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Denver Started This Game of QB Musical Chairs. Who Will Be Left Standing?

News of the Broncos’ expected trade for Joe Flacco highlights a weird reality for this NFL offseason: There are more available quarterbacks than available gigs around the league

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NFL is alive with the sound of musical chairs. But while every offseason has become a quarterback shuffle, this offseason’s dance is different than in years past. Usually, there are 32 teams and less than 32 available starting-caliber quarterbacks. But this year there is an unusual phenomenon: There are more than 32 quarterbacks worth playing behind center, which has created a buyer’s market and reversed the game. True franchise quarterbacks remain as elusive as ever, but there are plenty of stopgap quarterbacks available in this year’s game of musical chairs, and Wednesday’s news that the Ravens have agreed to trade Joe Flacco to the Broncos officially started the music. Let’s take a look at the quarterbacks who are looking for a place to metaphorically sit or risk literally taking a seat on the bench in 2019.

Case Keenum

Keenum is the biggest loser of the Flacco trade. Unless the Broncos plan to make their backup quarterback the highest-paid player on their roster after Von Miller, John Elway will part with Keenum this offseason, either through trade or release. Keenum’s best shot at another starting gig might be in the NFC East. Washington will likely be without Alex Smith in 2019 and could turn to Keenum, and Keenum’s former offensive coordinator in Minnesota, Pat Shurmur, is the head coach of the Giants. But neither of those options is cut and dry. Washington doesn’t have the cap room to pay Keenum close to what he was making with Denver because of the money it is paying the injured Smith, and the Giants are unlikely to turn toward a veteran like Keenum to replace the veteran Eli Manning. But if Keenum is willing to take a pay cut—and considering the Broncos would be paying him $10 million if were released, he might be—Washington could be a win-win.

Best Case: Signs with Washington for a pay cut

Most Likely Case: Ends up in a quarterback competition with, like, Ryan Tannehill.

Nick Foles

Nick Foles is likely leaving Philadelphia, and the Eagles were reportedly planning to use the franchise tag on Foles and trade him for a third-round pick to get something in return. The Flacco trade may complicate that plan. With the Broncos’ quarterback appetite sated, the last win-now team where Foles would be an obvious upgrade is Jacksonville, which would have to do some serious cap gymnastics (like cut defensive tackle Marcell Dareus) to bring Foles aboard. Beyond the Jags, it may require either the Dolphins cutting Ryan Tannehill, the Raiders wanting to bring in competition for Derek Carr, or the Eagles making a trade with a division rival—all possible, but unlikely—for Foles to get the opportunity he desires. If the Eagles can’t do better than Denver’s deal for Flacco, they may be content to let Foles leave in free agency, get a compensatory pick for him in 2020, and hope he doesn’t sign with the Giants or Washington. If Foles wants to start and get paid, the Jaguars are his best bet, though it’s not as sure as it would seem.

Best Case: Signs with the Jaguars, wins Super Bowl MVP in 2020

Most Likely Case: Signs with the Jaguars, misses the playoffs

Blake Bortles

Foles (or anyone) coming in to replace Bortles likely won’t change Bortles’s situation. He signed a three-year extension in 2018 with a cap hit that makes him not worth releasing until after this season. Unless the Jaguars are willing to pair him with a draft pick and beg a team with space to take him off their hands, he’ll likely stay a Jaguar.

Best Case: Jacksonville’s starting quarterback

Most Likely Case: Jacksonville’s $21 million third-string quarterback

Ryan Fitzpatrick

Pop quiz: Who led the league in yards per pass attempt last year? Yes, it was Fitzpatrick. (You probably guessed that because the question was underneath the “Ryan Fitzpatrick” heading.) Fitz had a renaissance of sorts in September, and he ultimately finished fourth in passing yards per game in seven starts. If the Bucs don’t want him back, he’ll be on the outside looking in at a starting job. His best options are probably either Jacksonville or Washington, who could throw up their arms and say, “Screw it, we’ll sign him and have a quarterback competition.” But barring that situation, he’ll likely end up as a top-end backup. Cleveland has hired former Bucs offensive coordinator Todd Monken, and Monken used Air Raid passing concepts in Tampa Bay that Baker Mayfield would have employed at Texas Tech had he not transferred like a coward. (I’m kidding; this is not First Take.) Fitzpatrick could sign in Cleveland for one year (the team has plenty of cap space to burn in 2019) and tutor Mayfield on Monken’s offense, the best way to maximize Mayfield’s inconsistently kempt beard, and how to look like a Miami Vice character.

