Predicting Landing Spots for NFL's Best 2021 Free-Agent QBs

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystMarch 5, 2021

Predicting Landing Spots for NFL's Best 2021 Free-Agent QBs

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    Unprecedented movement at quarterback was expected this offseason, and free agency could now serve as the primary outlet for a few more signal-caller swaps. 

    At this juncture, the two most likely trade candidates following the 2020 NFL season have already been dealt. Matthew Stafford (with Jared Goff involved in the deal) moved from the Detroit Lions to the Los Angeles Rams, and Carson Wentz was traded from the Philadelphia Eagles to the Indianapolis Colts. 

    With those deals complete, major quarterback movement could grind to a halt. 

    Currently, the Houston Texans aren't receptive to overtures for Deshaun Watson. The Seattle Seahawks know of potential trade destinations for Russell Wilson, but the quarterback prefers to stay in the Great Northwest. San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch already stated there's "no doubt" regarding Jimmy Garoppolo's status as the team's starter.

    Las Vegas Raiders general manager Mike Mayock deemed Derek Carr "one of the best quarterbacks" in the NFL and said the organization is "happy" with him behind center. As of now, the New York Jets aren't actively shopping Sam Darnold, though general manager Joe Douglas will answer calls from other franchises interested in the 2018 third overall pick. 

    Maybe one or two of those signal-callers will eventually be traded. Maybe they won't. 

    Pickings then become slim because franchise quarterbacks aren't just sitting around for teams in need. But while true top-end starters aren't available in free agency, except for Dak Prescott, there are still some viable options available, ready to sign elsewhere and possibly improve multiple squads in need of help at the position.

1. Dak Prescott: Dallas Cowboys

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Those running the Dallas Cowboys organization have long said they want to sign quarterback Dak Prescott to a long-term deal as the face of the franchise, but they have yet to accomplish it.

    Instead, the franchise wrongly prioritized lesser-valued positions by handing out hefty contract extensions to running back Ezekiel Elliott, linebacker Jaylon Smith, right tackle La'el Collins, wide receiver Amari Cooper and even defensive end Demarcus Lawrence. 

    Now, Prescott holds the leverage. Even so, the Cowboys have a card or two up their proverbial sleeve to retain the best quarterback possibly available on the free-agent market. 

    A long-term agreement is the best possible outcome for the organization. According to NFL Network's Jane Slater, Prescott has been rehabbing from his season-ending dislocated ankle at the Cowboys facility "nearly everyday," and the two sides have had "good talks" with negotiations that are "better than they've been." 

    Still, Prescott and his representation could maximize the quarterback's earning potential by forcing the Cowboys into a second straight franchise tag.

    NFL Network's Ian Rapoport and Tom Pelissero already reported Dallas plans to do so if a new contract isn't reached. In doing so, the quarterback's salary-cap number would escalate to $37.7 million, and he would get to test the market next offseason before he turns 29.

    Either way, Prescott will likely remain with the Cowboys for at least one more season. 

2. Jameis Winston: New Orleans Saints

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    The New Orleans Saints are making moves in order to get under the projected 2021 salary cap. More importantly, the organization must position itself to replace Drew Brees since he's possibly...maybe...well, no one really knows if he's actually going to retire. 

    The organization must operate as if the NFL's all-time leading passer isn't returning. It prepared for this moment, though it backed the wrong option. 

    Taysom Hill is under contract with a $16.2 million salary-cap charge this fall. Anyone who watched the Saints offense with him behind center knows he's not the answer. He's a nice player and adds versatility, but he shouldn't consistently lead an offense. 

    Jameis Winston still presents that potential. At 27 years old, the 2015 No. 1 overall draft pick is now a year removed from being "the guy" in Tampa Bay and had a season to learn Sean Payton's system from one of the best to ever put on a helmet.

    Winston barely played last season with only 11 pass attempts, but he's a year removed from leading the NFL with 5,109 passing yards (and 30 interceptions). He understood the value of corrective eye surgery, getting in better shape and taking a year to learn under Brees after signing a meager one-year free-agent deal. 

