Week 1 is officially here! This week in NFLTR Review, though, we’re looking further ahead:
- The 2022 quarterback carousel and how it could spin
- You know the big names; Rodgers, Wilson, Watson. Which other prominent veterans could be on the move?
- Plus, young passers in Miami, New York and Philadelphia who already are feeling the heat.
The Big Picture: 2022 Quarterback Carousel Preview
When I was a kid, I burned countless hours away on Madden’s franchise mode, regularly going a decade or more deep into the simulation. One pet peeve I always had was how unrealistic free agency was. Teams would regularly let star players hit the market in their prime and a feature of the game, once you got more than a few seasons in, was weird stuff like Peyton Manning on the Cardinals or Adrian Peterson on the Chargers.
These days, though, the NFL is becoming more video game-like than ever. Tom Brady just won a Super Bowl for the Buccaneers. The Cardinals dumped a top-10 pick at quarterback to take one No. 1 overall after just one season. The Rams traded Jared Goff for Matthew Stafford and the Eagles traded Carson Wentz just a few seasons after he looked like an MVP.
Teams are more willing than ever to be aggressive at the quarterback position. And quarterbacks are more willing than ever to rock the boat and wield the considerable influence they have as the most impactful players in the sport to take more control of their destiny. Those two factors have resulted in quarterback carousels each of the last two offseasons that have dramatically shifted the balance of power in the league.
And the one potentially coming in 2022 is set up to be the wildest yet.
Here’s a projection of what the landscape at quarterback could look like in 2022. There are nine established starters who are 99.9 percent locks to still have their jobs.
- Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes
- Bills QB Josh Allen
- Ravens QB Lamar Jackson
- Chargers QB Justin Herbert
- Cowboys QB Dak Prescott
- Cardinals QB Kyler Murray
- Bengals QB Joe Burrow
- Buccaneers QB Tom Brady
- Rams QB Matthew Stafford
There are three other starters who it would be a fairly big surprise if their teams moved on after this coming season, ranging from Browns QB Baker Mayfield to Titans QB Ryan Tannehill to Colts QB Carson Wentz. Still, it can’t be totally ruled out after what we saw this past offseason.
Similarly, all five first-round quarterbacks — Jaguars QB Trevor Lawrence, Jets QB Zach Wilson, 49ers QB Trey Lance, Bears QB Justin Fields and Patriots QB Mac Jones — should be safe. Even after what we saw from the Cardinals, it’s highly unusual for teams to cut bait with top picks at that position that quickly.
That’s just 17 quarterbacks and by extension teams who don’t have potentially unsettled situations looking ahead to 2022. That leaves a large number of quarterbacks who could potentially be on the move, starting with a disgruntled trio of stars in Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, Seahawks QB Russell Wilson and Texans QB Deshaun Watson.
Rodgers, Wilson and Watson have been the subject of a lot of speculation this offseason, but all the way back in February we pinpointed 2022 as the real year to watch for Rodgers and Wilson’s situations to potentially come to a head. Green Bay faces an inflection point with Rodgers after a potential farewell tour of a season in 2022, while another dissatisfying season in Seattle could lead Wilson to escalate a step or two beyond what he did this past offseason to force his way out.
The divorce between the Texans and Watson also likely won’t come until 2022 as the quarterback faces a couple dozen allegations of sexual misconduct that have to matriculate through the justice system before his football future can be determined.
Those three are the biggest names but there are a number of other players who could be factors on the quarterback market in 2022. I’ve broken them down into two categories: veterans and younger players who might need fresh starts.
- Vikings QB Kirk Cousins
- Falcons QB Matt Ryan
- Raiders QB Derek Carr
- 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo
- Lions QB Jared Goff
- Saints QB Jameis Winston
- Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger
Both Cousins and Ryan are in situations worth watching. Each has an astronomical cap hit in 2022, $48.6 million for Ryan and $45 million for Cousins. Neither team has the cap flexibility to be able to carry those players at that number.
Ryan has two years left on his deal so it is still possible for Atlanta to restructure his contract and create some breathing room. Ryan would still count for $37 million on the cap in 2022 in that scenario, though. Void years or a true extension could lower it a bit further but Ryan’s age at 36 factors into any longer commitment.
If he’s still reasonably effective in 2021, it might make the most sense to kick the can another year. It’s a lot easier to trade Ryan in 2023 than 2022, even with the restructure.
Cousins has just one more year left on his deal after this season so the decision point will come sooner for the Vikings. If the Vikings disappoint in 2021, wholesale changes could very well be on the horizon, including involving HC Mike Zimmer and GM Rick Spielman. Cousins would presumably be included in an ideal cleaning of the slate but he has a $35 million guaranteed base salary in 2022 that could prove tricky to unload if he struggles.
