There’s no position in football more important than quarterback, and the league’s salaries confirm that.
Brock Osweiler, a man whose 72.2 passer rating ranked him 29th among 30 qualified starters, did so on the back of a four-year, $72 million contract. The only QB he was better than, Ryan Fitzpatrick, earned $12 million for one year of work despite a history of abject mediocrity. Colin Kaepernick and Jay Cutler teamed up to make more than $37 million; together, they helped produce five combined wins.
As the 2017 free agent crop looms, some mediocre passers will stumble backward into big paydays. Some will play above their pay scale, like Brian Hoyer last season. Others will drop below expectations like Osweiler and Fitzpatrick.
With a dearth of quality quarterbacks in the league, the risk isn’t just acceptable for some teams — it’s necessary. A look at the AFC’s Super Bowl representatives — where Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, and Peyton Manning have been the conference’s men under center in 14 of the last 16 NFL championships — is proof you need a high-level passer to compete. Several teams will forage through this year’s free agent crop in search of the answer to their problems on offense. Most will leave disappointed.
Here’s a breakdown of both the interested buyers and the quarterbacks in line for a change of scenery this spring.
Teams in need of a quarterback headed into the 2017 NFL season.
Buffalo has an above-average quarterback on its roster, but is primed to move on from Tyrod Taylor thanks to a guaranteed $27.5 million payout attached to his presence in the lineup next fall [Ed. - Nope. He came back on a restructured contract, essentially pulling the team from the market]. However, his actual salary cap hit would be just under $16 million, a mark ranked 20th in the NFL in 2017. Taylor had a disappointing 2016, but can still make a case as a top-20 quarterback and will likely be able to command a similar salary elsewhere this spring.
If the Bills move on from Taylor, they’re unlikely to find a better option. The only free agent passer with a better combination of production and potential is Kirk Cousins, and he’s unlikely to make his way to upstate New York. With the six-year veteran’s cap number more palatable than it seems, Buffalo may be best served holding on to Taylor and trying to develop a quarterback through the draft.
The Jay Cutler era isn’t officially over yet, but Chicago appears set to move on from its franchise quarterback in the name of a fresh start. Cutler was equal parts injured and ineffective in 2016, posting the second-lowest rating of his career in the five games he played. While the team can release him and absorb only $2 million in dead cap money this spring, the Bears are also working to trade the veteran passer in order to get some kind of asset in return.
If Cutler goes, Chicago will have to make a decision about retaining Matt Barkley and Hoyer, who are both unrestricted free agents this spring. Hoyer was the best passer of the group, but his history suggests his uptick last fall is not sustainable. Barkley is a bit more intriguing as a 26-year-old quarterback.
The Browns are the tattered painting Bill Belichick keeps in his attic, aging and fading while the Patriots refuse to show any sign of decline. Cleveland lacks a premier playmaker, as is tradition. Robert Griffin III could still stage a comeback and Cody Kessler looked good in spurts as a rookie. The franchise is still looking for someone to be the foundation of its offense.
With the No. 1, No. 12, and No. 33 picks in this year’s draft, the Browns could work on developing a young passer and instead sign a veteran quarterback to mentor their prospects — assuming they don’t think Griffin can be that kind of leader. A young veteran in the mold of Mike Glennon or Tyrod Taylor could make sense, as well, assuming they can be lured to northeastern Ohio’s factory of sadness.
Osweiler doesn’t look like the answer, but his onerous contract may keep Houston from spending too much on a possible replacement. The Texans could bring in a veteran passer to push him for the top spot on the depth chart. Tom Savage’s cromulence in limited action to end the season may be enough to vault him into the team’s top spot while they rely on the league’s toughest defense for one more year.
Ryan Fitzpatrick’s resurgent 2015 season had all the structural integrity of a sandcastle; the only thing that kept him from leading the league in interceptions last fall was getting pulled from the starting role in favor of quarterbacks Geno Smith and Bryce Petty. Smith and Fitzpatrick are both free agents, and neither seems likely to return. That leaves Petty, who threw interceptions on more than 5 percent of his passes, and 2016 second-round pick Christian Hackenberg as the team’s holdovers.
Neither one looks like the answer, but both are young quarterbacks who could maybe develop while earning inexpensive salaries. That’s where a player like Tomy Romo or Jay Cutler would come in handy. However, the Jets don’t have an abundance of cap room, which could price them out of an upper-tier veteran. If that’s the case, a lower-profile journeyman like Hoyer could make sense — though it didn’t work out so hot for them last fall.
