In consecutive offseasons, the NFC South has bid farewell to Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Tom Brady, three veterans who have combined for 1,601 touchdown passes and 232,364 passing yards in their prolific NFL careers.
The Saints, Falcons and Buccaneers are still searching for their worthy successors, and the Panthers have practically less under contract at quarterback.
So when Bucs general manager Jason Licht told ESPN “we’ve got the best quarterback in the division in the very least” in third-year quarterback Kyle Trask, that might be true — not counting free agents or presumed cuts — but it says more about the division than it does his quarterback.
Trask, you see, has 23 career passing yards, his only NFL action coming in the final eight minutes of the 2022 season finale, after the Bucs had pulled their starters with nothing to gain in playoff position. The 2021 second-round pick from Florida could be the Bucs’ starting quarterback this fall, yes, but they’ll certainly bring in a veteran to compete with him.
In free agency in March, and even more so in this year’s draft in April, the NFC South will be actively seeking its next generation of quarterbacks, hoping to bring the division up from a disappointing 2022 where no team boasted a winning record. There are swing-for-the-fences opportunities — the Saints could sign Derek Carr, and the Falcons have the cap space to go after Lamar Jackson if the Ravens decide to move on — but the four teams could or even should all have new starters this season.
Trask has shown he can patiently wait on the sidelines — he did that in high school and in college, barely playing for the Gators in his first three years, then throwing for 68 touchdowns in two seasons as a starter. Given their salary-cap constraints, the question is how much they’ll be able to spend on a veteran quarterback to compete with him in camp.
Brady has retired, and longtime backup Blaine Gabbert is a free agent, but his best asset was a familiarity with the Bruce Arians/Byron Leftwich offense, which is gone with the hiring of Seahawks assistant Dave Canales this month. If you’re seeking a quarterback who’s worked with Canales — and no, Geno Smith isn’t coming through that door — then a reasonable option is Drew Lock, the former Broncos starter who was Smith’s backup last year and didn’t take a single snap.
Lock, 26, was drafted higher than Trask (42nd overall in 2019) and has 4,740 passing yards in 21 career starts. In passer rating, he ranks 47th out of 52 active quarterbacks with at least 500 passes, but he’d be an inexpensive option who could help Canales introduce the offense to newcomers, and he’d have a better chance to play than he would staying in Seattle.
Another modest veteran option would be Jacoby Brissett, 30, who played on a one-year, $4.65 million contract last year as a stopgap for Cleveland while Deshaun Watson served his 11-game suspension. A similar deal would help the Bucs’ financial limitations, and he has a career TD/INT ratio of 48 to 23, so he’d be a solid alternative if they decided Trask wasn’t the answer. The Bucs could be more ambitious and go after a bigger quarterback than Brissett, but it would be at the expense of his supporting cast with a ton of free agents and limited budget to keep them.
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There’s excitement in Charlotte around the hiring of Frank Reich and an impressive new coaching staff, but the Panthers have a glaring hole at quarterback. They’re picking at No. 9 overall, with enough extra draft picks they could easily move up to have a better say in which of the draft’s top four quarterbacks — in some order, Alabama‘s Bryce Young, Ohio State‘s C.J. Stroud, Florida’s Anthony Richardson and Kentucky’s Will Levis — they can land in April.
The Panthers have extra picks in the second and fourth rounds from trading running back Christian McCaffrey to the 49ers last fall, but they likely won’t be able to move up higher than No. 5 overall without giving up a future first-round pick. If they are content with the third or fourth quarterback in this draft class, they might not need to move up at all.
Reich’s tenure in Indianapolis saw the Colts try one veteran quarterback after another — Philip Rivers, Carson Wentz, Matt Ryan in the last three seasons — and that might push him toward a young quarterback he can develop over time. And rather than lean on a rookie right away, the Panthers could re-sign Sam Darnold, 25, who played better in his second season in Carolina, limiting his mistakes and going 4-2 as a starter down the stretch. Darnold also played with new quarterbacks coach Josh McCown with the Jets, so there’s an existing relationship in place there, and Darnold wouldn’t be expensive as a bridge quarterback.
Marcus Mariota will be cut, and that will save $12 million in cash and cap space, on top of about $55 million in cap room — second-most among NFL teams. So in theory, the Falcons have the financial flexibility and the overall positional need to think about a huge endeavor like trading for Lamar Jackson, which would require multiple first-round picks (including this year’s, No. 8 overall) and a financial commitment of probably $200 million guaranteed, if not more.
The full spectrum of options is in play for Jackson and the Ravens — they could relent and pay what’s needed to sign him to a long-term deal now, they could exercise the franchise tag and use the next year to try to work something out, or they could decide the gap between the two sides is too much and trade him now, even before the draft so their return can help this year’s team.
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Atlanta, much like the Bucs, has a young option in-house in 2022 third-round pick Desmond Ridder, who got a four-game audition at the end of his rookie year. His numbers were middling — 708 yards, or 177 per game, and two touchdowns (both in the finale against the Bucs as they pulled starters) and more impressively, zero interceptions. It’s a small sample size, probably not enough to put all their eggs in his basket, so they’ll likely sign a Mariota-ish veteran to again be available if he doesn’t show improvement.
Like Mariota, Jameis Winston is under contract but likely to be cut. He couldn’t beat out Andy Dalton (who is now a free agent) last season and is due to make $12.8 million in non-guaranteed salary. Because the Saints had to backload his contract for cap purposes, cutting him results in $11.2 million in dead money, but it’s still a cap savings of $4.4 million, and the Saints need all the cap help they can get between now and March 15, when all teams need to be under the cap.
Dalton was a steal last year — 18 touchdowns and nine picks for $3 million — but he’s also 35 and potentially moving to his fifth team in five years. For a team with limited cap space, New Orleans was the only suitor to bring in Carr for a potential trade with the Raiders, but that scenario likely required him making significantly less, which is why he opted for free agency. That doesn’t rule them out as a potential landing spot for Carr — Saints coach Dennis Allen was his first head coach with the Raiders in 2014, but keep in mind that was for only four games before Allen was fired.
The answer in New Orleans is probably somewhere between Carr — making $30 million a year if not more — and Dalton, who made a tenth of that. For all four teams, playing in a wide-open and underwhelming division will be a draw for free agents looking for an easy path to the postseason, and aside from holes created in getting under the cap, the Saints don’t have a more glaring need than at quarterback.
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NFL reporter Albert Breer joins The Herd to discuss whether Derek Carr should be the most sought-after quarterback this offseason.
If you’re looking for connections among the bargain free agents, how about Gardner Minshew, a backup in Philadelphia the past two years and still with upside at age 26? He was a phenom as a sixth-round rookie in 2019, throwing for 21 touchdowns for the Jaguars, and his head coach that year was Doug Marrone, now the Saints’ offensive line coach.
The Saints are now back in the first round, thanks to the No. 29 pick acquired from Denver for head coach Sean Payton, and while New Orleans has shown a willingness to part with future draft picks to move up, they’re unlikely to be able to get involved with the top tier of quarterbacks in this draft class. The second tier, including Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker, coming off a torn ACL, would be a possibility at No. 29 or even their second-round pick at No. 40.
Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.
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