NFL Free Agency Preview: Top 10 Quarterbacks

Scott LoganContributor IIJanuary 11, 2012

NFL Free Agency Preview: Top 10 Quarterbacks

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    Week 17 is long gone, so now many teams have nothing to look forward to but the beginning of free agency. At least this year, the free agency period will open up before August. It'll be an interesting offseason for quarterbacks, with multiple teams looking for upgrades at the QB position, whether it's better backups or a quality starter. Here are my top 10 signal-callers who will be free agents in March.

#10: Dan Orlovsky

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    It feels...strange to include him on this list.

    But Dan Orlovsky has actually played okay. By no means great, and he's really going to have a hard time finding a starting gig, but his stock went up during his brief time with the Colts, even though he only went 2-3 as a starter. Orlovsky completed 63.2 percent of his passes, gained 1,202 yards in the air and played to an 82.4 QB rating. 

    However, these numbers may be considered disappointing considering the talented receivers (Reggie Wayne, Austin Collie, Pierre Garcon, Dallas Clark) at Orlovsky's disposal, and the fact that he was unable to do more with them. In the end, no team is going to be willing to give him a starting job, but he should be a solid No. 2 QB—which would be more than he was for the Colts earlier this season.

    Prediction: Buffalo Bills

    Ryan Fitzpatrick imploded after signing his big extension with Buffalo. After a promising start to the season, the Bills crashed and burned. Fitzpatrick has a great deal of talent, but the Bills would be smart to bring in a QB who can put some heat on him. Someone better than Tyler Thigpen. Orlovsky could fit the bill.

#9: David Garrard

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    Garrard was a Pro Bowler not long ago, back in 2009. In fact, in 2010, he posted a solid 90.8 QB rating. But a neck injury cost him his job with the Jaguars last summer, and he missed the entire 2011 season after undergoing surgery on a herniated disk.

    But Garrard will attract interest on the open market for the 2012 season. I can't see him being more than a backup initially, considering all of the time he missed, plus the scary phrase "neck injury" (see: Peyton Manning), but with his skill and veteran presence, there's a chance he could climb his way to the top of a depth chart pretty quickly.

    Prediction: Minnesota Vikings

    The Vikings nearly tore a pectoral muscle reaching for Christian Ponder in last April's draft. After starting the season with Donovan McNabb at the helm (which was a disastrous decision in its own right), Ponder took over, and was underwhelming, completing just 54.3 percent of his passes. Although, this may have had something to do with the fact that, besides Percy Harvin, Minnesota's quarterbacks had very little talent to throw to (Devin Aromashadu...Greg Camarillo...Bernard Berrian). The Vikings view Ponder as the QB of the future, but Garrard might be good to have on the roster next season in case Ponder falls flat on his face again.

#8: Chad Henne

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    I've never thought too much of Henne. At the same time, I don't think he's that bad. He's certainly not very good. But he's not that bad. He is the defining image of "average," if you ask me. His career 60.7 percent completion percentage; his career 6.68 YPA; his career 31:37 TD:INT ratio; all very middle-of-the-pack.

    Regardless, Henne usually manages to keep his head above the water, and I'm curious to see what he's capable of outside of South Beach, where he didn't have much of a supporting cast besides Brandon Marshall. I can't imagine a team will sign Henne to be a starter in 2011, but he's a quality backup for a team in need of a signal caller in case the starter (a) under-performs or (b) gets hurt.

    Prediction: New York Jets

    Enter Mark Sanchez.

    To be fair, Sanchez has only missed one start in his three-year NFL career, but he has taken a beating multiple times. And living in the New York market, I'm reminded every day that Sanchez may be regressing, Jets fans are panicking, and the fifth overall pick in the 2009 draft has not lived up to the hype.

    Here's something scary for Jets fans. In the three years Sanchez has been New York's quarterback, Henne has had a superior QB rating every year. In 2009, Henne's 75.2 beat Sanchez's brutal 63.0. In 2010, it was 75.4 to 75.3. In 2011, 79.0 to 78.2. 

    Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum has already said the team will bring in a backup quarterback more competitive than the relic that is Mark Brunell. Henne could fit the bill. Though he won't seriously fight Sanchez for the starting job, it could light a fire under Sanchez's bottom, and get him playing better.

#7: Rex Grossman

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    What are some bright spots about Rex Grossman? Well, he plays. He has two arms. He managed not to lead the league in interceptions in 2011 (although he came close, with 20).

    I think this will be the year where Mike Shanahan stops lying to us by saying he wants Grossman as his starter, and Sexy Rexy hits the open market. He'll have a tough time finding a starting job, and probably won't.

    That being said, I do see Grossman's value as a backup. He has plenty of experience, and does have pretty good arm strength. If he's more careful, and gains a little more control on his deep passes, he'd actually be a pretty decent quarterback. Instead, he threw at least one interception in 12 out of his 13 starts this year, and six of those games were multi-pick days. Still, a team looking for a low-end competitive backup could give Grossman a flier.

