NFLTR Review: 2021 Quarterback Carousel

     

Happy Friday! Plenty of NFL action coming up these next three weeks, and NFLTR Review is no different. This week’s packed issue includes: 

  • Projecting the 2021 quarterback carousel: Carson Wentz, Sam Darnold, Cam Newton and more.
  • A look at the playoff picture with the Cinderella runs and heartbreaks ahead
  • Why actions speak louder than conventional wisdom for NFL teams and dead money

Quarterback Carousel

The 2021 quarterback market won’t be quite as spicy as it was in 2020, with former MVP’s, Super Bowl winners, No. 1 picks and future Hall of Famers changing teams. But there should still be a fair amount of action and intrigue as a number of teams figure out their plans for the most important position in the sport. 

The last three games of the season will have an impact on a few of these situations, like in Philadelphia. But enough has transpired to have a fairly good sense of which of the NFL’s 32 starting quarterback seats are up for grabs and what options will be available. 

Who’s Available?

Options for many teams this year will be more limited than last year’s bonanza. But there still should be some avenues for teams to pursue in free agency, via trade or in the draft. 

Free Agency:

Potential Trades

Draft

Last week we analyzed which quarterbacks could realistically be available on the market as a part of a bigger look at free agency in 2021 and Newton headlined the group. Wentz and Darnold have come up frequently in trade speculation, while these four quarterbacks are starting to build some consensus in scouting circles as first-round picks in April.

Per usual, many of the guys available have warts that are easy to pick at, which is why they’re potentially available in the first place. But there’s no shortage of examples of quarterbacks who found success after signing elsewhere or being traded, which could compel teams to roll the dice on a few of these guys. 

Here’s a look at each team with a potential vacancy and the factors they will be weighing as the carousel starts to spin in a few weeks. 

Help Wanted: Jets, Jaguars, Bears, Washington, 

If you peruse the bottom of ESPN’s QBR leaderboard, you’ll find the quarterbacks from these teams represented prominently. The Jets and Jaguars are jockeying for the top pick in the draft with New York has to be the favorite to land the selection. Both are good bets to take quarterbacks with those picks. Lawrence can start apartment hunting in New Jersey as soon as the regular season ends if the Jets lose out, while most of the early buzz around the No. 2 pick surrounds Fields, though the Ohio State dual-threat star has less of a grip on his rank than Lawrence. 

Both teams also have young quarterbacks who will be pushed out by the hot new arrivals. Darnold should generate a fair amount of interest on the trade block given how well-regarded he was coming out of USC in 2018. While he won’t fetch a first-round pick, a second is within the realm of possibility. Minshew Mania is also likely coming to its end in Jacksonville, but he offers more value to the Jaguars as a cheap backup than as a potential trade chip at this point. 

Neither Chicago nor Washington will have the luxury of a top pick to take a swing on a new quarterback of the future, as each franchise notched its sixth win of the season Sunday and are slated to pick in the teens. Bears QB Nick Foles is under contract in 2021 and figures to be on the team, as his contract is both fairly cheap and hard to get out of. The team and Mitchell Trubisky will almost certainly mutually part ways unless Chicago miraculously makes the playoffs. Beyond that, a lot hinges on whether the Bears clean house and fire GM Ryan Pace and HC Matt Nagy

Forecasting will be easier when we know if a new front office will be making the decisions, but right now Chicago’s options look limited. The options in free agency like Newton, Dalton and Brissett aren’t necessarily clear upgrades to Foles. Ideally, the Bears would land a franchise quarterback in the draft, but would either Wilson or Lance be available at 15 where they’re currently slotted? Lance could be but history suggests the Bears will need to trade up if they have a guy in mind this coming April. 

Washington has a plethora of options already in house with veteran Alex Smith, 2019 first-rounder Dwayne Haskins and former Panthers starter Kyle Allen. It’s easy to get the sense Washington would be happy rolling with Smith in 2021 as a bridge quarterback to the next guy. But while Smith has been steady — and the fact he’s playing at all is miraculous — it’s hard to stack him up against other NFL starters. There’s also no guarantee he comes back in 2021, as Smith has little else to prove after his inspirational return to the field. 

