2018 Free Agent Preview: Quarterback

Though quarterback is rarely a big position of interest in free agency this year might be a bit different based on some odd circumstances involving Kirk Cousins and to a lesser extent Drew Brees. I’ll look at my picks for the top 10 potentially available players in free agency and then put up some estimates for the group of FAs who are out there this season. Ill try to do a few of these positions as time allows through the start of free agency. Feel free to email me requests otherwise Ill just run through offensive skill positions through the line and then the defense.

1. Kirk Cousins, Redskins

Cousins currently played out his second franchise tag with Washington which leave the Redskins the option of franchising him for a whopping $34.5 million and blocking him from free agency, transition tagging him for $28.7 million to maintain a right of first refusal or just letting him walk. All three options are on the table but the franchise tag would be pretty devastating so most likely they would use a transition tag and he would have a market with that.

Cousins is a capable, above average QB but probably not the type of Tier 1 QB that ensures the playoffs and any team signing him should not look at him as a savior but as part of the solution. A team has to surround him with more talent than the Redskins did this past season if they want to break out from the 8-8 pack of teams on a yearly basis. That said we are talking QBs and being a true Tier 1 player has nothing to do with salary.

Cousins market was probably hurt by the 49ers making a trade for a QB at the deadline but there are teams that should make offers. The more teams the higher the bidding can go and I would be surprised if he was not the highest paid QB in the history of the NFL barring an unforeseen extension for an Aaron Rodgers between now and March. I’m not sure if he can reach the $30M a year mark, but it wouldn’t stun me either.

If a team needs a QB I don’t consider the salary cap a barrier for anyone since you simply find ways to make it work. Teams that I think will take a serious look are the Bills, Jets, Dolphins, Jaguars (unless Bortles goes on a big playoff run) and Cardinals. I think he will be too expensive for the Broncos who have been more conservative than others and while the fit may be there with the Browns I don’t see how you could advocate for signing a high priced veteran when you have the 1st and 4th overall pick in the draft. Of those teams I think only the Jets, Jaguars, and Browns could construct an offer that would prove difficult for Washington to match. The others may have issues due to their salary cap to build something out that the Redskins would not match unless they got very exotic with player controlled voids or contract escalators that maintained his position as the highest paid player.

I’d put his market between $27.5 and $29 million a year with over $65 million fully guaranteed at signing.

2. Jimmy Garoppolo, 49ers

The 49ers lost a lot of leverage when Garoppolo was forced to come into the lineup due to injury and lit the league up. In hindsight they should have furiously looked to work out a new contract just as soon as they traded for him. Not doing that likely cost them at least a few million.

I’d say it is unlikely that Garoppolo hits the market. Even if the 49ers use the transition tag, which I think is advisable over the franchise tag, they have so much cap space that there is nothing I could see a team offering that they could not match. Given that negotiating contracts takes time and sits on your cap in full while the other team can mull over the offer for a few days I don’t think teams will see it being worth their time. This should make the transition tag a block for free agency.

I’d say for most players who are traded for a 2nd round pick that they typically will sign a long term contract that is near the top of the market but generally behind a few key players. Id say that is in the $22-$22.5M range. However with the escalating salaries at QB and understanding that the 49ers would look bad if he ever walked they should be able to push that number past the $25M contract signed by Derek Carr who is going to be his closest comparable.

San Francisco is tough to deal with and Im not sure the sides can work out a long term contract but I also don’t see him leaving. If they do a long term deal Id say it will be in the $22M range with somewhat reasonable escalators that could push it beyond $25 million a season. If not I would anticipate using the tag.

3. Drew Brees, Saints

Brees took an under market contract for this season to potentially avoid the franchise process which gives him an interesting decision for 2018. The Saints are coming off their best season in ages and it’s primarily because they had an absolutely great draft class. That gives the Saints a young core that should continue to succeed and not force the team to continue to make mistakes in free agency or with contract extensions. I think that makes it less likely that Brees will leave New Orleans since they look like they have broken out of the 0.500 rut in a sustainable manner.

