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The NFL Prepares to Enter an Offseason of Quarterback Uncertainty

More than a third of the league faces an unclear future under center. What’s each team likely to decide entering 2017?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

An extremely chaotic playoff picture is unfolding, but it’s hardly the only dizzying mess happening in the NFL. More than at any time in the past few years, the league faces a wave of uncertainty at its most important position.

There’s no one cause for why so many teams have been left scrambling to figure out their future at quarterback, and a general lack of talented passers has been an NFL concern for the past few seasons. This year, though, it goes beyond that. With some longtime starters likely facing the end of the road with their current franchises (Jay Cutler, Tony Romo), the CBA giving struggling young players (Blake Bortles) a shorter lease than ever, and so many teams in need of an answer (Browns, Jets, and 49ers) likely to pick near the top of next spring’s draft, the musical chairs we’re almost sure to see between March and May should rival any in recent memory.

To get a sense for how everything could look when the music stops, let’s break down each team that could be looking at a quarterback change heading into 2017 — and how the final few months of the 2016 could play a role in its decision-making.

Denver Broncos

No team in this situation brings as much intrigue as the defending champs. Trevor Siemian has performed admirably as the guinea pig in executive VP of football ops/general manager John Elway’s “We Can Win With Anyone” experiment, and Denver’s shoddy pass protection and lackluster ground game deserve most of the blame for the Broncos’ paltry output. Still, with all of the talent Denver has on defense and in the receiving corps, it’s hard not to wonder what this 8–6 team could have been with an established NFL quarterback.

Trevor Siemian (AP Images)
Trevor Siemian (AP Images)

If the Broncos don’t elect to make any drastic moves before next season, Siemian (3,012 passing yards, 16 touchdowns, eight interceptions) and 2016 first-round pick Paxton Lynch (497 yards, two touchdowns, one pick) will be left to battle for the starting job, with Lynch likely getting a longer look than he did as a rookie. That’s the boring scenario. The fun-as-hell scenario involves Elway surveying his roster and taking a big swing in an effort to maximize the shelf life of his defense.

As of right now, the Broncos have about $30.8 million in cap room for 2017. That’s a nice pile of cash, considering all the deals they’ve inked recently, but it comes with a couple of caveats. One, that figure doesn’t take into account the possibility of a new deal for free-agent-to-be DeMarcus Ware, who may be on his way out of Denver given his age (34) and the presence of Shane Ray. Two, the Broncos face a decision surrounding center Matt Paradis, who’s made $960,000 combined over the past two seasons and is in line for a healthy extension.

Even if Denver gives a sizable contract to Paradis, it could opt to release left tackle Russell Okung — who signed for five years and $53 million in March with zero guaranteed — before his huge deal sets, a move that would leave the Broncos with about $30 million in space. That would be more than enough room to take on the $14 million base salary due to Romo in 2017. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported earlier this fall that Romo may be interested in a trade, and who could blame him? A swap would make plenty of sense for both sides, and with only $2.8 million tied up in quarterbacks next year, Denver is in a position to make it happen.

Even if Siemian can somehow pull out two more wins and get Denver to the playoffs, that still might not be enough for him to retain the starting job heading into next year — not with Lynch waiting in the wings and the Broncos’ aspirations extending beyond a simple wild-card berth.

Houston Texans

Here’s what we know about the Texans’ quarterback situation heading into 2017:

1. With $25 million in dead money remaining on his deal, Brock Osweiler will almost certainly be on Houston’s roster next season.

2. It’s looking less and less like Osweiler will be the Texans’ starter, regardless of the financial circumstances.

Houston’s quarterback depth chart entering 2017 will depend a lot on how Tom Savage performs over the next few games. Even a reasonable (read: better than Osweiler) showing could land him the starting job simply because Houston lacks many other alternatives. This offseason’s crop of free agents will be meager (some of the names: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Blaine Gabbert, Brian Hoyer; you get the idea), and the middle of the first round is a historically awful place to find a QB.

