The NFL’s quarterback carousel could spin out of control this offseason

The New England Patriots and Chicago Bears need new starters as Cam Newton and Mitchell Trubisky hit free agency. The New Orleans Saints have in-house options to replace Drew Brees in the expected event he retires, but they will be restarting at quarterback. Deshaun Watson wants out of the dysfunctional mess in Houston, even as Texans brass insists it will not trade him. Ben Roethlisberger, not for the first time, behaved in the aftermath of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ playoff ouster like a man weighing retirement, and General Manager Kevin Colbert offered tepid public commitment to him. The Washington Football Team has a troika of options but no clear starter.

Those are only the most obvious possibilities for quarterback change. The Carolina Panthers have Teddy Bridgewater under contract, but owner David Tepper is aggressive and the Panthers could make a play for Watson or draft a new quarterback with the eighth pick. The New York Jets hold the second pick in a quarterback-rich draft and have Sam Darnold under contractual control for multiple seasons, giving them bountiful options. The Las Vegas Raiders, Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers all appear, to varying degrees, restless at quarterback.

Restlessness seems to be the defining trait of the moment for both teams and quarterbacks. For most of the salary cap era, franchises and high-level starting quarterbacks tied themselves together, perhaps aside from the waning seasons of a quarterback’s career. The money was too good for quarterbacks to pass up, and staying with one team enhanced a quarterback’s marketability. It was unwieldy for teams to move around contracts and too unmooring for them to start over once they had an established starter.

The template has changed. In retrospect, Kirk Cousins’s staredown with Washington planted a seed for quarterbacks. Cousins was content to take one-year deals on the franchise tag before entering full-fledged free agency, and it made him one of the wealthiest passers in football. Dak Prescott may be in the process of moving on from the Dallas Cowboys in similar fashion.

Tom Brady’s seamless eschewing of New England for Tampa Bay, after the Patriots declined for years to give Brady a long-term contract into his mid-40s, provided another example for quarterbacks. If Brady could leave a marquee franchise and thrive, why would Stafford or Watson think twice about engineering an exit from doormats? Aaron Rodgers wondered aloud about his future before walking it back, and even Russell Wilson, oddly, sent out vibes of dissatisfaction about how often he gets hit.

“This could be a transformational offseason in terms of player movement,” former NFL executive Mike Tannenbaum said. “It’s going to be fascinating to see if we’re headed toward more of an NBA model.”

Meanwhile, cultural norms of fandom continue to shift. Younger fans attach themselves to players as much as, if not more than, teams. Changing teams might have diminished a quarterback’s stature in the past, but no more.

Teams, too, have changed how they view quarterbacks within the context of team-building. They are no longer content to stand pat or build slowly. The Saints and Rams are at the extreme end of the trend, but teams are moving away from sustainability, instead going for broke and figuring it out on the fly annually. If some teams are willing to max out resources and push salary cap commitments into the future on an annual basis, it forces other teams to keep up. The patient will be passed.

NFL wisdom long held that franchises should aspire to keep their championship windows open as long as possible. Now every window lasts one year, even if it means perennially tearing a hole in your wall. The reigning Super Bowl champions spent last offseason jettisoning a No. 1 pick, bringing in a 42-year-old quarterback and surrounding him with free agent signings to complement a few years of strong drafts. It would be hard to replicate the Buccaneers’ plan, but the lesson is that if you’re trying to win a Super Bowl, there can be no half measures.

“People are living with dead money charges more comfortably now,” Tannenbaum said. “There’s been a marketplace acceptance to these massive one-year charges.”

If you have a Super Bowl-worthy roster without a Super Bowl quarterback or vice versa, you have to decide — right now, this second — whether to upgrade or tear down the roster. The Rams-Lions trade illustrated this perfectly. The Rams had used the first pick in 2016 on Goff and watched him reach the Super Bowl in his third season and go back to the playoffs last year. For years, that would be the no-doubt makings of an NFL marriage. Now, the Rams decided they required a talent upgrade.

The Lions wanted a change, too, so they used the best asset they had to jump-start a rebuild. Stafford’s presence may have made them a fringe playoff contender any given year, but most teams no longer aim for that kind of season.

The 49ers are in a similar position to the Rams. They have an elite, offensive-minded coach and great defensive players. If Jimmy Garoppolo isn’t capable of winning a Super Bowl, they can’t afford to wait one more season to find out. What makes the decision hard is that he might be that guy — he had the 49ers up 10 points on the Kansas City Chiefs in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl less than 13 months ago.

Of course, Goff made a Super Bowl, too. Garoppolo and Goff are good enough to start in the NFL. For contenders, good enough is no longer good enough. Is Derek Carr the answer in Las Vegas? Or Drew Lock in Denver? Even if those franchises can’t upgrade immediately, are they better off turning those quarterbacks into trade assets and starting the process of finding a Super Bowl-caliber passer now?

The definition of what it takes to win a Super Bowl has changed, too, thanks to the rising juggernaut in Kansas City. The only quarterback to beat Patrick Mahomes in the playoffs is Brady. Other quarterbacks surely can, but it will take a hyper-talented roster around an elite quarterback.

“There’s an urgency with teams to say, ‘If we don’t have Mahomes or Tom Brady, it’s going to be hard to win,’” Tannenbaum said. “The bar has been set historically high. Teams are saying, ‘If we have a B [grade at quarterback], we have to have an A.’”

While both sides of the franchise-quarterback relationship keep seeing greener grass elsewhere, the draft class offers more incentive for movement. Five quarterbacks — Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance and Mac Jones — are likely to be picked in the first round, with four possibly ticketed for the first 10 picks. Nearly all of the teams drafting in the top 10 are considered candidates to select a quarterback, including Philadelphia, which otherwise will go into next season with 2020 second-round pick Jalen Hurts as its starter.

In the long view, the Eagles’ trade of Wentz is a shock — the franchise built around him from the moment in 2016 when it traded vast draft equity to move up and take him second overall. But in the moment, it fit with where the league is. Nearly half of the NFL franchises could debut a new starting passer next season. Quarterbacks and teams are growing more comfortable with seismic change, and the coming months will reveal just how much.

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