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Super Bowl predictions, picks, odds, preview and big questions for Chiefs-Buccaneers

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The most unusual season in NFL history will end with something (else) that has never happened: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will become the first team to compete for a Super Bowl title in its home stadium. Super Bowl LV will be played on Feb. 7 at the Buccaneers’ Raymond James Stadium, a date the NFL awarded years before quarterback Tom Brady decided to leave the New England Patriots and make a couple more runs at a championship in Tampa.

After winning the first NFC Championship Game he has ever played in, a 31-26 victory over the Green Bay Packers, Brady will face the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs. After a 38-24 victory over the Buffalo Bills in the AFC Championship Game, the Chiefs are seeking their second title of the Patrick Mahomes era. Let’s take a closer look at this exciting Super Bowl matchup.

Here’s what we have to get you ready: Kevin Seifert looks at each team and how each can win the Super Bowl; Seth Walder crunches the numbers to give you some key stats to know; Matt Bowen dives into the game plan with a key matchup and an X factor; Dan Graziano answers big questions surrounding the final game of the season; and finally, we have early, gut-reaction predictions from our experts. Let’s dive in.

Note: Odds and game lines are via Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill. Predictions are from ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI).

Jump to:
Chiefs | Buccaneers
Key stats
| X factors
Big questions
| Early picks

When: Sunday, Feb. 7 at 6:30 p.m. ET on CBS
Where: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa Bay, Florida
Vegas line: Chiefs -3 (O/U 57)

The Super Bowl will be preceded by almost none of the usual pregame hype. To ensure compliance with COVID-19 protocols, the NFL is requiring the Chiefs to remain at their home facility until no earlier than two days before the game. (The Buccaneers will already be at home, of course.) That means there will be no Media Day, no daily swarming of team hotels and no conventional parties.

Regardless, this will be a super-sized game featuring the quarterback who has won more Super Bowls than any other player in history (Brady, six) and his possible successor (Mahomes, seeking his second at age 25). — Seifert

Seifert’s first look at the matchup

Regular season: 14-2 | No. 1 seed in AFC

Reason for hope: To put it bluntly, the Chiefs are rolling. They beat the Cleveland Browns in the divisional round, even after Mahomes was put into the concussion protocol. And on Sunday, they snapped the Bills’ eight-game winning streak. Watching them go up and down the field on Buffalo’s defense, and then largely stifle an MVP candidate in Bills quarterback Josh Allen, you know they have pulled it together at just the right moment.

Reason for concern: Do you trust the Chiefs’ secondary to stay with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski, Scotty Miller and perhaps Antonio Brown? Brady will bring those weapons, along with an offensive line that kept him mostly clean against the Packers, to Raymond James Stadium. The Chiefs’ two losses during the regular season were by scores of 40-32 and 38-21, the two highest-scoring games against them this season. The Buccaneers are one team that brings the kind of offense that could outscore them in a shootout.

How the Chiefs win: One of the defining characteristics of the Chiefs under Mahomes is that they have never been out of a game, no matter how poorly they might start. So even if the Buccaneers open an early lead, the Chiefs will be just a few strikes away from getting back in the game. But the key will be whether they can hold off the Buccaneers’ defensive front. If they can give Mahomes enough time, he’ll carve up their secondary and just pour too many points on the fire.


Regular season: 11-5 | No. 5 seed in NFC

Reason for hope: The Buccaneers have scored at least 30 points in each of their past six games, averaging 35.7 over that span. If nothing else, that puts them in position to compete with the Chiefs if the game turns into a shootout. (The Chiefs are actually averaging about 25 points pre game over that span.) It’s reasonable to expect a good plan for the Chiefs’ offense from defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who once worked for Chiefs coach Andy Reid when both were with the Philadelphia Eagles. And while home field was not much of an advantage in 2020, it’s always preferable to avoid travel whenever possible.

