Predicting the NFL Quarterback Carousel: Team Fits and Draft Targets

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By Jared Goodman

Though the NFL game has changed over the years, the performance of this year’s final four of Tom Brady, Patrick MahomesAaron Rodgers and Josh Allen; the three MVP finalists and greatest signal-caller of all time, was a reminder that quarterback play reigns supreme. Given the importance of the position, quarterback movement is typically quite rare.

Until the Detroit Lions dealt Matthew Stafford to the LA Rams for Jared Goff and a pair of first-round picks, the NFL hadn’t seen a starting quarterback swap since 2009, when the Denver Broncos shipped Jay Cutler to the Chicago Bears for a package of picks and Kyle Orton.

Stafford’s move to Los Angeles wasn’t the only big quarterback trade to happen this offseason, as the Philadelphia Eagles traded Carson Wentz to the Indianapolis Colts last week for a third-round pick and a 2022 pick that could turn into a first. This deal reunited Wentz with Frank Reich, his offensive coordinator from his best season in 2017, and allowed the Eagles to move on from months of rumors.

Trades involving first-round picks are an indication that a high-profile quarterback is being dealt, and also incredibly rare. Including Cutler, only two quarterbacks have been traded for first-round picks since 2003; Sam Bradford from Philadelphia to Minnesota in 2017 and Carson Palmer from Cincinnati to Oakland in 2012.

Although this offseason’s deals alone would make for an unusually active NFL quarterback carousel of an offseason, remarkably, the league is just getting started. ESPN reporter Adam Schefter summarized it best:

There are roughly 10 QBs locked into starting jobs for Opening Day of the 2021 NFL season. This is expected to be an unprecedented offseason of QB movement.

My Over/Under of teams changing QBs this off-season is 18. I’ll go with the over. pic.twitter.com/hOKVRaE3Pj

— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 25, 2021

With this in mind, over the next two articles, we’ll take a look at the candidates and try to find the best matches amongst an unprecedented amount of job-openings. A little QSAO-style matchmaker, if you will.

In the first article of this two-piece series, we’ll break down which teams are in line for a change and which teams could replenish their QB ranks at the 2021 NFL Draft.

First, let’s take a look at the candidates. Which teams need to make a change at quarterback?

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Photo credited to Douglas DeFelice — USA TODAY Sports

NFL Quarterback Carousel: Ranking the teams in need

The Guarantees

Jacksonville Jaguars

After a year of flip-flopping between Gardner Minshew and Mike Glennon, the Jaguars are a lock to find a new quarterback this offseason with the first-overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft. 

Passing DVOA Rank: -8.1% (25th)

New England Patriots

The almighty Patriots had a top-ten offense by points per game in the NFL every single year since 2003 – they were 27th this year. It’s safe to say the Cam Newton experiment was a failure, and Jarrett Stidham likely isn’t their future quarterback, either. 

Passing DVOA Rank: -13.2% (26th)

Washington Football Team

In a championship run that included Mahomes, Rodgers and Drew Brees, it was Taylor Heinicke that had the most yardage against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this postseason. Washington rewarded Heinicke with a two-year contract this month, but that won’t be the only move at QB for a team with the third-best defense but the worst offense in the league by DVOA. 

Passing DVOA Rank: -20.7% (32nd)

Very Likely

Chicago Bears

After declining Mitchell Trubisky’s fifth-year option and seeing Nick Foles struggle in the starting job, the Bears could go back to one of the two, though it would likely be more of the same. As a team that consistently has a hole at quarterback year after year, this is likely the year they make a change. 

Passing DVOA Rank: -5.7% (21st)

New York Jets

The Jets, who hold the second-overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft, started the season 0-13 and clearly need a culture reset. Bringing in Robert Saleh was the first step, and replacing Sam Darnold could be the next. 

Passing DVOA Rank: -12.6% (30th)

Denver Broncos

In his first full season as a starter, Drew Lock was tied for the league lead in interceptions (15) and likely didn’t show enough to stake his claim as the quarterback of the future for the Broncos.