Brees will be 39 years old next season so this is likely his final contract. There are a lot of different ways to take his stats this year. In some ways it was his best year in some time with a terrific completion percentage despite using all of the field while continuing to play mistake free. To outside teams though I think there may be a thought he lost something and that the best is behind him. This latter opinion is probably why Brees got so few mentions this year and fell behind Alvin Kamara as the most talked about Saint.

If the Saints do not make him a solid offer I think he will test free agency. Given his age and fact that his entire career has either been in great weather or indoors I don’t think he would get as robust a market as Cousins. Miami would be a team I could see making a big offer as would the Jaguars if Bortles flames out. The Cardinals if they continue to chase the ring with their current team would be another logical suitor. Most likely he stays in New Orleans on a 3 year contract worth right around $25 million a season with $40 million guaranteed and vesting guarantees for the entire contract.

4. Case Keenum, Vikings

Keenum is one of the most shocking QB stories if 2017. Keenum had stints with the Texans and Rams before coming to the Vikings as a low cost backup. An injury to Sam Bradford saw him take over the Vikings offense and lead them to an 11-3 record in the 14 games he started. Keenum avoided big mistakes and made plays when necessary. Though there is a big dropoff between the first tier of free agents and Keenum, Keenum should find some interest as a decent game manager if they need a QB and are not in a position to draft one.

Though Keenum should be impacted negatively by the failures of Brock Osweiler and Mike Glennon, their success at getting a contract should give Keenum a similar path to earning a reasonable contract. Teams will be more risk averse with Keenum since there is nothing before this season to really indicate that he would be a quality starter so I would not expect a big guarantee, but do think he can get a three year contract from a team.

I think for a team to be interested in Keenum they will need to have some skill position players in place and a solid defense. He is not someone you build a team around so I wouldn’t expect the bad roster teams to chase him. This is the price range where the Broncos could begin to look. If the Cardinals are still bullish on their roster this would be a reasonable stopgap solution with a little upside. Im not sure if you discount the Redskins on him either. The Vikings should be the favorites to retain him.

I’d think a 3 year contract in the $15 million per year range with $17 million or so guaranteed is likely unless teams are still scared in which case I’d look at 2 years $12-13M per year. Any type of good playoff run should increase any price.

5. Sam Bradford, Vikings

No player lost more this year than Bradford who led the Vikings to a great opening week win and then fell to another knee injury that seemed to come out of nowhere. The Vikings tried to bring him back after a few weeks and it was a disaster as he clearly was not capable of playing on his leg. He could be back for the playoffs in relief if Keenum had a bad game, but that may not be advisable to either side.

Bradford’s entire career has been marred by injuries and I don’t think Keenum leading the Vikings to the playoffs a year after Bradford’s team went 8-8 is a big benefit either. Though Bradford still has that draft pedigree and has never had a season so bad that it makes people forget where he was drafted, he is so far removed from being considered a “prospect” that teams shouldn’t be blinded by that anymore.

Bradford is a risky play but because he is likely going to be cheap relative to his potential upside he is worth the risk. Suitors should include the Broncos, Cardinals, Vikings if they fail to retain Keenum, and Redskins if they decide Cousins is too expensive. I guess with all the cap room they have the Browns could go to him to start over a rookie for a portion of the season before replacing him if things go south.

I don’t see Bradford signing for anything more than a 2 year contract worth somewhere around $16 million in base salary with another $10-$12 million available based on tiers of incentives. Cal it $7 million guaranteed and close to $1 million in per game bonuses this year.

6. Teddy Bridgewater, Vikings

A promising career took a bad turn off a horrific injury basically cause Bridgewater to miss the last two seasons. The Vikings did clear him to play this year after missing the first few weeks on the PUP list but we did not see much of him because Keenum and the team was so hot.

