With NFL free agency less than one month away, the league that can’t get enough talent at quarterback is suddenly overrun with offseason options.
Following Cincinnati Bengals backup AJ McCarron winning his free-agency rights in a grievance on Thursday, as many as eight starting-caliber quarterbacks are poised to hit the market in some form or fashion next month. That creates some rare terrain for NFL teams, when franchises will drive into one of the most robust offseason quarterback markets in league history. It also sets the stage for one of the more frenzied NFL Combine events at the end of this month – one in which the evaluation of draft prospects could end up being the sideshow to a flurry of trade talks and backchannel free-agent negotiations.
But undoubtedly, the next few months will belong to the quarterbacks, thanks in large part to a field of talent that will headline both free agency and the draft. In many ways, it should be reminiscent of the 2012 offseason – when multiple franchises lined up to woo Peyton Manning in free agency and four quarterbacks were plucked in the first round of the draft.
As it stands, at least five teams will be looking for new starters this offseason: the Cleveland Browns, Denver Broncos, Buffalo Bills, New York Jets and Arizona Cardinals. Two others – the New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings – have yet to sign new deals with their presumptive 2018 starters, Drew Brees and Case Keenum. Meanwhile, the New York Giants and Jacksonville Jaguars could both take long looks at quality second options to Eli Manning and Blake Bortles.
That’s nine teams with some high-level quarterback business ahead, not to mention a cross-section of other franchises that will be looking for young players to groom. And that will create an overwhelming amount of heat in the quarterback market. Most of which will manifest in two stages: The hot pursuit in free agency and the trade market, and then the fallback option in the NFL draft for teams that miss out on their targets. The latter part of that equation – the perceived franchise players in the draft – are still in the sorting process. But they’ve already begun settling into tiers along with the veterans. Those look like this:
Kirk Cousins: Regardless of the thin postseason résumé, Cousins is the prize this offseason. He’ll turn 30 in August, but he’s the best free-agent quarterback to hit the market since Manning in 2012 and should have a solid six years of his prime ahead. You simply don’t see quarterbacks of his age/output/experience hit the free-agent market. The only teams that won’t make a pitch to Cousins will be the ones that don’t want to pay a free agent quarterback $25-million-plus per season and dole out $80-million-plus in guaranteed money. He’ll have no shortage of suitors.
Drew Brees: He’s a future Hall of famer who will be going back to the Saints. Only some kind of catastrophic breakdown in negotiations could change that. He’ll retire in New Orleans. Book it.
Sam Darnold/Josh Rosen/Baker Mayfield/Josh Allen: For the teams that take a serious swing at Cousins and miss, the attention will turn to one of the Big Four quarterbacks in this year’s draft. While there is still plenty of time between now and the selection process, each one of this quartet currently has some level of “franchise quarterback” belief in NFL circles. That elevates all four to solid second options in a failed pursuit of Cousins. While one or more of those four players could fade in the draft process, it’s also a solid possibility that a fifth quarterback could make a push up the draft board and sneak into the bottom of the first round. However it goes down, first-round quarterbacks are chosen to be long-term options – and that elevates them into Tier Two.
Case Keenum: Keenum will be a bit of a wild card. He had an impressive run with the Minnesota Vikings and should be considered a starting-quality player in free agency if an extension isn’t reached with Minnesota. But he also lost a huge advocate in Pat Shurmur, who departed to coach the Giants. If Keenum remains with the Vikings, a franchise tag seems like the most likely option to get that done – buying one more season to cement himself for the long term. But if that doesn’t pan out, it’s hard to be certain what Keenum’s market will look like across the NFL. He’ll certainly be attractive to teams that run spread offenses. But his overall résumé as a starter is still somewhat limited. That makes him an uncertain commodity who could fall into the “Mike Glennon” category, translating into a deal elsewhere that is basically a one-season “prove it” contract.
Nick Foles (trade block): He opened some eyes across the league after settling into the Philadelphia Eagles’ offense and having the playbook opened up. Now he’s a legitimate trade chip, should the Eagles choose to dangle him on the market. Unfortunately for Foles, his biggest believers at the moment are all inside franchises that already have cornerstones at quarterback. That will limit his market. His best bet may be sticking it out in Philadelphia one more season and entering the market as a free agent in 2019, when there isn’t a logjam of quarterbacks available. But one thing is certain: He bought himself some serious consideration as a starter in the postseason. And the Eagles are typically willing to listen to trade offers. That solidifies him inside this market.
Tyrod Taylor (trade block): He carved out a 22-20 record as a starter for some fairly mediocre Buffalo Bills teams. He was also efficient statistically in that span – to the point that he may just need a coaching staff that both believes in him and knows how to structure an offense around his skill set. At this stage, it’s hard to know which team or coaching staff might fit that bill. But at the very least, Taylor is experienced and brings what amounts to a one-year contract to the table. At worst, he could be a bridge starter for a team that takes a quarterback in the first round. At best, he could land in the right setting and blossom into a player worthy of an extension following next season.
AJ McCarron: He has started a grand total of four games (including one playoff game) and is the epitome of this offseason’s Mike Glennon. In reality, he has even less starting experience than Glennon had when he landed his surprising one-year deal last offseason. He’s also older than you’d think, turning 28 in September. But McCarron showed enough to like that the Cleveland Browns were willing to surrender a second- and third-round pick for him in a failed trade last season. Normally, that would be a great deal. But that same Browns regime is 1-31 in the last two seasons and it’s fair to say its quarterback assessments shouldn’t be considered reliable at this stage. Just because McCarron was worth that much to Cleveland does not mean he’ll have a wide and deep market. Time will tell.
Sam Bradford: There is an overwhelming amount of concern across the NFL that Bradford’s knee makes him an uncertain commodity from this point forward. The bottom line: His health history has more red flags than a Chinese military parade. He has showcased more talent than others in higher tiers, but signing him at this point is rolling the dice that he’ll hold up as a starter. His medical evaluation will be paramount. And even then, any suitor will need to have a very reliable option next to Bradford on the depth chart.
Jay Cutler: Even with a serviceable season as a starter after coming out of retirement, Cutler remains a desperation signing at best. That’s what he was for the Miami Dolphins, and that’s what he would be for anyone else in 2018. He’ll turn 35 in April and will always have the arm to sling it, but the book has been written on him repeatedly in the NFL. He’s not waking up next season and becoming anything more than a middling option with a ton of talent keeping him employed.
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