Opinion: Record-setting quarterback turnover a strong possibility for 2021 NFL season

Nate Davis
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Musical chairs, the proverbial "quarterback carousel" – call it what you want, but the NFL's annual turnover rate among starting QBs could reach an unprecedented level in 2021. 

Since the Super Bowl era began in 1966, the most teams to replace an opening day starter one season later was 16 in 1999 (when the league expanded with the return of the Browns). That figure reached 15 just three years ago.

But now?

ESPN insider Adam Schefter recently set the over/under for teams that could make a change at the most important position in sports at 18, a prediction that seemed borderline hot take at first blush ... but is looking rather prescient as the offseason unfolds.

The new league year – meaning free agency – doesn't commence until March 17, but two major (agreed upon) trades and a prominent retirement have already set the dominoes in motion. How many more could reasonably fall?

Let's break down all 32 teams:

Matthew Stafford (9) and Jared Goff are poised to switch teams.

Change is coming (7)

Detroit Lions: Though the deal won't be official until the new league year begins, they've agreed to take a few first-round picks from the Rams, Jared Goff and his massive salary in exchange for Matthew Stafford.

Indianapolis Colts: First, ironman Philip Rivers retired after 17 NFL seasons. Thursday, news broke that Carson Wentz was headed to Indy for a pair of Day 2 draft choices – which seems like a shrewd gamble by GM Chris Ballard given Wentz's pre-existing relationship with Indianapolis coach Frank Reich. The Colts will now have a fourth different starter over a four-season stretch.

Los Angeles Chargers: It's a technicality, but nevertheless. No, record-setting offensive rookie of the year Justin Herbert isn't going anywhere. But he will contribute to the change count because Tyrod Taylor started one game – Week 1 – in 2020.

Los Angeles Rams: Coach Sean McVay and GM Les Snead have made an extravagant bet that Stafford, who has zero playoff wins, can take this team to heights that Goff, who has three postseason victories and a Super Bowl start, could not.

Miami Dolphins: Like fellow 2020 first-rounder Herbert, Tua Tagovailoa began his rookie season on the bench. Even if Ryan Fitzpatrick, Miami's leading passer last year, re-signs, Tagovailoa will almost certainly open 2021 as the starter ... unless the Fins actually manage to package him and a few Round 1 picks to the Texans in exchange for Deshaun Watson.

Philadelphia Eagles: Didn't take long for them to become Jalen Hurts' team, last year's second-rounder positioned to replace AFC-bound Wentz.

Washington Football Team: Though it's not clear what direction they'll go – Alex Smith isn't a lock but is under contract for two more seasons, while playoff hero Taylor Heinicke just re-upped for two years – we know the WFT won't be rolling with last season's September starter, Dwayne Haskins.

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Teams likely to make a move (5)

Carolina Panthers: Teddy "Bridge"water is signed for two more seasons, but the team already made a run at Stafford and has been linked to Watson. Head coach Matt Rhule, who holds the eighth pick, hardly dismissed speculation that he wants to upgrade while evaluating players on his Senior Bowl team last month.

Chicago Bears: Mitchell Trubisky is headed for free agency, and Nick Foles looked like a career backup in 2020. Like most teams, the Bears would love to get their hands on Watson, whom they bypassed in favor of Trubisky atop the 2017 draft, but probably need to focus on another alternative.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Anyone who even casually follows the NFL fully expects the Jags to draft Clemson's Trevor Lawrence No. 1 overall in April. The only reason Jacksonville might not count once the finally tally is computed would be if Lawrence somehow can't unseat Gardner Minshew II by Week 1.

New England Patriots: The Cam Newton Experience will probably end after one middling season that ended without a playoff berth. The Pats select 15th in the first round and have more than $60 million in available cap space, per Over The Cap.

Could free agent Cam Newton, left, and Houston's Deshaun Watson both be quarterbacking new teams in 2021?

New Orleans Saints: Drew Brees is expected to retire, though he hasn't made it official yet. Do the Saints next turn to Taysom Hill, who started in place of injured Brees four times in 2020, or Jameis Winston, a free agent who will surely command far more than the $1.1 million he made last year if he's to replace Brees?

Switch is feasible (5)

Dallas Cowboys: Hard to imagine them moving on from Dak Prescott. But Jerry Jones has yet to lock up his star and is looking down the barrel of a $37.7 million franchise tag and the subsequent uncertainty it brings.

Denver Broncos: Drew Lock was disappointing in his second season, his 15 interceptions tying Wentz for the league lead. Too soon to know what route newly hired GM George Paton will choose, but there's no question there's ample room to improve here.