    Now it's time for those sacrifices to pay dividends. Payton didn't mince words about his desire for New Orleans to re-sign Winston "sooner rather than later," per ESPN's Mike Triplett.

    "Jameis Winston, we know. We had a year with him. He was fantastic as a leader. He's got tremendous arm talent. He's a young prospect that we like a lot," the Saints head coach said. 

3. Cam Newton: Washington Football Team

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    Stew Milne/Associated Press

    What looked like a potential steal for the New England Patriots turned into a disaster after they signed Cam Newton to a one-year, $1.1 million free-agent contract last offseason. They didn't make the postseason for the first time since 2008, and Newton struggled with an 8-to-10 touchdown-to-interception ratio. 

    Many may write off the former league MVP after the disappointing campaign. However, the Patriots' offensive downturn didn't fall entirely on the quarterback's broad shoulders. They lacked the necessary talent at the skill positions to help the signal-caller. 

    Newton still has certain capabilities as a starting option even if he's not the same quarterback who once ran roughshod over the league. Maybe a reunion in New England is forthcoming, but the Patriots are positioned to make a run at a top quarterback prospect with this year's 15th overall draft pick (or a potential trade up). 

    The Washington Football Team and its staff certainly have a long working relationship with Newton. Both head coach Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Scott Turner obviously spent plenty of time with the quarterback in Carolina. 

    Interest between the two parties didn't materialize last year because Washington still had recent first-round pick Dwayne Haskins Jr. on the roster, Newton was coming off yet another injury and New England required an immediate starter. 

    With expectations tempered, Washington could use a veteran to push Taylor Heinicke if the team doesn't draft another quarterback.

4. Ryan Fitzpatrick: New England Patriots

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    Ryan Fitzpatrick could complete his AFC East tour by signing with the New England Patriots. While it would be awesome to see him start for all four rivals at various points in his career, the idea of a little Fitzmagic in the hands of two wizards like Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels has the potential for explosive results. 

    Fitzpatrick potentially leading the Patriots in no way insinuates the 38-year-old veteran is the solution to New England's offensive issues. But he would fill voids to help the unit grow. 

    Fitzpatrick immediately creates some stability. He's a well-traveled quarterback who has seen everything, knows numerous systems, handles pressure and creates when working off-platform. He can be downright, well, magical when he heats up. His gunslinger mentality and subsequent missed throws/turnovers are part of his makeup, of course. 

    But the Patriots need more of a threat from the pocket, particularly when pushing the ball vertically. They are worried about Cam Newton's arm strength, according to the Boston Globe's Ben Volin. As a result, they could and should look elsewhere to address the game's most important position. 

    Fitzpatrick could come in as a distributor working within the team's preferred scheme while the skill positions are improved. 

    With him in the fold, the Patriots wouldn't be dissuaded from making a strong push for a talented quarterback prospect. Much like his previous two stops, he could serve as the veteran presence to keep his team competitive as the organization readies its long-term answer behind center.

5. Mitchell Trubisky: Atlanta Falcons

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    Stephen B. Morton/Associated Press

    Some coach somewhere will think he can save Mitchell Trubisky's career. But the signal-caller won't enter any situation as the starter, so he must tread the path of Ryan Tannehill, Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston. Those failed first-round quarterbacks landed someplace an opportunity existed, even if it wasn't guaranteed. 

    In Tannehill's case, he took over the Tennessee Titans' starting job. Mariota went on to sign the biggest backup quarterback deal in free agency with the Las Vegas Raiders. Winston could very well be the New Orleans Saints starter this fall after Drew Brees' presumed retirement. 

    Basically, Trubisky must rebuild his reputation after entering the league as the second overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft. The Atlanta Falcons are an intriguing landing spot for the 26-year-old signal-caller. 

    First, Trubisky would have an opportunity to learn from former league MVP Matt Ryan. Also, the soon-to-be 36-year-old Ryan isn't guaranteed the job long-term since he holds salary-cap charges exceeding $40 million in each of the next two seasons. 

