Yesterday was LeBron Day — but today? It’s QB Day. We live in a world where two statements are simultaneously true: (1) Quarterbacks are more valuable than ever, and (2) Joe Flacco is on the verge of becoming the highest-paid player in the NFL. So, with the league set for an offseason featuring plenty of high-profile quarterback movement, we decided to devote a whole 24 hours to separating the signal-calling wheat from the chaff. You can find all of the posts here. And remember: No matter what happens, at least you don’t owe Brock Osweiler $37 million.
Is three years of Tony Romo at top dollar worth more than five years from a rookie first-round quarterback on his first contract? Are you better off signing the serviceable-but-31-year-old Brian Hoyer than trading a first-round pick for Jimmy Garoppolo, he of 94 career pass attempts? Hell, is Garoppolo even the best quarterback trade target out there?
These are the questions each QB-needy team has to ask itself, and with free agency just two weeks away, we’ll soon find out how they value the available options. Evaluating this isn’t as simple as ranking the quarterbacks in free agency, the trade market, and the draft from best to worst. Other important variables — age, salary, length of club control, injury history, the cost in a trade, the size of the upgrade over a roster’s current quarterbacks — have to be taken into account. Here’s how we’d rank every available quarterback, from most to least valuable.
The Missing Piece
1. Tony Romo
Romo is leaving Dallas this offseason, one way or another. It may be via release, and in that case, competing teams will simply negotiate a new deal for him on the open market. Or it might be via trade, in which case any potential suitors would likely give up a draft pick (right now, speculation has the compensation somewhere in the middle rounds) to acquire him, and then either inherit the remaining three years on his deal ($14 million in 2017, $19.5 million in 2018, and $20.5 million in 2019) or restructure his contract to provide some immediate cap relief. (Romo is apparently open to massaging his deal to accommodate any cap-strapped options.)
In either situation, a few things will suppress Romo’s cost. He turns 37 in April, and rapid decline in arm strength tends to afflict passers around his age. He’s missed most of the past two seasons and has sustained multiple collarbone breaks and multiple severe back injuries in his career. And finally, his list of potential teams isn’t that long; he won’t go to a noncontender, but his contender of choice has to (1) need a quarterback, and (2) have enough cap space to absorb Romo’s salary.
Despite all the warning signs, Romo is the only true “final piece of the puzzle”–type of player that could immediately take a midlevel team and turn it into a Super Bowl–caliber squad. Elite passers on Romo’s level — even if he’s a little past his prime — almost never become available. The immediate upgrade he can provide to the right team, whether it’s the Texans, Chiefs, Broncos, or Bills, or a mystery suitor, is more valuable than what any of the other available quarterbacks can provide.
Proven, With Potential
2. Tyrod Taylor
The Bills have until March 11 to decide whether or not to exercise an option in Taylor’s contract that would guarantee him nearly $31 million and keep him in Buffalo for the next five years. If the Bills opt out and release him, something weird would happen: A proven, experienced, versatile, young starting quarterback would hit the open market. It’s tough to know what kind of contract he’d demand in free agency, but at worst, Taylor would be a reliable, dynamic bridge quarterback for a passer-needy team.
Although he’s not a top-10 QB by any major metric, the 27-year-old Taylor is an efficient game manager. That’s a dirty phrase, but a lot of teams wish they had one. He’s amassed a 63 percent completion rate in two years as the Bills starter, throwing 37 touchdowns and 12 interceptions at 7.4 yards per attempt and a 94.2 rating. Taylor provides a little extra value with his legs, too, adding 1,148 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground.
Taylor’s a relatively low-risk option because he has an established track record and possesses not only a high floor for expected performance, but as a still-developing young passer, he’s also yet to hit his ceiling.
3. Kirk Cousins
There’s no reason to expect Cousins to sign a long-term extension with the Redskins before March 1’s franchise tag deadline. Instead, Washington’s almost surely going to plop its franchise tag and $24 million in guaranteed money down in order to keep its incumbent signal-caller off the market.
Assuming he plays on the tag for a second straight year, that $24 million (both in cash and against the cap) for one year of service from a top-of-the-mid-tier quarterback like Cousins isn’t going to provide the Redskins with exceptional real-money value. Compare that to some of the elite passers in the league right now, with Aaron Rodgers carrying a $20 million cap hit in 2017, or Andrew Luck, Drew Brees, and Russell Wilson all accounting for $19 million against the cap next year. But the premium Washington is expected to pay this year to keep Cousins provides the team with two valuable commodities: time and flexibility.
