It’s been a strange season for quarterback news in the NFL. There’s always a flurry of interest when a struggling starter gets benched or a new name breaks out. But this fall, all the uncertainty about the position has caused each fluctuation in the stock market to come with additional questions about what it means for the coming quarterback carousel.
Minutes after the Bengals announced they were benching Andy Dalton last month, analysts suggested they trade him to Chicago. When reports surfaced that Cam Newton’s move to IR could signal the end of his time in Carolina, speculation immediately began about where he’d end up in 2020. Gardner Minshew II’s hot start wasn’t merely a feel-good story; it had many wondering whether the rookie could unseat Nick Foles in Jacksonville—and whether Foles might be headed out of town as a result. And Ryan Tannehill’s performance in the Titans’ win over the Chiefs on Sunday inspired questions about his future in Tennessee.
These types of reactions aren’t surprising. Quarterbacks have long been at a premium in the NFL, and when a competent passer becomes available, it’s fair to wonder who might need him. But this spring is going to be different. When the NFL offseason began last March, there was an unfamiliar air of calm around the quarterback market. For the first time in years, most of the league had an answer in place at the position—for either the short or long term. Only a handful of franchises were looking to make a change, and that led to a relative lack of activity in both free agency and the draft. Five teams—the Cardinals, Jaguars, Broncos, Dolphins, and Redskins—opened the season with different quarterbacks than the ones who started Week 1 in 2018. Next year, that number will almost certainly double. And while unlikely, it’s possible that nearly half the league could enter next season with a different primary starter under center. The NFL is on the precipice of its most frenzied QB offseason in years, and it’s going to be absolutely wild.
There’s no single cause for this coming QB version of musical chairs. Some of it comes down to timing. Aging quarterbacks like Philip Rivers and Tom Brady are nearing the ends of their careers. Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota are finishing their rookie contracts. Cam Newton and Andy Dalton will have virtually no dead money remaining on their deals by next year. But plenty of leaguewide trends will also play a part.
The value of a quarterback on a rookie deal is no longer a secret, and that knowledge could change the calculus for teams that are considering signing a veteran passer. Inking Tannehill—who is currently on a one-year contract—to a short-term deal might not be as appealing to the Titans as finding a QB in the first round of the draft for a fraction of the cost. And signing Winston to a bridge contract wouldn’t make sense for Bucs if they believe they can get similar production from a rookie. It’s also easier than ever to find competent quarterback play. Rule changes, the passing-game explosion, and thousands of throws during decades of seven-on-seven competitions have made the pool of functional college passers deeper than it’s ever been. In the past, teams might have stuck with the status quo out of fear, but moving on from a tolerable-if-not-exceptional quarterback should no longer be a terrifying option. Bold trades and free-agent splashes have made the NFL an increasingly year-to-year league, and teams that are built to win now have less room for patience—even at the most important position in the sport.
The circumstances and motivations for finding a new QB may be different for each team, but even so, a staggering number of franchises currently find themselves in a similar place. And now, the most pressing question is where their new QBs will come from. For a few of these teams, the draft is the easiest avenue. The winless Bengals are barreling toward the first overall pick in next year’s draft, and if they get it—or even land a top-five selection—there’s likely nothing that fourth-round rookie Ryan Finley could do to dissuade Cincinnati from taking a QB in April. The Dolphins are harder to read, given the uncertain time frame of the full-scale rebuild the franchise started last offseason. But with three first-round picks at their disposal—and quality options like LSU’s Joe Burrow and Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa available at the top of the draft—it seems like this would be the year for Miami to go after its signal-caller of the future.
The Bengals and Dolphins are the clear candidates to go the draft route, but there are also plenty of less-obvious teams that could join them. Kyle Allen has been serviceable in seven games as Newton’s replacement, but if the Panthers like what they see out of this year’s class, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Carolina take a passer in the first round. The Chargers are likely going to miss the playoffs, and with Rivers entering his late 30s and the final year of his contract, they’re a prime candidate for a bold draft day move. Depending on how free agency shakes out, the Bucs and Titans could also be looking to the draft for their new quarterbacks, with players like Oregon’s Justin Herbert, Utah State’s Jordan Love, or Washington’s Jacob Eason on the table.
It’s impossible to know which teams will definitely be in that mix or which QBs they’ll be after, but in past years, high demand has typically led to quarterbacks getting pushed up draft boards. When a large portion of the league was looking for new QBs in 2018, four were taken in the first 10 picks. Lamar Jackson was the fifth QB drafted that year, and his MVP-level production so far this season will likely inspire more teams to take swings on high-upside options like Jalen Hurts. With this many organizations and prospects in the mix, the table is set for a dizzying collection of moves.
And that’s before taking into account the free-agent and trade markets. If the Bengals and Panthers decide to move on from their longtime starters, Dalton and Newton would join a group that may include Teddy Bridgewater, Mariota, Tannehill, Winston, Case Keenum, Foles, Joe Flacco, Josh Rosen, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Rivers, and—just maybe—Brady. Some names on that list are certainly more appealing than others, but the sheer size of the pool would give teams more flexibility than they’ve had in years past. Bridgewater could easily wind up on the Bucs, Titans, Panthers, or some other team we haven’t even considered. Or if teams deem him too expensive in the wake of his excellent season with the Saints, they could move on to cheaper options. Foles would cost only $15.1 million in 2020 for any team that traded for him—which would be the 18th-highest cap hit among QBs. Newton would count for $21.1 million against the cap, in a season when Jared Goff will make $36 million. Dalton’s base salary will be $17.7 million, the lowest nonrookie QB salary in the NFL, and $300,000 less than the average annual value of the contract that Denver gave Keenum in 2018. All of those numbers are more than palatable in the modern NFL, and for teams that are unenthused by the 2020 draft class or don’t have the capital to take a passer in the first round, they could be attractive options.
In a strange twist, demand for new QBs around the league could also increase the supply. With so many teams in position to move on from their current starters, the market could be flooded with capable passers. Even if the Bengals think it’s time to move on from Dalton, a team like Chicago could still see him as an upgrade over Mitchell Trubisky. Or another team that’s not ready to use a first-round pick on a QB could view him as a perfect bridge solution. There are options this year, even if many of them would be seen as lateral moves. And that drastic increase in supply is what sets the 2020 QB carousel apart from years past. The number of quarterbacks who could be attainable this spring makes it virtually impossible to predict how the market will unfold. Salary-cap constraints will limit the options for some teams, but even cash-strapped franchises will have more flexibility than usual.
The reason speculation has followed nearly every bit of news about veteran quarterbacks this season is that more of them than ever could be on the move this spring. The NFL could be starting at a QB shuffle unlike any that’s been seen in the modern era, and the seeds of that movement are being sown right now.