News & Analysis

Treash: Landing spot predictions for top QBs in free agency, trade market and 2021 NFL Draft

Nov 15, 2020; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) throws the ball against the Cleveland Browns during the second quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL world was rocked Saturday night as news broke that Matthew Stafford was traded to the Los Angeles Rams for two first-round picks, a third-round pick and Jared Goff. This, however, is only the beginning of what could be a wild few months for the most important position on the field.

There is a whole lot of supply, but there's far more demand. Heck, ESPN’s Adam Schefter has gone as far as saying he believes over 18 quarterbacks will change teams this offseason. So, let's speculate on how the quarterback market could shake out for those teams that are likely to be addressing the position as we officially head into the offseason next week.

There are roughly 16 NFL teams with solidified quarterback situations heading into the 2021 season, whether or not we agree:

Some of those teams might sign a low-tier free agent on the open market for a backup role, such as Tyrod Taylor or Mitchell Trubisky, but let’s ignore those 16 franchises and focus on those that could see a notable new face in their quarterback room.

Below are said predictions for the quarterback outcomes of the remaining 15 teams in 2021, whether they see a change via trade, free agency or the 2021 NFL Draft or remain put with what they have.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

Prediction: Draft Trevor Lawrence No. 1 overall

There’s only one scenario where the Jaguars shouldn’t take Lawrence with the No. 1 overall pick, and that is if they trade it to the Houston Texans for quarterback Deshaun Watson. Otherwise, this decision is as much a no-brainer as it gets.

From his mobility to his cannon of an arm, Lawrence has just about everything you could want in a franchise quarterback. He recorded a grade above 90.0 in each of his three years at Clemson, something we have never seen from a college quarterback in their true freshman, sophomore and junior seasons. Lawrence is one of the most complete quarterback prospects in history.

Dec 13, 2020; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) drops back to pass against the Chicago Bears during the first quarter at Soldier Field. Credit: Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

NEW YORK JETS

Prediction: Trade for Deshaun Watson

The Watson situation has more drama than midday soap operas, and it's going to define a lot of the upcoming offseason. It’s no secret at this point that Watson wants out, but in last Friday’s introductory press conference for Texans head coach David Culley, the new regime made it known they aren’t budging:

“Before we take a few questions: Organizationally, we want to reiterate our commitment to Deshaun Watson. We have zero interest in trading the player.” – General Manager Nick Caserio

“He is a Houston Texan. I want him to be a Houston Texan. The reason I'm in this position today is because I know he's going to be a Houston Texan.” – Head Coach David Culley

As strong as those two statements are, Watson still holds all the cards. Houston could theoretically not trade him and fine him for not showing up, but that wouldn’t necessarily make it an attractive place to come play. The Texans may not have any interest in dealing their star signal-caller, but it appears inevitable with Watson publicly demanding a trade. For the Jets, this shouldn’t even be a thought. And for both the Houston organization and Watson himself, it makes a lot of sense.

Watson firmly established himself as one of the few elite quarterbacks in the NFL this past season, posting a 92.5 PFF grade that trailed only Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady for the best in the NFL. The inconsistency issues that plagued his first three seasons were nowhere to be found. Week in and week out, he performed well.

Based on the Bayesian passing grade forecast done by PFF’s Kevin Cole, Watson is on the path to Hall of Fame status. He’s a slam dunk at this point in his career. BYU's Zach Wilson and Ohio State's Justin Fields are two phenomenal quarterback prospects, but neither — not even Trevor Lawrence, for that matter — is locked in to be an elite quarterback.

HOUSTON TEXANS

Prediction: The Texans draft Zach Wilson No. 2 overall

The No. 2 overall pick is where the 2021 NFL Draft will get really interesting — with or without the Deshaun Watson trade. As of now, the consensus looks like Wilson over Fields, regardless of who picks at this spot. There is no reason to be concerned about the cupcake schedule Wilson faced in 2020. The BYU quarterback made NFL-level throws at an incredible rate every time he stepped on the field.

His combination of accuracy, arm talent and ability to make off-platform throws is truly special. Just 13.6% of Wilson’s throws beyond the line of scrimmage were deemed uncatchable this past season, the lowest rate in the FBS. His passing grade on tight-window passes also led all quarterbacks, and it wasn’t particularly close.

Those elite traits helped Wilson earn a 90.0-plus passing grade in over half of his games in 2020, leading him to the highest single-season passing grade of the PFF College era (95.5). There will likely be a learning curve, as is the case for most rookies, but we have confidence in Wilson being a quality franchise quarterback prospect.

