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Sando’s Pick Six: Assessing the QB Crisis Levels of 16 NFL Teams Following an Injury-Filled Week 8

Cover 7 | Monday

A daily NFL destination that provides in-depth analysis of football’s biggest stories. Each Monday, Mike Sando breaks down the six most impactful takeaways from the week.

An already precarious set of circumstances at the quarterback position devolved into chaos in NFL Week 8.

Kirk Cousins’ torn Achilles tendon ended one of his most impressive seasons nine games before he was eligible for free agency, throwing into uncertainty his and the Minnesota Vikings’ future. Injuries knocked out the Los Angeles Rams’ Matthew Stafford, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Kenny Pickett and the New York Giants’ Tyrod Taylor. The Atlanta Falcons seemed to bench Desmond Ridder, only to suggest that wasn’t the case.

Throw in a long list of existing conundrums — from Justin Fields in Chicago to Deshaun Watson in Cleveland to Russell Wilson in Denver to Kyler Murray in Arizona — and we need a “QB Crisis Index” to sort through it all.

The Pick Six column begins there. We’ll sort through the most chaotic QB situations before diving into the full menu:

  • QB Crisis Index: Chaos proliferates
  • Trade deadline looms, but how large?
  • Bills can’t fill this need by trade
  • Ravens’ 17-game defensive turnaround
  • Name a street after Sean Payton
  • Two-minute drill: Two Giants thoughts

1. Kirk Cousins’ career-altering torn Achilles tendon headlined a rough day for quarterbacks. Let’s sort through the carnage.

Before we get to Cousins and the others, a few qualifiers:

The Tennessee Titans get a one-week (and possibly longer) exemption after Will Levis’ productive starting debut. I’m leaving off the Washington Commanders’ Sam Howell as well — not only because he passed for 397 yards and four touchdowns against Philadelphia in Week 8, but because the organization has so many things to figure out after this season, let alone the fate of a second-year quarterback outperforming a fifth-round pedigree.

Also exempt here: Baltimore, Buffalo, Carolina, Cincinnati, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Jacksonville, Kansas City, the Los Angeles Chargers, Miami, Philadelphia, Seattle and Tampa Bay.

The Injury Ward

Kirk Cousins, Minnesota Vikings: Just a few days ago, we were contemplating Cousins’ spot in the free-agent market following what was shaping up as one of his best seasons. Then, in a single step, the kind Cousins has taken thousands of times without incident, his season was over, his professional future less certain.

The Vikings in the recent past prioritized extricating themselves from Cousins’ contract. In doing so, they waived their right to use the franchise tag on him after the season. There will be time to figure out where Cousins fits in all of this, but the injury clears the way for the organization to do what it has seemingly wanted to do: consider lower-priced, higher-upside alternatives.

Cousins’ injury could push the Vikings higher in the NFL draft order, but at 4-4 after beating Green Bay on Sunday, they could finish just out of the running for the top quarterbacks.

“It’s interesting because now you have to evaluate Cousins coming back from injury vs. the field of veterans, which so rarely works, vs. the draft, which is totally speculative,” an exec from another team said. “The quarterback doesn’t put you over the top unless you get one of the five you almost never get. It’s your job to build the winning team around him. Think of it this way: Switch Cousins onto that (2012) Baltimore team. Do they win the four (playoff) games like they did with Flacco? I think they do.”

Matthew Stafford, Los Angeles Rams: Stafford has kept the Rams competitive during a transition year, but the question was always going to be whether he could hold up physically. The absurdity of Stafford injuring the thumb on his throwing hand while laying out for a two-point conversion catch on a Philly Special against Dallas is difficult to grasp.

Stafford kept playing after banging the thumb on a helmet earlier in the game. It’s concerning that team doctors prevented him from continuing after what appeared to be a rather benign play. Stafford has played through so many hard hits over the years.

