We can get to an even half the league by adding San Francisco (Colin Kaepernick), Miami (Ryan Tannehill), and the New York Giants (Eli Manning), but I think each of those situations are slightly cloudier due to potential uncertainties higher up in the organization. Will Jim Harbaugh still be coaching the 49ers in 2015, and if not, what does that mean for Kaepernick? If the Dolphins miss the playoffs for the sixth straight year, would that mark the end of the Joe Philbin — and Tannehill — eras in South Beach? Manning is actually entering the last year of his contract in 2015, and comes with a cap hit of $19.75M and dead money of just $2.25M if he’s cut or traded. He’s not worth $20M per year, and if Tom Coughlin is gone, will a new coach want to go in a new direction?
Still, the smart money is on those three wearing the same uniforms in 2015; more importantly for our musical chairs purposes, all three will be starting quarterbacks somewhere next year. Peyton Manning could retire if the Broncos win the Super Bowl, but odds are he brings our list up to 17 quarterback situations we can clearly identify for week 1 of the 2015 season. We can get to an even 20 by including Cincinnati (it’s unlikely Andy Dalton isn’t the starter this time next year), Dallas (Tony Romo will be the guy if healthy, but his back troubles moves him out of the group 1 list), and Minnesota (no, Teddy Bridgewater has not been great, but he’s been capable enough as a 22-year-old rookie to be given the job at the start of the 2015 season).
Then you get to the four wildcards: Oakland, Chicago, Arizona, and Philadelphia. The Raiders situation seems pretty clear on the surface: Derek Carr will be the guy, right? On the other hand, his numbers have been bad, but unlike Bortles, he wasn’t a top-5 draft pick. And unlike Bridgewater, he’s going to have a new coach next year. Will the Raiders bring in a new GM, too, one who has no ties to the team’s 2014 second round pick? Carr’s numbers have been better than what Jimmy Clausen produced in 2010, but Carolina used the first overall pick on a quarterback just one year after spending a second on Clausen. I would not be shocked if the same thing happened in Oakland under a new regime.
The Jay Cutler situation is ugly in Chicago, and Marc Trestman’s job security isn’t so clear, either. The contract situation isn’t as bad as you might think, so there’s a real chance the Bears could move on from the polarizing passer. On the other hand, Chicago isn’t going to be bad enough to use a high draft pick on a quarterback, so I’m not sure there are many (any?) alternatives that are actually better for the ’15 Bears than Cutler. And for musical chairs purposes, Cutler will be occupying one of the 32 spots for 2015.
Arizona fans will be crossing their fingers that Carson Palmer is healthy enough to start in week 1 of the 2015 season; it remains to be seen how optimistic that expectation truly is. Would Drew Stanton or (gasp) Logan Thomas really be given the reins entering the ’15 season if Palmer isn’t healthy? This is a tough situation to read, but given the Cardinals’ low draft pick status and salary cap issues, I don’t view Arizona as a threat to do anything explosive to solve the team’s quarterback issue.
Finally, there’s Philadelphia. Mark Sanchez is a free agent after the season, after signing a one year contract worth $2.25 million back in March. Will the Eagles try to retain Sanchez, give the job back to Nick Foles, or look elsewhere for the team’s 2015 starter? I’m not even sure if Chip Kelly knows the answer to that question just yet, so good luck trying to figure out what Kelly will do.
Start with the 13 locks, and then take the optimistic view on the other 11 quarterback situations. That still leaves eight teams with glaring quarterback needs entering 2015. Well, it’s more like seven teams with glaring quarterback needs and one with glaring quarterback uncertainty.
Let’s start in Cleveland, where we can be pretty sure that either Brian Hoyer or Johnny Manziel will be the team’s starter in week 1 of the 2015 season. Hoyer is on the second year of a cheap two-year contract he signed in 2013, and he’ll likely be a starter — in Cleveland or for one of the seven teams below — next year. For musical chairs purposes, the best-case scenario for the NFL may be for Hoyer to move on, and leaves us with one fewer empty seat.
For the remaining seven teams, they fall into three categories:
Two quarterbacks, three chairs
The New York Jets (Geno Smith, Michael Vick), Tennessee Titans (Jake Locker, Zach Mettenberger, Charlie Whitehurst), and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Mike Glennon, Josh McCown) will all be looking for new quarterbacks next year.1 All three teams stand at 2-10, and assuming Carr is safe as the quarterback in Oakland, that means these are your potential landing spots for Marcus Mariota (Oregon) and Jameis Winston (Florida State). A lot can and will happen between now and the draft, but those two are your clear frontrunners for prospect that quarterback-hungry teams will be eying. Connor Cook (Michigan State), Brett Hundley (UCLA), or Garrett Grayson (Colorado State) could wind up surprising folks in the pre-draft process, but it’s Mariota and Winston that Jets, Titans, and Bucs fans are focusing on.
The Jets and Titans square off in two weeks, with the winner of that game perhaps ultimately being the loser. After an ugly season, at least one of these teams will also have to deal with missing out on both Winston and Mariota.
