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|New Denver coach Josh McDaniels has said he wants to keep Jay Cutler in a Broncos uniform next season.|
Overshadowed by the quarterback drama in Denver and whether Matthew Stafford or Mark Sanchez could be the first quarterback drafted next month is that nearly a third of the NFL's teams have unsettled circumstances at the game's most important position.
This is not a new phenomenon, but with no projected immediate savior in the draft and the free-agent quarterbacks out of work for a reason, teams could once again be hoping simply to find game managers instead of game-changers.
The Minnesota Vikings and New York Jets have pretty solid rosters but have glaring uncertainties at quarterback. Open competition has been declared, but are the competitors -- Sage Rosenfels and Tarvaris Jackson in Minnesota and Kellen Clemens, Brett Ratliff and Erik Ainge in New York -- good enough for the eventual winner to make anyone feel more secure in September than they do now, four weeks before the draft?
"Unless you have a Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, everybody is always looking to find players who are as solid as them," Vikings vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman said. "There are only a few guys from a quarterback standpoint where a team can say, 'This is our guy, definitively, and we're pretty good with him at that spot.' Everybody is looking for what quarterback is going to give them the best chance of winning, and we go through that every season."
The added intrigue now stems from the 11 head-coaching changes, the uncertainty of immediate impact of draft prospects and the stability, or lack thereof, of some starters already in place.
Only four of the new head coaches can claim to have relatively stable situations at quarterback, with Indianapolis' Jim Caldwell and Seattle's Jim Mora inheriting proven starters Manning and Matt Hasselbeck. St. Louis' Steve Spagnuolo (Marc Bulger) and Oakland's Tom Cable (JaMarcus Russell) have starters who can allow the team to address their multiple other needs in the draft and free agency, but Bulger and Russell don't provide the comfort level of Manning and Hasselbeck.
New 49ers coach Mike Singletary has said Shaun Hill likely will be the team's starter heading into training camp, but he also said being the No. 1 entering training camp doesn't mean Hill will be the top guy coming out of training camp.
First-year Kansas City coach Todd Haley is taking a somewhat similar approach, but more like the one he and Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt took before the 2008 season in Arizona. Though the Chiefs traded a second-round pick to New England for Matt Cassel, Haley has informed last year's main starter, Tyler Thigpen, not to surrender his job. That same message was conveyed to veteran Kurt Warner last offseason after Whisenhunt named Matt Leinart the starter heading into preseason.
"We were up front about giving Kurt the opportunity to compete for it," Whisenhunt said. "The important thing was that we were very up front about it being a process, that it was not something we were going to live and die with every practice, every OTA. We were going to go through it and evaluate it through a period of time. Both guys played at a high level and that helped us because it raised the competition level."
That is the goal in Minnesota, Spielman said, but the process is and will be all-encompassing, not just with the Vikings, but for most every team where there is a quarterback competition.
"It starts from when they come into the offseason program," Spielman said. "It's not measured during preseason games. Once they get in with the coaches and the coaches see how their work ethic is -- not just the evaluation of physical skills, but how they prepare, their knowledge of the offense, leadership qualities, everything that goes with the position."
Free agents Jeff Garcia, Byron Leftwich, Rex Grossman and J.P. Losman are fallbacks in case the competitions have teams feeling uneasy. Though Stafford, Sanchez and Kansas State's Josh Freeman are likely first-round draft picks, none are expected to provide the immediate impact Matt Ryan or Joe Flacco made last season.
Denver -- What seemed to be the inheritance of one of the best quarterback situations in the league has turned into a mess for first-year coach McDaniels. After Denver entertained trade offers for Cutler and he found out about it in a way he didn't like, the relationship between Cutler and McDaniels went sour. If this situation can be repaired, the Broncos should be fine. If not, Cutler could be traded and Denver might have to completely rebuild.
Detroit -- The Lions could be Player No. 1 in the potential Cutler trade derby, seeing as they have the top overall draft pick as bait. Daunte Culpepper is Detroit's starter but the Lions could bump him in favor of Cutler or they could draft his eventual replacement with the No. 1 overall pick, should a trade not develop, which is more likely since No. 1 picks and the pricetag that comes along with it are difficult to unload. If Culpepper struggles or Detroit's season is sideways after eight games, there could be pressure to replace Culpepper.
New York Jets -- Kellen Clemens vs. Brett Ratliff vs. Erik Ainge. New coach Rex Ryan says he likes the trio of unproven youngsters. However, the Jets have also let the Broncos know that if they wants to trade Cutler, they'd be interested. Starting a member of this relatively untested in-house trio with a playoff-ready roster could be a gamble.
Cleveland -- Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson have a clean slate with new coach Eric Mangini, but they will be under a lot of scrutiny. Whoever doesn't quite measure up could be used as trade bait, maybe in a deal that involves Cutler.
Tampa Bay -- Luke McCown appears to be the starter for now but second-year player Josh Johnson and veteran Brian Griese are in the mix. The Bucs might not be completely sold on any of them, as they tried to foster a failed three-team trade that would have landed them Cutler. Now they appear set to give one of these players a shot. If new coach Raheem Morris isn't satisfied after minicamps, a free agent, like Rex Grossman, could get a call.
Minnesota -- The Vikings reportedly also have shown interest in Cutler, but their focus right now is on Jackson or Rosenfels. Those options weren't good enough to persuade free-agent WR T. J. Houshmandzadeh to sign there as he felt Seattle (and Hasselbeck) was more attractive. The Vikings don't need big things from their quarterback, just someone who can make enough plays to take pressure off Adrian Peterson.
San Francisco -- It appears to be Hill's job to lose, although Singletary seems committed to being non-committal. Former first-rounder Alex Smith is in the hunt. Also, there is speculation that the 49ers might draft a quarterback in case Hill or Smith fail to show long-term promise.
|Ed Zurga / Associated Press|
|Can Tyler Thigpen challenge Matt Cassel for the starting job in K.C.?|
Kansas City -- Even though Thigpen has been told to challenge for the job, Cassel is the quarterback the Chiefs hope to build around. Cassel is getting a passer-friendly scheme with Haley and he's used to being coached hard, which will be the case with Haley.
Jacksonville -- David Garrard did not follow up his solid 2007 season with a better 2008. An injury-depleted offensive line and the inability to run the ball allowed defenses to have their way with him. The Jaguars need to add wide receivers and a backup running back to help Garrard, but don't be surprised if Garrard's successor is drafted to be groomed just in case he stalls again.
St. Louis -- Marc Bulger is the starter but the 31-year old has been inconsistent the past two seasons. The Rams are expected to draft a quarterback to groom and wouldn't mind getting a shot at Kansas State's Josh Freeman. They won't use the No. 2 overall pick on a QB. They could trade into the first round with a valued second-round selection (No. 35 overall) to get to Freeman.
Chicago -- Kyle Orton's path to job security seemed to have been cleared when Grossman was allowed to walk via free agency. However, the team has said Orton has to earn it. The Bears have more needs to address in the draft, but a quarterback selection could be in the cards.
Oakland -- JaMarcus Russell, the first overall pick in 2007, needs to start showing some progress. A coaching change could stunt him early as he learns some new nuances, but with Trent Edwards, Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco -- players drafted after Russell -- showing rapid returns, more will be expected of him.
Washington -- Jason Campbell turned from the "Next Thing" to "Who's Next?" over the course of last season. His fast start, which accompanied the Redskins' success on the ground, brought hope. Washington's tailspin, which left the Redskins out of the playoffs, has fans in the football-crazy region a little nervous about Campbell and second-year head coach Jim Zorn.