It’s clear that the Redskins front office is not completely sold on Cousins as the long-term answer at quarterback, but it’s also clear that they don’t have an alternative. By paying well over the market price for Cousins in the short term, they retain the services of, at worst, an above-average starter at the position. At the same time, they’re securing another year of evaluation time — 16 more games to suss out the truth on whether or not he’s on the path to becoming a legit franchise cornerstone. If Cousins ascends into the rarefied air of a top-10 passer, Washington can rest easy in hitching its wagon to him and hand him a long-term extension worth over $100 million. But if he plateaus or declines in 2017, the Redskins have the flexibility to move on from Cousins without major implications to the long-term health of the team’s cap.
How Much Are You Willing to Offer?
4. Jimmy Garoppolo
In his two starts in 2016, Garoppolo racked up a 119.0 passer rating, completing 71 percent of his passes for 496 yards, four touchdowns, no picks, and 8.4 yards per attempt in wins over the Cardinals and Dolphins.
While it’s easy to get excited about what he did in relief of Tom Brady, that two-game sample size is limited. And the price for acquisition is high: The Patriots are reportedly looking at what Sam Bradford fetched last season as a starting point — a first-rounder and a fourth — so whoever wants to trade for this guy better be damn sure he’s closer to the second coming of Brady and not Matt Cassel. Plus, Garoppolo’s going into the final year of his rookie deal, so you’d be getting only one guaranteed season of club control in exchange for that first and fourth.
Still, Garoppolo displayed poise, accuracy, and a strong arm, and, well, he basically has looked like a franchise quarterback during every professional minute he’s played. Brock Osweiler’s albatross deal in Houston — another risky gamble on an unproven prospect, which failed spectacularly — is going to weigh heavily on the minds of any executive looking to pull the trigger on Garoppolo. Of course, you don’t trade a first- and fourth-round pick for a one-year rental, but the difference between Garoppolo and Osweiler is that while Houston is stuck with its big miss, Garoppolo’s new team would have the option of letting him walk if he’s terrible.
5. A.J. McCarron
McCarron is the Garoppolo-lite of tradable QBs. The third-year pro didn’t get any meaningful playing time in 2016, but his solid performance in four starts in 2015 will have a few teams intrigued. In three regular-season starts that year, McCarron completed 65 percent of his passes for 552 yards, four touchdowns, no picks, and a 100.1 rating. Then, against Pittsburgh in the wild-card round, the former Crimson Tide signal-caller engineered a 15-point fourth-quarter comeback to give Cincy a one-point lead (which they of course blew). In that final frame, McCarron completed nine of 15 passes for 98 yards with a touchdown and a 101.5 passer rating.
McCarron’s ceiling looks a lot lower than Garoppolo’s, but his sample size is almost twice as large, and he has the potential to develop into a top-15 starter. Even though he won’t reach unrestricted free agency for two more years, he’d cost a lot less. For those reasons, some teams reportedly like his value a lot more.
You’re Gonna Have to Wait a Few Years
6. Mitch Trubisky
The teams that find their franchise passer in the draft get five years (or four, if it’s after the first round) of guaranteed club control at a bargain rookie-contract rate. If it works out, this is the best deal in football: You fill the most important spot on the roster for cheap and get to invest huge sums at other important positions. Just ask the Seahawks, who made a run to a Super Bowl title in 2013 while paying Russell Wilson about $500,000, allowing them to go out in free agency and sign defensive stars Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett.
The draft provides the most quarterback value — but only if you get the right guy. If this were a different year, Cam Newton, or Andrew Luck, or Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota would’ve ranked at or near the top of this list. But there aren’t any surefire franchise players among this year’s group. Right now, the top guy in this year’s class is North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky, who has just one year of starting experience in the ACC. And check with me next week — I might have already changed my mind.
Despite that, he’s got all the tools — a strong arm, size, mobility, the ability to read the whole field — and his numbers from 2016 (3,748 yards and 30 touchdowns to just six picks at 8.4 yards per attempt) pop off the page. But if you’re looking for immediate return on your investment, you probably won’t get it from Trubisky, who likely has a long learning curve in front of him as he learns how to operate under center and beat NFL blitzes.
