It feels like we say this every year now, but we may be months away from the most fascinating quarterback market in NFL history. With four passers who have held the title of “highest-paid player in NFL history”—a group that doesn’t even include Kirk Cousins or Baker Mayfield—potentially on the move, and a large pool of needy teams waiting to offer anything and everything to land them, we’re guaranteed to get at least one or two league-altering moves.
Now, all of these quarterbacks still have a year or two left on their respective deals, so it will be up to their current teams to decide their fates in the offseason. But we figured we’d give those teams some unsolicited advice and try to figure out whether they should move on from their signal-callers, or bring them back for the 2022 season.
Not too long ago, it seemed like Wilson and the Seahawks were headed for a split. Maybe that’s still the case, but the past month has at least provided a glimpse of how Shane Waldron’s offense could look if Seattle is able to get it up and running—which might be enough to convince Russ to rescind the trade demand he claims he never made last year despite sending his list of preferred destinations to Adam Schefter. The Seahawks star told reporters last week that he “hopes” this past home game wasn’t his last in Seattle—so maybe there’s hope for a future together after all.
Sunday’s 51-29 win over Detroit was exhibit A in showing just how effective this unit can be when operating on all fronts. I get the “it’s the Lions” argument, but dropping 51 points on any NFL defense (outside of Jacksonville) is impressive, and it was how the Seahawks went about racking up those points that was encouraging. Rashaad Penny ripped off big gains on cutback runs à la Marshawn Lynch, Russell Wilson hit on shots downfield, and overall it felt like an offensive performance from the team’s Legion of Boom era. If that’s what Pete Carroll was seeking when he made Waldron his offensive coordinator, then I can’t see him bailing on the plan now that we’re finally starting to see these flashes.
Now, there’s another side to this “run it back or start over” debate, and The Athletic’s Mike Sando detailed it this week. Wilson appears to be entering the second act of his career, and there’s plenty of statistical evidence to back that up. The 33-year-old isn’t the creative force he once was, and he’s no longer getting outside of the pocket like he did in his prime. That’s a concern for a player who has been at his best in the most chaotic situations, thanks to his ability to throw a football from any platform, so it might make some sense for Seattle to sell while his value is still high. But even if Russ is in decline athletically, we’re starting to see signs that he’s becoming a quarterback who is more capable of playing within structure in the pocket. This throw from Sunday’s game is not one he was making at the height of his career:
On this play, Wilson doesn’t like his primary option, so he calmly works to the backside dig route and makes an anticipatory throw from the pocket. It’s one play, but, throughout the season, Wilson has looked far more comfortable as a dropback passer than he has at any point in his career. I don’t know if this version of Russ is an improvement over 28-year-old Russ, but it will be hard to find a QB that’s better—even with all the draft capital a Wilson trade would bring in. For that reason alone, Seattle should do whatever it takes to keep him for at least one more season.
Best fit for 2022: Seahawks
We’re at a point where “the Browns should move on from Baker” isn’t nearly as controversial a statement as it may have been, say, two months ago. But Mayfield’s future in Cleveland isn’t close to its end given his completely guaranteed $18.9 million salary for 2022. Unless the Browns can find a trade partner willing to give him that money, he’ll likely be on the roster next season. And while I may be giving the rest of the league too much credit—after all, Carson Wentz was just traded for a pick that became a first-rounder—I can’t see a team sacrificing significant draft capital for a player who has yet to put together a full season of good quarterbacking.
And Cleveland probably shouldn’t jump at giving Mayfield up for a Day 2 pick anyway. Even if he fails to earn a monster contract from the Browns in 2022, he should get plenty of attention in free agency, which could garner the team a nice compensatory draft pick. That’s not a bad consolation prize, and giving Mayfield one more season reduces the odds of Cleveland cutting bait too soon and seeing him flourish on another team—which would devastate a fan base that’s fully bought into the 2018 first overall pick.
That said, the Browns cannot go into the 2022 season with this same quarterback situation. Mayfield needs some legitimate competition for the job, whether it’s a veteran brought in via free agency or trade, or a highly drafted rookie. If Mayfield is able to beat out that competition in training camp, then at least the front office can say it tried. If he isn’t, then the Browns will have an upgrade under center.
Best fit for 2022: Cleveland’s bench
It’s impossible to have this discussion without mentioning Cousins’s fully guaranteed $45 million cap hit for next season, so let’s just start there. To put that number into context, you could afford seven Justin Herberts for the same price. So while moving on from Cousins may seem like a no-brainer, the financials make it a bit more complicated.
Minnesota is on the hook for all of that money if it decides to cut the 33-year-old, so it would have to find some team who would be willing to trade for his contract. That would probably require the Vikings to pay a chunk of his bill for him to play for another team, but if Minnesota is headed for a teardown this offseason—and it looks like it is—then doing so would be a lot easier to stomach. Especially if it can get a deal similar to the one Philadelphia got for Carson Wentz.
Here’s the problem: If teams are interested in trading for an overpriced veteran quarterback, this next guy is a far better option.
