In less than a month, the NFL universe will assemble in Indianapolis, where the groundwork for a wild and likely unprecedented flurry of quarterback activity will take shape. Also in less than a month, the window will open for teams to begin applying the franchise and transition tags.
The Super Bowl has yet to be played, but the madness of the offseason is already looming, and the chatter among general managers, coaches and agents about which QB will end up where is already robust. Teams are trying to get plans in the works, determining which options are likely to come into focus, figuring out contingencies. Ultimately, many of the top potential targets will stay where they are -- the laws of supply and demand at this most needy of positions almost dictates as much -- but it's also fairly uncanny to consider all of the 2018 possibilities.
Of the 12 quarterbacks who reached the postseason, one future Hall of Fame quarterback is primed to hit the market (Drew Brees), while the quarterback he lost to in the postseason (Case Keenum) is also a potential unrestricted free agent; two AFC playoff quarterbacks are widely considered to be available via trade (Alex Smith and Tyrod Taylor) while another (Blake Bortles) is wondering if he'll keep his job and/or face stiffer competition next season. And that's just among the playoff participants. Will Eli Manning definitely be back with the Giants? There's still the matter of Kirk Cousins vs. the Skins, Round 3, to sort through. Oh, and in a few weeks we'll get clarity on whether AJ McCarron is deemed a restricted or unrestricted free agent. A recent first-round pick like Paxton Lynch has his future hanging in the balance pending what other moves the Broncos make. Another recent first-rounder, Ryan Tannehill, faces some uncertainty in Miami as he comes back from another devastating injury. Yet another recent first-rounder (Teddy Bridgewater) hits the market having not really played in two seasons. No one was better than Jimmy Garoppolo once the 49ers finally played him -- and now surely they'll have to pay the impending free agent.
I don't know about you, but I can't recall an offseason filled with anything close to this much quarterback intrigue. Not even close. And that's not even taking into account all of the hand wringing that comes along with the inevitable selection of likely five passers in the first round of the draft this April. Ice up, son. It's going to get crazy out there. Which is why the preparation is already under way within front offices to determine a plan of attack. The options are myriad and the stakes could not be higher, with teams with legit Super Bowl aspirations like the Saints and Vikings grieving their playoff exits while also having to plot what they'll do next season at the all-important position.
I have some early hunches as to how this might all play out. Certainly, things will crystalize at the combine -- the seeds of multiple trades will be sown and the decisions on franchise tags will be formalized -- and we'll all have a more firm sense of what's about to go down as the conversations between teams and agents escalate. Here's how I could see it all going down:
Prediction: Three-year deal with Saints
Brees is the best free agent-to-be out there, regardless of position, by a long shot. A number of teams that believe they are an upgrade at QB away from a Lombardi would have to explore his market. But he is also nearing 40, and the Saints are one of those teams on the cusp of glory. It's just too good of a fit, especially with New Orleans not sitting on a Pat Mahomes-type in its quarterback bullpen. It won't be cheap, and it never is with a QB of this caliber, but there is a strong sense among other GMs in the QB market that Brees is going nowhere. I'm thinking a three-year deal worth a little more than $75 million, with the first two years guaranteed at the time of signing.
Prediction: Transition tag with Redskins
This saga is already ridiculous and the Skins have allowed it to fester in a way most organizations could never fathom. They're right back in the same spot for three straight years with a top-10 quarterback (top seven or eight, I would surmise). So at this point you have to try to think how Dan Snyder and Bruce Allen would approach this backward quandary, and not just let logic and reason be your guide. After giving Cousins $44 million for two years, and fostering a hostile climate with their fanbase in the process, they can't just let Cousins just walk now. Cousins won't entertain any offers until the tag window closes, and this owner will be destroyed in Washington if he doesn't at least retain Cousins' services then.
The transition tag saves them potentially $6 million and, with these sides nowhere close on Cousins' fair market value, it allows another team to set that market for them. Sure, if the Skins can't match an offer sheet they get no compensation (as opposed to a likely third-round comp pick in 2019 should they merely let him hit the market), but that's almost beside the point now. If someone else structures a deal in the way Washington deems too rich, then the team can leave the situation on its terms. And maybe a trade comes from a tag. As for the interested teams, the Browns' previous front office would have been at the head of the list, but I don't see that now with John Dorsey at the helm (more on him next). The Broncos and Cardinals might make sense too, but the team I believe will make the most concerted effort to land Cousins is the Jets. They have the want and the ability and more cap space than you would ever need, and they won too many games to have a top QB fall to them in the draft.