Seeking a Veteran
Washington is only one game “worse” off if the team hopes to land Mariota or Winston, but after what’s happened with RG3, I don’t think we see Dan Snyder spend another top five pick on a quarterback (and certainly not trade up in the process). I doubt Colt McCoy or Kirk Cousins are the week 1, 2015 starters, either, so expect Washington to bring in a veteran in the offseason. Griffin will almost certainly be traded, but that means he likely fills one of our chairs.
Houston (Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Mallett, Tom Savage) and St. Louis (Sam Bradford, Shaun Hill, Austin Davis) each have three quarterbacks on their roster now, but none of them are likely to be a 2015 week 1 starter in their current cities. Both teams should finish around .500, which will prevent them from having a high enough draft pick to enter the Mariota/Winston sweepstakes. Frankly, I have no clue what Houston will do: Fitzpatrick was always meant to be a 2014 stopgap, Mallett is a free agent after the year and can’t be trusted, and Savage (the team’s 4th round pick this year) has yet to throw a pass. For the Texans, Griffin, Bradford, or Hoyer could make a lot of sense as quarterbacks looking for a revival under Bill O’Brien.
What will St. Louis do? Assuming Jeff Fisher returns, the Rams would also appear to be in the Hoyer or Griffin sweepstakes. Could the Rams be the team willing to trade for Cutler? Fisher liked Cutler back in ’06, and it was Bud Adams who made the call to draft Vince Young instead. The Rams almost certainly do not have their 2015 quarterback on the roster, but it’s also unlikely that the team hands the reins over to a rookie. Like Houston, a veteran seems like the probable solution here.
The Buffalo Bills have two quarterbacks (EJ Manuel, Kyle Orton) and no 2015 first round picks, courtesy of the Sammy Watkins trade. Unfortunately, Manuel has already been declared a bust, and Orton isn’t the long-term answer for any team. I have no clue what the Bills will do, but safe to say, the Bills don’t, either.
So we have 8 quarterback uncertain teams — Cleveland, the Jets, Tennessee, Tampa Bay, Washington, Houston, St. Louis, and Buffalo. Where are our sellers — i.e., the quarterbacks to fill those spots?
We can’t count Cutler, because if he goes to one of these franchises, that just makes Chicago a new buyer. Hoyer, Griffin, Mariota and Winston are favorites to take four of the eight spots. Assuming Hoyer is in Cleveland, that leaves four teams without a quarterback: if Manziel is the starter there, that leaves three franchises wondering what to do when the music stops.
The best of the rest would be Sanchez (if the Eagles give the job to Foles) and Bradford, two former top-five picks who could at least present the illusion of upside. That still leaves one-to-three teams2 in dire straits, left with one of three choices: entering 2015 with a non-Mariota/Winston rookie, taking a spin on a retread like Orton, Vick, Hill, McCoy, or Fitzpatrick, or hoping that a player like Cousins, Smith, Manuel, Glennon, or Locker could turn things around in a new location. At least one franchise will be left out in the cold in the quarterback game of musical chairs, and that assumes that guys like Bradford and Sanchez (to say nothing of the Daltons and Smiths of the world) provide warmth.
Or, to think of it another way, there are only 21 guys who you could feel reasonably comfortable handing a week 1, 2015 starter job to: Rodgers, Luck, Newton, Flacco, Brees, Ryan, Stafford, Alex Smith, Roethlisberger, Rivers, Wilson, Brady, Kaepernick, Tannehill, both Mannings, Romo, Dalton,3 Cutler, Mariota, and Winston.
Add in the underwhelming rookie trio of Bridgewater, Bortles, and Carr, and you have 24 quarterbacks that you can justify as a week 1, 2015 starter. There are another three you can be cautiously optimistic about (RG3, Hoyer, Manziel), and four that I have no idea what you do with (Palmer, Sanchez, Foles, Bradford). And, as you might have noticed, that still leaves you one short of a full deck.4 Right now, it’s uncertain how several situations will shake out, or where each team will slot in the draft. One thing that is certain: there will not be enough quarterbacks to go around when the music stops.
- Are there any Mettenberger fans out there? In his defense, he ranks 17th in ANY/A and 12th in NY/A among the 35 qualifying passers this season, numbers that would presumably earn him a right to win the job in 2015. On the other hand, he was an ESPN QBR of 37.2, which would place him third from last (ahead of only Smith and Bortles) if he had enough action plays to qualify. That backs up the eye test, and also the view that much of Mettenberger’s production has come in garbage time. I certainly don’t think the Titans would hesitate to draft Winston or Mariota because of Mettenberger, presuming that Tennessee gives a high grade to those prospects. [↩]
- If the Eagles keep both Sanchez and Foles, and the Browns keep Hoyer and Manziel [↩]
- Begrudgingly, but yes. [↩]
- And two short if Manning retires, and three short if Hoyer stays in Cleveland, and four short if Sanchez stays in Philadelphia, and … [↩]