The early part of the 2021 offseason has produced rampant uncertainty at the NFL’s most important position. Trade requests and trade destination lists are changing long-settled situations. Entering free agency, here is how the league’s respective quarterback groups stack up.
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After being able to check off this box for longer than any franchise ever has, the Patriots are likely planning to start a third Week 1 QB in three years. Jarrett Stidham remains under contract, and some Cam Newton return noise has surfaced. But if the Pats are serious about returning to contention post-Tom Brady, they need to make another move. The most logical transaction is reacquiring Jimmy Garoppolo, though that will depend on the 49ers upgrading. Beyond bringing back Garoppolo, the Patriots will be a candidate to draft a first-round passer for the first time in 28 years.
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Washington offered first- and third-round picks for Matthew Stafford. Losing out there leaves the team without a true option. Taylor Heinicke is back on a two-year deal. He and Kyle Allen are Washington’s options now, with Alex Smith gone. With the prospect of five QBs going off the board before Washington’s No. 19 overall pick, Ron Rivera‘s team will likely need to move up if it wants a potential long-term answer. Washington may need to bring in a free agent stopgap as insurance ahead of the draft as well. Using Heinicke would seemingly be an option, too, albeit an unexciting one.
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The Eagles traded several picks to climb up to No. 2 for Carson Wentz five years ago; the team gave him a $32 million-per-year extension less than two years ago. They have careened on a strange path since. Jeffrey Lurie appears interested in the team trying Jalen Hurts as the answer, rather than being in the market for a Wentz successor at No. 6 overall. Hurts was predictably inconsistent as a rookie but did provide a spark. If Lurie indeed forces a QB directive on the front office (always a good sign), the Eagles could auction that pick and better set up their rebuild.
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Earning quarterback mockery around the Joe Flacco trade, the Broncos have used an NFL-most nine starting QBs since 2016. Now led by GM George Paton, the Broncos will try for Deshaun Watson after trying less hard for Stafford. Drew Lock only made it through 12 games but still led the NFL in INTs (15). If the Broncos cannot obtain Watson and want an upgrade, they could be stuck with this draft’s fourth- or fifth-best QB prospect, with their No. 9 pick, or one of the free-agent arms. Courtland Sutton‘s return should help Lock, but he also may restrict Denver’s talented receivers’ development. The Broncos are not in a good spot.
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This ranking only includes quarterbacks on teams’ rosters. Trevor Lawrence is not yet a Jaguar, and Gardner Minshew has enjoyed notable moments. His two-year TD-INT ratio is 37-11. Jacksonville has an interesting trade chip, even though Minshew would be a somewhat grim consolation prize for a team that strikes out in this complex QB offseason. The Jags also have Jake Luton in place as a potential backup. They will rise on any QB-related list after the draft, thanks to the 15-game losing streak that put them in a position to select Lawrence.
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In being tasked with determining if former No. 3 overall pick Sam Darnold is worth bypassing BYU’s Zach Wilson at No. 2 overall, the Jets are faced with one of the most interesting decisions in recent quarterback annals. Darnold received far more publicity as a prospect and was done few favors in his first three Jets seasons, whereas Wilson emerged as a senior, a la Joe Burrow. The Jets could fetch a strong haul by trading the pick, or Darnold could be a Deshaun Watson consolation prize. Re: Watson, the Jets make perfect sense as a suitor, holding two first-rounders this year and next. They need to be all over that.
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Nick Foles delivered one of the great quarterback performances in Super Bowl history, but other than a few flashes, the ex-Eagle/current Bear has not impressed outside of Philadelphia. Of the three teams left on Russell Wilson’s destination list, the Bears’ desperate situation — a GM and head coach on hot seats — creates immense intrigue. The Bears pick at No. 20 and acquiring Darnold or a free agent may not be enough to keep the franchise’s defense-enabled window open. Chicago’s last trade for a potential franchise QB (Jay Cutler) failed, but the team’s Mitchell Trubisky whiff leaves it short on options.
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Daniel Jones received a full endorsement from Joe Judge and GM Dave Gettleman, which makes sense given the Giants’ scrutinized investment. The Duke product did throw 24 touchdown passes in just 12 games in 2019 — the fifth-most ever by a rookie — but the Giants ranked 31st on offense in 2020. New York is expected to give Jones more help at receiver, and Saquon Barkley’s hopeful return will boost its offense. But Jones (6.6 yards per attempt in 2019 and ’20) has considerable progress to make before Giants fans can feel comfortable about the state of the franchise. Colt McCoy is a capable backup, at least.
