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Ryan Tannehill should be the Titans starting quarterback in 2020, but who might back him up?

Let’s talk about the real question at the quarterback position.

AFC Championship - Tennessee Titans v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

Before we could even fully digest the end of the Titans incredible playoff run, the chatter about Tom Brady and whether or not Tennessee might be his 2020 landing spot began to start up. Brady and his pending free agency figures to be the story of the offseason for the entire NFL and it’s not hard to connect the dots to the Titans.

GM Jon Robinson and head coach Mike Vrabel both have ties to the six-time Super Bowl winner through their respective stints in the Patriots organization — with Vrabel remaining particularly close with his former teammate — and in case you hadn’t heard, the Titans don’t have a quarterback currently under contract for the 2020 season. They’re also a team that finished one win short of a Super Bowl appearance and suddenly boast a slew of young, talented weapons, so the on-field case is strong enough to grab Brady’s attention as well.

That being said, I wouldn’t go ordering your TB12 Titans jerseys just yet. First, the Patriots still have plenty of incentive to get something worked out with Brady. If a new deal isn’t in place by March 17th, a dead cap hit of $13.5M accelerates onto their 2020 balance sheet. New England also lacks a suitable successor at the moment. The current backup, Jarrett Stidham, was so bad in one game this season that he got pulled from mop up duty.

There is also the matter of whether the Titans should want Brady under center next season. Yes, he’s the GOAT, but you aren’t getting 30-year old Brady, the age of his first All-Pro selection. You also aren’t getting 34-year old Brady, his age when he recorded his career high 8.6 yards per attempt. You aren’t even getting 40-year old Brady, who was still slicing up defenses well enough to earn his third All-Pro selection of his career. No, you’re getting 43-year old Tom Brady, coming off his worst season in almost two decades (and no, I’m not impressed by his 4,000 yards when it takes him 613 attempts to get there at a rate of 6.6 YPA).

To say we’re in uncharted territory with Brady is obvious, but it has somehow been under-discussed in this dreamland Brady-Tannehill “debate”. Only one quarterback in NFL history has started more than one game at age 43 or older: Vinny Testaverde. Testaverde started six games for the Panthers in 2007 after being forced into action due to injuries to starter Jake Delhomme and backup David Carr. Carolina went 2-4 in his starts and Testaverde completed 54.7% of his passes for 952 yards (5.5 YPA), 5 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions.

Obviously, Brady is special. This wouldn’t even be a conversation if he wasn’t. However, there has to be some limit to his ability to defy Father Time, no matter how much he stretches and eats avocado ice cream, right? We’ve seen time and time again that the dropoff often comes quick for the all time greats at the end of their careers. Brady’s closest comp throughout his career, Peyton Manning, went from throwing for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns in a season to getting benched for Brock Osweiler in less than 24 months.

Many will point to a lack of weapons in the Patriots offense as the reason for Brady’s struggles in 2019. There is probably something to that, but is the combination of Mohamed Sanu, Julian Edelman, and N’Keal Harry really that much worse than the trio of Edelman, Martellus Bennett, and Chris Hogan that led New England in receiving in 2016, a season where Brady averaged 8.2 yards per attempt and threw for 28 touchdowns in just 12 games?

Even if you do believe the receivers are solely to blame... are you willing to bet the Titans 2020 season on it? And are you willing to make that bet on a 43-year old quarterback that would require some pretty substantial modification to the structure of the offense we saw this team have so much success with in 2019?

Maybe the whole prospect would be more appealing if we hadn’t just seen Ryan Tannehill put together the best passing season of any Titans quarterback since Steve McNair in 2003. But he did and every report we’ve heard going back to early December all indicate that both Tannehill and the team are interested in running it back next season. Whether that’s via a long term contract extension or the franchise tag remains to be seen, but it would qualify as a massive upset if No. 17 wasn’t back in two tone blue this fall.

And why wouldn’t these two sides want to re-up after a wildly successful run? The Titans gave Tannehill a second chance after he was cast aside by the Dolphins. Tennessee’s coaches and his supporting cast on offense helped the 31-year old quarterback put together what was easily the best season of his career, resulting in his first Pro Bowl appearance. Tannehill gave the Titans offense new life and unlocked some of the talent that Jon Robinson had filled this roster with over the past four years. Regardless of how you feel about his performance in the actual playoff games, there is zero chance that the Titans end up playing in the AFC Championship game if not for his contributions.

After years and years of pining for an exciting offense in Tennessee, it’s amazing to me how many fans are anxious to throw away the quarterback that finally produced one to chase the ghost of an all time great.

So let’s talk about the quarterback debate that we should be having... who will backup Tannehill in 2020? Here are some of the realistic options:

Current Roster

The Titans do, technically, have a quarterback under contract for next season in third year pro Logan Woodside. He’s going to be back in camp this summer after signing a reserve/futures contract last week. After being drafted in the seventh round by the Bengals in 2018, Woodside spent some time on the Tennessee practice squad that season before going to play for the San Antonio Commanders in the AAF in the spring of 2019. He returned to the Titans last summer and served as the team’s third quarterback throughout camp and preseason, turning in a solid 46 of 76 (60.5%) for 539 yards (7.1 YPA), 4 touchdowns, and no interceptions stat line.

Woodside’s growth and progression was notable and the extra work he put in during rookie mini camp with A.J. Brown surely earned him some favor with this coaching staff. That being said, it seems highly unlikely that Woodside has shown enough that Jon Robinson would be willing to enter camp with him as the presumptive QB2 behind Tannehill. It’s far more likely that the Titans bring competition for that spot through either free agency or the draft (or possibly both).

Free Agent Market

There are an unusually high number of starting level quarterbacks set to hit the market this offseason. Some will be re-signed to their current teams between now and the start of free agency on March 18th, but Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Dak Prescott, Andy Dalton, and Jameis Winston all join Ryan Tannehill as passers who finished the 2019 season as starters and are currently without a contract for 2020. Maybe Dalton takes a backup job, but all the others are most likely starters when NFL football kicks off again in September.

There are also a few highly drafted former starters that will be hitting the market as well. That group includes Marcus Mariota, Teddy Bridgewater, and Blake Bortles. Mariota is not going to return to the team that just benched him to remain a backup so go ahead and wipe that idea out of your mind. Expect him to seek a spot similar to the one Tannehill found last offseason, a team with a shaky or injury prone starter that might be able to give him a fresh start.

Then you get to the journeyman backup types like A.J. McCarron, Case Keenum, Matt Moore, Chase Daniel, Colt McCoy, Trevor Siemian, and Brett Hundley. All seven of those guys have at least a handful of NFL starts to their name are generally viewed as quality backups.

Nate Sudfeld is another name of relative interest. He’s a 26-year old prototypical sized passer at 6’-6” and 227 pounds who spent the last few seasons as a backup/developmental prospect with the Eagles. He’s got very limited actual game experience, but has flashed during preseason action at times.

There are going to be at least six teams in the market for a starting quarterback as things stand right now — the Titans, Saints, Patriots, Chargers, Cowboys, and Buccaneers — but some of those will likely re-sign their own guys. We know that the Bengals and Dolphins are almost certain to be taking their quarterback in the first round of the draft (and the Dolphins have already indicated that they will keep Ryan Fitzpatrick as their bridge quarterback). Teams like the Colts, Panthers, and Bears are all wildcards.

If the Titans sign or tag Tannehill as expected, they’ll likely be shelling out somewhere between $24M to $30M per season for their starter. That deal, combined with the other contracts the Titans might be giving out this offseason, will mean that keeping the cost as low as possible at the backup spot will be critical for Jon Robinson.

Keenum is likely to be the most coveted among the journeyman backup group. He could be a good option here depending on price. His best season as a pro came in Minnesota while playing in an offense very similar to the one the Titans used in 2019. He would probably be my first choice if you can get him for a deal similar to the one year, $3.5M deal he signed with Washington last year.

Brett Hundley is a player that Jon Robinson was once rumored to be interested in. I’m not sure whether the Titans might still like Hundley as a player — or if that rumor was even true to begin with — but his age (26) and mobility are both pluses for a possible backup spot.

The Titans could also consider double dipping on Miami reclamation projects in back to back years by trading for Josh Rosen. While the former tenth overall pick’s play has been less than inspiring in two years in the NFL, he’s still just 22 years old and he’s had the misfortune of playing on two absolutely terrible teams since turning pro. I can’t imagine the Titans wanting to part with significant draft assets — they’re already down a fourth round pick this year due to the Tannehill trade — but if the price dips low enough, Rosen could be a value play.

Rookie Class

Of course the best place to find a cheap backup with upside is the draft. There is still a long way to go before the draft so things could still move quite a bit, but the consensus top three of Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa, and Justin Herbert seem very likely to be long gone before pick 29. Jordan Love probably goes before the Titans pick as well.

If Jon Robinson is smitten with either Herbert or Love — the two out of this group that seem most likely to be available outside of the top ten — there is a slim possibility that we could see a trade up from 29 similar to the Chiefs move from 27 to 10 in 2017 to pick Patrick Mahomes. That move cost Kansas City their 2018 first round pick as well as pick 27 and their 2017 third.

Without a trade, the top options that would likely be available at 29 and beyond among quarterbacks are Washington’s Jacob Eason, Georgia’s Jake Fromm, Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts, and Washington State’s Anthony Gordon. Eason, Fromm, and Hurts currently seem to be slated as likely day two picks, while Gordon ranks among the best of the projected day three options.

There are aspects to get excited about with each of those guys and there are certainly downsides to their games as well (hence why they aren’t being considered top ten picks). The idea of grabbing one of these four as a developmental backup is interesting to me.

At 32 years old when the 2020 season kicks off, Tannehill isn’t really at the point where his age is a big concern yet — quarterbacks routinely play well into their mid-to-late 30s now — but you also know that you’re not likely to have him as the starter for the next decade either. The Titans will need to find a longer term solution at some point in the next three or four years.

If Robinson chooses to use the franchise tag on Tannehill this offseason, that would add some pressure to draft a young quarterback high in this draft and give him a year to evaluate the rookie prior to making a decision on who to hitch his wagon to in 2021 and beyond. A long term extension gives him more flexibility to pick and choose when and how he wants to invest in a young signal caller.

I like the idea of getting a cheap veteran backup under contract in March and then heading to the draft with options. If the quarterbacks you like aren’t there at the spots where you want them, you can address other positions and roll into 2020 with what you’ve got at QB. The worst thing you can do is put yourself in a position where you feel like you have to reach for a passer that you don’t love simply because of a lack of viable options at the position.

Ryan Tannehill has given Jon Robinson both an appealing option for the immediate future at quarterback and an extension on his deadline to figure out the long term solution for football’s most important position. Not bad return for a fourth round pick.