Debrief: Previewing movers and shakers in 2021 QB market

The Jets’ win over the Rams on Sunday, which improved their record enough to move them behind the (1-13) Jaguars in the race for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, may alter the fate of two franchises for the next two decades. (Or not! Especially if the Colts rest starters against the Jags in Week 17.) No matter how the next two weeks go, the results will alter how the Jets and Jaguars approach an offseason where the draft isn’t the only avenue for improving at quarterback.

This week, I’m using the Debrief to take an early look at which quarterbacks are likely to hit free agency, which big names could be traded and which teams will be in the market at the position. (All salary information comes from Over The Cap.)

Spicy QBs with a realistic chance of being available

Two years after appearing in just three games, Jimmy G. missed most of the season again, just when the guaranteed money in his five-year contract ran out. The 29-year-old has two years left on that deal, but the 49ers can save nearly all of his $26.9 million cap hit in 2021 by moving on, and it feels like the right time to do so, especially if his old bosses in New England want him back.

While it’s early in the process, there have been signs from Stafford and cautious speculation from media members that Stafford could be ready to move on from Detroit. That process will largely depend on what the new, as-yet-unknown bosses in Detroit want to do, but Stafford could try to force their hand. 

Trading Wentz would save virtually no cap space if done before June 1, so the Eagles would have to be incredibly motivated sellers to move him. Jalen Hurts balling out for two more weeks may be motivation enough, no matter who’s the coach next season. I’d expect Wentz to have a strong trade market because of the former No. 2 overall pick’s previous production, despite the $34.8 million guaranteed remaining on his contract.  

Losing out on the No. 1 overall pick in next year’s draft could complicate this decision for general manager Joe Douglas, but probably not to the point that he’ll keep Darnold as the unquestioned starter. The former No. 3 overall pick has shown virtually no development in his three NFL seasons, and his stats rank among the worst by quarterbacks with at least 30 starts of the last decade. This could be the last chance for the Jets to get value in return for him, but it’s possible Darnold will compete with an incoming veteran or rookie instead of moving on. 

Slightly less realistic (but still spicy!) trade targets

Decision No. 1 for the Falcons’ new general manager or coach will be what to do with their 36-year-old franchise quarterback. If San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan, one of Ryan’s old bosses, is also looking for a quarterback, that could impact Ryan’s trade value, but the Falcons would have to carry $44 million in dead money in 2021 if they dealt him before June 1. Speaking of Shanahan …

Cousins only has one year left of guaranteed money on his contract and would be easier to trade than Ryan. A deal would actually save the Vikings $11 million in cap space — while also opening up a huge quarterback conundrum. Shanahan’s long-term love for Cousins makes the prospect of his relocation something more than idle speculation.  

Theoretically available QBs who probably won’t be

Even the Cowboys can’t be short-sighted enough to blow this one, right? Prescott’s absence after suffering a season-ending ankle injury in Week 5 has only underlined his value as a top-10 quarterback to a franchise with an unwavering belief they it is special, despite 25 years of on-field results that prove otherwise.  

Prescott is scheduled to be a free agent, but he’s not going to hit the open market. The Cowboys can use the franchise tag on him for a second straight year at $37.6 million, which gives Prescott leverage, despite his ongoing recovery. Before anyone says that number is prohibitive, consider that Cowboys pass-rusher DeMarcus Lawrence and running back Ezekiel Elliott will combine to have a bigger cap number next season by themselves. Would you rather have Prescott or Zeke and Lawrence?

There will probably be way too many speculative articles written about Jerry Jones becoming infatuated with a draft pick or other scenarios beyond paying Prescott what he’s worth, but the most likely scenario remains Dak staying put. 

Rivers signed with the Colts on a one-year contract in March, and the marriage has gone better than anyone could have realistically hoped. At this stage of Rivers’ career, it sure feels like it’s Frank Reich or bust for Rivers’ future. 

Quarterbacks who should be available!

A return to Foxborough in 2021 appears less likely with each dispiriting start by Newton, although it’s possible that both sides decide they can’t do better than each other.

It’s possible that Trubisky, who became Chicago’s starter again in Week 12 after being benched for Nick Foles, saves head coach Matt Nagy’s job by winning out, but getting another contract from the Bears is harder to imagine for the impending free agent.

