How's your quarterback?
Is he thriving and developing? Injured? Just sort of hobbling around?
We've reached the part of the season where, by my estimation, a good third of the league has to begin making a determination about what they have and where they are going at quarterback. The market of buyers for 2017 -- through trades, free agency, the draft or any combination of those -- is taking shape. Once again, I can assure you the supply of quality starters will not meet the demand. It never does. And given extremely limited options this time around and continued skepticism about the crop of college QBs, the outlook could be particularly bleak.
Tony Romo's heartfelt, measured and sincere comments about the Cowboys' quarterback situation, and his role in it following the rise of Dak Prescott, crystallized the dichotomy between haves and have nots in NFL quarterback rooms. It also got minds racing around the league, with Romo jumping to the head of the class as a viable option. It's him, then everybody else. And someone will be plenty willing to trade tangible quality assets to land him.
After Romo, the most-coveted potential trade chip is Patriots backup Jimmy Garoppolo, who put enough on film during Tom Brady's ban to make scouts salivate. After that, there's Jay Cutler, who is virtually certain to be shopped at the combine (the Bears would get very little and some teams would be content to wait for Chicago to release him).
Among free agents, expect a feeding frenzy for Bucs backup Mike Glennon (who Tampa should deal for a second-round pick at some point). He's only 26, has starting experience and is well-thought of in the scouting community. I'd take him way before guys like Brock Osweiler and Sam Bradford, who cashed in big-time last winter. Kirk Cousins, should the Redskins somehow let him walk, would be far and away the top free-agent option (I can't think Washington lets that happen). Maybe an organization believes Colin Kaepernick still has upside. After that you are down to journeymen (Brian Hoyer, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum, Shaun Hill, Geno Smith, yikes!). You could wait and see if guys like Josh McCown or Robert Griffin III get cut, but selling either as a long-term solution won't be easy.
It's slim pickings, and you can expect at least 20 percent of the league to be looking for immediate help and a few more teams turning an eye toward their quarterback of the future. Here's how I see it shaping up as we approach the final playoff push:
You Need Help ASAP ... like yesterday
New York Jets
They'll learn a little something about Bryce Petty the final six weeks, and he could surprise everyone. But he comes from a rudimentary college system and faces a learning curve on a team that in a deep slide. Christian Hackenberg is nowhere close and probably would have to be redshirted next season. They quite likely need at least some sort of a band-aid veteran, even if Petty looks the part, and Fitzpatrick and Smith are gone. It's over with them. Owner Woody Johnson is known to be rash, and we'll see if he makes any regime changes. Had Drew Brees been eligible to hit the market in 2017, this Jets braintrust would have been all over him. With a veteran team in place, I could see that group making a play for Romo.
Cody Kessler is a functional backup with limited potential and athletic gifts. Coach Hue Jackson seems to have reached a conclusion most teams made back before the draft, benching him in the third quarter of a meaningless loss at Baltimore last Thursday. Passing on Carson Wentz and Prescott will haunt the Browns for years, and estimating the 2017 QB draft class would be robust could prove just as haunting. If Jackson is still there I could see them making a go of it with RG3 and Kessler, but owner Jimmy Haslam could blow up the building at any time. I can tell you this: Guys who will call their own shots like Romo or Garoppolo are staying the hell out of Cleveland, were quarterbacks go to get maimed. The Browns have to bottom feed, in all likelihood, or hope and pray in the draft.
Another franchise that could make sweeping changes, which breeds uncertainty. Whether the tandem of John Fox and Ryan Pace stays the same or not, Chicago will be looking for a young new QB because Cutler's time is up. It was a long, turnover-filed epoch, full of grimaces, sacks and frowns. While they don't figure to get much for Cutler, I suspect the Bears get something. Paying him $18M a year during an ugly rebuild makes no sense for the club, and if there is a new regime they'll want to make a clean break.
San Francisco 49ers
Those who believe Chip Kelly actually will stay in the NFL -- opinions are split as San Fran could be headed for 15 straight losses to end the season -- anticipate he will end up with essentially full control. With that, he'll have the capacity to pick at least all the offensive players on the roster. And those who know Kelly are adamant he will identify a QB in this draft to mold. Hard to imagine GM Trent Baalke survives, given the dearth of talent and poor drafts, but this ain't your normal franchise. Regardless, Kaepernick negotiated the voids in his contract for a reason; he's gone, and even Kelly can't try to pretend Blaine Gabbert deserves another shot. I could see Glennon making sense here, considering what Kelly accomplished that one season with Nick Foles.
