How the Raiders, Bengals, & Others Can Escape QB Purgatory

  • Andy Dalton’s reliance on supporting cast
  • Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota need a big fifth year
  • Matthew Stafford’s contract limits Lions’ options

The quarterback revolution is here. We’re in the dawning of a new age of quarterbacks with the high influx of talent recently thrust upon the league. The golden age — the likes of Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, etc. — are still hanging on, too. About three-quarters of the NFL is set at quarterback, but there are still a few teams treading water at the position.

Today we’re going to take a look at a few teams stuck in quarterback purgatory and how difficult the path might be to get out.

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Cincinnati Bengals

Why they’re here: For much of Andy Dalton’s career, he’s been the perfect example of how coaching, scheme, and surrounding talent can impact a quarterback’s performance. In 2015, with an ideal supporting cast (including an excellent offensive coordinating season from Hue Jackson) Dalton finished the year with the third most Expected Points Added among quarterbacks. The Bengals looked like a serious contender heading into the playoffs, but Dalton suffered a fractured thumb and was forced to give way to A.J. McCarron. That did not go well.

But that season was now four years ago and Dalton has not come close to repeating those heights. Over the past three seasons, Dalton has ranked 16th, 27th, and 20th in EPA per attempt. There have been injuries across the starting offense — A.J. Green has played 10, 16, and 9 games over the past three seasons — and players were lost due to Cincinnati’s reluctance to give out sizable contracts (most notably Andrew Whitworth left for the Los Angeles Rams after the 2016 season and Mohamed Sanu left for the Atlanta Falcons after 2015).

Meanwhile, the players brought in to lift the offense have not been able to do so. Tyler Boyd broke out in 2018, but that took until his third year and he’s still more of a complementary piece in an offense. After a lost rookie year, 2017 first-round pick John Ross was one of the league’s most inefficient receivers in 2018 with a positive play rate of just 25 percent, per Sports Info Solutions.

Dalton will be in his age-31 season in 2019, will be without Green for an unknown period of time, and will be behind an offensive line that ranked 26th in ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate last season and could be even worse this year. 

Difficulty for the way out: Moderate

The Bengals hired new head coach Zac Taylor in an attempt to turn the offense around, but it might be too tough a task as currently constructed. Cincinnati is projected to have a tough schedule and will be the worst team in what is likely to be one of the league’s toughest conferences. With no guaranteed money remaining on Dalton’s contract, per Over The Cap, the Bengals could be in line for a high draft pick and a new quarterback in 2020. But this is also the franchise that kept Marvis Lewis as a head coach for a few years too long, so as obvious a path to an upgrade as there might be, there’s always a chance things stay the same.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tennessee Titans

Why they’re here: We’ll lump these two together because they’re in similar situations. The Buccaneers and Titans had the first and second overall picks in the 2015 NFL Draft and came away with Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, respectively. Since that time, neither team has really figured out what they have in their quarterbacks. Winston has battled interception struggles and off-field problems since before he was drafted while Mariota has dealt with various injuries and will be on his fourth offensive coordinator in five NFL seasons. There have been glimpses of hope for each, but nothing sustainable enough for either team to feel comfortable with a long-term deal. In a time when teams are locking up young quarterbacks as early as possible, both Winston and Mariota will play 2019 on a fifth-year option.

The situations are similar, but how they got there hasn’t exactly been mirrored to this point. Winston has surprisingly gotten better in each season (at least by EPA per attempt) and Mariota had the look of a potential breakout in Year 2 but has since been slowed by the aforementioned injuries, a trip into exotic smashmouth territory, and an overall lack of offensive weapons. Below is a chart of both quarterbacks over the past four seasons by EPA per attempt, along with the league average and the production of the 10th best quarterback in each of those seasons (data per SIS).


Difficulty for the way out: Complicated

This isn’t as easy as it would seem. Both teams could cut ties with no dead money on the cap after the fifth-year option. But then the question becomes where do those teams go next? Although Winston has been the better on-field performer of the two, his Buccaneers have been more likely to have the worst record (thanks, in some part to a consistently terrible defense). Bruce Arians was hired to get the most out of Winston in 2019 and that feels like it will either be a success or fail completely, with little in between. Should the Buccaneers finish with six or fewer wins like they have in five of the past six seasons, they should be in position to select a new quarterback.

