Kirk Cousins and Baker Mayfield headline a group of quarterbacks on deals that officially expire with the start of the new league year (March 13 at 4 p.m. ET). Both are worthy of new contracts, but as we've seen, it's rarely so simple. And the players filling reserve roles find themselves in even less certain circumstances. As many teams learned in 2023, the backup QB often becomes the second-most important player on a roster behind only the starter.
With all of that in mind, let's explore the outlooks for some of the most notable passers approaching free agency, listed below with the teams they were rostered by this season.
Don't let them leave town
In 2023, the Vikings experienced the harsh reality of what a future life without Cousins might look like, cycling through three different backups and finding zero solid answers following Cousins' season-ending Achilles injury. Add that lesson to the fact that Cousins' performance was arguably the only good thing to come out of the Vikings' first eight weeks of 2023, and it's pretty easy to see how Minnesota should proceed. Re-sign Cousins to a one- or two-year deal, securing a passer who was enjoying one of his best seasons prior to his injury, and start seriously planning for a future without him, so you don't get caught empty-handed again a year or two from now.
The least surprising news to come out of Divisional Round weekend? Mayfield and the Buccaneers do indeed share mutual interest in running this partnership back, something NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport originally reported in December. It's obvious why both parties want to stay together. Mayfield just enjoyed the best season of his career, propelling an afterthought of a Tampa team into the playoffs, where the Bucs proved they were certainly worthy of attention with a blowout of the reigning NFC champion Eagles on Super Wild Card Weekend. Mayfield appears to have matured after his bumpy 2022, and he's proven he's both fully capable and well prepared to see the Buccaneers further into their post-Tom Brady days. In fact, it almost feels as if the Brady era ended years ago. Baker should be your guy now, Bucs fans, and if general manager Jason Licht can get a deal done, he will be for the foreseeable future.
Anthony Richardson's rookie season began with optimism, but abruptly ended in Week 5 due to a shoulder injury. That situation would spell doom for most teams, but not for the 2023 Colts, who enjoyed capable (and sometimes even better) play from Minshew. The veteran kept these Colts competitive enough to have a chance to win their way into the playoffs in Week 18, and that alone -- plus Richardson's difficulty staying healthy in Year 1 -- should sell Indianapolis on keeping a trusty backup on the roster.
Unlike in the last two seasons, the Ravens didn't need Huntley to keep them afloat late in 2023. Lamar Jackson was healthy enough to play, leaving Huntley to start just one game, an irrelevant Week 18 meeting with the Steelers. But Baltimore would be wise to keep Huntley around because of his familiarity with the team and demonstrated capability for stepping in for Jackson when needed. Any other backup wouldn't provide quite as much of a seamless fit, at least not initially.
In one of the unlikeliest stories of 2023, Rudolph rose from a quarterback buried on Pittsburgh's depth chart for years to the Steelers' best option in a desperate playoff push, performing well enough to see the team into the postseason and convince management he still has value. Mike Tomlin already told reporters the Steelers are very much interested in "doing continued business with" Rudolph, who could even push Kenny Pickett in training camp in a 2024 competition Tomlin appears to welcome. Pittsburgh and Rudolph have to find common financial ground to get it done.
Brissett spent most of 2023 seated behind Sam Howell, but as the second-year pro struggled more and more late in the season, the veteran eventually found a chance to see the field, instantly elevating Washington's offense and causing many to wonder why Ron Rivera didn't turn to Brissett sooner. I've included him in this section, though, not because of how 2023 panned out, but rather primarily due to the uncertain waters the Commanders are now entering in 2024, with Adam Peters taking over as general manager and a new head coach on the horizon. Is this fresh regime going to replace Howell with another option under center, perhaps a rookie? If so, keeping Brissett would be a wise move made in the interest of security. And in today's NFL, you can never be so certain about your security under center -- just ask the 2023 Jets.
As an exclusive-rights free agent, Browning isn't going anywhere. But Cincinnati would earn some brownie points by handing Browning a contract that reflects appreciation for his performance in place of Joe Burrow in 2023, exceeding every expectation and nearly pushing the Bengals into the playoffs when most left them for dead following the franchise quarterback's season-ending injury. Cincy doesn't have to do this, of course, and with a tight cap situation (thanks in large part to Burrow's lucrative extension), the organization might not have room for it. But if ever there were a time to toss a guy a few more bucks as a show of thanks, it's now.
Taylor arrived in New York in 2022 as a backup plan to Daniel Jones, but most didn't anticipate seeing much of Taylor in 2023. That was, of course, before the operation imploded, and even Taylor wasn't spared, leading to the introduction (and brief cult stardom) of Tommy DeVito. The season ended properly, though, with Taylor returning from injury and rightfully proving his standing as a quality veteran backup. The Giants should work on keeping him behind Jones, but if they don't, it's easy to see a market emerging for Taylor.
