Fantasy Football: Breaking down every free agent NFL QB

New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; New Orleans Saints quarterback Jameis Winston (2) throws during warm ups prior to kickoff against the San Francisco 49ers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

NFL free agency is just about upon us! We’ve already seen plenty of player movement at quarterback, as trades have moved the likes of Jared Goff (Lions), Carson Wentz (Colts) and Matthew Stafford (Rams) to new squads. The Cowboys and Dak Prescott on Monday reached an agreement on a four-year contract extension, ensuring that Dak won't be playing football without a star on his helmet anytime soon.

There aren’t exactly a plethora of high-end options remaining on the open market, but that shouldn’t stop us from getting a grip on each prospective free agent QB’s 1) general career success to this point, 2) best-case landing spot, 3) worst-case destination, and 4) most realistic new team.

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Note that each QB’s dream, nightmare and best-guess spots are determined through a mix of fantasy football and real life purposes. Obviously just about any QB would be best off starting for the Chiefs, but only one alleged mortal will be doing that for the next decade, as fun as it would be to dream about. 

Quarterback: Jameis Winston

Breakdown: Winston is a fearless gunslinger equally capable of throwing a horrendous pick-six or pinpoint dart through tight coverage on any given play. Mr. 33-for-30 ranked dead last in turnover-worthy plays (39) in 2019 but fourth in big-time throws (30) the last time we saw him under center for an extended period of time.

To be fair to Winston, we saw Carson Palmer and Andrew Luck have similar issues with limiting mistakes in coach Bruce Arians’ “no risk it, no biscuit” attack. Winston has regularly ranked near the top of the league in average target depth; it makes sense that he’s had a lower floor than most signal-callers due to the reality that he’s regularly attempted higher-difficulty throws.

The problem: Style points don’t matter in the NFL. Noodle arm and check-down Charlie jokes are fun; just realize the idea that taking easy yards underneath is a weak move doesn’t hold up when (Herm Edwards voice) you play to win the game. Ultimately, the key for Winston with his next opportunity is to find a happy medium between 1) playing within the confines of his offense, and 2) attempting to create magic with his bazooka of a right arm.

Dream spot: Panthers. Winston moving on to his third different NFC South team doesn’t seem particularly imminent, but the idea of him playing with talented weapons everywhere inside of Joe Brady’s pass-happy scheme is borderline erotic. Throw in the likely persistence of at least a below-average defense, and this would have all the looks of a team ready to participate in weekly fantasy-friendly shootouts.

Nightmare spot: Patriots. Look, I’m here for this from an entertainment perspective. The anticipation of the camera cutting to Bill Belichick for a reaction following Winston’s third ill-advised interception of the first half would be can’t-miss TV. However, putting Winston in an offense that has arguably the single worst group of pass-game weapons in the league wouldn’t be so great for fantasy business.

Best-guess spot: Saints. Ace Saints reporter Nick Underhill told the PFF Fantasy Football Podcast that he believes it will be Winston under center come Week 1. There’s always a chance that Taysom Hill remains far too involved for anybody other than Sean Payton’s liking, but ultimately Year 2 in a system that has consistently ranked atop the league in production seems like the sort of environment to best foster Winston’s aforementioned need to chill the hell out. Note that Winston led the NFL in yards per attempt last season including playoffs (on a whopping 12 attempts, lol).

Quarterback: Mitchell Trubisky

Breakdown: Trubisky is plenty capable of making a great throw from time to time. He should’ve had a 40-yard TD to Javon Wims during the Bears’ Wild Card loss to the Saints, but, alas, the well-designed play was instead converted into six points by Jameis Winston and company the following week.

The problem for Trubisky is that the flashes of brilliance are few and far between. We’re talking about the league’s single worst deep-ball passer here by just about any metric (among 33 qualified QBs with 25-plus deep-ball attempts):

  • PFF passing grade: 55 (No. 33)
  • Yards per attempt: 5.5 (No. 33)
  • Adjusted completion rate: 22.2% (No. 32)
  • QB rating: 29.1 (No. 33)

Overall, Trubisky completed just seven of 36 attempts thrown at least 20 yards downfield. Sheesh.

