Six divisions down, two divisions left in Pro Football Weeky’s look at the various quarterback situations around the league. Our Maester Mark Schofield returns to the Citadel to look at the four situations unfolding in the AFC South, with his usual Maester’s Counsel for each of the four organizations. Sit back and read these while you wait for little Ned Umber to return from Last Hearth with those wagons…
Rostered Quarterbacks: Deshaun Watson, AJ McCarron, Joe Webb
The Houston Texans enter the 2019 season looking to build off of last year’s run to the playoffs. The Texans secured a playoff berth by winning the AFC South but saw their Super Bowl hopes dashed quickly when they lost on wild-card weekend to the proverbial team no one wanted to play, the division rival Indianapolis Colts.
Despite the loss, optimism is high thanks in part to their young quarterback, Deshaun Watson. After seeing his rookie season cut short with an ACL injury, Watson returned for Week 1 of the 2018 season and after taking a few games to get his confidence back in his lower body, he turned in a solid first full season as the team’s starting QB. Watson completed 68.3 percent of his throws for 4,165 yards and 26 touchdowns, with just nine interceptions. His Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt of 6.87 put him in the top half of the league, and he earned a Pro Bowl selection at the end of the season. With a full offseason ahead of him to focus on the playbook, and not rehabilitation, Watson should be in great shape to lead the Houston offense.
Behind him are a few question marks. The Texans signed AJ McCarron after he was released by the Oakland Raiders. Since being drafted by the CIncinnati Bengals in 2014, McCarron has bounced around the league a bit, spending time with the Bengals, the Buffalo Bills and the Raiders before finding his way to Houston. Despite some — including the author — believing McCarron could develop into a starter in the league, it has become clear over the past few seasons that his ceiling is as a backup.
In addition to McCarron, the Texans have Joe Webb on the roster, who has spent time at quarterback, wide receiver and on special teams in the NFL. Webb was actually cut by Houston at the start of last season but immediately re-signed with the organization. He caught two passes for the team last year for a total of 13 yards.
Maester’s Counsel: Building around Watson, and making sure they can protect him, has to be the biggest job of the organization this offseason. The best thing that could happen for Houston would be seeing multiple quarterbacks come off the board in the top 20 of this draft, pushing offensive linemen like Jonah Williams, Cody Ford and Andre Dillard in their direction. However, an upgrade behind Watson might not be a bad idea. Webb is more of a gadget player than a true backup, and McCarron’s history tells us that if Watson goes down, McCarron would be a big question mark. As the draft enters into Day 2 — and if the team has shored up the offensive line — players like Ryan Finley or Jarrett Stidham would be wise investments.
Rostered Quarterbacks: Andrew Luck, Jacoby Brissett, Phillip Walker
A few drafts ago, selecting a quarterback to perhaps act as a backstop behind Andrew Luck, in case he failed to make it back from his shoulder injury, seemed like a potentially wise course of action. The team went another direction, and after Luck’s 2018 campaign it seems they made the right call.
Luck finally made it back to the starting lineup for the start of the 2018 season, and despite some early weeks where people were wondering if he was truly back, he had a fantastic season under first-year head coach Frank Reich. Luck completed 67.3 percent of his passes for 4,593 yards and 39 touchdowns, against 15 interceptions, and his ANY/A of 6.95 placed him just outside the top 10 in the league. Under his direction, the Colts finished 10-6, just a game behind the Texans in the AFC South, and beat the Texans in Houston to open up the NFL playoffs. Despite a loss the following week to Kansas City, the Colts seem like a team on the verge of being true contenders again, and with Luck back they are in a solid position to live up to the expectations. He is under contract through the 2021 season, although the team does have a potential out that year. If he were to be cut prior to June 1 of 2021, it would not create any dead cap money and it would save the organization $21M in cap space. Just something to think about for down the road ... but for now, Luck is their guy.
Behind him the Colts seem to have a solid backup in Jacoby Brissett. He was drafted by the New England Patriots in 2016 and actually saw playing time as a rookie early in his career. With Tom Brady suspended and Jimmy Garoppolo injured, Brissett made his first NFL start in Week 3 of the 2016 season, leading the Patriots to a victory over the Texans on a Thursday night. While he struggled the following week against the Buffalo Bills, Brissett endeared himself to Patriots fans with that win on a short week.
Prior to the 2017 season, he was traded to the Colts. By prior, we mean days before the start of the schedule. He was on the sidelines for a Week 1 loss but became the starter for the second game of the season, and performed admirably for a team that did not have a lot of expectations with Luck sidelined. Last year, Brissett took on more of a leadership role behind Luck, and when the team struggled early it was Brissett who suggested a players-only meeting, a meeting that is reported to have sparked the team. This is the final year of his contract, and given what he has done to date he might have some suitors in the offseason.