If Smith retires, Washington will need another bridge starter. Newton stands out given his history with HC Ron Rivera. If he isn’t retained by the Patriots, he’s the obvious target. Dalton is a similar player to Smith and could play a similar game manager role. 

For Washington’s long-term options, Allen has shown some competency as a backup but relying on him for long stretches as a starter hasn’t gone well for either Carolina or Washington the past two seasons. Haskins of course was demoted all the way to third string this year. The new coaching staff has no ties to Haskins and no real commitments, but if he could live up to his potential that would solve a lot of problems. They haven’t thrown in the towel on him publicly but their actions this offseason will speak volumes about how they perceive his response behind the scenes. For longer term options, Washington could use a Day 2 pick or pursue more aggressive options like trading for Darnold or up in the first round. 

Wildcards: Eagles, Broncos, Colts, Patriots, Panthers, 49ers

As we sit right now, we’re missing valuable pieces of information that will influence what happens with these teams’ quarterback situations one way or another this offseason. The outcomes and events of the final three games of the season will impact how these franchises proceed. 

The big headliner is Philadelphia. If Jalen Hurts continues to excel and leads Philadelphia to the NFC East title, that could be enough to push Wentz out of town. We’ll have more o playoff scenarios below, but the easiest path for the Eagles is winning the next three against the Cardinals, Cowboys and Washington while getting a little help from the Giants and the Football Team. If Hurts comes back to earth, then it’s harder to see HC Doug Pederson being back in 2021 and whoever the new coach is will be hired to fix the Eagles’ suddenly broken 27-year-old, $32 million-a-year franchise quarterback. 

In Denver, Drew Lock was struggling mightily until a four-touchdown outburst against the Panthers this past weekend. He’s still only completing 57.3 percent of his passes and has a 13-13 touchdown to interception ratio. A hot finish down the stretch could convince GM John Elway and HC Vic Fangio to give him another shot in 2021, when Denver will presumably be healthier. 

If he stumbles, though, Elway could try to bring on a veteran to take advantage of what looks like a strong supporting cast on offense. He has a clear type and if the Eagles are really looking to unload Wentz, it’s not hard to see Elway being interested. Newton, Winston and Brissett also fit the big-armed mold Elway gravitates to, though any interest in them will likely be predicated on just how bad Lock looks the rest of the way. As for Darnold, it would probably depend on just how much Elway liked him coming out, but it’s hard to say Darnold is definitively a better option than Lock based on their careers so far. 

The Colts are getting a high level of play out of current starter Philip Rivers, but he just turned 39 and is playing through a foot injury that will require surgery to repair at the end of the season. Rivers already has his exit strategy lined up as a high school coach, the question will be if he takes it this offseason. There’s a number of factors, including his health, family and how deep into January the Colts end up playing this year. 

Colts HC Frank Reich seems happy to bring Rivers back for as long as he wants but if the Colts do end up in the market, they’ll be the heavy favorites to land Wentz, assuming the Eagles are interested in a trade. If Wentz is off the table, they could go a number of ways. Brissett started for them in 2019 but that experience led them to pursue Rivers, so it’s hard to see him as more than a last resort. Darnold makes a lot of sense as someone to groom behind Rivers if he comes back for another year but the Colts would be going out on a limb making him the starter. Dalton is the best scheme fit of the available free agents but might be a lower ceiling option than even Brissett. 

Indianapolis could make an aggressive play for a quarterback in the draft but it would likely cost a fortune in assets to get up far enough from where they’ll likely be picking. Rivers and Wentz look like their two best options for 2021 but if neither are on the table, the Colts could be in trouble. 

2020 has been rocky for the Patriots in their first year post-Brady, and to Newton’s credit, there are probably few who could have handled following that act much better. It’s still not clear if he’ll be back in 2021, though. Newton’s Patriots tenure is a complicated evaluation. It’s probably fair to say he’s not nearly as bad as some of his ugly passing statistics suggest, but also that he’s no longer the player who won MVP in 2015. Could he be a capable starter on an offense that’s not fielding JV-level talent at the skill positions? It could cost the Patriots $24 million on the franchise tag to find out. 

