It's never too early to start thinking about the offseason quarterback carousel. All around the league, we're seeing teams whose ups and downs are being influenced by the decisions they made at quarterback. Ryan Tannehill is sparking the Titans into the AFC playoff race, while Jared Goff's precipitous decline has dropped the Rams to the outside of the postseason hunt in the NFC.
Let's run through the quarterbacks who have a big decision coming due this offseason, both starters and backups who could be on the move. Some are free agents-to-be. Others have their fifth-year option ahead. Some veterans are candidates to be released from their deals. There might be a lot of turnover, and the decisions we see could influence other choices those teams make for years to come.
One thing to keep in mind that I've discussed in the past is the idea that the quarterback middle class is a no man's land for organizations under the current collective bargaining agreement. With young quarterbacks locked into cheap contracts under the slotted draft system, teams can often find an approximation of a competent quarterback in the draft and use the money they've saved to supplement their roster elsewhere. Unless a team has a truly transcendent quarterback like a Russell Wilson, organizations that get caught out paying premium money for pretty good passers in an attempt to maintain continuity often end up regretting the deal.
I'll mention the members of the quarterback middle class as warranted. I'll also come up with a most likely outcome for each player in 2020 and throw in a logical landing spot or two if a QB has any chance of leaving town.
Let's start with a guy who is likely either returning to his current job or heading home for good:
This should be a simple one. While Brees isn't quite playing up to the MVP-caliber form he showed during the first 12 weeks of the 2018 season, the 40-year-old is doing just fine. Despite missing five weeks with a thumb injury, Brees has shown little rust upon his return and ranks in the top 10 in both passer rating and Total QBR. He'll be at the helm in the Saints' most important game of the regular season on Sunday, when they'll take on the 49ers in a battle for the top seed in the NFC.
While Brees technically has two years remaining on his contract, those seasons are strictly for cap purposes. His deal automatically voids on March 18, and the Saints can't franchise-tag him to keep him around. That sort of flexibility would give Brees the ability to go wherever he wants, but I can't envision a scenario where he goes to play anywhere else. It seems likely that he would walk off into the sunset if the Saints win the Super Bowl, but if they don't, Brees is still playing well enough to justify another year of this fruitful relationship.
Most likely 2020 status: Saints starter. The Saints have an 88.7% chance of missing out on their second Super Bowl of the Brees era, which would likely bring Brees back for one more shot at glory next year.
Bridgewater's future obviously depends upon what happens with Brees. Like the starter, Bridgewater's contract will void after the 2019 season, making the Louisville product a free agent. Bridgewater went 5-0 as the starter while Brees was injured, so the Saints would almost surely turn to him as their new starter if Brees retires.
If Brees returns to the team, though, Bridgewater's future suddenly becomes cloudier. The 27-year-old was a free agent last season, but the only starting option he was presented on the free-agent market last spring was in Miami. He understandably preferred a chance to prove his worth with the Saints, and after posting a passer rating of 103.7 across his five starts, he did just that. He should have a larger market this offseason.
Given that the most likely outcome for the Saints is that they don't win the Super Bowl, my suspicion is that Bridgewater would leave if Brees returns. The Saints were lucky that more teams didn't pursue him as a starter last offseason, and as a quarterback with a serious knee injury in his past who is yet to make starter money in the NFL, this could be his best chance at that sort of contract. At the very least, Bridgewater will likely test the waters of free agency.
Most likely 2020 status: Free agent. It's difficult to find the ideal fit for Bridgewater, as teams like the Broncos, Buccaneers and Jaguars typically prefer quarterbacks with prototypical size and arm strength. He worked under Panthers offensive coordinator Norv Turner when they were both with the Vikings, and if Carolina moved on from Cam Newton, he could slide into the starting role for the Panthers. Even given his success, it's not impossible to imagine a scenario where Bridgewater sees his options and chooses to stick with the Saints as the starter-in-waiting behind Brees.
I wrote all about Brady's difficult last two months earlier this week. To summate, while he has slipped some from his 2017 MVP year, the problems with the Patriots' offense are more about the players around Brady than they are with the future Hall of Famer. He famously wants to play until he's 45, and at 42, he is still playing well enough to justify a starting role.
