2017 NFL Offseason Could Be a Uniquely Epic Year for the QB Carousel
In a league with 32 teams and fewer than 32 franchise quarterbacks, starting-caliber signal-callers don't often become available.
Most offseasons, trade rumors surround a couple of established quarterbacks, and maybe a couple more hit the open market. But rarely do "elite" players at the NFL's most important position change teams.
This offseason could be different, because at least a handful of well-established quarterbacks have a shot at becoming available. In fact, we can think of five potential movers—Kirk Cousins, Tyrod Taylor, Jay Cutler, Colin Kaepernick and Brock Osweiler—who started at least five games under center in 2016, plus two high-end "backups" in Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo.
Let's break it down.
Tony Romo: 1st Domino to Fall?
While some of these quarterback situations could take time to play out, the Dallas Cowboys will likely have to make a decision on expensive veteran quarterback Tony Romo in the near future.
That's because with free agency starting March 9, anyone looking to acquire Romo would presumably like to do so before making in-house decisions and because the Cowboys are low on salary-cap space.
According to Spotrac, they're slated to be about $10 million over the cap. And despite the fact Romo has become Dak Prescott's backup, he's scheduled to make a team-high $24.7 million in 2017.
It's a tricky situation. If the Cowboys trade Romo, they'll save about $5.1 million in cap space. Same deal if he retires. But if he sticks to his guns about continuing his career and the Cowboys can't find a trade partner, they'll probably have to release him with a post-June 1 designation. That would save them the most money for 2017, but those savings wouldn't be felt until—you guessed it—June 1, well after the annual free-agency frenzy.
So it's kind of a lose-lose-lose situation for Dallas, but at least the Cowboys would get something back in a trade. And you'd have to think teams would be interested in a guy who was the league's highest-rated passer just two years ago.
He's nearly 37, he's started just four games in the last two years, there are major injury questions and his contract could become an albatross if a team were to trade for him. But the last two Super Bowls have been won by 39-year-old quarterbacks, and Romo is a four-time Pro Bowler.
There's little doubt he'd have a chance to make a quarterback-needy team better. And depending on how things play out in the next few weeks, as many as eight teams (Buffalo Bills, New York Jets, Houston Texans, Cleveland Browns, Denver Broncos, Washington Redskins, Chicago Bears, San Francisco 49ers) could find themselves in that position.
Prediction: He's traded to the Houston Texans, who are desperate for a franchise quarterback and might be ready to give up on Brock Osweiler.
The Curious Case of Tyrod Taylor
Tyrod Taylor is one of the most athletically gifted starting quarterbacks in the NFL, and he was a Pro Bowler (albeit as a replacement) in 2015. But Taylor's rate-based statistics plummeted in his second year with the Buffalo Bills, and if he is still on the roster on March 11, he'll be owed $30.75 million guaranteed over the next couple of years.
There's plenty of evidence to suggest the Bills won't keep him at that price. First, owners Kim and Terry Pegula have already fired head coach Rex Ryan, who came on board in the same offseason as Taylor. And according to NFL Media's Ian Rapoport, the Pegulas forced interim head coach Anthony Lynn to bench Taylor in Week 17 in order to avoid an injury that would guarantee him most of that $30.75 million payday.
Vic Carucci of the Buffalo News reported Thursday that Taylor is "unwilling" to take a pay cut in order to stay in Buffalo, which probably means he'll be on the open market in a few weeks.
That's interesting because he's 27, he's thrown just 12 interceptions in 29 career starts and he's rushed for more yards over the past two seasons (1,148) than any other quarterback in the game.
It's easy to understand why the Bills might not be willing to fork out big bucks for Taylor, especially as he comes off groin surgery. But considering what he brings to the table, multiple teams are likely to express interest in bringing him in as a starter in 2017.
Prediction: The Bills cut bait, and Taylor winds up competing for a starting job with the Jets.
What If the Washington Redskins Don't Tag Kirk Cousins?
Playing under the franchise tag in 2016, Kirk Cousins was the NFL's seventh-highest-rated qualified passer. And since he became the Washington Redskins' regular starter in 2015, he's one of only four quarterbacks with over 9,000 passing yards.
Jason La Canfora of CBSSports.com reported in the fall that if push comes to shove, the Redskins are prepared to use the franchise tag again (h/t John Breech of the same outlet). That would cost them just under $24 million without a long-term agreement, making Cousins one of the highest-paid players in NFL history.
But is it possible the Redskins reconsider? Nothing's certain in this league, and Cousins' former coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, is now the head coach in San Francisco. Perceived interest there could drive up the price on a long-term deal, which could scare the Redskins away or even increase the odds they tag and trade the 28-year-old Pro Bowler.
Cousins is inconsistent, but we know he can tear up defenses, and he's posted winning records in both of his seasons as Washington's starter. He'll start somewhere in 2017. It'll likely be in Washington, but a team like the Bills, Browns, Broncos, Bears or 49ers could sweep in and change that.