The other factor to consider is if the Patriots move on from Newton, it will be difficult to secure a clear upgrade. New England doesn’t exactly have the cushy environment needed to iron out what’s ailing Wentz. None of the other free-agent options are real upgrades, though Brissett has some past experience with the Patriots to draw on. They’d have to trade up from the mid-teens to land a quarterback in the first round. Barring something funky like the 49ers making Jimmy Garoppolo available for a trade, re-signing Newton and drafting another quarterback might be the Patriots’ best bet. 

As for the 49ers, they face a similar quandary to New England. Garoppolo has been shaky but San Francisco stacked him and Brady side by side last offseason and elected to stick with Garoppolo. There’s not a comparable alternative this year, so the smart money is on the 49ers keeping Garoppolo and perhaps acquiring stiffer competition behind him than Nick Mullens. 49ers HC Kyle Shanahan raved about Darnold before San Francisco’s game against the Jets earlier this year, so it’s easy to envision them sending a pick to New York. 

Finally, the Panthers have been pretty good offensively with Teddy Bridgewater leading the way this season. But Bridgewater has come up short repeatedly in the fourth quarter in most of the Panthers’ losses, resurrecting doubts about just how high his ceiling is. If Carolina keeps losing and creeps even higher than No. 6 overall in the first round, that puts quarterback firmly on the table if either Fields or BYU’s Wilson is available. 

Eye On The Future: Saints, Steelers, Buccaneers

All three of these teams sport future Hall of Fame quarterbacks who are up there in years. Saints HC Sean Payton likes to play coy with the media and play up his mastermind persona, but he’s shot straight with their quarterback situation. If Drew Brees retires as everyone expects after this season, Taysom Hill and Winston will compete for the starting job in 2021. Winston is technically a free agent but it’s hard to see any other team offering a more compelling pitch than New Orleans. 

Tampa Bay is firmly in its win-now window with Tom Brady and Bruce Arians. There are no illusions about either being there in five years. Brady has two more years before his stated goal of playing until he’s 45, and it’s safe to say all decisions by the organization in that time frame will be made to maximize the Bucs’ Super Bowl chances. Former first-round QB Josh Rosen is on the practice squad and the team’s probably content with that as a developmental long-term option. 

Retirement doesn’t appear to be in the near future for Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger, in fact, an extension is one of the best ways for Pittsburgh to create much-needed cap space. But he’ll be 39 in 2021 and Pittsburgh’s offense hasn’t attacked as much down the field this year as Roethlisberger comes off major elbow surgery. The Steelers didn’t show much of a sense of urgency to upgrade from Mason Rudolph with better developmental options like Winston this past offseason, but maybe they take a different tack with someone like Darnold?

Wishful thinking: Lions, Falcons, Raiders, Vikings 

There’s been some rumbling about the Lions and QB Matthew Stafford’s future with the organization. Stafford has been through a number of different regimes and while his talent is undeniable, he hasn’t led the Lions to a playoff win. At 33, he might not make sense if the Lions do a full-scale rebuild. He might not even want to be a part of it. Still, Detroit is a notch below where they probably need to be to lock up a quarterback without trading up in the first round. Stafford remains the most logical choice going forward until we hear otherwise. 

The Falcons are boxed in with Matt Ryan due to his contract in 2021. That shouldn’t stop them from drafting a quarterback in the top ten if they have the opportunity and they really like Lance or Wilson. Derek Carr and Kirk Cousins have fought back and answered a lot of doubters this year with their performances for the Raiders and Vikings. Their teams could explore options in the draft but are unlikely to make a dramatic move away from the incumbent starters. Marcus Mariota didn’t look too shabby either for the Raiders on Thursday and is under contract in 2021. 