Passing DVOA Rank: 0.6% (11th)

It’s Possible

Houston Texans

The Texans may not be the first team on our list, but they have certainly generated the most noise regarding their QB position. A damaged relationship with Deshaun Watson and a disappointing 4-12 season has opened the door for what could be one of the most impactful trades in NFL history. 

Passing DVOA Rank: 24% (8th)

Carolina Panthers

One of the biggest takeaways from the Stafford sweepstakes was what didn’t end up happening. The Panthers reportedly offered the eighth-overall pick and Teddy Bridgewater for Stafford and, between that package and being an aggressive player for Watson, the team seems to be looking at moving on from Bridgewater. 

Passing DVOA Rank: -5.7%, (19th)

New Orleans Saints

Drew Brees is retiring, but at nearly $70-million over the salary cap limit, the Saints are in cap hell. Backup Jameis Winston could be brought back for very cheap, but after starting Taysom Hill in the four games Brees was absent this season, he may not be what the Saints have in mind. 

Passing DVOA Rank: 18.8% (12th)

If the Right Move Comes Along…

San Francisco 49ers

Though Jimmy Garoppolo appeared in the Super Bowl last year, the Rams showed no Super Bowl quarterback is safe, dealing Jared Goff less than two years after leading the team to Super Bowl 52. The 49ers could save $24.1-million by cutting or trading Garoppolo, and it may be hard to keep him on the books, especially if he keeps missing time. 

Passing DVOA Rank: 8.9% (22nd)

Pittsburgh Steelers

After starting 11-0, the Steelers flamed out quickly, falling to the Browns in the wildcard round. The Steelers offense was terrific for most of the year, but Ben Roethlisberger had his lowest QB-rating since 2013 and has shown an apparent physical decline. With one year left, this would be a good time to move on. 

Passing DVOA Rank: -19.8 (1st)

Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons find themselves caught in a vicious cycle: Matt Ryan has a terrific season, the Falcons still lose. Rinse, wash, repeat. Ryan ranked fourth in passing yards this year, ahead of stars like Allen, Rodgers and Russell Wilson. Yet, the Falcons had their third-consecutive losing season. New head coach Arthur Smith may want a younger quarterback to sit behind Ryan as the 2016 MVP approaches his 36th birthday. 

Passing DVOA Rank: 15.8% (13th)

Las Vegas Raiders

The AFC West is not a fun division to be in right now. The Raiders started the year 6-3 but ultimately still finished second behind the powerhouse Chiefs and now have an entire career of Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert to look forward to. The Raiders have offensive weapons, though. Josh Jacobs ran for 1,000-yards, and Darren Waller overtook Hall of Famer Tim Brown for the Raiders single-season receptions record with 107. Though Derrek Carr had a solid season, the team has not made the playoffs in the past four seasons with him at the helm and could be looking for a shuffle. 

Passing DVOA Rank: 21.3% (9th)

Miami Dolphins

In this case, “if the right move” is restricted to one particular move in trading for the Texans’ Watson. The Dolphins are reportedly in the mix for Watson if he’s made available, as reported by Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald. The Dolphins were one of the year’s biggest winners, going from the worst to sixth-best defensive points allowed and 25th to 15th in offensive points scored. Watson would make them immediate contenders. 

Passing DVOA Rank: 12.8% (18th)

Quarterbacks in the NFL Draft who could make an impact

Trevor LawrenceClemson 

NFL scouts project Lawrence to be the best quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck in 2012. As a freshman in 2018, he threw for 30 touchdowns, led Clemson to the national title, set several team single-season records in 2019 and threw for 3,153-yards and 24 touchdowns just 10 games this year after missing a month with COVID-19.

The Match: Jaguars 

Lawrence practically became a Jaguar the second the Jets defeated the Los Angeles Rams in Week 15 and slotted Jacksonville into the Draft’s top spot. This one is a no-brainer.