Is his future away from New England? It's tough to imagine Brady wearing another jersey, but that does seem like more of a possibility than ever before. Brady's contract voids on March 17, leaving the Patriots with $13.5 million in dead money and freeing him up to join any other team he desires. The Patriots also can't use the franchise tag on Brady, who put his mansion in the Boston suburbs on the market this summer. The house hasn't sold yet, but there's less tying him to the Patriots after this season than ever before.
Having said all that, both sides need each other. Brady surely wants to finish up his career playing for a Super Bowl contender, and unless Brees retires, none of the league's leading teams are going to be in the market for a new starting quarterback. Likewise, do you think a 67-year-old Bill Belichick wants to try to keep winning Super Bowls with a quarterback room consisting of Jarrett Stidham and Cody Kessler? The Pats would be in line to attract their pick of veteran free agents to take Brady's place, but they would almost certainly rather have Brady than anybody else here. Unless something goes horribly wrong or Brady decides to move on from football earlier than expected, I think he comes back on a two-year deal.
Keown: Brady is in his 'get off my lawn' phase
Tim Keown points out how at age 42, Tom Brady has been struggling with connecting with his younger receivers and dealing with uncertainty.
Most likely 2020 status: Patriots starter. The juiciest scenario, of course, is that the 49ers fan who grew up in Northern California returns home and takes over the 49ers in some sort of reverse-Montana scenario. The 49ers can move on from Jimmy Garoppolo after the year without much dead money, and if Brady were to leave Foxborough, that would be a pretty obvious opening for Garoppolo to fill. There's approximately a 0.000000001% chance of this happening, but it's fun to think about.
While Trubisky's season has unquestionably been a disappointment to both the Bears and their fans, the North Carolina product was good enough in the second half on Thanksgiving Day to lead a comeback victory over David Blough and the Lions. Trubisky has posted a passer rating of 124.4 and thrown six touchdowns against one interception in two games against Detroit and its 26th-ranked pass defense by DVOA. Against the rest of the NFL? He has thrown seven touchdown passes against six picks, and both his passer rating (76.3) and Total QBR (35.3) rank last among qualifying starters.
You can make the case that it's too early to give up on the No. 2 pick in the 2017 draft. If you treat his rookie season with Dowell Loggains as a hazard write-off, Trubisky has thrown only 795 passes in a functional NFL offense under coach Matt Nagy. He was also drafted after just one season as the full-time starter at UNC, so he's still inexperienced. General manager Ryan Pace famously traded up to draft Trubisky when he could have stayed put and selected either Patrick Mahomes or Deshaun Watson; it wouldn't be a surprise if Pace still thought Trubisky had superstar upside.
I'm not sure the Bears will find many people outside the organization who think Trubisky possesses that upside. It's not clear where his floor is, either. Even last season, a reasonable chunk of his value was generated by his scrambling, which hasn't carried over to 2019. After generating 320 yards and 16 first downs as a scrambler last season, Trubisky has just 60 yards and four first downs scrambling in 2019. If he had continued to exhibit that sort of ability to pick up first downs as a runner, it would have raised his floor and given him the opportunity to really turn into an above-average quarterback with any sort of growth as a passer.
Instead, he has stopped running, and his accuracy has taken a step backward. Even if the organization thinks it's too early to move on from Trubisky, it would be criminal with this sort of defense to run things back in 2020 with Trubisky and Chase Daniel as the only quarterback options. Trubisky has just over $4.4 million in guaranteed money left on his deal in 2020, but there's unlikely to be much of a trade market for him. Chicago will have to weigh the risks of picking up Trubisky's fifth-year option for 2021, but it appears likely that the 25-year-old will be in a legitimate competition for the starting job next summer.
Most likely 2020 status: Battling for the Bears job. More on who he might compete with in a minute.
Tannehill's success with the Titans means the former Dolphins first-round pick might have a future in Tennessee. Since he took over as the full-time starter in Week 7, the only quarterback in the NFL who has a better passer rating than Tannehill's 117.3 mark is Lamar Jackson. QBR isn't quite as impressed, with Tannehill ranking 18th, but even league-average play from him represents a bargain for a Titans team paying him just $2 million plus incentives.
The concerns with Tannehill aren't about his level of play, given that he was generally competent for most of his time in Miami. Injuries were the major concern as time went on, including ACL tears that cost him a playoff run in 2016 and all of the 2017 season. Last season, a shoulder ailment caused the Texas A&M product to miss five games. He has been healthy during his six-game run as the starter, but he is also taking sacks on 12% of his dropbacks after posting an 11.3% sack rate with the Dolphins in 2018.
