We have now fully entered the passing era in the National Football League. Many pundits have rightly proclaimed that new rules favoring wide receivers are one of the primary reasons that the entire philosophy of NFL offenses has changed over the course of the last five years or so.
There are, however, other factors in play. Some teams still struggle with the forward pass despite these new rules. Just take a look at the Jacksonville Jaguars this season. Other teams still utilize a run-first approach; the San Francisco 49ers come to mind first.
But for the most part, the NFL is a passing-dominated league. Outside of rules benefiting the offense, one primary reason is the level of play at the quarterback position recently.
We are currently in the golden age of quarterbacking.
Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and the Manning brothers all have to be considered future Hall of Fame quarterbacks. They have won a combined 10 Super Bowls and the last nine championships. Success, it seems, is a direct correlation to the type of talent you have at this position.
The major difference between these two eras is the fact that there weren’t the slate of young quarterbacks we currently see in the NFL today. The torch wasn’t clearly passed to another generation.
For example, Heath Shuler and Trent Dilfer were the first two quarterbacks selected in the 1994 NFL draft, both in the top 10. After Steve McNair went No. 3 overall the following season, Tony Banks and Bobby Hoying were the first two at this position off the board in 1996. Not exactly a "who's who" of stellar quarterback play.
Remember Jim Druckenmiller? Well, he was the first quarterback selected in the 1997 draft, adding more fuel to the idea that the quarterback position was about to take a major hit in the NFL after the initial golden age.
The next few seasons were hit and miss when it came to selecting quarterbacks early. The 1998 NFL draft saw Peyton Manning go No. 1 overall, followed by Ryan Leaf with the very next pick. Tim Couch and Akili Smith were selected in the top three of the 1999 event, with Donovan McNabb sandwiched in between.
The common theme here is that for a seven-year span from 1994-2000, there were more busts selected early in the NFL draft than any previous stretch in the modern history of the NFL.
This has changed a great deal in recent years.
Meanwhile, Rodgers is coming off of two stellar seasons. 2010 saw him win the Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers while he put up some of the best numbers in the history of the NFL during a 15-win 2011 season.
After two down drafts with the likes of Vince Young, Matt Leinart, JaMarcus Russell and Brady Quinn going early, we have seen some amazing quarterback talent enter the NFL. It is time to look at those who have entered the pro ranks and why they are the primary reason we are currently in the golden age of quarterbacks in the NFL.
With the reports that Colin Kaepernick will be starting for San Francisco on Sunday, there are now 12 quarterbacks starting this week who were drafted in the last two seasons.
While the 2005 NFL draft did provide nine quarterbacks who were considered "starters" in the NFL, it didn't represent the most talented class ever. Dan Orlovsky and Matt Cassel don't scare too many people.
The only two-year span that probably compares to what we are seeing today is when John Elway, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino and Boomer Esiason went in 1983 and 1984. Even then, those draft classes weren't as deep as we have seen in recent seasons.
Overall, seven of the 11 quarterbacks that were drafted in April are slated to start this week. Just think about that for a second. About 22 percent of current starting quarterbacks in the NFL are rookies. While some of this has to do with certain teams not having experienced talent at that position, it is still incredible.
Some of these quarterbacks will not be long-term solutions for their team. A prime example could be Ryan Lindley, who is starting for the Arizona Cardinals simply because they have no other option.
Let's take a look at these young quarterbacks and see what they have to offer moving forward.
Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins
RGIII became the first rookie quarterback in the history of the NFL to throw four touchdowns in two consecutive games after he lit up the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving. It is getting to the point that we have to start discussing whether the Baylor product is having the best rookie season for any quarterback in the history of the league.
In addition, RGIII is currently on pace to rush for nearly 1,000 yards and has only thrown four interceptions through 11 games. This type of mistake-free football is rare for such a young quarterback.
This rookie quarterback has a rare combination of arm strength, accuracy, field vision and athleticism that only comes down the pike once in a generation. You can definitely expect RGIII to earn multiple Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors when all is said and done.
Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts
Luck came into the NFL with a lot of hype. He had been pegged to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft for a good two seasons after lighting the world on fire at Stanford. There really was never a question who Indianapolis would draft in the months leading up to April's draft.
