2021 NFL free agency: Top 7 QBs available in free agency (and 5 others who could be traded)

One reliable trend in nearly 30 years of NFL free agency is that teams better not go into it looking for a franchise quarterback.

QBs who hit the market are almost always too old, coming off injury, irreparably flawed or, in Kirk Cousins' case, significantly overpaid. Sometimes there's a Peyton Manning or Drew Brees who beat the odds coming off a major injury, but good luck investing in those lottery tickets.

This year is no different. The unrestricted free agents are either backups or gambles, and sometimes both. But there's extra intrigue due to the trade market.

While the carousel might never spin like some hyped in the offseason, it could take just one key trade to set other moves in motion. Since finding a quarterback in free agency is usually a fool's errand, let's combine the quarterbacks who can be free agents along with others who have been involved in trade rumors.

Trade candidates

5. Marcus Mariota, Las Vegas Raiders: Mariota played only one game last season, but that's the trick. He looked good replacing an injured Derek Carr in that game against the Chargers, and that was the last impression of him. NFL teams are prone to recency bias, which is why you hear plenty of buzz for Mariota possibly being traded.

4. Sam Darnold, New York Jets: In two months, have you heard one argument for Darnold that didn't center on former head coach Adam Gase being terrible? Gase was a problem, but it's not like Darnold has played well. If you buy Darnold doing well in his second stop that's reasonable, but it's based solely on Gase being a bad coach and not Darnold being a good player (yet).

3. Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco 49ers: It seems hard to believe the 49ers will move Garoppolo without securing a replacement, but it's not out of the realm of possibility. For all the criticism of Garoppolo, if the 49ers get a stop on "Jet Chip Wasp," Garoppolo has a Super Bowl ring and those who overrate that would look at him in a totally different light.

2. Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks: We're still unpacking where the relationship between Wilson and Seattle stands. The Seahawks have always done things differently than other teams and if there's a franchise that could trade an all-time great quarterback in his prime so it can focus on the run game, maybe it's the Seahawks. A no-trade clause limits who can even discuss Wilson with the Seahawks, but if he's traded it would be a seismic move around the NFL.

1. Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans: If Watson gets traded, he'll become the most talented quarterback ever to get dealt anywhere near a prime age. He's fantastic. He wants out of a dysfunctional franchise, and perhaps a team will bowl the Texans over with an offer. To be clear, the Texans would be making a mistake to trade away a quarterback that good. It wouldn't be their first mistake.

Will Deshaun Watson be traded this offseason? (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
Will Deshaun Watson be traded this offseason? (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

Free agents

7. Alex Smith, Washington Football Team: Smith was a great story and an easy pick for NFL Comeback Player of the Year. But it's not like Smith played all that well. His days as a preferred starter are likely over. Washington released him last Friday and he could be a great backup and mentor for another team.

6. Andy Dalton: He started poorly for the Cowboys after Dak Prescott's injury before settling into what he'll be the rest of his career: A good, reliable backup who can keep a team afloat for a few weeks. There aren't many available quarterbacks who have three Pro Bowls and are still at a capable age. Dalton is going to fill this role for many years.

5. Cam Newton: What to make of Newton after his 2020 season? He struggled throwing, but he didn't have much to work with on the offense. He became a throwback quarterback, relying far more on his running ability than his arm. Newton threw eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Is it possible he's done as a starter? Any team signing him would be gambling on a physical rebound.

4. Mitchell Trubisky: In 2018, Trubisky made a Pro Bowl. It's true. It was due to being an injury replacement, but it still happened. Trubisky didn't continue to develop, but a decent finish to last season could revive hope for the former No. 2 overall pick. There's never a shortage of teams that think they can turn around a high draft pick who failed elsewhere.

3. Ryan Fitzpatrick: The quarterback everyone roots for showed last season he's still capable of some good stretches of play. Fitzpatrick's experience is a big reason he can come off the bench cold and give a team an instant spark (the Don Strock role, for the older football fans out there). He still has at least a year or two left as a capable backup who will resurface during games or on the odd week when the starter is hurt.

2. Jameis Winston: The analysis of Winston typically ignores that he can do some good things. You can't lead the NFL with more than 5,000 passing yards if you can't play. We all know, of course, that the turnovers overshadow any positives. Winston made the shrewd move of signing for practically nothing with the New Orleans Saints, aligning himself as a potential replacement if Drew Brees retires. A return to New Orleans is the most likely outcome for him in free agency, though some team would sign him as a fix for its issues.

1. Dak Prescott (UPDATE: Prescott signed an extension with the Cowboys): Not that anyone was surprised the Cowboys retained Prescott, but on Monday they officially took him off the market by inking him to a four-year, $160 million deal.

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