April is a fascinating month on the 2019 calendar. Not only do football fans get the NFL draft, the yearly event that gives supporters of every organization the chance to bet on the future - and hope - but fans of the HBO saga Game of Thrones will be treated to the premier of the eighth and final season a few weeks before the draft. In honor of that event, let’s take a spin through each division and analyze their quarterback situations, looking at teams that might need to address the position (whether for an immediate starter or an upgrade at the backup spot) with me serving as the Maester for each organization, offering my wise and sage counsel that is sure to be ignored, and likely to get me killed in the end.
Today we assess the NFC South, where every team in this division has their starter for at least the next season or so. But while one of these organizations has a potential transition plan in place, two other teams really need to consider addressing the backup spot. The final organization? Maybe they — and their new head coach — should consider a hedge on the current starter.
Rostered Quarterbacks: Matt Ryan, Matt Schaub, Kurt Benkert
Atlanta is certainly set at QB1. Matt Ryan signed a five-year extension in 2018, and with Dirk Koetter coming back to the Falcons as their offensive coordinator, expectations are high for Ryan. During Koetter’s first stint in Atlanta, from 2012-14, Ryan developed into the quarterback that would go on to earn that big extension. Ryan made Pro Bowls in two of those seasons under Koetter, and in the 2012 campaign he posted his highest completion percentage as a professional. That was arguably Ryan's third-best season in the league, as he posted a QBR of 71.6 (behind the 2016 MVP season and last year) and an Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt of 7.03, again behind the '16 and '18 seasons respectively.
Behind Ryan is where the questions begin. Schaub is signed through this season, with a team option for the 2020 campaign. Nearing his 40s, Schaub cannot be considered anything more than a potential one- or two-game stopgap should Ryan suffer an injury. Then there is Benkert, who was signed as an undrafted free agent prior to last season, and re-signed to the Falcons on a futures/reserve contract just a few months ago.
Long story short, after Ryan, the Falcons have some serious QB question marks.
There is a chance that Benkert could develop into a Schaub-type player, giving Atlanta a solid QB2 option in time. But that could be a year or two away from taking place.
Maester’s Counsel: Since selecting Ryan in the first round of the 2008 NFL Draft, the Falcons have drafted one — yes, one — quarterback. That was Sean Renfree, in the seventh round of the 2013 draft. Take the New England Patriots for example. Since drafting Tom Brady, they have selected nine quarterbacks over the following 19 drafts. Nearly one every other season. While they had the benefit of veteran Chris Redman in place behind Ryan early, and now Schaub behind him later in his career, it is time for the Falcons to give strong consideration to upgrading behind their starter. Allow me to recommend Auburn's Jarrett Stidham. He is a good fit for Koetter’s offense and would be an upgrade over Benkert at least, with room to grow beyond what Schaub can offer at this point in their respective careers.
Rostered Quarterbacks: Cam Newton, Taylor Heinicke, Kyle Allen
Similar to Atlanta, the Panthers have a bit of a situation behind their starting quarterback, and it's a bit more pressing. Cam Newton is coming off a season in which he was shut down early with a shoulder injury, and honestly this was something we should have seen coming. In Week 8, they pulled Newton off the field before halftime in a Hail Mary situation and brought Taylor Heinicke onto the field to attempt the throw.
(He promptly checked the ball down, which was a smart decision at the time and led to a field goal, but still, that is a bit of a red comet type of situation. Something is up.)
Both Heinicke and Kyle Allen flashed a bit in their action last season. Heinicke had one start against those Falcons, and completed 33-of-53 passes for 274 yards and three interceptions, with one TD pass. But he suffered an injury, so the Panthers turned to Allen to start the season finale, when he completed 16-of-27 passes for 228 yards and a pair of touchdowns against New Orleans. It was a meaningless game for the Saints, but the Panthers pulled out the victory.
Newton seems focused on returning to form in the year ahead (even foregoing some extracurricular ... activities ... for a month to aid in his recovery) but given his injury, the Panthers cannot be comfortable entering the 2019 campaign with this current crop of quarterbacks. Should Newton get hurt again, is there any confidence in Heinicke or Allen to lead this team to a playoff spot? There might be in and around the Panthers, but the team that fails to prepare well, as they say, prepares to fail.
