Established QBs in 2021 Facing Make-or-Break Seasons

Dec 13, 2020; East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones (8) throws a pass against the Arizona Cardinals during the second half at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021 NFL offseason underwent tremendous change for quarterbacks, and the NFL draft hasn’t even transpired yet. Matthew Stafford, Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, and Sam Darnold were all traded while Deshaun Watson probably would have joined the carousel if he wasn’t embroiled in legal tribulations. 

General managers are increasingly fixated on the quarterback position. Some prefer new passers on cheap rookie deals whereas others prefer veteran presences inside the huddle. With all of the quarterback turnover via trade and the inevitable new faces from the upcoming draft, the stakes are high for a handful of established quarterbacks.

These are them.

Matt Ryan (Atlanta Falcons)

Atlanta Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot will harness the 4th overall pick at the end of the month to draft a quarterback that will replace Matt Ryan — or he will add the best non-QB to Atlanta’s depth chart. This could feasibly be, for example, Trey Lance from North Dakota State. Or it could be a more-sure thing like Kyle Pitts from Florida. 

In either scenario, Matt Ryan is on the proverbial hot seat. Because the Falcons have experienced a couple of stinky, successive seasons, Ryan is fingered as one of the chief culprits (although he is statistically not that responsible). One more mediocre or subpar campaign from the Falcons will send Ryan elsewhere. And the expediency of the situation is accelerated if Atlanta, indeed, chooses a Trey Lance or Mac Jones on April 29th.

Drew Lock (Denver Broncos)

Poor guy.

Lock isn’t even 24 years old, and there is a sect of Denver faithful that wants to throw in the towel. The “problem” for Lock is that players like Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert have upthrust the bar incredibly high. When Lock doesn’t set the world on fire in years one and two (2019 and 2020), well, onlookers grow impatient. It is bizarre to adjudicate the long-term trajectory of a quarterback without seeing his age-24 season — which is what awaits Lock in 2021. 

Like Atlanta, Denver could scoop a quarterback out of the 2021 NFL Draft with the 9th pick. Otherwise, expect general manager George Paton to bring in a veteran passer to push Lock to the brink in training camp. See: Teddy Bridgewater.

Carson Wentz (Indianapolis Colts)

Here’s the deal: If Wentz can’t win with his old offensive coordinator (who is now the head coach in Indianapolis), Frank Reich, he won’t be able to win anywhere — anymore — in the NFL. Wentz was the sexiest thing on the planet around Thanksgiving of 2017. But since then, the narrative surrounding him has turned bleak. He doesn’t execute like he did as a third-year quarterback, and the Philadelphia Eagles absolutely refused to fortify their roster with a pass-catching arsenal congruent with Wentz’s arm talent. 

Wentz probably gets one year to prove it in Indiana. If he stinks — as he did in 2020 — then expect the Colts to search for an Andrew Luck-like quarterback of the future in the 2022 NFL Draft.

Kirk Cousins (Minnesota Vikings)

Cousins is paid as a Top 7 passer in the business. The top 7 passers leaguewide usually make deep playoff runs during a three-year sample size. To date, Cousins has not done that in Minneapolis. His fate with the Vikings is tied to head coach Mike Zimmer — and vice versa. 

While Cousins puts up the numbers to emulate top-tier stardom, there’s always “something else wrong” with Minnesota. In 2018, Dalvin Cook was lost for the season. The next year, Cousins and his Vikings won a stunning playoff game in New Orleans — with a downright bad offensive line. During the pandemic season, Minnesota displayed the league’s fourth-worst defense via points allowed and a historically pitiful special teams unit. 

There are no excuses in 2021, however. Cousins and Zimmer — together — must win a playoff game and beyond. Otherwise, Cousins will likely depart elsewhere in 2022 or 2023.

Cam Newton (New England)

In 2020, Cam Newton tossed eight touchdowns in 15 games. For some reason, folks thought that was pretty good as Newton largely avoided the savagery that other quarterbacks with such a statline might endure. 

Should Newton replicate this underwhelming production in 2021, he will fully transition into the role of QB2 for the remainder of his career. He is still an astute leader of men and might just need offensive weaponry to thrive. The Patriots gave him nothing of the sort in 2020. Yet, this offseason, the Patriots broke the bank on a litany of shiny new free agents. 

Jameis Winston (New Orleans Saints)

A draft stock of No. 1 overall will constantly travel with a player. That’s the Winston malady. The expectations are elevated.

So, all Winston has to do now — in addition to carrying the 1st-overall-pick reputation — is replace a Hall of Famer, Drew Brees. It’s that simple. Think Troy Williamson taking over for Randy Moss in 2005. The stakes are high; the stakes are clear. 

Winston mostly has to erase the memory of his 30-interception season from 2019. That performance ruminated in Florida and is unforgivable in the contemporary NFL. Quarterbacks that turn the ball over are either cut or venture into early retirement. 

2021 will determine if 2019 was a rotten detour for Winston — or if he is a bonafide turnover merchant. Saints head coach Sean Payton is canonized as an offensive mind that can nudge any quarterback to winning notoriety. Winston is his almighty project.

Daniel Jones (New York Giants)

The stipulation that applies to Drew Lock in Denver — directly pertains to Jones. Both men are 2019 draft-class alumni. The Giants will veer in a different direction if Jones is merely ho-hum. The former Duke Blue Devil actually performed rather well during his rookie season, but he fumbled the football 18 times (!!!). He then reduced the fumble total by seven inside the pandemic season — but also watches his passer rating plummet from 87.7 to 80.4. Not a good trade-off.

Jones must marry both worlds in his third year. Meaning — he must not turn over the ball profusely, and he has to prove that he can play like a Top-15-or-so quarterback, capable of better things to come in 2022.