Early Predictions for the Wild 2018 NFL QB Carousel

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystDecember 13, 2017

Early Predictions for the Wild 2018 NFL QB Carousel

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    A bevy of precious quarterback assets will be available this offseason, and it could shift the NFL paradigm.

    Nearly six years ago, Peyton Manning became the highest profile free agent in the league's history. Franchise quarterbacks simply didn't hit the market before that point. But circumstances—Manning's injury history—allowed the first-ballot Hall of Famer to test the waters.

    Here's what can be found among those who are possibly attainable in 2018: two Super Bowl champions, three No. 1 overall picks, the NFL's active passing leader, a Pro Bowler who hasn't played in two years and 2017's breakout star. Kirk Cousins isn't even included among those qualifiers.

    The upcoming free-agent class has a chance to be wild, and it may change the fortunes of multiple franchises.

    Many of those same teams will still consider available prospects in the draft, too. UCLA's Josh Rosen, USC's Sam Darnold, Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield, Louisville's Lamar Jackson and Wyoming's Josh Allen have first-round potential.

    Free agency comes first, though, and a few teams could look drastically different at the game's most important position.

Tyrod Taylor to Arizona Cardinals

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    Carson Palmer's uncertain future makes the Arizona Cardinals one of the more intriguing options on the coming quarterback carousel. Head coach Bruce Arians already proclaimed Palmer the team's starting signal-caller in 2018 if he doesn't retire.

    "If Carson's coming back, he's coming back to be the starter," Arians said last week, per ESPN.com's Josh Weinfuss.

    The 37-year-old quarterback will likely undertake a similar approach as he did last offseason.

    "My intent was to take some time after the season to get away and see where I was physically and mentally," Palmer said in February, per Darren Urban of the Cardinals' official site.

    Palmer suffered a broken arm in October. How he responds to treatment could be a factor. Or he could feel like this season left unfinished business.

    Either way, Arizona needs to address the quarterback position. While Arians seems to like backup Blaine Gabbert more than most, the 2011 first-round pick is under a one-year contract, and the Cardinals can upgrade to Tyrod Taylor.

    Taylor has a much higher career completion percentage (62.5 vs. 56.4), a far superior touchdown-to-interception ratio (49-to-18 vs. 44-to-42), and his mobility would add a dimension to the offense. Also, the Buffalo Bills quarterback, who is expected to be released this offseason after he was benched for rookie Nathan Peterman in Week 11, throws a beautiful deep ball, which is a must in Arians' vertical passing attack.

    Taylor would have the opportunity to start next year or maybe the following season depending on what Palmer does.

Sam Bradford to Buffalo Bills

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    The Buffalo Bills sabotaged Tyrod Taylor nearly every step of the way, and they'll throw their support behind another signal-caller for the 2018 campaign.

    In 2015, Taylor won a three-way competition against EJ Manuel and Matt Cassel. Despite Taylor's impressive play, former general manager Doug Whaley openly questioned whether he was a franchise quarterback. The organization hemmed and hawed about Taylor's 2017 option, too. Finally, head coach Sean McDermott had seen enough and benched Taylor for rookie Nathan Peterman, who was completely unprepared to start.

    Somehow, a career 49-to-18 touchdown-to-interception ratio wasn't enough. Instead, the Buffalo staff provided a glimpse of what it really wants: a precise pocket passer who is more of a distributor than a play-creator.

    Sam Bradford would be an ideal candidate.

    Bradford has never lived up to his status as the 2010 No. 1 overall pick. Yet he showed signs of brilliance during the 2016 campaign, when he set an NFL record with a 71.6 completion percentage.

    The Bills can rectify their quarterback debacle by releasing Taylor, which would save $9.4 million against the salary cap, and putting it toward Bradford's acquisition. The 30-year-old would then take over as the starter while Peterman continues to develop.

Alex Smith to Cleveland Browns

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    The Cleveland Browns could finally crawl out of their pit of misery by stabilizing the quarterback position.

