The NFL is bracing for more seismic quarterback movement this offseason. A little more than half the league is solidified at the position, with either a cornerstone passer or a draft pick still developing into one. But more than a dozen teams at least have questions that must be answered between now and next August.
The tiers are clear-cut:
- Teams with elite quarterbacks who either want out (Texans) or might want out because of front-office or coaching acrimony (Packers, Seahawks).
- Teams with accomplished but aging quarterbacks (Steelers, Falcons).
- Teams with quarterbacks who have shown promise but haven’t erased all doubt about the future of the position (Dolphins, Giants, Eagles).
- Teams forced to play backups because of injury or lack of a stable alternative (Washington, Saints, Panthers).
- Teams stuck in the middle (Browns, Broncos).
- Teams with a good quarterback on an untenable cap hit in 2022 (Vikings).
Not every team will make a change. But last year’s offseason produced 13 new starters via trade, the draft or free agency, so it’s safe to bet most of them will look drastically different on offense. Coupled with the backdrop of a rookie draft class that’s considered weak, the supply might not meet the demand. That’s where free agency comes into play. Short-term bridge options are plentiful, and a projected 2022 salary cap of nearly $210 million will help QBs get paid. Several quarterbacks with extensive starting experience are playing out one-year deals to varying success.
Since it’s too early to forecast what will happen with Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson, we sorted through more immediate business — where those quarterbacks set to hit the open market and a few others who could be available by trade might land. Which are positioned for success in 2022? With insight from personnel evaluators around the league, here’s a hard look at the looming quarterback carousel, with a few mock-up deals for those players.
Jameis Winston, New Orleans Saints
Offseason prediction: Re-signs with New Orleans for one year, $10 million (with upside to $14 million).
Winston signed with the Saints to revive his career as a former No. 1 pick with high-level traits and a penchant for interceptions. As the thinking went, pairing him with coach Sean Payton would accentuate his strengths and simplify the decision-making, helping the quarterback avoid trouble downfield.
The results were largely positive, with Winston posting 1,170 yards, 14 touchdowns and three interceptions through seven games. His 64.2 QBR would rank sixth at this point in the season, behind Justin Herbert (67.3), Tom Brady (66.2), Matthew Stafford (65.9), Kyler Murray (65.6) and Aaron Rodgers (65.2).
But Winston also gets an incomplete grade due to a torn ACL in Week 7, and the Saints — losers of five straight without him — could go one of two ways:
- We went 5-2 with Winston, so let’s re-sign him and keep the party going …
- Weren’t we on Russell Wilson’s trade list? Yeah, let’s check on that. We need an overhaul.
Payton alongside a top-five passer such as Wilson would make New Orleans among the league’s most explosive offenses. Wilson, who has a no-trade clause, had listed the Saints, Dallas Cowboys, Chicago Bears and Las Vegas Raiders as preferred destinations if Seattle tries to move him. However, the Saints are always operating against the salary cap (currently have $3.78 million in room, per ESPN’s Roster Management System), and Wilson would count for $37 million against the cap next year, with a $19 million salary and $5 million roster bonus due.
An NFC exec said it wouldn’t surprise to see New Orleans re-sign Winston, possibly to another one-year deal, because he acquitted himself well with Payton and the offense. Teammates liked him, he worked hard, and he was turning a corner. And Winston won’t cost several first-round picks to acquire, like Wilson might.
“There was excitement there [in New Orleans] because you’re dealing with big-time arm talent,” the exec said. “Jameis isn’t perfect, but there’s a lot of ability there, some of it still untapped.”
Winston’s deal in 2021 paid $5.5 million — including a $4.5 million signing bonus — with incentives that could push the total to $12 million. This predicted new deal takes that base and increases it to $10 million for the rising salary cap and his improved play in a short window.
Teddy Bridgewater, Denver Broncos
Offseason prediction: Signs with Houston Texans for two years, $16 million.
Houston is an ideal candidate to take a passer with its top pick and stash him for a year. If the one-win Detroit Lions select one of the top pass-rushers — Kayvon Thibodeaux or Aidan Hutchinson — with the first overall pick, Houston would have any 2022 passer available. The 2-10 Texans currently are slated to select second overall. Now, whether any quarterback in this draft class is worth that high of a pick will be hotly debated, but the avenue is there.
Bridgewater, meanwhile, can help elevate the Houston offense while it figures out its long-term vision. This is assuming the Broncos move on from Bridgewater, which is hardly a slam dunk. He is completing 67.3% of his passes for 2,775 yards, 16 touchdowns and seven interceptions for 6-6 Denver. But the leaguewide expectation is that the Broncos will aim higher at QB.
“The problem is Denver is probably the best fit for Teddy Two Gloves,” an AFC evaluator said. “They run crossing routes and give him manageable throws. He’s played pretty well and might have done enough to get a nice contract somewhere.”
