News & Analysis

Predicting quarterback landing spots in free agency and the 2020 NFL Draft

The football world is about to witness chaos over the next few weeks as the market for free agent quarterbacks reshapes the NFL Draft QB market. There's currently more supply than demand, so we're sure to observe some level of butterfly effect as things shake out. And it's all likely to kick off with a decision by one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game in Tom Brady. 

The NFL Combine gave us plenty to talk about, and we've cycled through all the interviews, psychological testing, medical reports and countless rumors. But things are about to start happening.

Here's how we see things playing out between 4 p.m. Eastern on March 18, when free agency officially opens, and the conclusion of the NFL Draft in late April.  

THE OPULENT

Joe Burrow, LSU – Cincinnati Bengals (Round 1, Pick 1)

This is the only given of the 2020 offseason quarterback moves. The Cincinnati Bengals will be taking the best college football player PFF has ever seen since we started collecting collegiate game data in 2014. There have been more than 60,000 player seasons recorded in that stretch, and no one has come remotely close to being as valuable as Burrow.

Most wins above average (WAA) in a single season

Player School Season WAA
1. Joe Burrow LSU 2019 2.95
2. Marcus Mariota Oregon 2014 2.36
3. Kyler Murray Oklahoma 2018 2.33
4. Baker Mayfield Oklahoma 2017 2.32

According to PFF’s ball-charting process, Burrow threw a perfectly placed pass on 40% of his targets 10 or more yards downfield — over 5 percentage points above any other FBS quarterback. You can criticize his arm strength all you want, but Burrow is the complete package and will give the Bengals franchise the boost they’ve needed. 

Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama – Washington Redskins (Round 1, Pick 2)

There are two routes Washington could go with the second overall pick: Chase Young or Tua Tagovailoa. As Mike Renner said in his latest Mock Draft, Dwayne Haskins is not Ron Rivera’s guy, and Haskins still has a lot to prove. If they go with Young, the Redskins could find themselves attached to a QB who may not work out — like the Chicago Bears with Mitchell Trubisky. If they go with Tagovailoa, the situation would be more like the Arizona Cardinals a year ago with Kyler Murray and Josh Rosen. I’d take the latter, and right now it looks like Rivera and company are very much considering it, even with the injury baggage. 

In his final two seasons as the Crimson Tide’s signal-caller, Tagovailoa produced elite 90.0-plus grades in each season, which made him one of just two quarterbacks in the FBS to accomplish such a feat (Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence was the other). On a throw-for-throw basis in that stretch, Tagovailoa has been one of the best in the country. Among quarterbacks to take at least 600 dropbacks in the last two years, Tagovailoa ranks first in percentage of throws to receive a positive PFF grade and 11th-best in percentage of throws to receive a negative PFF grade.

He benefited from an elite receiving unit, sure, but Tagovailoa displayed pinpoint accuracy over the last two years. Removing throws behind the line of scrimmage, Tagovailoa’s rate of perfectly placed passes ranked first. 

Tom BradyNew England Patriots

Tom Brady isn’t giving any hint as to where he'll sign. But the landing spot that makes the most sense is still the New England Patriots. They have the cap space to sign a few offensive weapons such as Emmanuel Sanders or Hunter Henry (if he doesn’t get tagged) or even Antonio Brown if the off-field issues clear up. Not to mention, they own the 23rd overall pick in a draft that is loaded with wide receiver talent — they can possibly land Henry Ruggs III, Laviska Shenault Jr., Tee Higgins, et al.

Brady was by no means up to his elite status in 2019, but the situation he was in made him look worse than he actually was — Brady was still the 12th highest-graded quarterback in the NFL. His accuracy remained among the best in the NFL, ranking sixth in percentage of accurate passes thrown beyond the line of scrimmage. A few more playmakers are all he needs.

THE DOMINO EFFECT FROM BRADY STAYING IN NEW ENGLAND

Ryan Tannehill – Tennessee Titans

Tennessee is reportedly one of the contenders for Brady’s services, but if he goes back home to the Patriots, the Titans will almost certainly be locking up the guy who took them to the AFC Championship game this past season in Ryan Tannehill. It’s quite remarkable that Tannehill was able to go from producing one of the worst quarterback seasons we have ever seen from a passing grade standpoint in 2018 (42.4) to the NFL’s highest-graded quarterback in regular-season play in 2019 (91.0 passing grade).

Offensive Coordinator Arthur Smith clearly had a system in place that brought the best out of Tannehill. They used play-action extensively (the sixth-highest rate to be exact) and it paid dividends as Tannehill averaged an NFL-high 12.7 yards per attempt on such plays. Regardless of whether they end up with Brady or Tannehill, the Titans will likely be in a good spot at the quarterback position come Week 1. 