The alternative is an extension that lowers Cousins’ cap hit but represents more of a commitment to the veteran. And given that the team flirted with drafting Fields and did draft QB Kellen Mond in the third round, I’m not so sure the tea leaves point toward the two sides renewing their vows if things don’t go well this season.
The NFL rumor mill has been ready to ship Carr out of town since HC Jon Gruden took the Raiders job. With all the big names available next offseason, however, Carr might be collateral damage. With a few seasons of solid production under his belt and a base salary under $20 million as he enters the final year of his deal, Carr is actually a relatively attractive trade chip if the Raiders do elect to move him. He’s cheaper than Cousins and is arguably a comparable player.
Garoppolo will be entering a contract year in 2022 but he doesn’t have as established of a track record. San Francisco has already made a big commitment to his replacement and his salary would make it hard for the 49ers to get anything back in a trade but Garoppolo should draw interest in free agency once he’s cut, which I believe is the most likely outcome.
I list Goff here but I think the odds are strong he stays in Detroit for another season at least. He still has guaranteed money in his deal that makes him difficult to cut and his trade value is probably minimal. The Lions could always look to upgrade but it feels like they’re undertaking a multi-year rebuild, which means they can afford to be patient at the position.
If things go well for Winston with the Saints, it seems like it would make sense for them to team up long-term. However, there’s an interesting wrinkle. The Saints added void years to Winston’s deal to spread out his cap hit, meaning they can’t use the franchise tag on him in 2022. So if Winston has a big season and wants to test the market, he could have that opportunity. If things don’t go well in 2021, it’s a moot point.
As for Roethlisberger, 2021 is his final year under contract and he’ll be 40 before the start of the 2022 season. It feels like the most likely occurrence is his retirement but what if he wants to keep playing? Will the Steelers want him back? It’s worth keeping in mind as a possibility that Roethlisberger plays elsewhere.
If Watson does end up in Miami, which appears to be at or near the top of his list of preferred teams, where does that leave Tagovailoa? A lot rides on this season where Tagovailoa will have even more distance between him and that brutal hip injury that looked like it might end his career. He has to show more of the dynamic play-making ability that made him a highly regarded prospect, as opposed to last year when he was just along for the ride.
Even if Tagovailoa is good in 2021, though, how good does he have to be to get Miami to pass up trading for Watson, who was one of the league’s brightest young stars before being tarnished — deservedly so — by the accusations against him. The standard has just been raised so much by Mahomes that it’s impacting what every team in the league will settle for out of the quarterback position. That’s something to watch with Miami, which still has a war chest stocked full of assets.
Jones and Hurts are in similar boats. The Giants have invested a lot more in Jones as a former top-six draft pick. They also invested a lot into building up the supporting cast around him this offseason after he struggled in 2020. Internally, people in the team would tell you they expect Jones to take a big step forward this season. But if he doesn’t, the team has two first-round picks to go get a better answer at the position.
The Eagles only invested a second-round pick in Hurts and they have three first-round picks to work with next year, assuming Wentz plays most of the season in Indianapolis. So his situation is a lot more tenuous than Jones, especially considering the Eagles appear to be hitting the reset button on their roster to a degree rather than loading up to try and make a run. He’d have to play fairly well to stave off the team adding someone in 2022 but he can earn himself another opportunity in Philadelphia or elsewhere depending on how things go.
Darnold was in the same position as Jones going into last year, as he needed to put the flashes of potential together into something consistent, even though he didn’t have the benefit of a good situation. He ultimately did not and now he’s on a new team. Carolina picked up Darnold’s fifth-year option and guaranteed him $18.9 million for 2022, which would seem to give him some security past this season. However, the Panthers just ate about $30 million for one year of Teddy Bridgewater before deciding they had to move on, so it largely comes down to how Darnold plays this season.
There are a number of bridge quarterbacks who will be available in 2022 and hoping for another chance at a starting job. Washington QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, Bears QB Andy Dalton, Broncos QB Teddy Bridgewater and free-agent QB Cam Newton fit this bill for now. There are also some younger reclamation projects that could interest another team like Raiders QB Marcus Mariota, Broncos QB Drew Lock and even Saints QB Taysom Hill or Eagles QB Gardner Minshew. There are 32 starting jobs so depending on the incoming crop of rookie quarterbacks, one or two of these guys could be starting next season.
Something also worth noting is that unlike in past years, the current crop of draft prospects in 2022 looks underwhelming, especially after the first couple weeks of the college football season. There’s still a long way to go obviously but guys like North Carolina’s Sam Howell and Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler who have been discussed as potential top picks both struggled this weekend. If there’s a lack of viable alternatives in the draft, it will put even more pressure on teams in need of a quarterback to target a veteran next offseason.
This Week In Football
- The Steelers infamously don’t do contract negotiations after the beginning of the season, which meant the deadline to get a long-term deal done with OLB T.J. Watt was quickly approaching. The hangup was guaranteed money, as Pittsburgh also typically doesn’t guarantee anything past the first year. But the four-year, $112 million extension Watt agreed to on Thursday includes a staggering $80 million guaranteed, meaning Pittsburgh almost certainly broke its precedent. It’s a big win for Watt, as it also makes him the NFL’s highest-paid defensive player, though he didn’t crack the $30 million mark like some thought he would.
- The Vikings and RT Brian O’Neill also agreed to an extension, as did the Ravens and TE Mark Andrews. Minnesota inked O’Neil to a five-year, $92.5 million deal, which is huge but also about par for the course for a good right tackle these days. Andrews got four years and $56 million total, which puts him right underneath the top of the tight end market at $14 million a year.
- The Saints have been browsing the cornerback market all summer and they finally swung a deal, trading for Texans CB Bradley Roby. He’s a strong No. 2 corner but New Orleans paid a premium to get him, sending a third-round pick and a conditional sixth in 2023 so that Houston would eat most of his base salary. It’s the type of move a contender makes, the type of move the Saints have done many times in the past, but do the Saints still fit the bill as contenders?
- It’s been an absolutely brutal preseason for the Ravens in terms of injury luck. In the span of a few minutes, both RB Gus Edwards and CB Marcus Peters went down with torn ACL’s in practice on non-contact plays. Peters is a huge loss in the secondary because of his playmaking ability, but Baltimore was already down two backs after losing J.K. Dobbins and Justice Hill in the past couple of weeks. Losing Edwards leaves them with Ty’Son Williams, their fourth-string back to open camp, and whatever practice squadders Le’Veon Bell and Devonta Freeman have left at this point in their career. For a team that runs the ball more than any in the league, it’s a big concern.
- The Seahawks had some issues with LT Duane Brown and S Quandre Diggs “holding in” and not practicing. The new CBA effectively neutered holdouts but players have still expressed dissatisfaction with their contracts by not practicing until those are remedied. Hold-ins don’t quite have the same teeth, as both Brown and Diggs had returned to practice and weren’t going to miss games. But Seattle still found a compromise, guaranteeing Brown a significant chunk of his previous salary and converting per-game roster bonuses into base salary. They did something similar with Diggs, getting two key starters happy and back in the fold.
- Seattle has also been busy with its secondary, which was a clear weak spot going into training camp and apparently didn’t change the team’s mind during the preseason. Seattle traded projected starting corner Ahkello Witherspoon to the Steelers, then claimed Nigel Warrior from the Ravens and signed Blessuan Austin after he was cut by the Jets. That’s in addition to trading for John Reid and Sidney Jones already. The strength of this defense is going to be the defensive line, anyway, but the Seahawks clearly decided they couldn’t just cross their fingers and hope, they needed to do more.
- The Raiders cut LB Tanner Muse this week only a year after drafting him in the third round, continuing an ignominious run for HC Jon Gruden and GM Mike Mayock in the draft. Two of their three third-round picks last year never played a snap for Las Vegas, as Muse spent the season on injured reserve and WR Lynn Bowden was traded at the end of the preseason. There are plenty of other misses. Former No. 4 pick Clelin Ferrell is just a rotational player, while 2020 first-round CB Damon Arnette has slipped to fourth or fifth on the depth chart after just one season. The Raiders regularly draft like they’re smarter than everyone else. The problem is the results haven’t proven them right.
Check This Out
- This is one of the best pieces that’s been written on team-building in some time. The Ringer’s Nora Princiotti goes in-depth on what is the most valuable commodity for front offices these days. It’s not scouting chops or analytics departments. It’s people skills. Without good communication and emotional intelligence, all the work of the various departments in a front office goes to waste as organizations degrade and cannibalize themselves.
- Sticking with The Ringer, we’re going to hear from Cam Newton today and we might get a hint at what’s next for the veteran quarterback. He says it’s not retirement, and despite his abrupt exit from New England, it was clear during the preseason that he could still play. Steven Ruiz has a fascinating, Hall of Fame comparison for what Newton still might have in store in a third act, if he gets an opportunity to have one.