The annual quarterback carousel, when NFL teams swap around available QBs through free agency and trades, often draws attention but actually tends to lead to some of the least-important transactions in hindsight. A team is more likely to regret their big quarterback acquisition for one very simple reason: They are available QBs.
With the NFL’s clever installment of the exclusive franchise tag, teams can guarantee that their starting quarterback, the centerpiece of the franchise, can’t play for any other team that season. In recent years, the tag has been used on Michael Vick, Drew Brees and Kirk Cousins. Even just knowing the tag exists gives teams, and sometimes players, leverage to sign long-term deals before the tag becomes necessary. Therefore, teams are rarely winning Super Bowls with quarterbacks who were drafted by other teams because if you are a Super Bowl-caliber QB, you probably showed those qualities while still playing on your rookie deal.
Since 2003, the only exceptions to this have been Brees with the New Orleans Saints in 2009 and Peyton Manning with the Denver Broncos in 2015. Brees was only available to the Saints because of an injury concern and the fact that the San Diego Chargers were content with waiting on the future of Philip Rivers, while Manning, who was also given the franchise tag in 2011, was able to leave because of a neck injury and the incoming rookie season of Andrew Luck with the Indianapolis Colts.
That being said, the 2017 quarterback carousel has all the makings for being an exception.
It’s fair to say that a number of well-known quarterbacks will be starting for new teams next season, with the potential for some massive shakeups if teams are willing to part with high draft picks and eight-figure salaries for untested or oft-injured signal-callers. These are some potential outcomes to the biggest questions out there on the quarterback carousel market.
Washington Redskins: Kirk Cousins stays
Were he to become a free agent, Cousins would be the best under-30 quarterback to hit the market since Brees in 2006. But Cousins has no injury concerns and the Redskins have no backup plan. He’s going to get the franchise tag and will take the risk of playing on a one-year deal with the possibility of trying to force his way over to the 49ers in 2018. Look for Washington to scout quarterbacks hard in the draft, as well as someone like Nick Foles in free agency (assuming the Chiefs release him) as additional insurance.
New England Patriots: Jimmy Garoppolo stays
Rumors persist that a team like the Browns may be willing to trade the 12th overall pick to the Patriots for Garoppolo, but the value of rookie contracts, the fact that Garoppolo’s deal expires in 2018, and the reality that he’s a former second round pick who has done little to prove he’d be better than a quarterback Cleveland could draft in the first, tells me that no such move will happen. Garoppolo has played in 1.5 games over his first three seasons and he had the benefit of playing for the greatest coach in NFL history. It’s actually too risky for the Browns to give up a first round pick for Garoppolo and too risky for New England to sacrifice him for a second rounder with Tom Brady turning 40 this year.
Buffalo Bills: Tyrod Taylor stays
One of the biggest mysteries of the offseason is what the Bills will do with Taylor. If they release him before March 11th, Buffalo essentially is left with only $2.85 million in dead money for 2017. If they don’t, $27.5 million in salary will be guaranteed over the next two years. How that decision is made could come down to whether or not new head coach Sean McDermott gets significant input on who his quarterback will be; McDermott may prefer Taylor as he’s a good fit to the type of offense he ran with the Carolina Panthers, plus offensive coordinator Rick Dennison was Taylor’s QB coach with the Baltimore Ravens in 2014. However, general manager Doug Whaley doesn’t seem to be a big fan of Taylor’s and may not want to commit a large chunk of his cap space to a quarterback he doesn’t love. Whaley should give his head coach the benefit of the doubt and he can still add competition through the draft and second tier free agency.
Houston Texans: Brock Osweiler stays, Matt McGloin joins the party
As much as the Texans should have just never signed Osweiler to a large contract, there’s no getting around the fact that they did and they will be allocating $19 million of salary to him — but the starting gig is up for grabs. There’s not enough room in the budget to add a big name quarterback on top of Osweiler, so they will just need to add to the competition instead, potentially in the form of McGloin or Robert Griffin III.
