On the NFL: Quarterback scramble ready to start

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Mark Craig, Star Tribune
·5 min read
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Wednesday will mark 38 days since old Tom Brady affirmed the championship-caliber value of infusing new blood at quarterback.

Wednesday also will bring a 3 p.m. kickoff to the NFL's 2021 league year and the official start of what's expected to be an unprecedented shuffling of starting quarterbacks via free agency, trades and next month's draft.

As many as 18 teams could have new starting quarterbacks this fall. Three of them — the Rams, Lions and Colts — already took the plunge with blockbuster trades that won't become official until Wednesday.

The Rams and Lions swapped Jared Goff for Matthew Stafford. The Colts took a chance on Carson Wentz and his bloated contract, leaving Philadelphia with second-year pro Jalen Hurts and a still-wandering eye for another quarterback.

In terms of taking the biggest gamble, the leader in the clubhouse is the Los Angeles Rams. In overpaying for Stafford, they pinned their hopes of playing the next Super Bowl at home on a guy who hasn't won a playoff game.

It could pay off. It better pay off.

To get the 33-year-old Stafford, the Rams gave Detroit two first-round picks, a third-round pick and the 26-year-old Goff, who, for all his warts, still helped the Rams reach the Super Bowl in his third season.

That's some bounty. And it came five years after the Rams gave up two first-round picks, two second-round picks and two third-round picks to move up 14 spots to take Goff first overall.

Yes, teams are that desperate to find the right quarterback.

In 2018, the Cardinals traded up to select Josh Rosen 10th overall. A year later, they drafted Kyler Murray No. 1 overall and dumped Rosen in Miami.

Last year, the Dolphins selected Tua Tagovailoa fifth overall. And yet Miami can't be ruled out as one of those 18 teams that might be changing quarterbacks again.

That's because the Dolphins could be a prime landing spot for Deshaun Watson, who is demanding a trade from Houston.

The Texans are still pretending they're in control. That's bound to change, and Miami, ironically, has the firepower to entice Houston thanks in part to the Dolphins owning the No. 3 overall pick, which once belonged to Houston.

The Dolphins could package that pick, the 18th overall pick, a 2022 first-round pick, Tagovailoa and more for Watson.

Yes, teams are that desperate to find the right quarterback.

Meanwhile, the festering of passive-aggressive ill will between Russell Wilson and the Seahawks continues. He's less likely to leave, but stay tuned. The list of teams he'd accept a trade to — reduced by one when Dallas gave Dak Prescott $160 million over four years — still includes the league's most QB-starved team (Chicago), the probably-soon-to-be-without-Drew-Brees Saints and a Las Vegas team going nowhere with Derek Carr.

The easiest quarterback change of the offseason will come on draft night, when the Jaguars pick Clemson star Trevor Lawrence first overall. The other moves to come will require more thought and leaps of faith.

Via free agency — which technically begins Monday with two days of "legal tampering" — the pickings include Andy Dalton, 33; Ryan Fitzpatrick, 38; Tyrod Taylor, 32; Jacoby Brissett, 28; former No. 2 overall pick Mitchell Trubisky, 27; and former No. 1 overall pick Jameis Winston, 27.

The draft could feature five quarterbacks being taken in the first round. ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. projects five going in the first nine picks, with Atlanta, San Francisco and New England trading up for quarterbacks.

A lot depends on where Jets General Manager Joe Douglas actually stands on Sam Darnold's future. He's been noncommittal about the 23-year-old who is 13-25 as an NFL starter.

No GM in the league heads into this week with a better opportunity to improve upon last season.

First, Douglas owns five of the top 86 draft picks, including Nos. 2 and 23 overall. Second, he's $69.2 million under the salary cap, according to Overthecap.com. Only Jacksonville has more to spend ($73.7 million).

And, of course, Douglas also has Darnold as trade bait.

"That [No. 2 3/8 pick is going to be the biggest decision that Joe Douglas will make as general manager of that team," said Daniel Jeremiah, an NFL Network draft analyst.

Judging Darnold's ability with more talent around him is only part of the equation in New York. Considering his 2021 salary, his fifth-year option in 2022 and what it would cost to franchise tag him in 2023, Jeremiah figures the Jets could save an average of $10 million over the next three years and have two more years of control if they traded Darnold and picked a quarterback No. 2 overall.

"You'd get, say, a Zach Wilson at No. 2, you're saving $10 million a year on average and you're getting whatever you get for Sam Darnold," Jeremiah said. "And when you look at teams picking 8 [Carolina], 9 [Denver] and 12 [San Francisco], it gets pretty interesting.

"I think all three of those teams makes sense as trade partners for Sam Darnold. I know people say, 'Well, there's no way they're trading a top-12 pick for Sam. No, but I think there's a way you could work something out there where [the Jets] attach another pick with Sam to get another pick in the top 12. Things are going to get pretty interesting."

The same can be said about a lot of teams and a lot of quarterbacks this offseason.

Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL. E-mail: mcraig@startribune.com