Last year’s quarterback market was slim pickings due in large part to the lockout-related CBA rules that limited unrestricted free agents to those players with at least six years of NFL experience. Whereas pure backups and fringe talents such as Bruce Gradkowski and Trent Edwards made this list last May, this year’s market boasts the most riveting story of the offseason: Where will Peyton Manning land?
With Drew Brees and Alex Smith fully expected to return to their respective teams, Manning and Packers backup Matt Flynn are the two big-ticket quarterbacks of the 2012 free agency period. The franchises most in need of a signal-caller are the Redskins, Colts, Dolphins, Seahawks, Browns, Chiefs, and Cardinals. I laid out my QB predictions last week on Twitter, but we’ll go into more detail below.
Evan Silva, Pat Daugherty and I will be rolling out analysis of the offensive skill-position player market throughout this week, touching on all commodities likely to be available as free agents, trade targets, or candidates for release.
Quarterbacks Expected to be Franchise Tagged
Overview: Brees and the Saints have three weeks to come to agreement on a long-term deal before the March 5 deadline for the franchise tag. Although agent Tom Condon has been “baffled” by the slow pace of contract talks, both sides have incentive to avoid the tag. Brees wants to ensure that key free agents such as Marques Colston and LG Carl Nicks remain in the Big Easy. Saving the franchise tag would allow GM Mickey Loomis to apply it to Colston or Nicks if necessary. Whether it’s the tag or a new contract, the reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year is guaranteed to be back with the Saints in 2012.
Quarterback Free Agents
1. Matt Flynn, Packers
In an essentially meaningless season finale, Matt Flynn
and Matthew Stafford
joined Joe Montana, Joe Namath, Y.A. Tittle, and Norm Van Brocklin as the only QBs in history to pass for 475 yards and 5+ touchdowns in a single game. The question is whether Flynn has more in common with those four Hall of Famers or Titans flash-in-the-pan Billy Volek
, who exploded for 492 yards and 4 TDs during a fluky late-season run seven years ago. Drawing comparisons to Kevin Kolb
, Flynn is widely viewed as a cerebral system quarterback with above average mobility to go with a questionable arm. His accuracy, decision-making, and quick feet are ideally suited to a West Coast scheme sharing the same roots as Green Bay’s. With a small sample size average of 365.5 yards and 4.5 TDs in two career starts, Flynn will draw interest even if it’s simply because he’s yet to fail. Availability:
With Jermichael Finley
and C Scott Wells
as priority free agents, the cap-strapped Packers are not expected to follow the Patriots’ tag-and-trade blueprint applied to Matt Cassel
four years ago. GM Ted Thompson’s preference is to save the low-cost tight-end tag for Finley, leaving Flynn to seek a new home in 2012. Dot-connecting leaves the Dolphins as the obvious favorites, as Flynn could follow offensive coordinator Joe Philbin to Miami. The Seahawks and Browns, both employing West Coast offenses, could also be interested. Seattle GM John Schneider cut his teeth under Thompson in Green Bay and is plenty familiar with Flynn’s talent level.Prediction:
Dolphins on a six-year, $49 million contract.
2. Alex Smith
, 49ersScouting Report:
NFL Films analyst Greg Cosell is fond of pointing out that coaching staffs tell us what they think of a player by how he is utilized. While the Jim Harbaugh staff takes offense to Smith’s game-manager reputation, they rarely trusted him to do more than control clock, play keep-away, and make the occasional key throw. Smith earned plenty of leeway with his dramatic fourth-quarter play against the Saints in the playoffs, but the caveat is that he only made a handful of quality throws and often looked skittish in the pocket. Cosell noted that Smith was overly “hesitant and cautious” to let loose on routes that were well executed and throws that were clearly defined in the follow-up loss to the Giants. Despite the impressive comeback season, Smith’s unwillingness to make “stick” throws on third downs and in the red zone remains a concern going forward.Availability:
Niners fans may now insist otherwise, but Smith remains a game-manager best suited to a contender that also boasts elite units on defense and special teams. In other words, he has far more value to San Francisco than any other franchise. Harbaugh insists the organization is unanimously behind Smith going forward, and the quarterback spent last week caddying for his head coach at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am golf tournament. The front office wants to bring Smith back without over-paying, which explains the current holdup. Expect the two sides to hammer out a deal over the next few weeks.Prediction:
49ers on a three-year, $30 million contract.
