There is no role in sports comparable to an NFL quarterback. A unique blend of talent, leadership and intelligence.
What’s more, there are only two paths to significant playing time. The first is experience and the second is scouting. Experience is hard to get on the practice field, so those who aren’t scouted as high-round picks prior to the draft often face difficult odds.
It can happen, though. The best example this year is Chase Daniel, an undrafted journeyman seven years ago with 464 career passing yards (just four last season). He’s only 6-0, which is very short by NFL standards. Yet teams have seen enough that the minute free agency opened, the Eagles grabbed him at $21 million over three years, most of it guaranteed. Daniel only has two career games with significant experience, but he performed well enough in those games that the Eagles pulled an expensive trigger. Daniel should have a minor opportunity to win the starting job. The Eagles did give Sam Bradford starter money, though.
Daniel’s contract seems very unusual, but, as you look at the free agency market for quarterback, that’s the minimum price if you believe someone can start at the position. The Houston Texans sunk $72 million over four years (again, more than half guaranteed) into Brock Osweiler, who was decent in half a season for the reigning Super Bowl champions, throwing for 1,967 of his 2,126 career passing yards. Osweiler, at least, was the 57th player drafted in 2012 and stands 6-foot-7.
During the 2015 regular season and playoffs, quarterbacks threw 18,803 times for 136,179 yards. After a couple of days of free agency and Johnny Football’s release, the free agency market includes 1,113 attempts and 7,418 yards of that total. About half of that is Ryan Fitzpatrick, a career journeyman who sputtered statistically, but still led the New York Jets to its first decent season in several years.
Only 19 signal-callers in what I’d consider the current player pool have ever completed an NFL pass. I’d be surprised if anyone outside of this group sees time on a 2016 NFL active roster, though there’s always a Dominique Davis or Ryan Williams (physically gifted, undrafted in recent years, not a priority free agent post-draft) out there who gets a camp opportunity where lightning may strike.
I’ve searched for recent examples of an undrafted quarterback who wasn’t a priority free agent immediately after the draft ever receiving playing time. The closest player I found was Alex Tanney, who was signed by the Chiefs after the 2012 draft, got hurt in the pre-season, spent the year on IR, and has since been on six other teams. He’s currently the fourth-string Titan quarterback. You may remember Tanney’s amazing “trick-shot” video from his college days. Anyway, Tanney has 99 career passing yards.
So I feel confident that these 19 players are about it as far as anything other than camp arms. Many teams will take a fifth quarterback for the early portion of training camp, but that player won’t see time in exhibition games.
Probably the most intriguing free agent is Robert Griffin III, who didn’t play for Washington last season. He’s 26, has 36 starts and his average metric is 53, highest among free agents. If a team is willing to commit to his style of play, it could work. But questions about his leadership remain. Someone will take that chance.
Michael Vick, 36 this June, says he wants one more year in the NFL. His career metric is 49, and he struggled a bit in relief work last season for Pittsburgh. He may receive an invitation somewhere, but he won’t get a large guaranteed contract.
Fitzpatrick, 33, is the only full-time starter from last year available. He has a career record of 45-59 and has made 105 career starts (I assign wins and losses based on who was playing when the game was decided, not on who started the game). He scored a 46 last season with the Jets, consistent with his career average of 47. I think he can be a valuable backup, but if you’re starting him from day one, it’s not a good sign. The Jets reportedly want him back, but don’t want to pay starter money. My guess is he ends up back in New York as the Jets draft too low to pick a quarterback who should start this season. The Jets may trade up for a quarterback.
Josh Freeman, the 17th overall pick in 2009, has 61 career starts and a 47 metric. But leadership issues also follow Freeman and he’s been cut a few times. It’s hard to justify the salary he’d receive for his experience. You want reliability from a primary backup, not someone you have to worry about every week.
There are a collection of older players who have seen some backup work who might continue to play that role – most likely with teams they’ve played with in recent years. That group includes Tarvaris Jackson, (age 33 this season), T.J. Yates (29), Matt Moore, (32), Bruce Gradkowski, (33), Christian Ponder (28), Josh Johnson (30), Charlie Whitehurst (34), Matt Flynn (31), Ryan Lindley (27) and Brandon Weeden (32). These quarterbacks won’t get starting opportunities, but they will probably receive chances to fill the primary backup spot – the idea being that they can learn a playbook and give their teams a chance of staying in a playoff race if they have to fill in for a game or two.
There are still a few teams that need someone to fill this role, and there’s often some shuffling around among the lower end of this range – players receiving $2 million or less. A very solid #2 quarterback makes $3-$4 million these days. Moore and Jackson both average 49 in the metric. The others are mostly in the low 40s. Flynn is at 52 in ten games, which earned him a big contract at one point. But he has bounced around seven different rosters in his career, which is a strong indication that he’s not considered good with playbooks.
Johnny Manziel, of course, is a free agent. He was a first-round choice two years ago, but has only scored a 43 in ten games. This, plus his notable off-field distractions make him a difficult sell for any franchise. His alleged violence against his girlfriend would be a problem for fans, owners, even many other players. His work ethic is also suspect.
Jimmy Clausen (28), Jeff Tuel (25) and Mike Kafka (29) are also on this list, but have struggled so much in limited appearances (Clausen has a remarkable 1-13 record and a 34 average in the metric) that they probably won’t be considered for backup roles. And Tim Tebow (29) is presumably available if someone is interested, but brings too much media attention and is limited to a certain type of playbook.
Colin Kaepernick, 28, is reportedly on the trading block after he lost his starting job in San Francisco. His score in the metric dropped from 62 when he led the 49ers to the Super Bowl to 52, then to 49, then to 42 last season before Blaine Gabbert took over. Kaepernick’s salary becomes guaranteed at the end of this month, so he would have to be traded by then. Of course, the team on the other end is on the hook for about $15 million in salary and various roster and playing time bonuses. That’s a lot to sink into a quarterback who has suffered one of the more stark early-career declines I’ve ever seen. Odds are, the 49ers will release him and then he’ll probably get another shot somewhere. There are at least three teams who are in serious need of a starter from day one. He won’t get the nine-figure contract he had with San Francisco, but I could see $5-$7 million going his way.
Reviewing what we’ve seen so far, like last year, this is a bleak year for quarterbacks and free agency. Osweiler received established starter money. Kirk Cousins received the $19.5 million franchise tag from Washington. Matt McGloin and Case Keenum received RFA tenders (Keenum, in Los Angeles, could compete for the starting job). Seven teams have already signed players in primary backup roles.
Grffin and Kaepernick (if available) could surprise and even break $10 million if a team is desperate enough. Fitzpatrick will get around $7-$8 million. Even Yates could get into a situation where starting is possible. I think he’ll get around $4 million.
Finally, I’ll add a breakdown, by draft position, of yards passing in the NFL last season (including playoffs):
1st Overall: 25.9%
(first round: 58.7% – Drew Brees was drafted #32 in 2001, when there were only 31 teams)