This Week In Football

  • The biggest domino to watch this offseason will be what the Eagles decide to do one way or the other with Wentz and Pederson. If either were to come available, it would be a huge shift in the NFL landscape. For what it’s worth, and it might just be worth preserving trade leverage, the Eagles are striking an optimistic tone internally on Wentz’s long-term prospects. The final three games could change that. 
  • The Cowboys reiterated privately and publicly that HC Mike McCarthy would not become the first coach fired by owner Jerry Jones after just one season. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has received no such assurances, though. 
  • The Raiders couldn’t wait three more games to make a change, firing DC Paul Guenther after giving up 44 points in a key game against the Colts this past week. There’s not much new DC Rod Marinelli will really be able to do in three games but the defense is something HC Jon Gruden couldn’t ignore any longer. 
  • Three more weeks until the coaching cycle kicks off, but some buzz is starting to build for certain candidates. Seahawks OC Brian Schottenheimer has turned heads for his work unlocking QB Russell Wilson this year and received a strong recommendation from the search firm assisting the Texans coaching search. Owners don’t often advocate for other teams to hire their coaches, so it’s noteworthy how Bills owner Kim Pegula has gone to bat for DC Leslie Frazier to get a head coaching opportunity. And if you’re thinking something snide about third-round compensatory picks, read this and remember saying nothing is free. 
  • One candidate who was quietly starting to build a little bit of buzz was CBS analyst and former Steelers HC Bill Cowher, who used to make an annual appearance in the coaching rumor mill. His CBS coworker Boomer Esiason suggested Cowher might be mulling coming out of retirement to take the Jets job. However, Cowher shot down those rumors himself this past week. 
  • Teams can’t talk to any candidates for general manager or head coach vacancies who are still working right now. But they can interview external candidates and a plethora of those are in the works. The Lions are talking to ESPN analyst Louis Riddick Friday, former Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff and assistant GM Scott Pioli next week and former Texans GM Rick Smith about their current vacancy. Detroit already interviewed three internal candidates and are expected to conduct a third wave of interviews after the season ends, so it’ll be a thorough search. 
  • Riddick is generating some buzz again this year. He’s come up in GM searches before but has impressed calling games on Monday Night Football this season. He interviewed for the Texans general manager job on Wednesday. 
  • Packers RB Aaron Jones had been in talks with Green Bay over an extension before changing agents this week. The new guy is superstar agent Drew Rosenhaus, who doesn’t do cheap deals. Green Bay’s chances of keeping Jones were already slim. This likely doesn’t help. 

Playoff Picture

There are just three weeks remaining in the 2020 regular season and they might be the most exciting yet. Entering Thursday night, nine teams had winning records in the AFC competing for seven playoff spots in the first year of the new format. The NFC East is still just about wide open and a number of NFC teams are jockeying for both seeding and playoff berths. And eight of the next 16 days before the end of the season feature at least one NFL game. Not a bad holiday season!

For a number of teams, the playoffs have basically already started this week. Here’s the current playoff picture in both conferences based on ESPN’s Playoff Machine

A number of narratives jumped out as noteworthy down the stretch. To avoid getting too bogged down in the minutiae of hundreds of scenarios, read with the assumption the favorites win unless otherwise noted. For instance, the Jets are underdogs in all three remaining games, so no need to worry about them upsetting the Rams and clouding the picture until it happens. 

Can The Eagles Run The Table?

Washington has won four straight to seize control of the NFC East, with a one-game lead on the Giants and a game-and-a-half lead on Philadelphia. But the schedule down the stretch will play a huge role in which team secures the rights to the No. 4 seed and hosting a playoff game. Philadelphia and Washington both have significantly easier schedules than the Giants, who will be hard-pressed to do better than 1-2 down the stretch playing the Browns, Ravens and Cowboys. 

Meanwhile, Washington plays the Seahawks and Panthers before an end of season showdown with the Eagles, who have the Cardinals and Cowboys the next two weeks. A tie earlier this season against the Bengals could prove critical for the Eagles. If they win out and Washington drops one of its next two, Week 17’s tilt between the two teams becomes a de facto NFC East championship. Philadelphia could even survive a loss to Arizona this weekend as long as Washington loses to both Seattle and Carolina. 

Although the Eagles have been a tire fire for most of the season, there’s reason to believe they’re still capable of a run like this. Philadelphia showed new life in a win against the Saints behind Hurts, and it tends to take teams a few weeks to compile enough film to really get a handle on players. The rookie could have his team in the playoffs by then. A winning streak to the postseason led by Hurts could have potentially huge ramifications on this coming offseason, with the future of Wentz and Pederson in the balance. 

