The NFL quarterback carousel will soon begin to spin, and it looks as though the 2021 edition will be loaded with plenty of open seats and even more potential riders.
In this metaphor, the seats are the teams looking for quarterbacks, and the riders are the quarterbacks who may be available. Or is it the other way around? Whichever way, the market will be busy and high on inventory.
Let's ditch the cliched comparisons and break down the potential 2021 quarterback sweepstakes.
The Potential Buyers
Due to contract statuses and career accomplishments/trajectories, it's safe to assume the following 20 teams won't be looking outside their facilities for new starters in the 2021 offseason:
- Arizona Cardinals (Kyler Murray)
- Atlanta Falcons (Matt Ryan)
- Baltimore Ravens (Lamar Jackson)
- Buffalo Bills (Josh Allen)
- Carolina Panthers (Teddy Bridgewater)
- Cincinnati Bengals (Joe Burrow)
- Cleveland Browns (Baker Mayfield)
- Green Bay Packers (Aaron Rodgers)
- Houston Texans (Deshaun Watson)
- Kansas City Chiefs (Patrick Mahomes)
- Los Angeles Chargers (Justin Herbert)
- Los Angeles Rams (Jared Goff)
- Miami Dolphins (Tua Tagovailoa)
- Minnesota Vikings (Kirk Cousins)
- New York Giants (Daniel Jones)
- Philadelphia Eagles (Carson Wentz or Jalen Hurts)
- Pittsburgh Steelers (Ben Roethlisberger)
- Seattle Seahawks (Russell Wilson)
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Tom Brady)
- Tennessee Titans (Ryan Tannehill)
But that leaves questions about a dozen franchises:
Chicago Bears: Mitchell Trubisky's contract is expiring, and the Nick Foles experiment failed.
Dallas Cowboys: Dak Prescott is slated to become an unrestricted free agent.
Denver Broncos: Drew Lock did not take the reins in his sophomore season.
Detroit Lions: After 12 seasons without a playoff win from Matthew Stafford, they could move on.
Indianapolis Colts: Philip Rivers is scheduled to hit free agency in March.
Jacksonville Jaguars: It doesn't appear as though the long-term answer is on the current roster.
Las Vegas Raiders: They can move on from Derek Carr and save nearly $20 million.
New England Patriots: The Cam Newton experiment didn't pan out.
New Orleans Saints: It's entirely possible Drew Brees decides to retire at age 42.
New York Jets: Sam Darnold has not gotten the job done in his first three seasons.
San Francisco 49ers: They can move on from Jimmy Garoppolo and pocket more than $23 million.
Washington Football Team: It seems they've already given up on Dwayne Haskins Jr., and Alex Smith isn't a long-term option.
The Potential Inventory
Which quarterbacks might be available to those 12 teams? The market will take on different forms for each potential buyer, so let's first look at the broad menu of potential options.
Impending free agents (4): Cam Newton, Dak Prescott, Philip Rivers, Mitchell Trubisky
Trade/cut candidates (9): Derek Carr, Sam Darnold, Nick Foles, Jimmy Garoppolo, Dwayne Haskins Jr., Drew Lock, Gardner Minshew II, Matthew Stafford, Carson Wentz
Projected first-round picks (4): Justin Fields, Trey Lance, Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson
Quarterback by Quarterback
Carr: The Jon Gruden-era Raiders have never seemed fully satisfied with Carr, and they might not want to pay him $22.1 million for one more year after another late-season collapse in 2020. And yet, he's the league's ninth-highest-rated passer.
Potential landing spots: Raiders, Bears, Patriots—I actually think Carr would be a fantastic fit in New England if the price is right, and he'd be an upgrade over Foles and Trubisky for the Bears.
Predicted landing spot: Raiders—I fully expect Las Vegas to explore alternative options. But the only obvious upgrades are Prescott and Stafford, and they'd have trouble affording either.
Darnold: If the Jets decide to draft a quarterback in Round 1, they could move on from their 2018 No. 3 overall selection. It's possible he'll follow a Josh Rosen-like path, but he's still only 23, and somebody might figure they could turn him into a star.
Potential landing spots: Jets, Bears, Cowboys, Broncos, Washington—Gang Green could keep Darnold even if it drafts a quarterback high in Round 1, but somebody else will value him more than the Jets because of his upside. He'd have a chance to compete in Chicago, Denver and Washington and could be a cheap replacement with upside if the Cowboys were to lose Prescott. The Jets almost certainly would not trade him to New England.
Predicted landing spot: Washington—The WFT would swap out Haskins for Darnold in hopes that a new setting would help the latter in a competition with Alex Smith and Kyle Allen.
Fields: Widely projected to be a top-five pick in the 2021 draft, the accurate and athletic Ohio State product posted a 41-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio as a sophomore in 2019.
Potential landing spots: Jets, Jaguars, Falcons, Cowboys, Lions, Broncos—The first two options are the most obvious, but Atlanta and Detroit could jump at a chance to draft a successor, and Dallas and Denver could be factors if they decide to move on from their current starters.