Ceiling was the other question with Tannehill, but this six-game stint raises questions about whether we should raise our expectations for what he can offer. He has produced 9.8 adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A) over the past six starts, by far the best mark of his career. He was at 8.5 AY/A over a six-game stretch last season that ended with the famous last-second laterals play to beat the Patriots. With the Dolphins positioned for a possible playoff run at 7-6, however, they lost their final three games by a combined 59 points, as Tannehill threw for just 401 yards across 77 attempts while averaging 3.7 AY/A.
If Tannehill collapses similarly over the remainder of the season or suffers an injury that impacts his chances of contributing in 2020, the Titans will likely move on and start fresh at quarterback this offseason. If he keeps this up, the Titans might very well sign him to a long-term deal as their starter with two years of guaranteed money, especially given that they have no obvious path to finding a new option if they pick in the middle of the first round in the 2020 draft.
The most plausible option, though, is that Tannehill falls somewhere between the level of play he exhibited with the Dolphins and what he has shown for the Titans this season. At that rate, the Titans would likely want to keep him around without making a meaningful multiyear commitment, either by slapping him with the franchise tag or by signing him to a multiyear deal with an easy out after one season. The Tannehill who was competent for the Dolphins is the exact sort of quarterback who would be a reasonable value on a rookie deal and likely overpaid on any sort of meaningful veteran extension. The guy we've seen in Tennessee, at least so far, might be worthy of the latter.
Most likely 2020 status: Franchise tag. Tennessee would be in the market for a backup behind Tannehill, given that they'll likely move on from ...
In a make-or-break year for the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 draft, Mariota collapsed. The former Oregon star continued to mix flashes of impressive play with conservative decision-making and bucketloads of sacks, as he was taken down on a staggering 13.6% of dropbacks before being benched for Tannehill. With Tannehill leading the Titans to five wins in his first six starts, Mariota is clearly on the outs.
It would likely take an injury to Tannehill and a deep playoff run from Mariota to get the Titans to bring back their former starter for another season. Given that both the coach and general manager who initially drafted Mariota are long gone in Tennessee, there's nothing tying the organization to Mariota. With his fifth-year option expiring at the end of the season, Mariota's future almost surely lies elsewhere.
Most likely 2020 status: Unrestricted free agent. The obvious landing spot for Mariota is with the Bears -- former Oregon coach Mark Helfrich is the offensive coordinator in Chicago. The Bears could decide to move on from Helfrich after a frustrating season, but if they don't, Mariota should have a great sense of what they are trying to do on offense and should be just good enough to push Trubisky without actually threatening to immediately steal his job.
Mariota's 2015 classmate has looked, well, like Jameis Winston this season. Winston started by throwing two pick-sixes against the 49ers, followed that with a four-game stretch with just two picks and a passer rating of 111.6, and promptly threw 15 interceptions over his next six games. He has 20 interceptions and 12 fumbles, and even given that the Bucs have run the second-most offensive plays in all of football, those numbers are unreal for a 12-game run. The only other player this season to top 22 combined fumbles and interceptions is Daniel Jones at 26.
Of course, Jones is a rookie. Winston too often looks like one. It's difficult to find signs that he is growing from week to week, let alone from season to season. He is blessed with two of the league's best wide receivers in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, although tight end O.J. Howard has buried himself in Bruce Arians' doghouse and rented out a room to Ronald Jones.
To be fair, the degree of difficulty is higher for Winston than it is for most quarterbacks. His average third-down pass attempt comes with 8.3 yards to go, one of the league's highest marks. The expected completion percentage on his passes per NFL Next Gen Stats is a league-low 60.4%, which is a product of both his questionable decision-making and Arians' desire to throw downfield. The average Winston pass travels 9.6 yards in the air, a figure topped by only Matthew Stafford this season.
If you're the Buccaneers, you can't consider Winston's future while projecting him to improve dramatically long-term. After nearly 2,400 NFL passes, the quarterback you see on Sundays is the guy whom the Bucs should expect going forward. He is going to combine average overall quarterback play with wild swings from week to week and the third-worst era-adjusted interception rate for any quarterback since the merger. Expecting anything else, at this point, is nothing more than hope.