Given the way their roster is constructed, the Texans would be a terrific fit for a quick-fix option like Romo, but Osweiler’s albatross of a contract and Houston’s poor cap health would make it tough to bring in a high-priced veteran. After signing its draft picks, the franchise is set to have about $16 million in cap space without making additional cuts, and that’s before addressing a deal for breakout cornerback and 2017 free-agent-to-be A.J. Bouye. Even with the Cowboys picking up a large chunk of Romo’s league-high $24.7 million cap hit, his $14 million base salary would still belong on Houston’s books. Without some impressive cap gymnastics, it’s tough to imagine a move happening. The same logic applies to a guy like Cutler, who’d command an eight-figure salary that Houston couldn’t afford.

Sorry, Texans fans. For at least one more season, it looks like your hopes could rest with knockoff Nic Cage.

Chicago Bears

The Bears have been slowly poisoning my soul for a while now, but this pending quarterback decision could be an all-out assault like I’ve never faced. For the first time in eight years — eight fucking years — the organization could move on from Jay Cutler with no real repercussions. Only $2 million in dead money remains on his deal beyond this season, and releasing him would save about $14 million toward the 2017 cap. Considering Cutler will be 34 next spring and has been outplayed by both Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley this fall, cutting him loose feels like an easy decision. Then again, the prospect of a new coaching staff could complicate this entire fiasco.

Matt Barkley (AP Images)
Matt Barkley (AP Images)

Which brings us to Barkley (1,163 yards, six touchdowns, seven interceptions), a restricted free agent who’s played a little too well for my liking. Even as he turned the ball over four times in last week’s 30–27 loss to Green Bay, I found myself thinking, “Oh man, Matt Barkley looks pretty good” way too many times.

He’s thrown the ball twice as well as anyone could have dreamed, but that’s also part of the problem. Because his expectations were nonexistent, Barkley’s bout of competence has seemed noteworthy. That still isn’t enough to make him a viable option going forward. By the end of the season, Barkley will likely have made six career starts. Based on what I could find, 181 quarterbacks since the merger have started at least one game but fewer than seven before their 27th birthday. That list includes one successful longtime starter: Ken Stabler.

Quarterbacks who bounce around the league for this long simply don’t turn into legitimate starters. Names like Kurt Warner may cause some to believe otherwise, but as a Bears fan (and someone of relatively sound mind), I’m more inclined to think that Barkley is more akin to the dozens of other backup QBs whose careers have followed the Peter principle than he is to a Hall of Fame talent who landed on one of the five best offenses in NFL history.

Like any team on the verge of going 3–13, Chicago has more than just a quarterback problem. With receiver Alshon Jeffery (in the midst of a disastrous 2016 season) set to become a free agent and the secondary desperately in need of a talent influx, the Bears could go plenty of directions with the top-five pick they’re likely to have next spring. No team should select a quarterback just for the sake of it, so if the Bears are underwhelmed by this year’s crop and go another direction, there are worse options than sticking with Barkley as a reasonably cheap stopgap in 2017. Any commitment beyond that, though, would be misguided.

Minnesota Vikings

When Minnesota traded for Sam Bradford in September — four days after Teddy Bridgewater gruesomely dislocated his knee and tore his ACL — those in NFL circles commonly observed that Bradford’s two-year deal provided the Vikings with a fallback plan beyond this season. Bridgewater’s prognosis was pessimistic enough to cause many to wonder whether he’d be healthy enough to play in 2017, and at this point there’s no way to know the answer. It wouldn’t be the least bit surprising to see Bradford (3,245 yards, 14 touchdowns, four interceptions) starting under center in Minneapolis again next season.

Jacksonville Jaguars

One of Bridgewater’s draft mates from the 2014 class, Blake Bortles, also faces an uncertain future. The Jaguars took Bortles with the no. 3 overall pick in that draft, and that’s exactly where they’re slated to pick in 2017 based on current team records. Moving on from a 24-year-old, former top-five pick would be tough for Jacksonville to stomach, but Bortles’s play (3,279 yards, 21 touchdowns, 16 interceptions) during a disastrous 2–12 2016 campaign hasn’t helped his case.

Blake Bortles (AP Images)
Blake Bortles (AP Images)

Both Bortles and the Jaguars offense have taken significant steps backward this year. His completion rate — already a worrisome 58.6 percent in 2015 — has fallen to 57.8, and his 6.0 yards per attempt would be the worst season-long mark of his career. He has shown no signs of improvement, and that leaves the organization with a couple of different decisions to make in the coming months.

