Quarterback is the most important position in football and arguably all of sports, and a majority of NFL teams have their unquestioned starter for the 2021 season. Josh Allen is the man in Buffalo. Kyler Murray is the leader in Arizona. Even rookies Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson will be given a starting job without much competition.
But I count 11 teams who have intrigue at the quarterback position. Two teams, the Saints and Broncos, have an actual competition for training camp. Nine others have a starter on shaky ground, or with question marks about his future.
Let’s take a look at how the NFL’s most intriguing quarterback situations may play out in training camp:
New England: Bill Belichick named Cam Newton the starter even after drafting Mac Jones in the first round, and I don’t think that’s just lip service.
Belichick genuinely likes coaching Newton and has raved about him nonstop since last summer. Belichick also has a history of bringing rookies along slowly. Top draft picks such as Dont’a Hightower (51 percent of snaps as a rookie), Jamie Collins (25 percent), Kyle Dugger (50 percent), and Josh Uche (17 percent) were role players in their first year, and they didn’t play quarterback, the toughest college-to-pro position transition. At minimum, I don’t think Belichick wants Jones to have to deal with the pressure of playing against Tom Brady in the big return game in Week 4.
So I believe the Patriots’ quarterback job is Newton’s until he gets hurt or is clearly holding the team back. Both are certainly possible — Newton did not play well last year, and the chances of him staying healthy for 17 games don’t seem great. A good time to make a switch could be after the Week 11 Thursday night game at Atlanta.
But I think that in Belichick’s perfect world, Jones holds a clipboard in 2021 and learns from Newton and Brian Hoyer, like Patrick Mahomes did with Alex Smith in his rookie season.
Green Bay: Aaron Rodgers has been vague about his future, but I see all signs pointing to Rodgers playing for the Packers in 2021. A holdout would be incredibly expensive — $50,000 per day, over $2 million for all of training camp, and over $21 million if he sits out the entire season — and I just don’t see Rodgers going down that road. He’s 37 years old and has to make his remaining football seasons count. The Packers also don’t seem to want Jordan Love to take over this year. I expect the Packers to give Rodgers a pay raise and for him to return for another season.
The 2022 season is a different story. It would not surprise me at all if Rodgers played elsewhere next season. But I think he’s got at least one more year left with the Cheeseheads.
Denver: The Broncos very well may be the team that gets Rodgers in 2022. But as Broncos ambassador Peyton Manning said last week at the MLB All-Star Game, “My gut is he’s not coming to Denver. At this point, you’ve kind of got to know what your plan is. You can’t be having a new quarterback three weeks before the season.”
The Broncos’ plan for 2021 is to pit Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater in an open competition. Lock is the incumbent, but I say follow the money — the Broncos are paying Bridgewater $4.44 million, and Lock only $1.45 million. I’m picking the guy with the higher salary.
New Orleans: Another team with an open competition between Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston. But from what I have heard from league sources, I’m not sure it’s going to be truly open. Hill is such a unique dual threat that he’s worth trying out as the starting QB to start the season. And if the experiment fails, Payton can fall back on Winston and a more traditional pocket-based offense and move Hill back to his Swiss Army Knife role.
San Francisco: The 49ers stuck with Jimmy Garoppolo and his $25 million salary even after drafting Trey Lance with the No. 3 pick. But Kyle Shanahan clearly doesn’t believe in Garoppolo. A disastrous start (1-4) could lead to a switch during the Niners’ Week 6 bye. A mediocre start could lead to a switch before Week 9-10 home games against the Cardinals and Rams. Frankly, it’s going to be hard for Shanahan to stick with Garoppolo with anything other than a hot start out of the gates.
Philadelphia: The Eagles are in a transition year after wrecking their salary cap by trading Carson Wentz. They seem more content to let second-year QB Jalen Hurts, who has a dirt-cheap salary of $883,872 and a cap number of $1.37 million, ride out the 2021 season to see if he can be the next franchise QB. The other quarterbacks are Joe Flacco and Nick Mullens, so Hurts seems safe.