Prediction: He returns to the Redskins, with or without a long-term deal. Washington can't afford to let him go.
Colin Kaepernick and the Open Market
Expect the Kirk Cousins-to-San Francisco narrative to gain steam the moment Colin Kaepernick opts out of his contract, which ESPN's Adam Schefter reports will happen before the start of the new league year in March.
With a new regime in place, don't look for the Niners to keep the talented yet often unreliable quarterback on board. When he hits free agency, he's probably gone.
The 2011 second-round pick excelled as a mobile starter in 2012 and 2013 but then began to regress. He lost his starting job in 2015 and has been plagued by injuries and a lack of consistency since.
Throw in that he became a lightning rod as a result of his anthem protests in 2016, and Kaepernick's future is very much up in the air.
Still, he's only 29 and has plenty of big-game experience, along with a unique skill set. That might not be enough to land him a lucrative long-term deal on the free-agent market, but don't be surprised if he earns a chance to compete for a starting job this summer with any of the usual suspects.
Prediction: He lingers on the market before signing on to compete with Paxton Lynch and Trevor Siemian in Denver.
Jay Cutler Could Be Done in Chicago
Jay Cutler is a Pro Bowl quarterback. But his last Pro Bowl season came when George W. Bush was still in the White House. A lot has changed since 2008, with Cutler throwing 109 interceptions in eight seasons with the Chicago Bears.
The Bears won just one playoff game during that span, and it looks as though they're ready to move on from the 33-year-old. In fact, according to La Canfora, the team is "eager" to part ways with Cutler, potentially in order to make a run at New England Patriots backup Jimmy Garoppolo.
That alone is an indictment on a quarterback who hasn't won a lot of big games and hasn't played a full season this decade. But he has a heck of a lot of talent and experience, and he has connections to New York Jets quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates and Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Rick Dennison.
Look for Cutler to get a shot in one of those two places, if not San Francisco or Houston.
Prediction: He signs a two-year deal with the Bills.
Will Brock Osweiler Be 1-and-Done?
Plenty of eyebrows were raised when the Houston Texans signed four-year Denver Broncos backup quarterback Brock Osweiler to a monster contract in the 2016 offseason (four years, $72 million), mainly because the 26-year-old had just seven career starts under his belt.
But that goes to show how desperate teams get in search of stud quarterbacks, and it might indicate that Houston could be willing to move on from Osweiler after just one stinky season. Osweiler was the second-lowest-rated qualified passer in 2016, and the Texans know they have Super Bowl-level talent elsewhere.
Osweiler's big contract probably isn't tradable, and the team will owe him $16 million regardless in 2017. Still, the Texans have a decent amount of cap space, and they're likely desperate enough to swallow that and give someone like Romo a shot.
Prediction: The Texans go all in on Romo. Osweiler signs a one-year deal with the Bears, reuniting with John Fox.
Will Somebody Pay a Ransom for Jimmy Garoppolo?
Relatively speaking, Jimmy Garoppolo could be the mystery quarterback on this year's carousel. He has just two NFL starts under his belt, but those came with the New England Patriots, who saw fit to use a second-round draft pick on the Eastern Illinois product in 2014.
In those two starts, the 25-year-old completed 71.2 percent of his passes for 496 yards, four touchdowns, zero interceptions and a 119.0 passer rating. Both were victories.
That's not enough for a crown, but consider those supply-and-demand dynamics. If Romo is too old and too expensive, Cutler is too old, Cousins is too pricey and Taylor and Kaepernick are viewed by some as one-trick ponies, Garoppolo becomes a stellar option.
What makes his situation unique is he'll only make about $820,000 in 2017.
Instead, he'll cost you draft currency. According to NFL Media's Ian Rapoport, the price tag is expected to be "at least a first-round pick" (h/t Kevin Patra of the league's official website).
That makes the Cleveland Browns an interesting potential landing spot. Cleveland has two top-12 picks in April's draft, a void at quarterback and plenty of money to spend on a new deal if Garoppolo delivers in 2017.
There are cautionary tales here. Matt Cassel also shone in relief of New England quarterback Tom Brady in 2008, leveraging that into a six-year, $63 million deal with the Kansas City Chiefs. But he never lived up to expectations there and was replaced by Brady freakin' Quinn in his fourth season. Plus, we all saw how things panned out for the Houston Texans when they invested heavily in Osweiler last year based mainly on a seven-start sample.
Ultimately, the Patriots might be too stubborn to pull the trigger on a deal they could regret if Garoppolo becomes a star elsewhere and Father Time starts to catch up with Brady. Regardless, they'll undoubtedly receive some offers.
Prediction: The Browns turn to the draft (along with the 49ers), and Garoppolo stays in New England.