Reason for concern: Brady threw three interceptions against the Packers and a total of 12 in the regular season, the most for him in a season since 2011. Obviously the Buccaneers overcame those mistakes on Sunday, but giving the Chiefs extra possessions doesn’t seem like a good idea. As crazy as it sounds, the Buccaneers will need Brady to tighten it up for the Super Bowl.

How the Bucs win: The Buccaneers have two paths to victory. Along one, they’ll execute a heroic game plan from Bowles and slow down Mahomes in a way that almost no other opponent has in the past three seasons. Along the other, they’ll win a shootout of massive proportions. We’re talking about a 45-40 type of game. They can do it, and the Chiefs’ defense is capable of allowing it.

Walder’s big stats to know

Mahomes led the league in QBR against the blitz (96.8). That’s probably part of the reason why he was blitzed just 21% of the time in the regular season, the third-lowest rate. The problem for the Bucs? Bringing extra pass rushers is part of their defense’s identity (38% of dropbacks, fifth-most), which means they’ll either have to change what they do best or play into one of Mahomes’ strengths.

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0:23

Patrick Mahomes completes a pass to Mecole Hardman, who makes his way into the end zone to score a 3-yard Chiefs touchdown and cut the Bills lead to 9-7.

Brady ranked 30th in QBR when under pressure this season. That’s in stark contrast to his No. 5 ranking when not under pressure. An obvious reason why: He has no scrambling ability. So just get a rid of the ball quickly, right? Brady hasn’t fared that well on quick throws, either. Instead, in Bruce Arians’ vertical passing offense, the pressure will be on the Tampa Bay offensive line in the Super Bowl to give Brady the time and space he needs to work. The Bucs only lost one game when their pass block win rate was above the 57% league average.

Bowen goes inside the matchup

Key matchup: Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu vs. Brady

I want to see the post-snap matchup here with Mathieu and Brady. Look for the Chiefs to use late movement to spin Mathieu to the middle of the field as a robber defender. You need that versus Brady to close the second-level windows on crossers and in-breakers. And when Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo schemes pressure, Brady has to identify Mathieu when he gets loose on edge blitz schemes.

X factor: Buccaneers defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul

I look at Pierre-Paul here because of his ability to win one-on-one pass-rush matchups versus the Chiefs’ offensive tackles, who could be down starter Eric Fisher on the left side. You’ll see speed to power, counters and juice off the ball. If Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Todd Bowles can get pressure from Pierre-Paul and fellow edge rusher Shaquil Barrett — as we saw in the NFC Championship Game win over the Packers — then the Bucs can play more coverage in the Super Bowl. That means Quarters and 2-man (two-deep, man-under), with the edge rushers squeezing the pocket to limit Mahomes’ ability to throw verticals down the field.

Graziano answers big questions

Does Spagnuolo have another championship game plan in him?

The Chiefs are not known for their defense. This is partly because of how exceedingly well known they are for their offense, but it’s also because their defense isn’t always very special. Kansas City’s D ranked 20th in the NFL this year in defensive efficiency. It was 13th last year, and it’s 21st over the last three years (since Mahomes became the starter). But Spagnuolo, the Chiefs’ defensive coordinator, has shown an ability to get his side of the ball tuned up for the biggest of games. They stymied Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry in last year’s AFC Championship Game, pitched a fourth-quarter shutout against the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl, held the run-happy Browns to 112 rushing yards in this year’s divisional round and confused Allen and the Bills on Sunday to advance to their second straight Super Bowl.

It has been 13 years since Spagnuolo’s New York Giants defense beat Brady and the Patriots in Super Bowl 42. This will be brought up, surely, over the next couple of weeks, but the truth is that experience isn’t going to be a factor this much later. What will matter is whether the Chiefs’ defense can find a way to get pressure on Brady, whose offensive line has been one of the big stories of this postseason, and whether they can get all of his great receivers covered.