    Something needs to—and will—be done. The franchise can't go into next season expecting DeShone Kizer to improve by leaps and bounds after he leads the NFL in interceptions (17) and owns a league-low 53.9 completion percentage.

    They could take multiple approaches, but the Browns would be wise to find a veteran, draft the top available prospect with the No. 1 overall pick and continue to develop Kizer. Considering the team's laughably awful history, every lead needs to be pursued.

    Alex Smith's addition would depend on two factors.

    First, the Kansas City Chiefs must move on from the 33-year-old. The decision seems like an easy one since Smith is on the books for a $20.6 million cap hit next season. The team could save $17 million by releasing him, and 2017 first-round pick Patrick Mahomes is waiting in the wings.

    Second, former Kansas City and new Cleveland general manager John Dorsey must sell Smith on joining the league's worst franchise. However, Dorsey brought the signal-caller to the Chiefs in 2013, and their relationship could prove to be an edge for the Browns over any other suitor.

    Smith wouldn't be an ideal fit in Hue Jackson's offense. But if Dorsey relieves Jackson of his duties and hires another head coachKansas City offensive coordinator Matt Nagy, for examplethe 2005 No. 1 overall pick's inclusion would make more sense, and Cleveland would finally have a viable starting quarterback.

Josh McCown to Denver Broncos

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    The Denver Broncos are in a difficult situation because no one on their roster can provide consistent quarterback play. The offense needs a steadying hand before the team's championship window closes.

    Only two years have passed since Denver won Super Bowl 50, though Peyton Manning's retirement created a void 2015 seventh-round pick Trevor Siemian couldn't fill. But that was too much to ask of Siemian.

    General manager John Elway traded up in the first round of the 2016 draft to select Paxton Lynch. The 23-year-old still isn't ready for a bigger role, though. The organization shouldn't give up on him yet, but Lynch's lack of preparedness signals the need for a veteran with a track record.

    Josh McCown is the ultimate professional. Coaches and teammates love him. His passion for the game speaks volumes. He'll be coming off his best season, too, though a broken hand cut his campaign short.

    McCown will be a free agent after only one year with the New York Jets, and the Broncos would be wise to pull the trigger on adding the 38-year-old. First, he would be an upgrade over the team's quarterbacks. Second, he's a great presence in the locker room. Third, he'd help develop Lynch.

    The Denver defense is still great. The Broncos need someoneanyone—to provide reliable play from under center. If the organization does find a competent quarterback, it will return to the postseason.

Eli Manning to Jacksonville Jaguars

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    The second the New York Giants decided to bench quarterback Eli Manning, which ended his streak of 210 consecutive starts, an idea percolated about a possible reunion with former head coach Tom Coughlin, who is the Jacksonville Jaguars executive vice president of football operations.

    A reunion makes a lot of sense. Their feelings toward each other aren't a secret.

    "Surprised is not the word. My sentiments are totally with Eli Manning," Coughlin said on Jacksonville's 1010 XL AM (via NFL Network's Mike Garafolo). "I love the kid. He is a class act. He is a two-time Super Bowl champion. He is the finest, most humblest young man in that locker room."

    Manning has never been one to gush about anything, but his emotions were evident the day Coughlin resigned as the Giants head coach in January 2016.

    Before this marriage of convenience can be consummated, New York must cut ties with the 14-year veteran. The breakup appears to be inevitable after the benching and Manning's massive $22.2 million salary cap hit next season.

    The Jaguars' quarterback situation is viewed as the team's weak link. Blake Bortles, the third overall pick in 2014, has played better as of late, but he's nothing more than a game manager in a run-based offense. Running back Leonard Fournette is the scheme's focal point.

    Manning's experience and understanding of the position would allow the Jacksonville offense to be better prepared and provide a perfect complement to a dominant defense.

Patrick Mahomes Takes Over for Kansas City Chiefs

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    Patrick Mahomes is going to be the Kansas City Chiefs' starting quarterback sooner rather than later. The team's downturn after a 5-0 start points toward change.

    Alex Smith is signed through 2018, but his departure appears inevitable.