Zach WilsonBYU

Unlike other candidates on the draft board, Wilson was relatively unknown going into 2020 but shot up the draft boards after an absurd 33-3 TD-INT ratio. His passing yards total of 3,962, passing TDs total of 33 and yards-per-attempt of 10.8 were all good for top-three amongst all QBs in the nation.

The Match: Jets

Starting fresh with a new quarterback under a new regime is likely the way to go for a Jets team that wants no part of their ugly 2020 season. Wilson has been shooting up draft boards, and it’s not even March yet. By the time April rolls around, he may very well be the talk of the Draft.

Justin Fields, Ohio

Fields jumped onto the map with 51 total touchdowns in his first season as a starter in 2019. He followed up his incredible sophomore year with improvements to his downfield accuracy. He capped this season with a tremendous 385-yards, and six touchdown passes in a win against Lawrence’s Clemson Tigers in the Sugar Bowl and is one of the most NFL-ready quarterbacks in the Draft. 

The Match: Falcons 

Unless the Bengals decide to trade down, the Atlanta Falcons will likely take the third quarterback of this Draft with their fourth overall pick. The question is, who wants it most? The Panthers have been aggressive thus far, but it’s hard to see the Falcons trading a coveted spot inside their division. With Ryan still in the fold, it’s unlikely the Falcons will ever get the chance to draft a quarterback this good with their own pick. Getting a potential star like Fields would be massive.

Trey Lance, North Dakota State 

Like anything this past year, this quarterback class is not as easy to evaluate as usual. With the postponement of North Dakota State’s season to spring, Lance could only feature in one single game in 2020. Lance, who projects to be the first 21st-century born NFL draftee ever, has never faced an FBS team yet possesses remarkable tools. Lance completed 67% of his passes and ran for 1,100-yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground in his 2019 season. He will be a massive roll of the dice for any NFL team.

The Match: Panthers 

With no luck thus far in the trade market, the Panthers still have decent quarterback options with their eighth selection. Lance’s incredible potential makes this an excellent pick for the quarterback-hungry Panthers.

Mac Jones, Alabama

This year’s national championship-winning QB is the second first-round caliber quarterback prospect from Nick Saban’s machine of talent in as many years. Jones is a downfield passer who picked apart defenses all season, throwing for 4,036 yards with a 77% completion rate. With stud receiver Devonta Smith, the first non-QB Heisman winner since Derrick Henry in 2015 and a minuscule 2.7% sack rate on his offensive line, some may wonder how much success you can attribute to Jones’ supporting cast. 

A great tidbit: When asked to compare Jones with Tua Tagovailoa, his quarterback from last year, Smith picked Mac Jones without hesitation. “The question was barely finished before he answered,” said Albert Breer. “He was bold and definitive.”

The Match: Steelers 

Pittsburgh has selected quarterbacks in the third and fourth rounds but has never made a splash in the Draft during Ben Roethlisberger’s tenure. With his career winding down, trading up to the middle of the first-round for a proven winner like Jones to play after the last year of Roethlisberger’s contract this coming year would set-up an already solid roster quite well for the future.

Kyle Trask, Florida 

Second in the nation in yards at 4,283 and first with 43 touchdowns, Trask could be the most accurate quarterback in the Draft. He makes up for limited mobility with his ability to fit the football into any small window, as evidenced by a 180.0 passer efficiency rating, the 6th best in the nation.

The Match: Saints

PIcking at 28th and 60th, drafting a future quarterback is a no-brainer for the Saints. Though Trask may not play this year, the Saints are used to non-mobile, gunslinging quarterbacks and perfectly fit Sean Payton’s offense. 

In all, this year’s Draft will see the most quarterbacks selected in the first round since the five in 2018, which included four in the top ten. With many teams in need of a new answer, expect draft night trades and other surprising moves. 

In Part Two of this series, we’ll dive into the quarterback free agent and trade targets for many of the teams on our list. 

Statistics retrieved from Pro Football Reference, NCAA, Pro Football Focus, Football Outsiders, Player Profiler, NFL NextGen Stats

Cover photo credited to Jasen Vinlove — USA TODAY Sports

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