and NYG both appear to have over-drafted QBs in the first round two years ago, both very well could have new GMs at the helm next year and moving on from or trading Dwayne Haskins or Daniel Jones could be accomplished without any serious consequences. Mitchell Trubisky has shown signs of life in recent weeks, but if the Bears make a regime change I cannot fathom a scenario in which the new guys are cool with Trubisky and Nick Foles (who they are stuck with due to his prohibitive contract) being their QBs for 2021. There is too much film that is hard to watch.
The Lions fired their coach and GM in midseason and Matthew Stafford has reached a spot in his contract where his value should be highest. The new regime very well may want their own guy -- younger and much cheaper -- and Stafford, from everything I gather, would be open to change. Likewise, the Falcons fired their longtime coach and GM in midseason and are sending out signals that they are open to moving on from Matt Ryan in the offseason. Dealing him will not be easy and the return might not be close to what ownership envisions, given the exuberant amounts they have paid this QB the last two years, but it will be a topic of internal conversation and many of the candidates they interview may prefer to move on and draft a replacement high in the draft.
It Could Get Ugly
Carson Wentz got benched for performance reasons, shortly after signing a massive deal, and Ben Roethlisberger would be benched for performance reasons if not for all he has done in the past. It really is that bad.
Big Ben publicly ruminated about his deteriorating output and perhaps walking away from the game, then 48 hours later let it be know that he's definitely back in 2021 (with the final $19M of his deal on the line). This is a recurring theme for him in the past, and nothing new, but this Steelers offense has never been this handcuffed before, either, and this five-week stretch of play is arguably the worst of his career. This is the guy who didn't take kindly to the Mason Rudolph selection in the third round a few years back. Fair to say it bears monitoring.
And, what do you know, on Sunday word comes out that Wentz doesn't want to be a $30M a year backup, because, well, who does? And Jalen Hurts goes out and plays winning football again and in Philadelphia things just keep getting more interesting by the day. And Philly isn't a cauldron of angst even in the best of times, is it?
It tends to get a little sticky when you have to move on from an icon (re: the last three years of Eli Manning's tenure in Gotham), and the Steelers are going to require some serious introspection about where they're going at QB. Thinking this will look better and just sort itself out next year doesn't seem prudent, and this is not an ascending athlete. All things come to an end, even first-ballot Hall of Fame things. Are GM Kevin Colbert and the Rooney family ready and willing to add true competition and let the best man win in 2021 or, gulp, move on?
And anytime you have to bench a young starter so soon after giving him a top-of-the-market deal it's going to lead to some difficult conversations, both internally and externally. Will ownership eat a $10M bonus payment in March to help fortify trade returns? Will the market be tepid given the way the offense has improved since the change? Many within the game are already pointing to the Colts, but Wentz won't be their only option, either. How long into the offseason does this situation linger?
Neither of these franchises expected to be dealing with such existential issues early in 2021, and the complexities of these situations can't be discounted.