The 2020 NFL offseason could be one of the wildest that the league has ever seen. Most of the potential craziness stems from the league’s impending game of QB musical chairs—and the names it features. Tom Brady, the greatest quarterback in NFL history, is a free agent for the first time in his illustrious career. The idea of Brady wearing a different jersey next season is no longer just a fantasy for those who’ve dreamed of the Patriots’ demise. It’s a very real possibility.
Brady’s pending free agency alone is enough to make this an unprecedented QB market, but the rest of the pool is also ridiculously deep. Most years, the quarterback market is filled with unexciting options or consolation prizes. This spring, it’s full of future Hall of Famers, past MVPs, and budding stars.
With free agency set to begin next week, I’m laying out the best fits, logical landing spots, and dark horse candidates for each of the quarterbacks who will almost certainly be on the move this offseason. That means no Drew Brees, who’s a virtual lock to head back to New Orleans. Pending free agent Dak Prescott will play for the Cowboys next season, whether it’s on the franchise tag or a long-term deal. Carolina is committed to Cam Newton (for now). And I love myself enough to not talk about Joe Flacco. We all should. Even without those guys, though, this is a group of available quarterbacks unlike any in recent memory—and their destinations will shape the next two months of NFL player movement.
Best Fit: Patriots
Brady has worked the same job, with the same bosses, for two decades. Consider that for a second. Think about how long you’ve worked at your office—how comfortable your day-to-day routine probably feels. You know where the extra pens are, which lunch spots are your favorite, which coworker to avoid if you don’t want to have an inane conversation about a kid’s birthday party. Now imagine that you’ve been doing all that for 20 years.
Familiarity isn’t everything, but the sheer amount of time that Brady has spent in New England carries a lot of weight. He’s played in the same offensive system—and used the same terminology—throughout his entire tenure. Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels have worked together for 11 seasons. The Pats may lack weapons, but the best place for Brady is still quarterbacking an offense that he’s completely mastered.
Logical Landing Spot: Titans
A reunion with the Patriots would be in the best interest of both parties, but multiple reports have indicated that Brady is ready to move on. If Brady does leave the Pats, Tennessee seems like the most reasonable destination. After finishing one game short of the Super Bowl last season, the Titans are looking to win now. Brady has a long-standing relationship with former teammate and Titans head coach Mike Vrabel, which could carry some influence. It’s also a good schematic fit. Offensive coordinator Arthur Smith wouldn’t be able to deploy designed rollouts and moving pockets the way he did with Ryan Tannehill last season, but Brady is an excellent play-action passer who utilizes play fakes on about a quarter of his throws.
Tennessee’s pass catchers are also an ideal fit for Brady and his aging arm. Rookie phenom A.J. Brown led all receivers with 8.8 yards after catch per reception last season, and breakout tight end Jonnu Smith finished fourth (8.4). With Brady at the helm, the Titans would also be able to get more production from slot receiver Adam Humphries. No quarterback has used his slot weapons more effectively than Brady has over the past 15 years.
Dark Horse Candidate: 49ers
When established, respected voices like Peter King and Tom E. Curran lend credence to a story, I tend to listen. But for all the ink that’s been spilled recently about the Brady-Niners connection, I just don’t see it. Even if San Francisco can move on from Jimmy Garoppolo this offseason without taking much of a financial hit, there are several reasons a Brady play doesn’t make sense. In a league flush with cap space, the Niners don’t have much room in 2020. The cap is fungible for just about every franchise, but it would require some serious gymnastics—and concessions elsewhere on the roster—for San Francisco to afford Brady this season and beyond. Moving on from Garoppolo after he brought the Niners to the brink of a championship could also spell disaster in the locker room. Garoppolo’s teammates love the guy, and at this point, cutting bait could sabotage the team that John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan have worked so hard to build during the past three years.
Best Fit: Titans
Tannehill was the most efficient quarterback in the NFL during his 10 starts this season. He averaged 9.6 yards per attempt, completed 70.3 percent of his passes, and tossed 22 touchdowns as the Titans went 7-3. Those numbers were inflated by some ridiculous YAC work by guys like A.J. Brown and Jonnu Smith, but even if Tannehill’s production isn’t sustainable, it’s clear that Tennessee’s offense put him in the best position to succeed. The combination of heavy play-action, high-percentage throws, and the chance to throw on the move had Tannehill playing the best football of his career—and gave the franchise new life en route to the AFC championship game.
Logical Landing Spot: Bucs
Tannehill’s market will be fascinating. If the Titans do decide to go after Brady, I’m curious whether another team will pay a premium for Tannehill’s excellent 2019 season, or if suitors will be wary of his mediocre track record (and injury history) in Miami. Of all the teams looking for quarterbacks, Tampa Bay seems like a sensible fit. Tannehill showed a healthy risk appetite last season, which is a must in a Bruce Arians offense. He averaged 9.5 air yards per attempt, the third-highest mark in the league. That was right behind Jameis Winston, who finished second at 10.4. It’s easy to imagine Tannehill ripping deep shots over the middle to Chris Godwin and Mike Evans off hard play-action. Depending on his market, the Bucs could potentially snag Tannehill on another one-year prove-it deal before evaluating their QB options again next spring.
