Predicting the NFL Quarterback Carousel: Free Agents and Trade Targets


By Jared Goodman

With veterans potentially on the move, there is no shortage of options for teams looking to improve under center. In Part One of this series, we took a look at the NFL\’s quarterback-hungry teams and the probability they go in a new direction this offseason while assigning many of them some of the draft\’s best quarterbacks. Now, we\’ll take a look at the trade and free-agent candidates. A little QSAO-style matchmaker, if you will.

A long list of teams with quarterback question marks means many front offices feel pressure to deliver, especially without a high draft slot. Though Tom Brady isn\’t on the move, the Bucs showed last offseason that a team could be a quarterback away from taking the next step, and the draft isn\’t the only way to do it. 

The free agents

Dak Prescott

Though likely to return to his Cowboys, after an entire offseason of extension chatter last year turned into nothing, Prescott comes off of his broken ankle in 2020 as a free agent. What makes the 2016 Rookie of the Year\’s case fascinating is his incredible start before his Week 5 injury. His yard totals from weeks 2 through 4 were 450, 472 and 502. A large factor was the Cowboys struggling defense, which forced a shootout nearly every game. However, Prescott\’s career 97.3 passer rating and year-to-year net yardage improvements for the last four seasons make him a great QB option for any team and, in the age of early extensions, a rarity in any free-agent class.

The Match: Cowboys

Jerry Jones will find a way to keep his franchise quarterback one way or another. Many assume the sides will come to a long-term extension; however, it\’s hard to count out a potential second-straight franchise tag. After a mostly lost season, why would the two sides be any closer to agreeing on Prescott\’s value? He\’ll stay in Dallas this year one way or another, but an extension is far from guaranteed.

Mitchell Trubisky

Though Trubisky, the butt of many jokes after being traded up for by the Bears to be selected ahead of Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, has been a disappointment early on, he remains a starting-caliber quarterback. Trubisky wasn\’t terrible last year, completing 67% of his passes and game-managing the Bears to a 6-3 record in regular-season games he started. Trubisky is only four years removed from being the second-overall pick and two from an excellent 2018 season. A desperate team could come knocking.

The Match: Broncos

Denver has more than enough cap space to sign Trubisky, whom the Bears selected while Vic Fangio called the shots for Chicago\’s defense. The veteran is an excellent option if Drew Lock struggles during the year. The Broncos would get Lock much-needed competition and, if needed, cut ties easily in a year or two with either or both of the quarterbacks.

Jameis Winston

The Saints\’ reluctance to go to Winston this year was interesting, considering that Taysom Hill severely limited their high-power passing attack, totaling 208 passing yards per game in his starts and rendering Alvin Kamara\’s receiving prowess useless. Winston is a year removed from leading the NFL in both passing yards and interceptions. If he can fix his turnover struggles, a massive \”if\” given his 30 in 2019, Winston is a decent, cheap QB option.  

The Match: Saints

It\’s still puzzling that Sean Payton didn\’t play Winston this season, but amid salary cap hell, it makes sense to bring back a cheap, experienced option that knows the system well. Expect Winston to get another one-year \”prove it\” deal while actually starting this time around.

Ryan Fitzpatrick

Fitzpatrick is the NFL journeyman that never seems to go away. Late in the year, it became apparent that Fitzpatrick was the better option at quarterback for the Dolphins than Tua Tagovailoa. Incredibly, \”Fitzmagic\” had the 6th highest quarterback rating for eligible signal-callers during his nine appearances and nearly led the Dolphins to the AFC playoffs. He is intriguing, though, as he will turn 39 during the 2021 season, and it\’s possible the magic runs out eventually.

The Match: Washington

Washington is an intriguing pairing for Fitzpatrick. With the 19th selection in the NFL Draft, the Football Team may opt to select a quarterback, but why not pair an already third-ranked elite defense with a proven entity? In a division that they were already able to win with an ageing Alex Smith leading the way, Fitzpatrick is an automatic upgrade — paired with the prowess to lead the team to another playoff berth in a division up-for-grabs it\’s a short-term option that makes a ton of sense.

Cam Newton

As mentioned, 2020 was disastrous for the 2015 MVP. Bill Belichick didn\’t offer much help. Further, Newton\’s receiving support consisted of Jakobi Meyers, Darius Byrd and N\’Keal Harry, where Meyers\’ 78.6 PFF grade somehow made him Newton\’s de-facto top receiver. Still, Cam was not very effective himself with eight interceptions compared to just 10 passing touchdowns and the lowest QBR, 47.4, among all full-time starting QBs. He\’s clearly regressed following surgeries after both the 2018 and 2019 seasons. Newton\’s promising start to the year and league-leading 12 rushing TDs for a quarterback make him an option for other teams.

The Match: Ravens (Backup)

It\’s difficult to see someone signing Cam as their starter. With Robert Griffin III gone, the Ravens could continue their trend of taking fliers on rushing quarterbacks to back up Lamar Jackson.


Photo credited to Jim McIsaac

The trade candidates

Deshaun Watson

I mentioned that you would have to go back to 2012 to find the last QB-for-QB trade, but you\’d have to travel back to Joe Montana in 1993 to find a quarterback this good available for trade, and even Montana was in his final years and coming off a severe injury. Watson is considered one of the league\’s best quarterbacks by many, and his stats tell an even better story. He led the NFL in passing yards (4,823) and yards per attempt (8.8). He completed 88% of his passes with a clear pocket, by far the best in the NFL. It\’s hard to find a better quarterback outside of Mahomes, Russell Wilson, and Aaron Rodgers. Still, the Texans finished 5-11, don\’t own a first-round pick this year, dealt star receiver DeAndre Hopkins to the Cardinals last March and are in Jack Easterby-related hell. Watson may be a stud, but his team is in no-mans-land and has lost his trust, according to many reports.