The Titans, though, have finished with nine wins in each of the past three seasons. Even if Mariota has yet to truly transcend at the position, Tennessee has been just good enough with him under center. It’s unlikely the Titans completely bottom out and gain a high draft pick. There’s hope more development from Corey Davis along with the additions of A.J. Brown and Adam Humphries can be Mariota’s best supporting cast in the NFL. But should Mariota replicate what he’s done to this point, Tennessee could transition over to a cheaper option in Ryan Tannehill, instead of going year-to-year with Mariota on a $25 million-plus franchise tag, as they figure out the next steps.

Detroit Lions

Why they’re here: Matthew Stafford is a bit of an enigma. The individual talent is something that stands out and continues to be what shapes many feelings about Stafford’s ability. He has tools like a rocket arm that make his play appealing to the eye. It’s the reason why he was still ranked as the 11th-best quarterback in the league (high Tier 2) in Mike Sando’s most recent QB Tiers ranking that gets opinions from people all across the NFL. But that hasn’t really translated to the field, especially lately.

Over the past three seasons, Stafford has dropped from ninth in EPA per attempt in 2016 to 16th in 2017 to 26th in 2018. It’s hard to translate that into a winning product, especially when so much is invested in the quarterback position. No quarterback in the league will have a bigger cap hit in 2019 than Stafford at $29.5 million. While the Lions had success in the Stafford era, they were always handcuffed by the timing. Stafford was one of the last classes of the old Collective Bargaining Agreement before the rookie wage scale was set in place.

Now in Year 11, Stafford is well past his rookie deal, but his old contracts continued to set a baseline for his new ones. His current contract — signed in 2017 — would still have $55 million in dead money if he was released in 2019.

The Lions have never been able to build a consistent team around Stafford and while that’s not the quarterback’s fault, his play hasn’t been enough to make up for what has lacked elsewhere on the roster.

Difficulty for the way out: Hard

Detroit will now have to benefit from the rookie wage scale. Hits on mid-round picks like Kenny Golladay, Taylor Decker, and Kerryon Johnson have allowed the Lions to spend on upgrades elsewhere on the roster — specifically Trey Flowers and Mike Daniels this offseason — and those improvements will have to matter.

2019 is a big season for the Lions because there’s no easy way out of Stafford’s deal in the near future. Should the Lions want to move on from Stafford after the 2019 season, there would still be $26 million in dead money and just $5.5 million in cleared cap space. The earliest realistic time to go in a new direction at quarterback would be following the 2020 season.

Oakland Raiders

Why they’re here: Derek Carr hasn’t been very good.

His 2016 season was efficient but wasn’t nearly the MVP-caliber season some proclaimed it to be (Carr ranked a more than respectable eighth in EPA per attempt that year). But since then, Carr hasn’t come close to repeating that performance. In 2017, he ranked 17th in EPA per attempt and last season that dropped to 25th, just behind Eli Manning.

The downturn in production has been in step with a resistance to throwing the ball downfield and a fear of pressure so intense the ball is released so quickly that pressure is barely an option — Carr has combined for a bottom-10 average time to throw and average depth of target in each of the past two seasons. Per Next Gen Stats, no quarterback had a lower average depth of completion than Carr last season, just 4.4 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.

Difficulty for the way out: Rookie

Antonio Brown and Tyrell Williams were brought in to ramp up the Raiders’ receiving corps and given where both excel, hopefully force Carr to throw down the field more often and effectively.

More realistically, that doesn’t happen. Carr signed a five-year contract extension prior to the 2017 season, but all of the guaranteed money will be gone following 2019. Oakland could move on from Carr by the time they hit Las Vegas. Carr would only have $5 million in signing bonus left on his deal, which would open up $16.5 million in cap space. The Raiders could easily start their Vegas residency with a new quarterback.