Football Perspective posted a useful piece by Chase Stuart a few days ago that classifies the contracts of the expected starting quarterbacks of the 32 NFL teams in 2018. In his Jimmy Garoppolo, Olindo Mare, And The Widening Gap With The Rookie Pay Scale, Stuart describes three contract tiers:
Franchise ($20 million or more per year)
16 quarterbacks, 12 of whom are currently and expected by Stuart to remain under contract with their current team. This includes Eli Manning with the Giants, Drew Brees and the Saints, Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers, Alex Smith and the Redskins, and, most consequential, Kirk Cousins, wherever he signs.
And a note to the many wishful thinkers out there: Cousins is likely to sign a contract in very close proximity to Garoppolo’s $37.5 million-a-year deal — hell, probably higher — and not in the $25 or $30 million range that too many of you are still deluding yourselves he’ll settle for.
Sub-Franchise or Mid-Tier ($16-$20 million per year)
Five quarterbacks, with three Stuart believes will remain with their current clubs: Blake Bortles (Jaguars), Andy Dalton (Bengals), and Ryan Tannenhill (Dolphins). Stuart also added Case Keenum and Tyrod Taylor to this list.
Rookie (single-digit millions of dollars per year)
11 quarterbacks, including eight established starters working under their rookie contracts, plus three unspecified rookies from this year’s draft class that Stuart expects to start this year.
The author uses these classifications to describe the phenomenon of the shrinking class of “mid-tier” starters, squeezed as they are between the franchise quarterbacks at the top and the infinitely cheaper ones still working under their rookie contracts. What piqued my interest is what this means for the veteran quarterbacks looking for starting jobs next season, not least the Vikings’ three 2017 quarterbacks, Case Keenum, Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater.
One note, though: The classifications Stuart and I are using refer to the contracts of these quarterbacks, not the qualities of the quarterbacks themselves, so hopefully we can short-circuit any debates about whether a Joe Flacco or Case Keenum, for instance, is “really” a franchise quarterback.
The author believes Cousins, Keenum, Taylor, or a 2018 rookie will start for the Bills, Browns, Broncos, Cardinals, Jets, or Vikings. In other words, their landing spots boil down to two 2017 playoff teams, two teams only two years removed from the playoffs (and not necessarily in full-on rebuilding mode), and two teams in some stage of rebuilding.
The mid-tier quarterbacks who Stuart thinks will be left out in the cold and signed to contracts below even the mid-tier level are McCown, Foles, Bradford, and Bridgewater, while Mike Glennon will fall out of the tier completely when the Bears, as expected, cut him.
I have some quibbles with the author’s predictions, primarily as they reflect on the mid-tier quarterbacks who might find themselves shut out of the starting market. First, there are some teams with either franchise or mid-tier starters who could conceivably be looking for a quarterback in the first round.
Namely, the Chargers (Philip Rivers will turn 37 in December), Dolphins (Tannenhill has reportedly said he’s okay with the possibility), Giants (Manning just turned 37), Jaguars (it’s widely predicted that his potential replacement will join Bortles), Redskins (I doubt it, but Smith does turn 34 in May), Saints (Drew Brees hit 39 last month), Patriots (an outside possibility, even with a 41-year old Tom Brady set to open the season) and Steelers (if they don’t make a run at Bridgewater, as has been rumored, to apprentice for the soon-to-be 36 Ben Roethlisberger).
This increases the market for high-end rookies — expected to start or not — and available mid-tier starters to a whopping 14 teams, which is nearly half the league. 2018 is supposed to be a deep quarterback class, but it isn’t that deep!
Moving on to some of the specific teams, I think the Giants will draft a quarterback with the No. 2 overall pick, but he’ll likely sit a year behind Manning. Across town, another rookie will probably be looking over McCown’s shoulder with the Jets, even if that’s a classic case of a veteran placeholder whose hold on the position is very tentative indeed.
Nick Foles will probably be off the market until the summer, at least, unless Eagles management is convinced that Carson Wentz can open the season for them, which seems unlikely given how late in the season his ACL was torn. As for Keenum and Taylor, who Stuart expects to be signed to mid-tier contracts, it’s been speculated that both of them could be sharing a quarterback room with some highly drafted rookie, since they still have their fair share of doubters around the league.