That archetype deserves a roster spot as a high-end backup or low-end starter, though there will be teams that shy away from Winston given the sexual assault allegations in his past. It's also the type of quarterback who shouldn't inspire any sort of long-term commitment. With Arians tabling the Winston discussion until the end of the season, there are certainly questions about whether Winston is going to have this job much longer.
At the same time, though, there just aren't many quarterbacks who seem like great fits for Arians' downfield passing attack likely to hit the market. The Bucs could wait to see whether they find that sort of quarterback in the draft, but the 67-year-old Arians didn't join Tampa to start a rebuild, and the Bucs would run the risk of ending up without a veteran starter or a quarterback of the future. Given the tepid market Winston would likely see if he did hit free agency, my guess is that the two sides come to terms on a multiyear deal to keep him around for 2020 with no guaranteed money afterward.
Most likely 2020 status: Bucs starter. If Cam Newton were to become available, the Bucs might rightfully prefer him and his pre-surgery upside in a downfield passing attack to Winston's inconsistency. Identifying possible Winston suitors is virtually impossible given that there are teams that will rule him out because of his off-field history.
With Manning "very likely" to make an unexpected return to the starting lineup on Monday night after rookie Daniel Jones suffered a high ankle sprain, Giants fans should get one more look at their longtime starter before his contract expires this offseason. While Jones has certainly had his highs and lows, the Giants realistically had no choice in benching Manning, who had been a sitting duck on a constantly trailing team.
There was little on tape during Manning's two-game stint to start the season that suggested he had much left in the tank. If he returns and shows more life, the 38-year-old could theoretically attract some interest from Super Bowl-caliber teams looking for a backup quarterback, with the Packers or a Saints team without Teddy Bridgewater in 2020 coming to mind. The long-rumored reunion between Manning and Tom Coughlin in Jacksonville doesn't make sense given the guarantees owed Nick Foles and the presence of Gardner Minshew.
Orlovsky: Eagles should be nervous to see Eli
Dan Orlovsky explains why the Eagles would be better off facing Daniel Jones on Monday Night Football over Eli Manning.
With more than $250 million in career earnings and two Super Bowl rings, though, Manning doesn't have much left to play for. Unless he wants to return to the Giants as Jones' backup, it seems likely he will round out 2019 and finish his playing days as a one-team quarterback.
Most likely 2020 status: Retired
Rosen might be the unluckiest quarterback in the league, as he has now made 16 starts behind a pair of horrific offensive lines in Arizona and Miami, but the UCLA product has done little to suggest he deserves a long look as an NFL starter. After averaging just 4.8 AY/A during his lone season in the desert, the No. 10 overall pick in the 2018 draft averaged 4.0 AY/A and posted a passer rating of 61 in his three starts with the Dolphins this season. Just one week after being named the team's full-time starter, Rosen was benched for Ryan Fitzpatrick, who has subsequently led the Dolphins to three wins in seven tries.
I liked Miami's decision to trade for Rosen at the time, but given how quickly the team has soured on the 22-year-old, it's tough to see much of a future for him in South Florida. Assuming that the Dolphins take a quarterback in the first round of the 2020 draft -- they have three picks in Round 1 -- Rosen would likely become late-round trade bait for a team looking to grab a developmental quarterback with a manageable contract.
Most likely 2020 status: Trade bait. I keep coming back to the idea that the Patriots love to buy low on highly drafted young players who struggle early in their careers and have an even bigger need to develop quarterback prospects as Brady gets older. Rosen would likely be a third-string option behind Jarrett Stidham if the Pats struck a deal, although the Dolphins could prefer to send Rosen out of the division, just in case.
If you want to understand how destructive Flacco's six-year, $120.6 million deal was when things were said and done, consider that the Ravens had to restructure it three years in by handing him an extension, only for the Broncos to restructure it again to create more short-term cap space upon trading for the quarterback. Denver would eat $13.7 million in dead money by releasing Flacco this spring, although that would still result in just over $10 million in cap savings and a little over $20 million in cash saved.
The Broncos should have plenty of cap space, but it does seem that they'll end Flacco's tenure in the Rocky Mountains after eight starts. The former Super Bowl MVP was uninspiring during his time there, taking sacks behind an oft-frustrating offensive line at a 9% clip.