Ravens Have Edge In Crowded AFC Field

The past few weeks have been nightmarish for the Ravens, as between injuries, offensive struggles and COVID-19, there hasn’t been a lot of good news. But Baltimore prevailed in a wild Monday night win against the Browns, and even though the 8-5 Ravens are on the outside looking in at the moment, their playoff outlook is rosy. 

For starters, their next three opponents — the Jaguars, Giants and Bengals — have combined for eight wins total so far in 2020. With Jackson playing well and the run game rolling, plus most of the team back from the COVID-19 list, Baltimore should be favored in each game going forward and has a great shot of finishing the season on a three-game winning streak to reach 11-5. 

If the Ravens reach 11-5, that should all but assure them a playoff spot even in a brutal AFC wildcard race. They would hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Browns and Colts and only fall out if both those teams beat the Steelers to finish 12-4 and the Dolphins also finish 11-5. Baltimore would lose the tiebreaker to Miami based on conference record but Miami has a much harder road to get in that position with games against the Patriots, Raiders and Bills. The Ravens don’t completely control their own destiny but the odds are in their favor. 

Path To The Playoffs For Dolphins, Raiders

At least one deserving team is going to get left out of the playoff party in the AFC. Given how tough the Dolphins’ schedule is, it’s a good bet it’s going to be them. Even 10 wins might not be enough to get in this year, and to get to 11-5, the Dolphins will have to run a three-team gauntlet that includes two divisional games and a 23-17 total record. 

If the Dolphins do win out, though, it will come at the expense of one of the other AFC wildcard contenders. It could be the Ravens if they slip up. Miami will have a better conference record than either the Browns or Colts if all three finish at 11-5, so the only way for Cleveland and Indianapolis to really secure a spot in that scenario is to beat the Steelers, land at 12-4 and avoid the bottleneck entirely. 

As for the Raiders, losses to the Colts and Chargers this week have put their playoff hopes on life support. They need a lot of help and are reliant on improbable outcomes like the Jaguars sweeping the Colts, the Ravens stumbling against either the Bengals or Jaguars, or the Jets securing their first win of the season against the Browns. Hard to see any of those happening. 

Battle For The NFC’s No. 1 seed

With their shocking upset at the hands of the Eagles, the Saints relinquished their hold on the top seed in the NFC to the Packers, who hold the head-to-head tiebreaker after their win against New Orleans earlier this year. Both teams have tough AFC games still on the docket, with the Saints battling the Chiefs this week and the Packers facing RB Derrick Henry and the Titans the following week. To catch the Packers, New Orleans needs to both knock off the Chiefs and hope Green Bay drops a game down the stretch, as they need to finish with a better record to pull ahead. 

The Packers would also have an advantage over the winner of the NFC West, whether it’s the Rams or Seahawks, should three teams in the NFC all finish with a 12-4 record. Green Bay has a better conference record than Seattle and a better record in common opponent games than the Rams. The Saints also hold the same edges over the Seahawks and Rams, so those two teams will need multiple upsets by the Panthers, Vikings or Bears to steal the top seed. 

The most likely option is the winner of the NFC West takes the No. 3 seed and hosts a formidable wild card opponent in a year where home-field advantage is minimized. A Week 16 showdown between the Seahawks and Rams looms as a potential NFC West title game. If the Seahawks win, they’ll likely welcome the Buccaneers to Seattle given the Rams have the head-to-head tiebreaker on the Bucs. 

If the Rams win, it sets up a probable rematch in the Wildcard round given the Buccaneers have the common record tiebreaker — assuming Tampa Bay doesn’t drop a game to the Falcons or Lions. Either way, it won’t be a cakewalk. 

Final NFC Wildcard

Three teams are vying for the final seventh playoff berth in the NFC — the Cardinals, Vikings and Bears. Arizona has a one-game lead on Minnesota and Chicago currently and the rosiest projections by a number of outlets of edging out the other two for the playoffs. 

