NFL free-agent preview: Quarterbacks

Starting quarterbacks can be had in free agency … if they make it to the open market.

Unquestioned franchise quarterbacks rarely reach the open market, Peyton Manning of 2012 being the exception for extenuating (injury and Andrew Luck) circumstances.

But while there are no surefire franchise quarterbacks in free agency, there is some intrigue about the 2016 pending free-agent class of possibilities. Four stand out as starting caliber for a team in need, and then it drops precipitously. In fact, the quarterback class is the only one in free agency with a drop in players with four-star ratings (starters for teams looking) and the next on the list checking in with a two-star rating (meaning not a likely starter for any team).

The big four, however, are tantalizing – if they actually reach the open market – for a team in need.

KIRK COUSINS, WASHINGTON

Kirk Cousins proved he is a capable starter, maybe even a long-term solution. Given his first real opportunity as a full-time starter with the Washington Redskins after their dismay with Robert Griffin III, Cousins performed admirably. He completed an impressive 69.8 percent of his passes for 4,166 yards, 29 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He was sacked only 26 times – less than two per game – and was one of only six starters with a passer rating above 100 (he finished at 101.6). His completion percentage was best among all full-time starters, which shouldn’t be taken lightly. Despite the rhetoric and negotiating ploys being advanced, it would be surprising if Cousins reaches the free-agent market before the negotiating period with other teams begins on March 7.

BROCK OSWEILER, DENVER

After spending four years with the Denver Broncos, Brock Osweiler is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent, with his first starting experience coming in 2015. He played in half the regular-season games, starting seven and proving himself a capable starter. He completed 61.8 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns and six interceptions. Those certainly aren’t top-tier numbers, but in a market short on starting-quality quarterbacks, Osweiler would certainly garner some interest by starting-starved teams … if he remains unsigned when the free agency signing period opens on March 9. The Broncos would certainly like to re-sign Osweiler, as he could end up their only legitimate starting option if Manning retires. But the Broncos also have 16 unrestricted free agents to consider, including Scout.com’s top-ranked free agent, linebacker Von Miller, who would likely occupy the franchise tag if he isn’t re-signed by March 1. The Broncos are experiencing the pains of their success with plenty of money on the line, but quarterback has to be one of their top priorities, even with more talented players as potential free agents.

RYAN FITZPATRICK, NEW YORK JETS

After 11 seasons in the NFL, Ryan Fitzpatrick has settled into the role of middle-of-the-road starter, but he’s been a valuable asset in situations where he was the starter, including time with the Buffalo Bills, Tennessee Titans, Houston Texans and last year with the New York Jets. He is far from elite but certainly capable on a team devoid of another surefire starter, much like Cousins in Washington. He completed 59.6 percent of his passes last year, which was on point with his career percentage, for 3,905 yards, 31 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, but he took only 19 sacks while starting all 16 games. For a team looking for a short-term starter – he is already 33 years old – he could be bridge to a younger prospect. But the Jets are hoping he doesn’t make it to market and they can re-sign him while developing Bryce Petty.

SAM BRADFORD, PHILADELPHIA

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Overall, Sam Bradford’s numbers weren’t that impressive in his first season in Chip Kelly’s offense, but he certainly improved as the 2015 season progressed, completing 68 percent of his passes with a 97.0 passer rating from Week 8 on. The only problem is that Bradford won’t be in Kelly’s offense again this year, at least in Philadelphia, as Doug Pederson is the new head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. Still, Bradford is considered a fit for Pederson’s offense if Philadelphia can re-sign him. If not, health will be concern for any team looking to make him an offer, but he will likely get another shot as a starter, either in Philadelphia or elsewhere.

After the top four pending free agents, the quarterback position is largely a collection of the old (Matt Hasselbeck), the inexperienced (Case Keenum, Matt McGloin) or the proven mediocrities (Chase Daniel, Drew Stanton, etc.). Those quarterback-starved teams that miss out on the top four free agents will likely be relegated to fighting for hope via the draft.

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