First, there’s the issue of Bortles’s fifth-year team option, which the Jags will almost certainly decline. Like any first-round pick, Bortles’s salary in his fourth season is fully guaranteed, but at $6.6 million, it shouldn’t be enough to dissuade the front office from pouncing on a quarterback it likes toward the top of the draft.

Second, unlike in previous years, the Jags won’t be flush with cash entering 2017. Their recent offseason spending sprees have them about $23 million under the cap going into next year, and although GM Dave Caldwell did well to ensure most of the team’s deals (including for Jared Odrick, Jermey Parnell, and Davon House) had no guaranteed money beyond this season, all of Jacksonville’s recent investments could be used as an argument for rolling with Bortles at least one more year while he’s already on the books.

Before making that choice, though, the Jaguars have to figure out who’s going to be their head coach. It’s reasonable to assume that a new head man would want a say in picking his quarterback if given the option.

San Francisco 49ers

Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert should both be gone in 2017, so we’ll see if 49ers coach Chip Kelly gets to have input about the franchise’s next starting quarterback. Kaepernick will reportedly void his contract after the season, opening the door for a possible return to San Francisco. But given the awful year the 1–13 Niners have had, it’s tough to imagine Kelly being thrilled about the prospect of going through a second season without a quarterback of his choosing.

San Francisco is currently slated to have the no. 2 pick in the draft, prime position to take a QB, especially if the Browns elect to again go in a different direction in the first round. Cleveland’s thinking — that with so many holes across the roster, it’s more important to stockpile assets than to attempt to find a quarterback — applies to the Niners as well, but adherence to a plan like that requires patience at every level of the organization. Trading down and amassing value has been a trademark of GM Trent Baalke’s regime, but a one-win season creates a sense of urgency.

One other name to keep in mind here, regardless of whether the 49ers go with a quarterback in the first round: Nick Foles. He’s likely to be released by the Chiefs after the season based on the structure of his contract, and he’s obviously familiar with Kelly’s offense dating to their time together in Philadelphia. He could vie for the starting job if the Niners do choose between a few cheaper options as they build up the rest of their roster.

Washington Redskins

There’s no mystery surrounding who will be Washington’s starter next season. The only question is what type of deal Kirk Cousins (4,360 yards, 23 touchdowns, 10 interceptions) will ultimately get. With quarterbacks commanding a franchise-tag figure of around $24 million in 2017, the team has little to deter it from franchising Cousins for a second straight year if the two sides can’t agree on a long-term deal.

The concern is that if Cousins does hold firm and play on the tag again next fall, Washington could be in a bind in the subsequent offseason, when the penalties would make tagging Cousins again all but impossible. Despite whatever reservations GM Scot McCloughan still has, it might be time for him to admit that a long-term deal is in the organization’s best interests.

Buffalo Bills

As with Cousins, 2016 was a make-or-break year for Tyrod Taylor (2,694 yards, 14 touchdowns, six picks), whose contract would carry a dead-money hit of only $2.9 million if the Bills elect to decline his roster option and release him after the season.

Tyrod Taylor (AP Images)
Tyrod Taylor (AP Images)

Taylor’s numbers have fallen off a bit from the 2015 campaign (which makes sense, considering receiver Sammy Watkins’s injury troubles and the dearth of weapons in Buffalo’s offense), and given that his option would ensure a salary of at least $15.9 million in each of the next five seasons and would offer little recourse to release him before 2019, the Bills’ best move may be to cut ties. The move would make even more sense if Buffalo fires Rex Ryan and wants to start from scratch with both its head coach and quarterback.

If that happens, Buffalo’s future at the position is anybody’s guess. EJ Manuel is still on the roster (seriously), and there are reportedly some within the organization who feel that 2016 fourth-round pick Cardale Jones has the makings of a future starter. A competition between Manuel, who the team would have to re-sign, and Jones for the job come 2017 fall camp is certainly possible. As a team likely to have a pick in the middle of the first round (and with looming contract decisions about players like Stephon Gilmore, in 2017, and Watkins, in 2018), the Bills are in a position where they could be interested in trading for Jimmy Garoppolo at his $1.1 million cap number, but there’s little chance the Patriots would be willing to make that type of deal within their own division.