    Prediction: Seattle Seahawks

    And while we're on the topic of under-performing former NFC North quarterbacks, the Seahawks have one on their roster too.

    Tarvaris Jackson wasn't awful for Seattle this year, but he didn't come close to making this team look like the (7-9) 2010 NFC West champions! However, the Seahawks got hot late in the season (more because of Marshawn Lynch than Jackson), but it's hard not to wonder what they could have done with Matt Hasselbeck at the helm rather than Tarvaris. 

    T-Jax wasn't bad enough to have him immeditately lose his starting gig in 2012, but bringing in a back-up better than Charlie Whitehurst might be a good move. 

#6: Jason Campbell

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    I've always liked Campbell, and I think he's capable of being a middle-tier starting quarterback in the NFL. Campbell has had a QB rating of 84.2 or higher in each of his last four seasons. But a broken collarbone ended his season prematurely in 2011. When the Raiders made their blockbuster move for Carson Palmer, it pretty much spelled the end for Campbell in Oakland.

    I envision Campbell starting at some point next year, though maybe not immediately. He'll probably snag a one-year "prove it" deal, giving him a chance to prove he's still got something left in the tank before signing a bigger deal next offseason.

    Prediction: Jacksonville Jaguars

    With the Colts' self-destruction in 2011, the division title could have gone to anyone, but the Jaguars failed to seize the opportunity. Rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert was simply dreadful. I was one of Gabbert's biggest proponents when he was coming out college, but even I couldn't see this coming. Starting the final 14 games of the season, Gabbert threw for just 2,214 yards, 12 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, posted an abysmal QB rating of 65.4, and his season-high for passing yards in one game was 221. 

    Yikes.

    While his receiving corps is barren, Gabbert didn't look like the immediate answer for the Jags. Campbell could come in as a mentor for Gabbert and a savior for fans, who would likely see much better play at quarterback in 2012. Campbell could play the season in Jacksonvile, and then hand the reins back to Gabbert, and pray things get better.

#5: Vince Young

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    If a team can deal with his occasional selfish antics, VY could really be a gem for a team in need of an upgrade at quarterback. Unfortunately for him, his roller-coaster 2011 cameo filling in for an injured Michael Vick probably hurt his stock more than it helped.

    In his first start of the season, Young was surgical, if not too glamorous, against the Giants. He was 23-for-36 with 258 yards, two touchdowns, and three picks. But in the end, Young led a game-winning and clock-killing drive to sink the Giants in New Jersey.

    On the season, however, Young posted a completion percentage of 57.9 percent, just 866 yards, four touchdowns, and a whopping nine interceptions over three starts. Any team that signs VY will likely give him a look as an immediate starter, since his track record as a starter with the Titans from 2006-2010 was much better than his performance as a backup in 2011. Although his 2010 season came to an end early after injuring his thumb and getting into an argument with coach Jeff Fisher, he posted career highs in YPA (8.05) and QB rating (98.6).

    Prediction: Kansas City Chiefs

    Call it a hunch, but I think this makes sense. Matt Cassell is owed $5.25 million in 2012, and could be cut. Even before getting injured in 2011, he wasn't very good. Kyle Orton is a free agent. The Chiefs aren't going to be winning anything with Tyler Palko and RIcky Stanzi.

    Young is a high-risk, high-reward type of player, but could thrive in an NFC West division that is truly up for grabs in 2012. Plus, he wouldn't have to be the centerpiece of the Chiefs' offense; that would be Jamaal Charles, who will return. New head coach Romeo Crennel will look to make a splash, and this could be the way to do it.

#4: Alex Smith

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    Look, Alex Smith is never going to pass for 5,000 yards. Alex Smith is never going to throw 30 touchdown passes. Alex Smith is never going to have a QB rating of 122.5. But Alex Smith is a terrific game manager.

    Or at least that's been the case under head coach Jim Harbaugh. Chances are Smith will never live up to his first-overall pick hype, but he can be a winner in the right system.

    Statistically, 2011 was Smith's best season almost all the way across the board, reaching career highs in yardage (3,144), completion percentage (61.3 percent), YPA (7.07), and was just one touchdown shy of tying his career best (17; he had 18 in 2009). Just as importantly, Smith has only turned the ball over five times in 2011. Backed by a strong running game and a stellar defense, one could argue that Smith's success has been a product of his environment, but he's still shown great strides of improvement before he hits the market.

    Prediction: San Francsico 49ers

    Smith is probably not going anywhere. Harbaugh has reiterated that he thinks Smith is the 49ers' long-term answer at quarterback, and Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area hears from league sources that Smith is expected to sign an extension worth $8-11 million per year for two or three seasons. 

    On the free agent market, Smith would likely garner some interest, but a return to San Fran is mutually beneficial, and makes the most sense.

