Jimmy Garoppolo's 2016 season was the equivalent of an unfinished demo that inspires a music-industry bidding war. (At least, back when people paid for music.) He's a short-film festival award-winner about to be given big money by a studio. Whether anyone knows if he's any good is beside the point. Does anyone ever truly know?
The shoulder injury that sidelined the Patriots quarterback midway through a propulsive Week 2 start against Miami was cruel timing for the third-year player, yet could strangely work in Bill Belichick's favor. Garoppolo never had the chance to sully his boffo first impression, making him one of the most compelling quarterbacks who could be available this offseason.
In this week's QB Index, we'll take a look at the players set to hit free agency and some of the big names who could be released. But the trade market is where the most fun should be, with Garoppolo, Tony Romo and Tyrod Taylor all possibly on the table.
The updated 2016 QB rankings are at the bottom of the page, but for now, let's look ahead to the 2017 quarterback market:
1) Jimmy Garoppolo, New England Patriots: Garoppolo was torching the Dolphins in his second career start, showing a veteran's sense of pocket movement. He went through his progressions like an old pro, was decisive, accurate and productive with 232 yards and three touchdowns in 26 throws. Regular-Season Jimmy G. was a different player than Preseason Jimmy G. He looked like a quality starter. And then it was over.
In Garoppolo, teams like the Browns and 49ers could see the future. Belichick could see Tom Brady still playing at an MVP level and be ready to deal. Remember that the Pats also drafted Jacoby Brissett in the third round in 2016, so they would still have a young backup to study at Brady U. Considering what quarterbacks like Sam Bradford have been dealt for recently, Garoppolo could cost a first-round pick and a new contract. No one said this was going to be cheap.
2) Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys: The 36-year-old will be the biggest risk/reward option available. We've already spilled so many words on his future that there's no reason to repeat it all here. The biggest variable is whether he gets a chance to play again in Dallas, which would impact his trade value one way or another.
3) Tyrod Taylor, Buffalo Bills: He's a goner from the Bills -- if you believe the local coverage or consider that Rex Ryan was initially noncommittal about even starting Taylor in Week 15. Then again, Tyrod might just outlast Rex and/or general manager Doug Whaley in Buffalo.
It's impossible to project whether Taylor will be back when his coach and GM are uncertain. His contract has a monstrous option for 2017 that would essentially guarantee Taylor $40.5 million for the next two seasons. Moving forward, that actually should be the going rate for a mid-level starter with upside -- and that's what Taylor represents. While it's been frustrating to see the Bills fail to expand their passing game, Taylor has defined strengths with his vertical throws and exceptional running. He's also extremely careful with the ball. Put Tyrod with Rex's early Jets defenses, and you'd have a Super Bowl contender. (Rex has been chasing the ghosts of those defenses for six years now.)
In this market, with the salary cap rising exponentially, Taylor's contract can still be an asset. It would not be a surprise if some organization, even if it's not the Bills, wants to pay him that money. Sam Bradford is an instructive precedent again. Taylor would make plenty of teams better. Buffalo has until the third day of the league year to exercise the $15.5 bonus in Taylor's contract, so there is time to assess the market. If the Bills strike out on a possible trade, Taylor could fit in the category below as a candidate for release.
4) AJ McCarron, Cincinnati Bengals: The former fifth-round pick is set to enter the final year of his rookie deal with the Bengals in 2017, with no chance to surpass Andy Dalton the depth chart. He flashed potential in four starts last season, although the playoff outing against Pittsburgh won't help his case. He could be a target for a team looking for a low-cost option to compete for playing time. Hue Jackson, McCarron's former offensive coordinator, could be looking to bolster his quarterback room in Cleveland.
Candidates for release
1) Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears: NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport has reported that the Bears haven't ruled out keeping Cutler. This sounds like covering bases in case Chicago makes a coaching change and the new head man wants to keep Cutler around at a relatively affordable $12.5 million. The team could also try to see if he fetches even a late-round draft pick, like Carson Palmer did on his way out of Oakland. If that's the case, the rest of the league should call the Bears' bluff and wait for Cutler to be released. Even the last survivor on Cutler Island (ahem) admits he's been in Chicago too long.
2) Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers: Rapoport reported in early December that Kaepernick will void his contract to become a free agent after the season. At this rate, he's not going to replace the $14.5 million he's set to make from the 49ers next season. His freedom to choose his next destination could be worth more than that to Kaepernick, and we are dubious the 49ers would want to keep him at that salary anyhow. He's had a few nice moments this season, but Chip Kelly hasn't shown great confidence in Kaepernick with his play calling. A top-level backup contract sounds more likely than a real chance to start.
3) Robert Griffin III, Cleveland Browns: There's no getting around how scattershot Griffin has played in his two 2016 starts. Unless he improves his play, it's more likely that RGIII falls right out of the league than becomes Week 1 starter again.
4) Nick Foles, Kansas City Chiefs: He's somehow due $10.75 million next season. That looks like a contract intended to be discarded unless Foles is competing to start.
1) Kirk Cousins, Washington Redskins: It's hard to imagine the Redskins letting Cousins hit free agency, barring a total meltdown over the remainder of this season. Since a long-term deal will be complicated, the team could retain him using the franchise tag for a second straight year, which would cost nearly $24 million. That sounds crazier than Cousins turning into a mad bomber, but it's only a one-year commitment, and the salary cap is set to soar. If Olivier Vernon can earn $17 million per season on the open market, $24 million sounds like a bargain for a quality starting quarterback.
Cousins has earned a big deal in Washington with his play, yet we wouldn't completely rule out a different scenario. The organization's confidence in Jay Gruden's scheme and the team's offensive talent could make the Redskins consider a change. General manager Scot McCloughan has expressed some ambivalence about Cousins through the team's actions. With Cousins' value at an all-time high, it's at least possible the Redskins could consider a tag-and-trade scenario.
2) Mike Glennon, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Yeah, there's a massive drop from Cousins to the rest of the free-agent crop.
Glennon started 18 games over his first two seasons, throwing for 29 touchdowns, with 15 interceptions and 4,025 yards. Those numbers stack up well with other first- and second-year starters, as does Glennon's arm strength and anticipation. I ranked him as the No. 22 starter in the league as a rookie, although his play fell off behind a dreadful line in 2014. Buried behind Jameis Winston the last two years, Glennon's lack of mobility and slow trigger limit his ceiling. But he could turn into a Kerry Collins-like starter who works in a vertical offense. We'd like to see him get a chance.
3) Brian Hoyer, Chicago Bears: Hoyer has proven to be the perfect 1B quarterback option. You don't want him starting Week 1, but he's outplayed high-profile competition in his last three spots. He's a known commodity.
4) Geno Smith, New York Jets: His ability to connect with teammates in a leadership position is a bigger concern than his play. Get past the jokes and the headlines, and Smith is a compelling blend of talent, experience and youth. His last four games of the 2014 season were downright intriguing. Perhaps his ceiling is only that of a replacement-level starter, but teams could do a lot worse looking for a young backup.
5) Ryan Fitzpatrick, New York Jets: After 12 seasons and six teams, Fitzpatrick is no mystery to NFL organizations -- they know what the 34-year-old has to offer. He should continue to find work for a few more years, just not as a starter.
7) Case Keenum, Los Angeles Rams: By all accounts, he's a guy coaches love having around. His limitations throwing deep become more obvious the more he plays.
8) Matt McGloin, Oakland Raiders: In a perfect world, he'd be a rich man's Keenum.
Other names to watch: Mark Sanchez, Dallas Cowboys; EJ Manuel, Buffalo Bills; Blaine Gabbert, San Francisco 49ers; Matt Cassel, Tennessee Titans; Ryan Mallett, Baltimore Ravens; Landry Jones, Pittsburgh Steelers; Shaun Hill, Minnesota Vikings; Ryan Nassib, New York Giants.
And now, the 2016 QB rankings. These are based on this season's play only.
2016 QB Index Rankings: Week 15