The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The NFL quarterback carousel spun at hyperspeed. Here’s who upgraded and who didn’t.

Teddy Bridgewater could be a steal for the Panthers. (AP Photo/Mark Black, File)
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There is no more drastic overhaul an NFL franchise can make with one choice than to switch starting quarterbacks, which means this has been an offseason of the extreme. Quarterbacks define the NFL, and quarterback movement defined the beginning of the NFL league year, and there are still a few more signal-calling dominoes to fall.

The NFL will look different when it returns, in an almost disorienting way. By the time the music stops, at least a quarter of the league will have changed quarterbacks. The passers who changed teams will include arguably the greatest football player of all time, another Hall of Famer, another former MVP and a former first overall pick.

What happened? The quarterback carousel spun on hyperspeed this offseason, partly out of coincidence and partly because of consequences. Tom Brady’s availability affected the entire landscape, and he happened to become a free agent the same offseason that Cam Newton is coming off a serious foot injury and multiple high-ceiling prospects will be available in the draft. There was a random confluence of big-name quarterbacks available.

Can Tom Brady lead the Bucs to the Super Bowl? Watching him try will be fascinating.

But there are also underlying reasons for the massive shift. The salary cap has been rising rapidly in recent seasons, which has enabled teams more flexibility and turned once-onerous salaries into reasonable deals. Nearly every team has the wherewithal to fit a giant contract on its roster, which means more teams have the capacity to go after any quarterback. The mass quarterback movement happened because it’s possible.

It’s not over yet. The Los Angeles Chargers have sent out signals they will stick with Tyrod Taylor in the wake of Philip Rivers’s departure, but it is hard to believe the Chargers will attempt to gain a foothold in a new stadium with Taylor, especially when Newton and Jameis Winston are available. The Bengals are expected to trade Andy Dalton and take Joe Burrow with the first pick. The Dolphins could take a quarterback at No. 5 with Ryan Fitzpatrick keeping the seat warm.

Even with more to come, it is worth taking a breath and taking stock of teams that have already changed quarterbacks.

New England Patriots

Former quarterback: Tom Brady

New quarterback: Jarrett Stidham? Andy Dalton?

How they come out: Moving on from Brady, while dramatic and unnerving, may be a beneficial move for New England. Brady will be 43 in August, an age that carries risk and uncertainty even for the best to ever play. But the Patriots are also about to be served a dose of NFL reality they haven’t had to face in two decades. It’s not easy finding a great quarterback, and it’s a nightmare when you have a bad one. The Patriots haven’t worried about it since the turn of the century. Can Belichick turn Stidham into a franchise quarterback? Will he move for a placeholder such as Dalton or try to bring Jacoby Brissett, the former Brady backup who started for the Colts last season, back into the fold? With Belichick, it’s anyone’s guess.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Former quarterback: Jameis Winston

New quarterback: Tom Brady

How they come out: If Brady maintains some level of greatness, the Buccaneers will be a contender to be the first team to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium. They have firepower around Brady, and their defense improved in coordinator Todd Bowles’s first season. But Brady is playing outside the only system and culture he has ever known. Moving from Winston to Brady could be a massive upgrade, but the chances Brady will disappoint are larger than the splashy nature of the signing would suggest. Brady’s legacy is secure, but his ability to perform at an elite level in 2020 is unclear.

Carolina Panthers

Former quarterback: Cam Newton

New quarterback: Teddy Bridgewater

How they come out: Newton is the best player in franchise history, and if he can get healthy — a significant “if” — he again could be one of the best players in the NFL. Letting him seek a trade was not an easy decision. And still, it says here no team won the quarterback derby more than the Panthers. Bridgewater signed a three-year, $63 million deal, which is a bargain for a starting quarterback. The last time Bridgewater started an entire season, before a gruesome knee injury he is now fully recovered from, he went 11-5 and led the Vikings to the playoffs in 2015. Last year, he went 5-0 filling in for Drew Brees in New Orleans. Bridgewater is only 27. His accuracy, smarts and leadership make him a strong candidate to be new coach Matt Rhule’s short-term and long-term answer. The division-rival Saints may rue choosing the 40-year-old Brees over the chance to keep Bridgewater around.

Indianapolis Colts

Former quarterback: Jacoby Brissett

New quarterback: Philip Rivers

How they come out: Rivers showed signs of deterioration last season, but he fits in Indianapolis. The Colts have a great offensive line, which should mitigate his immobility. They needed an upgrade from Brissett, who filled in admirably after Andrew Luck’s sudden retirement before an ankle injury hobbled him. Rivers is close with head coach Frank Reich, who was his offensive coordinator in San Diego. Rivers is not the player he once was, but the talent and infrastructure around him could give him a chance to make the Super Bowl run he never had with the Chargers.

Chicago Bears

Former quarterback: Mitchell Trubisky

New quarterback: Nick Foles

How they come out: It’s not inconceivable that Trubisky will beat out Foles and keep his position, but teams usually don’t trade for $21 million-a-year quarterbacks to make them backups. Trading a mid-round pick for Foles is an admission they whiffed on Trubisky, whose regression last season doomed the Bears. Foles is close with Coach Matt Nagy, who coached him when he was a backup in Kansas City. Foles’s career has been so bizarre — from wildly efficient in Philadelphia to disaster in St. Louis to cult hero in Philadelphia to one-year washout in Jacksonville — that it’s hard to predict what will happen. But between his connection to Nagy, the Bears’ defense and the skill players around him, it’s a good bet that Foles succeeds.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Former quarterback: Nick Foles

New quarterback: Gardner Minshew II

How they come out: The Jaguars could still try to land Newton or Winston, but it seems as if they will try to build around Minshew on a budget rookie deal and a mountain of draft picks. The experiment with Foles was a failure that leaves nearly $19 million in dead cap on their books. Minshew is an accurate passer with an advanced feel for the game and a boatload of fun. But he is also a year removed from being drafted in the sixth round. It feels like this won’t be the last time the Jaguars land on a new quarterback in coming seasons.

Los Angeles Chargers

Former quarterback: Philip Rivers

New quarterback: Tyrod Taylor? Cam Newton?

How they come out: Going 5-11 with a 38-year-old quarterback is all the justification a team needs to make a change behind center, even if that 38-year-old has been a franchise pillar for 15 seasons. But it doesn’t seem as if the Chargers had much of a plan after letting Rivers walk. They could make a play for Newton or Winston, even if ESPN reported they plan on handing the reigns to Taylor. They may use the sixth pick to land a franchise quarterback, but with the Bengals and Dolphins picking ahead of them, it’s unlikely they will have their choice of quarterback without sacrificing to trade up. Moving on from Rivers was sound, if painful. Replacing him with a gaping hole isn’t going to work.

Read more:

Meet Jarrett Stidham, Tom Brady’s possible successor. He’s already on the quarterback’s diet.

Projecting the Tom Brady-less AFC East

Brewer: What made the Brady-Belichick partnership great is what made it have to end

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