Are Pending Free Agent QBs Really Options?

Earlier today, Nick examined the quarterback landscape and noted that the majority of the NFL teams are facing situations in which they either need a new starting QB or will likely need one in the future.

The Broncos made the list and, given the concerns regarding Trevor Siemian’s play and whether or not Paxton Lynch is the long-term answer, some thoughts are turning to next season and the potential free agent QBs.

As Nick noted, there could be other QBs that hit free agency, but a few are known to be eligible for unrestricted free agency if they aren’t extended, one will be a restricted free agent and one may very well hit free agency if he chooses to do that.

But it’s worth asking: Is it really guaranteed that the Broncos could land one of these quarterbacks?

Let’s examine the likelihood of certain QBs coming to the Broncos next season and what to keep in mind if they hit free agency. I’m only focusing on those who may become unrestricted or restricted free agents, not players who might get cut after the season.

Kirk Cousins

Why it may happen: Cousins has been twice given the franchise tag by the Washington Crimson Potatoes and hasn’t been able to come to terms on a contract extension with the team. The first year, it was understandable because Cousins had just one season under his belt having started the majority of games — even though he threw for 29 touchdowns with just 11 interceptions, it was fair to ask if he could duplicate that effort.

In his second season, he threw 25 touchdown passes with 12 interceptions but threw for more yards. Again, it was understandable that Washington would tag him again, but the hopes of a contract extension never materialized, as Washington offered what looked like a good deal on the surface, but was more of a “two years then we’ll see” contract when Cousins wanted a longer commitment. Since then, Derek Carr and Matthew Stafford have signed large extensions, thus driving up Cousins’ price.

If the Crimson Potatoes can’t come to terms with Cousins on an extension after the season, they are likely to let him hit free agency as the franchise tag will be too expensive and the transition tag means no compensation if he’s signed to an offer sheet. And given that Washington made the playoffs his first season as the starter and came close to it the next season, and with Washington looking like a playoff contender again, the Broncos could be appealing to Cousins, given that the defense is strong and there is some talent on offense, thus his presence could make the Broncos a playoff contender.

Why it may not happen: First of all, just because Washington hasn’t signed him to an extension doesn’t mean that will never happen. If Washington makes the playoffs this year, it’s hard to see the Crimson Potatoes letting Cousins get away, especially if he continues putting up good numbers. He has 12 touchdown passes and three interceptions in six starts, so his play isn’t declining. Washington may not have made an offer that Cousins liked, but would Washington really take the chance on Cousins departing and not being able to find a capable replacement? There’s a good chance Washington could make a better offer and keep Cousins for the long term.

But even if that doesn’t happen, is it worth the Broncos getting into a bidding war for his services? Other teams will have more cap space than the Broncos and can offer more appealing contracts to him. The San Francisco 49ers are often mentioned as a possible destination for Cousins, but teams such as the Dolphins, the Jets, the Jaguars and the Browns could easily jump into the fray. It’s true John Elway succeeded in landing Peyton Manning, but he was a street free agent and could visit with teams before free agency officially started. Not so with Cousins — he’s more likely to let his agent negotiate over the phone and get the best possible offer.

And there’s one other thing to consider: If Washington doesn’t make the playoffs, are you really willing to bet the farm on Cousins or will you be hesitant to pursue him because you may have second thoughs if he is the guy who can get the Broncos back to the playoffs?

Verdict: If Cousins does hit free agency, the Broncos can consider him. Just don’t bet the farm he will be available and, if he is, don’t go all in on him.

Drew Brees

Why it may happen: The New Orleans Saints have finished under .500 the past three seasons and failed to make the playoffs each time. Brees isn’t getting any younger and might be thinking about joining a team that’s in better position to reach the playoffs before he retires. And his future with the Saints could certainly hinge on the future of Sean Payton, a coach Brees likes to play for.

Brees will be able to void his contract after the 2017 season and hit unrestricted free agency, making him an option worth considering, given that some may believe the Broncos defense doesn’t have much time left as a top 10 unit. If he did hit free agency, he could be a short-term solution while the Broncos groom another QB for the long term. Plus, Brees has seldom missed a start — he’s started all 16 games in all but two seasons with the Saints, and in the other two, he started 15. And considering that Brees has continued to put up good numbers, one would think he’d have plenty left in the tank.