Flacco's calling card was once his arm strength, but while he still seems capable of unleashing downfield howitzers, he didn't scare teams throwing downfield in Denver. His average pass traveled just 6.3 yards in the air, which ranked 31st in the NFL. It's OK if you're taking what the defense gives you and moving the chains, but nearly 57% of his dropbacks failed to increase the Broncos' expected points, the sixth-worst rate in football.
And while Flacco made it into the eighth year of his career before missing a game via injury, the 34-year-old's body is beginning to betray him. After tearing an ACL in 2015, he went down with a hip injury last season and subsequently lost his job to Lamar Jackson. Now, Flacco is on injured reserve with a herniated disk in his neck.
Much as is the case with Manning, it's easier to see the case for Flacco retiring than it is to see him returning. He has made more than $166 million during his time in the NFL, has a Super Bowl ring and would likely be looking at a one-year deal for backup money. He can get that opportunity if he wants, but given the injuries, I wonder whether he'll decide to hang up his cleats instead.
Most likely 2020 status: Retired. Nobody gets excited about Flacco, but if he wants to keep going, teams like the Eagles and Packers could do worse than adding him as their backup.
Restored to the starting lineup in Week 13 after Ryan Finley looked overmatched, Dalton took one step toward saving his job for 2020 by beating the Jets for Cincinnati's first win of the season. The 1-11 Bengals are still prohibitive favorites to finish with the top pick in next year's draft, with ESPN's Football Power Index giving them a 64.2% chance of grabbing the No. 1 selection, but they still have a game against the Dolphins ahead.
If the Bengals have the first pick in the draft, it could be a foregone conclusion that they'll draft LSU quarterback Joe Burrow. They could retain Dalton for the final year of his deal at $17.5 million and use him as a bridge to Burrow, but this isn't the sort of franchise to pass up an opportunity at saving that sort of money. If Cincinnati doesn't finish with the first pick and ends up in a position to draft Ohio State pass-rusher Chase Young, it might run things back with Dalton in 2020 behind a much healthier offensive line.
Assuming the Bengals do end up with Burrow, Dalton would be one of the most attractive options on the market. His ability to oscillate around league average makes him appealing to teams that want some stability out of a short-term starter, and the upside he showed when he had a great offensive line and healthy weapons in 2015 will always hint that he could do more in the right place. The former TCU product should have a more robust market than people think.
Most likely 2020 status: Unrestricted free agent. I wonder if Dalton is destined to link up with wherever Jay Gruden lands if the former Bengals offensive coordinator gets a job in the NFL this upcoming season. If Jay joins his brother Jon with the Raiders, Dalton could take over for Derek Carr, though the Raiders could be destined to use the extra picks they got from the Bears to try to trade up for a quarterback in the first round of the 2020 draft. If that doesn't work out, Dalton would be a likely short-term replacement for teams like the Chargers and Panthers if they make a change at quarterback.
This looks like a disaster for Jacksonville. Desperate to upgrade on Blake Bortles after a disastrous 2018, the Jags were the only team in the market with a starting job to offer to the former Super Bowl MVP. It didn't stop them from giving Foles a four-year, $88 million contract.
Now, after just 117 pass attempts in a Jaguars uniform, Foles has been benched by coach Doug Marrone for rookie sixth-rounder Gardner Minshew. Marrone was likely right in suggesting that Minshew's athleticism made him more likely to thrive behind a flailing offensive line, but that in itself should be telling. If you can't trust that your free-agent quarterback is mobile or experienced enough to work amid steady pass pressure, he's probably not worth what you're paying him.
Hasselbeck: Minshew isn't a long-term answer
Ryan Clark and Tim Hasselbeck explain why the Jaguars decided to go back to Gardner Minshew as their starting QB over Nick Foles.
While I think Foles will eventually get another shot at this job, the Jaguars find themselves in a thorny situation. Foles' $15.1 million base salary in 2020 is fully guaranteed. If he is on the roster five days after the start of free agency, a $5 million roster bonus in 2021 becomes guaranteed. Even if he were to never take another snap in a Jaguars uniform, Jacksonville owes him more than $20 million in additional cash over the next two seasons.
