As the calendar creeps toward free agency, we've reached a perfect point to reset under center across the league.
The quarterback carousel has already turned a few times, placing significant faces in new places. We'll see more movement when the new league year opens on March 17 and plenty of changes at the end of April, when QB-needy teams select the signal-callers of the future. But in the meantime, let's explore where teams currently stand at the game's most important position.
To add a little fun and flair to this QB examination, I decided to pair teams and their current situations with titles of songs performed by musical acts ranging from Jay-Z to Dean Martin. Consider this a soundtrack curated to define your 2021 quarterbacking landscape. Let's dive in.
We don't have to say much here. Lamar Jackson is the guy, clearly, and it's on the Ravens to improve the capabilities of their offense. Baltimore is tasked with figuring out how to handle Orlando Brown's trade request, which will take away a premier blocker who has protected Jackson for the majority of the last three years. But perhaps an even more pressing issue for the Ravens is to supply Jackson with a better receiving corps. Dismantling its three-headed tight end room proved to be a downgrade for the Ravens in 2020, and Jackson simply needs better options at receiver outside of Marquise Brown. But when it comes to quarterback, there's no question.
That 10-year, $450 million contract should tell you all you need to know. Every team wants what the Chiefs have in Patrick Mahomes. And he's still just 25 years old ...
Tennessee locked itself into Ryan Tannehill when it signed him to a four-year, $118 million deal last year, so he's not going anywhere in 2021. After posting a league-best 117.5 passer rating in less than a full season in 2019, Tannehill recorded another stellar mark of 106.5 last year. The Titans have questions to answer elsewhere, but not at quarterback.
We're two or three years out from potential drama at the position in the vein of Brett Favre's unceremonious departure from Green Bay, but for now, this is Aaron Rodgers' team. The 37-year-old won the MVP award by putting together a scintillating season, finishing with a passer rating just one point below his career-best mark (122.5 in 2011). Although he fell short of the Super Bowl again, creating a bit of madness with his postgame comments after the NFC title game, it's nearly impossible to see anyone other than Rodgers under center for the Pack in Week 1. The veteran will again look toward April and hope his team adds offensive weapons in the draft. And while the salary-cap crunch has forced Green Bay to make a couple veteran cuts, Rodgers should return with a roster capable of another deep playoff run. With Jordan Love getting plenty of valuable experience in the same quarterback room, the Pack have one of the best, if not the best, quarterback situations in the league for both the short and long term.
Kirk Cousins will be Minnesota's guy for the next two years. The extension he signed last offseason ($61 million guaranteed at signing) runs through 2022, and there's no reason to believe Minnesota will look elsewhere before that deal nears its end. Cousins is who he is: an effective play-action quarterback who excels statistically but won't routinely go toe-to-toe with top-tier quarterbacks -- frustrating Vikings fans at times. Planning for the future can begin this offseason, but Minnesota has more pressing needs, especially on defense after a year of turnover.
Tom Brady has one year left on his two-year, $50 million deal, and if the messaging from Tampa Bay's Super Bowl LV boat parade wasn't clear enough, the Buccaneers are all in for a repeat bid in 2021. The future is now, and now means another year with Brady under center, with an extension also possible as he continues defying Father Time. Just be careful to avoid saying the Buccaneers are attempting to "run it back" -- as Bruce Arians said at the parade, that was Kansas City's thing. Tampa Bay's thing is Brady. One more year! One more year!
Justin Herbert didn't expect to make his first start in Week 2, and the rest of the football world didn't see an Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign coming. That's what happened, though, and now the Chargers can sleep well at night knowing they have their guy. Herbert wasn't just a good rookie, he was an excellent quarterback, landing among some of the league's best in most passing categories, and he fills a vacancy some feared would loom as a prolonged issue when Philip Rivers moved on. Grab the sunglasses, because Herbert's future is very bright.
What was said about Justin Herbert can also be said about Joe Burrow, who was in the OROY conversation before he suffered a season-ending knee injury. If Burrow can return to form and pick up where he left off, the Bengals will have a quarterback they can count on to cause problems for the rest of the AFC North, and NFL at large, for years to come. Clearing the first major hurdle in what should be a long NFL journey begins in 2021.
Josh Allen took a massive leap in 2020, meshing perfectly with offensive coordinator Brian Daboll in Year 3. The Pro Bowler finished fifth in passing yards and posted a 37:10 TD-to-INT ratio and a 107.2 passer rating (fourth among all NFL passers). Allen would have had a legitimate MVP case in a season not dominated by Aaron Rodgers, and he's now positioned firmly as the Bills' franchise quarterback and the face of Buffalo. Should he continue at this pace, the Bills won't have to address the position for the next decade.
