NFL Offseason: Ranking the Top 10 Potential Starting Quarterback Acquisitions

Dan HopeContributor IIIMarch 8, 2012

NFL Offseason: Ranking the Top 10 Potential Starting Quarterback Acquisitions

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    There is no position more important to an NFL team than its starting quarterback, and there are a large number of teams who could potentially be looking for a new player in that position next season.

    A few high-profile free agents and draftable players will dominate the headlines, but who are the other quarterbacks who could potentially be starting for an NFL team next season? In this list, I rank the top 10.

10. Kyle Orton, QB, Kansas City Chiefs (Unrestricted Free Agent)

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    After seven seasons in the National Football League, it has become clear that Kyle Orton is not talented enough to be a long-term starting quarterback in this league, but there is a very good chance that Orton could end up starting for a team next year who misses out on the top quarterbacks available this offseason.

    Orton spent time as a starting quarterback with the Chicago Bears, where he spent the first four seasons of his career. After being traded to the Denver Broncos, he was the team’s starting quarterback in 2009 and 2010, and actually won the team’s starting quarterback job last season over Tim Tebow, but was benched after a 1-4 start to the season.

    Late last season, Orton was claimed off waivers by the Chiefs, and started three of the team’s final four games.

    Orton has not had great success with any team, but he is a steady, smart quarterback who can come into a training camp, compete for a starting job and have a chance to win.

    Orton will not be signed by a team and given the starting job with his contract, but is likely to be signed late in the free agent process to a one- or two-year contract by a team who misses out on the top quarterbacks, and is looking for a quarterback to come into camp and compete for a starting job.

    Potential destinations for Orton include the Washington Redskins and Seattle Seahawks, if those teams are unsuccessful in finding a long-term option at quarterback this offseason.

9. Brandon Weeden, QB, Oklahoma State (NFL Draft)

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    For teams looking for a potential starting quarterback but are not in the mix for one of the two elite quarterbacks in the 2012 NFL draft, Oklahoma State’s Brandon Weeden is their best option if they are looking to get a rookie quarterback.

    Weeden is not a long-term franchise quarterback, and therefore is not a first-round draft prospect. But for a team looking for a quarterback to come into training camp and compete immediately to be a potential starter, Weeden could be the right selection in the second or third round.

    Weeden is 28 years old, which limits his upside and long-term projection, but he is a talented quarterback. He does not have the natural throwing ability, arm strength or athleticism that Stanford’s Andrew Luck and Baylor’s Robert Griffin III have, but he is also not a typical spread-offense quarterback.

    Weeden has the arm to make downfield throws, and is an accurate passer who can make the precise throws that will be demanded of him at the next level.

    My projection is that Weeden will spend the majority of his NFL career as a backup, but for a team who may miss out the top quarterbacks, such as the Seattle Seahawks, he would be a good second-round selection as a guy who can compete immediately for playing time, and be a great second-string quarterback if a long-term option is found.

8. Brian Hoyer, QB, New England Patriots (Restricted Free Agent)

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    Brian Hoyer has barely been mentioned in the media in regards to the upcoming free agent quarterback frenzy, but I highly doubt that to be the case among NFL scouts, coaches and executives. Hoyer has been known to be on the radar of scouts for years, as he has performed well in preseason while becoming the next quarterback to develop through the Patriots’ system.

    Hoyer is slated to be a restricted free agent, and is expected to be tendered at the second-round level. This means that a team would have to give up their second-round draft pick to the Patriots to sign Hoyer, and it would not come as a shock if a team decided to do that.

    If a team does decide to give up its second-round pick to take a chance on Hoyer, the Patriots will capitalize upon that offer, for they are already grooming Ryan Mallett to take over as Tom Brady’s backup quarterback.

    Hoyer has never started an NFL game, and unfortunately for him, the subpar play of his Patriots backup quarterback predecessor Matt Cassel in Kansas City hurts his value. That said, one way or another, I expect the Patriots to find the best return value they can on Hoyer. He will be an unrestricted free agent next season, and with Mallett on the roster, the Patriots do not want to end up losing Hoyer for nothing when he has trade value.

    The team that I can see making a play for Hoyer is none other than the Chiefs themselves. I expect the Chiefs to remain committed to Cassel for next season, but it is apparent that they will be looking to bring in another quarterback to compete with Cassel for the job next year. Tracing back to his history with the New England Patriots, vice president Scott Pioli could bring in Hoyer to be that guy.

    Hoyer is unlikely to be brought in anywhere and given the starting job, but going to the Chiefs or another team where he would have a legitimate chance to win the starting job would be a great opportunity for him.

7. Colin Kaepernick, QB, San Francisco 49ers (Trade)

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    If the San Francisco 49ers successfully re-sign Alex Smith to a long-term contract to be their quarterback (more to come on him), then Colin Kaepernick could become a popular name on the trade market.

