A quarterback buyer's market? Why this NFL offseason is rare

ByDan Graziano ESPN logo
Thursday, February 14, 2019

Wednesday was a good day for Joe Flaccoand not a great one for Nick Foles.

The Baltimore Ravens' agreement to trade Flacco to the Denver Broncos for a midround draft pick was well-timed for the 11-year veteran, who sources say had been hoping the Ravens would trade or cut him well in advance of the start of the league year. Baltimore was finished with Flacco, having already moved on to 2018 first-round pick Lamar Jackson at quarterback. While Ravens coach John Harbaugh insisted "Joe's going to have a market" in his postgame news conference following the team's playoff loss to the Chargers, the fact is that market is a little bit narrower this year than it normally would be.

This year, for the first time in recent memory, the NFL's quarterback supply seems to be outpacing demand. An informal survey of agents and team executives around the league found the list of teams looking for a starting quarterback to be a surprisingly short one, replete with caveats. It includes the Miami Dolphins, assuming they're moving on from Ryan Tannehill. It includes the Jacksonville Jaguars, assuming they're moving on from Blake Bortles. It includes Washington, assuming Alex Smith's injury is going to keep him out for most or all of the 2019 season. It might possibly include the New York Giants and Cincinnati Bengals, if those teams decide they want to move on from their current starters, though no one's entirely sure that will be the case in any of those spots. It included Denver until Wednesday.

If you were Flacco or Philadelphia Eagles backup Foles or New Orleans Saints backup Teddy Bridgewateror Tannehill or Bortles or any quarterback looking for a place to offer you a chance to start, this year's market might put you into a game of musical chairs and at serious risk of being left without one.

We're so used to taking at face value the notion that there aren't enough NFL starting quarterbacks to go around that it's hard to adjust our minds to a landscape in which that might not be as true as it once was. Think about the factors that have produced a rare buyer's market at the league's most important position:

  • Over the past two years, eight teams have picked a quarterback in the first round of the draft. That's one-quarter of the league invested in quarterbacks on whom it's far too early to give up.
  • On the other end of the spectrum, longtime starters such as the Patriots' Tom Brady, the Saints' Drew Brees, the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger and the Chargers' Philip Rivers have remained healthy, productive, winning starters at or past ages when quarterbacks used to retire. These are jobs you might have assumed five years ago would have opened by now but have not.
  • Monster contracts handed out over the past couple of offseasons to Oakland's Derek Carr, Minnesota's Kirk Cousins, Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, Detroit's Matthew Stafford, Atlanta's Matt Ryan and San Francisco's Jimmy Garoppolo have locked quarterbacks into jobs for better or for worse.
  • Six more teams have high-performing quarterbacks 30 or younger and aren't worried about the present or future at the position. These include Seattle, Indianapolis, Dallas, Philadelphia, the Rams and even Carolina, assuming Cam Newton's shoulder woes don't stretch into September again.

We are up to three-quarters of the league with quarterback situations that are basically set. Add Denver following the news of the Flacco trade, and the teams left over are Miami, Cincinnati, Tennessee, Jacksonville, Washington, the Giants and Tampa Bay, and even that list isn't the most inviting for potential job candidates. Andy Dalton has two years left on his Bengals contract at reasonable money, and word is the new coach likes him. The Titans and Bucs aren't ready to give up on Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winstonin spite of the former's health issues and the latter's off-field issues. Washington could be financially hamstrung by its commitment to Smith, even if he isn't able to play. The Giants might not be finished with Eli Manning yet, even if they look to this year's draft for his eventual replacement.

This is a weird year to be a quarterback looking for a starting NFL job, so here's a breakdown of how it affects each of the groups involved:

Again, this group is thought by league insiders to include Jacksonville, Miami, Washington and maybe the Bengals and the Giants. With Denver no longer a suitor, these teams are, theoretically, sitting pretty. For example: Jacksonville has a killer young defense, was 10-6 two seasons ago and could be a quarterback away from a return to contention. But if, say, Miami decides not to spend this offseason and Washington can't, the Jaguars could find themselves the only suitors for Foles and therefore in a position where they can dictate the terms of a trade with the Eagles.

Flacco is off to Denver, but Foles remains in Philadelphia, where there's a chance the Eagles could franchise him and trade him just to make sure he doesn't end up with a division rival in Washington or New York. These had been the top two veteran starters available. Add Manning in the unlikely event that the Giants cut him. Then you drop down to a group that includes Bridgewater, Tyrod Taylor, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Tannehill, Bortles, Case Keenum (who is sure to be cut or traded by the Broncos) and possibly Dalton. That's more dudes than jobs. Where in the past, the players from the middle to the bottom of that list might have had chances to go to camps and compete for starting jobs, someone such as Bridgewater might find out that his best option is another season as Brees' backup in New Orleans.

While it's possible that as many as four quarterbacks could go in the first round of this year's draft, the consensus in our reporting seemed to be that the draft quarterbacks aren't much of a threat to the veterans currently looking for jobs. It's possible, if Miami is in tear-down mode, that the Dolphins could draft a guy and start him right away without signing a veteran too. But players such asDwayne Haskins, Kyler Murray, Drew Lock and Daniel Jones aren't viewed as the 2019 answer for most of the teams looking for that -- at least not yet.

There's an interesting bit of potential fallout here. If you have starter-quality quarterbacks whose best options are backup jobs, the current class of backups could find itself replaced. Could the Patriots find a better Brady insurance policy than Brian Hoyer? Could the Ravens do better than Robert Griffin III as Jackson's backup? If Foles is gone, do the Eagles consider Nate Sudfeld a plug-and-play option in the event of another Carson Wentz injury, or do they add a veteran for insurance? Even though he disappointed as a starter in Denver, could Keenum become a hot commodity as a backup, given his performance as a plug-in starter in Minnesota two seasons ago?

It's an odd market for quarterbacks in 2019, and it's hard to see how it will all work out. There could be unforeseen trades or decisions in places such as Oakland, Tennessee, Cincinnati and Arizona that stir all of this up in new ways. There could be springtime injuries that force teams to change their plans. But at this point, a lot more teams in the NFL seem to like their quarterback situations than not. It might not last forever -- especially once guys such as Brady and Brees start to make their departures. But the landscape right now at quarterback in the NFL is unusually calm.

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