The Chiefs will score. This we know. The Bucs’ defense is plenty respectable, but no one really slows down Mahomes and the Kansas City offense for long. Just ask the 49ers, or any other team they’ve played in the playoffs in the past three years. The question is whether the Chiefs can do enough to keep Brady and the Bucs from scoring — to keep the game in reach long enough for Mahomes to still win it if they start slow, or to head off any legendary comeback attempts Tampa Bay’s legendary QB may have in mind. The Super Bowl will be thrilling to watch when the ball is in Kansas City’s hands. But what happens when it’s in Tampa Bay’s hands will decide who wins it.

Can the Bucs’ defense keep forcing turnovers at this rate?

Tampa Bay actually lost the turnover battle on Sunday in Green Bay, 3-2. But the Buccaneers’ offense scored touchdowns off both of the Packers’ turnovers, after scoring touchdowns off of three of the Saints’ four turnovers in the divisional round the week before, as well as a touchdown off of Washington’s lone turnover in the wild-card round the week before that. Tampa Bay’s 41 points off turnovers are tied for the third-most by a team in a single postseason in the past 20 years, and it has a game left to catch the 2010 Packers, who had 48.

Now, that means 45% of the Buccaneers’ points this postseason have come off of turnovers, and they’ve won their games by an average of 7.8 points. So if you think they have to get turnovers in order to win, this postseason backs up that conclusion.

This isn’t new for Tampa Bay, though. Its 101 points off turnovers in the regular season were the third most in the league, behind only Baltimore (106) and Pittsburgh (105). But that’s still only 21% of the total points the Bucs scored this year. So 45% is a monster number. If it keeps up, you have to like their chances. If it doesn’t, they’ll have to stop the Chiefs with a defense that ranked a solid-but-unspectacular ninth in defensive efficiency in the regular season.

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Cameron Brate sneaks past the Packers’ defense into the end zone, and Tom Brady finds him for an 8-yard touchdown.

Kansas City’s 16 regular-season turnovers were tied for the fourth-fewest in the league, and so far this postseason it has turned the ball over once in two games. Whether the Bucs can take the ball away from Kansas City in the Super Bowl could determine which team wins it.

Gut-reaction predictions

Our experts lean with the Chiefs in early picks, 9-2.

Matt Bowen, NFL analyst: Chiefs. Their explosive play ability on offense will create matchup issues for the Tampa Bay defense.

Mike Clay, fantasy writer: Buccaneers. It feels gross picking against Mahomes, but the Buccaneers have been red-hot over the past two months and — records aside — arguably have the overall better body of work this season.

Jeremy Fowler, national NFL writer: Chiefs. They have an answer for everything you do on defense — blitz, try to stop the run, switch up coverages — and they are wide awake after appearing bored for much of the regular season.

Dan Graziano, national NFL writer: Chiefs. Reid is money with two weeks to plan, and the Bucs’ defense has been living off turnovers all month.

Jenna Laine, Buccaneers reporter: Buccaneers. They’ve won seven in a row to get here, and assuming they’ll have both starting safeties Antoine Winfield Jr. and Jordan Whitehead back, they’ll be at full strength defensively.

Jason Reid, The Undefeated writer: Chiefs. Reason: Mahomes. Any questions?

Kevin Seifert, national NFL writer: Chiefs. It’s time for Mahomes to take the championship torch from Brady.

Mike Tannenbaum, NFL analyst: Chiefs. They are 44-11 over the last three years, best in the league. There’s too much talent on K.C.’s side.

Seth Walder, analytics writer: Chiefs. While the Bucs scuffle around with 3-yard Leonard Fournette runs on first down, Mahomes and the Chiefs will pass their way to an early lead they won’t surrender.

Seth Wickersham, senior writer: Chiefs. I hate to underestimate Brady again, but the Chiefs are just too good.

Field Yates, NFL analyst: Chiefs. The explosive offensive attack simply cannot be stopped.

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High school football player apologizes for trash-talking Cam Newton on viral video

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — A high school football player who was seen on video trash-talking Cam Newton has apologized to the 2015 NFL Most Valuable Player after the exchange between them went viral.