If it was known that Bridgewater was fully healthy there is no doubt in my mind he would get a contract at the least equal to Mike Glennon’s $15 million a year contract, but with such a small sample size post injury I don’t believe a team can make that kind of commitment. Most likely he is going to be looked at similar to Robert Griffin III but with less upside. Bridgewater thus far in his career has been little more than a safe game manager, but has Alex Smith upside and in today’s dollars Smith is worth over $22 million a season.

He is best served to take a one year contract with a chance to start even if that means leaving a few dollars on the table. We will see how the Vikings year ends but that could be a place where he had a chance to play if they don’t make the Super Bowl with Keenum this year. The Jets with decent wide receivers would make some sense as would the Bills if they part ways with Tyrod Taylor. Arizona is a great environment and if Larry Fitzgerald returns and they keep one of the Browns it could be a good spot. Denver would be the best spot of all with a terrific defense and good receivers.

I have a hard time projecting a contract here but I think somewhere around $6 or $7 million is fair.  The deal would include significant performance incentives as well. Im not sure given the nature of his injury if some teams might look for an injury waiver to apply in the preseason but he should be able to find a home where they take that risk at this price.

7. Josh McCown, Jets

McCown had the best season of his career at the age of 38 before an injury ended his season after 13 games. McCown is the ultimate journeyman with the Jets being his 8th NFL team and the 6th team he has logged at least 5 starts for.

There is little upside with McCown who will never stay healthy for 16 games and has only posted a winning record once in his career (3-2 with the Bears). However everywhere he goes his teammates seem to love him and he brings a great deal of energy to a team. Many say he is destined to be a coach in the league if he wants that and he seems more than happy to embrace a role as a mentor to a young team.

I think there should be a great deal of interest in McCown as a low level starter or safe backup. Even if the Jets were to plan on drafting a QB I don’t think they would discount keeping McCown for the year. Both Arizona and Denver could look at him as a cheap option to start for a season and pray he stays healthy. Miami and Houston, given their injuries at QB, should look at someone like this as a competent backup in the event rehab is slow or there is some kind of setback.

McCown will probably earn in the $6-$7 million range with incentives that will increase that based on performance if he were to start.

8. Jay Cutler, Dolphins

Cutler had zero interest in free agency last year and was about to move on from the NFL when an injury gave him an opportunity with the Dolphins. He certainly didn’t distinguish himself and hit career lows in yards per game, yards per completion, and yards per attempt. My assumption is that he will still have no interest in the initial stage of free agency this year but could hook up with a desperate team on a one year contract.

I would not completely discount the Dolphins but given how the year went and the fact that they wanted to evaluate David Fales in the final game makes me think they were done with him. I’d think the two more likely spots that could see desperation would be the Cardinals or the Redskins where maybe they think they could catch lighting in a bottle even though hes never had that lightning in his career. Last year the Jets were reportedly interested if he was cheap enough and maybe that could happen this year.

Part of this may depend on if FOX is willing to give him a job again after he left them last year or not. If not he may sign for cheaper which is 1 year for say $7 million with a few incentives for the playoffs. If Fox is an option my guess is a team would need to go to $10 million to bring him out of retirement.

9. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Buccaneers

With a season away from the Jets disaster of 2016 the well traveled veteran should be the top backup available. Fitzpatrick has the qualities you need for a spot starter and when he plays under control he can be a decent game manager for a few weeks before teams catch up with him. He went 2-1 with the Bucs this year and kept them competitive in another game he saw extensive time in.

Since he has been in so many spots its hard to say what teams would consider him again but I think anywhere where injuries seem more likely to occur makes sense. The Bucs would certainly remain a strong option too and he indicated he wanted to stay there. To me Tennessee would be a nice spot as would Miami. I don’t think the Bills would be a team he would go back to but anything is possible I guess. Dallas would be a dark horse destination if they wanted to go with a more well known backup.

Someone like Fitzpatrick should sign for 1 or 2 years for $3.5 million a season with some incentivized upside.

