One position stands above the rest with the NFL Draft — quarterback.
Competition to find them is cutthroat. And it’s the one position that consistently causes general managers to ignore their draft boards and overreach to find one.
Let’s take a look at which teams will be in the quarterback market this draft. By my count, at least 20 of 32 teams need to add a QB — either a starter or backup:
*Definitely needs to draft a quarterback in 2020: Bengals, Dolphins, Patriots.
There has been little doubt the Bengals will move on from Andy Dalton and draft a quarterback with their top pick. I am 95 percent sure it will be Joe Burrow, but I still think there is a small chance the Dolphins overwhelm the Bengals with a trade offer and end up with Burrow. Even if that happens, the Bengals will still come away with a quarterback, possibly Tua Tagovailoa.
The Dolphins have been desperately searching for a quarterback for 20 years, and essentially tanked last season to get in position to grab one now. They hold the fifth, 18th, and 26th picks, and it looks like a lock they will come away with Tua, Burrow, or Justin Herbert.
And the Patriots need another arm, since they only have Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer on the roster. They could always sign a veteran, but all signs point to them taking one in the draft. The million-dollar question: Will the Patriots draft one high, in the middle rounds, or late? Whatever they do should tell us a lot about how they feel about Stidham.
*Probably will draft a quarterback in 2020: Chargers.
The Chargers need a QB after moving on from Philip Rivers, as they only have Tyrod Taylor and Easton Stick on the roster. And holding the No. 6 pick, the Chargers are squarely in the hunt for Tua and Herbert. But I believe there is a chance the Chargers sign Cam Newton later this offseason, which would put the Chargers in the market for a mid- or late-round QB instead of a first-rounder.
*Needs a quarterback, but may not draft one: Jaguars, Panthers.
The Jaguars only have Gardner Minshew and Josh Dobbs on the roster, neither one of whom is a clear-cut answer at the position. And sitting at No. 9 in the draft, they are squarely in the Tua-Herbert mix. But I’m not sure coach Doug Marrone or GM Dave Caldwell have time on their side when it comes to developing a quarterback. They need to win now, which is why I think there is a decent chance they trade for Dalton, which would reunite him with offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, Dalton’s OC in Cincinnati.
As for the Panthers, the knee-jerk reaction is to assume they need a new franchise quarterback after releasing Newton a few weeks ago. But all indications are they don’t want to use the No. 7 draft pick on a QB. They signed Teddy Bridgewater as their starter last month, added P.J. Walker from the XFL (Walker played for coach Matt Rhule at Temple), and still have Will Grier, last year’s third-round pick. Bridgewater’s three-year contract is really just a one-year commitment, so the Panthers still don’t have the position settled for the future. But they will give Bridgewater and Walker a shot in 2020 before looking elsewhere for a long-term starter.
*Teams that look settled at quarterback, but are sneakily in the hunt: Saints, Steelers, Colts.
Remember when the Chiefs looked set at quarterback with Alex Smith, then came out of nowhere to trade up in the first round to land Patrick Mahomes in 2017? The Saints, Steelers, and Colts all apply this year.
The Saints almost certainly will be drafting a quarterback, since they only have two on the roster, and one is Taysom Hill, who is more like a Swiss army knife than a pure quarterback. The other is Drew Brees, who is 41 years old and reportedly has a deal with NBC to become a broadcaster as soon as 2021. The Saints only have the 24th and 88th picks in the top 100, so they may have to trade a future pick to find their QB.
The Steelers need a quarterback on a couple of fronts. For one, Ben Roethlisberger is 38 years old and coming off major elbow surgery. For two, even though the Steelers have Mason Rudolph, Devlin Hodges, Paxton Lynch, and J.T. Barrett on the roster, they should look to upgrade the backup position. Their quarterback situation was a mess last year after Roethlisberger got hurt, and they can’t afford another wasted season. The Steelers don’t pick until No. 49 because they traded their first-round pick to Miami for Minkah Fitzpatrick, but they could be in the QB market in the middle rounds, or trade future picks.