And can one expect the Bills, Broncos, Cardinals, or Vikings to be planning on starting a rookie quarterback while making a run at the playoffs? Not to mention, I have to think that the Browns wouldn’t mind starting some transitional, veteran QB — say perhaps, the newly unrestricted free agent, A.J. McCarron, who they famously tried and failed to trade for during this past season — instead of throwing yet another rookie to the wolves.
Going against recent trends and what appear to be broad expectations, I could imagine only one or two rookie quarterbacks, or even none, starting the majority of games for their new teams, and that depends mostly on the health of the other quarterbacks on their rosters.
With more teams in the market for a mid-tier starting quarterback or a high-round rookie (or both), I can envision some scenarios involving the Vikings, as well as their three most recent starters.
I can see Sam Bradford being a transitional starter — he’ll have to accept the idea this time, where he rebelled against it two years ago — for some other team, either a contender like the Bills, Broncos or Cardinals, or a rebuilding team like the Browns or Jets. He could remain a Viking, but I think the chances of that are slim.
Teddy Bridgewater could remain a Viking, paired with either a rookie or a better-than-average backup (Colin Kaepernick, Brian Hoyer, or Colt McCoy come to mind, even if only one of them excites me), or, accept a very intriguing “Prove You’re Healthy” deal from the Steelers to be the presumptive heir apparent to Big Ben. He might have to settle for being a transitional-but-maybe-not guy for one of the borderline contenders or fixer-uppers that bypass Bradford but bring in a relatively raw prospect.
Case Keenum could re-sign with the Vikings — I’d say the odds are less than Teddy’s but higher than Sam’s — but he’s at least as likely to be signed by whichever contender thinks it’s close to making a run at not just the playoffs, but the big enchilada itself. My interest in Tyrod Taylor has waned a bit, given that his passing game seems to be stuck in “he protects the ball but doesn’t do much with it” mode, but there’s a big question as to how well he’s been coached so far, and the Vikings happen to have a pair of young quarterback whisperers on the coaching staff who might be able to work some near-miracles with him.
Kirk Cousins seems to divide the fan base. Is he a franchise quarterback? And with his post-Garoppolo and post-Smith price tag, he’s the one option (a franchise tagged Case Keenum would only affect the 2018 cap, while many of those extended and new contracts won’t go into effect until 2019) that could take a chunk out of the Vikings’ available salary cap space.
Is Cousins worth the risk of losing Barr or Kendricks, Waynes or Hunter, Diggs or Thielen (who might just be looking to renegotiate his WR3 contract to match his WR1 play)? Is he worth hollowing out the Vikings’ bench, purging any and all veteran back-ups, and maybe a couple of second-tier starters, and relying solely on youngsters and rookies for depth? Is he worth forgoing any other big players in the free agent market, this year and perhaps for the foreseeable future?
I’ve warned elsewhere of how the Vikings’ hands were tied vis-à-vis the salary cap when Dennis Green re-signed Randall Cunningham to a long-term contract after he followed up his 1998 All-Pro regular season with yet another underwhelming post-season performance. That experience has relevance for each of the quarterbacks mentioned in the preceding paragraph because of the quality, money, or relative health of the players involved.
Have we already seen the best of Case Keenum and Tyrod Taylor, like we saw the best of Randall Cunningham in the 1998 regular season, or are the faults seen not just in the recent playoffs but throughout their careers so deeply ingrained that they’ll never be able to get the Vikings a Lombardi Trophy? Will signing Kirk Cousins, who has some limitations of his own, hamstring the Vikings’ ability to manage the salary cap and field a team capable of winning one or more Super Bowls while the window is open for him and the rest of this relatively young team?
Might the team instead be best served by mixing and matching these relatively young veterans, as Sean Borman recently asked here at VT concerning re-signing both Keenum and Bridgewater, but throwing Bradford and Taylor into the mix, too? The Vikings found a surprisingly effective replacement for Cunningham on the bench in 1999 in a 32-year-old Jeff George, but that was only a temporary solution, as both were gone from Minnesota after 1999 and out of the league after 2001.
Can the knees of Bradford or Bridgewater give the Vikings the years that Cunningham and George couldn’t give them? What Chase Stuart has given me, at least, is a better handle on what kinds of contracts starting NFL quarterbacks are getting these days, in general, and what the options are for those teams, like the Vikings, that are looking for their quarterbacks of the present and maybe the future, too.