An abbreviated part of the video, in which Newton was repeatedly taunted as a free-agent-to-be who was “about to be poor,” sparked passionate reaction from Newton’s NFL peers. It occurred at a 7-on-7 football tournament, with Newton coaching his longtime team through his charitable foundation.

The player, Jseth Owens of Perkiomen Valley High School in Pennsylvania, asked for forgiveness as part of a written apology on Twitter.

Earlier Sunday, Newton had shared an extended video of the exchange on Instagram, with an accompanying message that explained why he was seeking to speak with the player’s father.

“People often forget as athletes that are often seen on TV — loved by most, hated by some — we are real dads, real friends, real brothers, real sons, real human beings. With that being said, when I attend tournaments all across the country with my all-star team, I have given my time, my energy and my expertise to these kids coming into our program for over 11 years and that is not what people want to hear or even want to see.

“People want to see me arguing with another young man and to see me ‘get in my feelings.’ But the truth is this, I impact kids’ lives in a positive way. Make no mistake about it, I allow kids to realize their ‘out’ by using their football talents to get them to the next level and in most cases out of the hood.”

Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Darius Slay, Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Leonard Fournette, New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Eric Ebron and Denver Broncos safety Justin Simmons were among NFL players who tweeted their support of Newton.

Newton, who spent the 2020 season with the New England Patriots after nine seasons with the Carolina Panthers, is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent. He said on the “I Am Athlete” podcast to be released Monday that he has no plans to retire.

“Hell no! I can’t go out like that,” he said in reference to an up-and-down 2020 season in which the Patriots were 7-9. “I hear all of that talk. My pride won’t allow me to do it. There aren’t 32 guys better than me.”



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To keep or let go? Colts must decide on Hilton, other key free agents – Indianapolis Colts Blog

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INDIANAPOLIS — The focus when talking about the Indianapolis Colts this offseason — and rightfully so — has centered around the quarterback position following Philip Rivers’ retirement. Consider that box checked, now that the team has an agreement to acquire Carson Wentz from the Eagles.

But general manager Chris Ballard still has some internal decisions he has to make when it comes to the rest of the roster. The Colts have 10 notable unrestricted free agents, highlighted by wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, running back Marlon Mack and defensive end Justin Houston. Let’s go position by position and provide reasons to both keep and move on from each player.

Running back

Marlon Mack

Why keep him: Reich believes in having multiple options to turn to in the backfield. Can you imagine a trio of Mack, Jonathan Taylor and Nyheim Hines? That’s three different ways the Colts could beat teams out of the backfield. Mack rushed for 1,091 yards in 2019 before a torn Achilles in Week 1 ended his 2020 season.

Why let him walk: The Colts may not be able to afford him or Mack may not want to share the workload with Taylor, who topped the 1,000-yard rushing mark as a rookie last season. “Marlon Mack deserves a good contract,” Ballard said in January. “I don’t know if we’re going to be able to do that here. But I’m not saying Marlon (won’t return).”


Wide receiver

T.Y. Hilton

Why keep him: Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne are the only two receivers who are above Hilton in the team’s record books. Hilton is currently the longest-tenured Colts player on the roster.

Why let him walk: The reality is Hilton will turn 32 in November, has topped a 1,000 yards receiving just once in the past four seasons and has played all 16 games just once in that same span. This, unfortunately, outweighs the positives. It could be a case where the Colts let Hilton test the market first and then see if the two sides can reach a deal.


Tight end

Trey Burton

Why keep him: The Colts will likely be able to re-sign Burton at a cheaper price tag and he’s already familiar with Reich from Indianapolis and Philadelphia.

Why let him walk: An opportunity to upgrade the position. Starter Jack Doyle, who continues to be dependable, will be 31 in May and tight ends like Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith are free agents.


Offensive line

Le’Raven Clark

Why keep him: Extra depth on an offensive line that lacked it in 2020.

Why let him walk: Clark is not a starter on a playoff team. He’s more of a backup you can plug in as a starter for maybe a game, if needed. The Colts should be able to find a serviceable backup tackle in free agency or the draft.


