Doug Farrar's Top QBs on the 2018 NFL Free Agent Market
There are very few absolutes in life, but here’s one you can take to the bank: Without a top-level quarterback, no NFL team stands a chance at a Super Bowl championship.
Wait, you might say. The Philadelphia Eagles just won Super Bowl LII with Nick Foles as their quarterback. My response would be that Foles is the exception that proves the rule. Head coach Doug Pederson, offensive coordinator Frank Reich and quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo put Foles in the perfect position to win by maximizing his attributes and minimizing his liabilities until he actually was a top-level quarterback. Philly’s coaching staff hid the possible detriments of Foles’ lack of mobility and occasional field-reading issues by presenting defenses with outstanding route combinations, scads of pre-snap confusion, and run-pass options that set opponents on edge and let the Eagles dictate the tone of the game all the way through the postseason. Foles had the arm strength and mental toughness to do the rest.
For teams less visionary about their signal-callers, quarterback talent is still the most important factor in winning. And this is a draft class without a clear first-season starter; everyone from Lamar Jackson to Baker Mayfield to Josh Rosen to Josh Allen is a project in some way. There are no Andrew Lucks here.
That leaves the 2018 free-agent pool for those teams in need of the quarterback who can turn things around and make a sad song better. There are very few slam-dunk options here; there’s one future first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, a couple of guys who are going to be overpaid because they managed to be highly productive in beneficial offenses, a few serious injury risks and a back of the field led by players who look like career backups and spot starters. This pool, when signed, will force their new teams to do what the Eagles did with Foles—use intelligent coaching and visionary play design to bring out the best in their new assets.
So it is always, but the 2018 class of free-agent quarterbacks does have a definite “buyer beware” vibe going on. With the obvious exception of the top quarterback on the list (who will most likely return to his old team in some iteration), it’s going to be about the mystical combination of player and scheme.
Here are the most intriguing free-agent quarterbacks of the 2018 league year, in ascending order of past performance and future potential.
Blaine Gabbert: A washout in Jacksonville, Gabbert proved capable of reasonably running Bruce Arians's offense when the coach installed more West Coast offense concepts. Gabbert is still mistake-prone and doesn't have a great arm, but he can be worked into a reasonable backup.
Drew Stanton: Stanton is a smart player who followed Arians from Indianapolis to the Valley of the Sun and has been a presentable backup for years. With Arians retiring, Stanton looks like a good pick for any team needing a big-armed backup with limited mobility.
Derek Anderson: Like Stanton, Anderson has a good arm and can provide a veteran presence as a backup. He isn't terribly mobile and needs a clean pocket to produce, but he's a decent No. 2 option if you don't mind agonizing interceptions mixed in with impressive downfield throws.
Chad Henne: Henne isn't the most physically impressive quarterback, but he's a smart player who will pick up your team's system and largely avoid mistakes if you give him limited concepts and reps. Like many of the quarterbacks featured here, he'll need schemed receiver openings to succeed.
EJ Manuel: Manuel was a colossal disappointment in Buffalo after being deemed worthy of a first-round pick in 2013, but he's a decent-armed player with some mobility and an aversion to turnovers. His low completion percentage (58.1 percent through his career) is a result of field-reading issues and a late-twitch throwing sense. In the optimal system, he could be groomed into a high-level backup and spot starter.
12. Mike Glennon
It isn't Mike Glennon's fault that the Chicago Bears completely misevaluated his talent level and gave him a ridiculous three-year, $45 million deal before the 2017 season. Nothing in his career indicated he was worth that type of money, and after four starts, Chicago cast him aside in favor of rookie Mitchell Trubisky.
The Bears plan to release Glennon as soon as the new league year begins, according to Rich Campbell of the Chicago Tribune. Glennon will walk away with $18.5 million of the Bears' money, and Chicago general manager Ryan Pace and his staff had better use this as a teaching moment.
When he did play, Glennon showed none of the consistent characteristics of a starting NFL quarterback. He has an extended release which limits his options as a pure thrower, and he doesn't make his reads quickly. Glennon is sunk if he isn't set up with a series of easy reads, because he also fails to move quickly in the pocket under pressure.