Aaron Rodgers, New York Jets: This situation feels much less stressful after three consecutive victories have pushed the Jets to 4-3. Rodgers already knows the team will wait for him to rehab from the torn Achilles he suffered in Week 1. That’s one big edge he holds over Cousins. In the meantime, the Jets have come to terms with their 2023 quarterback plight. They are riding with Zach Wilson, for better or worse.

Anthony Richardson, Indianapolis Colts: Season-ending surgery on a quarterback’s throwing shoulder is always concerning. Richardson could be ready for training camp, at least.

Injury/Contract/Performance Trifecta

Deshaun Watson, Cleveland Browns: Watson’s fully guaranteed $230 million contract carries a $46 million base salary next season. An 11-game suspension to start last season, followed by a shoulder injury that has limited Watson to five pass attempts since Week 3, has prevented the Browns from getting a return on investment. At this rate, the Browns could plausibly go two full seasons without Watson hitting any sort of stride.

Daniel Jones, New York Giants: The Giants have $81 million in fully guaranteed commitments earmarked for a quarterback who was struggling without sufficient support before suffering a neck injury. Backup Tyrod Taylor spent Sunday night in a hospital with damaged ribs. It’s a rough situation, especially with Jones’ neck injury reportedly still creating weakness in his left arm.

Kyler Murray, Arizona Cardinals: This situation feels more optimistic given how well the Cardinals’ offense has performed with Joshua Dobbs. Arizona ranks 21st in offensive EPA per play. That is up from 26th last season, when Murray started 11 games. The Cardinals could have Murray back in the lineup soon. It’ll be fun to see what offensive coordinator Drew Petzing can do with him, but the long-term contract situation remains problematic until Murray reestablishes himself.

Jimmy Garoppolo, Las Vegas Raiders: Garoppolo is back in the lineup against Detroit on Monday night, but he’s already missed games with two different injuries. The Raiders owe him $11.3 million in salary next year, which makes this contract far preferable to some others …

Contract/Performance Misalignment

Russell Wilson, Denver Broncos: Coach Sean Payton has taken the ball from Wilson’s hands, leaning on the running game and an improving defense. That will have to change for the Broncos to feel better about a $243 million contract extension that doesn’t kick in until 2024. The deal carries $124 million fully guaranteed. There’s a window after the season when Denver could plausibly escape, pushing some cap pain into the future. That is where I think this is headed unless Payton shows more confidence in Wilson as the season progresses.

Derek Carr, New Orleans Saints: A productive game against Indianapolis in Week 8 eases some of the tension. It’s still early in the relationship. Carr’s $30 million salary for 2024 is fully guaranteed.

Rookie Deal Dilemmas

Justin Fields, Chicago Bears: Every game Fields misses with a thumb injury deprives Chicago of an opportunity to evaluate him. That’s problematic heading toward an offseason deadline for exercising an expensive option on his 2025 salary. The Bears should be in position to draft another quarterback in 2024. That might be the best option, but the more games with Fields, the fuller an evaluation the team can make.

Jordan Love, Green Bay Packers: The Packers spent three seasons preparing Love for what has been a colossally disappointing season. Green Bay does have Love under contract for only $5.5 million in salary next season, reducing the stakes to some degree.

Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh Steelers: Pickett has departed four of 20 starts because of injury, including the Steelers’ 20-10 home defeat to Jacksonville on Sunday. His team’s offense ranks 28th in EPA per play.

Mac Jones, New England Patriots: Thirteen first downs and 218 yards of offense against the Dolphins on Sunday was not a particularly terrible day by 2023 Patriots standards. Daniel Jones’ situation with the Giants could be instructive. New York decided against exercising the fifth-year option on him, which expedited talks on a more expensive long-term deal after the quarterback exceeded expectations in his fourth season.

Desmond Ridder, Atlanta Falcons: Ridder did not return against Tennessee after getting checked for a concussion. Coach Arthur Smith said the decision was not performance-related, but he wasn’t particularly convincing. Whatever the case, Ridder has seven turnovers over his past two-plus games. The team has only a 2022 third-round pick invested in him.

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