Nothing has remotely matched the hyperactive veteran quarterback market for creating intrigue and interest thus far this NFL offseason. And it cranked to life even before that offseason began for all 32 teams, given that Kansas City struck its blockbuster deal to send starter Alex Smith to Washington five days before the Eagles upset the Patriots in Super Bowl LII.
At the moment there are at least eight teams - or one-fourth of the league - that could conceivably enter the 2018 season with different starting quarterbacks than the one who ended 2017, and a handful of backup quarterbacks were on the move this month as well.
First-week free agency grades aren't the kind of snap judgments we're particularly fond of, but dissecting how teams fared in the quarterback market seems fair, and it also serves to look forward to the roster work that still needs to be done in some cases as a quarterback-rich NFL Draft looms next month.
They Nailed It
* Minnesota **- Tuesday was quite the day for the Vikings QB depth chart, with Case Keenum, Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater all finding new gigs, and the Vikings essentially winning the much-ballyhooed Kirk Cousins sweepstakes. It was about as neat and tidy a complete transformation as you could ever hope to achieve at the game's most pivotal position.
But in retrospect, Minnesota head coach Mike Zimmer at the scouting combine was telling us exactly what was going to transpire when he expressed honest reservations about all three of his team's incumbent passers. The Vikings are in go-for-it, win-now mode, and Cousins represented a clear-cut upgrade on almost every front. He had exhibited more high-level consistency and track record than Keenum, the breakthrough star of 2017, and posed none of the health-related question marks that Bradford and Bridgewater bring to the table.
Cousins will be a perfect fit in the Vikings' West Coast-style offense - now coordinated by ex-Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo - and with the likes of Adam Thielen, Kyle Rudolph, Stefon Diggs and Dalvin Cook as his primary weapons, his game will go to even greater heights than it did in D. C. The stability and relative calm of the Vikings coaching staff and front office leadership is going to do wonders for Cousins, after the tumult and turmoil of his years in Washington. How could it not?
In a secondary but not inconsequential move, the Vikings this week found their backup for Cousins in a low-cost trade for former Broncos starter Trevor Siemian, who started 24 games the past two seasons in Denver. True, the more Siemian started for the Broncos, the more he revealed himself an NFL backup. But he'll prove to be a solid and capable No. 2 option and after the disappointment in Denver he'll also benefit from a fresh start in the upper Midwest.
* Washington - There's no escaping the reality that the Redskins made a complete hash of their contractual duel with Cousins, paying him roughly $44 million on back-to-back franchise tags and then being forced to let him walk with nothing in return. But that doesn't mean they didn't recover from that self-inflicted wound about as well as they possibly could with the trade for Alex Smith, who is fresh off a career year and can point to the eye-opening fact he started for a playoff-bound team in six of his most recent seven seasons (he was 6-2-1 with the 2012 49ers, before getting hurt and losing his job to Colin Kaepernick that Super Bowl season).
Smith is going to thrive in coach Jay Gruden's quarterback-friendly offense, and he'll bring a dual-threat potential with the mobility and elusiveness that Cousins simply does not possess. Washington has a better-than-average offensive line and enough quality receiving options that Smith's performance should pretty much mirror what he was able to accomplish in Kansas City, where he led the league in passer rating in 2017 (104.7) and threw for a career-high 26 touchdowns, with just five interceptions.
Smith has now gone coast-to-coast in his 14-year NFL career (from San Francisco to Kansas City to Washington) and twice has been bumped out of a job by a younger, more tempting passing prospect. But he got a four-year extension as part of the move to D.C. and he's got a chance to again prove he's one of the more under-appreciated talents in the league's quarterback contingent.
* New Orleans - It seemed obvious and it was. Drew Brees wasn't going anywhere, no matter how long his new contract with the Saints took to come together. After 2017's resurgent season in New Orleans, which died in such a fluke fashion in Minneapolis, Brees and the Saints had every reason to continue their long and successful marriage, and $27 million of guaranteed money for a Hall of Fame-level quarterback in 2018 is a certifiable bargain in this market.
With the Saints losing backup quarterback Chase Daniel to Chicago in free agency, look for New Orleans to target a future replacement for the 39-year-old Brees in the draft (Lamar Jackson, anyone?), or dive back into the remains of the veteran backup market at some point in the coming weeks.