Darnold's move west (and training camp victory over Trey Lance in the battle for the backup job) made for the latest compelling chapter in the former No. 3 overall pick's football story, but he didn't see much action in 2023. That said, I foresee a scenario in which a market develops for Darnold that's reminiscent of the 2022 offseason courting of Mitch Trubisky, who earned a job with the Steelers after backing up Josh Allen in Buffalo. There is a problem with this hypothetical, though: I think San Francisco remains the best place for Darnold. We'll see if the 49ers convince him of this, too, and keep him around. If not, a handful of teams will likely kick the tires.
Lock's 2023 season can be distilled down to two truths: He entered a tight game and threw a pick that led to a loss to the Rams, and he delivered a heroic performance that produced a prime-time win over the Eagles, making him a lovable figure to the rest of the football world. Look, Lock's been through a lot in his NFL career, and most of his snaps leave plenty to be desired. But every once in a while, he flashes talent that keeps evaluators intrigued by his potential. Do I think he'll ever fully realize that potential? No. But we can bank on at least a couple of personnel chiefs taking a hard look at him and believing the passer can add value to the roster -- just not as a starter.
The Tannehill era in Nashville might have officially ended the moment rookie Will Levis pulled off a shocking comeback win over the Dolphins on Monday Night Football in Week 14. But if we're being honest, the curtain began to fall on Tannehill a year earlier, positioning the Titans to select a potential quarterback of the future in Round 2 of the 2023 NFL Draft. They did so with a relatively low-risk investment in Levis, who showed enough to at least begin the 2024 season as the starter. That leaves room for Tannehill to stick around as a veteran backup, but he might also find interest elsewhere. It won't be his first rodeo; Tannehill made a similar move to Tennessee in 2019, joining the Titans as a backup to Marcus Mariota before he eventually claimed the starting job. This time around, though, the possibility of Tannehill usurping another quarterback is slim at best. He's a plus backup, which should still have value in this market.
Flacco's magical run in Cleveland ended in a dud of a playoff loss to Houston, but that shouldn't overshadow what he accomplished with the Browns, setting the franchise record for the most consecutive 300-yard games (four) and leading Cleveland to an unlikely postseason berth. Most importantly, he proved he can certainly still sling it in the right situation. Both Flacco and the Browns have expressed interest in sticking together, with the veteran serving as a backup to Deshaun Watson, but such a union will require time, patience and number crunching, leaving the door open for Flacco to field a better offer elsewhere. Regardless, we all know Flacco will carry value into the 2024 campaign, creating a remarkably different situation for the former Super Bowl MVP than he was in at this time a year ago.
Jameis likely left a sour taste in the mouths of Saints heavies with how he ended New Orleans' season-closing win over the Falcons by ignoring directions from the sideline so he could get his teammate a garbage-time touchdown. But is that enough to make the Saints move on from Winston entirely? The former No. 1 overall pick of the Buccaneers has been a boom-or-bust backup in his time with the Saints and isn't the most trustworthy QB2 available. He may, though, fill a need for a team located outside of New Orleans in a league in which it is difficult to find legitimately talented backup signal-callers. The Saints could keep him around -- he's been there for four years already, after all -- or they could decide now is the time to look elsewhere. But make no mistake: A few teams will seriously consider Winston, should he make it to free agency.
Dobbs' 2023 story was truly one for the books, for both good and bad reasons. He was traded to Arizona two weeks before the start of the regular season and immediately given the keys to the offense. After making the Cardinals more competitive than most anticipated, he was forced to pack his bags again -- for Minnesota this time -- at the trade deadline. Instead of being given time to get acclimated, Dobbs was forced into action less than a week after the trade -- and he thrived, leading the Vikings to two wins in his first two games with the franchise. It all came crashing down, though, in a collapse of a loss to Denver and a nightmarish, four-interception defeat at the hands of Chicago, sending Dobbs tumbling down the depth chart. The league's calendar will soon dump him back into the free-agent pool, where he'll bring a résumé updated with surprisingly strong performances in tough situations, but a lack of consistency. Still, that should convince at least a few teams to consider bringing him in, because it's better than what most have at the bottom of their QB depth chart.
Siemian only played because the Jets ran out of options and couldn't stomach turning back to Zach Wilson -- another quarterback who will likely land in a new home in 2024. For a while, Siemian looked just as overwhelmed as Wilson and Tim Boyle had behind New York's leaky offensive line. But the veteran finished the season on a generally positive note, firing a few nice passes to build an early lead in a tight Week 16 win over Washington and then racking up short completions in a Week 17 loss at Cleveland, managing to keep the Jets' offensive pulse going, for the most part. He should find the same kind of market for his services this offseason as he encountered last offseason -- one that comes with a low ceiling.
Here's an interesting situation. Wentz had plenty of stink on him entering 2023 after flopping in both Indianapolis and Washington over the previous two campaigns, but he landed on the Rams' roster just in time to make a start in Week 18 for the playoff-bound squad. He played surprisingly well, completing 17 of his 24 passes for 163 yards and two touchdowns (against one deflected pick), and even running for a touchdown in a comeback win over the 49ers. Will that be enough to convince a team to give the former No. 2 overall pick another shot in 2024?