We may see a midrange contender without a quarterback look at what Seattle did with Wilson or what Dallas did last year, and draft Trubisky thinking he’ll come in and look like Dak Prescott out of the gates. But unless that team is built like Dallas — and no one has the same elite offensive line, foundational run game, and unguardable threat at receiver to take pressure off of their rookie passer — Trubisky will likely struggle early in his career. Those teams would probably get more value from drafting a playmaker at another position in the first round, finding a bridge quarterback in free agency or through a trade, and letting a true rebuilding team — somebody that can dedicate three years to his development — grab the North Carolina signal-caller.
7. Deshaun Watson
See: Trubisky, Mitch.
Watson has a lot of the things that coaches look for from the position — mobility, a strong arm, and off-the-charts intangibles like leadership and elevated play in the biggest situations. However, he faces a steep learning curve in the pros, and there are concerns about his deep-ball accuracy and decision-making. He could thrive eventually, but he’s not the answer to any immediate questions.
Squint Hard Enough, and You’ll See a Starter
8. Matt Moore
Moore took the reins of the Dolphins offense in Week 14 when Ryan Tannehill went out with a knee injury, and he finished the last three regular-season games with a 106.5 passer rating, completing 63 percent of his throws with eight touchdowns and just three picks at 8.2 yards per attempt. Even in Miami’s blowout loss to Pittsburgh in the wild-card round, he was statistically efficient, completing 29 of 36 passes for 289 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. For a team looking for a veteran bridge quarterback in an uncertain quarterback draft class year, there aren’t many better options than this 32-year-old career backup. For the price of a third- or fourth-round pick, a few teams could significantly upgrade the quarterback position by trading for Moore.
9. Brian Hoyer
Before you fall asleep, remember that Blaine Gabbert, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brock Osweiler, and Jared Goff were all starters in 2016. In six games last year, Hoyer completed 67 percent of his passes for 1,445 yards, six touchdowns, and no picks for a 98 passer rating before he broke his forearm. As I wrote yesterday, his numbers over his last 16 starts are pretty damn good. He’s going to get backup-quarterback money, but might get you starter-quality play.
Someone’s Gonna Talk Themselves Into It
10. Jay Cutler
Once the Bears release him, Cutler will become an unrestricted free agent. At this point, we know who Cutler is: a guy with the ability to make the best throw and the worst throw you’ve ever seen on back-to-back snaps. You’d have to live with fits of erratic play, terrible turnovers, and unpredictability both on the field and in the locker room, but he shows no fear in pushing the ball downfield and can make any throw an offense calls for. For a coach currently trying to make his offense run with a dink-and-dunker, the idea of not having to eliminate big chunks of the playsheet before taking the field might be attractive. The 33-year-old is probably not going to cost much, so he could be worth the risk as a bridge option for a team facing low expectations in 2017. Looking at you, Browns.
11. Colin Kaepernick
Kaepernick will reportedly opt out of his contract with the 49ers and hit the free-agent market. In a system that utilizes his ability to run and limits the amount of full-field reads he has to make, he still has a real chance at jump-starting a career that once looked so promising under Jim Harbaugh as he led the Niners to an appearance in Super Bowl XLVII and the NFC championship game following the 2013 regular season. Kaepernick went 1–10 in his starts in 2016, but he took care of the football, throwing 16 touchdowns and just four picks for a talent-barren San Francisco offense. He won’t cost much, and there’s still a lot of upside there with the right marriage of scheme and coaching.
12. Mike Glennon
Glennon hasn’t started a game since 2014, but he’s not a total lost cause. He’s got the size and arm of an NFL starter, and in 21 professional appearances, he’s completed 59 percent of his passes for 4,100 yards, 30 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions on mostly bad teams. At the very least, he will be cheap.
Catch Them If They Fall
13. DeShone Kizer
If you don’t have to spend a first-round pick to get Kizer, it’s a hell of a lot easier to look past his issues with accuracy (58.7 percent completion rate last year) and decision-making (nine interceptions) and pull the trigger. He may not fall far, but if he slips into the second round, he’s going to provide some team excellent value as a developmental passer. He’s got the physical tools to develop into a starter, but it may take a little time to acclimate to the next level. At a draft slot in the early part of the second round, there’s less pressure to throw him into the fire.