    Last year, the 49ers drafted Kaepernick with the 36th overall selection in the second round of the 2011 NFL craft. Kaepernick was actually considered the best value among quarterbacks in last year’s draft, for I ranked him second among quarterbacks in last year’s draft, ahead of Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder and Andy Dalton, all of whom were drafted ahead of him.

    As things turned out, the 49ers brought in a tremendous head coach and former quarterback in Jim Harbaugh, and after six bust seasons from former No. 1 overall draft pick Alex Smith, he finally became the quarterback they had expected him to be, as he had the best season of his career.

    Now, the 49ers are left with an interesting dilemma, albeit a good dilemma to have: Do the 49ers re-sign Smith to a long-term contract now that his career is finally going in a positive direction, or do they set their sights on Kaepernick as the franchise quarterback?

    If the 49ers choose to re-sign Smith to a long-term deal, then they should immediately look to trade Kaepernick. If I were to look at Kaepernick as a prospect for the 2012 NFL draft, he would rank third among this year’s quarterback class, behind only Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, and ahead of Brandon Weeden and the other quarterbacks.

    Kaepernick would legitimately be worth a second-round draft pick, and even if the 49ers were only be able to get a third-round pick in return, they would be better off getting return value on him than keeping a starting-caliber quarterback sitting on the bench.

6. Jason Campbell, QB, Oakland Raiders (Unrestricted Free Agent)

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    Jason Campbell did not receive much credit for his performance last season, in large part due to the result of his season-ending shoulder injury, and the Raiders subsequently trading away a first-round and second-round pick in order to acquire Carson Palmer.

    While I have my doubts about whether Palmer can be a franchise quarterback, the Raiders have certainly committed to him as being such after paying a hefty price to acquire him.

    Prior to his injury last season, Campbell was playing well. He had led the Raiders to an impressive 4-2 start, with completion percentage and QB rating numbers which both would have ranked 16th league-wide had he played a full season. While Campbell was no star, and is never going to be, he has the ability to be a starting quarterback in the NFL.

    No team is going to commit to Campbell to be a franchise quarterback, but for a team who misses out on the top five quarterbacks of the offseason, he would be a great short-term option to compete for and likely win a starting quarterback job. The Seattle Seahawks register as a likely option.

5. Alex Smith, QB, San Francisco 49ers (Unrestricted Free Agent)

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    Alex Smith spent six years on a whopping rookie contract after being a No. 1 overall pick, and was a disappointment in every one of them. In his defense, however, he went through many coaching changes over that period, and when the 49ers brought him back last year for one more season under new head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman, Smith made major improvments to his game, and finally became the quarterback he was expected to be.

    Now, the 49ers are widely assumed to re-sign Smith to a long-term contract, but with a potential successor in Colin Kaepernick already on the roster, this is no certainty. If the 49ers are hesitant to sign him to a long-term deal, Smith will test the market, and could be a very attractive option to teams such as the Washington Redskins, Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks.

    There could certainly be league-wide hesitancy around signing Smith long-term considering his lackluster performance when he had his first big contract, but Smith is a changed quarterback. Smith is coming off the best season of his career, in which he threw for 3,144 yards and 17 touchdowns with only five interceptions.

    He also led the 49ers to a dramatic fourth-quarter victory in the playoffs over the Saints, throwing the game-winning touchdown pass with nine seconds to play, showing his ability to win big games.

    For a team looking for a talented quarterback with proven ability to win in the playoffs, Smith is going to be a big target if he hits the open market.

4. Matt Flynn, QB, Green Bay Packers (Unrestricted Free Agent)

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    Matt Flynn has started two games over the past two seasons, but both of those games have been quite remarkable performances for a backup quarterback, giving NFL analysts great reason to believe that Flynn can be a franchise quarterback for his next team.

    It was during the 2010 season against the New England Patriots that Flynn first caught the attention of the national eye. Filling in for an injured Aaron Rodgers, Flynn nearly led the Packers to an upset victory over the Patriots, throwing for 251 yards and three touchdowns, coming up only a drive short of leading the Packers to a surprise victory.

    While this game was a loss, it helped build momentum for the Packers, who did not lose another game the rest of the season en route to a Super Bowl championship.

    In 2011, no one would have been surprised if prior to the season, they had been told that a Packers quarterback would set single-game franchise records for passing yards and touchdowns, but everyone would have been surprised to hear that quarterback was Matt Flynn.

    Against the Lions in Week 17, Flynn did both, throwing for tremendous marks of 480 passing yards and six touchdowns, leading the Packers to a victory, while Rodgers rested for the postseason.