Defensive line

Justin Houston

Why keep him: The veteran had a team-high 19 sacks in two seasons with the Colts. This would be an easier decision for the Colts if they already had Houston’s replacement at defensive end on the roster. But that’s not the case, as none of the younger players played like they wanted to take over that role last season. That’s why bringing Houston back shouldn’t be ruled out.

Why let him walk: Houston turned 32 in January and at some point the Colts have to get younger at the position. Melvin Ingram, Bud Dupree and Jadeveon Clowney are some of the notable free-agent pass-rushers.

Denico Autry

Why keep him: Autry wasn’t mentioned in the same breath as Darius Leonard, DeForest Buckner or Houston on defense, but he quietly had the second-best season of his career, totaling 7.5 sacks to bring his three-season total with the Colts to 20.

Why let him walk: Autry will be 31 later this season and he’ll likely get more money from another team as he looks to land potentially his final big contract.

Al-Quadin Muhammad

Why keep him: Muhammad’s presence was felt more in the run defense than in getting sacks, as he had only five in three seasons with the team. But 56 of his 80 tackles in that same time span were solo and he’s still young (he’ll be 26 in March), which fits into the Colts’ mold of roster building.

Why let him walk: The Colts need a lot of help in the pass-rush department. Muhammad didn’t provide that.


Linebacker

Anthony Walker

Why keep him: Walker is one of the leaders of the defense. He has worked his way up from barely being able to get on the field as a rookie in 2017 to forming a solid trio with Leonard and Bobby Okereke.

Why let him walk: Okereke is better suited to play middle linebacker, and a possible sign of things to come occurred when Walker played only 18 snaps in the playoff loss in Buffalo. Walker wants to be a full-time starter, not a player who has to split snaps.


Defensive back

Malik Hooker

Why keep him: No reason, unless Hooker is willing to be a backup, which likely isn’t the case.

Why let him walk: Hooker had two of his four seasons cut short due to injuries. He tore his ACL as a rookie in 2017 and then tore his Achilles last season. Hooker didn’t play a full season in any of his four years with the Colts. Julian Blackmon stepped into Hooker’s starting role last season and appears to have that locked down for the time being. The decision by the Colts not to pick up the fifth-year option on Hooker’s contract said a lot.

Xavier Rhodes

Why keep him: Rhodes went from a player the Colts signed as a one-year flyer to being the team’s best cornerback last season. He had 42 tackles, two interceptions, including one he returned for a touchdown, and 12 passes defended in 2020.

Why let him walk: Rhodes increased his financial value with his play last season and will likely be able to get more money from another team.

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Which QB domino is next to fall? The latest on the Bears, Texans, 49ers and more

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First it was the Jan. 30 blockbuster swap between the Detroit Lions and Los Angeles RamsMatthew Stafford for Jared Goff and draft picks. Then on Thursday, the Philadelphia Eagles traded one-time MVP candidate Carson Wentz to the Indianapolis Colts.

The quarterback carousel is certainly spinning — the question is, who’s next?

Several teams are in the market for a QB. ESPN’s Adam Schefter forecast last month as many as 18 NFL teams could have new starter next season.

Let’s check up on 10 teams, listed alphabetically, that are either looking to upgrade or for a new starter. The Jaguars are expected to address quarterback with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 draft and are not on the list.

Jump to:
CAR | CHI | DEN | HOU | NE
NO | NYJ | PIT | SF | WSH

2020 starter: Teddy Bridgewater

Barring other quarterbacks becoming available via free agency or trade the Panthers are down to two options after having missed out on Stafford: They can hope the Texans grant Deshaun Watson‘s wish to be traded and come up with a suitable package or they can draft a QB, likely with the eighth pick.

The first option is preferable because Watson is a proven commodity and would be a great fit into offensive coordinator Joe Brady’s scheme. That Carolina offered Bridgewater, the eighth overall pick and a fifth-round pick to Detroit for Stafford shows they are serious in upgrading the position.

