“Whether it’s a pro free agent or a college player, the goal is to find that quarterback that you feel very comfortable with to lead your franchise going forward,” New York Jets General Manager Mike Maccagnan said. “If it comes via pro free agency or the college draft, when it’s all said and done we don’t really have a preference either way. But our goal is to try and find and acquire one of those guys.”
It is an imperative in such a quarterback-driven league. Any team that doesn’t have a franchise quarterback must do all within its power to attempt to get one.
“That was a primary focus, finding our guy,” said John Lynch, the second-year GM of the San Francisco 49ers who made a trade-deadline deal last season for Jimmy Garoppolo and just re-signed him to a record five-year, $137.5 million contract. “It’s one of the first things after Kyle [Shanahan, the team’s coach] and I got together, we talked about the culture we wanted to set and all that. But the thing we both agreed is you have to find that guy at that position of such premium and importance.”
This offseason, the group of teams in most desperate need appears to include the Jets, Cleveland Browns, Denver Broncos, Minnesota Vikings, Buffalo Bills and Arizona Cardinals. The New Orleans Saints would join if they don’t re-sign Drew Brees, who’s eligible for unrestricted free agency. Other teams such as the New York Giants, Pittsburgh Steelers, Saints and perhaps the New England Patriots are candidates to add young quarterbacks as eventual successors to their highly accomplished, aging starters.
Cousins, after three straight 4,000-yard passing seasons with the Washington Redskins, is considered the prize of the free agent market and is expected to sign a contract richer than Garoppolo’s. But teams can sift through other choices among veteran passers.
Brees is widely expected to remain in New Orleans. But what if he doesn’t? Keenum had a breakthrough 2017 season for the Vikings that put him on the fringes of the league MVP conversation. He and fellow Vikings quarterbacks Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater are eligible for unrestricted free agency. So, too, is Cincinnati Bengals backup AJ McCarron, for whom the Browns were prepared to deal second- and third-round draft picks before failing to file the necessary trade documentation with the league office in time. And what if the Philadelphia Eagles opt to trade Nick Foles, the reigning Super Bowl MVP?
As if that’s not enough, the draft has a group of coveted quarterbacks that includes USC’s Darnold, UCLA’s Rosen, Wyoming’s Josh Allen and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, the Heisman Trophy winner.
“I think it’s a strong class,” Cardinals General Manager Steve Keim said. “There’s a lot of different type of players from a skill set standpoint. … As a young scout you get enamored with the physical tools — the arm strength, the mobility, the velocity a guy may throw with. And we all know as we look back in time, the guys who have success, it’s the ability to play between the ears. It’s processing information, learning the playbook, the work ethic side of it. And that’s the part of the process that comes into play right now as we’re interviewing these guys for the first time and we’ll spend time with them this spring on their campus and potentially at our facility on the 30 [draft-prospect] visits.”
The Browns, after passing up Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson in the past two NFL drafts, have the first and fourth overall selections in this draft as they attempt to rebuild from a winless season. The Giants, seeking an heir apparent to Eli Manning, have the No. 2 pick. The Broncos are fifth and the Jets are sixth. So Darnold, Rosen, Allen and Mayfield could come off the board very, very quickly on draft night.
“I believe this is a very good quarterback draft class,” said John Dorsey, the new GM of the Browns.
Dorsey and other executives leaguewide face a balancing act as they prepare for the draft and ready for the official opening of the free agent market March 14.
“My job is to try to get the Cleveland Browns better,” Dorsey said. “My job is to explore every opportunity possible to get this organization [better]. And I will do all my hard work to try to get us better every day. So I’m gonna try to explore every opportunity.”
That is a familiar refrain these days.
“I think we’re gonna explore all options in free agency and see where that goes,” said John Elway, the Broncos’ front office football czar. “Obviously we’ve got the fifth pick in the draft, too. So that will all play into it. We’ll continue to look at all the options when it comes to quarterback.”
The rare depth of this quarterback market, both in free agency and in the draft, will enable teams to have a Plan B, C or even D that is viable if their Plan A doesn’t work out. The key, Elway said, will be to be ready to adjust.
“You don’t know what the prices are gonna be,” Elway said. “You don’t know what else is gonna be available. So, I mean, there’s so many variables that go into the decision that you can’t stand here and say, ‘Okay, this is what it is now.’… Once we get there, then we’ll see how everything starts playing out. And then I think we’ll have different options [with] the way things go. We try to plan ahead. But until we ultimately get there, you’ll never know.”
Free agency must play out first. Some within the league regard the Vikings as the favorite to sign Cousins, although it also is thought that the Broncos and Jets will make strong bids. Keenum could become some team’s consolation prize. The intrigue then could shift to where McCarron, Bradford and Bridgewater fit in, in addition to whether Brees and Foles become available.
After that, it will be all about the draft. The quarterback prospects in this class come with plenty of acclaim, but will their NFL careers live up to the promise? Elway was asked if he thinks there indeed are franchise quarterbacks in this class.
“I think so,” he said. “It’s always hard to say. We’ve been doing a lot of work on them. But we still have a lot of work to do. So we’re in that process now. But there’s a group of guys that are very talented. We’ll continue to do our work there. But I think there’s a possibility of some really good quarterbacks coming out of this draft.”
Elway is a Hall of Fame quarterback whose second act in football has included constructing a Super Bowl-winning team in Denver. He lured Peyton Manning there. But Elway’s most recent efforts to fill the Broncos’ quarterback void have resulted in frustration. Paxton Lynch, two seasons into his NFL career, has not emerged as the answer since Elway and the Broncos traded up to draft him in the first round; the team used Trevor Siemian, Lynch and Brock Osweiler at the position last season. The questions faced by Elway at the combine included whether he was frustrated at his quarterback-related swings and misses.
“Believe me, I’m not done swinging and missing,” he said. “So, look, misses don’t bother me. We’ve just got to figure out a way to get it right. That’s what we’re working on.”
Elway and the Broncos have plenty of company in that regard.
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