* Philadelphia - What did the Eagles do on the quarterback front recently? It's what they didn't do. They retained Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles, receiving no can't-refuse trade offers for the No. 2 passer who ensured Philadelphia finished No. 1 in the NFL for the first time since 1960. And that's a very good development in our eyes. When all the music stopped in the starting quarterback market - and we're still surprised Arizona didn't come after Foles - there were no teams without a chair, and that keeps St. Nick in green and white for the forseeable future.
With Carson Wentz still in the midst of a recovery from ACL surgery, the continued presence of Foles gives Philadelphia the best possible chance to defend its title and retain a sense of offensive continuity despite losing coordinator Frank Reich to the Colts head coaching job and quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo to the Vikings OC slot. Like they say, sometimes the deals you don't make are the best deals of all.
Solid Upgrades Executed
* Cleveland - There were only 12 quarterbacks who led their teams to the playoffs last season, and Tyrod Taylor was one of them. Relatively speaking, that alone qualifies him for reverential treatment by the standards of Browns quarterbacks from 1999-on. Taylor helped the Bills end their league-high 17-year playoff drought, so you figure he's not going to be intimidated by Cleveland's measly 15-year run of being shut out of the postseason.
The draft-pick-rich Browns sent the first selection of the third round to Buffalo (No. 65 overall) for Taylor, who the Bills were looking to move on from anyway. Good for Buffalo I suppose, but I say even better for Cleveland, because it finally landed a quarterback who knows how to take care of the football and avoid the costly mistake. Browns rookie starter DeShone Kizer was a turnover machine in 2017, tossing 22 interceptions. By contrast, Taylor had just 16 interceptions in his three seasons in Buffalo.
Taylor may refuse to acknowledge that he'll serve as the bridge quarterback in Cleveland, with the Browns widely expected to still take a passer at No. 1 in the draft (and the signing of ex-49ers running back Carlos Hyde only strengthens the belief that it won't be Penn State's Saquon Barkley at No. 1). But that's the reality of Taylor's role, and I would take him over A.J. McCarron in that position all day long, with the ex-Bengals backup thought to be Cleveland's primary target in the veteran quarterback market.
“Taylor is sort of a compromise choice as a bridge quarterback,'' ex-Browns general manager and current Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage told me this week. “He's not A.J. McCarron, who (Browns coach) Hue (Jackson) tried to trade for last October, but he's somebody both Hue and (new general manager) John Dorsey can live with.''
Live with and maybe even prosper with. Taylor has better statistics than he gets credit for, and he should be the dual-threat weapon that Robert Griffin III never was in Cleveland, when Jackson tried to resurrect his ill-fated career in 2016. Look for new Browns offensive coordinator Todd Haley to build the attack around Taylor's running threat, and penchant for accurate passing. His presence allows Cleveland to draft its quarterback of the future and develop him for a full year if need be. No more Kizer-like rush jobs, throwing a rookie into the deep end and watching him drown on a weekly basis.
* Denver - If the Broncos get the same performance level out of Case Keenum as the Vikings did in 2017, it'll do nothing but burnish John Elway's reputation that he has a knack for pulling a quarterback solution out of his…. um, helmet ear hole. But that's a big if, and we're not trying to knock Keenum as much as the Broncos team that will line up around him.
Denver's defense has suffered from a talent drain the past two years, and is not the same dominant unit that shut down high-powered Carolina in the Super Bowl 25 months ago. The Broncos offensive line has been very iffy of late, and their running game is no well-oiled machine either. Add in a receiving corps that is aging and in decline and the roster Keenum just joined is no match for the one he just left in Minnesota.
Despite all that, perhaps Keenum will thrive in the West Coast offense that Gary Kubiak brought to Denver, given his history in it in Houston under Kubiak. But suffice to say the Broncos settled for a starter in Keenum who still has to prove last season wasn't the aberration, and that makes his two-year $36 million contract really just a one-year guarantee that Denver is his team to lead in 2018.
With Paxton Lynch and Chad Kelly still on the depth chart, and the No. 5 Broncos believed to be very much interested in the draft's top-rated passers (they seem to be smitten with Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield), Keenum might wind up being every bit the bridge quarterback that Taylor figures to be in Cleveland. But that's still far more palatable than another year of Trevor Siemian and/or Brock Osweiler in Denver.