ATLANTA FALCONS

Prediction: The Falcons draft Justin Fields No. 3 overall (via trade)

The 2017 NFL Draft had one of the most memorable draft trades this century. When the San Francisco 49ers — who held the No. 2 overall pick — were on the clock, they traded with the Chicago Bears for the No. 3 overall pick, two third-rounders and a fourth-rounder. The Bears wanted to secure their guy, Mitchell Trubisky, and ensure no one leapfrogged them. So, they traded up one spot. 

We might see the same thing occur in 2021 with Atlanta, which sits at fourth overall, and Miami, which sits at third overall via Houston, given the demand and possibility of another team trying to pass the Falcons for Justin Fields. Atlanta is in the quarterback market with Matt Ryan inching toward the end of his career. And securing Fields would drastically lessen the odds of the Falcons entering quarterback purgatory.

In his two years starting for the Buckeyes, Fields earned PFF grades of 91.5 and 93.5. Both marks rank in the top five in the entire FBS. He takes great care of the football, is extremely accurate and has unparalleled wheels for the position. The big concerns with Fields are his processing speed and how long he holds onto the ball. Blitzes also caught him off guard in his two worst games of the year this past season against Indiana and Northwestern, and coverage rotations gave him fits all throughout his collegiate career.

He may not come in right away and light up the league as a rookie, but the talent is there for him to be a franchise quarterback.

MIAMI DOLPHINS

Prediction: Tua Tagovailoa starts, and the Dolphins re-sign Ryan Fitzpatrick as a backup and mentor for the 2020 No. 5 overall pick

Watson could very well land in Miami over New York, but it looks like the Jets have a slight edge. In that scenario, Miami is likely to stick with Tagovailoa as opposed to drafting a quarterback with the third pick. And keeping Fitzpatrick around for another year to help guide the 2020 fifth overall pick is logical. In the event Fitzpatrick is needed on the field for Miami, he has proven he can make the team competitive when at the helm. Over the past two years, he ranks 18th in passing grade and seventh in positively graded throw rate. Considering the Dolphins' lowly offensive line and average-at-best receiving unit, that’s quite impressive.

Tagovailoa still has a lot to prove before we can confidently say he is going to be a franchise quarterback. He finished his rookie year with a 63.9 passing grade, well below the marks of fellow first-round quarterbacks Joe Burrow (74.3) and Justin Herbert (78.6). He struggled to hit shots downfield, producing a league-low big-time throw rate (2.1%). Again, it’s too early to write Tagovailoa off from being a quality starter, but Year 1 did not go as expected.

The right decision might be to take another swing of the bat at quarterback with the third overall pick, but all signs are pointing to that not happening. 

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

Prediction: Carson Wentz does not get traded, and he and Jalen Hurts battle for QB1

New Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni, offensive coordinator Shane Steichen and quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson will likely have their hands full with trying to salvage a franchise quarterback out of either Wentz or Hurts in 2021. The two ranked 33rd and 35th, respectively, among 38 qualifying quarterbacks in passing grade last season.

Dec 27, 2020; Arlington, Texas, USA; Philadelphia Eagles quarterbacks Carson Wentz (11) and Jalen Hurts (2) talk with head coach Doug Pederson (C) during a timeout against the Dallas Cowboys in the second quarter at AT&T Stadium. Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Combined, they gave Philadelphia the second-most turnover-worthy plays at the quarterback position among the 32 offenses. They also ranked third-to-last and last, respectively, among quarterbacks in uncatchable passes thrown beyond the line of scrimmage.

The new regime has its work cut out.

DETROIT LIONS

Prediction: Jared Goff starts, and the Lions don’t take a quarterback in Round 1 

Goff will be the Lions’ starter in Week 1 next season. The only question is: Will they still take a quarterback with the No. 7 overall pick? A lot can change, but I would assume the wide receiver-needy Lions would go with either Ja’Marr Chase, DeVonta Smith or Jaylen Waddle at that spot as opposed to a quarterback with Goff now in the picture. 

It’s no secret that Goff was aided significantly by Sean McVay in Los Angeles. In his four years with the Rams’ head coach, Goff had the third-highest percentage of his passing yards come after the catch (49.6%) and ranked third-to-last in turnover worthy plays (88).

This past season, he had the eighth-highest percentage of throws 10-plus yards downfield result in a negative grade and produced the seventh-lowest positively graded throw rate. The former indicates Goff missed a lot of his downfield shots, while the latter insinuates a lot of his production may have stemmed from easy, shallow throws. No quarterback had more passing yards on throws five yards or fewer downfield than Goff in 2020 (1,973).

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Prediction: The Panthers draft Mac Jones No. 8 overall

Jones is one of the biggest wild cards in the 2021 NFL Draft. Some believe he will go in the top 10, while others aren't confident he is a sure-fire first-round pick. All things considered, I would view Jones as a top-10 selection, with the demand at the position being the biggest reason why.