3. Kyle Orton
, ChiefsScouting Report:
Orton’s trade value was diminished and his leash shortened last summer because NFL teams believe he’s proven to be a mediocre starter, more of a stopgap than a solution. A viable gun-for-hire best suited to an offense stocked with quality receivers and a solid offensive line, Orton’s limitations tend to surface on third downs and red zone -- often a sign of poor arm strength and questionable decision making. Much like Alex Smith
, Orton is solid enough to ride a talented team to the playoffs but not talented enough to get over the hump.Availability:
The Chiefs reportedly maintain an interest in bringing the veteran back as competition for an underwhelming Matt Cassel
. With the Kansas City brass silently cheering for Cassel to finally emerge as a franchise quarterback, however, Orton’s best chance at immediate playing time may be in Jacksonville. New coach Mike Mularkey and OC Bob Bradkowski are seeking a mentor to enable Blaine Gabbert
, clearly not ready for prime time, to sit and learn for a while. From a financial point of view, Orton should have accepted the $27 million extension the Dolphins offered
as part of a trade with Denver last summer. Prediction:
Jaguars on a two-year, $13.5 million contract.
4. Chad Henne
, DolphinsScouting Report:
Henne enters free agency with both health and ability concerns. Coming off season-ending left shoulder surgery, Henne never got a chance in 2011 to answer holdover doubts about down-field accuracy, red-zone efficiency, pocket presence, intangibles, and game-to-game consistency. Previous reports have suggested Henne’s weaknesses were stark enough for Bill Parcells and ex-coordinator Dan Henning to throw in the towel on his development. On a positive note, Henne is one of the few available quarterbacks with the physical tools to succeed long-term if he lands with a coaching staff that can hew that raw talent.Availability:
Despite the big arm and occasional flashes of production, Henne closes out his disappointing four-year Dolphins run with 13-18 record. Matt Moore
is already rostered as a cost-effective insurance policy, and owner Stephen Ross and GM Jeff Ireland are on the warpath for a franchise QB this offseason. Henne could follow new coordinator Tony Sparano to the Jets in case Mark Sanchez
regresses for a second consecutive season.Prediction:
Jets on a two-year, $9 million contract.
5. Jason Campbell
, RaidersScouting Report:
Sporting strong pocket composure, a long delivery, and sub-optimal anticipation, Campbell requires a dominant rushing attack to succeed with consistency. Although he earned respect as a team leader and executed Hue Jackson’s offense by staying composed and avoiding turnovers, Campbell was less effective down field than Carson Palmer
despite a stronger arm. A solid, albeit unspectacular NFL starter, Campbell will have to compete for a starting job in 2012.Availability:
Campbell can’t return to Oakland because he would reportedly become a “polarizing
” force among a wide receiver corps that viewed him as an offensive leader prior to the Carson Palmer
trade. For the first time in a half-decade, Campbell will not go into training camp with a starting job all but locked up. His best bet may be to re-join QBs coach Jim Zorn in Kansas City as competition for Matt Cassel
Chiefs on a two-year, $9 million contract.
6. Vince Young
, EaglesScouting Report:
Due to questions about his leadership, ability to handle adversity, and commitment level, Young was forced to accept a backup job with the Eagles last summer. While Young is indeed a rare athlete with the ability to make plays down field and out of the pocket, his passing consistency is inhibited by poor awareness and decision-making. More of a read-and-react passer as opposed to an anticipator, Young would ideally be supported by a strong rushing attack. After eight picks in 12 quarters as Michael Vick
’s fill-in, V.Y. is likely to receive a chilly reception on the open market. Availability:
If not for Young’s four-interception performance versus Seattle in a deflating December 1 loss, we could be talking about the Eagles -- not the Giants -- as Super Bowl champions. After helping Philly to the NFL’s worst percentage of aimed throws intercepted
, V.Y. has run his course in Philadelphia. Young could make for an interesting alternative to Tim Tebow
should the Broncos staff continue the transition to an unconventional offense. Prediction:
Broncos on a one-year, $4 million contract.
