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NFL free agency could feature plenty of quarterbacks on the move

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)   —-   With the NFL season wrapped up, attention will quickly turn to the offseason, most notably free agency and the draft.

It’s expected that the coming months will feature great turnover at quarterback throughout the league. As many as eight teams, or possibly more, could find themselves in the market for a new starting passer.

Fortunately for those organizations, the free-agent market could boast a wide range of options. Here’s a look at the top quarterbacks who could become available and the teams that might pursue them once free agency kicks off in March.

(Update: Jimmy Garoppolo is off the market after agreeing to terms on a five-year deal with the 49ers)

Kirk Cousins – The Redskins finally decided to end this saga by trading for Alex Smith and striking a four-year contract extension with him. Cousins, who played on the franchise tag in each of the last two seasons, essentially is the top quarterback on the market. The only catch in all this would be if Washington decides to franchise tag him so they can try to receive some compensation in a trade. There has been some discussion internally about such a move, people familiar with the situation confirmed to USA TODAY Sports. The people spoke on condition of anonymity because the situation was not yet resolved. The could lead to a rather complicated standoff, which is typical for the Redskins.

In addition to posting three consecutive seasons with more than 4,000 yards, Cousins has ranked among the top 10 in the league in touchdowns and completion percentage. Despite his limited team success (24-23-1 as a starter and 0-1 in the postseason in three years) and struggles in late-game situations, Cousins will have plenty of suitors. The Jets badly want him, as do the Broncos. But he could also draw substantial interest from playoff teams, including potentially the Jaguars, Vikings and Bills. The Browns and Cardinals also rank among the QB-needy teams.

Drew Brees – The 39-year-old still has plenty left, and the shift in New Orleans’ offense toward the running back tandem of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara helped ease pressure on the passing game in 2017. Brees completed a career-high 72% of his passes for 4,334 yards, 23 touchdowns and just eight interceptions. It’s hard to envision Brees winding up anywhere but New Orleans, mainly because he’s on record saying he intends to re-sign there. That stance could hurt his leverage, but the Saints still must provide a substantial offer. Because of a provision in his contract, the Saints can’t use the franchise tag on Brees, who played 2017 on a one-year, $24.25 million extension. Could talks unravel and prompt an unexpected departure? Never say never, but all signs point to him remaining in the black and gold. But because of his age, it’s unclear whether a likely return would come via another one-year deal or a multi-year contract.

Case Keenum – The Vikings face quite the decision on their hands with Keenum, Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater all set to hit free agency. Minnesota has to think long and hard about moving on from Keenum, who stepped in for an injured Sam Bradford and went 11-3 as a starter while passing for 3,547 yards, 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions while leading the team to the NFC Championship Game. It makes sense to re-sign the durable and reliable veteran to build on 2017’s success. But with so many teams in need of a quarterback, Minnesota could draw competition for his services.

Sam Bradford – When healthy, Bradford is a very good quarterback. In 2016, he set the record for pass completion percentage (71.6). But he has been plagued by injuries throughout his career. He was 2-0 as a starter this year before a knee injury derailed his season. The Vikings brought him back for the playoffs, but only as a backup to Keenum. Now entering his eighth season, Bradford has just two 16-game campaigns to his name. Whoever signs him needs a quality backup as insurance.

Teddy Bridgewater – The third Vikings quarterback flashed great promise in 2015 when he led Minnesota to an 11-5 record and a playoff appearance in just his second year. But he suffered a devastating knee injury in Agusut 2016 that sidelined him for more than a year. Bridgewater finally returned to action late this season but served as Keenum’s backup. Durability is an issue, but Bridgewater’s talent is undeniable, and he should have options this offseason.

Tyrod Taylor – Taylor posted an 8-6 record as a starter in 2017 and helped the Bills reach the playoffs. But he’s limited, managing just 2,799 passing yards and 14 touchdown passes. In all likelihood, Buffalo will try to upgrade here. Taylor obviously wants to go somewhere he can start, and he rejected the notion of taking a pay cut. But he might have to wait until the top quarterbacks are off the market before he finds his new home.

AJ McCarron – Andy Dalton’s backup is viewed as a talented young quarterback who has the potential to develop into a quality starter. The Browns tried to trade for him this season, but the deal was voided in a paperwork snafu. Somewhat like Garoppolo, McCarron is highly regarded despite a very limited resume with just three starts. In 2015, he went 2-1 as a starter while completing 66.4% of his passes while throwing six touchdown passes and two interceptions.

Colin Kaepernick – Will his exile finally end? Teams will deny collusion accusations, but it’s hard to write off him remaining unsigned in 2017 after he protested social injustices by kneeling during the national anthem the previous season. His game still needs some refining, but the talent is there. Kaepernick has a sterling resume and even performed admirably amid San Francisco’s difficult seasons in 2015 and ’16. He also owns a 4-2 playoff record, which is better than every other quarterback on this list outside Brees.

