Free agency and the upcoming draft don’t hold many promising starting quarterbacks for next season.

Brady during a disappointing Bucs season last year. AP Photo/Peter Joneleit

The NFL’s quarterback crisis was exacerbated as this season wore on, with aging stars declining, many youngsters failing to meet expectations and injuries becoming a factor.

That crisis might become even more acute in the coming weeks. I’ve previously chronicled how weak the free agent market will be this offseason: Daniel Jones and Geno Smith are likely to stay put, Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo are the most notable quarterbacks free to sign elsewhere, and the options overall are pretty bleak. Evaluators have opined that the upcoming draft class, which certainly will feature three passers selected in the top half of the first round and at least one more later in the round, carries distinct flaws, and none of the incoming rookies can be counted on to be a winning starter right away.

As the combine approaches, there are even more worries coming from executives and agents. This looks like the shallowest quarterback draft class in years, perhaps decades, with players able to stay in school longer because of the pandemic and to move more freely than ever through the transfer portal – and also able to bank a decent wage thanks to the NCAA’s name, image and likeness changes.

“No one [in the media] is really talking about this, but there is not going to be a middle class of quarterbacks in this draft,” said one agent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he could represent some of those prospects in the future. “I counted like 19 kids who would usually at least think about declaring for the draft who decided to stay in school.

“I’m telling you, after those four go [in the first round], there is almost nothing left,” the agent said, citing Georgia’s Stetson Bennett, who is already 25, and TCU’s Max Duggan, whom some evaluators aren’t high on.

“Think about how many teams usually take a developmental guy in the mid-rounds,” said the agent, who routinely signs quarterbacks. “They aren’t there. There might not be a Day 2 quarterback in this draft. It’s more advantageous for them to stay in school now, see if they can improve next year and then come out.”

Maryland’s Taulia Tagovailoa was the latest example of this phenomenon; last week, he announced his decision to return to school. It wasn’t long ago that prospects such as Oregon’s Bo Nix and South Carolina’s Spencer Rattler were getting Heisman Trophy buzz, but they are also among this large group of passers staying in the college ranks. The agent predicted some of the lesser college scouting bowls might have to pull in free agents to get through the week of practice with so few college quarterbacks in the pipeline.

“Now that you mention it, it was the worst group of Hula Bowl quarterbacks I’ve ever seen,” noted one evaluator, who also suggested Bennett might be just a fifth-round talent.

When you consider how many quarterbacks from the 2022 draft class saw action this season and the importance many franchises place on finding future backups and spot starters on the second and third days of the draft, this year’s deficit seems like a big departure. Sam Howell, taken in the fifth round last year, gave the Washington Commanders something promising to take into the offseason, while seventh-rounder Skylar Thompson of the Miami Dolphins and Mr. Irrelevant, Brock Purdy of the San Francisco 49ers, started in the postseason, with Purdy being one of the truly remarkable stories of the season.

Fellow rookies Bailey Zappe (New England Patriots, fourth round) and Anthony Brown (Baltimore Ravens, undrafted) won games, and Desmond Ridder (Atlanta Falcons, third round) showed promise. Malik Willis (Tennessee Titans, third round) has a ways to go but still ended up starting critical games. Regardless, stashing quarterbacks in the middle rounds has been a staple of roster building – a tactic that occasionally nets a Russell Wilson – but the strategy will be in short supply this spring. And that’s good news for the NFL’s journeyman quarterback cohort.

– Payton’s return is no sure thing

Believe it or not, there is already considerable chatter about the more coveted coaching jobs that could open next year – and the impact that could have on this cycle, specifically regarding Sean Payton.

All along, I’ve advised not to discount the notion that Payton – who won a Super Bowl with the New Orleans Saints – could stay in broadcasting another year to wait out the best possible fit. The sense I am getting is that his meetings with the Denver Broncos didn’t exactly have either party thinking this was a must-do deal. Other options are largely uninspiring, and there would be some difficulty in the Saints coming to terms on trade compensation with the Carolina Panthers, a division rival.

“I bet he stays at Fox,” predicted one general manager, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he’s not permitted to speak about other team’s hiring pursuits. “It’s a better field next year. Both L.A. jobs will probably be open. Tampa is probably open, and those owners have won a Super Bowl. The Jets and Packers could be open, [possibly] Dallas. I think he could do even better next year.”

Meanwhile, as predicted, the hiring cycle seems destined to play out at a much slower pace than in years past, thanks in part to the expanded requirements for interviewing minority candidates. Some agents and executives believe there will be multiple jobs still technically open leading up to the Super Bowl. “I don’t ever remember a year like this, where we’re two weeks in and nobody really knows who’s getting which jobs,” the GM said.

That said, there continues to be strong buzz about 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans and Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon as contenders for the Houston Texans’ opening.

Notes from around the league

Ravens Coach John Harbaugh and GM Eric DeCosta said everything they had to say about Lamar Jackson last week, even as the pending free agent continued to speak out on social media amid questions about his health and willingness to play in Baltimore’s opening-round playoff loss. But rival front offices aren’t buying the kumbaya vibes the Ravens are selling, and barring the sides somehow reversing years of deadlock, a franchise tag and then a trade probably loom.

“Once he gets the tag, they have to be ready to move him as soon as possible,” one GM said. “It’s going to get really ugly there if they let this play out and he’s sitting on that tag through the offseason. They said what they had to say to protect his trade value. That’s all it was.” …

I asked a few people who have been in the game a long time for predictions about Patrick Mahomes’s status this week after suffering an ankle injury in the Kansas City Chiefs’ divisional-round win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. Don’t expect to see him do anything at practice all week, they told me, although they had a strong sense he would do whatever it takes to be on the field Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals. “But it’s going to be a factor in that game,” one GM said. “They have to game-plan around it. He won’t be himself.”


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