Some team will sign him as a backup/project player because he perfectly fits the league's preferred "big guy/big arm" paradigm, but as he showed last season, those may be his only attributes. The Buccaneers gave Glennon a simplified palette of offensive concepts in 2013 and 2014, and he responded with 29 touchdowns and 15 picks across those two seasons.
That's Glennon's ideal upside at this point: a backup in the right system similar to what Nick Foles had last season. Foles developed to his coaches; Glennon must now do the same.
11. Geno Smith
Geno Smith has started just two games since the 2014 season, his second year with the Jets. His 2017 start came at the behest of since-fired Giants head coach Ben McAdoo, who temporarily decided to bench Eli Manning for some unfathomable reason.
Smith looked decent enough in that one start against the Raiders' leaky defense, throwing a touchdown pass and leading a couple of long drives after a slow start. However, he also lost two fumbles.
Though his time with the Jets was not distinguished, Smith showed some decent characteristics. He's mobile enough and throws a decent deep ball. At times, he struggled with reads at the intermediate level, but in a system that doesn't penalize a guy who doesn't throw with much anticipation, Smith could be a more than credible backup and spot starter.
Smith does best when he's rolling right to clear the pocket and give himself clearer vision to his targets, and he has a smooth, quick throwing motion. You haven't heard much from Smith over the last few years, but that doesn't mean he's done in the NFL.
10. Ryan Fitzpatrick
Ryan Fitzpatrick started three games for the Buccaneers in relief of the injured Jameis Winston last season and fared decently, completing 58.9 percent of his passes for 1,103 yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions. The veteran handled things as he always has when he's played at his best—he stayed within himself, avoiding the deep pass as much as possible, and he used his impressive mobility to extend plays and create openings.
Fitzpatrick is a shorter quarterback with a limited arm, but he's overcome those liabilities with an excellent sense of the field. He's adept at back-side reads, where he'll hit the third receiver or tight end to the opposite side of his first read, and he knows how to move in the pocket to gain an extra split-second to find the open receiver. The 35-year-old is also effectively mobile, resetting his upper body to make the key throw after moving out of the pocket on designed rollouts.
Fitzpatrick got himself into turnover trouble earlier in his career—he led the NFL with 23 interceptions in 2011—because he tried to do more than his arm would allow. Now, he's the football equivalent of the failed fastball pitcher who found a few good junkball throws and could extend his career into his 40s as a result.
9. Matt Moore
With Ryan Tannehill's season-ending ACL injury dooming the Dolphins to quarterback purgatory before the 2017 season even started, the team decided to pay Jay Cutler $10 million to do… well, not very much. Moore was the backup-in-residence, and he started two games when Cutler was dealing with his own injuries, throwing four touchdowns to five interceptions.
Moore has spent the past seven seasons in Miami, and he was generally a reliable second quarterback with a surprisingly good deep ball. However, his occasional accuracy issues have scuttled any chance of him starting in the NFL. Still, teams need good backups who adhere to the system and can run the game plan (just ask the Eagles), and Moore could qualify as that guy for several NFL squads.
When he's physically sound, Moore is a plus pocket passer who will step up out of pressure and efficiently deliver the ball to the intermediate and deep areas of the field. But when he's pressured out of his comfort zone or is asked to make deep timing throws to more difficult areas of the field in tight coverage, he'll show why he isn't a starter.
As long as he's encouraged to stay within himself, Moore can have a productive career for a few more seasons.
8. Tom Savage
Savage's first start of the 2017 season—and the third start of his NFL career—got off to a horrible start. He was sacked six times by Jacksonville's ravenous defense, completing just seven passes for 62 yards, before rookie first-rounder Deshaun Watson subbed in for him and ascended to immediate stardom.
When Watson suffered a torn ACL heading into Week 8, Savage was back as the starter, but to far more tempered expectations. Behind an iffy offensive line and a receiver corps that didn't do much outside of DeAndre Hopkins, Savage started to get into a bit of a groove.
Savage looked especially good against the Cardinals and Titans late in the season, making starter-level throws with timing and anticipation. Against teams with more effective and disguised defenses such as the Rams and Ravens, he didn't fare as well. However, Savage did as well as he could and likely gained a few fans around the league for performing decently despite his own limitations and the inconsistency of the players around him.