    Second, a familiar face works on Atlanta's staff under new head coach Arthur Smith, who coincidentally turned around Tannehill's career. New Falcons offensive coordinator Dave Ragone spent the last five seasons as the Chicago Bears quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator. Trubisky could step into a situation without a difficult transition. 

    If the Falcons are seriously considering a quarterback with this year's fourth overall draft pick, a Trubisky signing wouldn't make sense. Otherwise, he'd be an ideal reclamation project behind Ryan. 

6. Jacoby Brissett: Philadelphia Eagles

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    Zach Bolinger/Associated Press

    Jacoby Brissett started 15 games two years ago. His tenure with the Indianapolis Colts seems to have been forgotten when sandwiched between Andrew Luck's abrupt retirement and Philip Rivers' final run. 

    Obviously, Brissett wasn't capable of leading the Colts to the same level as those mentioned. However, he performed well through the first half of the 2019 campaign, brought a little athleticism to the position and finished with an 18-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio. 

    At 28 years old, Brissett brings starting experience and some upside, depending on the situation. 

    The Philadelphia Eagles have a decision to make. They can move forward with last year's second-round pick, Jalen Hurts, as their starter or invest in another quarterback with this year's sixth overall draft selection. 

    In either case, general manager Howie Roseman plans to bring in competition, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen. Brissett makes sense due to his age, affordability for a team struggling with salary-cap issues and familiarity with new head coach Nick Sirianni, who previously served as the Colts offensive coordinator. 

    Hurts and Brissett would create a stable quarterback room with plenty of potential if properly developed. 

7. Andy Dalton: Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Andy Dalton's career seems to have settled after his transition from long-term starter to backup.

    Yes, he started nine games for the Dallas Cowboys last season due to Dak Prescott's ankle injury, but his performance perfectly illustrated why he shouldn't be considered a starter any longer. He's an offensive cog with marginal physical traits incapable of elevating the play of those around him. 

    Injuries certainly played a role in the Cowboys' offensive ineffectiveness after Prescott's departure. But the Dalton seen last season wasn't much different than the version who started nine seasons for the Cincinnati Bengals. 

    Dalton has never been a true franchise quarterback. He's a caretaker of an offense. In Pittsburgh, he could embody a similar role as the Steelers await Ben Roethlisberger's inevitable trek toward retirement. 

    The organization made a mistake by not investing more in the quarterback position. Now, it doesn't have any choice but to rely on a 39-year-old with diminishing capabilities.

    Dalton would potentially provide a veteran presence, show the ability to guide a talented offense, particularly at wide receiver, and keep the Steelers from falling flat on their proverbial faces, which they did two seasons ago when Roethlisberger suffered his elbow injury. 

    Basically, Dalton, who knows the AFC North quite well, would be a cheap insurance policy. Pittsburgh could keep him as an experienced backup while hoping Dwayne Haskins Jr. matures after taking a step back this fall. 

8. Tyrod Taylor: Houston Texans

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Whether or not the Houston Texans decide to trade Deshaun Watson, they still need help at quarterback since the previous backup, AJ McCarron, is a pending free agent. 

    Tyrod Taylor is an ideal backup plan.  

    Taylor has a previous working relationship with new Texans head coach David Culley, who served as the veteran's quarterbacks coach during the 2017 campaign with the Buffalo Bills.

    The uncertainty around Watson necessitates a stable secondary option. With 47 career starts in 72 games played, Taylor is a proven commodity capable of leading the offense if Houston does trade Watson. In that scenario, the 31-year-old signal-caller has already served as a bridge and mentor for Baker Mayfield and Justin Herbert. 

    Much like Watson, Taylor's athleticism would help offset a mediocre offensive interior. Culley may even bring aspects of the Baltimore Ravens offense after serving as the team's assistant head coach and passing game coordinator the last two seasons. 

    Bringing in a non-threatening but capable alternative who has an established rapport with the coach would be the type of smart move Houston didn't make during Bill O'Brien's disastrous tenure.