Normally, I would suggest that the Jaguars should consider eating the $15.1 million and designating Foles as a post-June 1 release next year to save the $5 million, but unless the NFL and the NFLPA come to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement, there will be no post-June 1 releases allowed in the 2020 league year. The Jags would have to cut him and eat all of the dead money in 2020, which would amount to $33.9 million. Anything is possible after the Steelers ate $21.1 million in dead money for Antonio Brown this spring, but I don't think the Jags are about to top the previous dead money record by nearly 50%.
One other solution would be to get creative. When the Texans were saddled with a $16 million base salary for a quarterback, Brock Osweiler, they didn't want, they chose to trade their deposed quarterback to the Browns and send along draft capital to free up the money. The Browns essentially spent $16 million to buy Houston's second-round pick. While I don't love that price tag, Cleveland eventually used the pick it got from the Osweiler deal on Nick Chubb.
While the Jags might be able to convince a tanking team like the Dolphins to absorb Foles' contract in exchange for a second-round pick, a more likely scenario would be to restructure his contract. They could convert most of that $15.1 million salary into a roster bonus, pay the bonus at the start of 2020 and then trade Foles to a team that would use the former Eagles cult hero as a backup. If Foles were willing to reduce his unguaranteed base salary in 2021, he could end up costing his new team somewhere around $10 million over two years, which is likely right around his market value as a high-end backup. The Jags would probably need to send a midround pick to save the $10 million they would unload as part of the Foles deal, although Foles would have more trade value than Osweiler did then.
Most likely 2020 status: Trade bait. Foles has enjoyed success playing under Chip Kelly, Andy Reid and Doug Pederson. He has been a mess everywhere else. I wonder if the Jags could find a way to eat enough money and make a deal work with the Eagles. A more plausible fit would be with the Chiefs, who already had to experience life without Patrick Mahomes for a couple of weeks. Colts coach Frank Reich also had success coaching Foles under Pederson in Philadelphia, but Indy already has Jacoby Brissett and Brian Hoyer under contract for 2020.
While Carr might be confident enough about his chances of suiting up for the Raiders next year to buy a house in Las Vegas, the 28-year-old has to realize his future is up in the air. He has no guaranteed money left in his deal after this season. The Raiders would owe only $5 million in dead money on their cap if they moved on from Carr. The only quarterback to lead a Jon Gruden team in passing three consecutive seasons is Rich Gannon.
What looked like a resurgent season from Carr has also gone horribly south after the past two weeks. After starting the year 6-4, the Raiders have lost to the Chiefs and Jets by a combined score of 74-12. Carr has done nothing in those games, racking up a total of 349 yards while posting a passer rating of 62.7 and throwing more touchdowns to defenders (two) than Oakland pass-catchers (one). Two bad games don't wash away the prior 10 -- in which Carr was sixth in passer rating and 11th in Total QBR -- but they're a reminder of just how low Carr's floor can be.
Carr might be the quintessential example of the unfortunate middle class under the new CBA. Is he good enough to win football games for your team? Sure. Is he likely to be better than a quarterback off the street or one you can draft in the middle rounds? Probably. Would you rather pay Carr $19 million for 2020 or go after a quarterback in the draft and pay him a quarter of that sum in the hopes of developing someone with a higher ceiling? Carr is still most likely to be on the Raiders' roster come 2020, but he'll likely have more in the way of meaningful competition for his starting job.
Most likely 2020 status: Battling for the Raiders job. I mentioned that Oakland could trade up in the draft for a quarterback, which would leave Carr in a lame-duck role or lead to his release. Just $2.9 million of his salary becomes guaranteed in February, which is what the Raiders would then eat if they release him after the draft. With former Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie in Miami, I wonder if he would try to push Carr to the Dolphins if Miami plans on using its top pick on Ohio State defensive end Chase Young as opposed to one of the quarterbacks.
No quarterback is dealing with more uncertainty than the 2015 NFL MVP, who has decided to undergo surgery on the foot injury that compromised his 2019 campaign. Newton should be able to return from the injury well before the 2020 season begins, but by the time he suits up for his next game, it will be nearly two years since the last time we saw a healthy Newton shredding opposing defenses.
Part of what makes him so effective, of course, is his ability to pick up first downs with his 6-foot-5, 245-pound frame. After undergoing both foot and shoulder surgeries, it's unclear whether the same quarterback will be waiting on the field come 2020. With Newton entering the final year of his deal at a base salary of $18.6 million, the Panthers will be making an expensive bet on his health if they decide to keep him around.
