The NFL Draft provides teams with opportunities to find solutions for unresolved positions on the roster, whether that be starting vacancies or depth issues. But not all roster problems can be solved via the three-day event, especially for teams that have question marks at the quarterback position. These battles take time, consideration, evaluation and often do not remain static over the course of a given season.
Right now, five teams—the Philadelphia Eagles, Cleveland Browns, New York Jets, Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers—do not have clear-cut starters at quarterback. There are numerous directions each club can go between now and Week 1, and numerous decisions they may have to make at the position as the season wears on. So, let’s take a look at the situation each team is currently in with their quarterbacks and try to predict the Week 1 starters—and, for fun, also try to project who will be under center in Week 17.
In early March, it seemed clear-cut who the Philadelphia Eagles wanted to be their starter for 2016 when they signed Sam Bradford to a two-year, $35 million contract that included $22 million guaranteed. The short duration made sense, given Bradford’s extensive injury history and 60.1 career completion percentage. The amount, at least in guarantees, was a nod to Bradford’s pedigree as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft and the potential the Eagles saw in him, granted he can stay healthy.
But that job security eroded somewhat a week later when the Eagles brought aboard another quarterback, Chase Daniel, on a three-year, $21 million deal. Though the $7 million per-year average is in line with most backup contracts, it outlasts Bradford’s contract by a year and has cap hits of $8 million in each of the 2017 and 2018 seasons. That indicated the Eagles were at the very least buying an insurance policy should Bradford fall injured or underperform this year.
The job security was nearly obliterated a month later, when the Eagles moved a glut of high-round 2016, 2017 and 2018 draft picks to move up to the No. 2 spot, then held by the Cleveland Browns, in April’s NFL Draft. The move was transparent: The Eagles were after a quarterback. And indeed, that is the position they addressed with that No. 2 pick, selecting North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz as their future face of the franchise.
The moves prompted Bradford to demand being traded by the Eagles and threaten a holdout from the team’s voluntary workouts, which began this week. That didn’t last long, though, with Bradford not finding a suitor for him—and his $12.5 million cap hit—and returning to the team on Monday to participate in the workouts. Despite Bradford’s unhappiness, he’s on track to be the starter in Week 1. Holding onto the job for the entire season, however, is another story.
If Bradford suffers another injury, the Eagles will turn to either Daniels or Wentz to replace him. Such a move could be permanent, depending on how that replacement performs versus how Bradford performed prior to it. He could also easily be benched for simply struggling. Two weeks in a row throwing multiple interceptions will be enough to turn the Philadelphia fan base against him, and that could influence the Eagles’ brass. Ultimately, it seems like Bradford will get the Week 1 start, with Wentz eventually supplanting him, as the Eagles seek to get their young passer some NFL experience as a rookie before taking over as the full-time starter in 2017.
Week 1 Starter: Sam Bradford
Week 17 Starter: Carson Wentz
New York Jets
The New York Jets could be relatively comfortable with either Geno Smith or rookie Christian Hackenberg as the team’s starting quarterback for the 2016 season. But they would be much happier to reunite with estranged passer and 2015 starter Ryan Fitzpatrick, who had a career year in 2015, throwing for 3,905 yards and 31 touchdown passes with 15 interceptions. The question, though, is whether he’ll be on the roster at all this year.
Fitzpatrick remains a free agent, waiting patiently-impatiently for a deal from the Jets that matches his perceived value for the team. Meanwhile, the Jets have to roll with Smith, a 2013 second-round draft pick who has thrown 27 touchdowns to 35 interceptions in the course of 31 games played, or Hackenberg, a big-armed but inaccurate passer drafted in the second round this year. Bryce Petty is also on the depth chart at the position.
The Jets had initially offered Fitzpatrick around $7 million a season in a new deal—backup quarterback money in today’s NFL—and thus Fitzpatrick rejected it. Peter King of MMQB.com believes that the Jets will be patient with the situation and eventually, when it’s crunch time, increase the offer to a more starter-friendly $12 million or so for the year, a contract that should please Fitzpatrick and bring him back into the fold.
But don’t expect that to happen any time soon. Jets owner Woody Johnson said this week, “We’ve got some time here. Training camp’s not for another, what, couple months?” when asked about the status of talks between the team and Fitzpatrick. That will certainly allow for Smith and especially Hackenberg to get much needed practice reps between then and now. But it does seem that ultimately, Fitzpatrick will be re-signed and will spend the season as the starter. And if he plays as he did in 2015, he won’t be relinquishing the job to Hackenberg or anyone else this year.
Week 1 Starter: Ryan Fitzpatrick
Week 17 Starter: Ryan Fitzpatrick
Another football season is set to begin, which means yet another quarterback question mark in place for the Cleveland Browns. Whether they find the answer to this longstanding problem is as of yet unknown, but even discussing that is putting the cart before the horse. No, for now, the Browns have to figure out who will start come Week 1, and they presently have many options to choose from.
