Commentary

Tough QB decisions awaiting Browns, Bills and Jets

The fastest and most exciting way to improve a team is to get better production out of the quarterback play. Here are the five biggest QB quandaries next season, writes John Clayton.

Updated: December 12, 2007, 12:53 PM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Russell and McCownGreg Trott/Getty ImagesThe Raiders' quarterback competition between 2007 No. 1 overall draft pick JaMarcus Russell, left, and journeyman Josh McCown (foreground) could be the NFL's most watchable derby in 2008.
The search for new quarterbacks becomes tougher each year.

Fewer quality starters are on the market as teams have plenty of cap room to keep the quarterbacks of their choice. More teams are forced to find answers within their own rosters. Next year's free-agent class is led by Rex Grossman, Daunte Culpepper, Josh McCown and Billy Volek, hardly a bonanza for front offices figuring out how to improve their offenses.

The fastest and most exciting way to improve a team is get better production out of the quarterback. In 2006, Steve McNair (Baltimore) and Drew Brees (New Orleans) helped their new teams go to the playoffs. This season, Jeff Garcia has the Bucs on the verge of winning the NFC South, and Matt Schaub has helped get the Texans closer to their first .500 season.

The right quarterback move can add six points to the offense, and a playoff contender needs to score at least 22 points a game. The Falcons, Bears and Ravens will be the most active in seeking outside replacements, leaving the rest of the league to create interesting battles within.

Here are the five hottest competitions for next season.

1. Cleveland Browns


Derek Anderson emerged from the worst looking quarterback competition in training camp to battle Ben Roethlisberger for the AFC's third quarterback spot in the Pro Bowl. No one figured a potential 4,000-yard, 30-touchdown season from the tall, strong-armed quarterback who came to Cleveland in a waiver claim.

The Browns opened the season with Charlie Frye and traded him after the season opener to give Anderson his chance. Although Anderson has made Browns fans forget about first-round choice Brady Quinn this season, Quinn will be ready to compete for the starting job next summer.

Anderson is a restricted free agent, but the Browns likely will give him a first-and-third-round tender to keep him in place. Barring an Anderson trade, the Anderson-Quinn situation will resemble the Chargers' scenario when they franchised Brees after the 2004 season, forcing Philip Rivers to the bench for a second season. Anderson would enter camp as the leading candidate to start.

2. Oakland Raiders


Lane Kiffin's plan was to have JaMarcus Russell make only a few appearances in favorable situations during the 2007 season to build his confidence and protect him from failure. He will have his chance to start next season, but there is no guarantee he will be ready.

McCown and Culpepper are free agents after the season, but the Raiders probably will re-sign McCown, who wants to stay and is willing to be a backup if he loses the job to Russell. Culpepper was just a one-year fix signed during Russell's training camp holdout and will be elsewhere. This will be perhaps the best training camp battle. Russell probably will start at some point of the 2008 season, but he has to win the opening-day job in training camp. Oh, if you are wondering about Andrew Walter, he might not be with the team next season and if he is, he will be no better than the third-string quarterback.

3. Buffalo Bills


[+] EnlargeJ.P. Losman and Chad Pennington
Al Pereira/Getty ImagesBuffalo's J. P. Losman (left) and the New York Jets' Chad Pennington are two quarterbacks who could be on the move in the offseason.
Trent Edwards beat out J.P. Losman by midseason and has the Bills in the playoff hunt. So much of next summer's competition depends on how Losman handles himself at the end of this season.

Losman could ask for a trade, but his problem is finding the right trading partner in March. If the Bears, Ravens or Falcons won't offer Buffalo the right compensation for Losman, he's under contract and will be forced to compete against Edwards. Losman's failures this season were a little baffling. He has a strong arm and good mobility. Edwards seemed to make decisions quicker and move the offense more consistently. He would head to camp as the clear favorite.

4. Atlanta Falcons


It's hard to call it a hot competition -- the Falcons' quarterbacks have been so cold. Before benching himself as an NFL head coach, Bobby Petrino sent Joey Harrington to the sidelines five times. Harrington and Byron Leftwich are under contract, and the organization is studying first-round quarterback prospects. The early plan is to draft a quarterback and let him sit for his rookie season. Of Leftwich and Harrington, Leftwich has the best chance of starting as long as he can keep his chronic ankle problems under control. But that's a big if. If the Falcons draft a quarterback in the first round, they will be reluctant to trade much for a veteran. Harrington might be released, but even if he comes to camp, Leftwich would be the leading candidate to start.

5. New York Jets

Kellen Clemens hasn't distinguished himself in his first opportunity to run with the starting job. At the moment, Clemens' competitor for the 2008 starting job is unknown. But the Jets face a tough decision on Chad Pennington; he is on the books for a $4.8 million salary and an escalator clause could take his salary to $6 million in 2008. Unhappy about his benching, Pennington probably will ask to be traded or released. That would leave the Jets in the market for a veteran to compete against Clemens. It could cost well over $3 million to bring in Grossman, Culpeppper or another veteran free agent, so the Jets have to decide whether they can do better than Pennington before they release him. Pennington lacks Clemens' arm strength, but he can move the chains and help a team get to the playoffs. If he sticks around, he could beat out Clemens.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer