This NFL season has been all about quarterbacking excellence. All-time greats such as New England’s Tom Brady, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees of New Orleans continue to thrive. Next-generation stars such as Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, the Los Angeles Rams’ Jared Goff and Houston’s Deshaun Watson are vying for their share of the accolades.
But it is not the year of the quarterback for everyone. Jameis Winston has been benched in Tampa Bay. Former Super Bowl winners such as the Giants’ Eli Manning and Baltimore’s Joe Flacco are struggling to the point that it’s fair to wonder if and when their teams will move on. The scrutiny is intensifying for Blake Bortles in Jacksonville and Dak Prescott in Dallas.
Depending on how things play out in the second half of the season, several of those quarterbacks could be available during the offseason. It could make for a fascinating quarterback reshuffling. But it would not be like last offseason, when there were many attractive options for quarterback-needy teams with Kirk Cousins and Case Keenum hitting free agency, Alex Smith being traded and Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Josh Rosen being chosen in the top 10 of the NFL draft.
“You’re going to be talking about teams taking on guys who were discarded somewhere else,” said one agent who represents several quarterbacks leaguewide. “Is Flacco going to be available? Would Eli want to play somewhere else? I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going to happen with Winston. But you’re not gonna be talking about guys hitting the market with their value at the highest.”
Here is a look at some of the quarterback situations around the league that will be worth monitoring:
Jameis Winston and the Buccaneers: Winston, the top overall selection in the 2015 NFL draft, served a three-game suspension under the league’s personal conduct policy to open the season and has since been benched in favor of Ryan Fitzpatrick.
The Buccaneers have Winston under contract through next season after exercising the fifth-year option in his original rookie deal. Under that option, Winston would be scheduled to earn $20.922 million next season. But that is guaranteed only for injury, so the Buccaneers could release Winston without having to pay him that amount.
That would be a stunning fall for a player who appeared to be a franchise quarterback in the making when he topped 4,000 passing yards in each of his first two seasons. But he has not progressed and he has not learned how to avoid throwing interceptions. He has 10 in his four games this season and 54 in 49 games in his NFL career.
“Jameis has left them in a lurch,” former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann said. “You can’t play the quarterback position and turn the ball over that much. What do they do? Not protecting the football is definitely an issue and a problem. They’re facing a dilemma economically and talent-wise. I do think Tampa is in a very precarious position. I don’t understand how you can commit $100 million [over a long-term contract] to Jameis.”
Coach Dirk Koetter already has switched from Fitzpatrick to Winston once this season. If he does so again, Winston still could have another chance to demonstrate that he should be included in the team’s plans.
“I think Jameis will be back playing,” Theismann said. “He has to play smart football. He can’t be careless with the football. I think Jameis will be auditioning for a position going forward.”
Eli Manning and the Giants: The Giants returned from their bye week with Manning as their starter. But it is a lost season for the franchise, with its 1-7 record, and the 37-year-old Manning has been part of the problem. The rest of this season will be about figuring out how to allow Manning to preserve his dignity as a player, without a repeat of last season’s fiasco in which he was benched for a game, while the team begins to ready for a future with his eventual replacement.
That successor probably is not on the current roster. The Giants opted against taking a quarterback with the No. 2 overall selection in this year’s draft. They did use a fourth-round pick on Kyle Lauletta. But it’s unclear if he’s a future NFL starter, and he just was arrested in a traffic-related incident.
Still, the Giants could find some playing time for Lauletta in the season’s second half, probably in relief of Manning when games get out of hand. Next season’s starter likely will come via the lofty pick in next year’s NFL draft that will result from this season’s dreadful play.
Joe Flacco and the Ravens: The pressure is on Flacco and Coach John Harbaugh in Baltimore, with the Ravens on a three-game losing streak that dropped their record to 4-5 as they attempt to return to the postseason after three straight non-playoff seasons.
The Ravens are on their bye week. They stuck with Harbaugh as their coach and Harbaugh stuck with Flacco as his starter at quarterback. But rookie Lamar Jackson, taken with the final pick of the first round in this year’s draft, is being worked into the lineup with greater regularity in formations with both quarterbacks on the field, and the clamoring for Jackson to replace Flacco as the starter undoubtedly will intensify if the Ravens don’t turn things around.
Harbaugh’s job almost certainly is on the line, given that owner Steve Bisciotti said publicly that he considered firing Harbaugh after last season. Flacco’s job security seems just as tenuous. Quarterbacks taken in the first round are drafted to be starters, usually sooner rather than later. Flacco probably needs to play very well down the stretch and take the Ravens to the playoffs to avoid a Kansas City-like scenario from this past offseason, when the Chiefs traded Smith to Washington to clear the starting spot for Mahomes.
Blake Bortles and the Jaguars: The Jaguars signed Bortles to a three-year, $54 million contract in February after he helped them to reach last season’s AFC championship game. It hasn’t worked out. He is barely holding on to the starting job and the Jaguars have been a major disappointment, with a record of 3-5 as they return from their bye week. Bortles hasn’t been the only problem this season in Jacksonville. But if he and the team don’t start playing better, Coach Doug Marrone will have little choice but to make a switch that would put Bortles’s future with the organization in question.
Case Keenum and the Broncos: Keenum, after an excellent season in Minnesota, signed a two-year, $36 million deal with the Broncos when the Vikings opted to replace him with Cousins. But he hasn’t been the answer in Denver, with 10 interceptions to go with his 11 touchdown passes. Another Broncos season has unraveled, and front office executive John Elway will have to decide whether to retain Vance Joseph as his coach and if he wants to give Keenum another season or restart what has become a ceaseless search for the right quarterback.
Dak Prescott and the Cowboys: Owner Jerry Jones continues to express confidence in Prescott. But the Cowboys are 3-5. Prescott has yet to recapture the magic of his rookie season in 2016, and he has become turnover-prone. Prescott will be given every chance to get things going. Wide receiver Amari Cooper provided some help during Monday night’s loss at home to the Tennessee Titans, but far more will be expected after the Cowboys gave a first-round pick to the Oakland Raiders to trade for him.
Derek Carr and the Raiders: The Raiders traded star pass rusher Khalil Mack before the season. They traded Cooper. Next to nothing has gone as hoped for the team in the first year of Jon Gruden’s return to coaching. Carr’s $125 million contract runs through the 2022 season. But it’s not unthinkable to some within the sport that the Raiders would consider trading Carr in the offseason. Gruden’s approach has suggested that no one on the roster is untouchable.
Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins: He has been sidelined by a shoulder injury this season after missing last season because of a knee injury. Coach Adam Gase arrived in South Florida in 2016 pledging to get the most out of Tannehill. It hasn’t happened yet, in large part because of Tannehill’s inability to stay healthy and remain in the lineup. It wouldn’t be particularly surprising if Gase and the Dolphins decide in the offseason to make a move at quarterback.