News & Analysis

2021 NFL Free Agent Rankings: Quarterbacks

Sep 27, 2020; Seattle, Washington, USA; Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) walks to the locker room following pregame warmups against the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2020 NFL regular season officially in the books, it's almost team-building season for most franchises around the league. So let's get our first look at the 2021 free agent class.

The PFF free agent list is based upon our player evaluations and positional value — and it's a fluid list, as the 2020 season is still unfolding. We will continue to update this list as we head toward the March free agency period. 

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1. QB Dak Prescott

The prize of the free agent market, Prescott went down with an unfortunate injury after just four-plus games in 2020. With four full seasons under his belt, Prescott has finished in the top 10 of PFF grades twice while ranking closer to 20th in the other two seasons. However, Prescott’s 85.2 PFF grade this season would’ve been a career-best, and his 2019 and 2020 work is the most productive of his career.

From a macro view, Prescott’s play dipped as his supporting cast took a step back, but a revamped receiving corps has had Dallas’ offense moving the ball efficiently with Prescott at the helm. With solid accuracy, decision-making and mobility, he has proven capable of putting up high-end production, and he appeared on his way to establishing himself as an annual “top-eight” quarterback prior to his injury.

Contract Analysis: A second franchise tag would be valued at $37.7 million for Prescott, so the two sides finally agree to a long-term extension just above that on an annual basis.

Prediction: Cowboys sign Prescott for four years, $158 million ($39.5M APY): $115M total guaranteed, $75 million fully guaranteed at signing.

2. QB Philip Rivers

The home stretch of Rivers’ career has been a roller coaster ride as he ranked 15th in PFF grades in 2015, 20th in 2016, ninth in 2017, sixth in 2018 and 18th in 2019. The 2020 season has seen him land right at 18th once again, as he’s mixed high-end games with multiple poor outings. The poor ones tend to bring up the questions about Rivers losing it and declining physically, but he’s been playing well despite less-than-stellar arm strength for a few years now. The issue is the tighter margin of error that Rivers has now compared to earlier in his career, but he gets by with solid accuracy and anticipation. Going to the Colts and playing in an indoor environment is a good strategy for late-career Rivers, and if he’s back in 2021, that may be the type of situation that works best at this point in his career.

Contract Analysis: Rivers ended an impressive 16-year run with the San Diego (when he arrived) and now Los Angeles Chargers, signing a one-year deal to potentially make a final Super Bowl run in 2020. The wheels have not completely fallen off for Rivers, but Father Time is certainly making his presence felt. Nevertheless, Rivers at worst provides an exceptional bridge quarterback to a young player if/when Indianapolis brings in a franchise quarterback of the future.

Prediction: Colts sign Rivers to another one-year, fully guaranteed $25 million contract.

3. QB Ryan Fitzpatrick

After one of the most volatile careers in recent history, Fitzpatrick has played the best football of his career since 2018 as he’s posted three of his four best PFF grades. His aggressiveness allows playmakers to create chunk plays down the field, but it also allows the defense to make just as many plays on the ball. Still, that style works well with the right supporting cast, and Fitzpatrick has actually done a fine job of maximizing his group of playmakers and subpar offensive line in Miami.

Contract Analysis: The Fitzmagic rolls on for another season, as the journeyman QB seems to age like a rich Bordeaux. Miami made it clear this past offseason that retaining Fitzpatrick was a priority, even with clear plans to draft Tua Tagovailoa. The 38-year-old had an $8 million base salary for 2020 with no other compensation left on his deal, and teams were reportedly sending trade offers. Miami’s decision to keep one of the great “bridge” quarterbacks around has been a win-win for both parties, and there will be several suitors for Fitzpatrick’s services again in 2021.

Prediction: Patriots sign Ryan Fitzpatrick for one-year, $10 million ($10 million APY): $10M total guaranteed/fully guaranteed at signing.

4. QB Jameis Winston

While Winston has been a backup this season, he still has starter potential. He’s graded between 67.0 and 74.0 in every year as a starter, but it’s a roller coaster of emotions that leads to that false sense of consistency. Winston’s volatility is legendary, but that’s the exact type of style that leads to high-end seasons if a team is willing to buy in. At worst, he’s one of the league’s best backups a year from now, but Winston’s aggressive playing style is worth another look to see if that top-end year is in there.

Contract Analysis: Winston was another free agent quarterback who lasted all the way through the 2020 offseason, even coming off a season in which he led the NFL in passing yards with 5,109. Volume stats are, of course, not everything, and Winston had 30 interceptions to go along with his 30 touchdowns, but the former No. 1 overall pick signed a deal with the New Orleans Saints for a base value of just $1.1 million. The 2019 passing leader is now sitting behind Taysom Hill, who had 78 passing yards against the Broncos this past Sunday.

Prediction: Colts sign Winston for one-year, $5 million.

5. QB Cam Newton

Outside of Newton’s 2015 MVP season in which he graded at 86.5 overall, he’s been a mid-level passer with the added upside of what he brings to the run game. Newton is a monster in short yardage, and an effective offense can be built around that skillset. However, the 2015 season is far more of an outlier than the norm at this point, and Newton’s accuracy and decision making limit his potential in the passing game. He has two top-10 finishes in PFF quarterback rankings in his 10 years in the league.