Except the Deshaun Watson situation is lingering. If the Texans do trade him, the Eagles are the most obvious landing spot — they have a need for a star quarterback, they have a history of being a haven for troubled players (Michael Vick for one), and they are an attractive trade partner for the Texans as an NFC team.
The one issue is money, but it’s not a big one — the Eagles only have $4.88 million in cap space, and Watson would cost them (or any acquiring team) $10.54 million in salary and salary cap in 2021. But the Eagles could restructure a couple other contracts and easily fit Watson into the fold. And it would be well worth it to land a superstar quarterback, though one who carries off-field baggage.
Houston: If Watson does get traded or spends a good chunk of the season on the commissioner’s Exempt List, the Texans will start the season with Tyrod Taylor, who started 43 games from 2015-17 but just four since. They also drafted Davis Mills in the third round and signed Jeff Driskel. Assuming they don’t have Watson, this feels like one of those seasons where the Texans cycle through three or four starters without settling on one.
Chicago: The Bears are adamant that Andy Dalton is the starter entering the season and that rookie Justin Fields will be the backup. But there will be immense pressure on coach Matt Nagy to get off to a good start, and Dalton probably won’t have a long leash. Justin Herbert and Watson were both supposed to sit on the bench as rookies, yet both got an unexpected opportunity to start in September, and played so well they never gave the job back. I get the feeling that Fields will have a similar arc.
Miami: There is no competition in training camp — the job is Tua Tagovailoa’s. But we already saw last year that Brian Flores doesn’t have a ton of confidence in Tagovailoa and was willing to send him back to the bench. If Tua struggles early in the first two months, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Flores turn to Jacoby Brissett to save the Dolphins’ playoff hopes.
Minnesota: It doesn’t feel like Kirk Cousins will be benched, and the Vikings may be stuck with him for two more seasons — Cousins’s $35 million salary next year is already fully guaranteed. But the Vikings were hot on the quarterback market in the draft process, and took Kellen Mond in the third round for a reason. They clearly have questions about Cousins, both in the present and the future.
Carolina: The Panthers committed to Sam Darnold for two years and $24 million, but he’s certainly no lock to succeed in Carolina. Darnold is the new guy in the room, who has much less experience in the offense than backups P.J. Walker and Will Grier. It will be interesting to see if coach Matt Rhule sticks by Darnold if he’s not playing well or picking up the offense quickly enough.
A few Patriot notes with camp approaching
▪ Nice little flip-flop by N’Keal Harry. First his agent publicly requested a trade before the start of training camp. Then last week, Harry’s camp told reporter Josina Anderson that Harry will report to training camp if he isn’t traded by then.
I understand why Harry would report — he doesn’t want to get fined $40,000 per day. But I hope, for Harry’s sake, he knows for certain that the Patriots don’t have him in their plans for 2021.
He’s not expensive (just $1.413 million in salary this year). And considering his money is fully guaranteed, and that he’s a former first-round pick, it wouldn’t be too surprising if the Patriots wanted to give him one more chance. Yes, the Patriots have Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, Jakobi Meyers, and Gunner Olszewski, but the competition for a fifth receiver is wide open.
However, now that Harry has requested out of New England, it’s going to be hard to walk that back, and the Patriots may have no choice but to trade or release him. Again, I hope he and his agent knew what they were doing.
▪ Anderson also got a hold of Stephon Gilmore last week, who reiterated that “I just want what I’m worth,” though he’s not pushing for a trade and “hopefully we can find some common ground.” Gilmore is scheduled to make $7.9 million this year, and it doesn’t sound like he really wants out of New England. Nor would the Patriots be smart to get rid of their No. 1 cornerback over a few million dollars.
As I wrote July 7, I wouldn’t be surprised if Gilmore holds out for a few days of training camp, as losing $200,000 in fines could be worth it if it leads to several more million. But another option for Gilmore is a “hold in” — reporting to camp on time, but providing as little effort as it takes to not get fined.