    "I don't care how many years are on your contract," Smith said, per ESPN.com's Elizabeth Merrill. "If you can't prove it, and you can't go out and hold up your end of the bargain, you're not going to be there. You know what I'm saying? I think that's the name of the game for any veteran player, especially a veteran quarterback, regardless of us drafting a guy or not. If you don't go out there and play winning football, they're going to try and find somebody who can."

    Kansas City traded up 17 spots in April's draft to select Mahomes.

    The Texas Tech product is a gifted, albeit raw, player. Mahomes, whose father pitched 11 years for seven MLB teams, is a natural thrower. Few quarterbacks can release the ball with the same velocity, distance or accuracy from multiple arm angles. He also displays tremendous mobility inside and outside the pocket.

    Andy Reid and Co. saw Mahomes' potential and wanted to mold it. The young gunslinger is a different player than Smith, and his skill set may be exactly what the Chiefs offense needs.

Teddy Bridgewater Stays with Minnesota Vikings

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    The Minnesota Vikings may be the NFL's most fortunate franchise yet positioned in the worst possible way this offseason. All three of the team's quarterbacks—Case Keenum, Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford—have proved to be capable starters. All three are pending free agents, too.

    Bradford's time in Minnesota seems to be complete even after his standout 2016 performance. The 2010 No. 1 overall pick suffered lingering knee issues before getting a scope in November. Plus, he should still demand a hefty contract from a franchise that values his accuracy.

    Keenum developed into one of the NFL's best stories this season with his breakout performance. The 29-year-old helped lead the Vikings to an NFC North-best 10-3 record. His 66.8 completion percentage, 2,983 passing yards, 7.4 yards per attempt and 18 touchdowns are all career highs. The undrafted free agent is going to be paid handsomely, though it seems unlikely Minnesota would do the honors.

    Bridgewater is still the future of the franchise. Granted, the Vikings should do everything in their power to keep both Bridgewater and Keenum, but that doesn't seem feasible.

    Retaining the now-healthy 25-year-old—a 2014 first-round pick—does. Bridgewater suffered a devastating knee injury before the 2016 campaign, so he's overcome a lot. The franchise once planned to build around him and still should as long as it's comfortable with his long-term prognosis.

Drew Brees Stays with New Orleans Saints

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    Some things go together like peanut butter and jelly or ketchup on a hot dog. That's so for quarterback Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints.

    Brees signed a five-year contract extension prior to the 2016 campaign, but the agreement included voidable years after 2017. As such, Brees will be a free agent in 2018 for the second time in his career—if he chooses to test the market.

    "I'll be here as long as they'll have me," the now-38-year-old said after signing the extension, per ESPN.com's Mike Triplett.

    Prior to this season, the idea of moving past Brees seemed logical. He's near the end of his career, carries a hefty price tag, and the Saints finished 7-9 every year from 2014 to 2016.

    But New Orleans is the NFC's fourth-best team. The success it's experienced this season should be enough for the franchise to extend the future Hall of Famer one more time.

    What will then become important is preparing for the future. Brees can remain the Saints' starting quarterback while the organization finds a young signal-caller to develop and eventually take over the offense.

AJ McCarron to New York Giants

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    The Eli Manning era in New York is coming to an end, and the Giants need to move forward with a new plan at the game's most important position.

    Manning's contract carries a $22.2 million cap hit in 2018, $5 million roster bonus in March and no-trade clause, so the 14-year veteran will be impossible to move. Instead, the Giants need to thank Manning for his service and release the two-time Super Bowl champion.

    In doing so, the 2-11 squad can move full speed ahead toward an uncertain future. New York is lined up to have the second overall pick in April's draft, which is a great scenario for finding Manning's replacement. But it's not the team's only option.

    AJ McCarron can be this year's Mike Glennon. While this description may be met with derision, it signals a plan of action, not an individual's performance. The Chicago Bears signed Glennon because he had some upside as a 27-year-old veteran. His presence became a bridge to the team's investment in second overall pick Mitchell Trubisky.

