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National Football League
Draft King Analysis

December 22, 2011
Lou Pickney,

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First things first: today, in an over-the-top presentation complete with a Christmas tree background and members of the Southern Cal band playing the school fight song, USC quarterback Matt Barkley announced his plans to return to school for his senior year. That means one less elite QB will be in the mix in April's draft, and considering that the Indianapolis Colts won tonight (and thus didn't clinch the #1 overall pick for 2012), the possibility exists of another team landing Andrew Luck at #1 overall and the Colts drafting USC left tackle Matt Kalil at #2 or #3 is in play. As always with the NFL, you never know for sure what will happen until it's locked in place.

Note: the Colts have the lowest opponent win percentage of the three teams still in the hunt for the #1 overall pick, ahead of the Rams, who in turn are ahead of the Vikings. But if the Colts end up with more victories than one or both of those teams, things could change tremendously.

More than ever, having an effective quarterback is essential for any NFL team. I realize that this is not a new concept, but with the NFL instituting new rules to protect defenseless players, in particular receivers going for a catch, it's more important than ever to have accuracy from the quarterback position.

It's very rare to see an effective NFL quarterback become an unrestricted free agent. Even in a fluke situation like Matt Cassel filling in for an injured Tom Brady in 2008 and leading New England to an 11-5 record (but not a playoff berth), the Patriots slapped the franchise tag on Cassel and ultimately traded him to the Chiefs along with LB Mike Vrabel for a high second round pick.

But, as valuable as quarterbacks may be, there are typically veterans who hit the open market every year. The past off-season was a mess as far as that went due to the lockout, but guys like Matt Hasselbeck (UFA) and Donovan McNabb (trade) ultimately found starting spots with new teams once the lockout ended.

Barkley's decision to stay at USC represents good news for the QBs slated to hit the open market. A team that might have been inclined to draft Barkley and have him start right away might instead look to a veteran and a later round QB as a combo package for next season.

With all of that in mind, here's the list of the top quarterbacks with contracts set to expire after the season.


Drew Brees, Saints (DOB: 1/15/1979)
There is no way that the Saints will let Brees leave after this season, even if it means having to use the franchise tag on him. The question is: will Brees and New Orleans work out a new deal before the start of 2012 free agency, and if not will New Orleans use the regular franchise tag or the "exclusive" franchise tag that would keep Brees from even talking with any teams? It costs more to use the exclusive version (top five pay average for the position for the next season instead of the previous season), plus New Orleans would have a chance to match with the regular franchise tag *and* would receive two first round picks in compensation if they opted not to match an offer sheet signed by Brees.

After seeing Oakland give up a 2012 first round pick and a second that could possibly turn into an additional first rounder (in 2013) to Cincinnati for Carson Palmer, it stands to reason that it's possible a team might be willing to give up two first round picks and the price of a new contract to land Brees. It seems hard to imagine that the Saints would let that happen, though.

Jason Campbell, Raiders (DOB: 12/31/1981)
Considering that Oakland gave up so much to acquire supposedly retired QB Carson Palmer from the Bengals, it is highly unlikely they will try to sign Campbell to a new deal. Before breaking his right collarbone against Cleveland on October 16, Campbell played well at QB for Oakland, and it's noteworthy that Oakland was 4-2 in games that Campbell started this year. Provided that he is able to make a full recovery from his collarbone injury, Campbell should draw some attention on the NFL free agent market.

Alex Smith, 49ers (DOB: 5/7/1984)
Has any quarterback in recent NFL history benefited more from having a new head coach more than Alex Smith has from Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco? Through 14 games, Smith had thrown 16 touchdowns against only five interceptions. Even if he hits all of his incentives, Smith will make less than $5 million for 2011 as quarterback of a team that is 11-3 as of this writing. Remember that Smith is a former #1 overall pick (in 2005) who looked like a total bust in San Francisco prior to the career rejuvenation he has experienced this season under Jim Harbaugh.

There is plenty of chatter about the 49ers wanting to sign Smith to a long-term deal, but how much guaranteed money would San Francisco be willing to invest in Smith? They gave him $24 million guaranteed as a signing bonus in 2005 and, until this season, looked like they had made a colossal mistake.

There's never been doubt that the 6'4" Smith has the physical tools to potentially succeed as an NFL quarterback, and his senior year stat line at Utah was stunning: 32 TD passes against only four interceptions with a 67.5% completion percentage. His NFL numbers before this year: not so good.

Contract negotiations here will be quite interesting. Are there any teams that would spend big money to sign Smith if he hit the free agent market? And how will Colin Kaepernick factor into the 49ers' long-term plans?

Kyle Orton
Kyle Orton is slated to become an unrestricted free agent after the season. (Icon SMI)
Kyle Orton, Chiefs (DOB: 11/14/1982)
Denver's willingness to release Kyle Orton mid-season provided some relief for the team having any possible quarterback controversy with Tim Tebow. And, though the intent might have been to allow him to end up in Chicago, he proved to be a great pickup for Kansas City, who had lost starting QB Matt Cassel for the season to injury.

Accuracy is a concern for Orton, who has only had one season with a 59% or higher completion percentage (62.1% in 2009). But with him likely to hit the open market after the year, there may be multiple teams with quarterback issues who will make a run at him for a starting role, or at worst the chance to compete in champ for a starting gig.

Vince Young, Eagles (DOB: 5/18/1983)
His performance in Philadelphia in relief of Michael Vick has been disappointing, punctuated by an embarrassing four interception outing in a 31-14 loss at Seattle. I still believe he has the capacity to be an effective NFL QB in the right system and if he's healthy, since he's such a threat to run that linebackers have to play up when he's healthy to prevent him from scampering for a first down. It will be interesting to see if the Eagles try to keep him for 2012.

Matt Flynn, Packers (DOB: 6/20/1985)
There are some with strong beliefs that Flynn won't return to Green Bay next season. Flynn has only started one game in his career for Green Bay, a 31-27 loss in December 2010 at New England in which he threw three first-half touchdown passes. He's had an interesting career, backing up JaMarcus Russell at LSU before finally getting to start as a fifth-year senior in 2007, where he lead LSU to the BCS championship in January 2008. In six of his past seven seasons he has been a backup, and my guess is that a team promising him a chance to at least compete for the QB job will play a role in where he signs once free agency begins.


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