Analysis

Best/worst-case scenarios for 15 NFL QBs facing uncertainty in 2021

Another offseason, another spring of uncertainty at quarterback.

It wasn't always this way. The QB position has typically been a place of relative calm in the NFL. But lately, we've seen a wave of changes at the game's most important position. Some franchise stalwarts have aged out of their jobs, while teams seem less precious about their incumbents and more willing to take swings at an upgrade.

Last year, the free agency of Tom Brady dominated the conversation and served as the first domino to fall in the reorganization of QBs across the NFL landscape. Deshaun Watson should be that first domino in 2021, but the Texans have made the situation around their disgruntled star quarterback so murky that we've already seen teams pass on the Watson waiting game in favor of more concrete solutions.

Carson Wentz, Matthew Stafford and Jared Goff have already joined new teams, and they won't be the last name brands to reboot their careers come September. With that in mind, let's take a look at 15 established quarterbacks and break down the different roads they could go down.

Let's start with that aforementioned towering domino ...

Deshaun Watson
Houston Texans · QB

Best-case scenario: Watson gets the fresh start he so desperately craves. The Texans move the star quarterback to a QB-needy team with enough talent to survive the significant loss in draft and personnel that will be necessary to complete the blockbuster trade. The opportunity to stay in the AFC, so as to regularly remind the Texans of their folly? That would be the cherry on top.


Worst-case scenario: The current course holds: The Texans dig in their heels and refuse to acquiesce to Watson's trade demands. It's ugly business that would likely set up one of the nastier player vs. team showdowns in recent NFL history. Could Watson stay put and refuse to play in 2021? Now there's your worst-case scenario.


Most likely scenario: The Texans grasp the reality of the situation and make a swap ahead of the draft. The deal takes Watson out of the picture but allows the Texans to start over with roster reinforcements and a full cupboard of draft assets. Houston becomes an expansion team all over again, and Watson begins anew.

Jimmy Garoppolo
San Francisco 49ers · QB

Best-case scenario: The 49ers do their homework, surveying the free-agent, trade and draft landscape before deciding it's in their best interest to ride with their guy. Garoppolo shows up at training camp feeling great, setting up the inevitable notebook ledes about important changes in his offseason training regimen. Kyle Shanahan makes it clear Jimmy G is his unquestioned starter, taking the air out of any looming camp drama.


Worst-case scenario: The 49ers secure a new starting quarterback from an outside source, and Garoppolo is sent packing to an organization without the personnel and coaching wealth he's grown accustomed to in San Francisco. He ends up with a team that already has a starter in place and goes -- in two years -- from Super Bowl quarterback to camp-battle participant in a strange land.


Most likely scenario: 49ers general manager John Lynch said last month he "really" believes Garoppolo will be the team's starter in 2021. It doesn't promise anything, but you don't get the sense this is the same desperate situation like we saw with the Rams and Jared Goff. If Jimmy G indeed sticks around, it sets up a do-or-die fifth season in San Francisco.

Teddy Bridgewater
Carolina Panthers · QB

Best-case scenario: The Panthers strike out in their (presumed) quest for Deshaun Watson, don't see any other veterans as a significant upgrade over Teddy, and use their top-10 pick to improve the roster around their incumbent QB. 


Worst-case scenario: The Panthers decide one year of Bridgewater was enough and trade him to a team with an established starter in place. Bridgewater becomes an overqualified backup for what feels like the 14th time in the last 15 seasons.


Most likely scenario: It seems as if the Panthers are determined to have a new QB1 in 2021. Bridgewater has been a good soldier everywhere he's been, so you can imagine the Panthers would like to trade him to a team that provides some path to the starting job. The Bears? The Dolphins? The Giants?

Sam Darnold
New York Jets · QB

Best-case scenario: The Jets don't get Watson and trade out of the No. 2 overall pick to more efficiently improve a barren roster. New coach Robert Saleh throws his public support behind Darnold, who gets a much-needed reboot in New York. Surrounded by superior players and coaches, Darnold gets a final shot to realize the potential that made him the Jets' highest-drafted QB since Joe Namath. 


Worst-case scenario: The Jets decide a fresh start at head coach with Saleh would be best complemented with a new beginning at QB. Gang Green lands a new face of the franchise via trade or the draft, and Darnold is shipped out of town just when it looked like he was finally being put in a position to succeed.


Most likely scenario: The Jets do bring in a new quarterback, and Darnold is moved for a Day 2 draft pick. Given the raw deal of his first three NFL seasons, Darnold hopefully heads to a healthier situation and gets the opportunity to prove his struggles were a product of his environment in Gotham. 

Derek Carr
Las Vegas Raiders · QB

Best-case scenario: Jon Gruden decides he's no longer down with O.P.P. (Other People's Passers) and learns to appreciate Carr for what he is: a proficient, top-15 NFL starter. Onward and upward.


Worst-case scenario: Gruden and GM Mike Mayock watch Marcus Mariota's Week 15 performance against the Chargers on a loop and talk themselves into the former No. 2 overall pick being their guy going forward. Carr, a sensitive fellow even in the best of times, is hurt by the decision and demands to be traded. He gets that wish shortly before the draft. 