Why it may not happen: There’s no guarantee he’ll want to play for a team other than the Saints. Though New Orleans has missed the playoffs the past three seasons, they suddenly find themselves in a weaker NFC South, with the Falcons and Panthers both struggling in certain areas of the game. The Saints are now 4-2 and, if they manage to win the division, Brees might have second thoughts about playing elsewhere, thinking he could lead the Saints to a Super Bowl before he retires.

If he does hit free agency, his age is a concern, despite the fact he has stayed healthy for most games. How long do you really want to commit to a 39-year-old quarterback who has thrown more than 650 pass attempts in all but one season since 2010? And in the season he didn’t throw that many (2015), he threw 627. Last season, he threw 673 — a staggering number for a QB who was 37 at the time. Through six games this year, he’s thrown 220 passes, which puts him on pace for 592, but given the Saints haven’t been good on defense in recent years, it’s worth asking if he’ll have to throw more passes than that.

And there’s no guarantee that Brees will take less money to play elsewhere. If he goes into free agency, he may be more concerned with getting as much money as he can. It was one thing to pay Peyton Manning $19M per year when the Broncos had the cap space to keep the deal cap friendly, but if Brees pushes for $27M or more per year, getting a deal like that to be cap friendly will be difficult.

Verdict: If you want Brees, you have to be careful how you work a contract for him. Commit too much and you’re likely to harm your cap situation in future seasons and thus harm your ability to build the team.

Sam Bradford

Why it may happen: We’ve joked about how Bradford keeps winning in terms of big-money deals and how he keeps fetching high draft picks despite not having the best track record. But look again at his 2016 season — Bradford turned in his best season as a pro. He threw for 3,877 yards with 20 touchdowns and five interceptions. And when you look at his supporting cast, it’s commendable he was able to put up even those numbers.

In 2016, the Minnesota Vikings’ offensive line was decimated by injuries and was one of the worst units in the league as a result. Adrian Peterson missed the bulk of the season because of injuries, leaving Matt Asiata and Jerick McKinnon as the running backs (the former was allowed to leave in free agency this past offseason). His wide receivers would be considered league average and the guy the Vikings spent a first-round pick on in 2016, Laquon Treadwell, was thought to be a top prospect and caught just one pass.

If you were to look at the Vikings 2016 offense and compare it to this year’s Broncos, the only position in which the Vikings were really better was tight end. It’s not hard to imagine a healthy Sam Bradford finding success with the Broncos if he could put up a respectable showing for the 2016 Vikings. In fact, Bradford was off to a good start this season — he threw for 346 yards and three touchdowns in the season opener, completing 27 of 32 passes with no interceptions.

Why it may not happen: You’ll notice that I said “healthy Sam Bradford” in the previous paragraph. That brings us to the major red flag — his injury history. He missed six starts in 2011, nine in 2013 and two in 2014 (he did not start the 2015 season opener as the Vikings had traded for him just before the season started). And he played just two games this season before an injury sidelined him.

It’s worth asking if Bradford’s 2016 season may be a fluke, even with a lackluster supporting cast. Bradford hasn’t shown himself to be anything more than an average quarterback throughout his career. It’s possible he can be coached up with the right staff (which appears to be the case with the 2016 Vikings), but will that hold true elsewhere?

And though the Vikings are considering whether or not to start Teddy Bridgewater, if he were to struggle, the Vikings likely go back to Bradford once he’s healthy. So Bradford might not hit free agency at all — and even if he did, it’s possible he’ll seek a big contract, knowing that his injury history might mean he doesn’t have much longer to cash in.

Verdict: To be honest, Bradford is a better option than you might think. But the injury history is troubling and it means that the Broncos should lean more toward an incentive-laden deal — a contract he might not be willing to take.

Teddy Bridgewater

Why it may happen: Bridgewater showed some promise as a starting quarterback, making modest improvements from his first to his second season. During his two seasons with the Vikings, they didn’t have a top receiver in the lineup and tended to rely on the running game. When he had Adrian Peterson in the lineup in 2015, he found a fair amount of success and the Vikings went 11-5.