But the Cardinals have turned in some clunkers this year, and if they do it again this week against the Eagles it could mortally wound their playoff hopes. The loss would drop Arizona to 7-7 with games against the 49ers and Rams to close out the year. It’ll be tough to do better than 1-1 in that stretch, making the Cardinals 8-8. 

The Bears and Vikings will also be hard-pressed to do better than 1-1 in their final two games. Chicago plays the Jaguars and Packers, while the Vikings play the Saints and Lions. But the two face off this week in what is a de facto elimination game. And no matter which team wins, both should hold the tiebreaker over the Cardinals if they finish tied at 8-8. While each will be 6-6 in the conference, both the Bears and Vikings would hold an edge over Arizona in record versus common opponents. 

Obviously, none of these teams will be mathematically eliminated with a loss this week. But the road will get much harder if they do, making the upcoming games huge in determining the final playoff picture in the NFC. 

Nickels & Dimes

Quick hit thoughts from around the NFL…

Packers WR Davante Adams might be the best receiver in the NFL right now. He’s at the very least in the discussion. And yet somehow this is just his second 1,000-yard season. Adams does have two seasons of 997 yards, including in just 12 games last year. And he’s hit double-digit touchdowns in four of the past five seasons, which given how random touchdown production generally is for receivers is wild…

Former Packers GM and SI contributor Andrew Brandt has been beating this drum regarding a potential Wentz trade for a while. Dead money is a consistent theme for Brandt, who dismissed rumors surrounding the eventual trades of Odell Beckham and Antonio Brown for the same reason… 

To be fair to Brandt, he’s hardly alone in that assessment of the Eagles’ options. However, it’s worth pointing out teams don’t seem to be as afraid of massive dead money hits. The Rams broke the record by trading Brandin Cooks and taking on $21.8 million in dead cap. Brown cost Pittsburgh $21 million and Beckham $16 million in dead cap. Trading Wentz would break the dead money record again but it would actually save the Eagles minimal cap space in 2021 and get him off the books before more guarantees in his contract trigger…

Hurts was inarguably impressive in his victorious debut. He was unflappable and in contrast to Wentz was able to execute a very simple game plan while also burning the Saints with his legs. I think there’s a strong chance Hurts can continue to have success while defenses catch up to him and the Eagles go 3-0 down the stretch to make the playoffs — which will be damning for Wentz…

However, I’d be hesitant to commit too much to Hurts based on just four games. Small sample sizes in the NFL can be deceiving. As a Panthers fan, I remember unheralded QB Matt Moore’s hot finish to the 2009 season, where he went 4-1 with an 8:1 touchdown to interception ratio. Moore faceplanted the next year and Carolina went 2-14…

Deshaun Watson is the best thing about the Texans franchise, so it makes sense he would have some input on the hiring process for general manager and head coach. But he’s also advising an owner whose father infamously said during the outset of NFL protests against police brutality they couldn’t have “inmates running the prison.” Thinking about that too long will give you whiplash…

This seems to correlate with the advent of the rushing quarterback and Clay backs that up. 

That first quarter against the Dolphins was about as bad as any Kansas City has played since Patrick Mahomes took over as the starter. And they still rattled off 30 straight against a good defense to take control of the game. The Chiefs are like a buddy I used to play in Madden who would run nothing but four verticals every damn play. It shouldn’t have worked so well but it did and it was infuriating…

Speaking of that game, the Dolphins have like eight players they’re trying to turn into the versatile, slot receiver/running back type that’s en vogue in the NFL right now. Jakeem Grant is the best one and if they get the kinks worked out with him, watch out…

A reminder that NFL players are tougher than you can fathom, this week alone we learned about:

  • Colts P Rigoberto Sanchez learning of a cancer diagnosis midweek, punting in an NFL game, then going into surgery two days later to have the tumor removed. 
  • Washington QB Alex Smith, who had to have muscle transferred from his left quad to his leg after his horrific injury, playing through a strain on the transplanted muscles. 
  • Lions C Frank Ragnow fracturing his throat in the first quarter, being unable to speak, but going on and playing through it anyway…
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