Kyler Murray was putting together a potential MVP-like campaign early in 2020 before the Cardinals' offense grew stagnant, and a late-season leg injury dampened the spark from the young signal-caller. The upcoming season presents Murray with a fresh opportunity, and his coaching staff could do him a favor by getting a little more diverse with the team's offensive approach (moving DeAndre Hopkins around, for starters). Murray possesses a unique blend of mobility and arm talent that makes him a nightmare for defenses to contain, but he and coach Kliff Kingsbury have to find their way out of the rut that doomed their once-promising season. Murray is entrenched as the team's starter. There is no Plan B at the position, nor should there be. But the pressure is building on the former No. 1 overall pick to take this Cardinals franchise back to the postseason.
The Browns finally turned the corner most expected from them a season earlier, with new coach Kevin Stefanski proving to be a great fit and play-caller for Baker Mayfield. Cleveland finished 11-5, won its first playoff game since the 1994 season and nearly knocked off the defending champions in the Divisional Round in a season that proved a crucial point: Mayfield can go out and win the Browns a game. He did it on multiple occasions in 2020 and has put the Browns in an interesting position: Do they extend him now? Or, pick up his fifth-year option and see if he can do it again before making a long-term commitment? Either way, if things continue along the trend from 2020, the Browns will soon be browsing jewelry displays for the ring that marries them to Mayfield.
One needn't look any further than Dallas' drop-off in production after Dak Prescott's season-ending injury to understand just how valuable he is to the future of the Cowboys. Prescott was in position to cash in last offseason, but opted to play on the franchise tag when a long-term deal couldn't be reached. Despite the gruesome and devastating leg injury that cut his season short, Prescott finds himself back at the negotiating table and in line for a major payday. We're due for another round of contract negotiation updates, but as Jerry Jones said near the end of the season, Prescott has proven he's Dallas' guy.
Deshaun Watson was the lone bright spot in an incredibly forgettable Texans season, putting up gaudy numbers as he singlehandedly carried Houston week in and week out. But after a slew of questionable decisions and broken promises, Watson apparently has had enough with the organization. The quarterback requested a trade earlier this year and isn't budging on his wish, while the Texans aren't blinking in a staring contest that could drag into the summer. We've covered a myriad of potential landing spots for Watson -- who wouldn't want an elite quarterback just entering his prime? -- but it will require the Texans to at least consider a trade, something they appear unwilling to do. It would be a bad business decision for Houston to trade Watson, of course, but so would entering a season with an unhappy quarterback who could refuse to play. Resolving this issue is by far the Texans' top priority. It's not hyperbole to say that getting this wrong could set the franchise back years, even a decade.
2021 feels like a defining year for the Jimmy Garoppolo era, because if he's going to be the franchise quarterback beyond the upcoming season, he needs to, you know, be available. We recently heard from GM John Lynch, who essentially said Garoppolo is undoubtedly their guy -- if he's healthy. So that solves that, right? Wrong. Since inking a five-year, $137.5 million deal prior to the 2018 season, Jimmy G has started just 25 of 48 regular-season games and ranks ninth in most turnovers per start (1.0, min. 25 starts). Sure, he did quarterback the 2019 squad that went to the Super Bowl, but the 29-year-old has been too inconsistent and unreliable during his three-year run as the 49ers' QB1. Plus, the organization could save $23.6 million against the cap (eating just $2.8M) by moving on from him this year. Could the Niners make a play for Deshaun Watson? It would cost a lot, but undoubtedly raise their ceiling. That dream scenario aside, Garoppolo's contract and lack of availability could be key factors working against his long-term future in the Bay Area.
Mark Drew Lock's first season as incomplete because of the small five-start sample size. In Lock's second season, he lost his best target, Courtland Sutton, to a torn ACL in Week 2, suffering a shoulder injury himself that same week, which knocked him out for two games. He was frustratingly inconsistent when he returned, embodying a lost Broncos campaign that included just five wins. As good as he was at points last season (see Weeks 7 and 14), those performances rightfully get overshadowed by his league-worst 15 INTs (tied with Carson Wentz). Lock will get another opportunity in Year 3, but the clock is officially ticking on the former second-rounder. If Denver doesn't see a boost in his play, the organization will likely being looking for his replacement in the 2022 draft.
