Teams in need of quarterback help in 2020 will have plenty of options. Not great options, mind you. While high-profile free agents like Drew Brees and Tom Brady aren’t going anywhere, less-tenured vets will be on the move.
Next spring’s likely crop of available passers will slide several experienced NFL starters onto the free market. A handful of others will be available via trade.
So where do those quarterbacks fit best? We’ve got some ideas about where the ones who are set to be free agents could wind up.
Age in 2020: 26
Career stats: 86.5 passer rating, 7.1 adjusted yards per attempt
No quarterback in the league has thrown more interceptions than Winston since 2015. His 4.6 percent touchdown rate, however, is tops among the other five quarterbacks on this list. A boom-or-bust player, he could struggle without a receiving corps anchored by Pro Bowler Mike Evans.
Christian D’Andrea: New Orleans Saints. Teaming with Bruce Arians in 2019 couldn’t stabilize Winston’s volatility, and he’s likely best served as an option QB in a shaky quarterback situation or as a backup behind a veteran starter winding down his career. The Saints present a best-case scenario in this situation: a place where Winston could rehabilitate his value and get some reps with a winning team.
Teddy Bridgewater laid the blueprint for this brand of reclamation project, and Winston could continue it — assuming Bridgewater doesn’t return (see below) and New Orleans still isn’t sold on Taysom Hill as a full-time backup.
James Brady: Los Angeles Chargers. They have one of the most talented teams in the league, but they always underperform. They’re currently in the process of squandering the last year(s) of Philip Rivers’ career, and I don’t see them having a quick rebuild once he decides to hang it up. Winston is exactly the kind of quarterback a team like the Chargers should be interested in: a young player who has only had one shot, and was perhaps given too much too soon. A year behind Rivers would probably do Winston well.
Adam Stites: Dallas Cowboys. Winston needs to be on a team that wants a backup quarterback willing to take chances and push the ball downfield, even if that means turnovers. That’s what makes Dallas an interesting fit, in my mind. The Cowboys have needed Dak Prescott to take more risks in 2019 and they’re getting the best version of him, even if he’s throwing more interceptions than ever. Prescott’s current backup, Cooper Rush, is still a mostly unknown commodity, but he’s a free agent in the offseason and there’s much more evidence that Winston could fill the role of risk taker if Prescott goes down.
Career stats: 89.6 rating, 7.7 AY/A
Mariota, taken one pick behind Winston in 2015, was shuffled to the bench only to watch Ryan Tannehill lead Tennessee back into playoff contention in his stead. The former Heisman Trophy winner has struggled with minor injuries throughout his career, but guided the Titans to winning records in three of his four seasons as a full-time starter.
D’Andrea: Buffalo Bills. If you go by adjusted yards per attempt, Mariota is the safest bet on this list. He’s also the only one with a playoff victory on his resume. That experience would be a boon for the Bills, who will still be developing Josh Allen in 2020 but could also use a reliable backup in case:
a) he continues to be the passer who has struggled against the NFL’s more competent defenses (a 56.5 percent completion rate and a 76.6 passer rating through his first 21 career starts), or
b) he gets injured, as quarterbacks who run the ball more than seven times per game often do.
Tyrod Taylor helped get the Bills to the postseason in 2017 with the same kind of low-wattage, turnover-averse, dual-threat passing game Mariota’s brought to the table in Tennessee the last two years. Buffalo could bring a higher-ceiling version of that production up north in 2020 while providing an extremely valuable Plan B in case Allen can’t be the quarterback the franchise needs him to be.
Brady: Chicago Bears. I have been blunt in my criticisms of Mitchell Trubisky. If he’s going to be Chicago’s franchise quarterback, something needs to change. I don’t see him improving that much year over year unless the Bears bring in some competition, and I think Mariota would be perfect competition. He’s a threat to Trubisky’s starting job and if he were to win it, Chicago would probably have an easier time letting Mariota try not to lose games with that defense than they do with Trubisky.
Morgan Moriarty: Carolina Panthers. If the Panthers end up keeping Cam Newton, Mariota is an experienced dual-threat who can run the offense if Newton gets hurt again. If the Panthers do end up moving on from Newton while keeping Kyle Allen, then Mariota is a veteran competition for Allen, who is 5-3 as the Panthers’ starter but has struggled lately.
Stites: Cleveland Browns. Mariota’s just incompetent enough that a team wouldn’t want to sign him to be the starter, but competent enough that he could push for a starting job anyway if a player ahead of him struggles. That makes me look for a team with an entrenched starter, but one Mariota might be able to supplant at some point. I’ll go with Baker Mayfield, who’s going through a sophomore slump in 2019. Mayfield will still be the starter in 2020, but the Browns could do better at the backup spot than Garrett Gilbert.
Career stats: 88.0 rating, 6.9 AY/A
Dalton was benched as the Bengals’ starter after an 0-8 start, though he was in the midst of his most productive season as a pro. His 281 passing yards per game were a career high. He’s 68-58-2 as a starter, even after playing eight games from the epicenter of Cincinnati’s failure pile. Although he’s not set to hit free agency, the Bengals will likely part ways with him this offseason.
