Offseason Primer: The Free Agent QB Market

We all know the quarterback is the premium position that ranks above all such premium positions. There’s no shortage of teams who are willing to open up the checkbook to get a quarterback, but the question that needs to be asked is how much should teams be paying for QBs that one wouldn’t call those who can put a franchise over the top.

As we have seen in recent years, some quarterbacks that people would consider average-to-good players have been handed contracts that paid them as if they were a QB that could transform a franchise without much other work needed. When Andy Dalton signed his contract in 2014, some people thought that $96M over six years was way too high. Just two years later, his contract looks like a bargain.

The Dalton contract was followed by a four-year extension for Ryan Tannehill in 2015 that gave him $77M in new money, Joe Flacco getting a three-year extension worth $66.4M in 2016 that was designed to free up cap space but gave him an average of more than $22M per year, and Brock Osweiler getting $37M in guaranteed money in a four-year deal that averaged $18M per year. Tannehill and Osweiler’s contracts aren’t far removed from the two-year, $41M extension that Tom Brady got or the five-year extension Cam Newton signed in 2015 that averages $20.7M per year. Flacco exceeded not only those deal, but deals for any extension a QB received until Drew Brees signed his one-year, $24.25M extension, with three voidable years designed to spread out the signing bonus, then Andrew Luck got his five-year extension averaging $24.5M per year.

So it’s no surprise that you are hearing the talk that the quarterbacks who are about to hit free agency or would be eligible to hit free agency are projected to get contracts that would put them in the ballpark of $24M, especially when you have a quarterback who played a year under a $19.9M franchise tag, Kirk Cousins. Though Washington could give him the tag again, not only would they have to pay him the average of a new set of five higher salaries, but they must add about $3M or so for using the franchise tag a second straight year. And if it’s an exclusive tag, that’s a little more money to pay, too. While I don’t have exact tag numbers, my estimates put a tag for Cousins at about $25M for one year.

On one hand, it’s understandable Washington wants to be careful how much they commit to Cousins over the long term. On the other hand, does that mean if a tag utilized by Washington costs $25M that it’s worth paying him what amounts more than $22M each year over a two-year period? After all, we are talking about a QB with just two full seasons as a starter and one playoff appearance. Yet given how desperate teams are to land a good starting QB, it would not surprise me to see Cousins cash in big if he hits the open market.

He’s not only the QB that could reap the rewards, though. Let’s examine the QBs that could hit the open market, from those who will become unrestricted free agents barring the franchise tag or an extension to those who may be released from their current contracts.

Kirk Cousins: I’ve gone over how the tag for Cousins could approach a pretty high number, which makes it easy to see why it’s in Washington’s best interest to get Cousins extended rather than tag him again. An extension can allow Washington more cap space this season to build a team around him, given that the team will need a few offensive skill players to either replace other free agents or to upgrade positions. Ideally, that extension would put him between $20M and $21M APY.

From a practical standpoint, though, that may not happen. The San Francisco 49ers, who from all reports are set to name Kyle Shanahan their head coach, would be a logical destination for Cousins. And because the Niners are flush with cap space, they are in position to drive up the price for Cousins should he hit the open market. If Cousins and his agent are seriously insisting on $24M APY, the Niners are in position to give it to him.

I will say that, in the end, I expect Cousins to stay in Washington. It’s true there’s been some public animosity between Cousins and the front office, but as we have seen, public animosity doesn’t mean no deal will get done. It would not surprise me to see the two sides reach an agreement as the tag deadline nears, but it would also not surprise me if Cousins is averaging $22M per year when all is said and done.

Tyrod Taylor: The Bills gave Taylor an extension that gave him $9.5M upon signing but now have an option they must decide whether or not to exercise. If they do, he gets an additional $27.5M in 2017 and 2018.

Taylor, at the time the Bills were negotiating the extension, was arguably a player who might have been worth a “two years then we’ll see” deal similar to what Andy Dalton got, but the contract the Bills gave him puts the team between a rock and a hard place. Exercising the deal means they pay an exorbitant amount of money for a starting QB who has had his moments but is far from being elite.

Most people would expect the Bills to decline the option, though it doesn’t rule out a return to Buffalo. However, the more likely scenario is Taylor joins another team that is looking for QB help. Should Cousins stay with Washington, I would expect the Niners to jump to the front as the team wanting to sign him to a deal. Taylor and his agent may very well leverage a deal that gets him upwards of $20M APY, even though he has no playoff appearances.

Mike Glennon: The narrative that’s going around is this: Because Glennon has a few starts under his belt and was respectable, he’s going to be the next Brock Osweiler, meaning $18M APY is coming his way, because of course teams will be desperate to throw money around.

I’m not sold that Glennon is going to cash in big time, though, because it’s been several years since he’s started a game. But it wouldn’t surprise me if Glennon gets a deal that is similar to what Chase Daniel got from the Eagles, averaging $7M per year, though the fully guaranteed money may be less.

And the team that may make the most sense for him is the Browns. True, Cleveland enters the offseason with more than $100M in cap space, but I suspect they’ll be committing more dollars to the defense because they have very little talent on that side of the ball. Thus it may be more in their interest to pay less money for a free agent QB, draft a QB early and let those two compete alongside Cody Kessler for the starting job. The Bears, should they not bring back Matt Barkley on a short-term deal, are another team that I could see consider Glennon to compete for the job alongside a player they draft.

Jay Cutler: A highly likely candidate to be released, Cutler averaged $18.1M per year on his deal and is unlikely to approach that level again. The possibility of Cutler retiring, given that he’s had so many injuries in recent season, can’t be ruled out.

But if he wants to keep playing, there will be a few teams interested in his services. Should the Bills move on from Taylor, they would be the logical landing spot. The Jets may try to lure him, too. And I could easily see Cutler getting $12M APY or more on a short-term deal.

Colin Kaepernick: It’s a near lock that Kaepernick will decline the player option on his most recent contract extension and test the market, though I don’t expect the Niners to be interested in bringing him back at any price.

It’s harder to judge what Kaepernick will get, though. One could argue it’s better to pay him something similar to what Robert Griffin III got when he signed with the Browns last year, getting about $7M in fully guaranteed money for one season with the chance of a higher payday the next season. Others might argue he’ll enter the $12M APY range because of his past starting experience. As for who would sign him, the Browns might consider him if they think Hue Jackson can coach him up well. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Jets and the Bears consider him, too.

Tony Romo: Though I expect it’s more likely that the Cowboys will try to trade Romo, I’ll throw him in here in case they do cut him. Romo will be 37 years old in the 2017 NFL season, so his age means any contract that teams sign him to needs to be short.

If Romo is released, teams who sign him need to keep the contract at two years and do whatever they can to avoid putting voidable years in the deal for cap purposes. That means he’s a risky player for the Jets to sign, given their cap space issues. Just as importantly, it’s risky for the Jets to acquire him at all because they will have to release a number of players to get under the cap and may be doing a large roster rebuild.

Even so, it won’t shock me if the Jets make a bid for Romo. And if the Bills are convinced that they are just a few players away from a playoff run, that’s another team who might enter the discussion. Expect Romo to want a deal that puts him up near the higher end, despite his injuries. I can’t see him taking a deal for single digits… he’s more likely to want $18M APY, given that he knows that time is running out on his career.

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Bob Morris

I'm a sports writer in real life, though I've always focused on smaller communities, but that hasn't stopped me from learning more about some of the ins and outs of the NFL. You can follow me on Twitter @BobMorrisSports if you can put up with updates on the high school sports teams I cover.