Who'll be the NFL’s hottest free-agent quarterback? The Vikings’ Joshua Dobbs can earn that title by March

The Pittsburgh Steelers gave up twice. The Detroit Lions were never really that interested. The Tennessee Titans made other plans. The Cleveland Browns found someone cheaper. The Jacksonville Jaguars never let him take a snap. And the Arizona Cardinals never saw him as anything more than a stopgap.

But as Joshua Dobbs likely learned in his aerospace engineering studies, flying can be perfected through crashing.

The metaphor is quite fitting for Dobbs, who has been fighting for a long-term NFL starting quarterback job. In 2017, Dobbs was drafted in the fourth round and his primary utility to franchises teetered between utility backup and last-ditch emergency starter. That has comprised the vast majority of Dobbs’ résumé into this season — a seven-year succession of cashing paychecks from seven different franchises. And through Sunday, notching 11 starts with three of them, including the Titans, Cardinals and Vikings.

But after only two games and 12 days in Minnesota, Dobbs has now posted two of the most impressive games of his career: last week’s 31-28 win over the Atlanta Falcons, despite being pressed into the starting lineup after only four days of preparation and Sunday’s 27-19 win over the New Orleans Saints, which saw Dobbs showcase a dynamic style of play and leadership that is going to draw considerable attention if it continues.

What kind of attention? The kind that could position Dobbs as a coveted free agent this coming offseason — and possibly the most coveted quarterback available, despite being slated to hit the market alongside veteran starters Kirk Cousins, Ryan Tannehill and Baker Mayfield. That trio will all have varying levels of interest, either because of health, age or physical limitations (or some combination of all three). But if Dobbs’ two-game showcase in Kevin O’Connell’s offense is a glimpse of what is ahead, arguably none will have the total skillset that Dobbs brings to the table with his ability to throw from the pocket, create off script and also be a designed part of a running game. Not to mention his age — he turns 29 in January — and this stint representing the best opportunity he’s had in his career to plant a flag as a starter.

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Joshua Dobbs (15) runs for a touchdown during the first half of an NFL football game against the New Orleans Saints Sunday, Nov. 12, 2023, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)

Vikings quarterback Joshua Dobbs runs for a touchdown in a win against the Saints on Sunday. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

In just two games and very limited practice, Dobbs is 43-of-64 passing, for 426 yards and three touchdowns, along with 110 rushing yards and two rushing TDs. Beyond the statistics and wins, the Vikings have raved about his leadership and how much he has done in such little time. Including Sunday’s performance against a good Saints defense, which saw him put up 312 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns, operating what O’Connell called a “full game plan” for the first time.

“It was Josh Dobbs out there playing quarterback,” O’Connell said. “We saw it again today, game-changing plays with his athleticism were really a defining thing to kind of fill in some of the gaps for us offensively in the first half. I just can’t say enough about his last two performances to be 2-0 with him — with so much room for us all to improve, that’s what I’m excited about the most.”

“I can’t emphasize enough what the circumstances were for him in our offense last week, but what I think was really special this week, is even coming off of that performance, [was] his work, how he prepared,” O’Connell added. “He was essentially living at the facility and going through his normal process while also allowing us to show him how we do things, how we try to enhance his ability to play fast while also giving him really good plays that he can be responsible for … ”

O’Connell reiterated that he sees considerable potential for growth ahead with Dobbs, including the return of wideout Justin Jefferson and others. But as one general manager familiar with Dobbs said Sunday night, the best currency the Vikings have to spend on him beyond the surrounding talent is time and commitment.

“He’s smart and has leadership qualities and skill, but you have to see how those all come out and blend together over a season,” the GM said. “For whatever [reasons] before this, that opportunity wasn’t there. But [the Vikings] traded for him knowing they have a good veteran group, so I’d have to think they’re seeing if he can be a longer term solution. … At the same time, quite a few teams got a chance to look at him and it just never clicked. But a lot of people said that about Geno [Smith] until last season, too. None of us are perfect. A guy can slip through the cracks and make it down the line as a more mature player. We’ve seen it.”

Granted, Dobbs’ overall record as a starter isn’t long enough to suggest what we’re seeing the past two weeks is concrete evidence of who he is, it’s worth noting that all three of his stints as a starter have come under some kind of quarterback duress. Yet until now with the Vikings, none of them have come with a realistic chance at remaining the team’s starter the following season. He was the emergency option in Tennessee after being signed off the Lions’ practice squad and Tannehill was coming back in 2023. He was the emergency option in Arizona, acquired late in training camp to hold the fort until the return of Kyler Murray. And he is now the emergency option in Minnesota after Cousins’ injury.

The only thing that’s different? This look with the Vikings could very well end with a long-term contract either here or elsewhere. He is getting every chance to flourish by O’Connell and Minnesota’s front office, with a considerable amount of young talent that could fit very well around Dobbs. And he’s learning a version of the Kyle Shanahan offense (which is a version of the Mike Shanahan offense), which makes him valuable to other teams running a similar scheme. That list includes the Los Angeles Rams, who have an aging starter in Matthew Stafford, the Green Bay Packers, who have an uncertain starter in Jordan Love, the San Francisco 49ers, who appear to be getting back on track with Brock Purdy, and of course, the Vikings, who will have the ability to use a franchise tag on Dobbs if they want to keep him and can’t work out a long-term deal.

So what would a long-term deal look like for Dobbs? It’s hard to say without knowing what the remainder of the season could look like. In 2017, an injury to Sam Bradford thrust backup Case Keenum into a wild 16-game ride (including two playoff games), which saw him go 11-3 in the regular season and then sign a two-year “prove it” deal with the Denver Broncos in the offseason for $36 million. At the time, the $18 million salary was lower-level starter money. If Dobbs does well, that kind of “prove it” deal might be his floor, with the salary adjusted for the inflation in deals — maybe something along the lines of two years for $50 million to $60 million. Then again, if he blows it out for the Vikings over the remainder of the season, there’s no telling what his market might be.

For now, it will be a measure of what he does with his time, how many other teams are taking notice and who needs a quarterback with his skills next offseason.

Entering 2022, we didn’t know Daniel Jones would have been a coveted free agent if he had been allowed to leave the New York Giants. We also didn’t know Smith would become a long-term answer at quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks.

Dobbs might be the next in that line.

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