Of course, the decision on Newton's future will also be preceded and determined by the efforts to find the Panthers a new coach. Owner David Tepper admitted that he fired Ron Rivera before the end of the season to beat other teams to the hiring jump. Part of that process, unquestionably, will involve Newton and his future. The Panthers and their new coach will likely have to make a decision about their 2020 quarterback before Newton has stepped back onto a football field at anything close to 100%.
What does Rivera firing mean for Cam?
Dan Graziano discusses Cam Newton's future in Carolina following the firing of Ron Rivera, the only head coach Newton has ever played for in the NFL.
If I'm forced to make a pick here, I could see the Panthers bringing back Newton and playing out the final year of his contract. With Kyle Allen struggling and rookie third-round pick Will Grier yet to suit up, there's no obvious quarterback of the future on the roster. The Panthers project to pick 12th and don't have any extra selections in April's draft, which would leave them just outside of the typical range where teams find franchise quarterbacks in the draft. And unlike some of the middle-class quarterbacks on this list, we know Newton's upside is literally as one of the best players in football. It's just a question of how likely he is to realize that upside after the injuries.
Most likely 2020 status: Panthers starter. Newton would have no shortage of suitors if he hit free agency, although those would most likely be one-year pacts.
In what might politely be considered a case of the ol' Barnwell Jinx, Rivers was humming along with another totally solid campaign when I suggested that he was the best quarterback to never win a Super Bowl. The Chargers were 4-5 coming off a comfortable win over the Packers, and Rivers was completing two-thirds of his passes and had nearly twice as many touchdown passes (12) as interceptions (seven).
Oops. Since then, the Chargers have dropped three straight games, and Rivers has completed 58% of his throws and given away eight picks while posting a passer rating of 66.3. The first two losses ended with him throwing the ball to the other team on a would-be game-winning drive; the third saw him get the Chargers down the field for a game-tying field goal, only for the Broncos to pick up a 37-yard pass interference penalty on their only play from scrimmage on the subsequent drive and hit a 53-yard field goal to win the game.
Back-to-back nightmare games against the Raiders and Chiefs have led to serious discussions about whether Rivers has lost it. I'm not sure the evidence qualifies given that he made plenty of good throws in those games and had his fair share of multigame, multi-interception streaks early in his career, but there are more reasons to be concerned about him than there were before. The other members of his famous 2004 class are either on their way out (Eli Manning) or done for the year (Ben Roethlisberger).
With Rivers an unrestricted free agent after the season, the Chargers could move on without offering their longtime starter a new contract. Tyrod Taylor is under contract for 2020 and would give them a short-term starter while they find their quarterback of the future. Fifth-rounder Easton Stick is the other quarterback on the roster, and Los Angeles doesn't like trading draft picks and likely won't pick high enough to draft its quarterback of the future in the first round. If the Chargers were going to pursue a new starter besides Taylor, it would likely be from among the quarterbacks I've mentioned here.
If Rivers doesn't play well enough to earn serious consideration to return to the Chargers, I think he'll call it a day. If he returns to form and plays solid football over the final month of the season, though, my suspicion is that he and the team would agree on a new contract, even if it's just a one-year pact. They have a championship-caliber roster if they can get their luck from 2018 back onboard, and Rivers has exhibited little desire to uproot his large family from San Diego. There's another option that comes to mind for me elsewhere, but a short-term extension makes sense for both parties.
Most likely 2020 status: Chargers starter. If Newton left Carolina, though, the Panthers could pursue Rivers as a short-term option. Former Chargers coach Norv Turner is installed as their offensive coordinator, and Rivers went to NC State.
Let's end with an easy one. While the Cowboys have publicly flirted with the idea of insisting that their franchise quarterback will need to take less than market value to stay with the organization, Prescott holds most of the leverage here.
The Cowboys can use both the franchise and transition tags this offseason to keep both Prescott and wide receiver Amari Cooper, also a free agent, in the fold, but that would just push off an eventual reckoning for one more season. It's highly unlikely that the 26-year-old Prescott actually reaches the market. The only question is whether Dallas is able to sign Prescott to an extension before Patrick Mahomes does his deal with the Chiefs.
Most likely 2020 status: Cowboys starter.