D’Andrea: Chicago Bears. Dalton proved he’s still capable of big performances, even as his receiving and blocking corps crumble around him. Cincinnati asked him to throw the ball more than 42 times per game this fall (due to all the losing) despite an offensive line that allowed him to be sacked on 7.9 percent of his dropbacks. Chicago’s potent defense just needs someone who can sustain drives and win the time of possession battle. Dalton fits that bill in spades — and without a first-round pick in 2020 thanks to the Khalil Mack trade, he can serve as a bridge to the future until the team can start grooming another, non-Mitchell Trubisky young passer.
Brady: Cleveland Browns. I don’t think Dalton is going to have many suitors as a starter, but he may have a few years left as a solid backup for a lot of teams. My first pick here was the 49ers, because of the chances that Nick Mullens winds up elsewhere, but I think a stabilizing force would be useful in the Browns’ locker room and quarterback room. Baker Mayfield needs someone who can push him and help him both, and Dalton is that guy.
Stites: Los Angeles Chargers. I agree with the notion that not many teams will want Dalton as a starter, but I think one or two might. He’s been a Pro Bowler three times in his career and he’s still just 32. The list of teams likely in the market for a veteran starter is small, but it could (or at least should) include the Chargers. Philip Rivers is struggling in 2019 and it’s spoiling a roster that can be a winner. Dalton could be the bridge starter for a young quarterback drafted as Rivers’ successor.
Career stats: 88.3 rating, 6.8 AY/A
Bridgewater may have more momentum than any quarterback primed for free agency. Not only did he just turn 27 years old, but his stint as a starter while Drew Brees nursed a thumb injury resulted in a 5-0 record. His 69.7 completion rate, 7.9 AY/A, and 103.7 passer rating in that span would all be career highs by a significant margin.
Brady: Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After they move on from Winston like everyone expects, the Buccaneers will have a hole to fill at quarterback. They’re likely going to approach the 2020 NFL Draft looking to select one, but there are a lot of ways that can go wrong. Perhaps they don’t land the guy they want and force a bad pick, or they get who they want and he’s destroyed as a rookie. It makes more sense for the Buccaneers to go with someone proven like Bridgewater, while they also search for somebody younger. Either Bridgewater will be their answer, or he’ll at least pave the way for a younger quarterback.
D’Andrea: Tampa Bay Buccaneers. My original answer here was the Broncos. It’s extremely unlikely — John Elway isn’t going to roll with another passer shorter than 6’4 after Case Keenum burned him — but I like the idea of Bridgewater turning Courtland Sutton, Phillip Lindsay, and Royce Freeman into the Muppet Babies version of his Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, Latavius Murray lineup in New Orleans.
Then I saw James’ pick and everything clicked. Bruce Arians loves a comeback story at quarterback. It’s a big part of why he came out of retirement to take the Tampa job in the first place. Bridgewater would be his next Carson Palmer: a player with a major knee injury in his past who hasn’t been used to his full potential before pairing up with Arians. The Buccaneers make a ton of sense, and I’m officially switching my answer to Tampa Bay.
Moriarty: Chicago Bears. While I do think Mariota would be a good potential fit with the Bears, Bridgewater could be a good fit in Chicago, as well. The Trubisky experiment has gone terribly, but I think Bridgewater could make this offense hum with weapons like Allen Robinson, Tarik Cohen, and Taylor Gabriel around him.
Stites: New Orleans Saints. Drew Brees isn’t going to be around forever. Hell, he might not even be around next year. New Orleans went 5-0 during his stint as the starter in 2019 and he looked really great once he shook off the rust in the first couple games. At some point, the Saints need someone to take over for Brees, who turns 41 in January. Why let Bridgewater walk, when he’s perfect for the job? If that means forcing Brees out, that’s a rough decision to make — but hey, the end has to come eventually.
Career stats: 87.8 rating, 6.8 AY/A
Tannehill’s been exactly what head coach Mike Vrabel needed to keep his name out of firing rumors toward the end of 2019. The former Dolphin has been an A+ insurance policy for the Titans, engineering wins in three of his first four starts and guiding Tennessee to a rousing come-from-behind win over the Chiefs in Week 10. Tannehill’s been markedly better in Nashville than he was in Miami, but he’ll have to prove that can last over the back end of the 2019 season.
D’Andrea: Tennessee Titans. Tennessee is all but done with Mariota, but the club has no method to pick up a reliable young franchise quarterback next spring. The Titans’ inevitable 9-7 finish will have them picking somewhere in the late teens, and while they could move up and draft a player from the second tier of first-round QB prospects, they’ll need a veteran presence to hold things down. Tannehill’s proven he can deliver big wins with the Titans, and that continuity could be a big boost en route to 2020’s 9-7 campaign.
Brady: Tennessee Titans. Like Christian said, other than the players on this list, the Titans don’t have many options. They’re not bad enough to land a top pick, and they don’t want to spend a bunch of draft capital to move up and get one. Tannehill is playing well for Tennessee right now, and another offseason with the team should put it in a decent position for the next year or two.
Stites: Tennessee Titans. For the sake of argument, I’d love to come up with another scenario, but how in the world could Tennessee let Tannehill walk? Unless a Kyle Allen-esque tailspin is coming soon, Tannehill’s having a career year and leading the Titans to wins. It doesn’t necessarily mean he’s the quarterback of the future, but the Titans would be hard pressed to find a player on the free agency market or the draft who can outperform Tannehill’s last month’s worth of production.