Kansas City Chiefs: Alex Smith stays, draft a QB early
If there’s a big surprise to be made this year, it’s potentially in Kansas City where the Chiefs may realize they’ve seen their ceiling with Alex Smith and it doesn’t include the Super Bowl. When Andy Reid had Donovan McNabb in Philly, there was an explosiveness to McNabb that consistently put the Eagles in championship contention. As perfectly reliable as Smith is, he’s not the answer and the team probably has designs to release him in 2018. This quarterback class has enough first and second round depth to expect the Chiefs to draft one early and push Smith for the starting role right away.
Denver Broncos: Paxton Lynch, Trevor Siemian, add E.J. Manuel
The Broncos went from Super Bowl champions to third in the division and that was despite the fact that they actually got better at quarterback. It would then seem like a priority for John Elway to do what he did in 2012 when he got Manning, but I wouldn’t expect history to repeat itself. Elway is very high on Lynch and Siemian was a decent starter for most of last season. It’s more likely that they add a low-key free agent like Manuel and draft a quarterback on day three to spark competition, but Lynch may have the inside track to starting Week 1.
New York Jets: Mike Glennon
Glennon to the Jets almost becomes by way of process of elimination, but there’s more of a direct connection to be made as well. New York is already rumored to be interested in Glennon, and they’ve been mentioned in potential trade rumors for him in years past. The Jets also already have an adequate offense in place and if they don’t release Brandon Marshall or Eric Decker, they could potentially return to their 2015 form when Ryan Fitzpatrick threw 31 touchdown passes. It’s too much of a rebuild in places like San Francisco or Cleveland. This is perhaps the most sensible move for both the team and the player and the Osweiler disaster of a year ago means that teams probably won’t be overly-aggressive in making offers to Glennon, who hasn’t made a start since November of 2014.
Cleveland Browns: Colin Kaepernick
There were rumors last summer that the Browns were interested in making a trade for Kaepernick but he stayed in San Francisco and did better than expected, throwing 16 touchdowns and only four interceptions on a remarkably untalented offense. Though the odds that he stays are have gone up with Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch in the fold, Kaepernick is likely still going to find a new team to start over with in 2017. Cleveland head coach Hue Jackson probably hopes he chooses the Browns, because Jackson’s been singing Kaepernick’s praises for years, telling Sports Illustrated in 2013: “Leader, won a ton of games at Nevada, really impressive when you talked to him, strong, all the tools to win in the NFL. No doubt in my mind he was going to be good.” Jackson urged the Oakland Raiders to trade up for Kaepernick in the 2011 draft, but he was overruled. With over $100 million in cap space, Jackson can probably convince GM Sashi Brown to give some of that space to Kap.
Chicago Bears: Tony Romo, add a prized rookie
Should the Bears draft a quarterback early or sign a marquee quarterback while they have the chance? Why not both? Head coach John Fox knows that he barely survived after a 3-13 season so improvement needs to happen immediately, while a long-term answer at quarterback also must be addressed. Chicago will save $14 million by releasing Jay Cutler, which is the same base salary that Romo was set to make for the Dallas Cowboys. After the Cowboys cut Romo, the Bears could probably add him for not much more than they were supposed to pay Cutler, and that does not at all preclude them from drafting a quarterback with the third overall pick if they covet someone there. Fox is more than familiar with this type of situation, having seen the Broncos do the same when they signed Manning and drafted Osweiler in 2012.
San Francisco 49ers: Jay Cutler, add a prized rookie
Why should the Niners want what the Bears don’t? Because Chicago has a better offense to build around a quarterback, while San Francisco has to start from scratch at nearly every relevant position. It would make no sense for Shanahan to try and link to a former protege (Cousins) when his top two receivers could be Quinton Patton and Bruce Ellington. They could still draft a quarterback with the number two pick and before they throw him to the wolves without any weapons, Cutler could take the wounds and give the franchise time to build an a fully fleshed out team. With freshly signed six-year deals, Shanahan and Lynch can play the slow game at finding a quarterback.
In addition to these moves, expect the Steelers, Saints, Cardinals and Chargers to get more aggressive at finding successors to their current veteran quarterbacks. Most likely that will come through the draft, but the Bengals’ A.J. McCarron could also find his name on a breaking news headline this year as the subject of a trade. Other than that, not much of note is going to be available. That’s just how things go when it comes to finding a true franchise quarterback.