Look, the Panthers paid Bridgewater $7 million to go away back in March. He has worn three jerseys in as many years. He’s probably not a long-term answer at any stop. But if you’re looking for a bridge, Bridgewater is among the best options. And a two-year deal like this, at $8 million average annual value, offers flexibility for 2023.
Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers
Offseason prediction: Either re-signs with Pittsburgh for one year, $15 million or retires.
Roethlisberger is set to hit free agency for the first time in his 18-year career. Until now, the Steelers always re-signed him with a year left on his deal. But as ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Saturday, Roethlisberger is giving indications that he’s ready to walk away after 2021.
The 39-year-old quarterback hitting the open market and negotiating with prospective teams is too hard to imagine. He has made it clear that he wants to retire a Steeler. And that’s largely the expectation from people around the league: The Steelers will go younger at the position, depending how the season ends.
I’m still not taking a re-signing completely off the table, as the Mike Tomlin-Roethlisberger pair is too familiar, too successful to write off just yet. And just when fans start to fade on Big Ben, he answers with a signature win over the Ravens — a clean performance with 236 yards and two touchdowns. But the signs point to a change for both parties.
Sam Darnold, Carolina Panthers
Offseason prediction: Signs with Washington Football Team for one year, $4 million via a trade with Carolina, which pays his remaining salary.
Complicating any quarterback move in Washington is the play of Taylor Heinicke, who has a higher QBR (50.1) than Dak Prescott, more passing yards (2,809) than Ryan Tannehill and more touchdown passes (18) than Derek Carr, Matt Ryan and Lamar Jackson. Evaluators see Heinicke as a high-level No. 2 or low-level No. 1, with limitations throwing to the outside, but he’s also a catalyst for a four-game winning streak. He makes plays with his feet and has made some clutch throws. That can’t be discounted.
But perhaps Washington can ride the Heinicke hot hand in 2022 while developing another option. And league execs maintain Darnold’s talent is abundant, even if the decision-making still isn’t there. The Panthers are on the hook for Darnold’s $18.58 million fifth-year option, and after 11 interceptions in nine games this season — bringing his career total to a ghastly 50 picks in 47 games — Carolina won’t be so eager to pay that amount next year. Maybe the Panthers give Darnold one more season to figure it out. But their front office is among the most aggressive, and league execs expect them to make another move on Deshaun Watson. The option is there to pay much of the $18.58 million in exchange for a seventh-rounder or something.
So let’s pretend that Darnold is a de facto free agent for those reasons. Paying a quarterback to leave for the second straight year isn’t an ideal practice, but it might be Carolina’s best move. And Washington reportedly showed interest in Darnold around the time the New York Jets traded him in April. However, not many are sold that Darnold will get a third chance to start.
“He’s probably a backup at this point,” a high-ranking AFC exec said. “I know some teams still like him, and he works hard — a really good kid and all that. I just don’t know if you can trust him in big moments.”
Ryan Fitzpatrick, Washington Football Team
Andy Dalton, Chicago Bears
Offseason prediction: They sign with the Miami Dolphins and New York Giants for one year, $4.5 million each.
Fitzpatrick and Dalton signed one-year deals worth a combined $13 million in signing bonus money but have minimal production to show for it. Fitzpatrick’s hip injury derailed his first season in Washington before it even got started; he completed three of six passes for 13 yards before the Week 1 injury. His future after 17 seasons is murky at best. Retirement wouldn’t shock some people around the league. And Dalton is a modest 2-2 as a part-time starter for Justin Fields in Chicago, with the highlight coming on Thanksgiving with a 317-yard performance in a win over Detroit.
“At this stage, these players need a lot around them — steady running games, a good line that can keep them healthy. Just too many variables for them to be considered solid starting options,” an AFC exec said. “The skill sets and durability are declining a bit.”
High-level backup money might earn them $4 million to $5 million next year. Miami and New York are ideal destinations since the current starters, Tua Tagovailoa and Daniel Jones, have missed time because of injury. There’s a decent chance to play there.
Tyrod Taylor, Houston Texans
Offseason prediction: Signs with Tennessee Titans for one year, $4.5 million.
Taylor still has a winning record as a starter (26-25) with 24 interceptions in 77 career games. Staying healthy is an issue, but he’s still a reliable option, and some evaluators like him better than Dalton. Tennessee utilizes a mobile quarterback well, so perhaps Taylor could back up Ryan Tannehill with the Titans.
Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
Jared Goff, Detroit Lions
Offseason prediction: Ryan is released and signs with the Pittsburgh Steelers for two years, $36 million, while Goff stays put for one more year.
