Quarterback Update: Playing Chicken with the ‘Niners

Teams looking for an experienced quarterback for 2016 are running out of options. Robert Griffin III signed a backup-plus two-year deal with Cleveland yesterday. Griffin didn’t play at all in 2015 and carries some red flags, but if you were looking for a potential starter on the free-agent market, that was the best option.

Cleveland will still, presumably, go quarterback at #2 (after the draft, we’ll probably say they wentz quarterback). But this allows Carson Wentz some time to get used to playing the position at a high level, as he played at FCS school North Dakota State. Wentz has the tools and the brains, but can’t be expected to play at NFL speed right away.

With Griffin gone, the list of experienced quarterbacks stands at Michael Vick (Age 36 at the start of the season, two years removed from starting, 126 career games), Ryan Fitzpatrick (33, 107 games, one of only two remaining who started more than five games last year), Josh Freeman (28, 61), Tarvaris Jackson (33, 41), Christian Ponder (28, 37), Brandon Weeden (32, 28), Bruce Gradkowski (33, 27), Charlie Whitehurst (34, 17), Jimmy Clausen (28, 17), T.J. Yates (29, 12), Ryan Lindley (27, 11), Matt Flynn (31, 10), Johnny Manziel (23, 10, the only other starter from last year on this list) and Josh Johnson (30, 6).

A handful of these players will receive opportunities to win a backup job in training camp. Fitzpatrick wants real starter money. He’d get a decent contract, likely something similar to Griffin’s deal, if he were willing to be a stopgap starter or compete to start in a fluid situation like Denver’s or returning to the Jets, but he’s playing his own game of chicken. Manziel isn’t likely to receive an offer while charges of alleged domestic violence remain unresolved (a grand jury is hearing the case and deciding whether he will face a misdemeanor charge). And even if he isn’t charged, it’s a bad PR situation and there’s still the issue of whether Manziel is willing to do what it takes to be an NFL quarterback.

Colin Kaepernick, who was so good in 2012 but has steadily declined since and was just awful last year, is still on the San Francisco roster. His 2016 contract guarantees at $11.9 million next week. Do the 49ers want to go into 2016 with Blaine Gabbert at the helm? Gabbert’s only 26 and was surprisingly decent relieving Kaepernick last year. He was the 10th overall pick in 2011 and physically impressive. He came out of a spread system in college, so presumably he’d need time to develop. Maybe the light finally came on? After all, Jacksonville did force him to start as a 21-year-old rookie. Maybe out of need, but that seemed like a move destined to fail.

Unless Chip Kelly thinks he can fix Kaepernick (not the worst idea in the world), the 49ers aren’t in terrible shape. But at $11.9 million, he should be released and teams know it. He might be worth the mid-round draft pick teams would trade for him, but then they’d have to pay that salary. The 49ers say, for now, that they’ll pay Kaepernick if they can’t trade him (and he has requested a trade). It makes no sense, though. The 49ers are far better off going with Gabbert and drafting a prospect.

I think is a game of chicken the teams still in need of a starter will win. Whether Kaepernick succeeds with a new opportunity is another story, and one only he can tell. He has to be willing to put in the work.

The following teams have immediate starting quarterback issues:

Denver: the Broncos traded for journeyman Mark Sanchez, who is a fairly good backup, but not someone who should be relied on to start for a full season.

New York Jets: Geno Smith is in his contract year and is a year removed from starting. When he started, he was awful, though, like Gabbert, he was pressed into service early and came from a spread system in college. Bryce Petty, drafted #103 last season, is the only other quarterback on the roster and has yet to throw an NFL pass.

Los Angeles: the Rams are giving Nick Foles low starter money, but he has fared poorly the last two seasons. Case Keenum, who signed his RFA contract, will compete for the starting role – he probably even has the edge. They could trade up for Jared Goff, especially if he doesn’t go in the top five.

A whole passel of teams would be delighted to draft a decent quarterback prospect. Teams like Arizona, Dallas and New Orleans are anxious to start working on heirs for their aging starters. Many other teams want to get another mid-round quarterback to try and groom a backup. And some would take a talent like Wentz or Paxton Lynch from Memphis just for the opportunity to get a young franchise quarterback.

The bad news is that free agency is just plain rotten this year. The good news is that it’s an unusually deep draft when it comes to draftable quarterbacks. No near-certain franchise guys like Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota, but depth at the top level and a load of depth in the middle. In addition to Wentz and Lynch, California’s Goff carries a first-round grade. He has a lot of college experience and could go very early – especially to a warm-weather team where the coach simply doesn’t believe that quarterbacks need large hands. Other names thrown out there include Ohio State’s Cardale Jones, Michigan State’s Connor Cook, Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg, Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott and Western Kentucky’s Brandon Doughty. Every one of these quarterbacks probably goes in the first three rounds.

Author: Jim Gindin

Founder and Lead Developer, Solecismic Software