Predicted landing spot: Jets—I'm expecting him to go right after Lawrence before the Jets shop Darnold.
Foles: Only three quarterbacks have lower qualified QBRs this season than the disappointing 31-year-old, and two of those passers are backups.
Potential landing spots: Bears, Eagles—Philadelphia could look to bring him back if it unloads Wentz and wants to add insurance behind Hurts.
Predicted landing spot: Bears—He's lost his trade value because he's a backup-caliber player making an average of $8 million per year.
Garoppolo: The 49ers haven't exactly been effusive about Garoppolo returning in 2021. He'd cost $26.4 million, which is quite hefty considering two of his first three seasons in San Francisco have been derailed by injury. He wasn't a superstar in 2019, either.
Potential landing spots: 49ers, Cowboys, Patriots, Raiders, Broncos, Washington—Most teams with openings would make a run. But he's not cheap, and San Francisco might not have a better option if it can't land Stafford or Prescott.
Predicted landing spot: 49ers—San Francisco gives one more shot to the guy who helped it get to the Super Bowl in 2019, but it also brings in somebody like Lock or Haskins to compete when the Broncos and Washington move in new directions.
Haskins: The 2019 first-round pick wasn't drafted by this regime and was pulled on a short leash early in his sophomore campaign. Still, the Ohio State product is only 23, and he has a grand total of 26 college and professional starts under his belt.
Potential landing spots: Washington, Bears, Broncos, Patriots, Steelers—He could compete in Chicago if the Bears lose either Trubisky or Foles, he could be brought in to push Lock in Denver, he could join a summer competition in New England, or he could become the heir apparent in Pittsburgh.
Predicted landing spot: Patriots—This exercise has Washington and Chicago preoccupied, and the better opportunity for Haskins would be in New England, where he'd have a chance to compete for a starting job while working with a world-famous staff.
Lance: The North Dakota State product is a tantalizing prospect after throwing 28 touchdown passes to zero interceptions in 2019, but he didn't perform great in his only game this season.
Potential landing spots: Falcons, Cowboys, Lions, Broncos, Patriots, Bears, Raiders, Washington, Steelers—The net is wide because he's a developmental project who could go anywhere in the first round.
Predicted landing spot: Patriots—He may wind up out of New England's reach, which is why we've hedged by having Haskins going to the Pats, as well. But I doubt they would pass on Lance's potential. Unless the Cowboys lose Prescott, I can't see a team in this exercise that makes more sense. Bring on a three-quarterback competition in Foxborough between Lance, Haskins and Jarrett Stidham.
Lawrence: Widely expected to go first overall in the draft, the superstar from Clemson has steadily bolstered his rate-based numbers throughout his three-year college career.
Potential landing spots: Jaguars, Jets—Only the Bengals can leap ahead of Jacksonville or New York in the draft order, and Cincinnati took Burrow with the top pick in 2020.
Predicted landing spot: Jaguars—They'd have no reason to go in another direction here, but they can't accidentally win a game in the final two weeks of the regular season.
Lock: For the second year in a row, the 2019 second-round pick is flashing late in the season. Will that be enough for seemingly impatient general manager John Elway to give him another shot in 2021? He's still the league's third-lowest-rated passer. If the Broncos decide to go in another direction, Lock's phenomenal arm would make him interesting trade bait.
Potential landing spots: Broncos, 49ers, Patriots, Washington, Steelers—Somewhere he'd compete at a low price point.
Predicted landing spot: 49ers—If San Francisco doesn't move on from Garoppolo, this would be an ideal (and affordable) way to apply pressure.
Minshew: If indeed the Jags take Lawrence, they'd be smart to try to capitalize on "Minshew Magic" while using Mike Glennon or Jake Luton in support of their rookie first-round signal-caller. Minshew has 37 career touchdown passes to only 11 picks and would likely intrigue teams looking to hold open competitions under center.
Potential landing spots: Patriots, Washington, Broncos, Lions, Jaguars—Again, nobody will sign him to be their locked-in starter. If he doesn't return to the Jags to back up a rookie, he'll wind up battling somewhere else throughout the offseason.
Predicted landing spot: Lions—The spoilers have already been dropped regarding how we view Stafford's fate in Detroit. Minshew could come in at a low rate and help the Lions transition to their next franchise quarterback.
Newton: The 2015 MVP has thrown just five touchdown passes (to 10 interceptions) in 13 games with the Patriots. He's still a strong rushing threat, but he's completely lost it as a passer at age 31.
Potential landing spots: Patriots, Washington, Eagles, Steelers—The Pats could bring him back if he's cheap again, but there aren't a lot of other good fits for him as a potential starter. He would make a lot of sense as a backup in Philly (if the Eagles move on from Wentz) or Pittsburgh (where there isn't much beyond the 38-year-old Roethlisberger).
Predicted landing spot: Nowhere—Based on last year's extended free-agency experience for Newton, it's clear he's willing to sit out. Nobody will view him as a starter, and he's got almost no upside, so don't be surprised if he spends the season out of football.