Contract Analysis: Newton was available for the entirety of the 2020 offseason until the Patriots swooped in at the last moment to offer him a one-year deal with a base value of just $1.75 million. Newton’s injuries were the primary obstacle keeping teams at bay, and although his 2020 campaign has been far from perfect, he’s third among all quarterbacks with 94 rushing attempts through Week 12 (trailing only Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray).

He may not be the MVP-caliber quarterback he once was, but he’s made it clear he still deserves to play in this league. There have been some rough outings, but given his circumstances (new team, truncated offseason, worst WR/TE group in the NFL, contracting COVID-19) he has also performed admirably for stretches of games.

Prediction: Bengals sign Newton to a fully guaranteed one-year, $5 million contract.

6. QB Andy Dalton

Dalton finished 24th in PFF grade among quarterbacks with at least 150 dropbacks in 2020, and that’s about where he stands in today’s landscape of NFL signal-callers. He is one of the league’s best backups and can start if needed, but he disappointed with three PFF game grades under 55.0 for the Cowboys this season. Over the course of his career, Dalton has been a mid-tier starter who can produce with an excellent supporting cast, and that general premise still applies to him, albeit in a backup role.

Contract Analysis: Dalton signed a one-year, $3 million deal to return to the Dallas area and serve as the backup to Dak Prescott, but he was thrust into a starting role in the middle of Week 5. To make matters more interesting, future Hall of Fame left tackle Tyron Smith and starting right tackle La’el Collins were not available for a single snap with Dalton. He did his best to keep the ship afloat and certainly proved he could make a great backup for a team going forward, but odds are his days of starting in the NFL are very much over.

Prediction: Broncos sign Dalton for two years, $10 million: $8 million total guaranteed, $6 million fully guaranteed at signing.

7. QB Tyrod Taylor

Penciled in as the Los Angeles Chargers’ starting quarterback this season, Tyrod Taylor lasted a game before a doctor inadvertently punctured his lung when administering a painkilling injection meant to help him battle through injured ribs. That thrust Justin Herbert into the lineup, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Taylor now hits free agency again, with the last signs of his best play even further in the rear-view mirror.

His one game this season saw him earn a 60.7 PFF game grade, and you have to go back to 2017 for his last solid stretch of starting play. That said, it’s hard to completely ignore three years where he was a very capable, if flawed, starter for the Bills. He’s likely a backup at this point — but a good one, which is valuable.

Contract Analysis: Taylor had an opportunity to start at the beginning of the season and demonstrate why he’s earned several top-of-market backup quarterback contracts, with the potential to earn another. A mistake by the Chargers’ medical staff vaulted Justin Herbert into a starting role, and he never looked back. If a team is looking for a good mentor to a young quarterback, it’s hard to argue with Taylor’s track record helping out Baker Mayfield and now Justin Herbert in consecutive stops.

Prediction: Football Team signs Taylor for two years, $10 million. $5 million total guaranteed, $5 million fully guaranteed at signing.

8. QB Mitchell Trubisky

Trubisky’s accuracy has been an issue in his four NFL seasons, and even his best statistical years have been marred by too many missed throws and stats that have been inflated by either scheme or playmakers. He’s graded between 62.0 and 66.4 in every season, with the statistical results fluctuating based on ecosystem and turnover luck. Trubisky does add value with his legs, but he’s likely relegated to a backup role once again. 

Contract Analysis: Trubisky will be hoping to follow in the footsteps of Marcus Mariota, another quarterback taken second overall. Mariota signed a two-year, $17.6 million deal with the Las Vegas Raiders that was really a one-year, $7.5 million flier loaded with incentives. It takes only one suitor for a quarterback to find a nice contract, and perhaps there are teams out there that see a worthy reclamation project in Trubisky.

Prediction: Bears sign Trubisky for two years, $15 million (7.5M APY): $8.5 million total guaranteed/fully guaranteed at signing.

9. QB Jacoby Brissett

Brissett has PFF grades of 62.4 in 2017 and 59.2 in 2019 as a starter, showing that he’s likely a high-end backup. Stylistically, Brissett has landed more on the game manager end of the spectrum, taking good care of the ball but also having a low percentage of big-time throws. When adding some rushing value to the mix, it’s clear that Brissett can be called upon to win a few games, but he hasn’t looked like a quarterback who is capable of carrying a team.

Contract Analysis: Brissett has now had the chance to back up and learn from both Tom Brady and Philip Rivers, so whenever he does get another chance to start somewhere, he should be confident and comfortable in his expansive knowledge of the game. He most likely ends up as a respected journeyman quarterback who can now become a teacher to younger signal-callers. There should still be a decent market for him in that role, similar to that of Case Keenum and Tyrod Taylor.

Prediction: Chargers sign Brissett for two years, $14 million: $8M total guaranteed, $6M fully guaranteed at signing.

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