The NFL’s quarterback fabric is tearing with elder statesmen like Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger all in danger of being phased out (Eli Manning vacated his quarterback throne to Daniel Jones around this time last season). Even relative newcomers like Sam Darnold and Gardner Minshew face questions about their long-term staying power. Every position has a shelf life and while QBs tend to last longer than most, a strong incoming crop of signal-callers including anticipated No. 1 pick Trevor Lawrence could significantly alter the league’s quarterback calculus.
Outside a small but firm stable of mainstays—Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson and Josh Allen—the NFL’s quarterback hierarchy is in a constant state of flux, realigning on a near-weekly basis. With uncertainty in high supply, let me be your tour guide as we navigate the league’s ever-evolving QB landscape with an eye toward the future.
Is Drew Brees cooked? That might be a stretch, though the 41-year-old has certainly shown cracks in the armor this year (case in point, his laughable 5.7 average depth of target) with at least one prominent analyst recommending he take a midseason sabbatical to give his arm a breather. The sport’s all-time leader in regular season passing yards, completions and touchdowns should receive a boost from the return of Michael Thomas, who is tentatively due back after the Saints’ bye week (assuming he doesn’t punch any more teammates between now and New Orleans’ next game). But with Taysom Hill getting more run each week and former Heisman winner Jameis Winston staying loose in the on-deck circle, it’s become increasingly clear that this is Brees’ final NFL go-round, whether he’s ready to admit it or not.
With New York sinking further into the abyss under dangerously unqualified head coach Adam Gase (ESPN personality and lifelong Jets fan Mike Greenberg called the team a “laughingstock” in response to this week’s Le’Veon Bell debacle), reality is staring Darnold square in the face. It’s hard to judge Darnold when the very foundation he stands on is crumbling at his feet. Between an anemic supporting cast, a coach whose continued employment remains a mystery and now a multi-week shoulder injury to contend with (Joe Flacco as an NFL starter? In this economy?), the USC product has been the human embodiment of Murphy’s Law, gasping for air in an overflowing well of bad luck. Still, Darnold’s slower-than-expected development has some questioning whether the 23-year-old is worthy of franchise status. With blue-chippers Trevor Lawrence and Trey Lance both headed for the NFL in 2021, Darnold may soon be asked to give up his seat at the QB1 table, going the way of other failed Jets experiments like Mark Sanchez, Geno Smith and Christian Hackenberg.
Every quarterback on the Washington Football Team
Dwayne Haskins, a local talent who played his high school ball in nearby Potomac, Maryland, felt like a good idea at the time, but between his on-field limitations and seeming lack of maturity, it’s evident the former Ohio State standout doesn’t have what it takes to lead an NFL offense. Kyle Allen is a replacement-level talent (even that might be generous) while Alex Smith, coming off one of the most gruesome injuries in recent memory, can’t be counted on as anything more than a locker-room voice and veteran leader. Needless to say, the quarterback to lead Washington into the future isn’t on their roster right now. After prioritizing defense in last year’s draft (Haskins’ former Buckeyes teammate Chase Young was selected second overall), Ron Rivera and company are obligated to address quarterback this time around. Luckily the class of 2021 looks promising with Lawrence, Lance, Justin Fields and Jamie Newman all potential first-round picks.
Between his Tolkien-esque beard and hair-on-fire quarterback stylings, Fitzpatrick continues to be a blast and the perfect bridge to eventual starter Tua Tagovailoa. FitzMagic can absolutely still sling it—he’s exceeded 300 yards passing in three of his last four starts—but at 37, the shrewd veteran knows he’s more of an insurance policy than a franchise pillar. Justin Herbert’s emergence in Los Angeles has some fans wondering whether he should have been the pick at No. 5, but don’t let recency bias cloud your judgment of Tagovailoa, who led ‘Bama to a national title as a true freshman while finishing runner-up to Heisman winner Kyler Murray in 2018. Tua’s time is coming and likely quite soon.
About the best thing Nick Foles has going for him, aside from his past playoff success in Philadelphia (he has the hardware to prove it) is that he’s not Mitchell Trubisky. Beyond leading a late-game comeback against Atlanta in Week 3—and let’s be honest, Falcons fourth-quarter collapses are a dime a dozen—the former Super Bowl MVP has shown shockingly little in his brief stint as Bears starter, looking erratic as ever in last Thursday night’s nail-biter against Tampa Bay. We tend to look at Foles through rose-colored glasses (likely a product of his previous playoff conquests), but the truth of the matter is, he’s never displayed an ounce of consistency, which could be why the Bears are the fifth team he’s suited up for in the past six seasons. There’s plenty of mileage to be gained from beating Tom Brady in the Super Bowl (you think Eli Manning is punching his Hall of Fame ticket without his two victories over Brady? Fat chance), but you can’t run from mediocrity forever. Assuming his future isn’t in Chicago, Foles could consider a reunion with Frank Reich, his former Eagles offensive coordinator, in Indianapolis.
Garoppolo certainly has the appearance of a franchise quarterback (my god, that jawline) but he hasn’t played like one recently, unraveling in embarrassing fashion against the Dolphins in Week 5. Coach Kyle Shanahan downplayed his benching in that game, attributing the early hook to Garoppolo’s recent ankle woes, but the quarterback’s struggles both Sunday and in last year’s Super Bowl loss to Kansas City have not gone unnoticed. With doubt creeping in and limited financial repercussions beyond this year, the 49ers may be tempted to pull the plug on their Garoppolo experiment, particularly with Shanahan favorite Matt Ryan poised to be available next offseason. This may all be an overreaction to one less-than-flattering performance coming off an injury, but Garoppolo just isn’t passing the eye test right now and that should have the Niners at least a little concerned about his long-term fit in San Fran.
I’ll always stan for Minshew who, despite a journeyman college career that spanned tenures with known powerhouse Northwest Mississippi Community College, East Carolina and finally Washington State, has shown to be a more than capable NFL starter. The former Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year has posted an elite 99.4 quarterback rating with 10 touchdowns in the early going while also emerging as a fan favorite in Jacksonville. A sixth-round sophomore who is neither imposing (he stands just 6’1”) nor particularly fleet of foot (his 4.97 forty time ranks in the 23rd percentile of quarterbacks), Minshew has overachieved in Jacksonville, but is he a true franchise quarterback? The 1-4 Jags figure to pick early in next year’s draft, where they’ll be able to select one of Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields or Trey Lance. If the Jaguars prioritize quarterback as many expect them to, it could be curtains for Minshew in Jacksonville, unless the Jags retain him as a bridge quarterback/mentor for whoever they end up drafting next spring. Then again, Minshew Mania does have its perks. Would the fan base rebel if Jacksonville jettisoned a player of Minshew’s immense popularity and more importantly, would the decision-makers up top care? That’s for Dave Caldwell to decide.
Let’s make this a short conversation because Newton has been nothing short of remarkable in his Patriots debut, showing no trace of the foot injury that limited him to two games last season while ultimately paving the way for his Carolina departure. A noted upgrade on Tom Brady (at least at this juncture), Newton’s dual-threat skill set has transformed New England’s offense, allowing liberated offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to run plays he never would have dreamed of calling with statuesque Brady under center. With all that in mind, Newton only signed a one-year deal and de facto GM Bill Belichick has generally eschewed bidding wars in free agency. Still just 31, the former MVP has a chance to be the most coveted quarterback on the market next offseason, though an extension or franchise tag scenario would seem to be the likely outcome here.
I don’t think Prescott is going anywhere, nor should he. Not that Jerry Jones has ever placed much importance on optics, but playing hardball with a quarterback who was on pace to shatter every passing record in existence over a freak injury would be an unprecedented display of pettiness and an ugly look for an organization that has weathered more than its share of negative PR. But if you wanted to play devil’s advocate, I could easily see a scenario arising where Andy Dalton plays well—it would be hard not to with all the skill weapons at his disposal—potentially complicating matters for Prescott, who was headed for a bare minimum $40-million AAV before his ankle gave out in horrifying fashion against the Giants. Dalton, a three-time Pro Bowler with the Bengals, is obviously no slouch and would cost considerably less than Prescott, something to consider given how much cheese the Cowboys already owe Zeke Elliott, Amari Cooper, La’El Collins, DeMarcus Lawrence and Jaylen Smith, among others. An important community figure and role model (many commended him for his mental health advocacy in the wake of his brother’s recent suicide) in the prime of his career, paying Dak should be a no-brainer, though knowing Jones’ MO, the longtime Cowboys owner will assuredly make this decision more difficult than it needs to be.
Rivers was always going to be a one-year Band-Aid for the Colts, a franchise still reeling from Andrew Luck’s sudden retirement last summer. The fact reporters are already pressing coach Frank Reich on Rivers’ job security is not a particularly encouraging sign for his long-term future in Indianapolis. Game manager Jacoby Brissett, who helmed Indy to an underwhelming 7-9 record in 2019 after Luck flew the coup, probably isn’t the answer. The Colts, if so inclined, could choose to embrace their new ground-and-pound identity by punting the quarterback position and handing the offensive keys to workhorse Jonathan Taylor, which is essentially what they’ve been doing all season. Or maybe it’s time to see what fourth-round rookie Jacob Eason, a former five-star recruit who finished his collegiate tenure at Washington after a short but memorable stint at Georgia, is working with. Either way, the rapidly declining Rivers doesn’t seem long for Indianapolis.
The Ryan to San Francisco narrative has surely reached your computer by now and the prospect of Matty Ice reuniting with former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan in Silicon Valley (an idea endorsed by ESPN’s Dominique Foxworth and Dan Graziano) is certainly plausible given Jimmy Garoppolo’s struggles and Atlanta’s rebuilding prerogative post-Dan Quinn. The financials are similar (Ryan nets $30 million annually compared to Jimmy G’s $27.5 million AAV) and the win-now Niners may be amenable to a foundation-shaking trade of this magnitude. A likely Hall of Famer with MVP pedigree, the 35-year-old Ryan could be a game-changer in San Francisco, assuming the interest here is mutual.
The #FreeStafford movement has gained considerable traction of late with many wondering if the 32-year-old’s NFL future lies in the Motor City or elsewhere. The victim of both poor coaching (Matt Patricia looks like a goner) and a listless supporting cast, Stafford deserves a change of scenery and may get one soon with Detroit likely to land a top selection in next year’s draft. Flipping Stafford for picks while shedding his exorbitant salary would allow Detroit to press the reset button (building around a franchise quarterback on a rookie deal is almost always the correct play). The more nostalgic among us may be uncomfortable seeing a Lions lifer like Stafford don a different uniform, but with Detroit circling the drain, an organization-wide teardown might be what’s necessary and that would almost certainly entail a changing of the guard at QB.
To gauge where Eagles fans stand on Carson Wentz, just listen to any caller, any hour of the day on WIP. Though the former second overall pick has played better of late (who knew unheralded Travis Fulgham would be the answer to Philly’s offensive prayers?), it doesn’t change the fact Wentz has statistically been the worst starting quarterback in football this year, leading the sport with nine interceptions while also ranking poorly in passer rating (dead last), sacks (second-most), yards per attempt (third-worst) and completion percentage (fourth-worst). Some of those numbers can be explained—a lackluster supporting cast, an injury-decimated offensive line and a nightmare schedule with impossible matchups against the Rams, Niners and Steelers have each contributed to Wentz’s early-season struggles. The Eagles can’t exactly sweep Wentz’s contract under the rug (his albatross four-year, $128-million extension doesn’t kick in until next year), though if the embattled 27-year-old continues to disappoint, calls for second-round rookie Jalen Hurts (the latest head-scratcher from loose cannon general manager Howie Roseman) to replace him could reach a fever pitch in the deceptively named “City of Brotherly Love.” Between Nick Foles and now Hurts, Wentz’s Eagles tenure has been one long quarterback controversy. If he wasn’t making money hand over fist, you’d almost feel bad for the guy.