Best fit for 2022: Whichever team thinks it’s a Kirk Cousins away from the Super Bowl … so maybe the Broncos, whose current general manager, George Paton, worked in the last front office that thought it was a Kirk Cousins away from the Super Bowl.
Given the general dysfunction that’s surrounded the Falcons since they blew a 28-3 lead in the second half of Super Bowl LI, it’s been easy to overlook Ryan’s high level of play. The numbers don’t look great on their own this season, but if you turn on Ryan’s film and squint hard enough, he still looks like the quarterback who was deservedly named MVP in 2016 … just with a few miles per hour shaved off his fastball. What I’m saying is that Ryan can still play, and any team that believes it’s a quarterback away from being a contender should give Atlanta a call this offseason.
The financial hurdle will be tough to clear for any contending team, as Ryan’s cap number for 2022 stands at $48.7 million. But the Falcons might be willing to pay a chunk of that just to get a fresh start financially, and Ryan may be willing to restructure the deal for the opportunity to chase a ring.
Given Ryan’s well-rounded skill set, finding a good fit shouldn’t be too hard. He could operate in any passing scheme and would open up the playbook for coaching staffs that’ve had to provide schematic training wheels for limited quarterbacks. He could be what Matthew Stafford was for Sean McVay this past offseason. If Aaron Rodgers sticks in Green Bay and Wilson stays in Seattle, Ryan will move to the top of the list for QB-needy teams looking to win right away.
Best fit for 2022: The Falcons should keep him. But if they don’t, the Steelers should do whatever it takes.
This one will be easier to answer after Sunday’s play-in game between the Raiders and Chargers. If Carr—who has remarkably kept the Raiders offense afloat despite everything that’s gone on in Vegas this season—leads the team to their second playoff berth in the last two decades, it will be hard to move on from him no matter which coach they bring in this offseason. If the Raiders miss out, that calculus becomes a lot easier.
Either way, though, Carr is probably worth keeping around for 2022—unless Rodgers or Wilson are available, of course. While he’s not capable of dragging a team to the playoffs consistently, he’s not far off, and he’s just young enough that there’s hope he could eventually get to that level with the right support system. Talent has never been the issue for Carr. He’s got a big arm, plenty of athleticism, and he’s one of the smarter quarterbacks in the league. His problem has been an aversion to taking chances downfield. He’s managed to dial up that aggression at points this season, and when he does, he looks the part of a legitimate franchise-carrying passer. He clearly has it in him.
If the Raiders put Carr on the block this offseason, the Browns should immediately explore a trade—and Kevin Stefanski should go on strike if they don’t. The Browns offensive line would provide Carr with the protection he needs to play well, and Stefanski’s system naturally forces its quarterbacks to take shots downfield. In return, Carr would give Stefanski a quarterback capable of operating a robust dropback passing scheme, which he hasn’t had these past two seasons in Cleveland.
With Carr coming to the end of an outdated contract—his 2022 cap hit is $19.9 million—the financials shouldn’t be a problem for the Browns even if they keep Mayfield around. Mayfield’s $19 million cap hit combined with Carr’s would level out to $39 million for Cleveland, which is about what the team would have been paying to Mayfield had he earned a contract extension this season.
Best fit for 2022: Browns
For a second consecutive year, the Dolphins went into Week 17 needing a win to keep their playoff hopes alive. And for a second consecutive year, Tua played his worst game of the season in a blowout loss. This year’s example was somehow even worse than the 2020 season finale, when Tagovailoa threw three interceptions and finished with a QBR of 15.7, per ESPN. In Miami’s 34-3 loss in Tennessee on Sunday, his QBR was just 7.9 and his 42 dropbacks netted just 182 yards. It’s unfair to pin all of the Dolphins’ failures on Tua, but he’s made it quite clear that he’s not the solution to Miami’s long-standing quarterback problem.
Tagovailoa’s contract is modest enough for Miami to hold on to him for one more year while it brings in some veteran competition, but if there’s a team out there willing to give up a Day 2 pick for the 23-year-old, the Dolphins should jump at the opportunity. The list of possible suitors won’t be terribly long, but a team did give up a second-round pick for Sam Darnold within the last 12 months. And that same team will be back in the hunt for a quarterback this offseason, so …
Best fit for 2022: Panthers
Really, it’s up to Rodgers whether he stays or goes, and with the Packers looking like the favorites to win the Super Bowl, it’s hard to imagine the MVP front-runner finding a better situation for 2022. Green Bay will also surely be interested in extending this partnership, since Rodgers has spent the season making throws like this:
(All of those plays are from one drive, by the way. Rodgers is as good at throwing footballs as he is bad at talking about public health issues.)
With Jordan Love looking shaky in his first and only NFL start—to be fair, he was put in a tough spot against the defending AFC champs—the Packers won’t be comfortable handing a raw passer the keys. If Rodgers wants out, he’ll have to force the front office’s hand, and I don’t see how that’s beneficial for either party.
Best fit for 2022: Packers