7. David Garrard
, JaguarsScouting Report:
Another erratic passer best utilized as a game manager supported by a consistently productive ground attack, Garrard sat out the entire 2011 season following back surgery and a release by the Jags. Although Garrard may have appeal as a proven starter with career-highs in touchdowns and completion percentage the last time he played, that is offset by his age (34), commitment concerns, and chronic back woes. He should consider himself lucky to land a backup job with the opportunity to take over in-season.Availability:
Garrard sat out the entire 2011 season to recover from back surgery after the Jaguars unceremoniously dumped him just prior to opening day. Although he faces commitment questions at age 34, Garrard expects to be 100 percent healthy by the time post-draft OTAs kick off in May. The Bears are in obvious need of a veteran backup after last year’s Caleb Hanie
debacle. New coordinator Mike Tice was on staff with Jacksonville when Garrard broke into the league a decade ago.Prediction:
Bears on a non-guaranteed one-year, $3 million contract.
8. Rex Grossman
, RedskinsScouting Report:
Grossman came as advertised in 2011: Mind-boggling carelessness with the football, erratic accuracy, poor pocket presence, and yet the ability to consistently move the offense between the 20s. As Tony Kornheiser is fond of pointing out, Grossman is the master of the pick-six and inventor of the fumble-six. It’s his move; he’s going to use it. His primary assets are a willingness to take chances down the field and an intimate knowledge of the Shanahans’ offense. Availability:
The nine-year veteran hopes to return
to the Redskins after saving the offense from John Beck
’s ineptitude down the stretch. Grossman may be the league’s most turnover-prone quarterback, but he has the advantage of mastering the Shanahan’s offense. Expect Grossman to return as a possible “bridge” to the next franchise QB, perhaps after the Redskins trade up to select Baylor’s Robert Griffin III
Redskins on a one-year, $2 million contract.
9. Shaun Hill
, LionsScouting Report:
The ideal backup, Hill offers the experience, savvy, and game management skills to succeed while lacking starter-level arm strength. He’s rendered useless as strictly an underneath passer when defenses take away the second level. Willing to stand in the pocket and take hits, Hill has been forced to play through significant injuries in the past. While Hill’s production has been heavily skewed as a garbage-time compiler, it’s worth noting his respectable career 84.7 passer rating and 39-to-23 TD:INT ratio.Availability:
The Lions have made it clear to Hill that they want him back as Stafford’s caddy, and the interest is mutual. In fact, the 32-year-old might even take a “slight discount
” to ensure that it happens. Look for Hill to return to Motor City as one of the league’s top backups in 2012. Prediction:
Lions on a three-year, $9 million contract.
10. Donovan McNabb
, VikingsScouting Report:
Never known for being especially accurate, McNabb began to struggle with mobility, arm strength, and mechanics
in Minnesota last season. Benched by three teams in three seasons, McNabb continues to face persistent questions about his conditioning, commitment level, and ability to master a new offense in timely fashion. Under the delusion that he remains a top-flight NFL starter, McNabb doesn’t fit the requirements of a good soldier who will hold the clipboard in a backup role. Availability:
McNabb has been eminently available since gaining his release from Minnesota on December 1, but he’s been left without a dancing partner. Believing he can help at least three teams right now, the 35-year-old has no plans to retire
in favor of a broadcasting career. Unless Andy Reid leaves the door open to return as Michael Vick
’s backup, McNabb may just go unsigned. Prediction:
Eagles on a two-year, $8 million contract.More Quarterback Free Agents: Dennis Dixon
, Josh Johnson
, Drew Stanton
, Byron Leftwich
, Charlie Whitehurst
, Brady Quinn
, Sage Rosenfels
, Chris Redman
, Caleb Hanie
, David Carr
, Dan Orlovsky
, A.J. Feeley
, Derek Anderson
, Kellen Clemens
, Kyle Boller
, Mark Brunell
, Chad Pennington
, Luke McCown
, Josh McCown
, Charlie Batch
, Jake Delhomme
, J.P. Losman
, Jeff Garcia