Prescott: There's a lot to be determined about Prescott's future after he suffered a severe ankle injury while playing under the franchise tag in 2020. He may or may not be healthy by the start of the new league year, which could further complicate an already complicated situation.
Potential landing spots: Cowboys, Patriots, Colts, Broncos—Everyone would be interested, but these teams might have the salary-cap space to make it work.
Predicted landing spot: Cowboys—Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones has made it clear the Cowboys intend to keep Prescott around. Nothing's guaranteed, and the Cowboys could still decide he isn't worth the cost of a second tag or a lucrative long-term contract coming off that injury. But Dallas is also in win-now mode, and there's no better option out there than Dak.
Rivers: Colts head coach Frank Reich has expressed confidence that the 39-year-old Rivers has enough in him to be effective beyond 2020. He isn't playing at a star level but is the league's 12th-highest-rated passer this season.
Potential landing spots: Colts, Cowboys, Broncos, 49ers, Washington—Denver and Washington would make the most sense because both are desperate and possibly looking for a quick fix. Dallas and San Francisco might not view him as an upgrade but as a backup plan if they move on from Prescott and Garoppolo, respectively.
Predicted landing spot: Nowhere—We've been fooled by Rivers time and again. He'll bomb again in the playoffs, the Colts will become frustrated, and they'll go all-in on Wentz, who won a Super Bowl with Reich in Philly. That could leave Rivers without a starting job, in which case he could sit out until an opportunity presents itself—or even wind up walking away from the league.
Stafford: It's been another inconsistent season from Stafford, who isn't the primary reason the Lions are 5-9 and facing another season without playoff success but might not be worth a $35 million 2021 cap charge if the team is rebuilding.
Potential landing spots: Lions, 49ers, Broncos, Raiders, Patriots, Washington—I'm not sure the Raiders and 49ers would view him as enough of an upgrade to take the cap hit, but Denver, New England and Washington would all make a ton of sense considering their quarterback and financial situations.
Predicted landing spot: Broncos—I think Elway is fed up and ready to make a huge sacrifice.
Trubisky: Bears fans have to be rolling their eyes as the fourth-year No. 2 overall pick has suddenly turned it on late in a walk year. Is he finally turning a corner, or is this just a hot streak for a quarterback who has looked like a bust more often than not?
Potential landing spots: Bears, Broncos, Patriots, Washington, Falcons, Panthers, Steelers—Any team that is lining itself up for an open competition or needs a backup with upside makes sense.
Predicted landing spot: Bears—Chicago can't really afford to go in a new direction, especially if it makes the playoffs and loses out on draft capital as a result.
Wentz: The 2017 MVP candidate's four-year, $128 million contract will be difficult to trade. But it looks as though the Eagles have something in Hurts, and Wentz might need a change of scenery after a traumatizingly horrible 2020 campaign.
Potential landing spots: Eagles, Colts, Patriots, Broncos, Washington—Reich, Josh McDaniels and Elway would all undoubtedly be intrigued, and Washington could see if the Eagles are willing to do another Donovan McNabb-type deal. They all have the money to attempt to make it work.
Predicted landing spot: Colts—Indy should have the cap space to pull this off. Watch for Rivers to bomb in a big moment late and for Reich to lobby for his old pal from Philly.
Wilson: The BYU product has put together an unreal junior season to position himself as a potential top-10 pick in April's draft.
Potential landing spots: Falcons, Cowboys, Lions, Broncos, Patriots, Bears, Raiders, Washington, Steelers—This is the same wide net that applied to Lance.
Predicted landing spot: Lions—It's time for a new start in Detroit, where they're bringing in a fresh regime and can save $10-$20 million by cutting or trading Stafford (depending on the timing). The return should position them to navigate the draft board for Wilson.
Team by Team
In summary, here's who each team should consider and who we predict they land (in bold).
Bears: Carr, Darnold, Foles, Haskins, Lance, Trubisky, Wilson
Cowboys: Darnold, Fields, Garoppolo, Lance, Prescott, Rivers, Wilson
Broncos: Darnold, Fields, Garoppolo, Haskins, Lance, Lock, Minshew, Prescott, Rivers, Stafford, Trubisky, Wentz, Wilson
Lions: Fields, Lance, Minshew, Stafford, Wilson
Colts: Prescott, Rivers, Wentz
Jaguars: Fields, Lawrence, Minshew
Raiders: Carr, Garoppolo, Lance, Stafford, Wilson
Patriots: Carr, Garoppolo, Haskins, Lance, Lock, Minshew, Newton, Prescott, Stafford, Trubisky, Wentz, Wilson
Saints: None (if Brees retires, they roll with Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston)
Jets: Darnold, Fields, Lawrence
49ers: Garoppolo, Lock, Rivers, Stafford
Washington: Darnold, Garoppolo, Haskins, Lance, Lock, Minshew, Newton, Rivers, Stafford, Trubisky, Wentz, Wilson
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter: @Brad_Gagnon.