The presence of Allen Robinson and an elite defense makes it tough to blame anybody other than the 2021 Nickelodeon MVP for his struggles to this point. It’s clear that Trubisky is capable of putting together stretches of above-average performance; the problem is we also know better than to expect these stretches to become the norm.

Dream spot: Broncos. Even though a change of scenery hasn’t resulted in a major change in production at quarterback in recent memory, Trubisky would instantly have the best group of weapons of his career with the Broncos. The persistence of a great defense would also certainly help matters; the main question would be whether or not Trubisky could beat out Drew Lock for the starting job.

Nightmare spot: Jets. The last thing any of us should want to see is Trubisky moving on to a worse offense that inevitably will draft high-end competition. It’s already tough enough to envision Trubisky truly getting his career back on the sort of track that is typically associated with the No. 2 overall pick; jumping to another typically discombobulated organization doesn’t seem ideal for a bounce-back season in fantasyland.

Best-guess spot: Texans. The Bears are reportedly the highest current bidder for Deshaun Watson. Tossing Trubisky into the deal gives the Texans a starter they can simultaneously evaluate and tank around. Watching Trubisky waste away inside of an offense that was essentially carried by Watson all season wouldn’t be fun to watch, but sometimes life isn’t fun, people.

Quarterback: Cam Newton

Breakdown: It looked like the Patriots stumbled upon the greatest steal of free agency back in Week 2 when Newton picked apart the Seahawks’ (terrible) pass defense. Unfortunately, the success didn’t persist. The offense’s collection of banged-up and mediocre receivers made it awfully tough to evaluate Newton throughout the season. Yes, throwing eight scores vs. 10 interceptions in 15 starts is objectively bad. Also yes, that differential is boosted quite a bit when we add in Newton’s whopping 12 rushing scores.

Most of the concern for Newton entering the season stemmed from the idea that he wouldn’t be the same sort of athlete. This concern was largely vanquished throughout the season, and the reality that Newton had to deal with both an abbreviated offseason as well as COVID throws more fuel on the “maybe Cam still has it” fire.

Basically, 2020 didn’t give us enough evidence that Newton is ready to be a team’s longterm solution under center again. However, it also didn’t provide enough evidence to the contrary. Newton finished the season with a higher PFF passing grade than the likes of Alex Smith, Teddy Bridgewater, Jimmy Garoppolo, Carson Wentz and Mitchell Trubisky. Obviously these signal-callers shouldn’t be confused with high-end talents at this point in their respective careers, and neither should Newton ahead of next season. Still, it’s hard to disagree with Newton’s own assertion that “there aren’t 32 quarterbacks better than me.” 

Dream spot: Washington. There are some better options in terms of skill-position personnel, but a reunion with Ron Rivera would provide Newton with the sort of job security that he could be hard pressed to find elsewhere. Throw in the reality that the Football Team will provide Newton with arguably one of the league’s best defenses, and it’s easy to see them again contending atop the NFC East in 2021.

Nightmare spot: Bears. We’ve already seen coach Matt Nagy have all sorts of problems when it comes to sticking with a QB; throwing Newton into a volatile and unfamiliar situation doesn’t figure to bring out the best of him. Sure, the Bears are still playoff contenders largely independent of their QB thanks to their stout defense, but the lack of receiving talent and potential for a new coaching staff as early as 2022 doesn’t seem ideal.

Best-guess spot: Patriots. Reports have indicated that coach Bill Belichick “has done nothing but rave” about Newton this offseason. There was never any question about Newton’s work ethic or leadership last season; it’d make sense if the Patriots give him another chance with improved surrounding personnel if they can’t manage to swing a trade for a 1) more-established veteran, or 2) high-end rookie, at the position.

Quarterback: Alex Smith

Breakdown: Every conversation about Smith’s 2020 season is basically the same: fantastic real-life story, but the man was by all accounts a bad NFL QB.

