NFL Free Agency 2021: An Early Look at Next Year's Quarterback Carousel
The NFL's quarterback carousel might not match the movement of a market that featured Tom Brady and others changing teams last offseason, but it has plenty of noteworthy possibilities.
It's as clear as ever how important the position is. Ben Roethlisberger's return from an elbow injury, for example, has the Pittsburgh Steelers undefeated and looking like borderline AFC favorites after an 8-8 2019 campaign. Brady's arrival in Tampa Bay has propelled the 6-3 Buccaneers into contention, too.
Depth can also be a priority. Dallas' ability to hand things to Andy Dalton when Dak Prescott injured his ankle in Week 5 seemed like a nice luxury for a would-be contender. The Chicago Bears having Nick Foles to compete with Mitchell Trubisky was a depth lesson of a different flavor.
Below, let's outline the most noteworthy quarterbacks set to hit the open market and the teams most likely to participate in the carousel.
Top Quarterbacks Scheduled to Be Free Agents in 2021
- Dak Prescott
- Philip Rivers
- Cam Newton
- Andy Dalton
- Jacoby Brissett
- Ryan Fitzpatrick
- Tyrod Taylor
- Mitchell Trubisky
- Joe Flacco
- Robert Griffin III
- Kyle Allen
The upcoming possible crop of free-agent passers isn't nearly as interesting as 2020's, when names like Brady and Drew Brees were up for grabs.
After Prescott, three other starter-tier signal-callers seem set to make it there (thought the first two could easily re-up with their current teams): Cam Newton has been up-and-down with the New England Patriots, 38-year-old Philip Rivers only signed for one year in Indianapolis (and he could retire) and Dalton clearly wanted his stop in Dallas to be a one-year thing before seeking a new starting job.
A bevy of backups who can compete for jobs, if not start while a rookie learns, otherwise make up the bulk of the list. Ryan Fitzpatrick and Tyrod Taylor began the year in that capacity in Miami and Los Angeles, respectively.
A possible fun wrinkle is Brady, 43, and Brees, 41, could retire with one year remaining on their respective deals. Though their retirements seem unlikely, Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers are 38 and 36, respectively, too.
New York Jets
The New York Jets have an almost impossible decision to make under center.
Sam Darnold, the No. 3 pick in 2018, hasn't come close to meeting the expectations that come with his draft slot. He's completed just 59.7 percent of his passes for 6,934 yards, 39 touchdowns and 34 interceptions.
On one hand, Darnold hasn't had a fair shake given his bad surrounding pieces and the fact that he missed six games over his first two seasons and has only played in six in 2020. He's also had to suffer through coaching and regime changes.
On the other, the organization can only afford to wait so long. Darnold's under contract through 2021 with a fifth-year option for 2022, but the 0-9 Jets will be in a position to draft a top passer this offseason or spend big money on a free agent. Veteran backup Joe Flacco is also set to hit market this offseason, so in some fashion or another, the Jets figure to make some important decisions at the position.
Minshewmania has been a fun storyline for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
But Gardner Minshew II has the feel of a transitional quarterback for a rebuilding team. The 2019 sixth-round pick has been serviceable with a 62.6 completion percentage, 5,126 yards passing, 34 touchdowns and 11 interceptions over 21 games.
What makes the 1-7 Jaguars likely carousel participants is the allure of an upgrade at an affordable cost. The team is in top-five range for draft day and should have plenty of cap space to use if it goes the free-agent route.
At worst, the Jaguars have the feel of a team ready to push Minshew with even a mid-tier addition like Dalton, upgrading the depth chart over Mike Glennon and Jake Luton.
The Cowboys could be the most shocking team on the quarterback carousel this offseason—or they could be a non-participant.
Prescott is the reason for the wide range of outcomes, and that was the case before a Week 5 ankle injury knocked him out for the remainder of the season.
Dallas hit the 27-year-old with the franchise tag over the offseason, locking in one of the NFL's best young passers for a season after both parties reportedly disagreed on the number of extension years.
Now it seems like Prescott could get whatever he wants—in Dallas or otherwise. The Cowboys have flopped, going 0-4 without him and his eye-popping output. He completed 68 percent of his passes with 1,856 yards and nine touchdowns over just five games, dragging a historically incompetent defense with him.
But the team's win-now mode has backfired, and Dallas has roughly $35 million in free cap space for 2021. That's before any leaguewide adjustments to the cap and what it will cost to keep Prescott. If it's another tag, it'll be an escalation on his $31.4 cap hit from this season, and if it's an extension, it's a likely comparable number.
Besides the cap situation, add in a 2-7 record likely giving the Cowboys a top-10 draft pick, and to say things are about to get interesting in Dallas would be a massive understatement.
New York Giants
A massive question mark at quarterback isn't exclusive to one team in the Big Apple.
The New York Giants face a similar problem to the Jets and Darnold with Daniel Jones, the No. 6 pick in 2019.
Jones got in 13 games as a rookie and threw for 3,027 yards with 24 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. But a transition to new head coach Joe Judge this season hasn't gone well—he's completed 62.4 percent of his 306 attempts over nine games but thrown eight touchdowns against nine interceptions.
Granted, a 75.6 grade at Pro Football Focus hints it isn't all on Jones as the Giants rebuild. But...he's also 4-0 against Washington and 1-16 against everyone else.
At the least, New York's 2-7 standing hints at top-five flirtation, where the allure of taking another quarterback could be quite strong. That, or a veteran who can challenge for the starting job and is an upgrade over backup Colt McCoy could be the play.
Washington Football Team
The Washington Football Team didn't take long to make it clear the team would be a rider on the quarterback carousel next offseason.
New head coach Ron Rivera saw enough of 2019 first-rounder Dwayne Haskins over just 146 attempts, of which he completed 61 percent with four touchdowns and three interceptions.
Rivera has since turned to fun comeback story Alex Smith and third-year player Kyle Allen for reps at the position, which has brought disastrous results to the 2-6 club. Smith has struggled to get right, throwing one touchdown and three picks in 49 attempts, while Allen has performed about as expected with just four touchdowns in four starts.
A new head coach brushing aside the last staff's quarterback and tying his tenure to his own high draft choice is common. Whether Haskins has had a fair shake is worth a debate, but either way, Rivera and Co. will probably be in a strong spot to take one of the draft's top passers.
Salary-cap info via Spotrac unless otherwise noted