Still just 28 years old, Brissett has a chance to settle in as the new Ryan Fitzpatrick, one of the best backup quarterbacks in football and a welcome addition to most QB rooms. 

It’s safe to say Tyrod will move on after what he went through with the Chargers organization this season. 

Dalton’s stint with the Cowboys is unlikely to inspire another team to view him as a starter, but he’d make a fine veteran to pair with a rookie. 

Sean Payton still tells each broadcast team that he loves Winston and could see a future with him, so he’s got that going for him.

It’s hard to imagine Ron Rivera bringing back Haskins, the only trade candidate under this subhead, after The Team decided Alex Smith and Kyle Allen were better options than the 2019 first-rounder. 

The only quarterback other than Patrick Mahomes to make the Divisional Round in each of the last two years is threatening to make it three straight. 

The QB-needy, ranked in order of desperation

The Bears are likely to be starting from scratch at the position, no matter how well Mitchell Trubisky plays in the final two games. Nick Foles is due guaranteed money next season and would cost at least $7 million in dead money to release, but he is no more than a placeholder at this point.

With a reasonably high draft pick and some former Patriots possibly available (Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett), New England is unlikely to spend another offseason inspiring Jarrett Stidham hype pieces.

Alex Smith is under contract for two more years, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the team brings the 36-year-old back on a re-worked deal after his 2020 rebirth. Regardless, it’s clear the Quarterback of the Future — and probably the Quarterback of 2021 — is not yet on the roster. 

Drew Brees is likely starting the final few games of his career. Taysom Hill is under contract in 2021 for money that, while significant, would slot somewhere between a starter and a backup’s salary, and he didn’t show enough in his four starts in relief of Brees to get excited about. Considering the team’s restrictive projected salary-cap situation in 2021, the Saints may go cheap with Hill, a draft pick and/or Jameis Winston for a transition year. 

Taking the second-best available QB with the No. 2 overall pick, if that’s what they wind up with, still seems more likely for the Jets than getting aggressive in the veteran market above.

They are drafting a quarterback, whether at No. 1 or No. 2. 

Going into the season with Drew Lock as the unquestioned starter will likely go down as a one-year plan, like most John Elway plans at quarterback.  

The G-Men are in a similar spot to the Jets a year ago. Do they want to completely put Joe Judge’s coaching tenure on Daniel Jones’ development as a third-year pro, with no Plan B? Judge is a better coach than Adam Gase, but we saw how that worked out for the Jets with Sam Darnold. 

The Colts are ranked this high because Philip Rivers isn’t currently under contract, and they have a roster that is ready to contend. Running it back with Rivers and no alternative plan has its own share of risk. 

Keeping Jimmy Garoppolo at a relatively modest rate isn’t the worst scenario for Kyle Shanahan. They nearly won a Super Bowl doing just that! Still, the timing is right for a big change and possible trade. The 49ers are the most intriguing potential trade partner for players like Kirk Cousins, Sam Darnold or Matthew Stafford, partly because they’ve shown the willingness to take big swings before. 

Teddy Bridgewater is the lowest-paid true starting quarterback on a non-rookie contract. (Newton is getting less this year, but his presence above means he doesn’t count.) Bridgewater’s guaranteed salary and mid-level play should put the Panthers in the market for a rookie to develop under him.

A lot depends on Jalen Hurts’ next two starts. Either way, it’s hard to imagine the Eagles returning with the same quarterback room next season. 

This is a long shot, but Jon Gruden doesn’t seem above making rash decisions after the downward spiral heading into next year. Still, Marcus Mariota is under contract for next year, so bringing back Derek Carr (under contract through 2022) and Mariota remains the most likely outcome. 

A contract extension for the 38-year-old Ben Roethlisberger is more likely than a bold move, but the Steelers may want to invest another mid-round pick at quarterback as a safeguard. 

Matt Ryan’s contract means the Falcons have an average starter (at worst) locked down for three more years, even if it’s time to start looking at draft prospects at the position more seriously.  

Matthew Stafford is young in QB years (32) and under contract for two more seasons. Even if Stafford were to want out, the Lions are working from a position of strength.

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