14. Patrick Mahomes II
Like Kizer, if Mahomes falls into the second or third round of the draft, he’ll provide nice value. Like many of the quarterback prospects in the draft this year, there are enough traits to really like: The son of a former major league pitcher, Mahomes has a cannon for an arm, great size, and athleticism. He also plays a Johnny Manziel/Russell Wilson–esque style of sandlot football that produces a lot of big plays. He’ll need some seasoning before anyone’s going to turn the offense over to him, but he could end up being a good pro. A few teams, given the option, would probably rather have Mahomes or Kizer in the second than Trubisky or Watson in the first.
We’ll Always Have 2013
15. Nick Foles
Look, I just can’t put Foles’s random-ass 2013 season under Chip Kelly out of my mind. I mean, this guy threw 27 touchdowns and just two picks and led the NFL with 9.1 yards per attempt and a 119 passer rating. Anybody that does that over a full season has to be kind of good, right? RIGHT? He hasn’t done much to make me think so since, but he did look pretty good in two appearances for the Chiefs last year, leading Kansas City to wins in Weeks 8 and 9 while completing 65 percent of his passes for 410 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions. You’d likely have to trade an early mid-round pick for him, but Foles is an experienced starter with ideal size and a big arm, and while his two-week showing last season for Kansas City doesn’t confirm that 2013 wasn’t a fluke, it might make him a more popular target.
Probably Not, but What the Hell?
16. Nathan Peterman
Peterman played in a pro-style system at Pitt and displays the type of confidence you need to succeed behind center in the NFL. In a run-heavy scheme big on bootlegs and deep shots — the Seahawks, Falcons, Broncos, and Vikings, for instance — Peterman could be another excellent value in the middle rounds.
17. Brad Kaaya
Kaaya operated under center in a pro-style system for Miami, reads the whole field, and is a savvy three-year starter respected for his leadership, but he may not have the size (he’s just 215 pounds) or big arm necessary to play at the next level. Some team might see value in the intangibles and hope to develop him down the line in an NFL weight room.
Looking for a Starter? Please Back Up
18. Landry Jones
No one’s giving Jones starter money, but a pair of solid starts in 2016 might put him on the backup-quarterback-options map. Filling in for Big Ben in Week 7’s 27–16 loss to the Patriots, Jones completed 29 of 47 passes for 281 yards, one touchdown, and one pick against a very good New England defense. More importantly, the Steelers didn’t have to alter the style of their offense — the hallmark of a quality understudy.
19. Matt Barkley
There were moments in the latter parts of last year where Barkley looked like the next big thing. The third-stringer threw a handful of impressive touchdown strikes to keep the Bears close against quality opponents in the Titans, Lions, and Packers, and he even caught one himself against the Vikings. But then there were a lot of the other moments — 10 in his final three starts alone — when players on the other team caught his passes. Barkley finished the season with a 60 percent completion rate, eight touchdowns, and 14 picks. A team or two may look at those tight-window touchdown throws and see a player they can work with. Most others will see those 14 picks and take their business elsewhere.
19. Case Keenum
You could probably do worse than Keenum. That’s the best argument for Case Keenum.
21. Matt Schaub
Schaub would make a useful, experienced backup for a team with a durable starter.
22. Johnny Manziel
If Johnny Football has managed to get a handle on his drinking problem and is ready to commit to football, he’s still not too far off from a time when he was a talented dual-threat playmaker that flashed brilliance in an up-and-down tenure with the Browns. He’s still got enough upside to catch on somewhere as a training-camp arm with potential to earn a backup job.
23. Brett Favre
I mean, why the hell not?
24. Chad Kelly
Someone should take this guy in the middle rounds just because he’s related to Jim Kelly.
25. Davis Webb
No, that is not a made-up name. And yes, we’ve reached the “hope to unearth a gem in the middle rounds” section of our programming.
26. Geno Smith
Jets fans, you’ll always have that one beautiful, meaningless game against the Dolphins. As for the rest of the league, if a team’s able to look past his litany of incidents off the field and the 36 interceptions in 33 games on it, they might see a physically gifted passer with some tools to develop. Some guys just need a change of venue, and it’s not going to cost much to kick the tires.
27. Josh McCown
McCown’s not going to be a starter for anyone in 2017, but he’s still an experienced passer and respected leader that could play a backup/mentor role for a team with a young starting quarterback. The 37-year-old managed a 60 percent completion rate with 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 13 games for the Browns over the past two years — and the Browns are terrible.