The days of premier top-tier quarterbacks being available in the free agent frenzy period are absolutely over. The game has changed so much and it is imperative that your blue-chip signal caller – even if he isn’t as great as advertised (see Joe Flacco) – be signed to a long-term deal.
Now, the current set of quarterbacks that hit the market are typically players who are either signed as stop-gaps to usher in a younger quarterback within a season or two, or signed as a backup insurance policy.
This year’s crop fits the bill with some guys who are likely looking for their last or second to last contracts, or simply trying to rekindle some old magic from yesteryear. Here is my list of the top five free agent quarterbacks available.
1. Josh McCown: Look, I can put a disclaimer on McCown considering that known quarterback whisperer, Marc Trestman, has been known to prop up average quarterbacks into solid players. And, yes, McCown was the grateful beneficiary of the New Monsters of the Midway in Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall. Despite the question marks on his ability to repeat his stellar performance backing up the incumbent Jay Cutler, you cannot deny his numbers:
8 Starts, 13 touchdowns, 1 interception, 66.5 percent completion and 1,829 yards.
The above stats corresponded to a 110 quarterback rating, which, to my recollection is very good.
Is it worrisome that McCown never came close to those numbers in his previous 11 seasons as an NFL quarterback, yes, somewhat. But he was also never given an opportunity. And regardless of the factors that were in his favour, if you saw his games, you’d see a player with great fundamentals, a strong arm, the ability to push the ball down field and two aspects that Jay Cutler has never been able to master: looking off Brandon Marshall and avoiding the big mistakes. McCown, unlike Cutler, is not totally dependent on Brandon Marshall and it was evidenced by Alshon Jeffery’s performance when Cutler was sidelined.
Don’t get me wrong though. There’s no guarantee McCown will even be a starter next season. If he signs with a team like Oakland, Cleveland or Houston, I would be hard-pressed to believe that he’s not brought in primarily as a backup, as those three teams are likely to select quarterbacks in the first round. But I could also see a team signing him as an outright one or two-year starter, similar to how the Arizona Cardinals brought in Carson Palmer. McCown would also be a perfect fit in Cincinnati to help push Andy Dalton, but also potentially supplant him if he reverts to his nemesis, “Bad Dalton” (or “Bad Andy”). My belief in McCown is based on what he showed me last season, and the tape does not lie.
2. Michael Vick: Vick does not get commended enough for how he handled as situation that would’ve frustrated most veteran quarterbacks. Most players would’ve felt a sense of entitlement despite a new coaching coming into the fold. Vick’s been on the team for three seasons, he has the respect of the entire team and is a known commodity. When Nick Foles threatened his job in training camp, he took it in stride and embraced the competition. When he lost his job due to a strained hamstring, he supported Foles and never became a distraction to the team. Now, Vick is set to become a free agent, and he’s made it very clear that he wants to be a starter and believes in his capacity to contribute to a team.
Vick still has his issues though: accuracy on short throws makes him and erratic passer and he is also prone to bad turnovers, especially those of the strip sack variety. The key for him is to stay healthy, but there is a catch-22 with that proposition. He’s still athletic enough to be a top five rusher at the position, however his propensity for injury is heightened the more he escapes the pocket. After 13 years in the league, the fact that he still does not know how to slider does not alleviate things.
There’s been a lot of talk of reuniting Vick and Marty Mornhinweg in Florham Park, New York. Geno Smith, the incumbent starter, won’t be given the job free of charge and Vick will provide enough insurance in the advent that Smith’s poor play does not subside. Vick can spot-start or sit when needed as he’s checked his ego out the door.
3. Matt Cassel: The former USC Trojan had somewhat of a revelation as the starter for the Vikings. A player who looked done last year with dwindling arm-strength and diminishing overall skills, displayed the talent that led him to an 11-win season in 2009 for the Patriots. He has stellar games against Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Philadelphia, where he threw for two touchdowns in each game and combined for only one interception in that period. There have also been games where he’s struggled such as his three-interception performance against Cincinnati.
Considering an unimaginative offense and a lack of playmakers, I thought his 11 touchdowns and 81 quarterback rating were respectable. Cassel, like many of the new-breed free agent quarterbacks, must be adept at spot starting or, in other words, being able to start at a moment’s notice. Cassel never possessed the big arm, or the plus athleticism, but he is a solid player who can go off from time to time. His veteran pedigree will serve him well in any situation he sets foot in. He’s in the category of quarterbacks who likely won’t be signed in mind to be a starter, but will be a great insurance policy for a team with a questionable backup quarterback, i.e. Aaron Rodgers. Keep in mind; he left nearly $4 million on the table to opt-out of his current deal with the Vikings.
4. Chad Henne: From a talent perspective, Henne is easily the lowest of this bunch. Surprisingly though, he had a pretty good season and he’s been able to build chemistry with Cecil Shorts in Justin Blackmon in 2012 and to a lesser extent, Ace Sanders and Mike Thomas in 2013. He was able to win a quarterback competition, twice, against Blaine Gabbert (say whatever you want about that), so he has proven that he can come in a spot-start if need-be. Over his final five games, he managed to finish the season with nine touchdowns and five interceptions. He combines a solid arm, with the ability to push the ball down the field, while also showing confidence and moxie as a tough competitor. Henne though, is best suited as a backup. He’d be a great addition for a team like Atlanta that has never had a proven backup, unless you want to count Chris Redman, which I don’t. Of course, the teams that have clamored for a decent backup for years, such as the Packers, Bengals, Bills and even to some extent, the Steelers, would be well versed in acquiring Henne.
5. Josh Freeman: Where to begin? He was absolutely dreadful in Tampa Bay, averaging a 45 percent completion rate in three games in pewter and red. Freeman’s game has been on a steady decline since a 25 touchdown, 6-interception campaign in 2010 for Tampa Bay. Not only has his game eroded but also character issues have risen, with reports of poor work ethic and clashing with coaches, although, I am willing to give him somewhat of a pass with the Greg Schiano fiasco. Schiano was never made to be a headman in the NFL as his style of coaching wore out too many veterans and seemed far too confrontational to be successful.
Still, it is hard to find a positive aspect for Freeman. He had the opportunity to go to Minnesota and they even gave him a chance to start a week after he came onto the team. The result was even more pathetic, as he went 20 of 53 with an interception against the Giants in his lone appearance for Minnesota. It is not only mind-blowing, but quite concerning that a player who was competing against Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel, was not able to distance himself from a talent standpoint. The Vikings must have seen something they really didn’t like to not offer Freeman another chance at starting, especially while their season was in the dumps.
At 25 years of age, Freeman has the benefit of youth being on his side. He is still a very talented player who possesses a strong arm and the big stature that scouts love from quarterbacks. His inability to read defenses and go through his progressions has stunted his career considerably. Those are two aspects that will lead to perpetual failure in the NFL if they cannot be improved considerably.
The question now remains: which team is best suited to revive Freeman’s career? Well, his offensive coordinator in 2010 was Greg Olson, who holds the same position now for the Raiders. Olson could try to re-kindle the success Freeman achieved three years ago in Oakland. Based off the uncertainty of where he would land and his recent struggles, I had to put Freeman as the fifth rated quarterback. His talent, however, is still intriguing and if he can find the right situation with a head coach, quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator that can hone his skills; he may be a reclamation project worth fixing
The best of the rest: As some of you may know, many players end up getting released near, at or after the first stages of the free agency periods. Roster bonus deadlines are factors that may lead to a team cutting a player with many years left on his contract. As such, we know quarterbacks such as Mark Sanchez, Matt Schaub and Jason Campbell will likely get cut. Sanchez and Campbell will have a hard time initially finding work; Campbell because the market for his services will regulate itself once the first wave of contracts are signed, Sanchez because he’s been an abomination at the position for the last three season.
Schaub should definitely get another chance to start. I know he was plagued heavily by the pick-six last season, but he is still, as recent as 2012, a former 4,000 yard passer who’s posted five-straight seasons with a quarterback rating of 90 or more. Although he lacks any type of mobility and his arm strength has diminished, but very few player can ball-fake a play-action pass better than Schaub and he is still has good accuracy. I remember in his prime, he would throw those intermediate deep-crossing patterns and hit his receivers perfectly in stride. Schaub must have the advent of a very good offensive line, as he is very stationary as a signal caller. Schaub signed a 4-year deal worth $62 million in 2012, which included $29 million in guaranteed money. His base salary for 2014 and 2015 would be $10 and $12.5 million respectively. He would be a great backup to help inaugurate a Johnny Manziel or a Blake Bortles but unless he takes a pay cut or a salary restructure, he is as good as gone.
That’s it for my free agent primer for quarterbacks. This is as big a crapshoot as any other position to predict in free agency. Lookout for my next free agency primer, as I take a look at a terrific stable of running backs who will potentially look for new teams in 2014.