There are five quarterbacks currently on the Browns’ roster: Josh McCown, who served as the starter for much of 2015; Robert Griffin III, acquired in free agency earlier this year; Connor Shaw and Austin Davis, two holdovers from the previous regime and Cody Kessler, drafted in Round 3 last month.
While the RG3 reclamation project is apparently one the Browns are willing to embark upon, that does not guarantee that Griffin will return to anything close to his 2012, Rookie of the Year-winning performance. He hasn’t played in a game since 2014, while suffering numerous injuries to his body and hits to his confidence. A change of scenery—particularly in a Griffin-friendly Hue Jackson offense—could be just what he needs. But we’ll not know if that’s the case until training camp begins in earnest this summer.
Also factoring into the Browns’ quarterback plans are what they end up doing with McCown, Shaw and Davis. All five aren’t going to be on the team come September, and who is and who isn’t will be a major tell as to what their plans are at the position this year. If McCown stays, it’s possible he gets the nod in Week 1. If he doesn’t, the greater chance Griffin has to be named starter, as well as the greater chance that Kessler is an upside-heavy rookie the Browns would be willing to turn to later in the year.
As things stand now, a Griffin-McCown-Kessler trio on the 53-man roster to start the year seems the most viable, whether or not it becomes the reality. In this scenario, Griffin starts Week 1, McCown is there to step in if needed and Kessler, because of the Browns’ recent history of giving starts to three different quarterbacks a year for various reasons, will end up on the field at some point as well.
Week 1 Starter: Robert Griffin III
Week 17 Starter: Josh McCown (or maybe Cody Kessler)
Typically, teams coming off of a Super Bowl victory have zero questions to answer about the quarterback position. But, alas, this is not the case for the Denver Broncos, who have since seen Peyton Manning retire and Brock Osweiler head to the Houston Texans for a bigger payday. Now, their starting job appears to come down to veteran Mark Sanchez, whom the Broncos acquired from the Philadelphia Eagles back in March, and rookie Paxton Lynch, with Trevor Siemian thrown into the mix for good measure.
For most teams, this would be a nightmare situation. But for the Broncos, it is not. One only has to look to the New York Jets and their 2010 season with Sanchez under center for the reason why. Sanchez has his limitations—we’ve all seen them on display, repeatedly—but he can be hidden by a team with a strong defense and equally powerful run game, two traits the 2016 Broncos also possess. This gives the veteran a leg up over his rookie competition in Lynch.
However, this also gives Lynch an opening toward the starting job, for rookie quarterbacks can also be hidden in a similar situation. While Lynch lacks Sanchez’s experience, if the Broncos determine that Lynch has the greater immediate upside, that could swing the job in his favor. Either way, this isn’t going to be a quarterback-centered team, which prevents Denver’s current muddiness at the position from turning into full crisis-mode.
It would not be surprising for the Broncos to lean toward Sanchez’s experience and name him the starter for Week 1, while keeping the door open on a week-by-week basis for Lynch to take over. Should that be the case, expect Sanchez to be the starter in Week 1 but give way to the rookie later in the season.
Week 1 Starter: Mark Sanchez
Week 17 Starter: Paxton Lynch
San Francisco 49ers
The unhappy Colin Kaepernick was unable to find a trade partner before the April 1 deadline which made his $11.9 million base salary fully guaranteed. That means he remains with the San Francisco 49ers this year, whether he likes it or not. And even worse for the one-time starter and Super Bowl runner-up is that he will be in competition for the top spot on the depth chart with Blaine Gabbert, the man who took his job from him last year.
Kaepernick was benched for poor performance in 2015 after starting eight games and completing 59 percent of his passes while throwing six touchdowns to five interceptions. He later underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder and then had two procedures, one on his thumb and one on his left knee, in January. Gabbert, meanwhile, stepped in for the final eight games of the 2015 season and completed 63.1 percent of his passes, throwing 10 touchdowns to seven interceptions.
While Jeff Driskel is also on the Niners’ roster, ESPN’s Adam Caplan reported this week that the competition will boil down to Kaepernick versus Gabbert this summer. The first step in seeing where this goes is dependent on Kaepernick’s health. He’s six months removed from the shoulder surgery, which had a four- to six-month recovery time, but there’s also the thumb and knee to consider. Any time shelved during practices this spring and summer opens the window wider for Gabbert winning the job.
The fickle, unpredictable nature of head coach Chip Kelly, combined with a quarterback who may not want to be there (Kaepernick) and another who 12 months ago many thought had no reason to be in the NFL at all (Gabbert), makes this an unpredictable situation. It would not be surprising to see both Gabbert and Kaepernick get multiple starts throughout the season. A Kaepernick sandwich—in which he starts in Week 1 and closes out the year, with a few Gabbert starts in between—cannot be ruled out at this point before competition truly ramps up between the two.
Week 1 Starter: Colin Kaepernick
Week 17 Starter: Colin Kaepernick (with a few Blaine Gabbert starts in between)