We took a look last week at the teams that will be looking for quarterbacks in 2016. Now let's look at what players could be available at the most important position in sports.
As I mentioned recently in our top 20 unrestricted free agents, there are more interesting quarterbacks than usual headed for the open market. The problem for QB-hungry fans: teams rarely allow players they truly want to keep to ever hit free agency. The trade market could be active, especially in a league where Carson Palmer was dealt to Arizona not so long ago for virtually nothing. Home runs occasionally happen and there are some big names that could be available this offseason.
Let's start by looking at potential trade targets or roster cuts, then rank the impending free agents. If you are looking for the usual 2015 starting quarterback rankings, head straight to the bottom of this column.
Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints: He's still playing like a top-10 quarterback, so he has plenty of value. He is also entering the final year of his contract and could theoretically be packaged with coach Sean Payton if some team wanted to give the Saints a Godfather offer. A monster trade, though, is hard to imagine because of timing. The coaching carousel spins far earlier than free agency, and any team interested in Brees would have to work out a new contract with him.
It's also hard to imagine owner Tom Benson trading away the player that brought a Super Bowl to New Orleans, but it does make football sense. Brees' value will never be higher and he is set to count $30 million against the cap, a number that will have to be addressed in some way. He would be a fascinating fit for a team that believes they could win now like the Jets or Bills.
Colin Kaepernick, 49ers: It was only three short years ago where it was reasonable to see him as a betterprospect than Cam Newton and Russell Wilson. Whoops. Working with first-time offensive coordinator Geep Chryst this season didn't help, but Kaepernick has failed to build lasting tools as a starting quarterback. He still gives up on his first read too often and isn't comfortable in the pocket.
No matter what the 49ers say, Kaepernick is sure to be available for a trade. His year-to-year contract makes him easy to release if he gets healthy, but his torn labrum complicates matters. His $13.5 million salary is guaranteed for injury on April 1. So if he's not healthy by then, he's getting that money and is nearly impossible to trade. Plenty of teams would give Kaepernick a second chance, but they aren't going to want to pay that kind of money and a draft pick to do so. This has potential to get ugly.
Robert Griffin III, Redskins: RGIII is even more certain than Kaepernick to be playing on a new team in 2016. NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport reported last week that the Eagles, Cowboys and Texans could all have interest in him. His contract complicates any trade. He's due more than $16 million in 2016 and will simply be released if a trade can't be worked out with a new incentive-laden deal. It's hard to imagine the Redskins getting anything more than a mid-to-late round pick for him, although we've been surprised by quarterback trade value before.
Johnny Manziel, Browns: Manziel's audition for 2016 is incomplete. He's played like a young quarterback with some promise, but beauty will be in the eye of the beholder. If coach Mike Pettine stayed, we wouldn't be shocked to see Manziel traded for a mid-round pick. If Pettine is let go, the new coach will likely be expected to work with Manziel. His off-field struggles make it very unlikely another team would give up a high pick for him.
Zach Mettenberger, Titans: His stock was higher last offseason. He probably fits best as Marcus Mariota's short-term backup in Tennessee, although there will be a new coach and general manager in Tennessee that could have other ideas.
EJ Manuel, Bills: Tyrod Taylor should be the Bills' quarterback of 2016. It's past time for general manager Doug Whaley to admit a mistake in drafting Manuel. Some team could give up a late round pick for him.
Geno Smith, Jets: His availability could depend on Ryan Fitzpatrick re-signing with the Jets. If Fitzmagic is brought back, the Jets figure to let Geno get a fresh start elsewhere.
Candidate for release
Peyton Manning, Broncos: Retirement is the most likely outcome of Manning's offseason. But if he wants to keep playing, as has already been reported, things will get messy. There's no chance the Broncos bring him back with a $21 million cap figure and it's unlikely he'd stay in Denver at all.
Top QB Free Agents
1. Sam Bradford, Eagles: Chip Kelly says he wants to re-sign Bradford. It's uncertain if Kelly will even be back next season. There's no denying Bradford has played better down the stretch, although we wouldn't call his play inspiring. It looks just good enough to have a team or three overpay Bradford. Again.
2. Kirk Cousins, Redskins: Cousins is one of the most effective quarterbacks in the league when throwing the ball under 10 yards. He's one of the least effective when throwing it over 10 yards. He has the perfect coach for that skill set in Jay Gruden, and has brought stability to the Redskins quarterback situation. The upside for Cousins is Andy Dalton, which is nothing to dismiss. It would be shocking if the Redskins didn't keep him.
3. Brock Osweiler, Broncos: The more Osweiler plays, the harder it is to imagine a team other than the Broncos offering him some monster contract. Denver knows what they have in Osweiler, so it will be a bad sign if they don't offer him a competitive deal to be their starter.
4. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jets: Fitzmagic had the best 2015 season of this group, but he can't take Chan Gailey, Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker with him to a new team. He's been on six squads for a reason and hasn't inspired crazy bidding wars when he's been available as a free agent. The Jets should reward him with a contract that has a lot of guaranteed money over the next two years. it's the best move for both sides.
5. Chase Daniel, Chiefs: Whether it happens in the preseason or late in the regular season, Daniel rarely looks like a step down from Alex Smith when he's played for Andy Reid. He could be a nice value pickup with potential for a Cousins-like run as a mid-range starter.
6. Drew Stanton, Cardinals: Quality backups are hard to find, and Stanton qualifies. Bruce Arians loves him and will want to keep him with the Cardinals.
*And finally, we have our usual 2016 rankings of quarterbacks below. Yep, they are sponsored again. The rankings are based on this year's play only. We'll be back next week with our year-end QB Index Awards. *