Any franchise that drafts a quarterback does so in the hope of a Dak Prescott-like impact. Take a prospect, drop him in the lineup, go the playoffs behind an Offensive Rookie of the Year performance under center.
The reality is that most rookie quarterbacks, even those that wind up starting in Year One, require several seasons to reach their peak.
So, what’s a team to do if it has its eyes on the playoffs but does not yet have a starting quarterback locked in on the depth chart? Here are the most obvious and available options, ranked in order of how much they’d help a team reach the postseason in 2017.
1. Tony Romo (Current status: Under contract with Cowboys through 2019)
The NFL is a risk/reward business, and there is no potentially available quarterback who highlights both extremes quite like Romo. When healthy, Romo has been a borderline top-10 QB in this league, with four Pro Bowl nods and more than 34,000 yards passing. He also missed time due to injury in 2008, ’10, ’13, ’14, ’15 and ’16. Romo turns 37 in April and has not played a full 16-game schedule since ’12; he has appeared in five games over the past two seasons.
The thing is that Romo has qualified for the playoffs as a starting QB as many times as the rest of this list combined. That’s a franchise accomplishment, of course, but there is no doubt Romo made the Cowboys better. Put him on any team with a passable defense and a couple of offensive weapons, and it’s a playoff threat in 2017.
His contract is a sticking point. Trading or releasing him would leave the Cowboys with a $19.6 million dead-money hit for the 2017 season (all salary numbers via Over the Cap). They could drop that number to $10.7 million by designating Romo a post-June 1 cut, but that would be a brutal way to do business—frankly, the Cowboys owe Romo more than to cut him loose in the middle of the summer, after most teams have settled on their 2017 QBs.
There is a lot to unpack, and the Cowboys face a tough decision. Any currently QB-less team hoping to make a run in 2017 should be trying to get Jerry Jones on the line.
2. Jimmy Garoppolo (Current status: Under contract with Patriots through 2017)
The main reasons why Garoppolo is a decent bet to be traded this off-season: A) He has just one year left on his contract, and the Patriots are highly unlikely to use the franchise tag or get into a bidding war over their backup QB; B) He’s coming off a season in which he won two games as a starter, including an impressive three-TD showing against the Dolphins; C) Tom Brady is not going anywhere anytime soon—he just told The MMQB’s Peter King he would “like to play into my mid-40s”.
That two-start glimpse at Garoppolo was all curious teams needed to see. The 2014 second-round pick was not a player the Patriots had to hide while trying to survive Brady’s absence. Garoppolo looked the part of a starter, both against Miami and in a Week 1 win at Arizona. Add in the three seasons Garoppolo has spent learning behind Brady, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Bill Belichick, and New England should find a hot trade market.
The expectations for Garoppolo may be unfairly high if he lands somewhere as a starter next season. He won’t be dropping onto a roster as well-built as New England’s, but he still is ready for a shot.
3. Tyrod Taylor (Current status: Under contract with Bills through 2021)
The new NFL league year (and free agency) begins on March 9. Two days later, the Bills have to make a call—if they have not done so by then—on Taylor’s future. If the Bills pick up his contract option, it would lock them into a $15.9 million cap hit for 2017 and nearly $31 million in guaranteed money total. It’s a lot, but also not outlandish if Buffalo views Taylor as a legitimate starting quarterback.
If it does not, another team will. Taylor always will have his flaws, like that he bails on the pocket too quickly or is scattershot with his accuracy. But he’s also proven to be a solid, if far from “elite”, quarterback. He can spin a deep ball and hurt teams with his athleticism outside the pocket.
The Bills were 14–14 in Taylor’s starts the past two seasons. Perhaps with a better defense and more stable coaching atmosphere, they could have qualified for the playoffs. Taylor didn’t put the team on his shoulders, but the offense hummed for significant stretches this past season.
4. Kirk Cousins (Current status: Impending free agent)
The way Washington’s season ended complicated the already muddled matter of Cousins’s contract. Needing a home win against either the sub-.500 Panthers in Week 15 or the Giants, who had nothing to play for, in Week 17, Washington flopped. That is not all on Cousins, but he didn’t exactly drag his team into the postseason.
