The 2018 NFL offseason is shaping up to be one of the more unique, exciting periods since the invocation of the hard cap. For the first time in years, legitimate, experienced starting QBs will be hitting the open market. Toss in a few more on the cap casualty/trade block, and a half dozen more expected to go early in the draft, and the most important position in football may very well be oversaturated this spring.
First let’s take a look at the potential available quarterbacks this spring:
Potential Free Agent Quarterbacks
While extensions and/or tags are forthcoming for a few (Garoppolo, Brees, Keenum), there are currently 7 quarterbacks who saw substantial starting time in 2017 designated to hit the open market this spring.
- Drew Brees (NO, 38)
- Kirk Cousins (WAS, 29)
- Case Keenum (MIN, 29)
- Jimmy Garoppolo (SF, 26)
- Jay Cutler (MIA, 34)
- Josh McCown (NYJ, 38)
- Sam Bradford (MIN, 30)
is almost certain to stay put in New Orleans, but his contractual situation is a little messy. The Saints structured his last extension to include 3 “dummy years” to allow his signing bonus to spread out more for the cap. In doing so, Brees has $6M in cap already allocated to each of 2018, 2019, & 2020. This makes fitting in a worthy $25M+ salary very difficult in terms of keeping his cap hit tenable. We’ve laid out a possible scenario here:
Has reeled in nearly $44M over the past two seasons on franchise tags in Washington, and would be paid another $34M should they do so again in 2018. All signs point to a divorce this March, putting cousins on track to be a wanted man. He holds a $25.6M market value heading toward free agency, and will be a viable target for teams like Denver, Cleveland, & the Jets.
With Keenum, Bradford, & Bridgewater all on expiring deals, there have been plenty of rumors about which direction Minnesota will go in 2018. Keenum likely answered that with his playoff performance this past weekend, and is now almost certain to be tagged in some fashion ($21M transition tag or $23M+ franchise tag). The 29-year-old’s updated market value pulls in just north of $21M.
We’re still not sure why the Patriots traded Garoppolo when they did, but in doing so the 49ers got a sneak peak at what appears to be a very solid franchise QB. With a tugboat full of cap space heading into March, San Francisco can (and will) franchise tag Jimmy, but may also work to negotiate a front-loaded extension as well, taking on much of the cap early while they can. Either way, he goes nowhere in 2018.
It’s hard to imagine any of these QBs garnering a starting role in 2018, and thus will likely be pining for top-tier backup money, or retirement, when it comes down to it. At $5.5M, Nick Foles is currently the highest average paid backup QB in football.
Signed Quarterbacks on the Bubble
A few teams appear likely to move on from their current QB, even though they’re under contract in 2018. In any recent year this would have been a “trade” discussion, but with so many options available, it seems unlikely - or at least unreasonable to assume that teams would give up assets for any of these players.
- Alex Smith (KC, 33)
- Blake Bortles (JAX, 26)
- Tyrod Taylor (BUD, 28)
- Andy Dalton (CIN, 30)
- Eli Manning (NYG, 37)
- Nick Foles (PHI, 28)
- Mike Glennon (CHI, 28)
The writing appeared to be clearly on the wall last May when the Chiefs moved up in the first round to select Patrick Mahomes, and many speculated if Smith would remain in 2017. Fast forward a year, and Kansas City is already in the red in terms of cap space. Add in an early postseason exit, and the Chiefs can, and probably should, clear $17M in cap by releasing Smith this offseason.
6 weeks ago this would have been a paragraph about what the Jaguars might be looking to do with the $19M in cap space saved by releasing Bortles. Fast forward to the AFC Championship game, and it’s hard to imagine Jacksonville cutting bait. It seems fair to assume Bortles will play out his 5th-year option and become a franchise tag candidate in 2019.
Taylor has been a good soldier for a Bills organization that has flipped its front office, decimated its receiving core, and threatened to leave Buffalo all in the past 5 years. Tyrod holds an $18.08 cap figure ($16M salary) in 2018, and the Bills don’t appear to have his replacement on the roster yet. But a plethora of early round draft picks this April plus an ugly wildcard exist in the postseason (not to mention a few scary injuries in 2017) appear to have Taylor on his way out. The Bills will clear $9.44M in 2018 cap space by moving on.
After a 2017 that saw the Bengals nosedive, it seemed clear that a front office, coaching, and roster overhaul was forthcoming. But Marvin Lewis remains, and so too might Dalton now as well. February 15th will be a very important date in this decision as backup QB A.J. McCarron will learn the fate of his free agency status (set to be restricted, appealing to become unrestricted). If McCarron is allowed to hit the market, it’s possible Cincy folds on Dalton and hands over the reigns to their longtime backup. Moving on from Dalton clear $13.9M in cap.
The Giants officially hit rock bottom in 2017, and dragged their franchise QB down with them. While the front office has been overhauled, it will likely be the new/pending head coach’s decision on whether or not Eli remains in the fold for 2017 (assuming Eli wants to stay). Manning has a $5M roster bonus due March 16th, so the Giants will look to trade him prior to this payment. New York would clear $9.8M in 2018 cap space by moving Eli.
Foles has an outstanding chance to revive his career over the next few weeks with his Eagles now staring down a home NFC Championship game. While the market is clearly full, Foles has an outside chance on becoming some team’s Plan-B “Bridge” option - namely the Bills or Jets, who have their eye on a top draft pick this April. The Bears will have paid Glennon $18.5M for 264 snaps. It seems unlikely he’ll earn that again in his career.
Will the Market Dilute Itself?
As with any scenario, when supply meets demand, the need to reach or overpay in the market becomes less likely. So does the above listing mean lower paydays for many of these quarterbacks? It should. We’ve seen a major shift in free agent spending across the four major sports over the past three seasons, where teams are willing to wait out a situation they aren’t in “dire” need of. Most of these NFL front office have a specific plan in place in terms of team building, and furthermore - the majority of those plans likely stem from the draft - not the free agent pool.
However, a few teams (San Francisco, Cleveland, the Jets, Indy) have stockpiled $75M+ in space for the upcoming offseason. With Cleveland and New York very much in need of a QB1, it’s not implausible to think a deal for Kirk Cousins as we’ve laid it out isn’t possible, if not probable. Cousins’ market value has peaked at $28.9M over the past 2 seasons, but took a distinct step back in 2017, along with the whole Redskins’ roster. If the Broncos, Browns, & Jets all show serious interest, it’s likely Cousins’ ends up the highest paid QB in football for a hot minute, as the latter two teams can offer the world to win the bid - including front-loaded, cash in hand.
A player like Alex Smith however, a little older, a little less potential ceiling, could see his actual market drop rapidly from $22M, possibly to a more modernized tune of Ryan Fitzpatrick’s 1 year, $12M contract with the Jets back in 2016, or structured similar to Jay Cutler’s incentive-based 1 year $10M deal with Miami this season. Smith’s current salary with the Chiefs in 2018 is $17M - a number that teams should be focusing on in this scenario.
The interesting players in this would be Tyrod Taylor & Andy Dalton should they be released from their current teams. While both have experience and regular season success in their resume, there may simply not be a starting role for them in 2018 based on how this market is tracking. Both may be best off entertaining pay cuts to remain with their current organizations and compete internally.
Brees sits on his own mountain among this mess. He’s earned the right to walk through the Saints’ front office doors and demand $30M, but he’s also in the driver’s seat to negotiate a deal that keeps his value satisfied, and the team’s cap flexible, as New Orleans has a 2-year window with a few very cost-effective offensive weapons to work with (Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara).
- February 20 - March 6th: The Franchise/Transition Tag window.
- March 12 (noon) - March 14 (4PM): The free agent “tampering” period
- March 14 (4PM): The 2018 league year, trade window, & free agency period opens
- April 20: Deadline for restricted free agents to sign offer sheets
- April 25: Restricted tender decisions are due
- April 26-28: NFL Draft
- May 2nd: Deadline for 5th-year option decisions of 2015 1st Round Picks
- July 15: Deadline for Franchise-tagged players to sign an extension