Like his draft classmate Drew Lock, Daniel Jones took a statistical step back in his second season, but also battled through injury to start 14 games. There are moments when it appears Jones can be the guy for New York, like when he leads a methodical, 19-play march down the field in a Monday night game against the Steelers, but those instances too often are followed by a crushing mistake. In that Week 1 loss, it was Jones' interception in the end zone that robbed the Giants of a chance to take a lead late in the third quarter. New York lost that game by 10. Jones needs to prove his flashes can become the norm, and he also needs more help around him. The Giants will get a huge boost when Saquon Barkley returns, but they will still need to improve up front and add more playmakers, as well. If all of that comes together in 2021, then we'll finally get a legitimate look at Jones' potential. More importantly, though, GM Dave Gettleman will have his best opportunity yet to determine whether his former first-round pick is the person to lead the franchise going forward.
Tua Tagovailoa began his pro career showing flashes of what drove Miami to take him fifth overall last spring. He just needs to do be more consistent. Dolphins fans have reason to feel encouraged, though, as Tagovailoa showed on several occasions an ability to learn from his mistakes and avoid repeating them. In Year 2, it's about stringing together quality outings. While I still think Miami would be the ideal landing spot for Deshaun Watson in a blockbuster deal, and the Dolphins could use the third overall pick in the 2021 draft on a new passer, the unlikelihood of both scenarios makes Tagovailoa the team's best realistic option at the position. That said, Tagovailoa can't find himself in future situations where he's benched mid-game for his backup multiple times. The only thing that can rescue a franchise quarterback is his own performance, and the Dolphins need Tagovailoa's well-documented work ethic to lead to a stronger showing in his second season.
The Carson Wentz trade made clear that the rebuilding Eagles will go into 2021 with Jalen Hurts as their starter. That shouldn't keep Philadelphia from exploring other options at the position in the draft, of course; with just four games under his belt, Hurts is far from having a complete evaluation. He showed flashes in 2020, but if he's to carry over any of his rookie success into Year 2, Philadelphia needs to get healthy up front and assemble a viable receiving corps. From there, it's on new coach Nick Sirianni to draw up an offense that maximizes Hurts' talents and GM Howie Roseman to upgrade the team's QB2 slot. The 2021 campaign will be about learning what the Eagles have at quarterback and elsewhere.
Seattle had a disappointing ending to the season with its quiet exit on Super Wild Card Weekend, and Russell Wilson has since been vocal about changes he'd like to see, including with his pass protection. A disconnect has been growing between Wilson and the Seahawks' brass, which has led more than 10 teams to reach out about Wilson's availability. The discord between QB and coaching staff has shifted the Seahawks from a team firmly set at the game's most important position to one with a suddenly shaky future. Wilson isn't getting any younger, and neither is Pete Carroll, but there appears to be a difference in philosophy that has driven Wilson to use the word "frustrated" publicly this offseason. The Seahawks -- as a team -- have to do better than they've done the last two seasons. Quarterback play certainly isn't the team's primary problem, but the lack of cohesion between the Seahawks' brass and the face of the franchise is starting to become one. If the two sides can't figure things out soon, there appears to be enough friction to cause a fracture in the relationship, which could lead to Wilson suiting up elsewhere sooner than later. But until then, Wilson remains one of the league's best players, and Seattle knows it. The Seahawks aren't going to blow up their opportunity to compete for a Super Bowl haphazardly.
Ben Roethlisberger's willingness to creatively restructure his contract to make things work next season answers the Steelers’ most pressing question -- but only for 2021. There's still a massive question lurking just below QB1 on the depth chart, and no matter how lovingly GM Kevin Colbert speaks of Mason Rudolph, we've seen enough of his tape to know he offers only mild promise at this point. (No, his Week 17 effort is not a sufficient sample to make a determination). The Steelers made a potentially savvy move in adding Dwayne Haskins on a reserve/future deal, but the former 15th overall pick has proven he’s not yet ready to be the face of a franchise.There's no slam dunk succession plan in place yet, meaning the Steelers have work to do beyond forcing Roethlisberger's square-peg contract into the team’s round salary-cap hole in the next month or so.