Houston Texans: In what quickly and unexpectedly emerged as this offseason's predominant soap opera, Watson expressed his desire to leave Houston. The Texans have publicly expressed they have no plans to trade the face of the franchise and aren't even accepting other teams' inquiries at this point, per multiple reports. However, deadlines – like the fast-approaching 2021 draft – have a way of setting league events in motion when an impasse ultimately can't be bridged.

New York Jets: With multiple first-round picks and a young quarterback to offer, they seem uniquely positioned – along with Miami – to make a run at Watson. Failing that, the Jets could still opt to move on from 2018 first-rounder Sam Darnold by resetting the position's financial timer and drafting his successor second overall this spring. Darnold flashes occasional greatness without much help but has been too inconsistent and prone to the turnovers he so often committed in college.

San Francisco 49ers: In 3½ seasons with the Niners – when he's been healthy enough to actually play – Jimmy Garoppolo has been good enough to help them to a Super Bowl, if not blossoming into the second coming of Tom Brady. Garoppolo is owed $50.6 million over the final two years of his contract, which makes him much easier to trade than Goff, for example. It's tantalizing to mull Watson or Prescott coming to Silicon Valley, but those seem like unlikely outcomes. Probably more realistic is for GM John Lynch to move up from his current spot in the draft, 12th overall.

Change within realm of possibility (3)

Atlanta Falcons: Releasing or trading Matt Ryan, 35, would mean a cap charge of more than $40 million. So unless, say, the 49ers are willing to make a move on the Stafford level and part with a few first-round picks to make the salary dump worth the Falcons' while, don't expect Ryan to leave Atlanta. It would be far more likely – even if still a remote scenario – that he loses his job to a rookie (Justin Fields?) the Falcons could take with the fourth pick of the draft.

Las Vegas Raiders: It seems like Derek Carr's name is floated on the trade market annually, and this year is no different. But he played awfully well last season, and this offense showed it can go toe-to-toe with Kansas City's. Could the Silver and Black get better under center? Sure. But more topically, could the Raiders get much worse on defense? Harder to imagine.

New York Giants: Daniel Jones has been decidedly average though 26 NFL starts. Despite a late push to win the woeful NFC East in 2020, the Giants are probably better served – given their current draft and cap resources – to stick with Jones for another year and try to build up the roster around him before considering a reboot.

Fat chance (12)

Arizona Cardinals: Kyler Murray was performing like a potential MVP in his sophomore season before a second-half fade.

Baltimore Ravens: They're already mulling 2019 MVP Lamar Jackson's next contract.

Buffalo Bills: Josh Allen had a breakthrough 2020 campaign, his third in the league, finishing second to Aaron Rodgers in MVP voting.

Cincinnati Bengals: Early returns suggested Joe Burrow was worthy of being the No. 1 pick in 2020. And early returns on his ACL rehab suggest he'll be back in the lineup once the 2021 season arrives.

Cleveland Browns: Baker Mayfield rebounded from a sophomore slump, helping the Browns to their first playoff berth since 2002 and first postseason win since 1994. He may not be the next coming of Brees or Russell Wilson – not now, likely not ever – but should continue getting better given the way Cleveland is building its team around him.

Green Bay Packers: Rodgers, MVP for the third time. Front office, now fully aware a transition to 2020 first-rounder Jordan Love would be folly.

Kansas City Chiefs: Patrick Mahomes has led them to consecutive Super Bowls, won league MVP in 2018 and was Super Bowl 54's MVP last year. Beside Rodgers and Allen, he was the only other player to receive MVP votes in 2020.

Minnesota Vikings: Kirk Cousins had another strong season statistically, this team largely betrayed by a gutted defense in 2020. Cousins will probably never set hearts aflutter, but he's consistent (especially in games not played in prime time), under contract for two more years and showed in 2019 that he can lead a team to pressure-packed wins in January.

Pittsburgh Steelers: With Rivers and Matt Schaub retiring, Ben Roethlisberger is the lone QB still standing from the 2004 draft – and Big Ben has openly mulled shutting down himself more than once. However he and the team appear committed to his return in 2021 after Roethlisberger and owner Dan Rooney met Feb. 23 and agreed the veteran would redo his contract in order to alleviate a scheduled $41.25 million cap hit. Roethlisberger turns 39 next week but pretty clearly remains the AFC North champions' best option. 

Seattle Seahawks: Wilson has been uncharacteristically bellyaching about his lack of protection while suddenly expressing a public desire for roster input. Regardless, though countless teams would surely be delighted to let him cook for them, trading him would mean a $39 million cap charge for Seattle – and surely take the Seahawks out of contention for years.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: TB12. Lombardi Trophy. Run it back?

Tennessee Titans: One of the great reclamation projects in recent years, Ryan Tannehill is entrenched given what an efficient play maker he's been during consecutive playoff runs.


Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis

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