And the Colts are still looking for their long-term answer at quarterback — signing Rivers to replace Jacoby Brissett this offseason announced to the world the Colts don’t fully believe in Brissett. They traded away their first-round pick (No. 13) for defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, so the Colts won’t be in the running for Tua or Herbert unless they trade future picks (unlikely). But they could take a quarterback in the middle rounds.
The Packers will soon be in this group with Aaron Rodgers, but I think they’re a year or two away.
*Other teams that could seek an upgrade at backup QB: 13, by my count.
The Rams’ only backup to Jared Goff is John Wolford. The Titans’ only backup to Ryan Tannehill is Logan Woodside. The Seahawks’ only backup to Russell Wilson is Geno Smith. The Redskins have Smith listed as their third quarterback behind Dwayne Haskins and Kyle Allen, meaning they probably have to find another No. 3 QB, at least for training camp.
And here are current backups that I could see getting replaced by draft picks: Jets’ David Fales, Ravens’ Robert Griffin III, Broncos’ Jeff Driskel and Brett Rypien, Falcons’ Matt Schaub, Packers’ Tim Boyle, Texans’ A.J. McCarron, Cowboys’ Cooper Rush, Vikings’ Sean Mannion, and Giants’ Colt McCoy.
NO. 1 PRIORITY
QB Burrow doesn’t sound committed to the Bengals
As mentioned above, there are some whispers around the league that Joe Burrow doesn’t want to play for the Bengals, and that the Dolphins could make a play for him with their three first-round picks (and six picks in the top 70).
The signs that Burrow may not want to be a Bengal have been in plain view since January. His private coach is Jordan Palmer, whose brother, Carson Palmer, hated his time in Cincinnati. Burrow mentioned in interviews that he wanted to go to a team “committed to winning,” which was one of Carson Palmer’s biggest gripes with the Bengals. At the NFL Combine, Burrow implied he would play for the Bengals if they drafted him No. 1.
“I’m not going to not play,” Burrow said at his news conference. “I’m a ballplayer. Whoever takes me, I’m going to show up.”
But with the draft less than a week away, Burrow still doesn’t sound totally committed to the Bengals. He was asked about playing for the Bengals this past week on ESPN 104.5 in Baton Rouge, and Burrow’s answer was to complain about the unfairness of the draft process.
“The draft is funny, because there’s not a lot of professions that get to pick you. Engineers don’t get drafted to certain companies,” Burrow said. “So that’s kind of peculiar in the capitalistic ways of the United States. But that’s how it is, and the teams that have the worst year have the pick at the top, and that’s why they’re there. Whatever team I go to it’s going to be a challenge to begin, and I’m going to have to persevere through it, just like I’ve done in the past.”
I’ll allow that Burrow has said before he doesn’t want to speak much about going to the Bengals at No. 1 out of respect to the draft process. Still, that does not sound like a guy who is thrilled about the prospect of going to Cincinnati.
The Dolphins should do whatever it takes to convince the Bengals that trading the No. 1 pick is better than having a disgruntled quarterback.
Picking through more draft notes
▪ The free agent market for wide receivers was brutal this spring, mostly because this year’s draft is loaded with prospects.
“There’s 40 of them that are going to be drafted, and there probably should be 60,” one front office evaluator told me. “It’s the most stacked position. Tons of them — outside guys, slot guys, all the way through. There are going to be guys drafted in the fifth-sixth round this year that normally would be third-round guys and would be expected to be starters in the league.”
There were 28 and 33 receivers drafted the last two seasons.
▪ This past week, Bill Belichick was asked a general question about this year’s quarterback class. His answer went 183 words, and was mostly fluff — every player has his own set of skills, some have more experience than others, etc. etc. But his last sentence caught my eye.
“So, interesting group and probably one that has decent depth to it,” he said.
Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but it sounds as if Belichick believes he can get an NFL-worthy quarterback in the middle rounds. Last week, I highlighted Georgia’s Jake Fromm, Florida International’s James Morgan, Oregon State’s Jake Luton, Iowa’s Nate Stanley, and Princeton’s Kevin Davidson as the best mid-to-late-round fits for Belichick.
▪ The draft will be hard enough to conduct, with chances that technology will fail at some point during the “virtual” draft and complicate a pick or trade discussion. But agents are bracing for the undrafted free agent process to be “a complete mess,” one told me.
In normal years, teams start calling agents and players around the sixth round to line them up as undrafted free agents. The millisecond the draft ends, teams start signing UDFAs, and the process goes long into the night and into Sunday.
But communication will be tough this year — not only from teams calling players, but even among coaches and executives from the same team. For example, a Patriots safeties coach could call a player and tell him to expect an offer, not realizing that the Patriots don’t have the roster space.
“If they operate the same way this year there’s going to be more deals being reneged because they filled too many spots,” the agent predicted.
Steelers GM Kevin Colbert suggested the NFL expand the draft by three rounds to 10 this year, but neither the league nor players’ union were up for it (since the draft has slotted payments that are spelled out in the collective bargaining agreement).
The agent said a good compromise would be to push the start of the UDFA process to Sunday morning, to give every team and player enough time to evaluate their draft boards and the players available.
“Make it a separate day. Doing it on the third day of the draft this year is going to be miserable,” the agent said. “I don’t see why everybody wouldn’t be on board with that.”
I asked an NFL spokesman if the league would consider pushing the UDFA process back, and got no response.
▪ There also may be a major issue for draft picks getting paid this spring. Even though compensation is predetermined by draft pick, the players likely won’t receive their signing bonuses until they pass a physical.
In a normal year, a player gets drafted, he flies to his new team within the next day or two, and takes a physical right away. But with team facilities closed due to COVID-19, and all NFL travel currently shut down, who knows when these players will be able to take their physicals?
The agent was skeptical that teams will pay their rookie signing bonuses until the physicals are complete, which may not take place for weeks or possibly even months. This will put a strain on rookies who need those checks, as well as agents who fronted $25,000 or more in predraft costs.
Are the Patriots going to skate on the videotaping incident involving the Bengals from December? The draft is now five days away and the NFL still hasn’t announced any sort of punishment. Last we heard, the NFL wrapped up its investigation in late February and was sending its report up the grapevine, eventually to Roger Goodell. Many around the league thought the Patriots would lose a late-round draft pick, but it probably would’ve had to happen already. Of course, the NFL could still dock a 2021 pick … I understand that after dumping the popular Cam Newton this offseason, the Panthers wanted to keep their star player and the fan base happy by locking up Christian McCaffrey long term. But paying a running back a market-setting, four-year, $64 million extension was not the wisest business decision. History has shown time and again (David Johnson, Todd Gurley, Le’Veon Bell) that paying big money for running backs does not work out well. As salary-cap expert Jason Fitzgerald of Over The Cap noted, McCaffrey “has to be on the team in 2023 for this contract to make any sense for the team,” when McCaffrey will be in his seventh season. The Panthers probably should have kept him at $2.8 million this year, then pay him on the fifth-year option next year around $10 million, even if it made McCaffrey disgruntled … Did you know: The Eagles have not drafted a linebacker in the first round sine 1979 (UCLA’s Jerry Robinson) …This is supposed to be a “down” year for tight ends in the draft, but consider this point made by agent Steve Caric: None of the top 10 receiving tight ends in 2019 was a first-round pick. Zach Ertz and Hunter Henry were second-round picks, Travis Kelce, Austin Hooper, Mark Andrews, Jared Cook, and Jason Witten were third-rounders, Tyler Higbee went in the fourth, George Kittle the fifth, and Darren Waller the sixth … The NFL is inviting 58 prospects to take part in the draft broadcast from their homes, but only if they don’t promote non-NFL-sponsored brands, or make political statements. The last thing the NFL wants is to unwittingly get dragged into a fight with President Trump again.