For Savage to become a mid-level starter, he'll have to become more agile. He's slow in the pocket, and he's even slower to bail out of the pocket when he needs to run to throw. Until he speeds up his internal clock, he isn't going to make pressure throws. Though he made improvement in that regard in 2017, his potential for batches of sacks and potential injuries has to be a concern for any team signing him.
7. A.J. McCarron
Cleveland Browns head coach Hue Jackson, who once was McCarron's QB guru in Cincinnati, is reportedly frothing at the mouth to sign the longtime backup, according to Peter King of The MMQB. McCarron has started a grand total of four games in his career, completing 86 of 133 passes for 920 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions in the regular season, and 23 of 41 passes for 212 yards, one touchdown and one interception in the postseason.
Jackson wanted to finalize a trade for McCarron before the 2017 trade dealing ended, but the paperwork came in late and the league didn't approve it. McCarron was awarded his unrestricted free-agent status for the 2018 league year after winning a dispute with the Bengals, so this story already has a ton of drama.
Now, the question is whether the Browns are about to make yet another quarterback mistake if they pay McCarron that much money, especially if the deal doesn't allow them to get out easily after one season as the Bears did with Glennon. When McCarron started three games at the end of the 2015 season for an injured Andy Dalton, he was a limited player who did well as long as he kept things at the short and intermediate level. He struggled against more complex zone defenses and was clearly still finding his way.
McCarron is a mobile, tough player who can consistently connect with his receivers as long as his mechanics are solid. At other times, McCarron will lose his grasp of the base he needs to get optimal velocity on his intermediate and deep throws, and the ball will sail all over the place. He's still a work in progress, and if any team gives him the kind of money that forces him into a starting gig, there could be some serious growing pains.
6. Josh McCown
Nobody expected Josh McCown to be one of the best values on the quarterback market before the 2017 season. He signed a one-year, $6 million contract with the Jets, a team that had undergone two different salary-cap purges in the last few seasons and was so bereft of talent that many expected it to be the worst in the NFL.
McCown was one of the people who prevented that from happening. In his 15th season, and with Jermaine Kearse and Robby Anderson as his top receivers, McCown had what could only be called a career year for a career journeyman who had started just 60 games from 2002 through 2016.
He completed 67.3 percent of his passes for 2,926 yards, 18 touchdowns and nine interceptions in an offense that would have seen many less talented quarterbacks fold. McCown did it with toughness, leadership, an excellent sense of the field and surprising mobility to get out of the pocket and extend plays.
Sadly, his miracle season came to an end in Week 14 against the Broncos when he suffered a broken left hand. That said, McCown showed he can still start at a high level at age 38 and he won't break the bank as a top-level backup and spot starter.
McCown could once again be one of the league's best bargains in 2018.
5. Teddy Bridgewater
Bridgewater, the Vikings' first-round pick in 2014, looked like one of the NFL's up-and-coming stars. He made the Pro Bowl in 2015 before wrenching his knee prior to the 2016 season, missing that entire year. He only looked ready for action again late in the 2017 season.
Bridgewater's comeback story is heartwarming, and if he is able to hit the field at the level he once was, there's no doubt he's worthy of a starter's contract.
Of course, that's not going to happen right off the bat. No team wants to risk big money on a quarterback who has effectively missed two straight seasons, even at age 25 and with a world of potential in front of him.
So, what would a team that throws a limited short-term deal at him get in return? Bridgewater has never had a plus arm, but he gets the job done as a deep passer, and his timing and rhythm in the short-to-intermediate game is exceptional for his experience. Add his mobility into the picture—at least as it was—and a healthy Bridgewater could be a prime stock bid for a team willing to take the risk.
Bridgewater's issue is just that, though; it's all a risk until he faces full contact over an extended period of time and shows a full recovery.
4. Sam Bradford
If Sam Bradford could stay healthy, he might be the most attractive quarterback in free agency and the top player on this list. Yes, even above Drew Brees, because so much of free agency is about what a player can do for you in the future as opposed to what he's done.
Bradford showed the Vikings what he could do in a transcendent season opener against the Saints when he made several throws for seemingly impossible completions. He out-dueled Brees himself in a 29-19 win, completing 27 of 32 passes for 346 yards and three touchdowns. And the tape shows even better than the stats.