Dark Horse Candidate: Rams
Tannehill will likely get a starting shot somewhere after his stellar 2019 campaign, but if he doesn’t, there are a couple of intriguing backup positions open. Rams backup QB Blake Bortles is a free agent this spring, and Sean McVay runs a similar scheme to the one that propelled Tannehill to success in Tennessee. The same is true for Gary Kubiak in Minnesota, where backup Sean Mannion is also set to hit free agency.
Best Fit: Colts
Sometimes, the obvious choice is the right one. Rivers and the Colts are a perfect match in nearly every way. Frank Reich coached Rivers for three seasons in San Diego, first as the team’s quarterbacks coach, then for two years as offensive coordinator. Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni also spent two seasons as Rivers’s quarterbacks coach with the Chargers. Their scheme in Indy—which includes a lot of crossing routes, intermediate throws, and passes designed to quickly get the ball in a receiver’s hands—is ideal for Rivers at this point in his career.
Shoddy offensive line play consistently hampered Rivers during his final years with the Chargers. The Colts have arguably the best offensive line in football. Colts general manager Chris Ballard hasn’t given out many big-money deals since taking the job in 2017, but Rivers is a respected locker-room presence who would likely command the room, yet not ruffle any feathers upon arrival. The Colts are projected to have about $86 million in space, and fitting in a two-year deal for Rivers wouldn’t be an issue—even with Jacoby Brissett’s contract still on the books.
Logical Landing Spot: Colts
Dark Horse Candidate: ESPN
I envision Rivers playing football this season. Few guys I’ve ever spoken with have more passion for the game, and if Rivers still wants to play, he’ll have a job somewhere. But after recently moving his wife and nine children from San Diego to Florida, it’s possible that Rivers wouldn’t be interested in spending half the year in Indiana. This is the same guy who decided that he’d rather commute 90 minutes to Orange County than relocate his family to Los Angeles after the Chargers’ move in 2017. If ESPN misses out on Peyton Manning, it’s not out of the question that a lucrative offer and the chance to spend more time with his family could lure Rivers to TV.
Best Fit: Chargers
After moving on from Rivers, conventional wisdom says that the Chargers will use (former) backup Tyrod Taylor as a bridge quarterback and spend the no. 6 pick on their QB of the future. I don’t expect the Chargers to pay up for Bridgewater, but he’d be an excellent fit for their scheme. He processes information quickly, uses the middle of the field well, and is more than willing to dump the ball to his running backs and let them go to work. It’s easy to picture Bridgewater hitting Keenan Allen on his patented “deep in” route and flipping the ball to recently extended running back Austin Ekeler on swing routes to the flat. But given the Chargers’ current situation, that probably won’t happen.
Logical Landing Spot: Patriots
New England’s post-Brady plan is a total mystery. The Pats will eventually need to find their future franchise quarterback in the draft, but considering they have the no. 23 pick this year and don’t have a second-rounder, finding that guy this year will be a challenge. Bridgewater could be a solid bridge option who still gives the Patriots a chance to get the most out of its roster in the short term. His ability to distribute the ball in the short and intermediate areas of the field would be an asset in New England’s scheme.
Dark Horse Candidate: Colts
If Indianapolis misses on Rivers, Bridgewater could be an interesting consolation prize. As outlined above, Bridgewater and Rivers fit similar schemes. The crossing routes and yards-after-catch designs in the Colts system mesh well with Bridgewater’s skill set.
Best Fit: Bucs
I mean, the guy led the league in passing yards, averaged 8.2 yards per attempt, and threw 33 touchdown passes in Tampa Bay’s offense last season. I’d say that’s a pretty good fit. That being said, he also threw 30 interceptions. The aggressive mind-set necessary in a Bruce Arians offense showcased Winston’s best qualities as a passer, but it also exposed his propensity for throwing the ball to the other team.
One of my favorite story lines of the offseason involved Winston getting LASIK—as if he’s Rick Vaughn and the only thing standing between Winston and greatness is a pair of glasses. Corrective eye surgery or not, we know what kind of quarterback Winston is five years into his career. And that quarterback is built to play in a vertical offense with stellar receivers.
Logical Landing Spot: Saints
Winston’s high points make him deserving of a starting job, but if the Bucs go with someone else and the open spots go to guys like Bridgewater, Tannehill, or cheaper (older) bridge QBs, the former no. 1 overall pick might be forced to take a high-end backup role in 2020. The best gig available—as Bridgewater showed last season—is with the Saints. This could very well be Brees’s final season. The chance to sit behind Brees for a year before playing in Sean Payton’s offense, which features Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara, could be a way for Winston to maximize his career.
