The Rams made it look so easy last offseason. Oh, you have a quarterback problem? Well, just trade for a good one and a Super Bowl will follow soon thereafter. That’s the blueprint a few QB-needy teams were hoping to follow this spring, as multiple Pro Bowl–level quarterbacks looked to possibly be on the move—including the league’s reigning MVP.
Squads with a good roster surrounding the quarterback position—like the Steelers, Colts, and Commanders, for instance—were definitely among that group. And even the coach of a team that has no real reason to be optimistic about the 2022 season took some solace from the Rams finding nirvana a year after swinging the deal for Matthew Stafford: “I think from the Rams winning the Super Bowl, some of us that weren’t in the playoffs, [it] gives us hope and I think we can catch up quick,” said Lovie Smith of, that’s right, the Houston Texans.
There’s just one problem with that line of thinking this year (aside from the fact that the Texans are way more than a Stafford away from contending): With all the tea leaves suggesting that Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, and even Kirk Cousins aren’t going anywhere, this year’s Veteran QB Who Is Clearly Ready to Move on From His Current Team might end up being Jimmy Garoppolo. And, based on the scouting reports of the current group of quarterback prospects, that franchise-saving passer probably isn’t available in the draft, either.
That leaves QB-needy teams in a rough spot—especially two that were in this exact same position a year ago: the Panthers and Broncos. Denver had its sights set pretty high both this year and last, as landing the disgruntled Rodgers was their clear goal. Carolina, meanwhile, ignored the mountain of evidence suggesting that Sam Darnold wasn’t a very good quarterback and decided to not just trade for him last offseason, but also to pick up his fifth-year option, which guarantees him an $18.9 million salary in 2022. With their hopes for Rodgers and Darnold, both teams decided they didn’t need to draft Justin Fields or Mac Jones and instead took cornerbacks with their respective first-round picks.
Obviously neither of those QB plans worked out—Rodgers stayed in Green Bay and Darnold continued to be the guy he was in New York—so heading into this offseason, Denver’s and Carolina’s desperation for a solution at the position was apparent. The Panthers were reportedly ready to be a “major player” in the quarterback market. And on Tuesday, Broncos general manager George Paton confirmed what we’ve known since his team’s initial flirtation with Rodgers, saying the Broncos will continue to be “aggressive” in their search for a quarterback. That all sounds good and may appease those fan bases for a bit, but by this time last year, the Stafford trade was already a month old, and the Colts’ trade for Carson Wentz had already been made. Maybe a major QB deal will still get done at some point this week at the combine in Indianapolis, but, if not, it looks like the Broncos and Panthers will be left scrounging for whatever scraps other teams might leave behind. And those scraps might be more sparse than expected.
The top-tier NFL guys like Rodgers and Wilson seem to be off the board, but even the second-tier guys might be unavailable. Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot was non-committal on Matt Ryan being the team’s starter in 2022, but he also made it clear that the team’s top priority right now is winning rather than starting a rebuild. Moving on from Ryan wouldn’t really help Atlanta work toward that goal—not just because he’s still a good quarterback, but also because trading him would leave behind an NFL-record $40.5 million dead cap charge.
Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah’s comments weren’t all that different from Fontenot’s. The first-year GM said “everything is in play” when asked about a possible Kirk Cousins trade, but followed that with: “He’s an incredible person and I’m excited to work with him.” Even Colts general manager Chris Ballard, who pretty much went scorched earth on Wentz during his media availability on Tuesday, ended up saying the team was undecided on whether it was time to move on, which contradicted a February report that Wentz was done in Indianapolis:
There's a belief that #Colts QB Carson Wentz will "'probably" be traded or released before March 19th, per @mortreport. That's when $15M in base salary becomes guaranteed. His future in Indianapolis looks "bleak."— Ari Meirov (@MySportsUpdate) February 13, 2022
So if those teams are willing to stand pat and put off the next phase at QB for at least one more year, the Panthers and Broncos will have to turn to the draft to find their next quarterbacks. A year ago, that wouldn’t have been a bad spot to be in, with five slam-dunk first-round prospects in the quarterback class. But in 2022, there may not be one.
Liberty’s Malik Willis is the only prospect with truly elite tools. He’s not Lamar Jackson, but he’d instantly be the NFL’s second-best runner at the position. And his arm talent is special, both in terms of pure throwing velocity and the ability to change the trajectory of his passes when needed. But Willis wasn’t asked to play like an NFL quarterback in college, so the transition—at least early on—might be a little rough.
Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder is probably the only other contender for the QB1 crown because he’s so polished at all the stuff a quarterback has to do before the ball is thrown. After that, though, things kind of fall apart. Getting the ball to the intended target consistently has been an issue for Ridder, and that makes it hard to get overly excited no matter how well he’s able to get through his progressions.
Then there are the other quarterbacks, each of whom have at least one very apparent flaw that should prevent any team—even one that is currently set to start Drew Lock or Darnold in Week 1—from taking a swing on them on Day 1 of the draft. Kenny Pickett’s hands are historically small; Matt Corral played in an offense that did not prepare him for the NFL at all; Sam Howell’s footwork will take years to correct; and Carson Strong can’t move.
There’s no way around it: This is a bad quarterback class, and it’s a bad year to be in the market for a quarterback of the future. For other QB-needy teams like the Bucs and Steelers, who lost their passers to retirement, it’s just shitty timing. If they go into this season with Blaine Gabbert and Mason Rudolph, respectively, as their Week 1 starters, it’s at least understandable how that happened. But the Panthers and Broncos shouldn’t get that benefit of the doubt. They both had their chance last year and blew it.
Last August, Paton defended the decision to pass on a quarterback to draft a corner by boldly claiming that “quarterbacks are available more than franchise corners every year—at least the last couple of years.” That last part was obviously in reference to the Rams’ trade for Stafford and Tom Brady falling into Tampa Bay’s lap. But those moves don’t happen every year. We rarely see bona fide franchise quarterbacks shift teams. That it happened twice in a row was an anomaly, not proof that it will happen again this year.
Paton’s failure to recognize that ultimately landed the Broncos in this spot. When you have a chance to get a good quarterback, you shoot your shot. You can’t wait around for the next opportunity, because there may not be one.
In Carolina, it doesn’t sound as if general manager Scott Fitterer has learned that lesson yet. “You don’t ever want to force a quarterback decision,” he said Tuesday, about three weeks after the Rams won a Super Bowl in part because they gave up a first-round pick and ate Jared Goff’s $22.2 million in dead cap to get their quarterback. Los Angeles very much forced a quarterback decision. And now, as former Panthers coach Ron Rivera put it on Tuesday, “Does anybody really care what was traded for Matthew Stafford last year?”