Maester’s Counsel: How the team truly views Brissett will be demonstrated in this draft. If the organization believes his is their long-term backup behind Luck, then they will seek to extend him rather than letting him test free agency at the end of the season. Though the incoming draft class is believed to be solid, Brissett might be the best option in 2020 free agency — absent a player like Drew Brees hitting the free market. The Colts would be wise to lock him up as their Andrew Luck Insurance Policy. If, however, the team is wary of his long-term position, kicking the tires on a Day 3 quarterback like Ryan Finley or Brett Rypien would be a good Plan B. As far as the starting spot goes, that is Luck’s for the next few years.
Rostered Quarterbacks: Nick Foles, Cody Kessler, Tanner Lee, Alex McGough
When the 2018 NFL season ended, the Jaguars were one of the teams many believed would be addressing the quarterback position in the offseason to come. That came true, but perhaps not as some believed. Instead of drafting a quarterback with the seventh overall selection, the Jaguars signed Nick Foles away from the Philadelphia Eagles. Foles brings some experience — and a Lombardi Trophy — to a team that was just a few minutes away from playing Foles and the Eagles in Super Bowl LII.
In Foles, the franchise gets a veteran QB presence that might be a better option from a personality standpoint than a rookie passer. Foles has been through the playoff wars now in two straight seasons, and his leadership might bring some stability to a locker room that seemed to be teetering on the edge last year. With reports that the defensive players were frustrated at the lack of offensive output under Blake Bortles, perhaps a veteran at the QB spot was the right move for this organization.
Behind Foles, the organization has three different options for the backup spot. Of these three players — Cody Kessler, Tanner Lee and Alex McGough — the player I would keep my eyes on is McGough. After a solid career at Florida International University, McGough saw his first bowl game of his career — in his last college game — come to an abrupt end with an injury. That saw him fall to the Seattle Seahawks in the seventh round, and he spent last year on the practice squad. Waived by Seattle, he signed a futures/reserve contract with the Jaguars this past offseason. But McGough showed at FIU some impressive arm talent and a penchant for making tough throws under pressure. Of these three players, he probably has the highest ceiling.
Maester’s Counsel: With Foles in place and three other quarterbacks on the roster (and Bortles’ contract taking up over $16M in dead cap), addressing the position probably seems like an unwise course of action in this draft, and it would be. The team needs to decide which of the three quarterbacks behind Foles should be the backup (I would vote for Kessler) and which should be the developmental player for the future (I would vote McGough). Moving Lee close to the end of training camp is probably the best course of action, and they could find a suitor depending on how other training camp battles and/or injuries shake out.
Rostered Quarterbacks: Marcus Mariota, Ryan Tannehill, Logan Woodside
Throughout the history of Westeros, there have been countless occasions when the person sitting on the Iron Throne needed to fend off a challenger, or “usurper.” There was the Dance of the Dragons between two Targaryens: Aegon II and Rhaenyra. There were the various Blackfyre Rebellions. And of course, Robert’s Rebellion, which took place in the years before A Song of Ice and Fire, which saw the usurper Robert Baratheon ascend to the Iron Throne in place of Aerys II Targaryen or “the Mad King.”
Marcus Mariota might find himself in a similar situation right now, with the Titans having traded for Ryan Tannehill. After getting off to a great start in his first game in the league, Mariota has yet to truly live up to the promise he displayed at the University of Oregon, and the promise that made him the second overall selection in the 2015 NFL Draft. Last season might have been the toughest of Mariota’s career, as he battled some serious injuries.
Now, similar to the situation with Jameis Winston, Mariota faces a somewhat uncertain future. The team picked up his fifth-year option in April of last year, but there has been no true movement on a long-term extension. That gives the Titans a few options, and the player one. From Mariota’s perspective, he needs to deliver on the kind of season that earns a quarterback a contract extension. A successful 2019 season (and perhaps more importantly, an injury-free one) that ends with a playoff berth would be the recipe for Mariota to earn that extension, and one that the team would likely be happy to work out. If, however, Mariota struggles, the organization can move on with a veteran in Tannehill, as they sort out whether to stick with the former Miami Dolphin beyond the 2020 season or address quarterback in next year’s draft.
So the future is really up to the quarterback himself.
Tannehill and Logan Woodside, formerly of the Alliance of American Football, are two very interesting options behind Mariota. Tannehill, most recently the starter for the Dolphins, is a solid option behind Mariota and a player who could be counted on to step in and immediately produce should Mariota befall another injury, or struggle in terms of production. Woodside, who might not have the upside of the other two quarterbacks, is a solid third option who can do some nice things in terms of anticipation throws, and is coming off a stretch as the starting QB for the San Antonio Commanders in the AAF.
Maester’s Counsel: This one is really up to Mariota. If he produces the way many believe he can, then the team should look to retain his services beyond the 2019 season, either by working out a long-term extension or using the franchise tag on him to facilitate that process. If, however, Mariota struggles, it is not worth waiting for a sixth season for him to finally put it together. As much as this Maester believes in Mariota — and this Maester had Mariota as his top quarterback in the 2015 Draft, back when the undersigned was just earning his chains — with Tannehill in place and a potentially good crop of quarterbacks coming in the 2020 draft, the time would be right to move on.
Previous Divisional QB counsels from Maester Schofield: