Quarterback has become such a pivotal position in the new-age NFL, that you’re more likely to come across a Black Swan than a top 20 Quarterback in the Free Agent market. The position is so important that most teams will overpay a backup rather than risk losing them, so even the backup market is diluted. If a top-tier quarterback does happen to make it to Free Agency, they get franchise tagged. Then, the team is forced to find a way to make a deal because the Quarterback tag can cripple a team’s ability to bolster the rest of its roster in Free Agency. Since the institution of the 2011 Collective Bargaining agreement, the Ravens reached a deal with Joe Flacco less than 24 hours before they would’ve had to use the tag on him; the Saints tagged Drew Brees in 2012, but were ultimately forced to pay him handsomely after a very public negotiation; Peyton Manning played (well, he received medical treatments) under the Franchise tag in 2011; and Michael Vick was tagged the same year after a brilliant 2010 – but he reached a multi-year deal before the season started.
Just recently the Bears locked up Jay Cutler on January 2nd rather than risk letting him reach Free Agency. Despite his many critics, and despite Josh McCown playing extremely well in relief, Cutler was in a strong position given the weakness of this year’s crop of quarterbacks. By my count, there are nine teams that either (a) do not have a franchise Quarterback on their roster or (b) are not in the process of evaluating a potential franchise quarterback. History has proven that the most likely place to find a franchise Quarterback is in the Draft (and even that is kind of a crapshoot – depending on which franchise is doing the evaluating), but many teams are forced to pair a young quarterback with a veteran stop-gap/mentor. Among those teams, only the Cardinals (Carson Palmer) and the Bengals (Andy Dalton) had winning records in 2013. I expect both players to start all 16 games for their respective teams (barring injury) in 2014, but those teams will likely consider taking a mid-round flier on a quarterback in this year’s draft in hopes of finding a diamond in the rough in a year when they don’t necessarily need to find one.
The other seven teams, the Texans (#1), the Jaguars (#3), the Browns (#4), the Raiders(#5), the Buccaneers (#7), the Vikings (#8), and the Titans (#11), each have a top 11 pick and will likely at least strongly consider taking a Quarterback in the first round, depending on who is available. For those that don’t spend an early pick on a QB, I expect they’ll compete for one or more of the available Free Agents to plug in as a starter in 2014. Interestingly, Blaine Gabbert (Jaguars, #10 Overall), Christian Ponder (Vikings, #12 Overall), and Jake Locker (Titans, #8 Overall) were the second, third, and fourth quarterbacks taken in 2011, and have done little to nothing in each of their first three NFL seasons. I haven’t written Locker off completely, but I do think the Titans will go in a new direction. Brandon Weeden has only had two seasons in Cleveland, but he’ll turn 31 during the 2014 NFL season and I think Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi are done with him. For those of you furrowing your brow, that means I consider Geno Smith and Sam Bradford to be under evaluation (not necessarily franchise Quarterbacks), and the other situations to be relatively stable for at least 2014 and 2015.
I actually think that five of the seven teams with losing records, and no franchise QB, could compete for a playoff spot in 2014 with the right Free Agent acquisition or Draft selection. In order of strength, the Texans, The Buccaneers, the Vikings, the Browns, and the Titans each have enough pieces in place to make a run in 2014.
Chad Henne: I suppose I’ll be in the minority by ranking Chad Henne as the top available Free Agent Quarterback. Henne, originally a Dolphins second round pick in 2008, has started 61 games in his 6-year NFL career, included 29 starts with Miami in 2009 and 2010, before signing with Jacksonville to compete with Blaine Gabbert in 2012. Henne’s completed 60% of his career passes despite a complete lack of offensive weapons the last two years in Jacksonville, and he was stuck in Miami during a time when Tony Sparano was running one of the least dynamic offenses in the NFL. Henne, 28, is one of those guys who could spend his career as a journeymen, oscillating between bad-team stop-gap starter and playoff-caliber team backup. Even though Jacksonville is expected to attempt to re-sign him, I hope for his sake his agent gets him a chance with the Bucs, The Vikings, the Browns, or the Titans. Each of those teams have enough weapons for Henne to prove himself as a viable NFL starter. The Texans wouldn’t be a bad landing spot either if Bill O’Brien elects to take Jadveon Clowney – but if he takes a QB first overall Henne would be in a no-win situation.
Best Fit: Buccaneers, Browns
Most Likely: Jaguars, Eagles
Josh McCown: Before discussing Josh McCown as a 2014 Free Agent, I think it’s important to revisit his very interesting, but sometimes overlooked, career path that led to this point. He was a third-round pick of the Cardinals in 2002 out of Sam Houston State (he spent three years at Southern Methodist prior to that), after posting strong numbers at the combine. He started 34 games in Arizona from 02-05, but Arizona signed Kurt Warner in 2005 and McCown was released in ’06 en route to the team drafting Matt Leinart. McCown signed with the Lions in 2006, backing up Jon Kitna. McCown didn’t take any snaps at Quarterback that year, but he did play a little slot receiver (he ran a 4.57 at the combine). McCown got shipped to Oakland in 2007 as part of the Mike Williams trade, and started 9 games, posting mediocre statistics. In 2008, the Dolphins signed McCown to a 2-year deal, and at one point it looked like he might be the team’s starter, but they eventually signed Chad Pennington and McCown was traded to the Panthers. McCown spent ’08 and ’09 with the Panthers, spent 2010 dominating the UFL, signed with the 49ers in ’11 but got cut 2 weeks later, and coached a little high school football until signing with the Bears in mid-2011. Despite playing pretty well for the Bears in 2011, he didn’t make the roster in 2012, but re-signed in November, and the returned to Chicago in 2013 and played very well in the 8 games in which he made an appearance. All that brings us to present day, where McCown could actually be sought after as a starter. He’s 34 years old (he’ll be 35 in July), and has contemplated retirement, but is now expected to play in 2014. McCown may re-sign in Chicago, where he and Jay Cutler are supposedly close friends, but what if he decides to pursue his options? I believe McCown would be an excellent fit in Bill O’Brien’s offense in Houston, where almost all of the other pieces are already in place, and could lead the Texans to an AFC South crown. Even if O’Brien decides to use the first overall pick on a Quarterback, McCown has proved in 2013 that he’s willing to support the team-chosen starter, even when he was playing well. McCown could be an intriguing option on a relatively cheap short-term deal in both real life and Fantasy.
Best Fit: Texans, Browns, Titans, Vikings
Most Likely: Bears, Texans
Michael Vick: I hung onto hope until the bitter end that Michael Vick would be revitalized in the Chip Kelly offense. I still think Vick would be an excellent fit in Philadelphia, but at this point there is no denying Nick Foles impending stardom. Vick can still play, especially if you’ve got an offensive coordinator who is willing to build an offense around his skillset the way Andy Reid was. I think Vick badly wants a chance to compete for a starting job, so he could very well end up in Oakland or Jacksonville, maybe even Tampa or Tennessee. However, I think there will be a very strong market for Vick as a backup – and it’s probably the best thing for Vick too. He’ll be able to extend his career if he only has to play sparingly for the next 3-5 years, rather than playing for a bad team, behind a bad offensive line, and taking bad hits. The Redskins (if they trade Kirk Cousins), the Bills, the Jets, the 49ers, the Seahawks, and the Panthers, each have starting Quarterbacks, and therefore offenses, that would play to Vick’s strengths. If for some reason he doesn’t end up in any of those places, don’t rule out a return to Philadelphia or a reuniting with Andy Reid in Kansas City.
Best Fit: 49ers, Jets, Panthers
Most Likely: Jets, Jaguars, Redskins
Josh Freeman: Freeman might be the most intriguing Free Agent Quarterback available. Freeman just turned 26, and already has had some mild success as a starter, winning 10 games in 2010, and showing some flashes of promise in 60+ appearances. His time in Tampa came to a strange end, and he looked awful in his 3 games with Minnesota, but I think one of the teams in need will give him a chance to at least compete for a starting job. Freeman doesn’t make a lot of sense in a traditional backup role, as he’s very young, reportedly immature, and may not necessarily be an asset to a locker room if he’s not contributing on the field. If not for the fact that I’d like to see what Matt Cassel can do in Norv Turner’s offense with decent weapons, I’d vote for Freeman staying put in Minnesota. He’s not making a return appearance to Tampa, and I can’t picture the Browns adding him to their quarterback puzzle. That leaves Oakland, Jacksonville, Houston, and Tennessee as potential options for places he could get a shot to compete for the opening day job. Again, I don’t see him doing well in a mentor role (although he likely won’t have any visibility into a team’s draft plans before he signs), so I don’t think it makes sense to pair him with Bridgewater, Bortles, or Manziel – but I could see him in any of those places. The Raiders would make a lot of sense, because I don’t see Reggie McKenzie hanging his hat on any of the Quarterbacks in the draft class, given the patience he has demonstrated so far.
Best Fit: Vikings, Raiders, Texans
Most Likely: Vikings, Raiders, Jaguars
We’ve only reviewed the top four Quarterbacks available in Free Agency, but sadly we’ve already reached a point in the list where we’re likely talking about the “backup” market – none of the following are likely to be signed as a potential starter.
Shaun Hill: (Best Fit/Most Likely) Lions, Giants
Kellen Clemens: Rams, Bears, Ravens
Tarvaris Jackson: Seahawks, 49ers, Jets, Panthers
Matt Flynn: Packers, Giants
Brady Quinn: Texans, 49ers, Giants
David Garrard: Seahawks, 49ers, Panthers
Colt McCoy: Packers, Lions, Bears
Luke McCown: Saints, Jaguars
Derek Anderson: Giants, Panthers
Tim Tebow: New England, Jacksonville
Charlie Whitehurst: San Diego
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