This has been a year of quarterback turnover in the NFL. Thanks to injuries, rising young passers, and outright poor play, 46 different players have thrown at least 25 passes through the first nine weeks of the 2019 season, including non-stars like Devlin Hodges, Luke Falk, and Matt Moore.
2020 will bring more turnover. While much of that will come from a hearty crop of rookie quarterbacks like Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert, and Joe Burrow, let’s ignore those guys for now. Instead, let’s focus on the veteran help who could punch up the middle-class teams that won’t have the opportunity to break through the tank-tastic upper crust of next year’s NFL Draft.
Several veteran quarterbacks who made starts in 2019 will be available for interested teams in 2020. Some will revive their NFL value with big performances in new settings. Others will fall into a pattern of short-term contracts and annual relocations — i.e. the Matt Cassel plan.
Let’s break down next year’s crop of likely-to-move quarterbacks by how desirable they’ll be should they hit the open market. We’ll take out the free agents-to-be with little to no chance of moving — Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Philip Rivers foremost among them — and backups who won’t compete for a starting job, like Chad Henne, Trevor Siemian, and Mike Glennon.
Then we’ll break the veteran talent pool into two parts: free agent acquisitions and trade targets.
2020 free agents (and likely free agents)
Bridgewater bet on himself (and his surroundings) when he opted to turn down a two-year deal with the Dolphins in order to sign a one-year, $7.5 million contract and be the league’s highest-paid backup in New Orleans. That wager paid off.
While the Dolphins were slogging their way to the AFC’s basement and trading off talent, Bridgewater returned to the starting lineup for a meaningful, non-Week 17 game for the first time since 2015. Drew Brees’ torn thumb ligament created a massive opportunity for Bridgewater, who needed some time to shake off years’ worth of rust but eventually won all five of his starts.
Bridgewater was hugely efficient as a starter, completing nearly 70 percent of his passes for 7.9 adjusted yards per attempt and a 9:2 TD:INT ratio in that stretch. He’s been better as a Saint in limited action than he was as a Viking before the 2016 knee injury that threatened to take his career. He’ll be 27 years old in 2020 and ready for a starting role somewhere — unless the Saints can talk him into another year in New Orleans as Brees’ successor.
Dalton’s been good enough to push players like Auden Tate and Alex Erickson to 100+ receiving yard performances in 2019, but hasn’t been good enough to will Cincinnati to a win. That sent him to the bench (on his birthday, no less) and gave the reins to rookie Ryan Finley. None of the $17.5 million due to Dalton in the final year of his contract is guaranteed, and he’s an obvious candidate to be released by the only NFL team he’s ever known.
Throughout his 0-8 start, Dalton was handicapped by a lack of A.J. Green, a nonexistent running game, and some terrible blocking. And though he was throwing for a career-high 281 yards per game, that was the result of an awful team trying to claw back from big deficits; his 6.7 yards per pass is his least efficient number since his rookie campaign.
But the three-time Pro Bowler, for all his warts (and 0-4 postseason record) still brings a reliable presence behind center. He deserves a shot to prove his inability to exist beyond Wild Card Weekend was truly a Bengals problem and not a Dalton one. The only issue is that he’ll be 33 years old next season and competing for a job in a crowded marketplace.
The man who came one pick after Jameis Winston in the 2015 NFL Draft lost his starting job to another quarterback on this list, and it appears his time with the Titans is all but over. Mariota struggled with nagging injuries and consistency issues throughout his first five seasons in the league. That kept him from ever reaching his Heisman-winning top gear.
Oddly enough, the Titans seemed to win or lose independent of his overall play behind center. Tennessee’s most successful season under Mariota also happened to be, statistically, the quarterback’s worst as a pro. His 13:15 TD:INT ratio and 79.3 passer rating in 2017 were each career worsts, but he still managed to pilot his team to a 9-7 record and an upset win over the Chiefs in the Wild Card Round. In his best season (2016), his Titans went ... 9-7, though this time without a playoff berth to finish the year.
Mariota’s inability to spark his offense led to his benching in 2019, but he remains a useful mobile quarterback. Still, he’s thrown for 300+ yards in only 12.5 percent of his games (eight of 64). Next season will give him a chance to prove it was the Titans who had a nine-win ceiling — not Mariota.
Since Winston entered the NFL, 2015’s top pick has been the league’s most turnover-prone quarterback. He’s only finished one of those seasons with a winning record (9-7 in 2016), which means he’s spent his budding career eating way more Ls than Ws.
He’s an impact player when he’s on, but his solid 7.9 yards per attempt over the past three seasons is every bit as attributable to having a well-stocked receiving corps (led by Mike Evans) than it is to his high-risk, high-reward philosophy. Bruce Arians’ arrival in Tampa hasn’t done much to change Winston’s ways — he’s the fully formed version of himself at this point.
The Buccaneers haven’t ranked higher than 24th in the league in yards gained per rush in any of the last four seasons, putting an extra onus on Winston to force his spots downfield. There’s a chance throwing him behind a more stable offensive line and an above-average running game could give him more space to thrive.
5. Ryan Tannehill, Titans
The former Dolphins quarterback (and genesis of the Miami Miracle) has assumed the throne in Nashville. He’s been good enough to keep Mariota on the sideline through the second half of the season — in fact, he’s been good enough that he’s currently on pace for his best year as a pro.
