Most years, NFL organizations looking for an above-average starting quarterback in free agency are wasting their time. Teams can often find a competent backup or may even stumble into a passer who can put together a stretch of effective play in a small sample, as the Bears did with Josh McCown in 2013, but if they're looking for a legitimate contributor, they're almost always hoping against hope.
Think about the 2015 free-agent class, a group that might have lost its most compelling option when Jake Locker retired. That's damning enough. The highest-ceiling passer was likely Ryan Mallett, who promptly flamed out of Houston. The most successful finds were Tyrod Taylor, whom the league wrote off so significantly that he had to sign what amounted to a two-year deal for close to the veterans minimum, and Brian Hoyer, who was benched for Mallett early in the year before regaining the job and spectacularly collapsing during a playoff loss to the Chiefs. Even the success stories hold little predictive value.
Hoyer and Taylor are two of just three projected 2016 starting quarterbacks who were acquired via unrestricted veteran free agency. That doesn't include Tony Romo, who was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Cowboys, nor does it include a number of passers who are about to hit the market in March and could very well expect to win starting jobs. In general, the vast majority of starting quarterbacks were either drafted by their teams or acquired via trades.
That makes sense. There's almost never a reason for a team to let a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback hit unrestricted free agency. It often takes a confluence of events that are unlikely to occur. Take Drew Brees, who struggled early in his career just long enough for the Chargers to snap up Philip Rivers. After his breakout, Brees suffered a torn labrum just before hitting free agency, eliminating the possibility of the Chargers franchising and trading their star quarterback. Or consider Peyton Manning, who left his longtime digs in Indianapolis after his neck injury when the Colts were about to use the first overall pick on Andrew Luck. Teams are loath to get rid of any viable quarterback with a pulse.
With the salary cap steadily rising, there hasn't been a deep free-agent market for quarterbacks in years. The closest case might be 2012, when the cap mostly stayed flat after the lockout. That crop included a number of passers who held some potential, albeit with obvious flaws. Manning was released into the pool amid worries that he wouldn't be the same quarterback. Alex Smith was coming off his breakout season with the 49ers, but it was after years of mediocrity and only one season after he had been benched for David Carr. And Matt Flynn was the high-upside option, having thrown for 10 touchdowns against two picks in his two career starts, including a six-touchdown game against the Lions just before hitting free agency. You could make a case that there were three reasonably interesting quarterback options with short- and long-term upside in the market that year.
As weird as it might seem, the 2016 market actually offers the deepest, most compelling group of options we've seen since then, and arguably in any class over the past decade. There are no sure things in this year's group, but then again, none of the quarterbacks in that 2012 class were sure things, either. Brees wasn't a sure thing, to which the Dolphins and their abandoned pursuit can infamously attest. There is virtually never a chance to turn around your franchise and sign an above-average quarterback in the prime of his career in free agency. This year, there are several quarterbacks who would qualify for that description if things break right, and a number of interesting darts to fire as secondary options.
And that all assumes that the most compelling option, Kirk Cousins, isn't available. Cousins is likely to be franchised by Washington general manager Scot McCloughan if he fails to come to terms with the organization on a long-term contract extension. The problem for Cousins' side, paradoxically, is that he has become too valuable in a short period of time. Washington could franchise him on a one-year deal that is going to come in right around $19 million, when the league calculates its franchise-tag numbers. The going rate for Cousins on a long-term deal, at this point, would likely be in excess of $20 million per year with at least two and possible three years guaranteed. It doesn't make sense for Washington to give Cousins a long-term contract unless they get a discount, given that they could even franchise him again in 2016 for about $22.8 million.
It seems premature to anoint Cousins as a superstar -- it was only a year ago that he was third fiddle behind Robert Griffin III and Colt McCoy -- but at the same time, Cousins was one of the best quarterbacks in football last season. From Week 7 on, Cousins led the league in completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdown-to-interception ratio and passer rating while finishing fifth in Total QBR. That's a 10-game sample, but it's from a player who has started only 25 professional games. Even if you throw in those 15 middling starts with which Cousins started his career, he's well above average in every statistical category except for interception rate, where his 3.2 percent rate is merely mediocre (as opposed to the horrific 4.7 percent rate he held before 2015).
If Cousins is gone, the most promising quarterback on the market probably becomes Denver's Brock Osweiler, who might also fail to reach the market. The Broncos can't franchise Osweiler with Von Miller and Malik Jackson looming as free agents, but it's entirely possible that they have a hush-hush deal with Osweiler to be revealed when they move on from Peyton Manning and free up $19 million in cap space. Denver general manager John Elway would rather Manning retire than cut the future Hall of Famer, but one of those two things will happen. At this point, it's more a question of whether the Broncos will use the newly created cap space to retain as many of their defensive weapons as possible (and find a new quarterback elsewhere this offseason) or re-sign Osweiler and hope that Wade Phillips continues to work his magic with some new defensive pieces.
Osweiler would be a fascinating free agent if he does make it to the market. The massive 25-year-old showed promise over his first seven professional starts, but as I wrote about in previewing the Texans' offseason, his numbers are shockingly similar to those of Brian Hoyer through Hoyer's first eight starts. Osweiler is more projectable than Hoyer, given that he has the sort of prototypical NFL size and arm strength teams fall in love with around this time, but he spent 2015 playing for a team with a dominant defense and great receivers.
Osweiler looked cool and collected during his run, but would he be quite as unflappable under center for, say, the Rams? The old adage is that it takes only one team to fall in love with a player, and somebody has surely already fallen in love with Osweiler. And while Osweiler might prefer to return to the Broncos, would Denver be able to compete if a quarterback-needy team guaranteed Osweiler $15 million over two years on a three- or four-year deal? That's why it's so important for the Broncos to lock up Osweiler before he hits the free market.