#3: Kyle Orton

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    I've never quite understood all the hate on Orton over the past couple of seasons. During his time in Denver in 2011 he was a nightmare, sure, but when he made the move to Kansas City, he threw for 779 yards, averaged 8.03 YPA, and posted an 81.1 QB rating over three starts (not counting his game at Chicago, where he was injured after just one play). In 2010, he made Brandon Lloyd the NFL's leading receiver in Denver. 

    By no means a great quarterback, I'd be comfortable with Orton calling signals for my team. He has veteran presence, and I think he's got good mechanics. I feel as if his stats don't jump out at anyone because he's never had a supporting cast of receivers to work with. The Bears didn't have great receivers during Orton's time there, and besides Lloyd, Orton was never able to do a whole lot with the receivers at his disposal in Denver. A move to a team with better wideouts might appeal to Orton.

    Prediction: Miami Dolphins

    Orton-Brandon Marshall reunion? Maybe. The two only spent one season together back in 2009, but what a season it was for Marshall. He caught 101 passes for 1,120 yards and 10 touchdowns. That was also the season in which Marshall had his historic 21-reception game against the Colts. 

    With the Jets regressing, the Dolphins could seize the opportunity to become the AFC East's No. 2 team in 2012, but it'll be awfully hard to do that with Matt Moore at the helm. Though Moore wasn't awful, he didn't win, and doesn't have a strong arm. Orton was close to heading to South Beach in the preseason in a trade with the Broncos anyway, so why not finish the trip there now?

#2: Matt Flynn

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    In Week 17 against the Lions, Matt Flynn completed 70.5 percent of his passes, threw six touchdowns, and posted a QB rating of 136.4. Oh yeah, and he also threw for 480 yards. That's more yards in one game than any quarterback in Packers history; a franchise that has seen Bart Starr, Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers at quarterback.

    That's no accident. A bad player doesn't "accidentally" put up these numbers. It's more than a fluke. It's uncanny. 

    That being said, Matt Flynn wouldn't be No. 2 on this list had he not shown some signs of promise other than that one game. Flynn had a nice college career at LSU, capping it off with a national championship during his senior season. Flynn was the BCS National Championship MVP that year. Even so, he was drafted in the seventh round of the 2008 draft.

    Flynn has only started two games in his four-year NFL career, but they've both been gems. Besides Week 17 against the Lions, Flynn also started against the New England Patriots in Week 15 of the 2010 season. While the Packers would lose that game, Flynn threw for 251 yards and three touchdowns. 

    Needless to say, Flynn is a huge risk. With just two starts (although promising) under his belt, he has just two starts to speak of, and has that little experience. On the other hand, he's only made two starts. He's fresh. He's only 26, and is probably more physically reliable than most 26-year old quarterbacks since his body has only been through two NFL games. 

    There's huge potential for Flynn. Huge potential for success, but also a potential flop. The question is, who will be the team to take a chance?

    Prediction: Washington Redskins

    For better or worse (usually worse), Dan Snyder of the Washington Redskins makes a lot of risky signings (see: Albert Haynesworth, Donovan McNabb, Jeremiah Trotter, but also Santana Moss and London Fletcher). But time and time again, his team fails. The team hasn't had a winning quarterback in a long time. Rex Grossman and John Beck are not the answer. Maybe Matt Flynn is. There is buzz about Flynn causing "positive chatter" in the 'Skins organization. I expect to see him under center in Washington in the fall.

#1: Drew Brees

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    Really, how could Brees not be No. 1 on this list? Not only is Brees the best impending free agent quarterback, he's arguably been the best quarterback in the league.

    In 2011, Brees completed 71.2 percent of his passes, averaged 8.34 yards per attempt, and threw for a jaw-dropping 46 touchdowns, while only throwing 14 interceptions. That all makes for a sterling QB rating of 110.6 on the season. In fact, he had a QB rating over 100 in 11 games. Oh, and in case you didn't hear, Brees beat Dan Marino's single-season passing yards record.

    I could write an essay on how good Brees has been not just this season, but during his entire tenure in New Orleans. After stringing together four pretty good seasons as the Chargers' starter, Brees exploded with the Saints. In six seasons as the Saints' signal caller, Brees has never thrown for fewer than 4,418 yards per season. His lowest completion percentage has been 64.3 percent. He's never had a QB rating lower than 89.4. Oh yeah, and he won a Super Bowl.

    I suppose it's hard to find any downsides here, but he is turning 33 years old in a few days. The Saints and Brees have had extension discussions, but ultimately nothing has been finalized. With the Saints in the midst of another playoff run, negotiations will likely be tabled until after the postseason.

    Prediction: New Orleans Saints

    Come on, now? You think there's any chance the Saints are going to let him get away?

    Brees is the hero of New Orleans. He loves the city and the city loves him. Not to mention he's made a team that was once known as the "Aints" an annual contender. The team is likely hesitant to hand a 33-year-old such a large contract, but ultimately they can't afford not to. Plus, Brees doesn't want to go anywhere. If he were to somehow slip away and sign elsewhere, it would be a huge shock.