Quarterback play can be sliced and diced in all sorts of ways, as anyone who is even casually familiar with professional football can tell you. But when it comes down to it, to succeed as a team, it is essential for the person throwing the ball to at least be capable of manning the position with a basic level of competence. And it’s often best to have more than one of those players on your roster, to keep the entire season from going off the skids in the event the starting quarterback should be unavailable.
Below, I’ve ranked the five most enviable quarterback situations in the NFL, followed by the five least enviable quarterback situations. As with last year’s list, I took a holistic view of each team’s standing at the game’s most important position, giving more weight to the talent level of the entire depth chart than I did to any individual player. Which is to say the absence of any individual star (or his presence at the bottom of the list) is not an indictment of him as a player. One quick note: For the sake of thoroughness, I did list every quarterback currently rostered by each of the 10 teams below, even though not every quarterback on the depth chart merited individual discussion.
MOST ENVIABLE QB SITUATIONS
Having quarterback-whisperer status is paying big dividends for coach Sean Payton. Last year, Teddy Bridgewater declined a chance to start in Miami for at least one season in favor of returning for another year of backup duty behind Drew Brees. That decision couldn’t have turned out better; Bridgewater parlayed a 5-0 stretch filling in for Brees into a three-year, $63 million contract to start in Carolina. Such success caught the attention of former No. 1 overall pick Jameis Winston, who accepted a below-market offer to try to reinvent himself in New Orleans after flaming out in Tampa. The fact that Winston threw for a league-high 5,109 yards and 33 touchdowns in 2019 shows he can thrive under center. The one thing that has held Winston back is a propensity for turnovers, as evidenced by another category in which he led the league: interceptions (30). The hope is that he’ll become more judicious with the football after working with Payton and watching Brees, who threw roughly half as many picks in the past three seasons combined (17) as Winston piled up in 2019 alone.
Brees remained on top of his game last season, completing 74.3 percent of his throws with a TD-to-INT ratio of 27:4. This also might be the 41-year-old’s last NFL season, however, which opens the door for Winston or Taysom Hill to potentially replace Brees in 2021. Payton and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael have done a brilliant job sprinkling in plays to take advantage of Hill’s running and passing skills without disrupting the flow of the offense. The fact that Hill signed a two-year extension worth $21 million shows how much the team values him and wanted to keep him from being poached by another franchise with a restricted free agent tender.
Dak Prescott drove such a hard bargain during contract negotiations this offseason that Dallas was unable to sign him to a long-term extension, meaning the question of his future with the Cowboys will have to be revisited again after this year’s franchise-tag tender runs out. Whatever happens in 2021, Prescott is in an ideal situation heading into 2020: He’s an outstanding quarterback surrounded by the best overall skill-position cast he’s worked with (Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, Michael Gallup, Blake Jarwin) since entering the NFL four years ago.
Andy Dalton took a discount (one year, $7 million) to play in the part of the country where he lives in the offseason (and where he once starred for TCU), even though it meant shifting to a backup role after starting 133 regular-season games over the past nine years in Cincinnati. I strongly believe Dalton will thrive if given the chance to direct this hyper-loaded Dallas offense. If the contract situation with Prescott becomes untenable down the road, might the Cowboys turn to Dalton instead?
Here’s hoping the third time’s the charm for Baker Mayfield, who will enter Year 3 of his career playing in his third offense under his third NFL head coach coming off a highly disappointing 2019 that contributed to Freddie Kitchens’ firing. Knowing the top-notch work that Mayfield’s newest coach, Kevin Stefanski, did with Case Keenum and Kirk Cousins in Minnesota gives me reason to believe a refocused Mayfield will get back on track in 2020. Keenum is an ideal signing as Mayfield’s backup — the best season of his professional life came in 2017, when Stefanski was his position coach with the Vikings in 2017 and Keenum finished with 22 touchdowns, 7 picks, a 67.6 percent completion rate and an 11-3 record . Keenum can serve as a resource for Mayfield while the former No. 1 overall pick masters the Browns’ system. And should Keenum need to play, I believe he would do a solid job for a Browns team poised to take a leap this season.
The fact that Tua Tagovailoa wore a Ryan Fitzpatrick jersey for his first media appearance of camp speaks volumes about the state of the position in South Florida. There is no question the fifth overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft will have every chance to become the franchise quarterback Miami has desperately sought since Dan Marino’s final season in 1999. But his ascension to the starting lineup might take some time, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic robbing Tagovailoa — who is also coming back from a serious hip injury that prematurely ended his final college season last November — of the adjustment opportunities a standard preseason would have allowed. Enter Fitzpatrick, who will hold down the front-line role he assumed in 2019 until Tagovailoa is ready.
Don’t let Fitzpatrick’s 5-8 record last season fool you. The Dolphins would have been far worse off without him. The 37-year old’s familiarity with new offensive coordinator Chan Gailey from their time together in Buffalo will help the entire unit, and he’ll be able to serve as a sounding board for any questions Tagovailoa might have. Fitzpatrick has embraced his position as a mentor, and he knows part of his job will be to get Tagovailoa to take his place one day. The comfort they’ve both shown discussing this openly is a great indicator that their relationship will be strong. It will be interesting to see whether things go as smoothly in Green Bay between Aaron Rodgers and rookie Jordan Love. Josh Rosen, who remains on the roster, could become a low-level trade target for a team needing a QB.