Jury Remains Out
* Arizona - There's always a team out there willing to give Sam Bradford big bucks and hope for the best. It didn't really work out, at least not for long, in St. Louis, Philadelphia or Minnesota, but sure, why not, Arizona? I'll tell you why not. Because Bradford's history says he's likely to get hurt at some point, and his most recent head coach, Minnesota's Mike Zimmer, just stood up at the combine a few weeks back and called his knee issue “degenerative.''
So consider me blown away that the Cardinals saw fit to award Bradford $20 million a year for two years, even though they have an offense in transition under new coordinator Mike McCoy, with none of the trend lines headed in the right direction in the desert. Bradford's dink and dunk style is about as opposite as you can get from Carson Palmer and the go-deep attack that former Cardinals coach Bruce Arians favored, and that's going to take some getting used to for Larry Fitzgerald and Co.
Arizona made a more reasonable move in landing free agent Mike Glennon to play the backup role behind Bradford. Glennon got his starting shot and a big payday in Chicago during last year's free agency, and quickly proved himself to be No. 2 material, getting benched in favor of rookie Mitch Trubisky. With Bradford and Glennon as their 1-2 tandem, the Cardinals certainly can not be ruled out of the first-round quarterback market in the draft. Yep, that makes Bradford another bridge quarterback candidate.
* New York Jets - Speaking of teams that still don't know where their future lies at quarterback, the Jets did a smart thing by bringing back 2017 starter Josh McCown at $10 million for this season. McCown exceeded expectations last year, and once New York saw it wasn't going to win the Cousins derby (I never thought he wanted any part of the Jets' vibe), he was the best available fallback option. As stop-gaps go, he's a darn good one.
The Jets also did a fairly shrewd thing in signing ex-Vikings starter Teddy Bridgewater to a one-year let's-see-what-we've-got-here deal. Bridgewater has essentially missed the past two seasons with that devastating knee injury of August 2016, so he's almost a complete unknown at this point. Think of Bridgewater as New York having bought a lottery ticket that could pay off handsomely if it hits, but most likely is a long shot. With the cap room the Jets had, it was worth the gamble.
Either way, the Jets are almost certain to be investing in a quarterback in the draft, most likely at their No. 6 slot of the first round. With both Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg no longer seen as viable options, whichever passer New York selects on the night of April 26 will be the future starter, and the countdown to inserting him into the lineup will immediately begin.
* Buffalo **- Once the Browns traded for Buffalo's Tyrod Taylor, the Bills and A.J. McCarron seemed destined to be paired up only because they were the last two suitors standing, waiting to dance. The Bills needed a starting candidate with nothing more than Nathan Peterman on their depth chart, and McCarron needed an opportunity to start, after earning his free agency and a ticket off the Bengals bench as Andy Dalton's backup.
McCarron got $10 million over two years, with another $6.5 million that can be earned via incentives. That tells me Buffalo still thinks of him as a backup, and only underlines how certain the playoff-qualifying Bills are to try and package their two first-round picks (Nos. 12 and 22) to move up into the draft's top 10 to select a quarterback.
We've only seen McCarron start four games in four years in Cincinnati, so he's still largely a blank slate. But I don't consider his arm strength a great match for the windy and winter conditions that prevail in Buffalo at times, so odds are he's a place-holder (say it with me, a bridge quarterback) for the rookie savior to come.
The Backup Plan
* Chicago-New Orleans-Green Bay **- The Bears, Saints and Packers all added low-budget options at the backup or No. 3 position on their depth chart. Chicago rather logically went after and landed Saints backup Chase Daniel, who knows the offense, having played in Kansas City under new Bears coach Matt Nagy. The Saints responded by signing Tom Savage, who was briefly Houston's starter last season until DeShaun Watson mania took hold. Lastly, the Packers curiously traded defensive back Demarious Randall to Cleveland for 2017 Browns starter DeShone Kizer, despite recently expressing firm confidence in backup Brett Hundley, who started nine games in place of the injured Aaron Rodgers, with mixed results.
If Rodgers and Hundley are entrenched, Kizer would seem to be superfluous, unless the Packers are developing him in hopes to flip him in trade at some later date. Otherwise he was brought in to challenge Hundley for the backup job, thereby hopefully bringing out the best in both of them. By the stretch of the imagination, it's has been a precipitous fall for Kizer, who was drafted in the second round by the Browns last year and started 15 games for Cleveland as a rookie. Now he starts anew as a No. 3 in relative obscurity in Green Bay.
And to think Colin Kaepernick still can't elicit even a tryout from some quarterback-needy team