Midfielders in the NFL Free Agency

It’s easy to sell off dreams of big-name quarterback deals in February, but those naps will quickly be disrupted if Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson stay home for another season. Although general managers are more equipped than ever to handle listed capital, the quarterback’s position can only take a lot of turmoil. Supply rarely meets demand – especially in an off season, with a lackluster QB draft class – and some teams eventually realize that what they have, or what is readily available, isn’t so bad.

This is why the free agent quarterback market can offer some huge, deceptive fireworks this March. At least 11 teams need a novice player (Saints, Commanders, Broncos, Buccaneers and Steelers), they can enter a competition (Giants, Panthers, Colts and Texans) or they may be up to something (Browns and 49ers). Available passersby entering the open market will try to fill in those voids as bridge options…or maybe more. That could include a few Signal callers who have spent at least the last season out of the spotlight and in a backup role.

Here’s a look at the latest news with some of these bystanders and what people across the league are saying about them, starting with a Chicago survivor story.

jump to:
Trubisky | Winston | Mario
Bridgewater | Another qb buzz

Trubisky has worked in the shadows for months at Buffalo, juggling all the tasks that make backups valuable: emulating Patrick Mahomes on a scouting team, slicing defenses on a tablet with coaches and challenging Josh Allen to hot Catan games between movie sessions.

The way Jordan Boyer saw safety, Trubesky was too good to be a quarterback on the scouting team. And after watching Trubisky’s layer pass over the track outside the linebacker’s line in practice, he came to the conclusion that the Bills reserve QB should start in the league.

“A thousand percent,” Boyer said.

The Bills think he’ll get the chance, and Trubisky believes he’s improved dramatically during his one-year stint at the AFC, deepening the intrigue of a free agent whose determination was tested in Chicago. The Trubisky arch with bears is well documented. The highest team pick in the modern NFL era (No. 2 overall) made the Pro Bowl in Year 2 and was off the bench in Year 4. Trubisky and then coach Matt Nagy never seemed to find synergy. Trubisky admitted to playing “the robot” at times in the Chicago attack, which undermined his mobility and arm strength.

Comparing Trubisky to fellow draftees Deshaun Watson and Mahomes is old ground. But teams are open to the idea that Trubisky’s story as a producing quarterback in the NFL – a 29-21 for a start – is not complete. A few NFL executives told me that his traits and pedigree should lead to a real opportunity. Leaders, Panthers, and Giants (his reunion with former Bills attack coordinator Brian Dabol as a rival to Daniel Jones) are among the places that could succeed.

“I can see him move into a situation where he could be a primary option, and the team drafts a midfielder,” said an AFC executive. “He’d have to go out there and earn it, but there’s certainly enough where the right offense can absorb him. The crime in Chicago was very strict and in its script, I’m not sure it suited him.”

The Chicago Trubisky experience left a hardliner.

“I’m in a confident place now,” said Trubesky of South Florida, where he is training and expecting the birth of his first child with wife Hilary.

Trubisky entered free agency for 2021 wanting to play short term but with a long view. The two options were to sign with a team that might offer a chance to play, or to go somewhere to learn for a year, improve their game and get into free agency for 2022 for a better midfielder. A phone conversation with Daboll convinced him to follow the latter path, and that backtracking could result in two steps forward. Daboll reported that he tested this in his coaching career by not always jumping at the first opportunity to call in plays. Daboll spent two different four-year stints with Bill Belichick in New England before becoming the Bills’ offensive coordinator – and now the Giants’ head coach.

Trubisky accepted a one-year reset at $2.5 million with the Bills.

“Going to Buffalo really opened my eyes,” said Trubisky, who completed 20 of 28 passes for 221 yards and touchdowns against the Bears in pre-season, before playing frugally in the regular season. “Having been in Chicago for four years, there was only one way I knew how to do things. [Being] in Buffalo and [having] A different way of doing things, you learn what’s possible. It helped me get back into instinctive football and use my talents instead of overthinking.”

Allen was the perfect midfielder to imitate as well. In Buffalo, Allen was encouraged from day one. He struggled at times during the first two seasons, but Billings hit the ceiling. They knew Allen would take chances in the big plays but thought he could strike a balance between doing the right play and letting his ability take over.

Trubisky saw Allen, Dabol and quarterback coach Ken Dorsey – now Buffalo’s offensive coordinator – in full swing all week, from writing plays to making playing adjustments.

“One thing Josh showed [Trubisky] “It’s OK to work a little independently, and use your sportsmanship and instincts,” said Buffalo general manager Brandon Bean, who agrees Trubisky is ready for another opportunity. “I think he’ll take that with him.”