Colin Kaepernick is expected to void his contract this spring, making him a free agent — though he could return to the franchise he once led to a Super Bowl. His 6.8 yards per pass were the second-lowest of his career, but he was still miles better than the rest of San Francisco’s depth chart at quarterback — overstuffed scarecrow Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder. The 49ers need help at every position and will be active in free agency this spring.
It’s a sellers market for passers, even though the buyers won’t exactly be overwhelmed.
Cousins is leagues ahead of the competition on the free agent market after an age-28 season in which he threw for more than 4,900 yards. Though questions remain about his effectiveness in the red zone — his backbreaking turnovers helped keep his team from the postseason — he’s established himself as a building block in Washington.
The team will have the opportunity to give him the franchise tag, which would keep him in town for one more year at a shade under $24 million and create space for a contract extension. If Washington decides to seek help elsewhere, Cousins will have plenty of suitors lined up to give him a deal that will assuredly go above and beyond the four years, $72 million Osweiler got last year.
Even if the team keeps him for 2017, the relationship between the two sides may be so frayed a long-term deal could be out of the picture.
Romo isn’t a free agent yet, but with a $24.7 million cap hit, he’d be the league’s most costly quarterback while playing backup to Dak Prescott. That massive number will make him very difficult to trade, leaving an outright release and its ensuing free agency as the most likely outcome.
The four-time Pro Bowler will be 37 in 2017 and has only played five games in the past two seasons. However, his last healthy season was his best, a 34-touchdown campaign that featured a league-high 113.9 passer rating. Romo got better as he got older, but that’s a bell curve almost certain to start trending downward.
He’ll be a perfect fit as a short-term solution for a franchise grooming a young candidate at quarterback. That could be for a team with a possible solution already on the roster — the Broncos, Texans, or Jets, for example — or waiting for one in this year’s NFL draft. No matter the case, he’ll have a few buyers at the ready once Dallas cuts him free.
Like Romo, Cutler is still technically under contract but unlikely to return to the franchise he called home. The Bears can escape his reign of terror while eating just $2 million in dead cap space, leaving him free to continue his career elsewhere. Even better, they could trade him and get something — even a late-round pick -- in return.
Cutler played in just five games last season, but had his best performance with the team in 2015. The veteran threw for 3,659 passing yards and posted a 21:11 TD:INT ratio and a career-high 7.6 yards per pass. However, his Bears went 6-10 that year and ranked just 22nd in the league in scoring offense.
Season after season of lackluster returns in Chicago have worn out the potential that made him a rising star eight years ago, but he still provides value behind center. Cutler has the arm to make throws few NFL quarterbacks can. Though his decision making still isn’t great, he can be a stopgap solution for a team in team of a talented hand behind center. The Jets and Browns could both be good fits.
Taylor could be the second-most valued quarterback on the market, which could be why the Bills would be loathe to let him go, even if keeping him will cost them $27.5 million. He’s made the Pro Bowl in each of the past two seasons — though that’s more of a statement on how weak the field has been rather than Taylor’s own talent.
His 2016 season was a step back from his breakout the year prior — his yards per pass decreased by more than a full yard — but he has proven to be a capable quarterback who protects the ball (37:12 TD:INT ratio since ‘15) and can make plays with his feet. You could do a lot worse than a borderline top 20 quarterback in this league, and pairing Taylor up with some legitimate weapons (and not just a limping Sammy Watkins) could be the key to unlocking his full potential as a passer.
Kaepernick has the strongest resume of any quarterback on the potential free agent market; he’s the only one who’s been to a Super Bowl. His star has dimmed considerably in the years that followed, but his decline can be correlated to a 49ers franchise that seemingly stopped caring sometime in 2014. Kaepernick lost his playmakers and was given few avenues for success in 2016.
Though accuracy remains a concern, he played better than his 1-10 record as a starter would suggest. Kaepernick regained his spot as San Francisco’s top playmaker, setting himself up for a solid run at free agency. He remains a dangerous two-way player who may just need a change in scenery to jump-start his career. With “anywhere but Cleveland” serving as an upgrade, the free agent market should look extremely tempting for the 29-year-old.
