Quarterback in the National Football League is arguably the single-most difficult and pressure-filled position in team sports. And there is no spot on any roster whose yearlong performance has more of a direct impact on a team's seasonal win-loss fortunes; this includes goalie in hockey and starting pitcher in baseball.
As the 2012 NFL preseason draws nearer, I take a look at each team's quarterback situation and render a letter grade. The grade will be subjective in its formulation, there will be no rating system that points directly to a result, but will reflect a scaled comparative opinion.
Its composition will be a combination of my own thoughts based on NFL games in which I have seen the players in question, statistical analysis to keep me honest on some evaluations and remind me on others, along with the projection of what I expect we will see this coming fall.
Each slide will cover one of the eight divisions and will list each team, complete with its current top-three depth chart at quarterback along with the organization's grade. I will then add summary comments on each division to elaborate, defend, criticize or otherwise report further on different teams' particular situation.
McElroy may ultimately be the best QB on the Jets' roster.
Buffalo Bills: grade D+...1. Ryan Fitzpatrick 2. Vince Young 3. Tyler Thigpen
Miami Dolphins: grade B-...1. David Garrard 2. Matt Moore 3. Ryan Tannehill
I list Tyler Thigpen No. 3 with the Bills, even though Ourlads has Brad Smith in that spot on its depth chart, because I feel confident that if injuries robbed Buffalo of both Fitzpatrick and Young, Smith would not be the one to start and log significant snaps under center. He is merely a gadget player at that position.
The relative strength of Miami's grade (10th overall in my rankings) will probably draw some criticism especially since I do not believe Tannehill will make an impact in 2012, nor do I believe in him long-term, which I repeatedly stated during the pre-draft process. Instead it comes on the strength of the Fins boasting two players that I feel are almost above-average, either of whom can lead that team to the playoffs by minimizing turnovers in conjunction with a strong running game and top-10 defense.
The Jets' quarterback situation drew my only failing grade in the exercise. After being more of a defender of Sanchez in public analysis circles over the last couple years, I have joined the growing chorus of voices that do not believe he can succeed long term. This came after reviewing some of his third-year film (2011) that reveals a passer that makes too many bad decisions and, somewhat befuddlingly, a ton of poorly thrown balls. McElroy may emerge as the best long-term player of this trio.
Things may look worse, before they get better, in 2012 for Dalton.
Baltimore Ravens: grade C+...1. Joe Flacco 2. Tyrod Taylor 3. Curtis Painter
Cincinnati Bengals: grade D+...1. Andy Dalton 2. Bruce Gradkowski 3. Zac Robinson
Flacco on his own is probably worthy of a B- grade, but in 2011 when I was looking for a demonstrable step forward in his performance, I saw a bit of a regression towards average instead. And it may be that his immobility and chronic difficulty with pressure will never allow him to be truly above-average. The combination of inexperience and incompetence behind him led to the final grade another notch down.
I am an admitted Andy Dalton fan, as I picked him to have the best career of any QB in the 2011 draft class, and this grade may look significantly different two years from now. But I expect things to get worse in 2012 for Dalton before they get better. His performance suffered a lot in the second half of his rookie campaign and, especially if the Bengals' running game struggles to be average this year, his limitations may be exposed for a true sophomore slump.
Houston's QB situation projects as the only above-average one in 2012.
Houston Texans: grade B...1. Matt Schaub 2. T.J. Yates 3. John Beck
Indianapolis Colts: grade C-...1. Andrew Luck 2. Drew Stanton 3. Chandler Harnish
Jacksonville Jaguars: grade D-...1. Blaine Gabbert 2. Chad Henne 3. Jordan Palmer
Despite what I consider a mistake on the part of the Colts' football operations, in not bringing in a more experienced and steadying presence at No. 2 if only for tutorial and guidance purposes, I still feel like the nearly average grade is warranted. I project Luck will take every snap under center in 2012 and, despite the overall struggles of the team, he will impress with his evaluated performance and statistics.
If the Jaguars want to compete and try to win football games in 2012, then I expect Henne to be named the starter before Week 1. And that prospect, along with his presence on the roster which will likely guarantee significant playing time throughout 2012, is why the Jags did not join the Jets up F-creek. Nothing during the pre-draft process nor since leads me to believe that Gabbert is anything but a top-10 bust at the position.
Unfortunately for the Titans, even if Locker turns out to be the truth in the future, 2012 is likely to be an ugly intersection of Hasselbeck's physical skills finally deteriorating to the point of ineffectiveness and Locker playing through the difficult adjustment to early NFL-everyday performance.
Has Rivers wrested the mantle of best-AFC QB from Brady?
Normally a Peyton Manning-quarterbacked team would be a cinch for an A or A+ grade in this kind of exercise. But questions about his health, especially playing in front of a suspect pass-blocking unit and away from a home-dome environment, along with the inexperience and ineffectiveness behind him served to knock it down a shade. Do keep an eye on Weber versus the veteran Hanie and second-round rookie Brock Osweiler (currently listed fourth on the depth chart) as jockeying behind Manning unfolds.
