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The Schein Nine

2024 NFL offseason: My ranking of the top nine quarterbacks available via free agency, draft or trade

It's time for one of my favorite offseason exercises: ranking the available quarterbacks via draft, free agency or trade. And this year, with the Chicago Bears/Justin Fields/Caleb Williams love triangle promising to create momentous domino effects, the list feels more entwined than ever before.

Before we dive into the meat of this piece, though, I'd like to get a couple things on record regarding a pair of QBs you won't find below.

News broke out of Denver on Monday that wasn't really news to anyone who's been paying attention: The Broncos have informed Russell Wilson that they will release him after the start of the new league year on March 13. Personally, I don't think the 35-year-old is a legit starting quarterback anymore. Meanwhile ...

... here's a bold take: Free agent Sam Darnold gets in the mix to start somewhere. Think: Denver, in conjunction with a first-round quarterback. Maybe Las Vegas or Tampa Bay, depending on how those teams look to approach the game's most important position.

Alright, enough dilly-dally. Here is my ranking of the best available quarterbacks this offseason, Schein Nine style.

Caleb Williams
USC · Age: 22

He's one of the best quarterback prospects in the last quarter century. Williams reminds me of a young Aaron Rodgers with his arm strength, accuracy, domination, athleticism and ability to make you say, "Wow!" And yes, as most of you know, I consider Rodgers to be an all-timer.

Long story short: Chicago truly doesn't have a decision to make. This is easy. The Bears should just turn in the card now, taking the 2022 Heisman Trophy winner at No. 1 overall. This is an organization that passed on C.J. Stroud and Patrick Mahomes. Time to snatch up Caleb, who immediately becomes the most talented quarterback to ever play for the storied franchise.

Jayden Daniels
LSU · Age: 23

Speaking of Heisman Trophy winners, this past December's recipient of the award just authored a breathtaking campaign. Owning teams across the vicious SEC all season long, Daniels showcased a dreamy knack for making plays with his arm (SEE: 40 touchdown passes against just four picks in 2023) and legs (1,134 yards and 10 TDs on the ground).

Washington makes sense at No. 2 overall. As does New England at No. 3. Or if some team wants to mortgage its future by trading up to acquire Daniels' services, I get it. He's worth it. 

Kirk Cousins
Minnesota Vikings · Age: 35

I know Cousins is coming off an Achilles tear. I also know he'll turn 36 years old before the 2024 season kicks off. I don't care. I am a huge fan of Captain Kirk. He still has value -- a lot of value.

I've said it many times through the years: Cousins is always somewhere between QB8 and QB16, depending on the week. Frankly, though, he's been a top-10 kind of guy for a large chunk of time. The Vikings should absolutely bring him back. But if they don't, the Falcons should pay him whatever he wants.

Zac Robinson is the new offensive coordinator in Atlanta, and his system is a branch from the Sean McVay tree, just like that of Vikings coach Kevin O'Connell. Oh, and during his time in Washington, Cousins thrived with McVay as his offensive coordinator, earning his first Pro Bowl nod in McVay's final season before the coach took over the Rams. So Cousins is unquestionably comfortable in this kind of attack.

I think the Falcons would become a top-four NFC team by signing Cousins -- and inherently keeping their draft currency to supplement free-agent additions in need areas (offensive line, wide receiver, pass rusher, cornerback). Raheem Morris' team is a Kirk Cousins away from being truly great.

Drake Maye
North Carolina · Age: 21

I know the odds are strongly against me in this take, but I'll toss it out anyway: I think Caleb Williams, Jayden Daniels and Drake Maye will all be great pro quarterbacks. That's right: I believe this QB class is truly special. Consequently, ranking fourth on this list is no slight to Maye.

I love Maye's size (6-foot-4 3/8, 223 pounds), arm and functional mobility. He reminds me of a young Josh Allen, and I was obsessed with Allen coming out of Wyoming. (Check the receipts: I called him "the most talented quarterback in the draft" a month and a half before Buffalo took him with the No. 7 overall pick.) The Commanders and Patriots would both be great fits for Maye, but I would love to see the Giants get aggressive and trade up from No. 6 to nab the UNC product.

Baker Mayfield
Tampa Bay Buccaneers · Age: 28

If I were Mayfield, I would leave Tampa Bay -- or, at the very least, truly explore what the open market has to offer and not take any kind of discount to remain with the Buccaneers. While the Bucs just re-upped star wideout Mike Evans, savvy offensive coordinator Dave Canales isn't walking through that door anymore, as he's now head coach of the division-rival Panthers. Yes, Mayfield briefly worked with new Bucs OC Liam Coen during the quarterback's quick stint with the Rams, but Canales just coaxed the first Pro Bowl season out of the former No. 1 overall pick. Clearly, that was a fruitful relationship. Mayfield got his name and game back on a one-year, prove-it deal in Tampa. He absolutely proved it, and now it's time to reap the benefits of free agency.