Gilmore, who tore his quadriceps last year, was asked by Anderson if he’ll be 100 percent ready for camp, and he noticeably responded, “We’ll see. If I need to be. But I also don’t want to push it.”
▪ Dont’a Hightower posted a graphic on Instagram last week detailing the “most QB pressures by off-the-ball linebackers since 2012,” which of course has Hightower leading the way with 191. Just a hunch, but posting that unusually specific stat tells me that Hightower is worried about the Patriots asking him to take a pay cut. Hightower is 31, hasn’t played football in over a year, and is due $8.725 million in salary and per-game bonus, plus $2 million in incentives.
▪ Patriots fans probably roll their eyes when they see Cassius Marsh say of the Patriots organization that “they also treat players like crap.” Marsh only lasted half a season in New England and his criticisms should be taken with a grain of salt.
That said, Marsh articulated a point of view that is not uncommon across the NFL. Yes, plenty of players do view the Patriots as a joyless, soulless football machine. It didn’t stop the Patriots from scoring big in free agency this year, but they had to be the top offer to land Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry, Matthew Judon, and so on.
That’s one reason Newton has become so important to Belichick and the Patriots. Newton has total credibility with players and is one of the most popular guys in the league. The Patriots need Newton to go on ESPN Radio and say, “For me, the Patriots’ organization has been impeccable . . . my time there has been everything I could have asked for,” like he did on Thursday. Or to say, “I think Bill Belichick is the most misunderstood person in all of sports,” like he did in February. Belichick needs Newton to put some shine on the Patriots’ image, and his own.
Window shopping for free agents
With two weeks until training camp, a ton of noteworthy veterans who played in 2020 remain unsigned. Among the biggest names on offense: WR Larry Fitzgerald, RB Adrian Peterson, LT Russell Okung, RB Frank Gore, RB Todd Gurley, RB Le’Veon Bell, TE Delanie Walker, LT Jason Peters, and WR Alshon Jeffery.
The biggest names on defense: CB Josh Norman, DE Justin Houston, DE Melvin Ingram, DE Ziggy Ansah, DE Everson Griffen, DT Damon Harrison, and LB K.J. Wright.
Among the former Patriots still unsigned: K Stephen Gostkowski, WR Danny Amendola, LB John Simon, ST Nate Ebner, DE Jabaal Sheard, and CB Johnson Bademosi.
A St. Louis judge has the NFL on its heels. In the city’s lawsuit against the NFL over the relocation of the Rams, a judge ruled last week that the city shall have access to the financial records of Roger Goodell, Jerry Jones, Robert Kraft, John Mara, Stan Kroenke, and former Panthers owner Jerry Richardson. Now that the owners’ finances are in play, look for Kroenke to cut a big check to St. Louis to make this lawsuit go away . . . Depressing details surrounding Richard Sherman’s arrest last week on five misdemeanor charges, including criminal trespass with a domestic violence element and driving under the influence, as a 911 call from his wife revealed that Sherman is struggling with mental health and alcohol abuse. Details are scant right now, but regardless of how his legal case unfolds, here’s hoping Sherman can get the help he needs . . . The NFL’s trade deadline this year will be 4 p.m. on Nov. 2, which is the Tuesday after Week 8. That’s not even halfway through the NFL’s 18-week regular season. The league should push it back an extra couple of weeks in future years . . . Really cool to see Lamar Jackson interacting with high school kids in Florida, but incredibly risky for him to be running receiver/cornerback drills while also negotiating a life-changing contract. A torn ACL or Achilles’ could cost him millions . . . Former Steelers and Raiders receiver Martavis Bryant was placed on the suspended list by the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts on Thursday when he didn’t show up to training camp, and Argos coach Ryan Dinwiddie said he is growing “a little impatient.” Bryant, who caught eight TDs as a rookie but has been suspended by the NFL for violating its substance abuse policy since late 2018, signed with the Massachusetts Pirates of the Indoor Football League this spring, but a team official told me Bryant left the team in April after the season opener. Bryant caught two passes for 31 yards but suffered an injury.