Jameis Winston – Tampa Bay Buccaneers

 There simply is not a better offensive fit for Jameis Winston than the one he had in 2019 with Bruce Arians in Tampa Bay. The quarterback whisperer may be frustrated by Winston's 30 touchdown, 30 interception season, but he might not have much a choice than to give Winston one more shot while bringing in a rookie to threaten his starting job during the 2020 season. 

Since entering the league in 2015, Winston ranks first in positively graded throw rate. In that same stretch, the only quarterback to generate more negatively graded throws is Josh Allen. While you’re playing Russian Roulette with Winston under center, the high end of his play, along with the difference between his positively and negatively graded throw rates, still makes him a starter in today’s NFL.

In fact, Winston’s difference between the two rates places him in the top 10 among quarterbacks, along with the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Matt Ryan, Tom Brady, Andrew Luck, Drew Brees and Russell Wilson. We aren’t saying he’s an elite quarterback by any stretch of the imagination — his 90 turnover-worthy plays on throws of 19 yards or less were 25 more than anyone else over the last five years — but it’s not a bad thing for Tampa to bring him back for at least one last ride. 

Jacob Eason, Washington – Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Round 2, Pick 45)

With his arm strength, Jacob Eason has Bruce Arians written all over him — he’s exactly the type of quarterback Tampa can pick up in Round 2 to compete with Winston. There are some things Eason does well, like his sniper arm, anticipation and rhythm passing. When in rhythm, Eason was among the 15 highest-graded quarterbacks in the FBS. When knocked off his rhythm, though, things went south for Eason. This is a big concern for us when projecting his play to the NFL. On those out-of-rhythm passes, Eason was second to last among all FBS quarterbacks in negatively graded play rate. He’ll be just as much of a project for Arians as Winston, assuming he lands there.

Jordan Love, Utah State – Las Vegas Raiders (TRADE with Cleveland Browns for Pick 41)

In addition to the Patriots and Titans, the Raiders are one of the teams most linked to Tom Brady. Assuming they miss out on him — and in light of reports suggesting that Mike Mayock and Jon Gruden are done with the Derek Carr — they’ll be eyeing quarterbacks. There have been rumors about their interest in Utah State’s Jordan Love.

Before we get to the bad, Love has a tremendous arm, and he can sling it deep downfield and hit open receivers in stride. His pocket presence is also superb, converting pressure to sacks at a respectable rate of 15.9%. But these are really the only good within his game. Love's accuracy has been atrocious — he ranked 91st of 106 qualifying quarterbacks in percentage of pass attempts that resulted in a quarterback-fault incompletion. On top of that, he threw more interceptions into a tight window than any other FBS quarterback (15) and didn’t even crack the 50th percentile in wins generated according to PFF WAA. Love is a project, like Eason, but will be far more difficult to develop.

Philip Rivers Indianapolis Colts 

We all know Indianapolis is in the quarterback market after the Jacoby Brissett experiment failed. Brissett posted just a 59.3 PFF grade on the year, which was 29th of 32 qualifying quarterbacks, and the league’s second-lowest big-time throw rate. He wasn’t able to take advantage of favorable situations (last in clean pocket passing grade), nor was he able to accurately deliver the ball downfield (his 47.4% uncatchable pass rate was the worst in the league).

There’s a connection there between Frank Reich and Philip Rivers dating back to Reich’s time with the Chargers from 2013-15, and it makes a lot of sense for the two to reunite in Indianapolis. While Brissett struggled to deliver an accurate pass downfield, Rivers succeeded in 2019, ranking eighth in percentage of accurate passes throw 10 or more yards downfield. Of his 14 seasons we have graded, Rivers' 2019 was his fourth-worst from a passing grade standpoint at 73.6, but that was still right around the league average.  

Andy Dalton – Chicago Bears (via trade)

Andy Dalton has never produced an elite grade season and has seen just two of his nine career seasons end in a PFF grade of 80.0-plus, but he’s still a massive upgrade over Mitchell Trubisky. In three seasons with the Bears, Trubisky has yet to crack the 25th percentile among quarterbacks in PFF grade. Only Jameis Winston and Josh Allen have generated a worse negatively graded play rate than Trubisky since 2017, and his rate of positively graded plays ranked 27th. Trubisky’s accuracy is among the worst in the NFL, too — his accurate pass rate is second to last since 2017.

Again, Andy Dalton has his fair share of flaws, but he can actually hit his receivers downfield on a consistent basis — a trait Chicago star receiver Allen Robinson has never really had in his quarterback in his career. Over the last three years, Dalton has ranked sixth, ninth and 16th in accurate pass rate 10-plus yards downfield. Dalton’s high end and even low end are still better than Trubisky, and reuniting him with Bill Lazor — the Bears' new offensive coordinator who helped Dalton produce three of his four best seasons in the NFL from 2016-18 as his QB coach and OC — could give Chicago the final piece to their playoff puzzle. 

Teddy Bridgewater – Los Angeles Chargers

In an earlier quarterback landing spots article, we believed Teddy Bridgewater would be headed to the Carolina Panthers. They, however, are rolling with the injured Cam Newton in a season where they aren’t tanking (wink, wink). With only Tyrod Taylor and Easton Stick on roster, the Los Angeles Chargers are going to be searching for every solution possible.

Bridgewater isn’t going to wow you with the arm, but he can be the ultimate game-manager. When starting for Drew Brees from Weeks 3 through 7, Bridgewater was the fifth-highest-graded quarterback and made few mistakes in the Saints’ conservative offense. Only 21% of his pass attempts were 10 or more yards downfield, which was the lowest rate in the NFL by 4 percentage points (Jameis Winston, Matthew Stafford and Ryan Tannehill were all over 40%, for what it’s worth). A lot of Teddy’s production came from underneath routes — 49% of his completions came on such plays, which led the NFL. He only had to throw into a tight window on 56 pass attempts, but he managed to have only one turnover-worthy throw on those 56. Teddy is the perfect bridge quarterback for a team that will have to wait until the next draft to find a long-term solution at QB. 

Marcus Mariota – Philadelphia Eagles

The only opportunity for Marcus Mariota to reclaim a starting spot is with the Chicago Bears, but with them rolling with a duel between Trubisky and Dalton, he’ll be searching for a backup role somewhere. The Philadelphia Eagles need one pretty badly given Carson Wentz‘sinjury history.

Mariota has been consistently average to below average as a passer throughout his career, ranking as high as 16th in passing grade and as low as 28th. His lack of production from a clean pocket is perhaps the biggest red flag for his NFL future. The only other quarterback to record a lower passing grade from a clean pocket since 2015 is Trubisky. He’s not going to make plays outside the pocket with his arm, but he can with his scrambling. Mariota’s two most successful years in the NFL came in 2017 and in 2018 when his rushing grade ranked in the top five in each season. 

THE LEFTOVER ROOKIES

Justin Herbert, Oregon – Miami Dolphins (Round 1, Pick 5)

If Washington decides to snag Tua Tagovailoa out from under the Dolphins, they’ll be in big trouble. Miami has come too far not to get a quarterback, and there is potential with Justin Herbert. They might end up convincing themselves that he’s their guy. Herbert is far from a polished product. He had a bad problem with collapsing when the play did or when the pass-rush started closing in on him. As noted in this piece on prospects we at PFF don’t like as much as other scouts and media outlets, Herbert didn’t even crack the 25th percentile in accurate pass rate when throwing 10 or more yards downfield. 

Jake Fromm, Georgia – Atlanta Falcons (Round 2, Pick 47)

Matt Ryan isn’t getting any younger, and neither is his backup Matt Schaub. They’ll be in the market for a young quarterback sooner rather than later — getting a head start on their quest makes sense in the second-round of this draft in Jake Fromm. One of our concerns with Fromm is that he was more of a game manager at Georgia and rarely created anything outside the scheme. Just 17% of his pressured dropbacks ended with him making a play outside the pocket, which was one of the 10 lowest rates in college football. He also benefited from being under pressure at one of the three lowest rates. The good news on Fromm is that he protects the football incredibly well — he ranked sixth in turnover-worthy play rate in 2019. On top of that, he fared well in his tight window passing by ranking fourth in grade on such throws. 

Anthony Gordon, Washington State – Indianapolis Colts (Round 3, Pick 75)

Indianapolis clearly needs another quarterback. In addition to bringing in a veteran, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to add a rookie — especially Anthony Gordon in the third-round. PFF's Eric Eager broke down how Gordon actually is in fact a quality option at quarterback and mentioned how he would be a better pick in Day 2 than Herbert or Love. Gordon’s box score stats alone don’t make him a solid prospect, considering they were mostly schemed through Mike Leach’s Air-Raid. But his accuracy trails only Joe Burrow in the class. Last year, Gordon produced the third-highest rate of accurate passes thrown beyond the line of scrimmage. He was the 15th most valuable quarterback in college football a season ago, far ahead of Herbert and Love.

Jalen Hurts, Oklahoma – Los Angeles Chargers (Round 4, Pick 102)

If Anthony Lynn and the Chargers implement an offense similar to what Lynn ran with Tyrod Taylor in Buffalo back in 2015-16, then taking Jalen Hurts makes a lot of sense. In the PFF Draft Guide, we actually gave Hurts the comp of Taylor, and in the past we've argued that any team planning to start Hurts would need to change its offense to what Bills had with Taylor. Hurts' passing is the major concern. No quarterback held onto the ball longer than Hurts (3.08 average time to throw) in 2019, which in turn brought a lot of pressure. Hurts was charged with the seventh-most pressures of any quarterback this past season, and given his slow release things will only get worse in the NFL. His rushing, though, can be turned into a weapon. While college rules favor RPOs more than the NFL, Hurts has proven to be dangerous on those plays by averaging 7.4 yards per carry on quarterback designed RPOs and 10.5 yards per pass when he pulled on one.

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