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While the Dolphins should trade for Deshaun Watson if he becomes available, the Tua Tagovailoa panic is a bit much. Pro Football Focus rated Miami’s 2020 offensive line 28th, and there is a reason the Dolphins want to chase multiple wide receiver upgrades this year. Tagovailoa over Justin Herbert is not in the Trubisky-over-Patrick Mahomes realm yet, but 2021 will be a critical year for the Alabama alum. Mac Jones’ dominance does add context to Tua’s stratospheric Crimson Tide career, but coming off a major injury, the southpaw should be given the benefit of the doubt for now.
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For the second straight March, the Panthers have a placeholder quarterback. They made a strong push for Stafford, and no one outflanks them for Watson interest at this juncture. Teddy Bridgewater is a low-end starter/top backup; it is quite clear Carolina does not want to go into next season with the journeyman as the best quarterback on its roster. The Panthers should be expected to land either one of the best non-Trevor Lawrence QBs in this draft or Watson. Matt Rhule‘s seven-year contract will make the Bridgewater dead-money sum immaterial. After their strange Bridgewater signing, the Panthers are prepared to swing bigger.
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The last time Jared Goff did not have Sean McVay pulling the strings, he delivered a brutal seven-game sample for a 2016 Rams team that finished in a distant 32nd in total offense. The former No. 1 overall pick resides in a much worse situation than the one he left, and the Lions may need to do some advance scouting. They hold this year’s No. 7 choice, but their 2021 team could be bad enough to land them closer to the top of the 2022 draft — with a Rams first-round pick to use in a potential trade-up. GM Brad Holmes may need to determine if the 2022 QB class is worth waiting for. Goff does not appear the true solution.
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It seems notable Taysom Hill received the call when Drew Brees missed time last season, and it is key he is under contract in 2021. The Saints have proven they can perform salary cap gymnastics, with this year’s effort in uncharted financial terrain, but Jameis Winston would have to agree to a cheap deal if he is to stay a Saint. Sean Payton turned Brees from an inconsistent Charger to the NFL’s passing yardage kingpin, but the Hill/Winston challenge will be greater — especially with a lesser roster than what New Orleans boasted in 2020. Unafraid of bold moves, the Saints should also be in the Round 1 trade-up mix.
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A bizarre 2020 indifference in protecting Joe Burrow clouds Cincinnati’s 2021 outlook, but the 2019 Heisman winner showed promise and will be the Bengal QB1 whenever he returns. More important for the Bengals: fortifying his blocking quintet. The team cannot endure another severe Burrow injury; it must spend in free agency (a Bengals rarity) and invest well early in the draft. Beyond left tackle Jonah Williams, the Bengals have openings across their O-line. Brandon Allen is now back as Burrow’s backup, a position that will see more run if Burrow’s knee rehab slows.
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While the 49ers are 24-9 when Jimmy Garoppolo starts and 7-19 in games without him since his 2018 ACL tear, they would not have been connected to Stafford or Watson were they content here. Garoppolo threw 27 TD passes in the 49ers’ Super Bowl LIV season but has endured bouts of inconsistency and earned the “injury-prone” label. The 49ers will be linked to first-round trade-ups from their No. 12 draft slot. Although Garoppolo’s deal can be easily shed, the 49ers are stuck with an average starter with not insignificant cap hits ($26.4M in 2021, $27.4M in ’22). If the QB1 status quo remains, the 49ers will add a better QB2.
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Traversing one of the stranger career arcs in modern quarterback history, Carson Wentz has landed in a better situation. Frank Reich had Wentz as the MVP frontrunner who finished 2017 with the top QBR mark. The Eagles’ situation around Wentz crumbled over the past two seasons, and he did not handle adversity well. But Wentz still posted a 27-7 TD-INT ratio for a 2019 Philly team that was down its starting three receivers for the stretch run. The Colts need to land at least one marquee wideout, but Wentz could rescue them from the quarterback abyss. A huge caveat obviously exists, but this is a swing worth taking.
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Seeing how the again-cap-strapped Steelers attempt to stay afloat will be a key offseason subplot. Because the team still does not have a true post-Ben Roethlisberger solution, apologies to Mason Rudolph and back-into-the-lab Dwayne Haskins. Given Big Ben’s injury issues and the 2020 offense’s late-season struggles, the Steelers appear to be delaying a rebuild. Roethlisberger, 39, did bounce back from his severe elbow injury to throw 33 TD passes — his second-most in a season — but aside from an explosive second half against the Colts, the future Hall of Famer underwhelmed when the Steelers needed him most.