Maester’s Counsel: The Panthers need to address the backup spot in this draft. An upgrade behind Newton makes sense as a hedge against a potential injury and might give them a player to develop behind Newton as they eye the future. After all, Newton has a bit of an injury history and is about to enter his 30s. A player to keep in mind? Tyree Jackson, who would be a great schematic fit in this Panthers’ offense and has some stylistic similarities to Newton.
New Orleans Saints
Rostered Quarterbacks: Drew Brees, Taysom Hill, Teddy Bridgewater, J.T. Barrett
The biggest question facing the Saints this offseason was the line of succession. With Drew Brees in place for at least the next season, New Orleans turned its focus to what could happen in 2020. Despite receiving a bigger offer from the Miami Dolphins, Teddy Bridgewater decided to return to New Orleans, potentially placing him squarely in line behind Brees as the heir apparent, albeit on a one-year contract.
There is a looming question with Brees, however, as he could become a free agent for the 2020 season. Under the terms of his contract, and the recent restructure the Sants implemented to create some cap space, his deal for 2020 becomes voidable at the end of the 2019 league year. That was done to spread out the cap hit on his current two-year deal. Now, under this restructure, the Saints could be facing a cap number for Brees north of $20M even if he is not on the roster for the 2020 season.
Behind Brees and Bridgewater, the Saints have Taysom Hill in place, who while technically a quarterback is used more as a gadget player, and J.T. Barrett. Sean Payton has said in the past that Hill could play quarterback in the NFL, but with the former BYU quarterback approaching his 30s, that window is likely closing and his success in his current role (plus the re-signing of Bridgewater) tells us where the organization might be leaning in terms of Brees heir apparent. As for Barrett, he showed solid traits during his time at Ohio State, but he is probably a player in the Colt McCoy mold — destined to be a career backup.
Maester’s Counsel: The Saints might have one of the best overall quarterback situations in the league. They have an elite quarterback still playing at a high level (although there were some signs of weakness from Brees last season) with a backup in place who has experience in the league, is relatively young, and has led a team to the postseason already as a starter. My counsel? Do nothing. But you need to win, because at some point that bill for Brees’ contract is going to come due, and the Iron Bank always collects.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Rostered Quarterbacks: Jameis Winston, Blaine Gabbert, Ryan Griffin, Joe Callahan
The Buccaneers decided to exercise the fifth-year option on Winston over a year ago, but since then there has been no big movement on signing him to a long-term deal. Tampa Bay also now has a new sheriff in town, head coach Bruce Arians. Schematically, this should be a very good fit. Winston has the arm talent and the aggression, marking a perfect set of traits to run Arians’ downfield, aggressive passing offense. Additionally, Arians has a reputation for developing quarterbacks, such as Andrew Luck and Ben Roethlisberger. But if this marriage does not work out, the Buccaneers might decide to move on from Winston prior to the 2020 season.
Behind Winston, the Buccaneers have some potential diamonds in the rough in Griffin and Callahan. Griffin, an undrafted free agent out of Tulane a few seasons ago, was just re-signed to a two-year contract by Tampa Bay, and reportedly the team thinks very highly of him. Callahan, a Division III product, captivated Green Bay fans during the 2016 preseason but was eventually waived by the organization. He bounced around a few teams, including making a return to the Packers, before signing a reserve/future contract with Tampa Bay in January. He is likely just a depth signing/camp arm type of player.
Tampa Bay also made one more quarterback move this offseason, signing Gabbert, the experienced backup. This represents a reunion of sorts, as Gabbert has previously spent time with both Arians as well as offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich. He brings a veteran presence to this quarterback room that was lost when Ryan Fitzpatrick signed with Miami this offseason.
Maester’s Counsel: Their offseason moves indicate that more than anything else, the Buccaneers are in a “wait-and-see” mode with the quarterback position. If they get the Winston that they are hoping for, they can sign him to the long-term extension he will have earned and then just cobble together a backup plan behind him out of Gabbert/Griffin/Callahan. If he does not pan out, then the 2019 season is likely lost and it is time to think about the 2020 draft class. Yes, they could hedge and bring in another quarterback, but adding one more player to this already crowded quarterback room just takes preseason reps away from everyone, which does not make much sense. So this Maester’s counsel is to throw all of your time and energy into making Winston ready for the 2019 season.
Previous Divisional QB counsels from Maester: