Dizzying turns of NFL’s quarterback carousel may create ripple effects

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ASHBURN — Before the Washington Commanders landed Carson Wentz in the offseason, they first tried to acquire Russell Wilson. The team offered the Seattle Seahawks three first-round picks for the quarterback, but was quickly rebuffed. A source said the Seahawks didn’t have any interest in trading Wilson within the NFC, and the signal-caller’s no-trade clause cast doubt over whether he’d even entertain playing for the Commanders.

Washington dodged a huge bullet, in retrospect. 

Wilson’s failure with the Denver Broncos this season has become a prime example of how this past spring’s quarterback carousel has backfired for the teams that aggressively spent to pursue players they saw as upgrades at the position. Sunday’s game between the Washington Commanders and Cleveland Browns also features a showdown of two quarterbacks — Wentz and Deshaun Watson — who haven’t quite had the kind of impact team executives envisioned. 

In all, there were five high-profile quarterback trades in the offseason — Wilson to Denver, Watson to Cleveland, Wentz to Washington, Matt Ryan to Indianapolis and Baker Mayfield to Carolina. They were deals that saw more than a dozen draft picks swapped and, in the cases of Wilson and Watson, more than $400 million guaranteed in new contracts given out.

Combined, those quarterbacks have gone 13-29-1 in starts this season. 

As the end of the season approaches, it remains to be seen how the fallout from this year’s quarterback carousel affects next year’s market. This month, ESPN’s Bill Barnwell predicted as many as 19 teams could be in the hunt for a new quarterback in 2023. But will teams be as aggressive as they were in the spring to find an upgrade? 

“It is a very reactionary league, especially in the transaction realm,”  said Brad Spielberger, a salary cap analyst for Pro Football Focus. “In the offseason, if some trend works or doesn’t work, you’ll then see some team try to emulate it or away from it to try to do something else.”

Spielberger pointed to the Rams’ pursuit of Matthew Stafford in 2021 as a move that set the trend for this past offseason. That year, the Rams paid a hefty price to acquire Stafford — sending quarterback Jared Goff, two first-round picks and a third-round selection to Detroit. But the move paved off immediately: Stafford helped Los Angeles win the Super Bowl last season.

The Stafford trade, Spielberger said, “probably led to some bullishness” from teams that thought they could pull off a similar maneuver. Just look at the Broncos. Denver ultimately traded two firsts, two seconds, a fifth, quarterback Drew Lock, tight end Noah Fant and defensive lineman Shelby Harris for Wilson and a 2022 fourth-rounder. 

Instead of a Stafford-like impact, Wilson has bombed in Denver. The Broncos fired coach Nathaniel Hackett this week after a 51-14 blowout loss dropped them to 4-11 on the season. Wilson has struggled so badly this fall — he’s thrown as many touchdowns (12) as he has bathrooms in his mansion —  that Seattle will likely land a top-five pick. And now Denver has no wiggle room after the season even if it wants to move on from Wilson. 

According to Over The Cap, cutting the 34-year-old in 2023 would mean a $107 million hit in dead money for the Broncos in 2023, thanks to the bonus already given to Wilson after he signed a five-year, $245 million ($161 million guaranteed) extension in September. If the Broncos were somehow able to find a trade partner, $82 million would still be left on Denver’s books. 

In other words, unless Wilson retires, the Broncos are stuck.


“It’s been a crazy season,” Wilson told reporters this week. 

Spielberger said he thinks the Broncos’ failures will cause some teams to be more patient. Perhaps a team or two will now second guess whether they’d really be willing to pay such a hefty price, he said.

But the price tag, Spielberger added, likely won’t change to acquire superstar quarterbacks. The Wilson and Watson trades established a baseline of compensation, and Spielberger noted teams often use past trades to formulate new deals. 

And in football, the reality of the sport hasn’t changed: Teams will always be searching for superior quarterback talent, given the importance of the position. 

Just this week, the Las Vegas Raiders signaled there may e another veteran signal-caller available in the spring. By benching Derek Carr for the final two games of the season, the Raiders seemed to send a message across the league that they’d be willing to part ways with their long-time quarterback after the year. 

Carr could be part of a crowded quarterback market that could include Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo

“I like Derek,” said Commanders defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, who coached Carr for three seasons in Oakland. “We won 12 games with Derek and had a really strong season with Derek. Really three pretty good seasons with him. I think he’s a good player. They’re doing what they feel they need to do but I certainly appreciated having him and the things we were able to do together.”

The Commanders, for now, are focused on Wentz, who was renamed the team’s starter this week in wake of Rivera benching Taylor Heinicke. Washington can easily get out of the former first-rounder’s contract at the end of the season — but there’s no guarantee the team will do that, especially if Wentz leads Washington on a successful playoff campaign. 

If Wentz doesn’t work out, though, the Commanders will be back in a familiar spot: They’ll be in the mix for a new quarterback once again. 

“Unless you’re a clear top-five guy,” Spielberger said, “your team probably wants to upgrade over you if they can.” 

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