Having a high-octane quarterback has never been more important in the NFL. This year’s playoffs are loaded with teams whose aerial attacks have defined their offenses. The top three teams in the AFC are led by Patrick Mahomes, Philip Rivers, and Tom Brady — all MVP candidates at some point this fall. In the NFC, the top two seeds are led by the powerful arms of Drew Brees and Jared Goff.
Great quarterback play led the Colts and Texans back from the dead. Russell Wilson prevented the Seahawks from tanking. Baker Mayfield has the Browns trending upward for the first time in what seems like decades.
But if the difference between a decent team and a contender lies in an explosive, consistent quarterback, where does that leave the guys who fall somewhere between “backup QB” and 300-yard threat? What about this year’s crop of borderline passers who are about to hit the free agent market?
Nick Foles, set to make $20 million next season, will almost certainly be released by the Eagles if he doesn’t restructure his contract (which, given his history in Philadelphia, is possible). Teddy Bridgewater, with one start in his last three seasons, will have the opportunity to prove himself as franchise quarterback after backing up Brees. Blake Bortles thinks he’s played his last game for the Jaguars. Sam Bradford is somehow just 31 years old and eager to put his awful audition with the Cardinals behind him.
7 low-risk, low-ceiling QBs who could wind up starting for YOUR team in 2019
Teams in need of a starting quarterback are going to have some tough decisions to make. The 2019 NFL Draft class wasn’t deep on passing talent even before Oregon QB Justin Herbert decided to remain in school for his senior season. Players like Duke’s Daniel Jones, Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins, Missouri’s Drew Lock, and West Virginia’s Will Grier all have the potential to be legitimate building blocks, but none look like sure-thing Day 1 starters as a pro.
That means teams in need of a veteran quarterback — a list that could include Washington, Jacksonville, and Denver — will have to turn to the free agent market or some low-yield trades to find their next signal caller. Here are the players who could make the best out of a bad situation.
Nick Foles: The most appealing option in the group of likely available veterans is Foles, Super Bowl 52 MVP and the engineer behind Philadelphia’s rally back to the postseason. At his best, he’s a Pro Bowl-caliber passer capable of posting a 27:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. At his worst, he’s the perfect blend of mediocrity and inconsistency for Jeff Fisher’s 7-9 bullshit.
As much as Philadelphia would like to keep him as the league’s best insurance policy, his $20 million contract for 2019 is money better spent elsewhere, assuming Carson Wentz returns to full strength (though if he doesn’t, Foles’ un-modified contract and Wentz would cost approximately $29 million against the cap next season, which is still less than the cap hits of Drew Brees, Matthew Stafford, or Kirk Cousins). He’ll land his share of offers should the Eagles cut him loose, all from teams hoping they can ride his dizzying highs while tolerating the lows that make Brock Osweiler look like a more tempting alternative.
The biggest question he’ll face is whether he can be effective outside of Philadelphia. His QB rating as an Eagle is a healthy 93.5. Anywhere else? 74.2.
Tyrod Taylor: Taylor was a bad quarterback in Cleveland because that’s what most quarterbacks in Cleveland, especially under Hue Jackson’s negligent care, are. It’s difficult to gauge what three starts and a sub-50 percent completion rate mean for the former Pro Bowler’s talent — but since he’s just 29 years old and the Browns in the Jackson era were a black hole of suck, it’s safe to assume he’s still mostly the same player he was in Buffalo.
And that player was perfectly fine! Taylor made the most of his bad situations pre-Cleveland, piloting the Bills to a 22-20 record in three seasons and doing something Drew Bledsoe, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Kyle Orton, and especially Nathan Peterman couldn’t — pushing Buffalo to the playoffs.
But Taylor isn’t an exciting quarterback. He’s a low-ceiling passer whose value lies in his ability to minimize risk and avoid turnovers. While his season high for touchdown passes is only 20, he’s never thrown more than six interceptions in a year. Surround him with a solid defense and some potent skill players and he’ll win games.
He proved he’s a steady veteran presence for a team breaking in an electric young quarterback this season. But while he was a great backup option in Cleveland, he’s still got enough good years ahead of him to be a legitimate, if boring, starting option in the near future.
Ryan Tannehill: The Dolphins already fired head coach Adam Gase. They can excise approximately half of the $26.6 million Tannehill’s due from their salary cap if the franchise wants to take its fresh start even further.
Tannehill’s an interesting case. He’s been a league-average quarterback when healthy, capable of stringing together some pretty good games but often snapping right back to a baseline of mediocrity right at the moment you think he might be ascending to something better. He’s never been especially aggressive when it comes to throwing passes into tight coverage, but he works well when given time in the pocket to pick his spots.
The veteran could benefit from a change of scenery and a new set of skill players and blockers around him, as he appears to have done all he could do in Miami. He hasn’t thrown for 300+ yards since September 2016, and his career record with the Dolphins is 42-46, which seems dead on. But anyone acquiring Tannehill is also getting his injury history; he’s missed 24 games the past three seasons. If you’re relying on him to be your starter, you’d better have a solid backup plan in place.
Teddy Bridgewater: Bridgewater gets credit for leading the Vikings to the playoffs in his second season, but he wasn’t especially prolific as a passer in his two seasons before a catastrophic knee injury that’s limited him to just one start since 2015. The Pro Bowl passer was an increasingly accurate, low-yield passer who had plenty of room for growth — but his biggest strength as a Viking was his ability to extend plays as his protection broke down, not his skill as a playmaking pocket passer.
But Bridgewater’s steady improvement and his relative lack of reps will make him an intriguing free agent if he doesn’t sign an extension to stay in New Orleans as Drew Brees’ presumptive successor. He’s been uninspiring in his limited action since returning from injury (56 percent completion rate, two interceptions in 25 passes), but a strong performance with the Jets in the 2018 preseason showed what he can do when he gets into a rhythm. He’ll be a flier pickup for a needy team, but at worst he’s a useful backup who won’t screw up badly enough to singlehandedly lose football games.