With Matthew Stafford fetching two firsts, the Texans would receive a gargantuan return for their Pro Bowl quarterback and, given the fact they simply don\’t have the team to compete anytime soon, it may make sense to do so.

The Match: Texans

Until the Texans indicate otherwise, they will not be trading their star quarterback. It may be beneficial to do so, as a boatload of first-round picks may make more sense for the team\’s timeline, but Watson is under contract and doesn\’t have much leverage. The team is just a year removed from a division win, and riding it out with their top-five quarterback will probably save yet another season of embarrassment.  

Matt Ryan

Though a 28-3 collapse will stay with him wherever he goes, Ryan is statistically one of the best quarterbacks of the current generation. Heading into his 14th year, Ryan has 55,767 career passing yards, the most in any quarterback\’s first 13 seasons ever. He has posted five straight seasons of at least a 90.0 passer rating and, though the Falcons have struggled since their Super Bowl appearance, Ryan has shown no signs of slowing down.

The Match: 49ers

After the already-loaded Rams added Stafford to an arms-race division, increased cap room once Jimmy Garoppolo\’s $25-million hit clear, San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan and Ryan\’s magical 2016 season — the list goes on. This is a match made in heaven, and the 49ers would likely pay even more than the Rams did to get it done. The Falcons would start their re-build with a quarterback at fourth-overall and add at least three more first-rounders to go along with it. Call it into the league.

Sam Darnold

Darnold is an interesting case, as he played a role in the Jets implosion last year with nine touchdowns and 11 interceptions, ranking 35th out of 36 in DVOA for quarterbacks. Still, he has shown flashes of brilliance in his first few seasons, and it wouldn\’t be a surprise to anyone if he improved with Adam Gase out in New York, just like what Ryan Tannehill was able to do when he left Gase and the Dolphins for greener pastures in Tennessee. Darnold, heading into the final year of his rookie contract, would cost $25-million with his option picked up in 2022. With the second-overall pick, the Jets need to decide for the long-term. It would make things easier, but Darnold\’s rising cap hit does not make much sense to keep if the Jets select a quarterback in the top two this spring.

The Match: Bears

Reported to be involved in bidding for Carson Wentz, buying low on Darnold would be a similar move. Darnold could replicate Trubisky\’s role on the 2018 team while offering far more upside. It\’s a low-risk, high-reward swap that could bring a much-needed spark to a perpetually lackluster offense.

Derek Carr

It\’s hard to believe Carr is entering his eighth season as the Raiders starter. Carr has flashes of brilliance at times — his 28 \”money throws\” (passes marked as requiring exceptional skill) ranked him seventh in the league, in the company of some big names. Carr was solid overall, completing 67.3% of his passes with 27 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Teams always seem to knock on the door for Carr this time of year, and we\’ll see if this year will be any different. 

The Match: Raiders

Carr has been good enough as the Raiders starter, where dealing him now might be a lateral move unless it\’s for a superstar. Besides, the Chiefs aren\’t going anywhere. The Raiders may as well stick it out with the vet, who was an MVP candidate once upon a time.

Jimmy Garoppolo

Garoppolo is 24-8 as a starter; however, after missing at least ten games in both 2018 and 2020, the 49ers may look elsewhere to avoid another season of having to play the two-headed monster of CJ Beathard and Nick Mullens. In Garoppolo\’s six games this season, he attempted only 12 deep balls and went 1/12 on them with an air-yards per attempt of just 6.4. It\’s a small sample size, but it\’s clear the 49ers don\’t ask their quarterback to do a lot. Garoppolo\’s Super Bowl season had him top-12 in quarterback efficiency, showing that he can be serviceable and, if he can remain healthy, is not a bad option for teams.

The Match: Patriots

Just like we saw with his home run swing of Newton last season, Bill Belichick likes to make headlines. All reports indicate that if it were up to Belichick, Garoppolo would have replaced Tom Brady in New England years ago. With a defense that will see the return of six COVID opt-out defensive players and the 15th overall pick in a receiver-heavy draft, a healthy Garoppolo could lead the Patriots back to the playoffs.

Teddy Bridgewater

Another injury-prone and \”good enough\” quarterback option, Bridgewater was serviceable for the Panthers last season. His 69.1% completion percentage in an offense that finished just 24th in the league with 21.9 points per game is a good indication of Bridgewater\’s style of low-risk, low-reward quarterbacking. \”Physical limitations\” are cited by Albert Breer as the main reason the Panthers are looking to move on from the vet, who suffered a catastrophic ACL injury in 2016 with a two-year recovery.

The Match: Panthers

Carolina has shopped around Bridgewater, but with two years and $42 million remaining on his contract, keeping him as a pairing with a rookie quarterback may be the best option.

In all, we haven\’t hit Adam Schefter\’s over/under of 18 new starting quarterbacks, but we\’ve come pretty close. Right now, nothing is certain. Teams with high picks could select a quarterback and make their own available for trade. And, above all, the Deshaun Watson grenade could explode at any minute. The next few weeks will assuredly be fascinating in the NFL.

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

Cover photo credited to Mike Dinovo — USA TODAY Sports

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