To Sam, or not to Sam? Sam Darnold hasn't been the franchise guy the Jets expected him to be when they took him third overall in 2018, but New York hasn't exactly put him in the best position to succeed, either. That brings the Jets to a pivotal fork in the road: Do they cut ties with Darnold before the fifth-year option deadline arrives in the coming months, let him play out the string of his initial four-year rookie deal without picking up the option, or trade him for assets and reset with a new quarterback taken with the second-overall pick? The Jets are likely mulling those options right now while also gauging the trade market for Darnold, a quarterback who could potentially excel in a better situation. Chicago, perhaps? New England? Don’t think the Jets were expecting to have to make another franchise-altering QB decision so soon.
The Bears, similar to the Jets, are at a crossroads. Mitchell Trubisky hasn't lived up to his draft pedigree, and the team’s attempt to hedge at the position by acquiring Nick Foles flat, too. Chicago has questions to answer elsewhere, but as we've seen in the last two campaigns, the Bears will continue to have a limited trajectory until they first find a solution under center. A deal for a reclamation project like Sam Darnold doesn't sound too bad, but the Bears could also explore a reunion of sorts by bringing in Alex Smith to pair with Matt Nagy, his former QB coach and offensive coordinator in Kansas City. Either way, the Bears have to be better on offense, and that starts by finding a solution at quarterback.
Back in February, coach Ron Rivera was noncommittal on whether Alex Smith, who still has two years left on his deal, would return to Washington next season. That likely didn't come as a huge surprise to Smith, who recently said he thought the organization didn't want him on the team last year as he worked himself back from a devastating leg injury and life-threatening infection to play in eight games and win Comeback Player of the Year. The franchise has already moved on from Dwayne Haskins, its 2018 first-round pick, after his disappointing display of immaturity and ineptitude, leaving the team with two remaining options (outside of Smith): Kyle Allen and Taylor Heinicke. While Ron Rivera seems to have a fascination with the former's potential, despite few memorable Sundays from the third-year passer to warrant much optimism, the latter just earned himself a two-year extension thanks to a gritty playoff performance. Neither seem like a concrete answer at the position. More changes -- via trade, free agency or draft -- could be ahead for this in-flux franchise.
Is Drew Brees going to retire? That's Question No. 1 for the Saints, who would have to kick their succession planning can down the road (along with their cap hurdles) if the 42-year-old were to return. Jameis Winston is headed to free agency, leaving Taysom Hill as the only other option (with a cap hit of roughly $16 million, to boot). Although Hill’s win-loss record in a fill-in role last season was encouraging, his tape less so, especially New Orleans’ Week 14 loss to Philadelphia. Sean Payton spoke glowingly of Winston during Super Bowl week, but the deep-in-the-red Saints would have to find a way to retain him, and they'll need an answer from Brees before they can do anything. The Saints have a few paths in front of them, but, unfortunately, none of them is incredibly exciting.
Atlanta is in a bit of a holding pattern at the moment with Matt Ryan, who has demonstrated he's still more than capable of carrying the mantle as the Falcons' franchise quarterback. But we're entering the territory in which the organization needs to start thinking about life after Ryan. The Falcons very well could spend the No. 4 overall pick in the draft on a promising young quarterback -- our own Chad Reuter and Daniel Jeremiah have them taking Ohio State's Justin Fields – which Ryan acknowledges as a real possibility. If anyone knows the score, it's a 13-year veteran in his mid-30s. Atlanta can get out of Ryan's contract in 2022 by stomaching a $26.5 million dead-cap hit, while waiting for Ryan's age-38 season in 2023 would drop that number to $8.6 million. So, what should the Falcons do? Draft his successor, sit him behind Ryan and make a decision a year or two from now. The time to plan ahead is now.
Unlike the Falcons, the Raiders don’t have to plan for the future at the position -- that is, unless you're in the camp that believes Las Vegas could, and should, do better than Derek Carr. We're in yet another offseason filled with some level of rumors regarding Carr's future with the team. The fifth-year QB played well enough last season to keep his starting role in 2021 and perhaps beyond. The Raiders’ top priority as it pertains to the position should actually be to find a suitor for backup Marcus Mariota, who flashed in relief of an injured Carr in Week 15. The Raiders could use the assets recouped in a deal for Mariota to address a few pressing areas across their roster. There are QB-needy teams around the league – looking at you, New England – that might be willing to pony up some quality draft capital for Mariota’s services.
