THE SUPER BOWL JUST PASSED, BUT ALREADY NFL FREE AGENCY OPENS IN UNDER THREE WEEKS ON MARCH 16. The NFL works hard to dominate the calendar all year round. Did you enjoy those couple weeks of XFL talk? It’s over now. It’s only February and already NFL Combine talk has taken over, with loud clamor over Joe Burrow’s hand measurements.
After the Combine comes free agency, and this year’s free agency looks more interesting than ever thanks to an intriguing crop of quarterbacks and over a third of the league’s teams potentially looking for a new quarterback. Change is fascinating because change means unknown, and unknown means hope for teams looking for something new.
So what are we to make of the Great NFL Quarterback Carousel of 2020?
Note: not every option below is a free agent, but let’s consider the offseason as a whole…
11 TEAMS THAT MAY START A NEW QB
You never really know what NFL teams will do, but these 21 teams look committed to a starting quarterback heading into next season:
Chiefs, Eagles, Falcons, Packers, Ravens, Seahawks, Texans
Committed to young quarterbacks
Bears, Bills, Broncos, Browns, Cardinals, Giants, Jets, Redskins
Probably sticking with their starter at least one more year
Lions, Rams, Raiders, Steelers, Vikings, 49ers
That doesn’t mean none of those teams above will add a quarterback this offseason. The Bears will probably sign a veteran to push Mitch Trubisky. The Steelers could make a move if Ben Roethlisberger retires. The Vikings or 49ers could decide to move on early from Kirk Cousins or Jimmy Garoppolo. Jon Gruden could do Gruden things. But barring a real surprise, we know which quarterback those 21 teams will start on Opening Day this fall.
So that leaves 11 teams whose starting quarterback is, at least theoretically, up for grabs heading into the new season. In alphabetical order:
Ian Rapoport reports that the Panthers are keeping Cam Newton, but I’m not convinced. This feels like a restart in Carolina under new head coach Matt Rhule, especially with Luke Kuechly and Greg Olsen moving on. It only makes sense for Newton to join them, but it also makes sense for Carolina to hope he looks healthy in time to net them a draft pick in a trade.
Speaking of draft picks, Cincinnati is at #1. Paging Joe Burrow…
It’s time to pay the piper in Dallas. Ezekiel Elliott got his; are Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper next? By all accounts, they should be, and it would be a shock to see Dak anywhere else next fall. But it’s Jerry Jones, so you never know.
Andrew Luck ain’t walking through that door, and Jacoby Brissett looks like a system guy that can’t elevate a team. The Colts have a great line, nice weapons, young talent, and cap room. They’re a quarterback away from being a Super Bowl contender.
It feels like the Nick Foles experiment is over, and the Jags don’t seem sold on Gardner Minshew. Expect at least one name to come in and compete.
Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers mutually parting ways with Philip Rivers, and it seems unlikely they’ll head into the season with just Tyrod Taylor and Easton Stick (shouts NDSU!!). L.A. is sunny and warm, and the Chargers are loaded with talent and were a Super Bowl contender before all the injuries hit this year.
The Fish Tank went far better than expected, but it doesn’t make any sense for Ryan Fitzpatrick to be the Opening Day starter unless he’s keeping the seat warm for Tua Tagovailoa or another rookie.
New England Patriots
Could it really happen? It’s not difficult to see Tom Brady retiring, but it’s impossible to imagine him in another uniform, or Bill Belichick heading into a Patriots season with another signal caller, for that matter. But these are two very proud men. What if they decide they need to do it themselves?
New Orleans Saints
Now that Drew Brees has decided to return for one more season, he’s the obvious starter, but you never know — the Saints have danced with Taysom Hill and Teddy Bridgewater awhile now and could lose one or both if they wait around too long.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Jameis Winston just had the league’s first 5000–30–30 season, but anyone with eyes knows he’s not anyone’s answer at quarterback in 2020. Tampa has a sneaky good defense and elite receivers. A quarterback that remembers to throw to his own teammates would do wonders.
It’s surely time to move on from Marcus Mariota, but the Titans had a heck of a run with Ryan Tannehill so you figure they’re likely to bring him back for another rodeo. Both quarterbacks are free agents, though.
THE 10 MOST INTERESTING FREE AGENCY QB FITS
Those are the 11 teams that could potentially start the fall with a new quarterback under center. Some teams are more likely than others, and some are certainly more interesting.
