Heading into 2021, there are 20 quarterback free agents about to hit the market who have thrown a pass in 2020 and who have at least 200 pass attempts in their career. These two cutoffs exclude players like Josh McCown (who is taking a break from football), David Blough (football is taking a break from him), and Nathan Peterman (who is Nathan Peterman). They range in experience from Philip Rivers (over 8000 pass attempts) to Brandon Allen (barely more than 200). Rivers is just barely surpassed by Dak Prescott at efficiency (6.93 ANY/A for the former, 7.00 ANY/A for the latter); Blaine Gabbert takes up the rear (4.34), but on a technicality he is not the worst available quarterback who makes the list—Dwayne Haskins was released by Washington.
How do these players stack up?
With a few exceptions, most of these guys are all about the same. This makes sense, as players who stick around the NFL tend to be competent, but truly elite passers don’t tend to hit free agency. One of the best measures of how a quarterback contributes to a team’s success is ANY/A, or adjusted net yards per attempt. For this group, the mean ANY/A is 5.64 (+/- 0.67), and that happens to be the median ANY/A as well. Passer rating, the more conventional measure of a passer, has a mean of 84.2 (+/- 6.1) and a median of 84.1. So that’s what an average free agent quarterback looks like heading into 2021.
Find that level of ability in a player, and you’ve found mediocrity among free agents. Not among quarterbacks in general, because the really good ones typically don’t become free agents. For example, the median passer rating in the league by team is 93.7 (per teamrankings.com), while the average (mean) passer rating for the league is 94.1 according to Pro Football Talk. In other words, an average free agent quarterback is below average in the NFL.
There are exceptions. The old guard among free agents holds one of them. The really established passers include Philip Rivers (6.93 ANY/A), Ryan Fitzpatrick (5.65 ANY/A), and Joe Flacco (5.64 ANY/A). While Rivers is the unquestioned leader of this group, all three players have more than 5,000 pass attempts. Two of them are functionally replacement-level players, and Rivers is one of the best likely to hit the market. There’s a reason these guys are still playing, even if there’s a lot of variety in what they get paid for their efforts. Rivers made $25,000,000 in a year; Flacco made 6% of that ($1.5mil). Indy got what it paid for, it seems.
If you want passers who are notably more efficient at moving the ball, you need to look at Rivers, Prescott, Winston (6.3 ANY/A) or Mullens (6.22 ANY/A). While other guys are above the mean, that’s it when it comes to guys who fall more than one standard deviation above. If you prefer passer rating, it’s just Rivers and Prescott who really stand out, even if Tyrod Taylor (89.5) gets close. There are also guys who are notably less efficient. Colt McCoy (4.83), Geno Smith (4.65), and Blaine Gabbert (4.34) all fit the bill. The same three players are also, in the same order, the three with substantially bad passer ratings (78.1 down to 72.3); Brandon Allen (76.9) joins this club, even if his ANY/A of 5.04 keeps him out of it completely.
Long story short—there’s a whole lot of “meh, whatever” available, and general managers and coaches are likely to over-exaggerate the differences.
Chicago Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky has an ANY/A of 5.64 (exactly average) and a passer rating of 87.2 (just barely above average). He is thoroughly “meh” among the free agent quarterbacks, who are themselves a bit below the norm for teams. Four quarterbacks are ahead of Trubisky in terms of both passer rating and ANY/A (Rivers, Prescott, Tyrod Taylor, and Andy Dalton). Taylor, Fitzpatrick, and Dalton all offer comparable performance to Trubisky. Fitzpatrick’s ANY/A is almost identical, and if his passer rating is admittedly 82.3 instead of 87.2, that’s well within the sort of variation we would expect to see, anyway. Of note, while these four players were all signed to contracts in the $3million to $5.5million per-year range, they are also all older then Trubisky, and only one has fewer passing attempts (Taylor). Otherwise, Taylor is superior to Trubisky in performance by objective measures. More on this later.
With that out of the way, here are the loose clusters:
There is no reason at this point for McCoy, Smith, or Gabbert to have a chance at a starting job in the NFL, and there are probably enough journeymen out there who would like to take their jobs (and who should be given a chance to do so) that these guys sticking around is proof of the sort of conservatism that runs the NFL. They range from nearly a thousand pass attempts to just under fifteen hundred, and they’re all north of 30, so it’s unlikely that are one good offseason away from a breakthrough. Mike Glennon (980 pass attempts and a 5.15 ANY/A) can be thrown in this group as well.