For the first time since the Raiders drafted him 36th overall in 2014, Derek Carr has to look over his shoulder at a potential replacement. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing if it helps Carr elevate his game. Over the past three seasons, Carr simply hasn’t been the same quarterback who went 12-3 with 28 TDs and six interceptions in 2016. Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Olson is on record saying he wants Carr to become more creative when plays break down and run with the football when warranted. After attempting just 38 throws of 20-plus air yards in 2019 (25th-most in the NFL), Carr should be willing to take more chances downfield, especially with rookie burner Henry Ruggs III being added to the receiver corps.
If Carr can’t give head coach Jon Gruden what he wants in Year 3 of their relationship, Marcus Mariota will have a chance to replace Carr, just as Mariota was bumped by Ryan Tannehill in Tennessee last year. Raiders general manager Mike Mayock said Las Vegas must rebuild Mariota to help him get his confidence back, and Gruden has proven successful doing that throughout his coaching career with quarterbacks like Rich Gannon and Brad Johnson.
LEAST ENVIABLE QB SITUATIONS
The Steelers’ placement here isn’t a reflection of Ben Roethlisberger, who I am optimistic will have a Comeback Player of the Year-caliber season. Rather, it’s about the state of the backups in the event the 38-year-old Roethlisberger loses time to injury again, given that a lack of solid quarterback play sans Roethlisberger last season was the biggest factor in the team’s inability to make the playoffs. Without the luxury of getting to watch preseason games, it’s fair to wonder how much better Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges have become since putting up terrible numbers in 2019 (13:9 TD-to-INT ratio and 6.2 yards per throw for Rudolph; 5:8 TD-to-INT ratio and 6.6 yards per throw for Hodges). Yes, former first-round pick Paxton Lynch is also on the roster, but if he has to play, this team is in big trouble. If Pittsburgh ends up in the same situation it did in 2019, it will be a shame.
With Goff carrying the NFL’s third-highest cap number among quarterbacks ($28.8 million) in 2020 (per Over the Cap), it’s understandable that the Rams would want to go cheap with regards to his backup. But it’s a heavy gamble to proceed with John Wolford, whose only pro experience has come in the Alliance of American Football, as the No. 2, with the other two quarterbacks on the roster being undrafted rookies (Bryce Perkins from Virginia and Josh Love from San Jose State). Considering how competitive the NFC West will be, any significant missed time by Goff could torpedo Los Angeles’ playoff hopes.
After trading Nick Foles to Chicago and eschewing the pursuit of any credible competition at the position, the Jags are clearly in a Gardner Minshew or bust situation in 2020. Mike Glennon, who hasn’t started a game since 2017, was signed as a backup because of his familiarity with the type of offense installed by new coordinator Jay Gruden, having spent 2019 with the Raiders in Jon Gruden’s similar system. Joshua Dobbs remains on the roster, while Jacksonville also invested a sixth-round pick in rookie Jake Luton, who I like coming out of Oregon State but needs more time to develop. At this point, should Minshew be forced to miss time because of injury, none of the team’s QB contingencies are especially attractive. If all goes well, Minshew will improve on his 2019 showing in both stats (60.6 completion percentage, 21:6 TD-to-INT ratio, 91.2 passer rating) and win-loss record (6-6). The Jags could then use some of their 2021 cap space to continue building around the former sixth-round pick. If Minshew doesn’t pan out, they could then turn their efforts to finding the answer at a position that has been disastrous for them throughout the past decade.
Last year, I projected the Titans as the team with the most enviable quarterback situation, and Tennessee’s acquisition of Ryan Tannehill to back up Marcus Mariota worked out well. Tennessee is not in the same position heading into this season. Don’t blame Tannehill, who proved a steal in 2019 and ultimately proved worthy of a sizable investment this offseason in the form of a four-year, $118 million extension. However, should something go wrong with Tannehill, Tennessee won’t simply be able to turn to another former first-rounder to take over as it did a year ago. This time around, the Mariota-Tannehill safety net is gone, with a pair of low-cost options (Trevor Siemian, Logan Woodside) currently set to serve as the next men up.
This position became a nightmare in 2019 after Darnold was sidelined with mono: Trevor Siemian was injured in Week 2 against Cleveland, leaving the team to rely on third-stringer Luke Falk, who was simply overmatched, and New York lost all three games Darnold missed. The depth chart was overhauled this offseason, but even with the additions of veteran Joe Flacco, fourth-round pick James Morgan, David Fales (who has served as a backup under head coach Adam Gase in both Miami and Chicago) and Nick White, it’s hard to say this group is remarkably better than it was last season. This is especially true when you consider Flacco is not expected to fully recover from neck surgery until after the season begins. Even when healthy, the 35-year-old Flacco might not have much left in the tank.
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