If the Falcons don't bring in Kirk Cousins -- a possibility I discussed just above -- I think they should sign Mayfield. Remember, Raheem Morris and Zac Robinson were also in Los Angeles during Mayfield's winter sojourn with the Rams two seasons ago. Baker impressed everyone with his professionalism and play under frantic circumstances, beating the Raiders in prime time just days after joining those Rams. Morris and Robinson undoubtedly remember that fondly. Atlanta would be a great fit for this revitalized field general.

I think New England makes sense as another potential landing spot for Mayfield. The Patriots currently have the most cap space in the NFL, per Over The Cap. They can take ballyhooed WR Marvin Harrison Jr. at No. 3 overall or trade down, pile up additional draft currency and still get a stud receiver in a loaded class at the position.

Oh, and Mayfield throwing to Davante Adams in Vegas also makes a ton of sense.

J.J. McCarthy
Michigan · Age: 21

All J.J. McCarthy did in college was win, going 27-1 as the starter in Ann Arbor. He beat archrival Ohio State. He won Big Ten titles. He handled adversity with aplomb. And then McCarthy capped off his Michigan career by winning the program's first national championship in 26 years.

I love this kid, and I love one player comp I've recently seen popping up around him: Alex Smith. As regular readers know, I was a huge fan of the three-time Pro Bowler. Once Smith was coached by Jim Harbaugh and Andy Reid, he became a really strong and successful quarterback as an athlete who could make every throw while simultaneously oozing leadership and savvy. Think how McCarthy could continue to develop under Sean Payton in Denver. He'd be a fine fit in Las Vegas, as well, with the Raiders in a transitional phase under Antonio Pierce.

One way or another, I think McCarthy is going higher in the draft than many anticipated just a few weeks ago.

Justin Fields
Chicago Bears · Age: 25

I know what you're thinking ...

Wait, Fields is below Baker Mayfield on this list?

Yes. Look at Mayfield's early years in Cleveland and this past season in Tampa Bay -- Fields has never played to that level.

OK, but Fields is ALSO below J.J. McCarthy?

Well, yeah. In a salary cap league, contract size matters. And Fields' rookie deal is winding down. So, not only would you have to trade some draft currency to acquire him, but he could ultimately demand a pretty high price tag on an extension.

I really like Fields and will argue forever that the Bears helped spoil his first few years in the league with foolishness (remember the Andy Dalton, QB1 nonsense?), bad coaching and poor surrounding talent. Having said that, I still always wanted more from the player himself. Fields' fourth-quarter numbers are poor. So are his overall completion percentage and winning percentage. I'd love to see him overcome these shortcomings and thrive somewhere else, but where?

I think he could flourish in Pittsburgh under new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith. But that's where the perfect fits end. I just don't see a robust trade market for the former No. 11 overall pick. Maybe New England? Atlanta would sense -- I'd like the fit with the coaching and weapons -- but Kirk Cousins and Baker Mayfield are both more logical veteran options and won't cost a draft pick.

I believe Fields can be a successful starter in this league, but at this stage, it's just an educated guess. The Bears would be wise to trade him before the opening of free agency.

Michael Penix Jr.
Washington · Age: 23

Color me obsessed with this past college season's Heisman runner-up. He's a fantastic player with a big-league cannon for an arm. Penix was transcendent in each of his two seasons with Washington, but that was especially the case this past fall, when the southpaw threw for nearly 5,000 yards in 15 games and led the Huskies to an appearance in the national title game.

Penix won a lot of college games by simply taking over and tapping into his clutch gene. He's an older prospect, which doesn't particularly bother me. But there are valid concerns about his extensive injury history, which includes multiple surgeries on knees and shoulders. If he clears your team's medical testing -- and according to NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport, the examination went quite well in Indy -- Penix could be an absolute gem of a pick, especially if he slips out of Round 1.

Bo Nix
Oregon · Age: 24

With only three veteran quarterbacks cracking this list, I expect Nix's stock to rise. After washing out at Auburn, Nix transferred to Oregon and resurrected his career in spectacular fashion, throwing 74 touchdown passes against just 10 interceptions during his two years as the Ducks' starter. His field workout at last week's NFL Scouting Combine drew mixed reviews, but I thought he showcased nice touch and accuracy.

Bottom line: I think Nix will come off the board within the first two rounds in April. Denver could make sense, barring the Broncos hopping on J.J. McCarthy. And if Kirk Cousins leaves, Minnesota would be a nice landing spot for this experienced, well-rounded prospect.

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