Outside of Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, the other top college QB prospects have flaws and likely wouldn’t immediately elevate the team to the playoff level owner David Tepper wants. If neither of these scenarios plays out, the Panthers are prepared to go with Bridgewater another year and upgrade the talent around him — primarily the offensive line and tight end. — David Newton

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Rob Ninkovich and Ryan Clark make the case for the Bears pursuing Deshaun Watson.

2020 starter: Mitchell Trubisky

This is probably GM Ryan Pace’s last shot to get the quarterback position right. From Mike Glennon to Trubisky to Nick Foles, the search continues. Pace might not be able to find a surefire immediate starter where he’s picking in the first round (No. 20 overall). In fact, Mel Kiper Jr. projected five quarterbacks in the top 15. He doesn’t have another first-round quarterback after the 15th pick.

In Todd McShay’s latest mock draft, he had the Bears trading up to No. 12 to take Alabama’s Mac Jones. But that’s only if the Bears don’t land one of the starters who are either on the trade market or want to be.

If the Jets decide to move on from Sam Darnold, then perhaps he would be intriguing to the Bears because he’s on his rookie contract and they would have the choice to exercise his fifth-year option for 2022. Or perhaps Pace is holding out hope the Texans will cave and trade Watson. The Bears are seemingly stuck with Foles as an expensive backup, but Pace remains on the lookout for a better solution. — Rob Demovsky


2020 starter: Drew Lock

The Broncos have a Plan A: Lock is the starter in 2021 and the team will acquire competitive backup who can both push and help him. They could easily go to Plan B if they think they can do better than Lock. They dipped their toe in the Stafford trade discussion before being told what they were offering was nowhere close to what the Lions could get from the Rams.

They have done their due diligence on the quarterbacks who will be available and/or are being shopped by their current teams and will consider any and all moves. And that includes what they can do with the No. 9 pick in the draft. — Jeff Legwold

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0:58

Damien Woody explains why he’d like to see Deshaun Watson on the Broncos.

2020 starter: Deshaun Watson

The Texans have said, publicly and privately, they don’t want to trade Watson. However, the Texans have had internal conversations about trade partners and what the position would look without Watson, according to a source. Regardless, Watson isn’t taking the team’s calls, so there hasn’t been any progress toward repairing the relationship.

Houston has no incentive to trade the quarterback they signed to a four-year, $156 million contract extension in September that goes through the 2025 season. The big question is whether Watson will sit out if the team refuses to trade him. The cost would be high — he would be fined $95,877 for missing minicamp, $50,000 for each day of training camp he misses and $620,000 — for each preseason game he misses — but it may be Watson’s only choice if he doesn’t want to play in Houston. — Sarah Barshop


2020 starter: Cam Newton

The Patriots will continue to explore all their options — in free agency, the draft (where they own the No. 15 pick) and trades. There is no surefire answer right now. They didn’t have significant interest in Wentz given the financial commitment, and they dipped their toe in the Matthew Stafford waters but weren’t going to be players at the ultimate asking price.

One of the best things they have going for them is robust salary-cap space, so if an unexpected opportunity presents itself (e.g. Jimmy Garoppolo, Watson etc.), they can pounce. What they won’t do is force it just for the sake of checking the QB box to meet an artificial deadline, even as some in the organization would like to have some clarity going into free agency in a potential competitive situation to sign a receiver or tight end.

One could make a case the Raiders’ Marcus Mariota would make sense as a bridge option in a modest trade. Also, Newton’s return might be a tough sell to fans, but the Patriots aren’t in the position to be closing any doors right now. — Mike Reiss


2020 starter: Drew Brees

The Saints will need a starting quarterback for the first time in 15 years once Brees announces his retirement. They have made it clear they want to re-sign free agent Jameis Winston to compete with fellow backup Taysom Hill for the gig. And coach Sean Payton has repeatedly expressed confidence in both contenders, insisting New Orleans’ next starting QB is already “in the building.”