The flip side for the Redskins, though, is that you’re looking at their short list of QB options if Cousins walks (and the Cowboys won’t be dealing Romo within the division). Cousins sort of is what he is at this point, which is enough to keep a team in contention.
Washington can use the franchise tag on Cousins for the second consecutive year, pushing his salary to $24 million, but should he reach free agency, that is how he will be viewed: an experienced, hard-working starter who can operate an offense with relative efficiency. Want an All-Pro? Look elsewhere. Hoping for a QB that could be a steadying presence for a playoff-ready roster? Here ya go.
5. Deshaun Watson (Current status: 2017 draft prospect)
The challenge with this, and any, quarterback draft class is figuring out when the prospects will be ready to start. Carson Wentz surprised with his early-season success in 2016, and obviously just about everyone misread Dak Prescott’s preparedness. The presumed top QBs this year (Watson, DeShone Kizer, Mitch Trubisky and Patrick Mahomes) compose a high-upside group that’s rough around the edges.
So what makes Watson stand out, if we’re eyeballing potential 2017 success? Mainly, where he’s been. He has played against Ohio State, Oklahoma and Alabama (twice) in the playoffs, while making a combined 30 starts in the past two seasons. Does he turn the ball over too much? Yes. Will he need to improve his reading of defenses? Absolutely. However, he’s not going to be rattled by the stage.
That’s not enough to guarantee success on its own, but it at least offers Watson the opportunity to help a team reach the postseason next year.
6. Jay Cutler (Current status: Under contract with the Bears through 2021)
That "current status" is misleading in the way that NFL contracts usually are. Technically, Cutler’s deal with Chicago runs through 2021. The Bears owe him just $2 million more in guaranteed money, though, so they could save $14 million this year and about $72 million total by cutting bait on their long-time QB. His potential market is tough to pin down. Cutler comes with 11 years of experience and an arm capable of lighting up defenses. He’s also an aloof, turnover-prone QB with a checkered injury history.
Again, though, we’re talking about 2017. If a team wants to build for the future, Cutler should be among the last targets on their list—he’s turning 34 in April and his best years appear to be behind him. As a one- or two-year veteran stopgap, a franchise could do worse.
7. DeShone Kizer (Current status: 2017 draft prospect)
The Kizer from September through early November of 2015 looked darn near plug-and-play ready. The Kizer from ’16 often fell more under the “developmental prospect” umbrella—an inconsistent, at times skittish QB that struggled to close games. How much of the most recent version of Kizer was due to his own issues and how much fell on his underachieving team?
Therein lies the conundrum facing NFL talent evaluators. Kizer checks off the size, arm, mobility and experience boxes, but his 2016 performance set him up to be a multi-year project rather than a Day One starter. Should the team that takes him find a little of that ’15 magic, Kizer can be a Rookie of the Year contender ... and possibly oversee a quick turnaround for a team drafting in the top half of Round 1.
8. Colin Kaepernick (Current status: Under contract with the 49ers through 2017)
Odds are very much stacked against Kaepernick playing out the ’17 season on his current deal—San Francisco can release him for a $2.5 million cap charge; Kaepernick can void the final year of his contract and become a free agent. So, he’s either going to wind up with a reworked 49ers deal or hit the market untethered.
His national anthem protest last season overshadowed the fact that he actually played pretty well. The wins never came, but he was among the least of San Francisco’s problems down the stretch. While Kaepernick may never again find his 2012-13 mojo, he still, at 29, provides a touch of intrigue as a dual-threat QB that has had success as a starter.
9. Mitch Trubisky (Current status: 2017 draft prospect)
This is the bandwagon currently running out in front in the 2017 QB race. Two weeks before the combine, Trubisky is being talked up as a virtual top-10 lock. That doesn’t mean the draft will play out that way in April, nor that Trubisky can be an immediate franchise savior, but he has avid supporters.