Best Case: Signs in Cleveland

Most Likely: Stunt double for Conor McGregor’s character in the Fast and the Furious spinoff

Teddy Bridgewater

Nobody looks like they’ll be harmed by the amount of available quarterbacks more than Bridgewater. Bridgewater made one unimpressive start in Week 17 this year, and his last start before that came when Jeb Bush was still running for president. Not only is he a major injury risk, but he’s also a pretty green quarterback (29 career starts) for a 26-year-old often mentioned as a potential starter. He needs a team that has the cap space to sign him, the roster flexibility to commit to him, and a coach who believes in him enough to give him reps—even at the expense of the other QBs on the roster. You know, like the Raiders.

Best Case: Signed as competition for Derek Carr, replaces him midseason

Most Likely: Most beloved third-string quarterback in football

Eli Manning

The Manning-to-Jacksonville speculation has been raging since Giants coach Tom Coughlin became the executive vice president of football operations for the Jaguars in 2017. The speculation will finally be worth watching when Manning’s contract expires in 2020, but until then, the Giants are unlikely to move on. Manning’s play and price tag (the team could save $17 million of cap space by cutting him) warrants his release, but fans were apoplectic when Manning was benched for Geno Smith in 2017, and no available option would be an upgrade over him. Ownership is probably weary of poking the bear and will be content to draft his replacement and let Manning ride out one more year as a Giant.

Best Case: Stays with Giants

Most Likely Case: Stays with Giants

Ryan Tannehill

The Dolphins have one of the least-talented rosters in football, but also one of the most expensive teams, which creates a hard question: Should the Dolphins cut Tannehill, who is the definition of a league-average quarterback and will count for more than $26 million against their cap this year? Roughly half of that $26 million is guaranteed, so cutting or trading him would mean $13 million in dead money and $13 million saved in cap space this year. Yet none of the quarterbacks on the free-agent or trade market, including Foles or Keenum, are significant upgrades over Tannehill based on talent, and they also might not be much cheaper (Foles’s franchise-tag value would be north of $25 million). Cutting Tannehill could end up being a bad financial decision, but that has never stopped Miami before.

If the Dolphins do cut Tannehill, the 30-year-old will likely be the shiniest toy on the free-agent market. Like Keenum, he’d be getting a hefty chunk of change from his former team ($13 million) if he was released. If that money enables him to take a pay cut to become Washington’s starter, that could be the best-case scenario for the team. If he wants to remain in the land of no state income tax, the Jaguars would likely take him in a heartbeat to replace Bortles. But signing a long-term deal in Jacksonville will be difficult given their cap situation, and the Dolphins could cut him after the Jags have committed to another QB.

His best option, ironically, could be on the bench. If Tannehill doesn’t have a chair when the music stops, he could get paid handsomely to be a backup quarterback for the Jets. New York is projected to have $95 million of cap space, and they’ll need to spend liberally just to reach the salary floor. Last year, the Jets gave Josh McCown $10 million to be Sam Darnold’s quarterback/hair-quaffing coach who occasionally played for the team. With former Dolphins head coach Adam Gase in town, New York could bring in Tannehill on a one-year deal that helps the Jets reach the salary floor, preserves future cap space, and overpays Tannehill to be the league’s best backup quarterback and teach Darnold Gase’s offense. Tannehill could then set himself up to be the guy a team chases in free agency next year and get a deal in 2020 that makes up for the money he’d forgo in 2019. It’s a helluva Plan B.

Best Case: Vastly overpaid to be the league’s best backup with the Jets

Most Likely Case: Stays in Miami

Tyrod Taylor

Tyrod’s destiny is to sign as an anonymous backup for the Bengals, not be seen or heard from for six months, and then re-emerge as a sleeper QB trade candidate. He’s better than Jeff Driskel, and he’s just one season removed from leading the Buffalo Bills to the playoffs.

Best Case: Backup in Cincinnati

Most Likely: Backup in Cincinnati

Dwayne Haskins/Kyler Murray/Drew Lock/Daniel Jones/Will Grier/Every QB in the 2019 Draft

It is pointless to try to speculate where each will end up, so we’ll group them here. Obviously each of these quarterbacks could end up with any of the teams who need a future QB—the Giants, Jaguars, Dolphins, and Washington—but the best case for all of these players might be avoiding those flawed teams and settling in as the heir on one of the teams with seemingly eternal quarterbacks, the Patriots, Steelers, Saints, and Chargers. None of the graying quarterbacks are totally falling apart yet, but their teams are clearly thinking about when to make their endgame move. This draft class, which boasts a lot of not-so-polished QBs, is sandwiched between two deep classes in 2018 and 2020 and could present an opportunity for these teams to strike. Being thrown into competent organizations could be the best-case scenario for the incoming rookies’ long-term careers. The prospect of Haskins dropping might be too much of a stretch, but the others could fall if the draft breaks the right way.

Best Case: Dwayne Haskins to the Giants, Kyler Murray to the Saints, Daniel Jones to the Patriots, Will Grier to the Steelers, Drew Lock to the Chargers

Most Likely: Your guess is as good as mine