Concerns with Jones are all about his physical tools. He may not have a bazooka of an arm like Trevor Lawrence or speed like Trey Lance, but he checks the accuracy and decision-making boxes with flying colors. The timing and processing he displayed in Alabama’s offense were near perfect. All of this led Jones to a negatively graded throw rate in 2020 that was better than any other quarterback in the PFF College era, including Joe Burrow in 2019. And to make it all interesting, Panthers head coach Matt Rhule had a lot of positive things to say about the Crimson Tide prospect at the Senior Bowl:

“The guy was just playing two weeks ago and the fact that he's here, I think speaks a lot about who he is. You have a chance to see his intelligence. He makes really quick decisions, he processes information quickly — he's an alpha. … Mobility is important. I thought yesterday he slid in the pocket, moved around. … I think all of these players have questions that they have to answer, but I thought he looked really good doing that yesterday.”

It wouldn’t be crazy to take Jones (PFF’s QB5) over Lance (PFF’s QB4).

DENVER BRONCOS

Prediction: The Broncos draft Trey Lance No. 9 overall

John Elway isn’t calling the shots anymore, but Lance is a quarterback prospect that the Broncos legend would be all over here with the ninth overall pick. He’s 6-foot-4 and 227 pounds with a massive arm. Plus, he's an elite athlete who brings a lot to the table in the ground game. At the same time, though, his accuracy is not all that great; he’s basically the opposite of Mac Jones.

Jan 11, 2020; Frisco, Texas, USA; North Dakota State Bison quarterback Trey Lance (5) scrambles from James Madison Dukes safety D'Angelo Amos (24) in the third quarterat Toyota Stadium. Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Lance played in just one game this year due to COVID-19 causing the FCS to postpone its season to the spring. In that showcase game, we saw exactly the same traits from 2019: Incredible mobility but glaring inaccuracy. He carried the ball 15 times (13 designed, two scrambles) and put up six explosive runs of 10-plus yards, forcing nine broken tackles along the way. However, just 28.6% of Lance's passes were deemed accurate in the outing.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

Prediction: The 49ers stick with Jimmy Garoppolo

NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo reported over the weekend that the 49ers had interest in Stafford but weren’t wanting to part ways with the No. 12 overall pick and are likely to retain Garoppolo as a result.

Garoppolo has played in just one full season in his NFL career due to being a backup in New England and battling injuries in San Francisco. In that one full year, which ended with a Super Bowl loss for the 49ers, Garoppolo earned a 77.3 PFF grade, ranking 13th in the NFL. Over the course of his San Francisco career, Garoppolo has posted an 80.8 PFF grade. That’s over 13 grading points higher than the other four 49ers quarterbacks to play 1,000 snaps in the PFF era (Shaun Hill, Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick and Nick Mullens).

He struggles to see linebackers, has not been durable throughout his NFL career, practically lost the 49ers the Super Bowl last year with a few miscues and has been propped up by Kyle Shanahan’s scheme. Those are all rightful concerns with Jimmy G. He’s not going to be an elite quarterback or lead San Francisco to the Super Bowl himself, but he can be the ultimate game manager in this ecosystem, as we saw in 2019. After all, the 49ers finished third among the 32 offenses in successful pass play rate that season.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

Prediction: Sign a free agent such as Andy Dalton, Jacoby Brissett or Mitchell Trubisky 

If the top five quarterbacks are off the board by the time New England picks at No. 15, the best bet would be to call 2021 a loss and pursue Spencer Rattler in 2022. That, however, is not the Patriot Way. I assume Bill Belichick and company would go after one of the free agents available, such as Dalton, Brissett or Trubisky. Dalton would be the best choice at that point, as neither Brissett nor Trubisky has eclipsed a single-season 70.0 PFF grade as starters for their respective teams. 

Dalton ranked 23rd in PFF grade in 2020 with Dallas. He failed to create many big-time throws (32nd by rate), but he limited bad throws, too. He posted the 10th-best negatively graded throw rate and delivered an accurate ball with the fifth-highest accurate pass rate on passes beyond the line of scrimmage.

WASHINGTON FOOTBALL TEAM

Prediction: The Football Team sticks with Alex Smith/Kyle Allen/Taylor Heinicke

Washington’s NFC East title this past season was absolutely brutal for the franchise's long-term quarterback situation. Washington is out of position for all the top quarterbacks in the class and also just lost out to the Rams after making a huge offer for Stafford. It wouldn’t be a complete shock for them to attempt another blockbuster trade this offseason, but the most likely scenario is rolling with the trio of Smith, Allen and Heinicke for the 2021 campaign.

Smith recorded a 66.0 PFF grade in his first season back from a gruesome injury a few years ago, tying for 27th in the NFL. His positively graded throw rate was by far the lowest in the NFL due to an overreliance on checkdowns. Over 52% of his yards this year stemmed from passes five yards or fewer downfield, the second-highest rate in the NFL. 

Smith was unable to play in Washington’s wild-card game, which meant the starting job went to sixth-year veteran and former undrafted free agent Taylor Heinicke. He had attempted just 58 passes in his first five years and just 19 with Washington in the 2020 regular season. Across those 77 combined attempts, Heinicke posted a subpar 55.6 passing grade.

However, Heinicke played out of his mind in the wild-card round with a 92.0 PFF grade, five big-time throws and zero turnover-worthy plays. It was a good story, but Washington shouldn't expect Heinicke to perform at such a level in 2021.

CHICAGO BEARS

Prediction: The Bears trade the farm and then some to Atlanta for Matt Ryan

There’s no time for caution in Chicago. The futures of the entire Bears brass hinges on the quarterback position in 2021, and they have limited options at their disposal due to minimal draft capital. All of PFF’s first-round quarterbacks are likely to be out of Chicago’s reach by the time pick No. 20 rolls around, and it’d take Deshaun Watson himself publicly saying he will play only the Chicago Bears for that pipe dream to become reality.

Oct 5, 2020; Green Bay, Wisconsin, USA; Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) throws a pass in the first quarter against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Chicago is then left with three choices: Trot out Nick Foles to open the season, sign a free agent such as Andy Dalton or trade for a veteran. The first two wouldn’t make the Bears any better in 2021 than they were in 2020, meaning the third option is the most likely. 

If the 49ers decide to move on from Jimmy Garoppolo, I’d expect the Bears to be the trade partner. That, however, does not look to be the case given what has transpired as of late. Consequently, the most likely veteran on the market for Chicago would be Ryan. The 13-year Falcon has a massive contract, but a trade is still possible.

The soon-to-be 36-year-old is fresh off a season in which he ranked ninth in the NFL in passing grade, at 82.1. That made him a top-10 finisher in that metric in six of the past seven seasons. Ryan showed no signs of Father Time catching up to him in regard to his downfield passing, as he ranked eighth in passing grade on throws of 10 or more yards downfield and sixth in percentage of accurate passes thrown on those same throws. Meanwhile, Trubisky has never cracked a 40% accuracy rate on 10-plus-yard passes in any of his four seasons as a Bear.

Ryan isn’t the long-term solution, but he would make Chicago competitive in 2021 and would provide maybe the best quarterback play the franchise has seen in decades. That would at least remove the Bears’ front office and coaching staff from the hot seat for the time being.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

Prediction: The Colts acquire Sam Darnold from the New York Jets via trade

With Deshaun Watson on his way to New York in these predictions, Darnold will be sent packing. Indianapolis sounds like the most likely place to try to revive the 2018 No. 3 overall pick — which was ironically the Colts' pick to begin with.

Darnold has flashed a troubling combination of inconsistency, inaccuracy and poor decision-making throughout his NFL career. Since entering the league, he ranks second-to-last in passing grade, last in big-time throw rate, third-to-last in turnover-worthy play rate and third-to-last in accurate pass rate on throws beyond the line of scrimmage. Given what we know about Darnold, a breakout in Year 4 or beyond would be an even bigger anomaly than what we witnessed with Josh Allen this past season.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Prediction: The Steelers restructure Ben Roethlisberger‘s contract, he starts in 2021 and no other moves are made

Is this the best scenario? Nope. It's the only scenario.

Roethlisberger has publicly said he doesn’t care about his salary in 2021 as long as he remains with the franchise, and the team looks like it will make good on that by restructuring their signal-caller's $41.25 million cap. This past season, Big Ben had just one game with a PFF grade above 80.0. He finished the year with a 69.0 mark (24th). Roethlisberger's downfield passing was inconsistent, as he produced the sixth-worst uncatchable pass rate when targeting the sticks.

There were signs of Big Ben declining back in 2018 when he earned a 75.2 passing grade, and he looked rough in his lone start in 2019 before suffering a season-ending elbow injury. In other words, the decline has arrived — and it’s likely going to continue.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Prediction: The Saints re-sign Jameis Winston, who dukes it out with Taysom Hill for the starting job

This is the best and most realistic option on the table for the Saints. I wouldn’t expect Winston to start all 16 weeks with Hill still in the picture, but I would expect him to see significant action.

He is a roller coaster, but the volatile Winston can provide more high-end play than any other option the Saints can afford. In his most recent season as a starting quarterback in 2019 for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Winston ranked third in positively graded throw rate and tied for third in total big-time throws. At the same time, though, he ranked third in negatively graded throw rate. 

This has been a common theme all throughout Winston's career. But no other quarterback that New Orleans has a shot at can match Winston's upside. The Florida State product is aggressive and errant by nature, and he is the best option the Saints have at taking advantage of their roster while it’s still intact.

Know tomorrow, today. Western Southern Financial Group.
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