Finding the next Geno Smith: NFL's best hidden QB comeback candidates, from Blaine Gabbert to Baker Mayfield

Finding the next Geno Smith: NFL's best hidden QB comeback candidates, from Blaine Gabbert to Baker Mayfield

The NFL is an unpredictable league. It’s also a quarterback-driven league. Geno Smith is a perfect mashup of those narratives as the biggest surprise of the 2022 season.

Smith is enjoying his delayed breakout season as the Seahawks’ starting quarterback. Once a disappointing second-round draft pick of the Jets, he’s hung on as a backup for three more teams before taking advantage of his late shot at redemption replacing Russell Wilson in Seattle.

At 32, Smith is headed to his first Pro Bowl nod on top of getting some MVP buzz. Through Week 9, he leads the NFL in completion percentage (73.1) and is third in passing efficiency (107.2 rating). He’s gone beyond being a bridge QB to someone the Seahawks need to consider re-signing to keep starting in 2023. The question now is if there are other QBs still floating around in the NFL with the same kind of mid-to-late career upside if they can land in the right situation and system.

Before Geno, plenty of Steves have fit the profile: DeBerg, Beuerlein, Bono and Young, the ultimate Hall of Fame example. Vinny Testaverde and Rich Gannon reached the peak of their success closer to the end of their playing, with the latter winning MVP for the Raiders 20 years ago at 37. Nick Foles and Case Keenum, both still in the league, also had big flashes five years ago.

Following those anomalies, here’s a look at the six best active QBs with a chance to pull off a Smith-like shocker next season:

MORE: Geno Smith’s NFL career timeline, from Jets draft pick to sucker punch to Seahawks resurgence

Blaine Gabbert, Tom Brady and Byron Leftwich

(Getty Images)

Blaine Gabbert, Buccaneers (age: 33)

Gabbert would have a good chance to start for the Bucs this season had Tom Brady stayed retired, given 2021 developmental second-rounder Kyle Trask isn’t ready to play full-time. Since he flamed out early as the 2011 No. 10 overall pick by the Jaguars, Gabbert saw key backup roles in San Francisco, Arizona and Tennessee before landing in Tampa Bay.

He’s now had nearly four years in a top passing game, the last three working behind Brady. Should Brady retire as expected ahead of next season, Gabbert would get the first shot to replace him, given the Bucs won’t have a high-enough draft pick to land one of the top potential franchise QBs.

Gabbert is a pending free agent, but he would be smart to stay in Tampa minus Brady as the offense will still have a fine receiving corps and better line assuming Ryan Jensen returns healthy at center. Gabbert could write a story very similar to that of Smith taking over for a Hall of Famer.

Baker Mayfield, Browns (age: 27)

Mayfield was an afterthought in free agency after the Browns traded for Deshaun Waton. He didn’t get a fair shake in rebooting out of Cleveland as he landed in Carolina late in the summer. He had a short window to learn what’s been a shaky, uninspiring offense under Ben McAdoo.

There was a thought that either Jameis Winston or Andy Dalton might be able to be like Smith has been, inheriting an offense with a lot of dynamic pieces, now led by running back Alvin Kamara and rookie wide receiver Chris Olave. But Mayfield might be a better fit in New Orleans than either because he would be focused on getting the ball out quickly and facilitating playmakers, much like Dalton is doing.

Dalton hasn’t outplayed Winston to the point he’s a keeper as a 35-year-old free agent. Winston is out of chances without Sean Payton. The Saints also lack a first-round pick in 2023. So it would make sense try the post Drew Brees transition with a cheap Mayfield, who could fare much better in New Orleans than he has with an injury-marred season in Charlotte.


Gardner Minshew, Eagles (age: 26)

Remember when Minshew was gathering some preseason momentum to start at some point this season should Jalen Hurts not take the next step as a passer? That talk has disappeared with Hurts throwing and rushing himself into MVP front-runner. Minshew is now settling to be one of the league’s better backups. 

He deserves a shot somewhere to see if can build on the short-lived Minshew Mania in Jacksonville. Minshew is a smart, system-adjustable QB and he would be another intriguing replacement candidate for Brady in Tampa Bay. He also can find his ideal next situation as a pending free agent.


Drew Lock, Seahawks (age: 25)

How about looking right behind Smith on the Seahawks’ depth chart? Lock also isn’t signed in Seattle beyond 2022 and should be on the move after losing the battle to Smith. Coach Pete Carroll, in his true hyperbolic fashion, did open some eyes when he suggested Lock was “nipping at the heels” of Smith for the starting job in October.

That was a shrewd move to make Lock feel like he is the contingency plan for Smith possibly leaving for another team on a lucrative contract. Lock does possess a strong arm and is only in his first season in Shane Waldron’s QB-friendly system after coming over in the Wilson trade.

The Broncos’ 2019 second-rounder has the physical skills if he can improve his mental game and decision-making as still a developing young passer.

Chad Henne-011721-GETTY-FTR

Chad Henne, Chiefs (age: 37)

Henne has been attached to Andy Reid’s offense as Patrick Mahomes’ steady backup for almost five seasons. He played well in his lone start for an injury Mahomes in 2020. He also came off the bench to help finish off the Browns in that season’s divisional playoffs on the way to the Chiefs getting to Super Bowl 55.

There’s a good chance Henne re-signs to stay right where he is with great value to Kansas City. But perhaps another opportunity arises in the QB carousel, maybe reuniting with Mike Kafka in New York to either back up Daniel Jones or fill in should the Giants not want to re-sign Jones at a high market price.

Teddy Bridgewater

Getty Images

Teddy Bridgewater, Dolphins (age: 29)

Bridgewater has had multiple rebound chances since his Pro Bowl days in Minnesota were derailed by a major knee injury. The Saints, Panthers, Broncos and now Dolphins behind Tua Tagovailoa have all been interesting whistle stops to try to prove he can be an above-average starter.

Bridgewater is only on a one-year deal but he’s absorbing another top offense under Mike McDaniel. He should have some appeal elsewhere. He does feel more like the next Chase Daniel than next Ryan Fitzpatrick than the next Smith, but is worth more than a honorable mention within this group.