    With that, the legend of Matt Flynn has been born. Flynn has only started two games, but both of them were very impressive performances, and he has thrown for more yards or touchdowns in a game than Rodgers, Brett Favre or Bart Starr ever has as a Packer.

    Flynn has long been viewed as the top free agent quarterback to be a part of this free agent class, and would still be if it were not for the release of one legendary quarterback. Flynn will be targeted by numerous teams, but my projection is that he will end up with the Miami Dolphins.

    The Dolphins recently hired Joe Philbin, who was the Packers’ offensive coordinator, to be their new head coach, so it would come as no surprise if Philbin recruits the services of a quarterback he has worked with to start in Miami.

3. Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis Colts (Unrestricted Free Agent)

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    It remains a hard fact to believe. Peyton Manning, who has played his entire 14-year career with the Indianapolis Colts, and is one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game, is now an unrestricted free agent, after being released by the Colts on Wednesday, March 8.

    Manning is one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play in the National Football League; in fact, he ranks No. 2 on my list of all-time greatest quarterbacks to ever play in the NFL, behind only another Colts great, Johnny Unitas, who interesting also ended his career with a second team, the San Diego Chargers (not among Peyton’s likely destinations).

    Considering he ranks No. 2 all-time, you may be wondering how he can only rank No. 3 on my list. There are two major reasons for this, as you will find out more about as you continue through the slideshow. Manning’s health and ability to return to elite quarterback status remain in question, while there are two elite quarterbacks who are set to the first two picks in the 2012 NFL draft.

    That said, because of the very limited number of teams who have a legitimate chance at getting one of those two quarterbacks, there is no quarterback who will be more coveted this offseason than Manning. Even if Manning does not return to play quite as well as he did during his prime, he should still be able to return and be a top-10 NFL quarterback if he is healthy.

    Manning has many potential destinations, including the Arizona Cardinals, Kansas City Chiefs, Washington Redskins, Seattle Seahawks and Miami Dolphins. That said, I firmly believe the best and most likely team for him to play for next season is the New York Jets. For more on why I believe Manning and the Jets are a perfect match, read this article I published on Wednesday.

2. Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor (NFL Draft)

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    Robert Griffin III’s 2011 collegiate season was truly remarkable. Prior to the season, most draft scouts were uncertain of whether to scout Griffin as an NFL quarterback prospect or as an athlete/wide receiver. After a tremendous senior season in which he led the nation in quarterback rating, proved himself to have tremendous passing skill and ended up winning a Heisman Trophy, Griffin is now a virtual lock to be the No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft.

    In most draft classes, Griffin would be a strong bet to be the No. 1 overall draft pick. Griffin is a tremendous athlete, but he is also a fantastic pocket passer with a superb arm and an ability to make difficult and downfield throws with precise accuracy.

    Griffin has the potential to be a star quarterback in the National Football League, and is a player worth trading up to the No. 2 overall pick to acquire as a franchise quarterback.

    The St. Louis Rams hold the No. 2 overall selection in the draft, but have already decided that they will trade down. The two major contenders to strike a deal with the Rams to trade up and select Griffin are the Cleveland Browns, who hold the No. 4 overall selection, and the Washington Redskins, who hold the No. 6 overall selection.

    The Redskins have a greater need at the quarterback position than the Browns do, but with the higher draft pick and two first-round selections, the Browns sit in position to win the Griffin sweepstakes, and are currently projected to select Griffin in my 2012 NFL Mock Draft 3.0.

1. Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford (NFL Draft)

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    Although only one team has the potential to acquire Andrew Luck, this one needs little elaboration. Andrew Luck is the reason that Peyton Manning was released by the Indianapolis Colts, a team for which he has played for 14 years, has established himself as a legend of the game and won a Super Bowl championship.

    While some may say that the Colts should not have parted ways with Manning, the Colts made the right decision. Manning’s health remains in question, and even if he returns healthy, his career is now on a short-term rather than a long-term outlook.

    The Colts tied for the worst record in the National Football League last season, so they need to be rebuilding for the long-term. Meanwhile, Luck is one of the best draft prospects at the quarterback position in many years, and simply a player that cannot be passed up by any team in need off of a franchise quarterback. Coming off of four neck surgeries and missing all of last season, Manning’s status as a long-term franchise quarterback was dwindling.

    Luck should be able to start immediately and have success in the NFL, and has the potential to be one of the elite quarterbacks in the game within a few seasons. Luck is a prototypical quarterback prospect without any major weaknesses in his game. He has ideal size and athletic ability, a very good arm, is very accurate, has played in a pro-style system and consistently makes NFL-quality throws.

    Luck may be the best quarterback prospect since Peyton Manning, and the Indianapolis Colts have the opportunity to have both quarterbacks consecutively. That is quite an opportunity for the Colts, and one that they could not afford to pass upon.