Prediction: Trade to Browns
Dorsey traded for Smith from San Francisco not that long ago, he knows how Andy Reid thinks and works after spending years by his side and he knows K.C. has a stud in Mahomes ready to go. Would he trade two second-round picks for an older Smith now? Seems too steep to me. But he needs a bridge quarterback to hold them over while the QB he drafts first overall develops, and Smith is the perfect man for the job on both counts. The Browns always have a bevy of picks at their disposal and they could improve significantly with adequate quarterbacking. Other teams will be interested, but trading him within the division to the Broncos doesn't seem like a Reid move to me and the Bills want a younger guy to groom as a franchise quarterback.
Prediction: Transition tag with Vikings (with Teddy Bridgewater back, too)
The season ended with a thud, with Keenum undone amid crumbling pass protection. But with only a practice-squad QB on the roster for 2018 and with a Super Bowl-ish roster and expectations high, the Vikings can't afford to hit March without Keenum's rights secured. Given how late he blossomed, I'm going with the transition tag here, which allows someone else to do a contract for them if the market forms. And it saves a few million bucks off the franchise tag. Maybe they just franchise him. But the way he clicked with all of their skill players was no fluke and when Mike Glennon just made $19 million in the first year of his free-agent deal with the Bears only to lose his job in October, nabbing Keenum for $21 million for one year doesn't seem crazy to me. The Broncos would be the team I would expect to most heavily pursue Keenum if he is allowed to hit the market, but I suspect they end up going in a different direction.
Prediction: Trade to Broncos
Perhaps the Bills are just forced to cut Taylor before his $6 million roster bonus is due in March. But he has done enough, I believe, to merit a pick in return on a contract that is very team friendly. John Elway's right-hand man, Gary Kubiak, knows Taylor well from his time with him in Baltimore and he fits the model of offense they would like to run there. He could hold things down while Lynch tries to finally get over the hurdles that have stalled his progress. Elway could still draft another quarterback, as well. But with the defense they still have there, landing a functional veteran QB who protects the football above all else seems like a good fit. And it won't cost much in terms of salary or trade compensation.
Prediction: Starter with Giants
After messing up the entire situation with benching Manning and ending his starts streak, I can't fathom ownership would send mixed messages to him again. And the message they sent in the final weeks of the season and now that Pat Shurmur has been made coach is that they are plenty comfortable with him as their guy in 2018, while they prepare to draft a quarterback of the future. And I anticipate they do exactly that. If they wanted to move him, the trade return would be limited, and the team that would have been the most logical fit, Jacksonville, doesn't seem quite as needy after a deep playoff run.
Prediction: Back with Jaguars on his fifth-year option
This owner wants the selection of Bortles to prove sage. He wants this to work and it has to some degree, given the playoff wins this season. Bortles still has limitations but given how this team is constructed, his cutting down on the turnovers late in the season was imperative. They don't want to discard Bortles, and having him at $19 million precludes doing anything else too sexy at the position. I do expect them to have a more formidable backup in place, however (Josh McCown would make a lot of sense to me; the Jets will have interest in keeping him unless they land Cousins from what I gather). Perhaps there is a team-friendly, pay-as-you-go extension possible (in the vein of Andy Dalton's deal), but doing anything with substantial future guaranteed money could get tricky ... and come back to bite them.
Prediction: Back with Dolphins
Coach Adam Gase loves this kid and believes he can be highly productive in his system, if he could just keep him healthy and on the field. He won't discard Jay Cutler now, but he also can't go with the veteran as his Plan B again. They have to find a younger alternative who could be groomed, and I wonder if McCarron makes some sense as an insurance policy should he be deemed an unrestricted free agent when his arbitration case is ruled on next month.
Prediction: Signs with Cardinals
If things play out anything close to how I've projected, a team or two will be left without one of the top free agents. Waiting out the Brees and Cousins stuff will pay dividends for Bradford. Yes, the injuries are a constant and will likely result in a deal with guaranteed money only in 2018 and significant incentives for games played and production. The Cardinals aren't going to have a top-three QB fall to them in the draft and they are nowhere at that position right now, having stuck with Carson Palmer too long and failed to draft his replacement. Bradford could be a great contingency for them and someone who could help rookie head coach Steve Wilks navigate through a season or two (again, should he avoid injury). Buffalo seems more inclined to go with a young guy, while Bradford's health history could scare off some other teams.
Prediction: Franchised by 49ers (then signed long term)
The kid was nothing short of transformational when he took over in Kyle Shanahan's offense and there is plenty more where that came from. They should've tried to sign him long term immediately after the trade -- he was open to talking -- but they passed and now you are looking at the franchise tag. No ifs, ands or buts about it. Everyone in the league knows it. And then by July 15 -- the deadline to extend a franchise player -- once the dust settles on most if not all of the impending QB deals (and perhaps an extension for Aaron Rodgers as well), Garoppolo will have a deal that I expect to average north of $25 million a year.