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Now one year younger than his offensive coordinator (Klint Kubiak), Kirk Cousins remains a high-floor quarterback. His ceiling is low, unfortunately, and quality Vikings rosters in 2018 and ’19 fell short of where their Case Keenum-quarterbacked 2017 squad was. Cousins’ Washington and Minnesota play has shown he can operate effectively in a Kubiak-style offense; last year’s 35 TD passes were by far a career-high. But if the ’18 and ’19 teams could not be true Super Bowl contenders with Cousins, the franchise appears trapped with an expensive middle-class passer.
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Derek Carr has made undeniable strides under Jon Gruden. The Raiders have not. Carr posted top-11 QBR figures in 2019 and ’20 and did so with Tyrell Williams and Nelson Agholor operating as his nominal WR1s (Darren Waller is good). Gruden’s offense has turned the soon-to-be 30-year-old quarterback into a solid starting option, but the Raiders need a lot of work elsewhere if they hope to make their annually unsteady Carr plan a viable playoff strategy. With Marcus Mariota‘s salary spiking in the second year of his contract, it appears unlikely he will be a Raider next season.
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Despite the Browns losing Odell Beckham Jr., Baker Mayfield revitalized his career. Mayfield dragged a Browns team reeling on defense to the playoffs. A true achievement, given this franchise’s history, that points his arrow up with Kevin Stefanski calling the shots. Cleveland quickly fixed its offensive line issue, though it needs Beckham or a suitable replacement to help its passer approach the NFL’s upper echelon. The Browns have also invested well behind Mayfield, with former NFC championship game starter — under Stefanski — Case Keenum under contract for one more season.
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Ryan’s track record keeps him from slinking to a below-average place, but the Falcons’ setup looks a lot like the Vikings’. Ryan is attached to a lucrative contract and has not made the Pro Bowl since his 2016 MVP season under Kyle Shanahan (alarming given the Pro Bowl’s high guest lists). Ryan will turn 36 this year. With the Falcons having declined since their Super Bowl collapse and having not picked in the top five since acquiring Ryan 13 years ago, they will be prime suitors for Justin Fields, Trey Lance, or Mac Jones. Finally set to play for an offensive-minded head coach in Arthur Smith, Ryan could be a 2022 trade candidate.
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Ryan Tannehill‘s career reboot appears real. The once-injury-riddled Dolphin has not missed a game since taking the Titans’ QB reins in 2019. Tannehill has a 55-13 TD-INT ratio over the past two seasons and has given the Titans their best quarterback work since Steve McNair. The soon-to-be 33-year-old passer’s $29.5M-per-year contract suddenly looks reasonable. The Titans have Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith unsigned; outside help could soon be required. But after another successful slate, Tennessee’s Tannehill experiment can no longer be called a fluke.
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In the public eye due to his two-year contract limbo and the Cowboys’ Q rating, Prescott is coming off a severe ankle injury and is now attached to a $40M-AAV contract. The Cowboys somehow failed to win a bad NFC East with Dak making fourth-round money in 2019 , and they will now be tasked with building around this era’s most player-friendly deal. The two-time Pro Bowler has much to prove, though he has turned a corner in Kellen Moore’s offense over the past two years. The Cowboys have primary 2020 starter Andy Dalton due for free agency, but that is far off their radar considering this week’s developments.
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Herbert’s one season of experience and his being set to play in a second offensive system in two years is the only thing keeping him this low, and this may already be too low for a Chargers QBs ranking. In landing Herbert as the third QB in last year’s draft, the Bolts stumbled into a McDowell family circa 1988 situation . Missing Austin Ekeler, Mike Williams, and Keenan Allen for stretches, Herbert still set the rookie record with 31 TD passes. He is locked into rookie money through 2022. It would be a really good time to be a Chargers fan, as weird as that sounds.
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One of the best dual-threat QBs to enter the NFL, Kyler Murray has shown the kind of upside that could land him on MVP ballots soon. The former Oakland A’s top-10 pick is signed through 2022 but has given the Cardinals a prospect on the level they have not seen (no Neil Lomax shade intended). The franchise that has recently relied on thirtysomethings Kurt Warner and Carson Palmer has a 23-year-old star. Murray’s 11 rushing TDs last year are four more than Lamar Jackson has compiled in a season, and the passing chops are there. Murray has strides to make, however, especially after an underwhelming 2020 finish.