That pace is almost certainly unsustainable, however. Despite winning his first two starts as a Titan, cracks began to show the first time he faced a contending team in Week 9. The Panthers held him scoreless in the first half and then let him rack up yards in a second half where Tennessee never trailed by fewer than 10 points. Those sort of empty calories are a Tannehill specialty; even though they don’t show up in the box score, they’re made very apparent by the fact Tannehill has never won more than eight games in a season as a starter.
On the plus side, he’s been a boon for Titans targets like A.J. Brown and Jonnu Smith and could be a better-than-expected placeholder for a rebuilding team flush with young talent. Or he could be the injury-prone QB who missed 24 games between 2016 and 2018.
6. Case Keenum, Washington
Keenum thrived with solid blocking and a stacked receiving corps in his breakout 2017 in Minnesota. Then he was tasked with helming much worse teams in Denver and Washington and has predictably struggled. While the salad days of his Viking tenure — one where he cropped up as a top 10-ish quarterback — are likely irreplaceable, he’s been better than his losing record in Washington suggests.
Despite holes across the lineup and an offensive line that has kept him from gaining any semblance of consistency in the pocket, he completed more than 67 percent of his passes in seven games and threw more than twice as many touchdowns than interceptions. Then injuries and Washington’s eagerness to introduce rookie Dwayne Haskins to his bleak future shuffled him out of the lineup.
Granted, that’s because he’s throwing fewer deep balls — only 15 passes of 20+ yards on the season through Week 9, well behind the 56 he threw in his Minnesota breakthrough. Even so, he’s been better in Washington than he was as a Bronco. At the very least, that should make him a high-leverage backup come 2020.
Either way, he’s not adding much to an NFL offense at age 39. He’s probably worth signing if you think you’re going to run into the Patriots in the playoffs, though.
Trade target wild cards
1. Cam Newton, Panthers
Newton’s 2019 regular season is over after he was placed on injured reserve due to the Lisfranc injury that has kept him from the field for all but two games. If the Panthers are enamored with backup Kyle Allen — who has piloted the team into the NFC Wild Card hunt in Newton’s absence — they can move on from the most prolific passer in franchise history without any guaranteed money remaining on the final year of his contract.
Trading Newton doesn’t make a ton of sense. His 2020 salary is reasonable and he’s still, you know, Cam Newton. But if team owner David Tepper, who purchased the team in 2018, decides to shake things up, the 2015 NFL MVP could wind up on the trading block. It’s unlikely, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Allen’s passer rating since 2018 is better than Newton’s 90.5, and the veteran quarterback’s last eight games as a Panther have all ended in defeat — though he was dealing with a variety of different nagging injuries in each of them.
What are you getting from 2020 Newton? Good question! It’s doubtful he’ll get back to that MVP form, but even 85 percent of that performance would make him an above-average starter opposing defenses would have headaches containing. If a team out there can give him the blocking and wide receivers the Panthers have struggled to procure, it could lead to a renaissance for the dual-threat QB.
Foles threw only eight passes in the first half of the season thanks to a broken collarbone, but regained his starting role in Jacksonville once he came off injured reserve. If he plays up to expectations, he’ll be nigh untouchable for the Jags, who are counting on him to be the missing piece of their “legit contenders” puzzle.
But let’s say he doesn’t. Let’s say he plays roughly as well as rookie sixth-round pick Gardner Minshew II did in his eight-game stretch as the team’s top passer. There’s a chance the younger QB gets handed the reins while the Jaguars’ front office works out a way to unload a player it gave $50 million guaranteed in 2018.
The biggest caveat with Foles is his inconsistency, especially when he’s not wearing an Eagles uniform. And if he’s on the trading block in 2020, it’s safe to say that’s been an issue again over the last half of 2019. But hey, he’s a Super Bowl MVP.
Miami’s massive rebuild has sold off veteran talent for draft assets, and the crown jewel of that haul will be the quarterback it likely takes with what promises to be a top-five pick. That young passer is going to need a stable backup as he acclimates to the league. That’s likely Fitzpatrick — the man whose three-touchdown game against the Jets led his team to its first win of 2019 — but Rosen could get a chance to restore his value in South Beach to start 2020.
The more likely scenario, however, is that Rosen gets traded in the offseason after struggling with one of the league’s worst teams for the second straight year. While he’s shown flashes of capability behind slipshod offensive lines and hollowed-out WR depth charts, the former UCLA QB has been mostly regrettable as a pro. His career stats through 1.5 seasons: a 54.8 percent completion rate, 12 touchdowns and 19 interceptions in 19 games, and a gruesome 4.4 adjusted yards per pass.
But! He’s only 22 years old and still moldable. Some team will believe it has the right environment to foster his talent.
The Broncos will have to carve out more than $50 million in salary cap space to keep Flacco in orange the next two years, which is ... not ideal. They’d eat more than $13 million in dead cap if they released him before next season, which makes him pretty tough to walk away from outright. That’s so, so much money for a player who made four starts in the month of October, threw one touchdown pass, and landed on injured reserve to kick off November.
Flacco is likely untradeable at that number. But that’s what it looked like in 2019, and John Elway threw some Day 3 picks at the Ravens anyway. Denver’s got two young QBs on the roster it can turn to in Brandon Allen and Drew Lock. If anyone comes calling on Flacco — and again, that’s pretty unlikely — the Broncos will listen.