So what are the 10 most interesting potential quarterback fits this fall? Let’s count them down in reverse order…
10. Drew Brees to New Orleans
We already know exactly what Brees looks like in New Orleans. On the other hand, what Brees looks like is a perennial Super Bowl contender, and that’s interesting. New Orleans has been a top three or four team several years running and will have as good a chance as anyone to win it all.
Feel free to throw Taysom Hill to New Orleans in as an addendum. There’s no way the Saints can keep Brees, Hill, and Teddy Bridgewater again. Hopefully they don’t need either backup next fall, but keeping Hill would mean they truly believe in him, and that’s interesting somewhere down the line.
9. Joe Burrow to Cincinnati
Go ahead and write it in ink — Joe Burrow will be the Bengals Opening Day starter this fall, and probably in 2021, 2025, and 2030 too. Burrow just completed the greatest college QB season of all time. The Bengals finally have their franchise quarterback and that changes everything. Bye, Andy.
8. Some steady veteran QB to Chicago
This is cheating a bit since the Bears aren’t actually on our list of 11 teams with Mitch Trubisky a near certain Opening Day starter. I’m just not convinced he’s the Closing Day starter, and I’m not sure the Bears are either.
I’m thinking Andy Dalton, Marcus Mariota, or Nick Foles, game managers that play to the level of their team, and that’s exactly why they’re interesting fits. Come Week 3 when Trubisky has two more inexplicable first-half picks, the Bears can turn to a steady veteran hand to lead the way. Why couldn’t a vet lead this talented defense to 10 wins and a playoff berth? It’s so obvious I can only hope (as a Vikings fan) Chicago brass is too dumb to do it.
7. Dak Prescott to Dallas
I’d love to dream about Dak Prescott playing for the Colts or Chargers, but even Jerry Jones isn’t dumb enough to walk away from Dak without a backup plan. Maybe the Cowboys struggle to find the right contract extension, but even if they do, they’re a mortal lock to use the franchise tag on Prescott.
But it’s that certainty that makes this interesting. The Cowboys were never walking away from Ezekiel Elliott either, and he milked it for every penny, missing training camp and the start of the season before landing a monster contract. You can’t do that dance with your franchise quarterback — but you also can’t cripple your team by paying a good-not-great QB $40 million a year bidding against yourself. Is there a happy medium?
6. Both Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota to any team
I think this was floated by Robert Mays on The Ringer NFL Podcast. Winston and Mariota were the first two picks of the 2015 NFL Draft. Neither has worked out for franchises that expected so much, and it’s hard to see either of them having a long-term future for the teams that drafted them.
But wouldn’t it be fascinating to see a team just… play both of them?
Jameis gets the start. If it’s a good Jameis day, you just ride the hot hand. But the moment he throws his second interception or stares down a pick-6, you pull the wildcard and put in Mariota’s steady hand. Fall behind with Mariota and you put in Winston to mix things up. Take a big lead with Jameis and you plug in Mariota to calmly finish things out.
Jameis is all flash and no mental side. Mariota has the mental down but is unwilling to take chances. Grab both and it’s a real Jack Sprat situation.
Sorry, LSU — NDSU Is Already College Football’s Finest
North Dakota State won its eighth national championship in nine seasons, just another win for college football’s finest…
5. Jameis Winston to the Chargers
Fine, that one will never happen, so let’s settle for Winston playing for the Chargers. They have good coaches that could put Jameis in a spot to succeed, and he’d have a whole cadre of weapons led by Melvin Gordon, Keenan Allen, and Hunter Henry.
The Chargers are a QB and an offensive line short of a real Super Bowl team — well, that and a team doctor. They actually make a lot of sense for Tom Brady, in theory. They badly need to convince a fan base to care, and old dudes like warmth and sunshine. But assuming Brady isn’t an option, nor Dak or Brees, nor obviously Rivers, then Winston might be the next best option.
Think of it this way — remember how incredible the Chargers are at giving us that last two minute Sunday afternoon meltdown? Now add in Jameis Winston too, and tell me you’re not entertained.
4. Tua Tagovailoa to Carolina
It doesn’t make sense for Cam Newton to play out the final year of his contract in Carolina. Newton is a fantastic front runner when things are going well but a real sore loser when they’re not. Carolina is rebuilding, and they’re taking the long view bringing in Matt Rhule on a long contract with a lot of latitude to figure things out. It’s tough to see Newton succeeding in that setting, and he’s not really a guy I want around the locker room if we’re not succeeding.