So, the Cam Newton experiment didn't work out. Although not entirely his fault, Newton struggled across the board in New England, compiling a 7-8 record as the Patriots suffered their first losing season since 2000. With the QB set to become a free agent, who will fill the void under center in Foxborough? The Patriots could make a play for Marcus Mariota, who lingers in Las Vegas as Derek Carr’s backup. In his lone appearance last year, a narrow late-season loss to the Chargers, the former No. 2 overall pick showed he could still get the job done. Hefty incentives in his contract have “dried up” his trade market, per NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport, but that shouldn’t keep the Patriots from inquiring. The Patriots could also pursue an earth-shattering trade for Deshaun Watson, though that would be somewhat out of character for a Bill Belichick team. Could they try and bring Jimmy Garoppolo back to the East Coast? Might Sam Darnold find new life in New England? (The trade would be anathema to Jets fans.) Would Mitchell Trubisky be an upgrade? What about Patriots adversary Nick Foles? Is Ryan Fitzpatrick interested in a single-season stint in Foxborough? Perhaps Newton will get his wish and get another shot. The options are out there. The one thing they will have to address for any incoming QB to be successful: the team's underwhelming receiving corps.
Cannonball into your new pool by trading for Deshaun Watson, Scott Fitterer! The Panthers have been one of the teams most frequently linked to Watson, primarily because of the disappointing results from their trial with Teddy Bridgewater, and where they stand as a franchise. They're young with promise, in Year 2 of the Matt Rhule regime, and have an owner who is not afraid to spend his fortune to improve his team. As it so happens, no cost is too high to acquire a franchise talent like Watson. The Texans want star running back Christian McCaffrey? So be it. Multiple first-round picks? No sweat. If Carolina can’t swing a Watson deal, though, there are other suitable options to pursue (Sam Darnold and Ryan Fitzpatrick come to mind). If they decide to address the position in the draft, they’re in prime position at No. 8 overall to make a move for one of the top prospects.
Welcome to sunny and 72 degrees, Matthew Stafford. Leave that winter coat behind in Michigan, because you won't need it here, where the ocean breeze cools the Westside, the traffic jams up the 10 and 405, and you get to play in the sparkling football palace known as SoFi. Stafford arrives in L.A. as the chosen leader of the Rams, who boast the league’s No. 1 defense and an offense equipped with the personnel and coaching to make a deep postseason run. If Stafford can play anywhere close to how he has for the majority of his career, the Rams will be a Super Bowl contender. Stafford should enjoy his first taste of legitimate contention since Jim Caldwell was the man in Detroit. In fact, the 12th-year pro has never been in a situation this promising. Start fueling the hype machine, Rams fans, because the time to win is now.
The Matthew Stafford era has come to an amicable end in Detroit. In trading the franchise’s all-time leading passer to the Rams, the Lions landed a viable QB1 in Jared Goff and significant draft capital for the future. The team’s turnaround won’t be swift, but it at least won’t need to address the QB position this year, allowing them to address the receiving corps and build for the long run. The smaller spotlight in Detroit might be the exact type of environment Goff needs to get his career back on track. But if he’s unable to cut down on the turnovers that plagued him last season in L.A., we could see that bounty of Day 1 picks get used on a new signal-caller.
Colts fans eager to learn how their team would address its vacant starting QB spot, got their answer with the bombshell news that Indy had agreed to acquire Carson Wentz from the Eagles. After spending a year with a bolo tie-wearing quarterback (who very well could end up in Canton), the Colts will shift to Wentz, who they hope will rediscover his confidence after a disappointing end to a once-promising run in Philadelphia. Wentz joins a team coached by a familiar face in Frank Reich (Eagles offensive coordinator in 2016-17) and will line up behind a much better offensive line than the one he had with the Eagles in 2020 (though the Colts need to replace the retired Anthony Castonzo). It will be up to the fifth-year veteran to change gears and point himself in the right direction, and the Colts will seemingly give him every opportunity this season to get right. If he can return to form, Indy will have hit a home run with this deal. If not, well, he’s owed zero guaranteed money (and has a reasonable annual cap number) after this year.
The Jaguars’ new coach, Urban Meyer, chose Jacksonville as the place to make his NFL coaching debut in large part because of the resources (and cap space) the franchise holds. Chief among those desirable assets is the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 draft, which everyone can safely assume the team will use on Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Hitting on Lawrence would finally address a position that has plagued the organization for years; Jacksonville hasn’t had a QB1 post a passer rating of 100.0 or better since David Garrard’s 2007 campaign (102.2). Plus, what better way to kick off the new(ish) teal era, than with a hot-shot young passer. There's no guarantee Lawrence will be the franchise savior many expect him to be, of course, but hope is incredibly invigorating when it first arrives.