What do you know, here's another franchise facing likely massive changes in the coaching and front office ranks. Drafting Blake Bortles third overall could prove to be crippling, and whoever is running and coaching this team in 2017 is going to want a viable starting-caliber vet pushing Bortles. Picking up Bortles' fifth-year option will be a tricky decision. Regardles, but no matter how you slice up the film, Bortles does not look the part. He was never all that, and the regression even from his 2016 form has been damning.
Future may be here faster than you think
Bruce Arians isn't at a career stage where drafting a developmental QB and gradually bringing him along makes sense. And the state of the rest of the roster -- where talent abounds -- also speaks to landing a veteran QB. Denying Carson Palmer is in decline is folly. Expecting the aging starter to get better is foolish, which is why they structured hit extension with an escape clause in 2017. Palmer never again will reach his 2015 heights, and that season feels more like an outlier by the week. Palmer has thrown only 11 touchdown passes to eight interceptions with a weak rating of 86 this season and remains an injury concern. Had Brees hit the free-agent market, this was the team his agents most had their eyes on, and with an aggressive GM like Steve Keim at the helm, I can't rule out a bold move if Palmer continues on this track.
Osweiler has been as bad as any starting quarterback. You could make the case, given Houston's defense and the array of weapons on his side of the ball, he has been the NFL's worst QB. I'll give you Bortles, maybe Keenum, maybe Fitzpatrick as worse, but that's it. Osweiler is averaging an unfathomable 5.6 yards per attempt (and still managing to complete only 58.6 percent of his dink-and-dunks), with a rating of 74 despite playing in the league's weakest division, with 11 TDs and 9 INTs. He is killing De'Andre Hopkins' walk year, unable to do anything with one of the game's elite receivers. And after 2017, the guaranteed money on Osweiler's deal is paid out. Some in the organization believe Tom Savage could be the guy, and if Osweiler stays on this course, ain't no way he's seeing that $18M in 2018. They are winning games despite him, but you wonder how long that can go on, even in the AFC South.
Sadly, Teddy Bridgewater's future is murky because of what looks like, at best, a long recovery from a devastating knee injury. A best-case scenario puts him back around this time next year -- well into the season -- and that might be ambitious. Bradford is still Bradford, so not much to see there, except he cost you first- and fourth-round picks you could really use on a quarterback in 2017. They could try to trade Bradford (set to make $17M in 2017) to recoup some of what they lost, though they won't get anything close to what they dealt. They probably need him on a prove-it deal, anyway, as insurance for Bridgewater. Of course, keeping Bradford healthy is another challenge. With his offensive line in disarray and hits mounting on an oft-injured quarterback, they could ill-afford him trying to rehab an injury while Bridgewater does the same and with Hill a potential unrestricted free agent.
I'm a Tyrod Taylor guy. I think he has a unique skill set and I'd be comfortable paying him $15M next season. But we'll see how the Bills finish and whether ownership makes changes. Buffalo has until the third day of the 2017 league year to decide whether Taylor comes back. Given his lack of target options, and the absence of injured Shady McCoy at times, Taylor has been limited. However, when he and McCoy are in the same backfield they can look pretty special.
New Orleans Saints
Sean Payton has done a ton of work on quarterbacks the past few drafts, thought hard about Paxton Lynch and Prescott in the 2016 draft and has been seeking Brees' successor for awhile. It's something he has to do. Brees is signed through 2017, and he is having a marvelous season. However, Father Time is undefeated and when he hits, he tends to hit hard and fast. Ask Peyton Manning. At some point Payton is going to see an early-round QB talent he believes he can mold -- and few do it better. And 2017 could well be that year, especially if some of the top projected QB talent slips because of middling 2016 performances.
Kansas City Chiefs
Alex Smith has so many qualities Andy Reid loves. He doesn't lose games and makes good decisions. But can he win multiple times in the postseason? Is he dynamic enough? His guaranteed money is paid out after this season, and while I expect him back in K.C. next season, I also expect Reid to continue his normal practice of always drafting and developing QBs on the side. And perhaps at some point Tyler Bray, or someone in the 2017 draft, takes over to try to get this team to the promise land. We'll see if Smith can take them on a long ride this January as the Chiefs continue to pile up wins.