A classic example of what happens when one team falls in love with the wrong quarterback popped up in Philadelphia last year, when Chip Kelly decided that Sam Bradford was his quarterback of the future and dealt Nick Foles and meaningful draft assets (amounting to roughly the 36th overall pick, per Chase Stuart's draft value chart) to acquire the former first overall pick from St. Louis.
Bradford failed to develop in Philadelphia, posting the league's third-worst Total QBR (41.8) while continuing to struggle throwing downfield. Bradford is the inverse of Cousins, a player whose only statistical strength is his propensity for avoiding interceptions, and even that's driven by how short his typical pass travels in the air. Over his career, Bradford's typical throw has gone 7.4 yards in the air; the only regular quarterback who has thrown shorter passes over that timespan is Alex Smith.
And yet, teams who are desperate for a quarterback would kill for the chance to acquire Bradford at the expense of cycling through the Hoyers of the world. Bradford's ceiling as a quarterback, given his accuracy and arm strength, is far higher than it would be for Hoyer. There have been stretches where Bradford looked as though he could be the man -- he carried a pretty middling Rams offense as a rookie, played well during an abbreviated seven-game stretch in 2013 before his first ACL tear, and was a league-average quarterback during the last month of the 2015 campaign.
It would be tough for the Eagles to franchise Bradford, given their short-term cap situation after Kelly's spending spree, but Bradford is going to get significant money from somebody, likely in excess of $10 million for 2016 alone. That sounds like a lot, but even a $10 million figure would see Bradford fall somewhere around 24th or so in terms of cap hit among quarterbacks, once the others on the market sign. That's the going rate for a below-average starting passer, and Bradford is still perceived as having enough upside to justify a larger figure.
Upside, of course, is the buzzword when teams think about taking a shot on this free-agent class's most polarizing quarterback. It has been three years since Robert Griffin mesmerized the NFL during a spectacular rookie season, and while RG III has been alternately injured and ineffective since, it's worth remembering just how good he was in 2012. He led the league in yards per attempt and posted the lowest interception rate in football in an offense where the top receivers were Josh Morgan, Santana Moss and half a year of Pierre Garcon. All of that is without getting into his ability as a runner, and while his running helped create throwing lanes, the league didn't perceive him to be a gimmick quarterback before the 2012 draft. Adjust for historical context and there just aren't many players who were as good as Griffin, even for a year, who were flashes in the pan.
As dead and buried as Griffin's career seems to be at the moment, it's also worth remembering that he has spent the past three years as the scapegoat for what was wrong with an oft-dysfunctional franchise. Nobody could benefit more from a change of scenery. And his numbers really haven't been that bad -- even if you ignore that 2012 season, Griffin's 2013-2014 stats were roughly similar to those of Ryan Tannehill, and Tannehill got a four-year, $77-million extension off those numbers.
No, Griffin probably won't be the quarterback he was in 2012 ever again. The possibility that he could recapture some of that magic makes him a more tantalizing option than your typical fourth-choice quarterback in free agency, which is where he'll be when Washington cuts him in early March. Compare his promise to somebody like Mallett, who would have been in a similar position a year ago. Griffin may not get a clear path to a starting gig, but I threw out the Bills and Rams as plausible landing spots, and there are a bunch of teams around the league who would have to at least consider the possibility of giving Griffin more than typical backup money -- $7 million or so on a one-year deal -- to see if there's something left in the former Baylor star.
Even the options without the sort of aforementioned upside are better than usual. Ryan Fitzpatrick is a popularly bought product in the free-agent market, having played for a different team in each of the past four seasons, but he's coming off his best professional season and likely to get a healthy raise from the $3.3 million he cleared with the Jets last year. Chase Daniel is a virtual unknown, given that he has thrown just 77 career passes over his seven years in the league, but it seems like a foregone conclusion that he'll end up with the inside track to the starting job in Philadelphia, where Daniel's former offensive coordinator, Doug Pederson, is the new head coach. And there's the possibility that Peyton Manning might decide to play another year; it wouldn't inspire a bidding war in the way that Manning's last foray into free agency did several years ago, but Manning will get to play somewhere in 2016 if he wants.
And for all those quarterbacks, there are about six starting jobs to go around, if you assume that Washington re-signs Cousins and Denver lets both Manning and Osweiler hit the market. The Broncos, Browns, Eagles, Jets, Rams and Texans would be in line for a new starting quarterback this offseason, barring some unexpected trade. Mel Kiper Jr.'s most recent mock draft has the Browns nabbing North Dakota State's Carson Wentz at No. 2, with the Cowboys surprisingly taking Jared Goff at No. 4. It's entirely possible that two of those six quarterback-needy teams end up using their first-round pick on rookies, which wouldn't preclude them from adding a veteran like Fitzpatrick or Daniel as a short-term starter.
There will be more jobs to go around than there will be viable quarterbacks waiting to fill them, as is always the case. Ideally, teams wouldn't have to go into free agency and pay market value for players like Cousins or Osweiler or Griffin, guys who have unquestionable talent and serious question marks to go with them. Look at the past, though, and you understand why teams take that risk. The 3-13 Saints took a shot on Brees in 2006 and it turned around their franchise immediately; they've gone 94-66 and won a Super Bowl since. The Dolphins passed on Brees, went with Daunte Culpepper, and have subsequently gone 67-93 without winning a single playoff game. The best way -- maybe the only way -- to turn around your franchise overnight is to upgrade at quarterback, and the path of least resistance to a new quarterback is free agency. When all it costs is money, you better believe that teams will be breaking out their checkbook next month.