It remains to be seen whether Winston will draw more interest on the open market than he did last year. But he chose the Saints in part because he anticipated this opportunity, so a team would have to make a pretty enticing offer to lure him away. It’s also possible the Saints could consider other options via trade, free agency or the draft. But all of those avenues seem unlikely considering they don’t pick until 28th in the draft and have severe salary-cap limitations. — Mike Triplett


2020 starter: Sam Darnold

The Jets are in a holding pattern as they continue to evaluate Darnold, the trade market and the top quarterbacks in the draft.

The timing of a potential trade is a delicate balance. If they wait too long to make a decision on Darnold, they run the risk of losing suitors, who may turn elsewhere. With Carson Wentz off the table, quarterback-needy teams are waiting for the Jets to make up their mind. If they’re offered a high second-rounder or low first-rounder, the Jets probably would move Darnold and draft Zach Wilson with the second overall pick in the draft. — Rich Cimini


2020 starter: Ben Roethlisberger

The Steelers want to add another quarterback to the room — independent of Roethlisberger’s 2021 status. The type of quarterback, though, will depend on Roethlisberger’s future with the organization. If Roethlisberger returns on a reduced 2021 salary, the team can afford to take another developmental quarterback to learn behind him and round out a room of developmental players in Mason Rudolph and former first-rounder Dwayne Haskins Jr.

The most likely route is drafting a quarterback in the third or fourth round of the 2021 draft, similar to their approach in taking Rudolph in the third round of the 2017 draft or Joshua Dobbs in the fourth of 2016. If Roethlisberger retires, though, the need becomes more urgent.

In that case, Rudolph becomes the front-runner for the starting job, but the team could use some of the space freed up by a Roethlisberger departure to lure a mid-level veteran like Tyrod Taylor to Pittsburgh for a one-year deal to compete with Rudolph. Rudolph showed progress under the direction of quarterbacks coach-turned-offensive coordinator Matt Canada, and the organization believes he could lead the franchise if he continues to show the development displayed in the Week 17 loss to the Cleveland Browns. — Brooke Pryor

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2:31

Stephen A. Smith sees Jimmy Garoppolo starting for the 49ers next season, but Max Kellerman makes a case for Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.

2020 starter: Jimmy Garoppolo

Despite persistent speculation, the 49ers are standing by Garoppolo. That position seems increasingly unlikely to change, save for the potential of one major development. Coach Kyle Shanahan has indicated it would take an obvious upgrade to spend vital resources and move on from Garoppolo. The Texans’ Deshaun Watson is the only potentially available quarterback who clearly meets that criteria and the Niners are monitoring that situation closely as Houston attempts to reconcile with its estranged signal-caller.

But the 49ers’ comfort level with Garoppolo is high enough they can afford to be patient and wait it out. If the Texans acquiesce to Watson and deal him, the Niners are likely to be involved. Short of that, the more realistic approach for San Francisco remains hanging on to Garoppolo and spending a relatively early draft pick and/or signing an accomplished veteran free agent to bolster their quarterback depth in the event of another Garoppolo injury. — Nick Wagoner


2020 starter: Alex Smith

Washington continues to explore all quarterback options as it looks to upgrade. The team feels confident Kyle Allen and Taylor Heinicke could help, but they aren’t viewed as long-term solutions. That’s why Washington looked at potentially available quarterbacks, from Sam Darnold to Marcus Mariota.

One team source said there were five quarterbacks Washington wanted to explore deeper, although they didn’t divulge those names. They don’t want to mortgage too much to obtain one — not with key holes still on offense. It’s also possible they bring back Alex Smith, who hasn’t publicly said he wants to play again but signs point to that desire.

And one source said if Washington can’t upgrade, it could go with Smith, Allen and Heinicke while bolstering the talent around them — and then trying to pursue this position again next offseason. With their defense — plus some more offensive weapons — Washington feels this group could win them nine or 10 games. But if the team goes in that direction, it’s hard to imagine them wanting to bring Smith back at his cap hit of $24.4 million. It’s also unknown if Smith wants to continue to play in Washington. — John Keim



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