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NFL quarterback carousel: Predicting landing spots for Deshaun Watson, Matthew Stafford and more

Every offseason brings a game of musical chairs for NFL quarterbacks, but this one feels different. With Deshaun Watson demanding a trade out of Houston and Matthew Stafford and the Lions apparently set to part ways — not to mention Dak Prescott’s ongoing contract drama in Dallas — it could be an unprecedented level of movement.

Here are a few predictions for where some of the league’s quarterbacks end up this offseason (For a look at where the top rookies could end up, here are The Baltimore Sun’s latest first-round projections):

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On the move

Deshaun Watson: New York Jets

It’s unprecedented for a quarterback as young and talented as Watson to switch teams, but it seems likely to happen now that he’s requested a trade. The 25-year-old star has reportedly been unhappy with a lack of consultation on the team’s major moves, and the hiring of former Ravens assistant David Culley as head coach doesn’t appear to be enough to repair Watson’s relationship with the front office and owner Cal McNair. The Texans are looking at a fresh start, and by dealing Watson, they could at least recoup some of the draft picks Bill O’Brien traded away before being fired.

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The asking price for Watson — who has a no-trade clause — will probably start at three first-round picks, and the Jets are best positioned to offer them after dealing safety Jamal Adams to the Seattle Seahawks for two first-rounders last offseason. New York’s No. 2 overall pick in April’s draft would at least give Houston a chance to pick Watson’s successor, and the Jets could also send quarterback Sam Darnold, the No. 3 overall pick in 2018, to the Texans in the deal.

Miami is another intriguing trade partner, especially if the Dolphins offer quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. With NFL teams prohibited from trading picks more than three years in advance before the draft starts, the Jets and Dolphins have an advantage because of their 2021 stockpile. In addition to No. 2, New York has another first-rounder (No. 23), a second (No. 34) and two thirds (No. 66, No. 87), while Miami has two firsts (No. 3, No. 18), two seconds (No. 36, No. 50) and a third (No. 82).

This would be a massive move for general manager Joe Douglas and new coach Robert Saleh, pushing the Jets from the bottom of the AFC to a top playoff contender. With a projected $63 million in salary cap space this offseason, New York should be able to fold in the rest of Watson’s $156 million deal and build a competitive team around him.

Matthew Stafford: Indianapolis Colts

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Stafford’s time is finally up in Detroit after the Lions hired a new coach and general manager this offseason. The 32-year-old veteran and the team have reportedly agreed to part ways, opening the door for Stafford to join a contender after 12 seasons in Detroit, which featured four coaches and an 0-3 playoff record.

With its strong roster, a projected $64 million in cap space and a glaring hole at quarterback, Indianapolis makes the most sense as a potential Stafford destination. The asking price is probably at least one first-round pick, and the Colts could even throw in a young quarterback prospect in former fourth-round selection Jacob Eason.

Before getting hurt in 2019, Stafford was playing at an elite level, averaging 8.6 yards per attempt with 19 touchdown passes compared to just five interceptions in eight games. During that span, Stafford was seventh in Ben Baldwin’s expected points added and completion percentage over expectation composite rankings, a handy measurement of accuracy and efficiency. He wasn’t too shabby in 2020, either, throwing 26 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions while ranking 14th in passer rating.

If 39-year-old Philip Rivers could lead the Colts to a wild-card berth, Stafford should be able to elevate the offense to even greater heights, especially if Indianapolis adds more receiving talent through free agency and the draft.

Jimmy Garoppolo: New England Patriots

What better place for Jimmy G to end up than with his old coach Bill Belichick? With Cam Newton unlikely to return, the Patriots need a quarterback. Fortunately for New England, it has plenty of cap space to absorb Garoppolo’s contract, which carries a cap hit of roughly $27 million the next two seasons.

The 29-year-old has struggled to stay on the field, but is just a year removed from helping the 49ers reach the Super Bowl. In his first and only season as a full-time starter in 2019, he averaged 8.4 yards per attempt with 27 touchdowns and 13 interceptions and ranked 11th in EPA/CPOE composite. A top-15 level quarterback should be worth a second-round pick for a team like the Patriots.

Familiarity with the coaching staff would help Garoppolo revive his career, but New England needs more offensive weapons. Adding a veteran receiver in free agency and another pass-catcher or two through the draft, combined with the returns of offensive tackle Marcus Cannon, linebacker Dont’a Hightower and safety Patrick Chung after their 2020 opt-outs, would make the Patriots an intriguing contender next season.

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan warms up before a game against the Buccaneers on Jan. 3, 2021, in Tampa, Fla.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan warms up before a game against the Buccaneers on Jan. 3, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. (Kevin Sabitus/AP)

Starters staying put

Matt Ryan: Atlanta Falcons

Ryan’s $40 million cap hit in 2021 is prohibitive, especially with the salary cap expected to fall to around $175 million. New England and San Francisco might make a push for the former MVP, but the bet here is that Falcons owner Arthur Blank and new general manager Terry Fontenot want to give the 35-year-old one last shot to win. Atlanta could still pick a quarterback at No. 4 and have him sit behind the veteran for a season.