One outlier is Dwayne Haskins, recently released by Washington. His 74.4 passer rating and 4.20 ANY/A certainly fit, but he also has only 444 pass attempts, and some GMs might think (if they can look past his off-field decision-making, too) that he can be salvaged and put into the next category.
Brandon Allen, C.J. Beathard, Nick Mullens, and Kyle Allen all have around 300-600 pass attempts and mediocre stats. None of them exceed Trubisky’s passer rating, and while Mullens (6.22) exceeds his ANY/A, Mullens is also on a team with clear offensive standouts to prop him up. Allen is close to the low standard of performance set by the previous group, but his sample size is so small that it might make sense for some team to give him another chance, at least as a backup. What is true is that all four players are under 30, they can move the ball moderately well, and someone is probably going to pay them in 2021 even if they don’t contend for a starting job.
Jacoby Brissett fits into this category in many ways, too, with under a thousand pass attempts, an 84.1 passer rating, and a 5.58 ANY/A. However, he might also fit into the next group.
The Known Factors
Their adherents might insist that they just need a better system and their detractors might say it’s time to move on. However, these are quarterbacks who are just as likely to win games as to lose them, and when stats folk talk about “replacement-level” players, this is who they are talking about. They include Robert Griffin III (42 starts, 1268 passes, 86.5 passer rating, 5.64 ANY/A), Tyrod Taylor (47 starts, 1392 passes, 89.5 passer rating, 5.97 ANY/A), Brian Hoyer (39 starts, 1501 passes, 82.1 passer rating, 5.81 ANY/A), and Mitchell Trubisky (50 starts, 1577 passes, 87.2 passer rating, 5.64 ANY/A). While Trubisky has the most attempts of this group, they’re all really close in terms of total performance and game experience.
Two players who could arguably be in this group are Jameis Winston and Cam Newton. Winston is still only 26 (the same age as Trubisky), and he has under 2600 pass attempts. His passer rating (86.9) is squarely in the range of this group, even if his 6.30 ANY/A makes would give him pride of place. Newton, though, belongs in another category.
Cam Newton proved this year that whatever he might have been, he is no longer a starting quarterback who can elevate his team. In fact, no team that brings him in is going to look at his composite ANY/A (5.95) or passer rating (85.8). They are going to look at his year in New England playing what feels like Mike Glennon-level football. With over 4000 pass attempts under his belt and stats on the decline, he’s not going to anchor a franchise (except in a very traditional sense of keeping it from going anywhere). No, his best hope of ever being given a chance to start again is that he will serve as a bridge.
Andy Dalton (nearly 5000 attempts) and Joe Flacco (6000+ attempts) are in the same category. So is Ryan Fitzpatrick (5000+ attempts). The best possible bridge, of course, is Philip Rivers, who is essentially the second-best quarterback free agent and with over 8000 pass attempts is about the closest thing to a known quantity in football.
Obviously, Dak Prescott is not the kind of player who normally hits free agency. He is head and shoulders above all but Philip Rivers in terms of play, and he’s only a year older than Mitchell Trubisky. He is an actual above-average starting quarterback, and he will likely be paid as such.
Overall, a lot of mediocre quarterbacks are about to hit the market. This is not a year when only three or four replacement-level players are available. A GM who wants a guy to be “good enough not to lose games” has plenty of options, and can basically spend as much or as little as he wants on the player involved.
It’s important to point out that Mitchell Trubisky is not special among this group in any way, except in the number of opportunities he has been given for his age. He is functionally a younger, less-competent Tyrod Taylor with 185 more passing attempts and three more starts. Amusingly, for those who tout #10’s rushing attack, Taylor has 4.8 rushing attempts per game and gains 5.4 yards per carry in that way, picking up 108 first downs (32%); Trubisky has 3.7 attempts per game, 5.6 yards per attempt, 64 first downs (34%). Taylor also has twice as many rushing touchdowns (16 to 8), and Trubisky has fumbled 7 more times (27 to 20).
That is not an endorsement of the former 6th-round pick out of Virginia Tech. It is instead a reality check about the replaceability of the #2 overall pick out of North Carolina.
There are a lot of mediocre options out there, and if that’s the goal, it should be a buyer’s market so long as Chicago does not get fixated on any one player.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats come from Pro Football Reference and/or a calculator.