  • PFF passing grade: 67.8 (No. 31 among 44 QBs with at least 100 dropbacks)
  • Yards per attempt: 6.3 (tied for No. 36)
  • Adjusted completion rate: 78.5% (tied for No. 9)
  • Average target depth: 5.4 (No. 44)
  • QB rating: 78.5 (No. 38)

There were certainly some good times along the way, although expecting a full slate of good health and further improvement from the soon-to-be 37-year-old QB seems like a pipe dream at this point. Smith’s mobility was a key part of his game once upon a time; those days are long gone.

Smith didn’t have the nicest things to say about his time in Washington (who does?), but he did prove that he’s still capable of contributing to winning football games from time to time. It seems ridiculous for any team to call themselves a viable contender with him under center, although his experience and leadership would make him one of the league’s better backup options just about anywhere he goes.

Dream spot: Jaguars. Reunite with former college coach Urban Meyer, help teach Trevor Lawrence the position, and make millions in a state that doesn’t tax income.

Nightmare spot: Bears. Putting Smith behind PFF’s 25th-ranked offensive line in pass-blocking grade seems like a recipe for disaster. Throw in the reality that this is probably the worst receiver room in the league without Allen Robinson, and it’s tough to see Smith being anything more than a low-volume game-manager here.

Best-guess spot: Jaguars. Simply makes too much sense for all parties involved.

Best of the rest

  • Ryan Fitzpatrick is still plenty capable of playing above-average football. Initial reports indicate that it “looks like he’s going to retire,” although NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport later said he intends on playing this year. He’ll certainly be a fantasy value with a starting job; the question is whether or not that opportunity will be provided as early as Week 1. Dream scenario that could truly produce season-long QB1 results: Broncos. 
  • Jacoby Brissett ranked 37th among 44 qualified QBs in PFF passing grade in 2019; it seems unlikely that he earns more than a backup job ahead of 2021.
  • Andy Dalton struggled mightily out of the gate after Dak Prescott was lost for the season, but he did improve as the year went on and led the offense to at least 30 points in four of his final seven starts.
  • Tyrod Taylor didn’t have a great 2020, getting his lung punctured by a team doctor before losing his job to stud rookie QB Justin Herbert.
  • Joe Flacco quietly had some solid moments for the Jets last season, showing off his ever-pretty deep ball while leading the team to near losses against the Patriots (30-27) and Chargers (34-28) in two of his four starts.
  • C.J. Beathard arguably outplayed fellow backup QB Nick Mullens throughout the season, but expecting more than another second-string job is wishful thinking for the fourth-year signal-caller.
  • Colt McCoy has a 2-7 record since 2012 yet seems poised to cash checks as a backup QB for the next decade.
  • Mike Glennon, like Flacco, actually showed off some solid deep-ball ability in his limited action last season, although the giraffe-necked assassin remains nothing more than a higher-upside backup. 
  • Brandon Allen proved to be superior to incumbent backup QB Ryan Finley with the Bengals, although 1) that’s not saying much, and 2) the only time the former sixth-round pick has truly looked “good” was for four quarters against the Texans’ atrocious defense.
  • Blake Bortles couldn’t be fixed by Sean McVay, so it’s tough to see anyone truly getting more out of the BOAT.
  • Brian Hoyer has been an atrocity for the better part of the last five seasons, but the 35-year-old QB seems destined to continue to rack up checks as a backup somewhere.
  • Blaine Gabbert seemingly has the blessing of Bruce Arians; just don’t expect more than a No. 2 job for the former No. 10 overall pick.
  • Brett Hundley possesses some dual-threat ability but ultimately has been far too erratic (59.1% career completion rate) to warrant any sort of confidence.
  • Robert Griffin hasn’t surpassed 100 passing yards in a game since 2016; he’s nothing more than a solid backup behind a run-heavy QB at this point in his career.
  • A.J. McCarron hasn’t thrown a TD since 2015; he might just be his generation’s Chase Daniel.
  • Nate Sudfeld never quite showed the sort of upside that apparently made the Eagles so high on him; don’t expect another team to drink the Kool-Aid as heavily.
  • Matt Barkley remains an average (at best) backup who figures to return to Buffalo if the price is right for everyone involved.

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