Most likely scenario: Gruden begrudgingly accepts the fact that he's not losing all those December games because of his quarterback. Carr stays put, and Vegas focuses on improving its wretched defense. 

Tua Tagovailoa
Miami Dolphins · QB

Best-case scenario: The Dolphins exhibit some patience and understand Tua's rookie season came following major hip surgery and without a traditional offseason program or preseason. Tua enters 2021 in a better place mentally and physically, with confidence that he has the support of the organization.


Worst-case scenario: Armed with a ton of draft capital, the Dolphins cannot resist the temptation to make another huge splash at quarterback. Tagovailoa gets Rosen'd: flipped after one season to a team that doesn't offer a clear path to a starting job.


Most likely scenario: The Dolphins keep the faith and give Tagovailoa another year to prove himself. They even let Ryan Fitzpatrick walk in free agency, a move that takes a fan favorite and the league's best backup out of the picture but also allows Tua to focus on his job without looking over his shoulder.

Drew Lock
Denver Broncos · QB

Best-case scenario: The Broncos pick through Lock's deeply uneven game tape in 2020 and decide there's still an impact quarterback buried beneath all the turnovers and hero throws. He enters camp as the unquestioned starter.


Worst-case scenario: New GM George Paton puts his stamp on the organization with a new signal-caller. Tires will be kicked in the Watson hunt, but a new QB enters the picture via the draft. Lock finishes out his rookie deal in Denver as a frustrated backup.


Most likely scenario: Paton may be GM, but John Elway will continue to have his fingerprints all over this organization. And since Elway is Team Lock, it's likely the 2019 second-round pick will get one more shot to prove himself as QB1 material with a healthy (and impressive) crop of pass catchers. The Broncos should give themselves a better safety net by signing an established backup. Hello, Fitzmagic?

Cam Newton
New England Patriots · QB

Best-case scenario: Recent reports out of New England are legit, and Bill Belichick is a much bigger fan of Newton than one would have expected coming off the former MVP's uneven 2020. Cam signs another short-term deal with the Pats and gets a complete offseason to fully grasp an offense that will hopefully be bolstered through free agency and the draft. 


Worst-case scenario: The Pats use the draft to find what they hope is a long-term solution behind center. Cam is remembered as a "bridge" from one era to another in New England, and he returns to the open market for the second straight year, with few chances at a possible starting job.


Most likely scenario: The Pats extend the bridge, bringing back Newton as the starter, but this time with a young heir apparent on the depth chart behind him. Cam will need to make significant year-over-year strides to keep his job beyond Halloween.

Jameis Winston
New Orleans Saints · QB

Best-case scenario: Rap Sheet reported on Super Bowl Sunday that Winston is "in the driver's seat" for the Saints' starting job. The biggest obstacle to that reality is removed when Drew Brees finally announces his retirement sometime in late August (I kid). Winston gets a legit shot at reviving his career in a perfect place to do it.


Worst-case scenario: That surprising report about Brees setting personal records in sled pushing turns out to be exactly what it looks like: The 42-year-old decides to return for a 21st season. This makes things pretty awkward in New Orleans, but Sean Payton ultimately stays loyal to his longtime QB, leaving Winston to decide whether he wants to remain an understudy in New Orleans or explore his options on the open market.


Most likely scenario: Um, Brees probably retires? Deshaun Watson doesn't come to New Orleans, and Winston gets his shot, even if it turns into something of a tandem deal with Taysom Hill

One-ish liners

Dak Prescott
Dallas Cowboys · QB

We can spin off into fantasy about the Cowboys pivoting to Russell Wilson or Deshaun Watson or Joe Montana … but let's keep our feet on the ground here and work under the assumption that Prescott and Dallas get a long-term deal done this summer.


UPDATE: Dallas and Prescott have agreed to terms on a new deal, the team announced Monday. It's a four-year deal worth $160 million, with $126 million guaranteed, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported.

Alex Smith
Washington Football Team · QB

His days in Washington numbered, Smith could make sense for the Bears or a team with an incumbent quarterback who enters 2021 on unsteady ground.


UPDATE: Washington announced Friday that it released Smith. 

Ben Roethlisberger
Pittsburgh Steelers · QB

Big Ben and the Steelers will work out the business side of things, and he'll have one more shot at getting back to the Super Bowl. It's likely the Steelers will have a more capable veteran behind him on the depth chart, though.  


UPDATE: The Steelers announced Thursday that they signed Roethlisberger to a new contract.

Daniel Jones
New York Giants · QB

This is likely Jones' last shot to prove he's The Man in New York. If he stumbles through another mediocre season, both the 2019 first-rounder and GM Dave Gettleman will be out of the picture come 2022.

Nick Foles
Chicago Bears · QB

I know everybody's been pitching this basically since the day he left, but now can we bring Foles back to the Eagles? With Carson Wentz out of the picture, Foles would be a nice backup option behind Jalen Hurts

Russell Wilson
Seattle Seahawks · QB

The marriage between the Seahawks and Mr. Unlimmmmmmited should continue for at least one more season. Could it be Super Bowl-or-bust for the Wilson era in Seattle?

Dan Hanzus has been a writer for NFL.com since 2010 and authors the site's Power Rankings in addition to hosting the award-winning Around The NFL Podcast. Follow him on Twitter.

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