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It took a run of unimposing defenses to lift the Ravens back to the divisional round; even the Titans presented a feeble unit on which Jackson could feast. This Ravens formula either needs more firepower for Jackson to target or has a quarterback who must be nothing short of intergalactic on the ground to compensate for his thus-far-limited aerial repertoire. Jackson is now extension-eligible, creating a new issue for a franchise that has seen the former MVP elevate it substantially since taking over. But Jackson’s aerial work against quality defenses in the playoffs has left much work for the Ravens to do this offseason.
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After spending 12 years in one of the NFL’s tougher environments, Matthew Stafford will link up with one of the league’s best offensive coaches. Under Sean McVay, the rocket-armed quarterback who is 1-for-12 in Pro Bowl nods will attempt to validate his abilities in this second act. The Rams will attempt to build around Stafford without first-round picks (until 2024), and their cap situation is poor. This will not be as easy a situation for Stafford as it seems, but he represents a skill upgrade from Jared Goff. And he will consistently play in the spotlight for the first time since perhaps his Georgia days.
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Tools-wise, Tom Brady would rank below several of the previously mentioned starters. But the Buccaneers’ crucial free agency addition both chose an ideal situation and built upon it with stealth GM work. Brady’s recruiting enticed the most dominant tight end ever to unretire, and Antonio Brown followed Rob Gronkowski in making key contributions to the Bucs’ championship. Brady was rarely dominant, but throwing 40 TD passes and being in a position to capitalize on favorable playoff situations at 43 is an unfathomable quarterbacking act. Adding to the intrigue of this get-rich-quick situation: no Brady successor is on the horizon.
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Entering 2020 0-for-4 in 60% passing seasons as a college or pro starter, Josh Allen authored a stunning breakout. The Bills appear to have a franchise quarterback for the first time since Jim Kelly’s retirement. Allen showed undeniable progress in 2019 but completed a scary ascent last season, accounting for 45 touchdowns and showcasing the NFL’s shiniest toolbox this side of Patrick Mahomes. Allen’s unfathomable rise has changed the complexion of the Bills, who will have the rare opportunity to strengthen a Super Bowl contender this offseason.
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The disgruntled passer sector starts with the Texans. Deshaun Watson went from expressing adoration for the organization after his late-summer extension to post-Sicily Michael Corleone within six months. The Texans have been an amazing mess since Bill O’Brien became GM, and everything since his firing indicates the problems run deeper. The Texans are entrenched in a unique battle, perhaps ready to force their three-time Pro Bowl QB to back down or leave football. Of course, big offers that could kickstart Houston’s rebuild will come before the draft. New GM Nick Caserio is faced with the biggest decision in franchise history.
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The situation between Russell Wilson and the Seahawks is not on the Watson-Houston level yet. It has, however, oddly been allowed to simmer for weeks. The best quarterback in Seahawks history may be on the precipice of a trade request; issuing acceptable destinations is a de facto request at least. The seven-time Pro Bowler would tag the Seahawks with $39M in dead money — a runaway record — if traded before June 1. This and nearly nine years of “Go Hawks” interview endings still make a trade hard to fathom. But we may be at Defcon 2 here for a trade that would end the greatest era in franchise annals.
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No quarterback has felt the effects of Brady’s late-career ring-collecting spree more than Aaron Rodgers, who has consistently seen the Packers do less to help his cause. However, the 37-year-old superstar/”Jeopardy!” host-in-waiting may have changed his franchise’s plan last season. Rodgers’ MVP season points to Jordan Love sitting for a while, which makes for poor use of a first-round pick in the modern NFL. Either way, the Packers must use this offseason to load up around their cornerstone player — which they did not do last year — while he is in this form.
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Patrick Mahomes’ cap number skyrockets from $5 million to $25 million ahead of next season, increasing the Chiefs’ degree of difficulty. But no team has a greater head-start. Although Kansas City’s O-line crumbled in Tampa, Mahomes will have his team perched as Super Bowl favorites again soon. His 114 TD passes dwarf any other QB’s total through three seasons, and no quarterback can match his MVP-Super Bowl MVP-Super Bowl qualifier achievement ledger in that time. With Mahomes and Andy Reid committed long-term, the Chiefs are better positioned than anyone in the most important roles. Playoff hero Chad Henne: also due back.