Dark Horse Candidate: Lions
It would be bonkers for Winston to sign with the Lions to back up Matthew Stafford, but the situation in Detroit bears some resemblance to the one in New Orleans. Stafford’s contract makes it nearly impossible for the Lions to move on this offseason, but trading him next spring would bring his dead cap figure down from $32 million to $19 million. Detroit’s new vertical passing game under coordinator Darrell Bevell also complements Winston’s skill set. Within a year, he could be starting in a scheme that gets the most out of his talents.
Best Fit: Bears
When I first brought up the idea of Chicago trading for Dalton in October, I felt like a guy ranting in the town square. Bears fans didn’t understand the thinking behind such a move. Many were still clinging to hope that Mitchell Trubisky would improve during his second season in head coach Matt Nagy’s system, and Dalton—who was languishing on a horrendous Bengals team—didn’t seem like much of an upgrade. Five months later, the Dalton-to-Chicago rumors have started heating up.
The Red Rifle is the exact type of addition Chicago needs right now. General manager Ryan Pace has said he’s open to bringing in competition for Trubisky this offseason, and trading for Dalton would serve as more than just an obligatory signing aimed at appeasing the fan base before the team hands Trubisky his job back. Dalton was playing well early in the 2018 season before the Bengals offensive line started to crumble; he’s had heights in the NFL—recently—that Trubisky hasn’t reached in his first three seasons. Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator in 2018 was Bill Lazor, whom the Bears just hired to fill the same role. Lazor spent two seasons as the Bengals’ OC, and that connection could help Dalton hit the ground running in Chicago.
Dalton has long been a reflection of the coaching and talent around him, and while the Bears could use upgrades at tight end and on the interior of the offensive line, Allen Robinson headlines a solid group of pass-catching weapons. Dalton would allow the Bears to capitalize on their substantial defensive talent, and it’s possible that Cincinnati would pick up a solid chunk of his $17.7 million salary to help facilitate a trade.
Logical Landing Spot: Jaguars
The Jags’ interest in Dalton would depend on what happens with Nick Foles and whether they’re comfortable rolling with Gardner Minshew II. But if Jacksonville wants a proven veteran under center while it formulates a long-term plan at QB, Dalton is the guy. He has plenty of familiarity with new Jaguars offensive coordinator Jay Gruden—the two worked together during the first three years of Dalton’s career. But even if the Jags trade Foles, Minshew gets the starting nod, and the Bengals shoulder some of Dalton’s salary, Jacksonville may not want to shell out significant money for a backup with Foles’s dead cap hit on the books.
Dark Horse Candidate: Patriots
Dalton isn’t an exciting option to temporarily succeed Tom Brady, but he’s a smart, solid quarterback who could buy the Patriots some time as they figure out their long-term plan. If Brady moves on, there’s very little that New England could do at QB this year that would shock me.
Best Fit: Eagles
Bringing Foles and his $15 million base salary in to back up Carson Wentz doesn’t make a lot of fiscal sense, but it does track on a football level. Foles became a cult hero in Doug Pederson’s offense as he led the Eagles to a win in Super Bowl LII. He’s comfortable with the system, the players, and the surroundings. I’m betting this won’t happen, but it would probably be the best outcome for Foles at this point.
Logical Landing Spot: The Team Without a Seat When the Music Stops
Whenever there’s a mad dash in free agency for players at a certain position, one team is always left standing at the end. This year, that team might be stuck with Foles. It’s hard to know who that will be before the dominos start to fall, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see a team make a panic deal for Foles after coming up dry in free agency.
Dark Horse Candidate: Chiefs
The Jags would need to take on most of Foles’s $15 million base salary in a trade with cash-strapped Kansas City, but the history between Foles and Andy Reid would make this a solid fit. The Chiefs don’t currently have a backup for Patrick Mahomes on their roster, and Foles would do well in that role.
Best Fit: Chiefs
Backing up Mahomes in Kansas City would be a dream scenario for Mariota. For the first time in his career, Mariota would have some stability under a fantastic offensive coach, and if the reigning Super Bowl MVP ever went down, the Chiefs offense would be the perfect place for Mariota to rebuild his value. The shotgun-heavy sets and spread concepts that Kansas City uses would make him feel right at home.
Logical Landing Spot: Bears
Signing Mariota to a one-year, $6 million deal to serve as “competition” for Trubisky is the exact sort of half-hearted move the Bears would make.
Dark Horse Candidate: Every Team That Needs a Backup
Mariota’s market is likely to be quiet enough that any team in the league that needs a backup should take a look at him. As a former no. 2 pick, he’s got a pedigree that other backup-caliber QBs in the league just don’t have.