As Trubisky describes it, passing through the gradients is essential for any midfielder, but it’s also not always as simple as “1-2-3 and throw.” Escape from the pocket and playing smart – but not conservative – can be critical.

“You can’t be afraid to make mistakes,” Trubesky said. “When guys play for free, you can be your best. I wanted to learn how [the Bills] Josh helped, and I saw it for myself.”

Poyer and Allen were keen to talk about Trubisky, with Allen saying he “completely fell in love with the guy” on a personal level. Boyer describes him as “one of my best teammates ever”.

“Mitch was through the contest,” Allen said. “Choice number 2, how he dealt with being a professional, getting into a situation you never thought you’d be in that situation, that’s not easy. But he handled such a separation.”

Allen added, “The guy is an athlete. I don’t think people really understand that. You give him leeway in an offense to have that mentality of, ‘Look, do that, we trust you.'” “He will kill her.”

Two years after resetting himself in New Orleans, Winston occupies a good place in the free QB Pantheon building. He sat behind Drew Brees for 2020 rather than chasing a bridge player job, then came back with the Saints and was productive in seven starts in 2021 before tearing up the ACL left. The Saints went 5-2, while Winston produced a 14-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio, a huge improvement from his prone ways to turn in Tampa Bay.

With the Saints keeping Sean Payton’s staff together after the coach stepped down after the season, many in the league are expecting them to bring Winston back to a new contract. Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael knows how to use Winston and sharpen his skills. That means plenty of movement, with Winston averaging 9.8 yards per dip since 2019, the most in the NFL.



Marcus Spears breaks down what the future free agent market holds for Saints’ QB Jameis Winston.

“I think they’ve got something in there, and the word is, his fellow Saints love it,” said the NFL offensive coach. “The big question is what would things look like without it [Payton]. He is like an elite player. But this is a good team and a good team that shouldn’t hold back too much.”

Winston underwent ACL surgery in November and is hoping to begin offline team training as soon as possible in May.

If the 49ers move on from Jimmy Garoppolo, which is largely to be expected, they could spend the money on a talented freestyle midfielder to pair up with Tre Lance. That would give San Francisco flexibility, with the new quarterback either supporting Lance in a backup role or actually starting games if Lance needs more development time — at a lower cost than Garoppolo’s slated for 2022 ($25.5 million).

Mariota would make a lot of sense in this scenario. He will thrive from coach Kyle Shanahan’s workouts designed while providing experience. Mariota and Trubisky have similar backgrounds to the former runners-up who had to re-establish their careers as backup models with new teams. Mariota did enough to earn a fifth-year option from Tennessee, but the franchise’s 2-4 start in 2019 led to him being put on the bench in favor of Ryan Tanehill. He’s spent the past two seasons in Las Vegas as a reserve for Derek Carr, throwing 30 passes and occasionally using in red-zone situations.

Mariotta’s last extended action was really good, with a 17-of-28 pass performance for 226 yards and touchdowns in front of the chargers in 2020. That didn’t stop Las Vegas from cutting his salary in 2021, from $10.75 million to $3.5 million plus incentives (but to To be fair, the number one wasn’t proportional to the league’s reserve QB metric). Either way, Mariota should have many options in March.

Many evaluators remain optimistic about Bridgewater as a bridge starter due to its accuracy and solid gameplay. The safest option may be out of the group.

“From a leadership point of view, he’s really strong. The question is, did he get the title of Handyman?” One NFC scout said.

Bridgewater has started for four different NFL teams since 2017, and will likely be on his fourth team in four years, if the Broncos don’t sign him. Denver was 7-7 when he started in 2021, but Carolina was frustrated by Bridgewater’s struggles to close matches in 2020. Bridgewater’s 15-11 touchdown to interception with the Panthers improved to 18-7 with the Broncos, but his 2021 Total QBR finish 20th place in the league (47.5).

Houston is a potential fit. Bridgewater can be a start-up or backup option around Davis Mills.

Some other QB notes

  • I hear that the Texans were happy with Tyrod Taylor’s one-year stint there, so getting him back on another year’s deal isn’t far from the realm of possibility.

  • Some people around the league are wondering if Ryan Fitzpatrick, at 39, might be retiring. He missed him last season after hip surgery, but he could fit in somewhere and likely still be ready for shots regardless.

  • Many across the league expect Washington to comb the big-ticket quarterback market. Leaders are more likely to consider all options and not limit themselves.

  • The expectation is that Carolina, at the very least, brings competition to Sam Darnold, who is essentially restricted to the line-up with a fully guaranteed $18.858 million year option.