For one blessed week, Sam Bradford was unquestionably the best quarterback in football, and this was the season after he led the league in completion percentage, throwing 20 touchdowns to just five picks in 15 games.
But it's Bradford's injury history that puts him at No. 4, and he played in just one game after that Saints win as his knee issues began again. Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer recently referred to Bradford's knee as "degenerative," per Tom Pelissero of the NFL Network. That's a word you never want to hear.
Bradford will be treated with caution in the upcoming free-agency derby for this reason, but if he's even reasonably healthy, his talent on the field will make him an acceptable risk. It's just a shame that we've so rarely seen what he's capable of.
3. Case Keenum
A former washout in backward offenses with the Texans and Rams, Keenum proved to be a revelation for the Vikings as a backup-turned starter due to Teddy Bridgewater's and Sam Bradford's injury situations.
Keenum had always looked like a noodle-armed third-stringer before his star turn in Minnesota. Yet especially against more vulnerable defenses, he looked like a completely different quarterback in Pat Shurmur's system. He completed 67.6 percent of his passes for 3,547 yards, 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions in the regular season and 60.2 percent of his passes for 589 yards, two touchdowns and three picks in the Vikings' playoff run.
That's the question about Keenum going forward: Which quarterback is he? Is he the guy who can get deep passes downfield effectively against Tampa Bay's do-nothing defense with the help of a great receiver corps but struggles against more effective opponents in the postseason? Or is he a potential star based on the numbers he put up in the regular season?
I would submit that Keenum is both quarterbacks, and he has Kirk Cousins potential in the right offense that provides him with clear openings and enough protection to let him see the field. He was effective in those situations.
Some team is going to drastically overpay Cousins based on his future potential. It's just as likely that Keenum, with similar traits but an unremarkable history, could be a much better bargain in the end.
2. Kirk Cousins
Per Charles Robinson of Yahoo Sports, Cousins may be looking for a contract that will pay him $30 million per year and make him the highest-paid player in NFL history. Given what teams seem to think of his potential, and how inflated the quarterback market has become, it's possible the former fourth-round pick could achieve that goal.
Cousins will turn 30 in August, and he's coming off three straight seasons in which he threw for over 4,000 yards. He has drastically improved his throwing mechanics over the last two seasons, and in Jay Gruden's complex and demanding offense, he's proved he will work hard and take good coaching to the field.
However, Cousins' tape does show some flaws—the kind you might not be concerned with if you're giving a guy $15 million per year on a short-term deal but ones that will come up if you're about to make history with his contract.
As I wrote in a recent tape piece, Cousins still has trouble reading more complicated defenses, he's still learning to throw with anticipation and he doesn't always adjust well if his first read is closed—especially if he's also under pressure.
Again, these are not major issues for any developmental quarterback. But no team in its right mind is going to pay what Cousins wants for a developmental quarterback. Fortunately for him, there are many teams that are not in their right minds when it comes to the quarterback position.
1. Drew Brees
All indications lead to Drew Brees re-signing with the Saints.
NFL.com recently reported that the two sides were to meet at the combine to discuss a short-term deal, and, per Herbie Teope of the Times-Picayune, general manager Mickey Loomis is committed to making that happen.
"I think the important thing is Drew wants to be a New Orleans Saint and we want him to be a New Orleans Saint, so he's going to be a New Orleans Saint," Loomis said.
A definite statement to be sure, but in the NFL, you never know what's going to happen until the money lands, and there is no question that having Brees on the open market would change the entire picture of the start of the 2018 league year.
He was less of a factor in 2017 than he had been in previous seasons, thanks mostly to the advancement of the run game and defense, but at age 38, he still completed 72 percent of his passes for 4,334 yards, 23 touchdowns and just eight interceptions. Despite his age, this isn't a case of a guy whose best days are behind him looking to cash in one more time—based on his 2017 tape, it's clear that Brees still has everything it takes to lead a quality team deep in a playoff run.
Brees still has perhaps the best combination of mobility and accuracy in the NFL. The tape shows that his deep passing improved after a slight drop-off over the last few seasons. And there may not be a smarter and more well-prepared quarterback in the game today.
If the Saints get Brees back, good for them. If anything else happens, you can expect teams looking for new signal-callers to alter their plans drastically, as they should. No other free-agent quarterback in this year's market comes close.