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QB market offers little hope, as usual

By now, most are done with their holiday shopping. NFL teams are getting ready to begin theirs.

At least a half dozen, and probably closer to a dozen teams -- Tampa Bay, Tennessee, the New York Jets, Houston, St. Louis, Buffalo, maybe Washington, maybe Chicago, maybe Philadelphia, maybe more -- will be shopping for a new quarterback. The issue is, topflight quarterbacks are rarely available and almost always sold out.

The best ones are the first off the shelf, are treated with care and last for years. That reality leaves the aforementioned teams searching for other solutions this offseason.

This offseason's quarterback searches will be about quantity, not quality. There will be plenty of high-profile quarterbacks, players with starts under their belts and first-round picks on their résumés. There just are not many for teams to build around, as usually is the case.

Maybe the most high-profile available quarterback, if the franchise decides to shop him, will be Chicago's Jay Cutler. His contract, with $31.5 million in guaranteed money remaining on it, is prohibitive. It is why, over the past week, several NFL executives have said it's now possible for Cutler to go from being benched to becoming a first-scenario, test-case trade.

Never has a team had to give up draft-pick compensation to trade a player. But some NFL executives believe that with a team having to absorb that much in guaranteed money, the Bears might have to package a decent draft pick to get another team to take Cutler.

NFL rules dictate that normal compensation must be exchanged between teams, which means a team could surrender a late-round pick to Chicago for Cutler and a better pick. Such a scenario could enrage Bears fans, but to get a team to take on so much guaranteed money that could be used on valuable free agents and contract extensions, the Bears just might have to compensate a team with more than Cutler.

But should Chicago hold on to Cutler, quarterback-needy teams that aren't in position to draft Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota or Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston will have to look to other alternatives.

Here is the list they would be looking at: Tennessee's Jake Locker, Minnesota's Christian Ponder, Philadelphia's Mark Sanchez, Minnesota's Matt Cassel, Washington's Colt McCoy, Houston's Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jacksonville's Chad Henne, the Jets' Michael Vick, Miami's Matt Moore, Cleveland's Brian Hoyer and Houston's Ryan Mallett, who is expected to return to the Texans.

It's more quarterbacks than usual, but there isn't one player who can be counted on to get a team to the next level.

Teams also might be able to trade for Washington's Kirk Cousins, Buffalo's EJ Manuel or the Jets' Geno Smith. And Bills quarterback Kyle Orton can void the last year of his contract, as Cassel did last year, making him a free agent. But he would do that only if he wants to leave Buffalo and thinks there's a team out there willing to pay him more than the $5.5 million he is scheduled to make with the Bills in 2015.

So there's the list, with all its dressing and all its warts. And it comes back to Adam Smith and the laws of capitalism.

It's all about supply and demand. The demand greatly exceeds the supply.

It's why, after Christmas, a good quarterback buy will be hard to find.

Sorting out draft slots: Some teams are trying to lock up playoff spots or seeds. Others are trying to lock up draft slots.

If the season ended today, here's what the early draft order would be:

  1. 1. Titans (2-13) -- home vs. the Colts in Week 17

  2. 2. Buccaneers (2-13) -- home vs. the Saints

  3. 3. Jaguars (3-12) -- at Houston

  4. 4. Jets (3-12) -- at Miami

  5. 5. Raiders (3-12) -- at Denver

  6. (Note: If the Titans and Buccaneers both lose, Tampa Bay will leapfrog Tennessee for the No. 1 pick because of an easier final strength of schedule.)

Each team slated to pick in the top five will be an underdog Sunday. Should Tennessee and Tampa Bay finish with the top two picks, it would not be a surprise to see Mariota and Winston become the top two players picked in next year's draft.

Former Buccaneers general manager and current ESPN analyst Mark Dominik said last week that he believes Mariota and Winston, in no particular order, will be the first two players picked.

There will be plenty of speculation about the Eagles trying to jump up to a high-enough spot to land Mariota. But it's going to be mighty challenging for Philadelphia, which will be picking somewhere in the late teens to early 20s, to get high enough to reunite Mariota with his former Oregon head coach, Chip Kelly.

It is why Sunday's games hold the key not just to playoff seeding but also draft slotting. The Buccaneers and Titans control their own destiny. Lose and they're on top of the first round.

Cowboys' foresight is no joke: What seemed comical in August now seems both practical and possible.

Nearly five months ago, the Cowboys sent season-ticket holders their regular-season tickets along with a sheet of playoff tickets that included tickets to the NFC Championship Game, which the team hadn't appeared in since the 1995 season.

At the time, it was ridiculed. The Cowboys were coming off three straight 8-8 seasons in which they lost the NFC East title on the final Sunday of the season, and they'd gone four straight years without making the playoffs. Yet Dallas was the only NFL team to send its fans playoff tickets.

Cowboys director of corporate communications Brett Daniels said at the time that it was easier for their season-ticket holders to have everything in one package, and it was the team's attempt to be fan-friendly.

Yet "fan-friendly" was viewed at the time as being wildly presumptuous. Now, the Cowboys are NFC East champions and assured of playing at least one playoff game at home. They have become something of a machine.

The Cowboys have scored 35 or more points in three straight games for the first time since 1983. They have 11 wins, their most since 2009. Running back DeMarco Murray needs 29 rushing yards in Sunday's regular-season finale at Washington to break the single-season franchise record that Emmitt Smith set with 1,773 in 1995. That's how good Murray and the Cowboys have been.

And now, no one's laughing about the possibility of the Cowboys hosting or playing in the NFC Championship Game. People are simply wondering whether Dallas can do it.

SCHEF'S SPECIALTIES

Player of the Week: Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. -- Had his name been listed here in any of the previous 11 weeks, it wouldn't have been wrong. With 11 touchdown receptions in 11 games, including six coming in the past three games, Beckham is running away with Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.

Game of the Week: Lions at Packers -- Detroit has its own demons to overcome in this one: The Lions' 22-game losing streak at Lambeau Field -- which dates back to 1992, Brett Favre's first season in Green Bay -- is an NFL record for consecutive road losses against a single opponent.

Upset of the Week: Carolina over Atlanta -- It's a shame someone has to lose this matchup for the NFC South title ... and a shame someone has to win it. Carolina with a real chance to repeat.