The Chiefs have become a vogue pick to win this division in 2012 and, akin to 2010's 10-win outfit, they could do it in spite of below-average quarterback play. I do think Cassel is an adequate enough (let us say C/C- type) to lead an otherwise talented team around him to the playoffs and I like that his performance overall appears to have improved during his Chiefs' tenure. But I also remain unconvinced that this trend will continue and we do not see a 2009 version reappear this fall.
Can Romo stay healthy for a full 16 games plus the playoffs?
Washington Redskins: grade D+...1. Robert Griffin, III 2. Rex Grossman 3. Kirk Cousins
I am a Tony Romo-supporter, analytically. I have long felt that the fanalyst animosity against him is unwarranted, based largely on the romantic subjectivity that he "always makes the big mistake late" or the tired and obtuse "he can't win a big game." I appreciate his background and development profile as a Division I-AA undrafted free agent, as well as the way he plays the game. But Romo has become a durability concern and I worry enough about that in 2012 and moving forward to penalize Dallas as such.
Contrarily, I never thought that Eli Manning would solidly reach the heights that he has in his career. I saw him as a talented lesser version of big brother Peyton that would be swallowed by New York, cold weather and the Philly pass rush. And to this day, I still loathe his body language and facial expressions during games. But he has completely won me over analytically, and any other fair-minded doubters I assert, by becoming a master of adversity along with improving his fundamental play at the position.
Rodgers played the QB position at an exceptional level in 2011.
Minnesota Vikings: grade D+...1. Christian Ponder 2. Sage Rosenfels 3. Joe Webb
Similar to why I downgraded the Cowboys so severely for Romo's perceived durability issues, I feel similarly about Cutler with the Bears and, when healthy, I think less of him than I do Romo when it comes to effectiveness. He is tough and talented but it has been too many years now for me to think he will ever get over the hump in terms of leadership grit, decision-making and accuracy.
Based on Stafford's pending superstardom, this grade may also seem harsh. Admittedly, it may be the one that rises the most a year from now (if I were to do this exercise again) if Stafford is able to follow up his stellar 2011 performance with another similar one while staying healthy for a full season. Hill is one of my favorite back-ups in the league but carrying Moore anywhere on the roster, let alone the nominal No. 3, is also worth a slight knockdown of the grade.
Despite my now rehashed vitriol over the Packers' football operations decision to insure Rodgers with nearly zero NFL experience, and literally zero regular-season snaps on their record, Mr. Discount Double Check played the position last year better than anyone in NFL history in my estimation.
Brees' mastery of the position warrants one of only two A+ grades.
Carolina Panthers: grade D...1. Cam Newton 2. Derek Anderson 3. Jimmy Clausen
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: grade D...1. Josh Freeman 2. Dan Orlovsky 3. Brett Ratliff
I realize that there will be a significant majority of readers that will cry blasphemy over the disparity, let alone pure leverage, of the Falcons' grade over that of the Panthers and Bucs based on the considerable upside of the latter two teams' No. 1s. But upside only counts for so much and it certainly does not pay the bills. Ryan's limitations aside, he plays the quarterback position very close to how I would draw it up as a personnel man: consistent, clean, elite game-management skills, natural touch-distributor and I predict there is a little more ceiling (in terms of efficiency) for him to move into on this front.
Newton served me some humble pie in 2011 after giving us one of the best rookie-quarterback performances, namely as a passer, in NFL history. And while he did show some aptitude and decision-making improvement as the season wore on, I am expecting regression in 2012. It remains to be seen if he can turn his considerable Fantasy Football value into tangible control of a ballgame that leads to wins and winning situations for the Panthers.
Could the rookie Wilson turn out to be the QB wild card in the NFC West?
Arizona Cardinals: grade D...1. Kevin Kolb 2. John Skelton 3. Richard Bartel
San Francisco 49ers: grade C...1. Alex Smith 2. Colin Kaepernick 3. Josh Johnson
Seattle Seahawks: grade C-...1. Matt Flynn 2. Tarvaris Jackson 3. Russell Wilson
The lone case of special interest to me in this division is up in the Pacific Northwest. As a fanalyst myself, I cannot wait to watch the pre- and in-season battle for quarterback time develop with the Seahawks. Will it be a controversy? Will one of the trio play surprisingly, be it well or poorly?
Despite the perceived uncertainty, usually a harbinger of disaster when associated with the quarterback position, I graded the Seahawks' situation as slightly below average because from this apparent depth of adequacy (detractors will call it mediocrity), I predict that enough solid play will ensue that this club could sneakily challenge the 49ers for division supremacy.
Flynn may not be the "second coming" that romantic fans from Green Bay and Seattle have painted or expect this fall. But if he is right and has time, look for him to make more plus plays than mistakes.
Jackson, who Minnesota never should have given up on after investing so much previous time in and based on his modest contract, actually showed improved consistency last year albeit not enough to convince anyone he is a playoff-caliber starter. But this is especially true in the wake of needing a development caddy with Ponder there now. Just look at who the Vikings have behind the fragile second-year man.
One of my personal favorites from this past class is Russell Wilson. And while I certainly concur that him starting at any point in his rookie season is less than ideal, and possibly unnecessary with the two veterans ahead of him, the conditions do seem potentially ripe for such a scenario. One in which I can foresee Wilson surprising with his poise and overall play, even keeping Seattle playoff-relevant if this occurs down the stretch.