Any talk about how excellent he can become as an NFL starter, though, usually has its focus on 2018, ’19 and beyond. Trubisky has obvious physical gifts, with the gunslinging mentality some teams will love, but he did not start at North Carolina until this year, and his mechanics require quite a bit of housecleaning. He might be great, in time. Expecting him to lead a playoff push next season would be asking a lot.
10. Nick Foles (Current status: Under contract with the Chiefs through 2017)
The Chiefs can clear $10.75 million off their cap, scot-free, if they release Foles. They won’t be paying him that much to back up Alex Smith. Foles has 36 career starts to his credit, highlighted by that lightning-in-a-bottle 2013 season under Chip Kelly in Philadelphia. He stepped in last year for one start and completed 20 of 33 passes in a win over Jacksonville.
Hard to bank on there being much untapped upside in Foles, given that he will be on his fourth team in four seasons should he leave Kansas City—if he was that tantalizing as a potential starting QB, someone would have held on to him. Talent-wise, though, he’s ahead of several 2017 quarterback choices.
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11. Brian Hoyer (Current status: Impending free agent)
When deciphering whether or not any of those quarterbacks can help a team reach the playoffs, consider this: The 2015 Texas made the playoffs with Hoyer under center. Granted, their defense deserves credit for most of that accomplishment (and Hoyer’s playoff performance vs. Kansas City was an all-time stinker), but Hoyer was in the postseason.
He also did a solid job for Chicago last season, before suffering a season-ending injury. In his five starts, Hoyer tossed six touchdown passes to no interceptions.
12. Patrick Mahomes (Current status: 2017 draft prospect)
Of all the quarterbacks eligible for the ’17 draft, there is a case to be made that Mahomes has the highest ceiling. His arm strength is downright silly, and he is cut from that mold of quarterbacks that almost seem to prefer making plays on the move vs. sticking in the pocket. Given time and space to develop, the payoff could be incredible.
As for 2017, though, Mahomes should be eased into action. The critiques of his background in Texas Tech’s Air Raid system may be overblown—he has shown an ability to read defenses and get through progressions, albeit with a bit of inconsistency—but that’s still a transitional challenge for him. There is a lot to love here, but there would be a bevy of rough outings if Mahomes is a full-time starter out of the gate.
13. A.J. McCarron (Current status: Under contract with the Bengals through 2017)
Important footnote to McCarron’s contract status: He would become a restricted free agent after this season, not an unrestricted one, according to Cincinnati.com—he spent most of 2014 on the non-football injury list, so did not accrue a year toward free agency. That extra season of control adds to his trade value, but it also might make it easier for the Bengals to justify hanging onto him. Any prospective interest in McCarron likely revolves around his 2015 work. As a fill-in for the injured Andy Dalton, McCarron finished the regular season strong (four TDs, zero interceptions in three starts) as the Bengals clinched the AFC North.14. Mike Glennon (Current status: Impending free agent)
It goes without saying we’ve drifted beyond the dream solutions for 2017 playoff hopefuls into those QBs who can be serviceable. Heck, maybe Glennon has a chance to exceed that low bar—he held his own as a young starter in ’13 and ’14 on a pair of bad Tampa Bay teams. Given a fresh start, he could land in that Cousins range of starting QBs: competent if unspectacular.
15. Matt Barkley (Current status: Impending free agent)
Barkley’s star burned out quickly last season—after three weeks of decent play, he wound up throwing a whopping 14 picks in six games; his 6.5% interception rate was the highest of any QB with at least 60 pass attempts. So, those positive flashes from the 26-year-old are intriguing, but he’ll still be viewed as a backup.
16. Ryan Fitzpatrick (Current status: impending free agent)
Does Fitzpatrick, 34, intend to keep playing? He didn’t look to have much left in the tank during his miserable 2016 return to the Jets. He can put up numbers, both good (almost 26,000 career passing yards, 166 touchdowns) and bad (133 interceptions, including 17 last season).
17. Case Keenum (Current status: Impending free agent)
Consider this space as standing in for “The Field” in this conversation. Once a team gets into the Keenum range of quarterbacks, it’s signing a player for locker-room presence, experience and the teeny-tiniest sliver of hope that a miracle improvement happens during the off-season.