Blake Bortles: Bortles has never lived up to the standard placed on him after being the No. 3 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. In 2018, he bottomed out by getting benched for Cody Kessler, a guy who couldn’t crack the Browns quarterback rotation the year before.
So yeah, there isn’t a whole lot of hope involved in the Bortles project right now. But if the Jaguars cut him loose — an expensive proposition given the $16.5 million he’d leave in dead cap space for 2019 — or if a team with abundant cap space and a seventh-round conditional pick to shed gets desperate, he could be attractive to a team looking for an experienced backup with playoff experience.
And that playoff experience is the best argument you can make for him right now. Bortles was inspiringly competent while leading Jacksonville within three minutes of its first Super Bowl appearance last January. In the two biggest games of his career, he completed a shade under 60 percent of his passes for an efficient 8.2 yards per pass. More importantly, he didn’t throw a single interception. While he wasn’t able to turn that performance — or the three-year, $54 million extension it led to — into a solid 2018, there’s always the slim chance a change of scenery and a new coaching environment could unlock a passer who isn’t so ... Bortles-y.
Sam Bradford: Bradford landed a two-year contract worth up to $40 million with the Cardinals in 2018 that didn’t make much sense when he signed it and made even less when he was deactivated after three awful games in Arizona. Bradford had his worst season as a pro in Glendale, but that can be at least partially explained away by since-fired head coach Steve Wilks’ and the Cardinals’ immense vacuum of talent. There’s essentially zero chance he’ll have his $20 million option picked up for 2019.
He’s two years removed from a solid season in Minnesota, where he led the league in completion percentage and posted a 20:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio. If he’s surrounded by talent, and if his knee is healthy enough, (an extremely large ‘if”) he can still lead a competent offense — but it’ll be one filled with low-risk passes and short routes. Flunking out of the Cardinals’ offense didn’t kill Bradford’s career, but it’ll be a challenge to come back from a season when Arizona kept him off the active roster just to avoid paying him his per-game bonuses.
Case Keenum: The Broncos laid a $36 million bet that Keenum would be able to play up to his Minnesota standard after emerging as an upper-tier quarterback in 2017. That didn’t happen, and while he’s been better than his pre-Vikings career standard, that wasn’t good enough to keep Denver from its first back-to-back losing seasons since the early 1970s.
Keeping Keenum will cost John Elway’s franchise $21 million in cap space. Releasing him would leave less than half that — $10 million — on the team’s coffers for 2019. The Broncos probably aren’t going to find a better option for next season than Keenum, but if Elway wants to try there’s at least some logic in cutting the 2018 signee, who has proven not to be the team’s answer in its ongoing search for a franchise QB. If he hits the market he’ll have his share of suitors, albeit likely in a high value backup role in places like Tennessee or Tampa Bay rather than in a starting slot.
A couple of Super Bowl winners are stuck in limbo, too
This confusion doesn’t just apply to the league’s borderline QBs. A pair of Super Bowl-winning standbys also enter 2019 with major questions left to be answered. Transitioning away from either in 2019 will be difficult for their franchises.
New York has struggled to create a succession plan behind Manning. 2017 third-round pick Davis Webb lasted exactly one season with the Giants before being released and winding up on the Jets’ practice squad. 2018 draftee Kyle Lauletta has an immense learning curve in front of him after making the jump from FCS Richmond to the pros. His NFL debut saw him complete zero of his five passes while throwing an interception. The Geno Smith reclamation project failed to pay dividends.
Manning is due $23.2 million in 2019, but would count just $6 million in dead money against the cap if he were released. With no succession plan in place, that seems unlikely. Even if the team decides to spend 2019’s No. 6 overall pick on a quarterback, Manning would be a valuable veteran presence who could onboard the club’s latest attempt at finding his replacement.
General manager Dave Gettleman isn’t committed to Manning in 2019 either way, so the two-time Super Bowl champion’s status will be in limbo throughout the offseason.
In Baltimore, the succession plan has worked too well; Flacco would count $16 million against the Ravens’ salary cap in dead money if he were released in the offseason. That’s a hard pill to swallow, but it might still be more palatable than paying him $26.5 million to serve as the league’s most expensive backup. Jackson’s strong finish has put him in position to be the team’s unquestioned starter in 2019, but his penchant for running the ball — he averaged 17 carries per start in his first year — means he’s taking more hits per game than any other quarterback in the league.
Would the Ravens eat $26.5 million just to ensure they’re ready should Jackson come up limping after one of his designed runs? Or does the team think highly enough of Robert Griffin III and his ability to stay healthy to promote him to a backup role next fall?
Either Manning or Flacco could be a trade candidate, but few teams will be lining up to spend $20 million+ for a short-term quarterback with very defined ceilings at this point in their careers. Tom Coughlin could be looking for a stopgap solution to buoy his top-five defense in Jacksonville and is intimately familiar with Manning. Could he make a move with his former team to find a veteran to bridge the gap between the Bortles years and the Jaguars’ next franchise quarterback? Would the Broncos lash out and overpay a veteran rental in hopes Flacco could repeat his 2012 season?
Neither option seems especially likely, but predicting what the Jaguars, John Elway, or any of the league’s desperate franchises are going to do is never easy. Even more so now that Jon Gruden’s calling the shots in Oakland.
2019 is going to give needy teams a wealth of options at quarterback, though it’s easy to argue this saturated market offers more quantity than quality. The question is which teams will be able to make the best out of a bad situation — and which will extinguish the starting hopes of veteran passers behind regrettable seasons?