The Vikings have been a good defensive team in recent years, so there’s a good chance he would find success with another such team — and the Broncos happen to be one of those teams. The Broncos also have better receivers and solid running backs, so Bridgewater could arguably be surrounded by better talent. And he will be just 26 years old, so he has plenty of years ahead of him.

Why it may not happen: Bridgewater missed the 2016 season with a significant injury and questions arose as to whether or not he would ever play again. He is expected to come off the physically unable to perform list soon and start, giving the Vikings a chance to see if he can be the long-term starter. If he has any success, the Vikings may not let Bridgewater hit free agency.

If Bridgewater doesn’t play well, the Vikings will no doubt let him depart — which means he becomes a risky player to sign. Do you want to commit a lot of money to Bridgewater based on the chance that he can play well again if it looks like that significant injury will affect him for the rest of his career?

Verdict: It all depends on what Bridgewater does in any games he starts — but if he does look good, he’s not likely to hit free agency. But if he shows promise and, for some reason, the Vikings decide to go with another option, the Broncos should definitely consider him. If he struggles, he still might be worth a one-year, low-cost deal, but you better have a Plan B in place in case things don’t work out with him.

Jimmy Garoppolo

Why it may happen: Last season, when Tom Brady served his four-game suspension, everyone wondered how the Patriots would do with Garoppolo in the lineup. Turns out he could handle things pretty well — he won both his starts and finished the season with 502 yards passing and four touchdowns on 43 of 63 attempts.

While the Patriots did once use the franchise tag on Matt Cassel, that was under the previous CBA and it’s a new world now. Teams just aren’t showing the enthusiasm for trading for players that get the franchise tag, so it’s not likely the Patriots are going to tag Garoppolo in hopes of getting draft picks. And when the Patriots tagged Cassel, the team that acquired him just happened to have hired a former Patriots organization member (Scott Pioli) to become general manager, so Pioli’s ties might have played into the idea of Bill Belichick tagging and trading Cassel. The only person with the Patriots who is talked about as joining another franchise in the future is Josh McDaniels, but there’s no guarantee he’ll land another head coaching job.

Why it may not happen: All the talk this offseason was the Patriots would trade Garoppolo — instead, it was Jacoby Brissett who got dealt, and that appears to have only happened because the Colts needed another option with Andrew Luck hurt. But all the whispers about the Patriots dealing Garoppolo never amounted to a deal being made, so it’s possible the Patriots think Garopppolo is the guy who can eventually replace Brady. Nothing prevents the Patriots from extending Garoppolo on a short-term value deal with the idea that he’ll become the starter when Brady retires, then rewarding Garoppolo with a bigger extension down the road.

Of course, Garoppolo could hit free agency and some team could be tempted to give him a deal like Brock Osweiler or Mike Glennon got. If he did seek that type of money, it’s hard to imagine Broncos fans telling John Elway to spare no expense. That’s especially true if you believe the only reason Garoppolo looked competent in his limited action is because he knows the Patriots system well.

Verdict: On one hand, you don’t want to rule him out if he hits free agency. On the other hand, if he does, you better not overpay for his services.

A.J. McCarron

Why it may happen: Back in 2015, McCarron was called upon to replace Andy Dalton as the starting quarterback for the Bengals when Dalton missed three games with injuries. McCarron actually fared well for himself, completing 79 of 119 passes for 854 yards and six touchdowns with two interceptions.

And though his one loss came against the Broncos, fans of our favorite team saw enough in the guy to openly wonder if the Broncos should trade for him. Some fans may believe that, at the very least, McCarron would be an upgrade over what the Broncos currently have at quarterback.

Why it may not happen: McCarron will be a restricted free agent in 2018, meaning the Bengals could give him as much as a first-round tender — a tender that makes him not worth pursung, especially because it means you’d have to give him the type of contract that the Bengals won’t want to match.

Even if he isn’t tendered, it’s fair to ask if he’ll try to get a Brock Osweiler or Mike Glennon type of deal, particularly if Garoppolo hits free agency and gets such a deal. You’d be risking a lot to give McCarron that type of money, all on the belief that he has to be better than Siemian or Lynch.

Verdict: Since it seems likely the Bengals will tender McCarron, it’s time to tell Broncos fans inquiring about trading for him: “No, and don’t ask again.”

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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.