Both are former top picks under massive deals, with execs wondering if they’ll be on the move — though finding a logical new home is not so clear-cut. The Falcons are cash-strapped, pressed up against the cap essentially since general manager Terry Fontenot started in January. (Atlanta currently has $1.585 million in space.) And with Ryan’s deal slated for a $48.7 cap hit vs. $40.5 million in dead money, there’s some cushion for Atlanta to get out of this.
Not that it necessarily wants that. Ryan has led the Falcons to five wins and ranks 20th in ESPN’s QBR (48.0) at age 36. Mobility is an issue, but he can still fluster opposing defenses. Ryan is due $16.25 million in salary and $7.5 million in a roster bonus that guarantees on the third day of the league year. Given where the Falcons are — a 5-7 record is probably an overachievement — no path would shock, from drafting a replacement to riding with Ryan for one more year. Perhaps he would rework his deal one more time to lessen the cap hit and clear some money off the books. The feeling is Ryan likes Atlanta a great deal and appreciates working with coach Arthur Smith. Maybe that leads to flexibility with his deal.
Pittsburgh is part of the projection because, assuming Roethlisberger retires, the Steelers could look the veteran route. The Steelers aren’t big on rebuilds, and it’s hard to envision them giving up several first-round picks for a quarterback. They draft well. Ryan getting released would cost them nothing more than a new contract.
“That would be good for them,” an NFC exec said. “I would consider [Ryan] a slight upgrade for them, at this stage.”
In Detroit, the offense under Goff just doesn’t have much punch, though he’s quite convincingly throwing to the league’s worst receiving corps. And last week’s last-second touchdown pass to beat Minnesota can be a springboard. The franchise is in a clear rebuild, yet it owes Goff $26.15 million next year, including a $15.5 million roster bonus. The money doesn’t match the quality of the team. And only rookies Justin Fields, Zach Wilson and Davis Mills have a worse QBR than Goff’s 30.8.
Ryan might have a stronger trade market than Goff, whose contract is essentially a sunk cost ($31.15 million cap hit vs. $30.5 million in dead cap). Cutting Goff in 2023 is much cleaner, with $10 million in dead money vs. a $30.6 million cap hit. Detroit’s threshold for patience will be tested. Perhaps a new offensive game plan — head coach Dan Campbell took over playcalling duties from offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn at midseason — would elevate Goff, who is still a talented thrower.
Either way, both of these players being available would not exactly surprise. And Goff would probably demand similar money to Ryan on the open market, if there’s a clear starter’s job somewhere.
MORE FREE-AGENCY OPTIONS
There are lower-level quarterback options who are all likely to be backups in 2022 or potentially bridge starters somewhere for a team still developing a young signal-caller or stuck in the middle at the QB position. Each could fall in the $3-6 million-per-year range, if available.
Mitchell Trubisky, Buffalo Bills
The Bills believe Trubisky will get a good job elsewhere in 2022. His market was slow in March, but perhaps a year in the shadows will spark something. If Atlanta goes cheaper at QB, offensive coordinator Dave Ragone has intimate knowledge of Trubisky from his days on Chicago’s staff. He was Trubisky’s quarterbacks coach when he went to the Pro Bowl in 2018.
Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers
Newton remains one of the hardest evaluations because he’s not a backup but also isn’t viewed as a reliable starter. Signing with Carolina was unique because of the nostalgia and the Sam Darnold injury. Newton played well for two games and then struggled mightily against Miami with a 5-for-21 passing performance. Still just 32 years old, Newton can wait out free agency and see what opportunities develop.
These quarterbacks are far from guaranteed to hit the market, but if they become available for various reasons, they could turn the market upside down.
Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
Is Green Bay really gonna do this? Is it really going to dump the game’s most talented passer for a few picks? We shall see. Denver still makes the most sense here.
Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans
His off-field issues cloud his trade outlook with uncertainty, but execs are expecting Carolina and Miami to make another run during the offseason. There are 22 active lawsuits against Watson with allegations of sexual assault or sexually inappropriate behavior during massage sessions.
Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
Wilson hasn’t looked right coming off finger surgery, but he has five more games to remind everyone that he’s one of the best. He would have plenty of suitors if Seattle moves on. Remember, the Saints, Cowboys, Bears and Raiders were his preferred destinations if he is moved.
Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers appear ready to play Trey Lance, their No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 draft. With Garoppolo’s $24.2 million on the books in the final year of his deal, interested teams could wait San Francisco out and see if the Niners cut him. His dead cap for 2022 is just $1.4 million.
Kirk Cousins, Minnesota Vikings
Cousins’ $45 million cap hit and the tenuous status of coach Mike Zimmer put him on this list, despite the veteran quarterback’s production as a top-10 passer this season.
Drew Lock, Denver Broncos
Several execs could see Lock getting a chance to compete for a No. 2 or co-No. 1 job somewhere. He has one year left on his rookie deal with Denver, and if Lock really wants to play, he could force the issue and request a trade.
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