Carolina is a fascinating destination. Rhule has done great things on offense at Baylor, and now he added LSU passing genius coach Joe Brady… you know, the guy that just built Joe Burrow and a national champion offense?
I just want to give Carolina the most upside possible, and Tua Tagovailoa is the most physically gifted quarterback in the draft. The Panthers can be patient with Tua’s injuries and figure out how to use his mobility and big time arm to their advantage. I doubt it has an immediate impact this season, but that was true about Lamar Jackson to Baltimore his rookie year too.
3. Philip Rivers to Indianapolis
Assuming Brees stays in New Orleans, the Colts are the next most talented team in need of a quarterback (yes, ahead of New England). And assuming Brady and Dak also stay put, Philip Rivers is definitely the best quarterback on the market. So let’s give the best available QB to the best team.
Philip Rivers is a future Hall of Famer. He has rough seasons sometimes — heck he had 20 interceptions just this year, which would lead the league most seasons. If he doesn’t have good protection or plays for a struggling team, he has a tendency to force things and take unnecessary risks that lead to big mistakes. But Indianapolis will put him in a position to succeed, one where he can make smart throws to his backs and tight ends and take care of the ball. Rivers has also had a handful of 4500–30–10 type seasons. Give Indy a quarterback that does that, and this team could be a top-5 contender.
2. Cam Newton to Tampa Bay
This is a serious long shot. Newton is under contract one more year, so Carolina would have to decide to trade him and do so to a division rival, and that rival would have to give up enough for it to be worth it.
But doesn’t Cam Newton seem like an awesome fit in Tampa? The Bucs have a terrific defense and a pair of huge, talented receivers. They were sneakily in the playoff race ahead of schedule last year, and a better QB than Jameis Winston could make them this year’s big sleeper.
Newton has a huge arm and has always been most successful with big receivers he can’t overthrow. He would add a running element to this team without needing to be overly reliant on his legs, and Bruce Arians has been a QB guru and helped many guys play their very best under him. I legitimately think a healthy Cam Newton could have an MVP season in Tampa Bay.
If this were the NBA, a Jameis-for-Cam sign-and-trade where Carolina threw in a draft pick would be pretty fascinating. For now, we’ll have to dream.
But even that dream pales in comparison to by far the most interesting potential quarterback decision this offseason…
1. Tom Brady to any team but New England
By far the most interesting shake-up to the 2020 NFL season would be Tom Brady returning to play football but not for the Patriots.
Where would he go? The Chargers or Colts make the most sense among our 11 teams, but who else might decide to throw away their current option if the GOAT were available? Would Jerry Jones walk away from Dak Prescott for a QB he thinks is better? Could Kyle Shanahan dump Jimmy G in hopes of putting his Super Bowl runner-up over the top? Could the Raiders or Vikings make a change?
All those options could be in play. The Chargers and Raiders badly need a face of the franchise to sell tickets, and they offer sunshine and warmth. Dallas is money and prestige, plus protection from playoff weather. The Vikings can offer that plus a terrific defense. San Francisco has all of the above, plus a great coach and a lot of legacy. The Raiders, 49ers, and Chargers all play New England this season, by the way — that matters too.
Is Tom Brady a system quarterback? We know better than to ask that now, but we’ve never seen Brady outside Bill Belichick’s ecosystem, and we’ve never seen any human play quarterback at this level at age 43. Tom Brady in another uniform would be the most interesting thing about the 2020 NFL season.
Well, that and Belichick with another quarterback. We’ve already seen that some. Belichick went 3–1 when Brady was suspended for Deflategate, 10–6 with Matt Cassel when Brady tore his ACL. We already know Belichick is the GOAT coach. But what if he goes 13–3 and wins another Super Bowl with not Brady? Wouldn’t that elevate his legacy one level further?
Who would the Patriots sign? Philip Rivers makes sense, but that’s not as interesting since Rivers is arguably as good as Brady. What if it was someone like Teddy Bridgewater or Marcus Mariota and they suddenly went 13–3 after washing out the rest of their career? What if New England stunned everyone by trading up for Tua Tagovailoa and Belichick unleashed an entirely different offense on the NFL? The possibilities are endless.
Heck, what if New England returns the same team with a different QB and falls apart while Brady wins 12 games elsewhere and is right back in the Super Bowl mix? How much differently would we think about Belichick then?
Brady and Belichick are the GOATs, in part because they’ve made each other so successful. But wouldn’t the most fascinating final chapter of each of their books be finally finding out what either of them looks like without the other?
Only one way to find out… ■