The former starter in Tampa Bay is an interesting prospect. His tenure as a starter didn’t last much beyond his rookie year in 2013, and anyone looking to sign him will have to live with the fact they’re bringing in a passer who was replaced with Josh McCown twice in one season. He’s only thrown 11 passes since the Buccaneers drafted Jameis Winston with the top choice of the 2015 NFL draft.
That lack of action has made him a man of mystery in this year’s free agent crop. Glennon is just 5-13 as a starter, but is relatively careful with the ball (2.4 percent interception rate) and steady enough to be a league-average quarterback for a needy team. At 27 years old, there’s still time for him to break out and develop into the player the Buccaneers hoped he would become. A team willing to take a flier on a passer who isn’t quite a prospect but not yet a veteran will give him a home — someone like the Browns, Bills, or Jaguars.
Foles is due $6.2 million this season, making him an expensive backup for the Chiefs. If Kansas City releases him — which seems increasingly likely — he’ll join the upper tier of a weak quarterback market.
He hasn’t been able to play up to the level of his breakout season with Philadelphia in 2013, but restored some of his value with a strong performance as Alex Smith’s backup last season. While he only threw the ball 55 times, he avoided mistakes and stood out as a competent leader, winning both games in which he attempted a pass. For that reason, he could leapfrog over a player like Glennon and land in a position where he could challenge for a starting spot on a roster with an unsettled quarterback situation, like in Jacksonville, Houston, or San Francisco.
The journeyman passer put together one of the best performances of his career in 2016, though injuries kept his sample size relatively small. He outplayed Jay Cutler in Chicago before suffering a broken arm in late October. In five starts he posted career highs in completion percentage, yards per attempt, and passer rating — though his Bears went just 1-4 in that span.
Hoyer has thrown for more than 4,000 yards and has a 25:7 TD:INT ratio in his last 17 starts, a stat that dates back to his departure from the quarterback graveyard known as Cleveland. While he hasn’t proven himself as a winner, he’s a talented and underrated pickup for a team in need of a short term starter. He won’t thrive, but he can be entirely competent in the proper setting.
His platoon-mate, Matt Barkley, is also an interesting free agent — though his dismal 60.0 passer rating did his free agency stock few favors last fall.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, Josh McCown, Geno Smith, Case Keenum, EJ Manuel, Ryan Mallett
Sign at your own risk. All could be reasonable backups, but none have proved trustworthy as potential starters for 2017. Smith looked the best of the group in limited snaps last fall, but quickly got injured and proved he’s not a safe bet to last a 16 game season as a starter.
These players aren’t free agents, but could be the answer for quarterback needy teams willing to give up some assets in return.
Garoppolo doesn’t have a wealth of experience as a starting quarterback, but his two-game audition in Tom Brady’s Deflategate-induced absence was an impressive one. In just six quarters of action, he threw for 496 yards, four touchdowns, and zero interceptions as the Patriots went 2-0 to kick off the season.
At just 25 years old, he’s a commodity — and New England has not been shy about moving commodities to fill holes in its roster. The Patriots have Tom Brady signed for the next three seasons and are working on an extension to keep him in Foxborough through his mid-40s. That makes Garoppolo expendable and for the right price — likely a premium pick in the upcoming draft — he could be someone else’s quarterback of the future.
The Browns, who have three of the first 33 picks in April, seem like a natural fit. The Texans and Cardinals could also be interested in bringing the young passer in to compete for a starting spot. Garoppolo has ignored the trade talk so far this season, but if a hot rumor hits the dirt sheets this spring, his mom will be the first person to let him know.
McCarron understands his value as a tradable asset this spring, and a move from Cincinnati could give him the opportunity to bloom into a starting quarterback — an ascension Andy Dalton blocks with the Bengals. He went 2-2 filling in for Dalton in 2015, but the Red Rifle’s return to robustness limited him to only one appearance and zero pass attempts last season.
The former Alabama standout still has plenty to prove before cementing his status as a starter. While he was solid in the regular season (97.1 rating), the Steelers rattled him in the playoffs, limiting him to an inefficient 5.2 yards per pass attempt. There’s still plenty of room to grow from there — that game was only his fourth start — but it’s likely to put a damper on his trade value.
McCarron is unproven, but talented. His youth could make him a more attractive option than some of the veteran passers who have put up comparable numbers in recent years. The only question is whether a needy team will send Cincinnati the compensation it’s looking for in order to give the quarterback a new home.