Others: Jay Cutler, Geno Smith, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Matt Moore, Drew Stanton, Derek Anderson, Josh McCown, Tom Savage, Blaine Gabbert, E.J. Manuel, Robert Griffin III, Brock Osweiler, Brandon Weeden, Chase Daniel.

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As Bill Belichick might put it: It’s on to next season.

Super Bowl LII provided the crowning moment for one season and the kickoff to another. Here a few items to ponder from the NFL’s offseason landscape.

1. Where will Kirk Cousins land?

With Dan Snyder and Co. poised to capture another “offseason championship” in obtaining Alex Smith from the Chiefs, Washington has boldly addressed its quarterback situation – leaving Cousins to hit the open market and collect his biggest payday yet. The Cardinals and Broncos, who already have a lot of pieces in place, would be intriguing options. The Jets and Browns might offer more cash … and more rebuilding.

2. When will the Carolina Panthers get a new owner?

Although the deal could fetch a multi-billion sale price, it’s not inconceivable the Panthers could change hands before the start of next season. Whoever emerges as the next owner – Jerry Richardson put the franchise on the market after Sports Illustrated revealed he’s been accused of workplace misconduct, including alleged sexual harassment – probably hasn’t been publicly identified, as legitimate suitors typically work behind the scenes.

3. Will Andrew Luck return to form?

After missing the entire season following shoulder surgery, the Colts franchise quarterback hopes to be on track to resume his career next season, which would include a new chapter with expected coach Josh McDaniels. But there were assurances that he would return during the 2017 season, and those never panned out. Now it’s worth wondering whether he’ll be the same player after surgery. Until that’s confirmed with performance, Indianapolis will be on edge.

4. Who will be the first pick in the draft?

The Browns are on the clock, a familiar position. Also familiar: the presence of a new GM, in John Dorsey, and the need to land a franchise quarterback. In the two previous drafts, the Browns passed on opportunities to grab Deshaun Watson and Carson Wentz. Now they can have their pick between Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen or Josh Allen. The Browns also have the fourth pick — could they land  Penn State running back Saquon Barkley — maybe the best prospect in the draft —– to go with a franchise quarterback?

5. How will Bill Belichick ever catch up? 

A day after the epic Super Bowl comeback against the Falcons last year, the Patriots coach grumbled that he was a few weeks behind with his offseason work. He was only half-kidding. And, yes, he caught up. This time, the offseason challenge for Belichick includes replacing defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, though there was one big surprise as Josh McDaniels chose to remain in New England rather than join the Colts. That’s the price of success: Short offseasons and promotions for key assistants.

6. Can the league fix the catch rule?

It’s an NFL version of Same Time Next Year. With a few fresh head-scratching examples to consider, the competition committee will once again weigh tweaking the rule that constitutes a catch. As the rule is written now, the officials generally are making the correct call by the book. But that doesn’t always overlap with common sense. New language is needed. So figure on the catch rule headlining the battery of rulebook adjustments.

7. Will Le’Veon Bell get the contract of his dreams?

The Steelers’ versatile star running back was a no-show during the bulk of the offseason and during training camp as he waited to sign his franchise tag tender. After he ultimately reported, it took a while for a well-conditioned Bell to regain the rhythm and flow in the offense. What he really wants is a sizable long-term contract, which might start to approach quarterback money.

8. How will Jon Gruden get a jump-start on grand expectations?

For $100 million on a 10-year contract, you’d think Gruden would be expected to guide the Raiders to a Super Bowl crown, ASAP. No doubt, he’ll be trying. But first things first. How Gruden meshes with quarterback Derek Carr in installing his new system will be crucial. Never mind the buzz about whether a personality clash looms — they’ll deal. The crux of the matter revolves around Gruden taking his young quarterback’s game to the next level.

9. Can Roger Goodell restore credibility with the Rooney Rule? 

Add Goodell’s determination that the Raiders complied with the rule mandating that teams interview minority candidates before hiring a new coach on the list of situations that weaken his credibility. In the Raiders case, not only did team owner Mark Davis publicly admit to a timeline that seemingly violated the rule, but it is believed that he didn’t personally interview the minority candidates as he did Gruden, which also would be an issue. Goodell needs to back up the lip service by tightening the Rooney Rule — and then enforcing it. Another credibility test looms, too, with the manner in which the league investigates one of its own, Richardson, even as the Panthers being sold.

10. Which Vikings quarterback will wind up elsewhere? 

With Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater in the process of rebounding from significant injuries, while fill-in Case Keenum proved to be better than projected, the Vikings seemingly have an abundance of riches at quarterback – albeit three quarterbacks who all are without contracts for next season. Who stays? Who starts? The odd man out might be the front-runner somewhere else, so that’s not the worst consolation prize.

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Follow Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.

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