This is the first in series that looks at potential free agents at positions where the Bills have their greatest needs.
Free agency is usually not the place to find a starting quarterback.
There could be an exception – or make that exceptions – in 2018, though. An intriguing crop of candidates is scheduled to become free agents when the NFL’s new league year starts in March.
That’s good news for the Buffalo Bills and the rest of the quarterback-needy teams in the NFL. That group includes, but might not be limited to, the Browns, Jets, Cardinals and Broncos.
That list starts with a future first-ballot Hall of Famer who, in all likelihood, won’t actually be going anywhere. It would be a shock if Drew Brees finished his career in a city other than New Orleans, but who ever thought Michael Jordan would wear a Washington Wizards jersey?
Even if Brees does the expected and stays with the Saints, there are still more possible starting quarterbacks set to hit the open market than at any other time in recent memory.
Take what’s happening in Minnesota, for example. After advancing to the NFC Championship Game, the Vikings face the unprecedented situation of having all three of their quarterbacks on expiring contracts. Case Keenum, Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford are all intriguing – and risky – for different reasons.
Bradford started the season as the Vikings’ starter, and came out on fire, throwing for 346 yards and three touchdowns in the season opener against New Orleans. He suffered a knee injury in that game, though, and threw just 11 more passes the rest of the season, all of which came in a Week 5 win over Chicago. Bradford has played 16 games in a season just twice in his eight-year career.
“That’s the hardest thing, is knowing how much time, how much work I put in in the offseason, trying to get ready for the season, and to have it taken away again, you just realize how special it is to be out on that field with your teammates – being able to compete out there in the National Football League,” he told the Vikings’ official website last season. “It’s one of the greatest honors there is. I think once you have a taste of that feeling, it’s really hard to let it go.”
With Bridgewater still recovering from a devastating knee injury suffered during training camp in 2016, the Vikings turned to Keenum after Bradford was hurt. Keenum had a career year, going 11-3 as a starter and throwing for 3,547 yards, 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Minnesota’s three quarterbacks are ranked among the top 25 best potential free agents, according to ESPN, with Keenum at No. 5, Bradford at No. 18 and Bridgewater at No. 23. That has put the Vikings in quite the pickle. Do they pay big money for Keenum, who was previously a journeyman, possibly by slapping the franchise tag on him? Do they trust that Bridgewater can get back to being they promising player he was before his injury? Can they trust Bradford to ever stay healthy?
Not surprisingly, answers to those questions are all over the map. The Vikings could go with option A, B or C, or choose “none of the above” and use their vast cap space (projected to be more than $50 million) and go after Washington's Kirk Cousins, who is expected to become the highest-paid player in NFL history (in terms of average annual salary) no matter where he signs next month. Cousins, who has played under the franchise tag the last two seasons, became expendable with Washington's acquisition of Alex Smith from Kansas City.
The size of Cousins’ deal will surely turn heads, but is a reflection of the market for quarterbacks. San Francisco signed Jimmy Garoppolo, who has all of seven career starts, to a five-year deal worth up to $137.5 million. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Cousins’ deal average $30 million a year. Cousins could be the first to sign, essentially setting the table for the other quarterback salaries.
“I haven’t had a chance to pick where I wanted to play since 2007 when I chose to go to Michigan State,” Cousins said during a series of prearranged interviews during Super Bowl week. “It’s a unique opportunity that I look forward to.”
That price tag could be too rich for the Bills, who are expected to have about $40 million in cap space early in the free agency should they, as expected, release quarterback Tyrod Taylor. The Bills could prevent that from happening if they were able to find a trade partner before the start of the league year March 14. Taylor is scheduled to receive a $6 million roster bonus on March 16.
If a team is looking for more of a short-term fix, the New York Jets’ Josh McCown could draw interest. He set career highs in completion percentage (67.3), passing yards (2,926) and touchdowns (18) in 2017 at 38 years old. He was noncommittal at the end of the Jets’ season about whether he wanted to keep playing, but by late January had warmed up to the idea.
“Where we're at right now, I feel like I want to play,” he said on NFL Network. “I'm looking forward to the next few months, seeing what happens, and I'll be ready to go."
McCown’s best fit could be with a team intent on drafting a quarterback, since he could serve as a veteran mentor.
Another option for teams opened up last Thursday when an arbiter ruled that Bengals quarterback AJ McCarron will become an unrestricted free agent. McCarron was on the 53-man roster in his rookie season of 2014 for just five games, not enough to accrue a full season by NFL rules, but argued successfully that he was healthy and should have been activated sooner. The Browns attempted to trade second- and third-round picks to Cincinnati for McCarron at the deadline, which provides an idea of the type of player they see in him. Even with only three career starts in the regular season, he figures to get paid handsomely, as well.
As usual, the free-agent market is loaded with backup options. Included among those is former Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who continued his tour of the NFL in 2017 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Houston’s Tom Savage and Denver’s Brock Osweiler are also former starters who might fit best elsewhere as the No. 2 quarterback.