Arizona Cardinals

Carson Palmer said earlier this week that he expects to play in 2017, and he’ll be the Cardinals’ starter if that’s the case. Palmer (3,694 yards, 22 touchdowns, 13 interceptions) has taken the brunt of the blame for Arizona’s disappointing 5–8–1 season, but there’s plenty of that to go around. The Cardinals pass catchers have gone from one of the league’s best units to a group actively hurting the offense; the offensive line took a significant step back from the way it played a year ago.

Despite this fall’s struggles, Palmer is still better than nearly any other option the Cardinals could find if he were to retire.

Cleveland Browns

The Browns’ array of resources — a seemingly endless pool of salary-cap space and an arsenal of future picks — leaves almost any option on the table at quarterback. Based on the moves the revamped front office made in its first season, though, we can probably rule out at least a few possibilities.

Cleveland has purged its roster of every expensive veteran not named Joe Thomas or Joe Haden, making the notion of acquiring a pricy option such as Romo or Cutler a nonstarter. The Browns are treating draft picks like Gollum treats the Ring, so the idea of them dealing anything for a single year of Garoppolo’s rookie deal is hard to fathom. If Cleveland does decide to bring in another outside, veteran quarterback this offseason (whether that’s Taylor, Foles, or somebody else), the deal will probably resemble the one Robert Griffin III got last offseason — a relatively small base salary and, more importantly, the option to move on after one year. Even with all that cap room to play with (the Browns currently have $62.8 million next year, and would have upward of $70 million if they released RG3), this regime seems intent on not tying up money in stopgap solutions.

That would leave this year’s crew of QBs (Griffin, Josh McCown, and Cody Kessler) and any rookie the Browns bring in to battle for the starting job in 2017. With the wealth of defensive talent available at the top of next year’s draft, Cleveland skipping over a quarterback or trying to trade down to amass even more picks doesn’t just seem possible. It seems likely.

I’m guessing head coach Hue Jackson would love a chance to grab a top-tier quarterback prospect and mold him for next season and beyond, but if the first year of EVP Sashi Brown’s tenure taught us anything, it’s that the Browns have a plan. An 0–16 season shouldn’t be enough to lead them astray.

New York Jets

And we’ve arrived at the bottom of the barrel. The Jets’ quarterback problem is a masterpiece of dysfunction. New York has been mentioned as a possible landing spot for some of the veteran quarterbacks likely to be on the move, but the issue with a signing a player like Cutler (I’m sorry, Jets fans; as if you need any more pain) or dealing for Romo is that unlike these other rebuilding teams searching for an answer, the Jets’ cap situation is an absolute mess.

As of right now, the Jets are already set to be $2.5 million over the 2017 cap. They could make some moves that would provide relief (cutting Darrelle Revis and Ryan Clady would save a combined $17.3 million, and aging stalwarts Nick Mangold and David Harris both have no guaranteed money left on their deals), but the question would become whether inking an expensive quarterback is worth it if the rest of the roster is depleted.

Bryce Petty (AP Images)
Bryce Petty (AP Images)

The Jets’ trainwreck of a 2016 season is about more than the poor play of Ryan Fitzpatrick (2,364 yards, 10 touchdowns, 15 interceptions), and their plan in the coming months will go beyond shuffling around enough money to acquire a big-name quarterback. The simplest solution is that they could use what’s likely to be a top-five pick on an elite prospect and attempt to start from scratch for the first time since taking Mark Sanchez seven (!) years ago.

With their lack of financial flexibility, that option looks more attractive for the Jets than it does for any other team in this conversation. Even a midlevel contract like the one that Taylor will probably command would be rich for New York at this point. Pending a massive purge, the Jets’ two most prudent courses of action would appear to be (1) investing in a highly drafted quarterback of the future or (2) rolling with a Bryce Petty–Christian Hackenberg competition that excites absolutely no one. For Jets fans everywhere, any option has to be more enticing than the idea of falling even further into quarterback purgatory.