Jared Goff: Los Angeles Rams

Goff’s $34 million cap hit in 2021 takes him out of the running for several teams looking for an upgrade. Plus, the Rams would have dead cap hits of $6.8 million in 2021 and $15.4 million in 2022 if they trade him after June 1, according to Over The Cap. Despite little reassurance publicly from coach Sean McVay and general manager Les Snead that he’s the long-term answer, it seems likely that Goff will be back to compete for the starting job in training camp.

Carson Wentz: Philadelphia Eagles

It’s hard to view the Eagles’ firing of coach Doug Petersen and hiring of former Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni as anything other than a move to try and fix whatever’s wrong with Wentz. Sirianni worked closely with Colts coach Frank Reich, who was the offensive coordinator under Petersen when Wentz had his best seasons in Philadelphia. Unless the Eagles are bowled over by a trade offer, Wentz is likely the Week 1 starter in 2021.

Tua Tagovailoa: Miami Dolphins

Tagovailoa’s future in Miami hinges on Watson’s future in Houston. If the Texans star wants to go to the Dolphins, general manager Chris Grier won’t hesitate to part with his former No. 5 overall pick. Assuming Watson ends up with the AFC East rival Jets, Tagovailoa would get another chance to prove he’s worthy of the hype and better than what he showed in 2020, when he was less than a year removed from a devastating hip injury and experienced a limited offseason because of COVID-19 restrictions.

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Cowboys quarterbacks Dak Prescott and Andy Dalton celebrate after a touchdown against the Giants at AT&T Stadium Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Oct. 11, 2020.
Cowboys quarterbacks Dak Prescott and Andy Dalton celebrate after a touchdown against the Giants at AT&T Stadium Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Oct. 11, 2020. (Tom Fox/Dallas Morning News/TNS)

Free agents

Dak Prescott: Dallas Cowboys

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After Watson, Prescott is perhaps the second biggest domino in this year’s market. Dallas would be making a bold move by not re-signing the two-time Pro Bowl selection, but it’s plausible considering the strained contract talks that have taken place thus far, which led to Prescott playing on the $31 million franchise tag in 2020. The bet here is that a deal gets done before another team can swoop in.

Ryan Fitzpatrick: Denver Broncos

This wouldn’t be the most exciting signing for Broncos fans, but considering how well Fitzpatrick played in 2020, maybe it should be. The 38-year-old journeyman had the highest completion rate of his career (68.5%) in nine games and ranked seventh in EPA/CPOE composite, just behind Tom Brady. The Dolphins went 4-3 in games he started, and he rallied the team over the Raiders in relief of Tagovailoa in a crucial Week 16 victory. The Broncos offense is full of playmakers and could take off with competent quarterback play.

Jameis Winston: Detroit Lions

While a reunion with the Saints makes sense, New Orleans is projected to be nearly $100 million over the salary cap. Winston might not want to wait around for Drew Brees to make his decision to come back for a 20th season, either, or contend with Taysom Hill to be the starter. With Detroit expected to deal Stafford, an opportunity could present itself for Winston to take over as the Lions starter for new coach Dan Campbell, who worked with Winston in New Orleans as the assistant head coach.

Mitchell Trubisky: San Francisco 49ers

Trubisky’s weaknesses are well known, but he’s only 26 and has at least shown flashes of being an above-average player. For the price he’s going to command, a team like San Francisco should absolutely kick the tires. Coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense is notably quarterback-friendly, and this roster should be one of the league’s best, especially with a healthy Nick Bosa and Deebo Samuel returning. Swapping Garoppolo for Trubisky might seem like a downgrade, but considering the money San Francisco would be saving, it might allow for upgrades elsewhere. If the 49ers strike out on Watson and Stafford and don’t find a way to pick a quarterback of their liking in the draft, this might be one of their best options.

Cam Newton: Washington Football Team

Newton cooled down after a hot start with the Patriots, throwing just eight touchdown passes to 10 interceptions while rushing for 592 yards and 12 scores. The 31-year-old won’t command a large salary after playing for just $550,000 guaranteed, plus incentives, in 2020. He’s familiar with coach Ron Rivera from his time in Carolina and would give Washington a low-risk, high-reward option as it figures out its long-term quarterback plans.

Andy Dalton: Chicago Bears

The Bears are reportedly aiming to be “big players” on the quarterback market, but Watson and Stafford aren’t likely to end up in Chicago. Matt Ryan and Jared Goff would be intriguing options, but it’s hard to see a scenario in which the Bears take on a huge salary for a quarterback that isn’t guaranteed to improve the offense. (Then again, they traded a fourth-round pick for Nick Foles and his big contract.) Dalton didn’t light it up in Dallas despite having a top-tier receiving corps, but for the price of a backup, he could at least give Chicago some quality depth.

Tyrod Taylor: Miami Dolphins

Taylor, who lost his job to rookie Justin Herbert after an unfortunate medical mishap, might not get a chance to start in Miami, but he would at least be high-level competition for Tua Tagovailoa. In 2017, the 31-year-old helped lead the Bills to the playoffs for the first time since 1999, but has played just four games since. If he can stay healthy, he’d be a solid option to take over if Tagovailoa continues to struggle.

Jacoby Brissett: New England Patriots

The band is back together! If Garoppolo returns to New England, why shouldn’t Brissett? It seems unlikely that a team would make him a starter this offseason, but the 28-year-old could certainly get the chance to play a few games backing up the injury-prone Garoppolo in New England.

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