    McCarron's completed 65.4 percent of his passes with a six-to-two touchdown-to-interception ratio during his 10 appearances as a member of the Cincinnati Bengals. The fourth-year signal-caller's availability remains in question, though. He filed a grievance against the NFL earlier this year to determine whether he'll be a restricted or an unrestricted free agent after the season, per ESPN's Adam Schefter.

    The combination of McCarron plus Josh Rosen or Sam Darnold would look rather good after a messy divorce from Manning.

Kirk Cousins to New York Jets

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    Even though Drew Brees, Eli Manning and Alex Smith could be available this offseason, Kirk Cousins will be the crown jewel of the free-agent class.

    Contract negotiations are all about timing. An individual doesn't need to be the league's best to be its highest-paid. The Detroit Lions' Matthew Stafford owns the NFL's most lucrative contract—worth $135 million. While Stafford is a fine player, he's not considered the league's best quarterback.

    The rising salary cap allowed quarterbacks to take turns becoming the league's top-earning player. Cousins appears to be next in line.

    The 29-year-old already maximized his income with the Washington Redskins by not signing a long-term extension and forcing the organization to use two franchise tags. A third would carry $34 million in guaranteed money.

    Washington can control the situation, but it'll be costly. Too costly. And we haven't even addressed whether Cousins wants to remain with the organization.

    Thus, attention must be turned toward those teams with enough cap space to entice the two-time 4,000-yard passer. Four organizations have $75 million or more to spend based on projections, and the Cleveland Browns and New York Jets are each in dire need of a franchise quarterback.

    New York is better prepared to win in the short term and has this season, while Cleveland is still searching for its first victory. Cousins' inclusion could at some point push the Jets past the New England Patriots since Tom Brady can't play forever. Plus, New York is a major market that will provide more opportunities outside of football.

Jimmy Garoppolo Stays with San Francisco 49ers

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    Jimmy Garoppolo is a free agent after this season, yet no one expects him to leave the San Francisco 49ers after they traded a second-round pick for his services.

    Garoppolo paid dividends early with outstanding play in his first two starts. The fourth-year signal-caller completed 65.7 percent of his passes for 627 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions against the Chicago Bears and Houston Texans. According to NFL Research, Garoppolo passed Troy Smith for the most passing yards by a San Francisco quarterback in his first two starts since at least 1991.

    More importantly, the 49ers won both contests, and Garoppolo's presence behind center made a huge difference.

    "It definitely just builds the confidence," fullback Kyle Juszczyk said, per ESPN.com's Nick Wagoner. "[It] gets everyone excited. I mean, it feels like a whole new season here. It feels like we started last week. Especially getting a win—we wish we had more games left. We wish we had a full season to do this thing with him."

    The team should get its opportunity since a long-term contract appears to be forthcoming. With his recent play, there's no reason to believe Garoppolo won't be in San Francisco next year.

Case Keenum to Washington Redskins

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    Kirk Cousins' departure from the Washington Redskins isn't a foregone conclusion, but the franchise must prepare for the possibility.

    If Cousins does leave, Washington can't enter next season with Colt McCoy as its only starting option. Case Keenum could be a perfect fit in Jay Gruden's offense.

    Keenum's breakout 2017 campaign has come under Pat Shurmur's supervision. Like Gruden, Shurmur uses a scheme rooted in West Coast principles. A big, strong-armed quarterback isn't necessary because the passing attack is based on timing and precision.

    The Minnesota Vikings signal-caller does two things well: He gets the ball out of his hand quickly, which allows his receivers to create after the catch, and he extends plays with his pocket mobility. These things don't appear to go hand-in-hand, yet both are vital to Keenum's recent success.

    He may not be on Cousins' level as a passer, but he creates more when everything breaks down around him. That trait would allow Gruden to move the pocket, attempt more rollouts and add other wrinkles to his scheme that haven't been prevalent as of late.

    Finances should be a major factor, too. Cousins is expected to garner an annual salary somewhere near $30 million next season. Keenum's price tag will be far cheaper, which would allow Washington to use the extra cap space to supplement its roster.

        

    All stats via Pro Football Reference or NFL.com unless otherwise noted. Contract numbers courtesy of Spotrac.