10. Drew Stanton, Cardinals

Stanton has come in to relieve an injured Carson Palmer in two of the last four seasons going 8-4 in the process. Stanton isn’t going to put up any fancy numbers but he seems to bring some confidence to his teammates and he hasn’t lost games for the team either. Those are the kind of qualities that make a pretty strong backup QB.

Stanton has had long stints with the Cardinals and Lions so I think he is doing something right to be able to keep his spot as a backup with so few teams. I think that would make most of the NFL open to using him. Any of the teams with an older QB should consider a player like Stanton to backup even if the player hasn’t had any injury history.   For teams with the younger QBs, like a Mariota, I think it is more of a case by case basis.

I think the market for Stanton will probably peak around $3 million unless he comes back to Arizona to compete for a starting job in which case it could be a bit higher.

Here is the list of the players we have listed as unrestricted free agents in 2018 and a rough estimate for a contract annual value.

RankPlayerCurrent TeamAgeSnap % Projected APY
1Kirk CousinsRedskins3099.6%$28,500,000
2Jimmy Garoppolo49ers2732.0%$22,000,000
3Drew BreesSaints3999.5%$25,000,000
4Case KeenumVikings3090.9%$15,000,000
5Sam BradfordVikings318.1%$8,000,000
6Teddy BridgewaterVikings260.8%$7,000,000
7Josh McCownJets3978.8%$6,000,000
8Jay CutlerDolphins3572.3%$7,000,000
9Ryan FitzpatrickBuccaneers3628.9%$3,500,000
10Drew StantonCardinals3428.5%$3,000,000
11Geno SmithGiants286.1%$1,500,000
12Matt MooreDolphins3419.2%$3,000,000
13Chase DanielSaints320.5%$3,500,000
14Ryan MallettRavens305.4%$2,000,000
15Brock OsweilerBroncos2831.1%$2,000,000
16E.J. ManuelRaiders287.5%Minimum
17Blaine GabbertCardinals2930.7%Minimum
18Chad HenneJaguars332.0%$1,500,000
19Derek AndersonPanthers351.5%$2,500,000
20Mark SanchezBears320.0%$1,500,000
21Tom SavageTexans2838.2%Minimum
22Scott TolzienColts314.0%Minimum
23Brandon WeedenTitans350.0%Minimum
24Josh JohnsonTexans320.0%Minimum
25Kellen ClemensChargers353.4%Minimum
26Austin DavisSeahawks290.5%Minimum
27Tyler BrayChiefs270.4%Minimum
28T.J. YatesTexans3118.7%Minimum
29Matt BarkleyCardinals280.0%Minimum

Examining the Proven Performance Escalator

The eve of free agency carries with it the promise of new fortune. When the annual spending spree launches in earnest tomorrow, it will bring life-changing pay raises to dozens of younger players. A number of other fourth-year players, meanwhile, will enjoy more modest pay increases in the coming season due to an aspect of the collective bargaining agreement called the Proven Performance Escalator.

Continue reading Examining the Proven Performance Escalator »

The Most Snaps to Replace in Free Agency

With free agency just a few days away I thought it made sense to see just what teams need to replace and how far their cap space might get them this year. There are a number of teams with excessive amounts of cap room to spend while others may have a difficult time finding ways to keep their rosters together. So for each team we will look at how many snaps they currently need to replace based on free agent status, either unrestricted or street, and just how much space they have to make that happen. Continue reading The Most Snaps to Replace in Free Agency »

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This new series will go through each division and look at how each NFL team tends to structure and negotiate their contracts. This is particularly relevant as we near free agency, and fans can begin to understand the general approach that their team will take to the marketplace come March. We start with the NFC North.


Chicago Bears

GM: Ryan Pace (early 2015)
Director of Football Administration: Joey Laine (mid 2015)

The Bears brought GM Ryan Pace and head cap exec Joey Laine into the building together in 2015. They are one of the youngest front office duos in the league, and this new leadership in Chicago makes it difficult to pinpoint their current cap strategy, but there are certainly some early tendencies.

Continue reading Breaking Down the Contract Structure Tendencies and Styles of Each Team – NFC North »