As it relates to the Colts, they couldn't have gotten more fortunate. This is a franchise that was able to rely on Peyton Manning for 13 seasons. Once the future Hall of Fame quarterback missed 2011 with a neck injury, it became apparent that Indianapolis was ready to move on. It just so happened that the Colts won just two games and acquired the first overall pick.
Indianapolis now sits at 6-4 and would be in the playoffs if it started today. The Colts have gone from a laughing stock to a legit contender in the matter of a few months. One of the primary reasons is the addition of Luck in April.
While Luck did struggle against the New England Patriots last week, he is currently on pace for over 5,000 total yards and 27 touchdowns. He is also on pace to break Cam Newton's single-season passing mark for a rookie quarterback. You cannot make this stuff up.
Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers
What Newton did as a rookie was nothing short of amazing. He tallied over 4,700 total yards and 35 touchdowns, leading Carolina from two wins the season prior to six in 2011. Many had expected Newton to continue his ascension up the ranks. However, the former Heisman Trophy winner has had his struggles in 2012.
Newton has tallied just 13 touchdowns through the first 10 games of the season. His quarterback rating, completion percentage and average yards per rush have all gone down during this sophomore slump. Meanwhile, Carolina has regressed as a football team to the tune of 2-8.
By no means does this indicate that 2011 was a fluke for Newton. He just needs to start playing smarter football and making better decisions on a consistent basis.
Carolina's young quarterback still possesses an elite combination of arm strength and athleticism that saw him dominate the league as a rookie just a season ago. Look for Newton to improve during the offseason and be right back to form in 2013.
Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals
While Newton was making most of the noise last season, all Dalton was doing in Cincinnati was turning around a franchise that had struggled through the previous few seasons. Teaming up with fellow rookie A.J. Green, this 2011 second-round pick led the Bengals to a 9-7 record and postseason berth in his rookie season.
Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden did an amazing job building an offense that best suited Dalton's abilities, and the results were immediate. Dalton threw for nearly 3,400 yards and compiled 20 touchdowns as a rookie. While those aren't amazing statistics, they were enough to earn him a Pro Bowl spot as a rookie.
Dalton has picked up his game a great deal in his second season. He is on pace for over 4,000 yards and 32 touchdowns. Cincinnati is also 6-5 and right in the mix for a second consecutive postseason appearance.
Equally as impressive, Dalton has turned Green into one of the most dynamic young players in the NFL. The talented wide receiver has compiled nearly 2,000 receiving yards in his first 25 games.
You can expect this connection to continue for the next decade or so. In the process, Cincinnati will remain viable contenders for the foreseeable future.
Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
When Wilson transferred from North Carolina State to Wisconsin following the 2010 season, he wasn't even thought of as a legit NFL prospect. There were issues about his size and the ability of his game to translate to the next level.
Wilson went on to lead Wisconsin to a Rose Bowl berth last season and was immediately placed in the national conversation as an under-the-radar quarterback prospect. It still took Pete Carroll and Co. taking a shot at Wilson in the third round for him to get drafted. He was the 75th player off the board.
He now has Seattle at 6-4 and in a prime spot to earn a postseason spot this season. For his part, Wilson has thrown 15 touchdowns compared to eight interceptions with a stellar 90.5 quarterback rating through 10 games.
Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers
What Kaepernick did in his first NFL start against the Chicago Bears on Monday was nothing less than extraordinary. Subbing in for an injured Alex Smith against the No. 2 overall defense in the NFL, the second-year quarterback absolutely dominated the action.
He completed 16-of-23 passes for 243 yards and two touchdowns. Equally as impressive, Kaepernick did not turn the ball over against a Bears defense that had forced 30 turnovers in nine games.
We can debate until we are blue in the face whether Smith should actually be pulled in lieu of an inexperienced quarterback. What is pretty damn clear at this point is that Kaepernick is San Francisco's quarterback of the future.
The talent that he possesses is right up there with some of the best young signal-callers in the league.
Christian Ponder, Minnesota Vikings
When Ponder went in the first round of the 2011 draft, many "experts" indicated that Minnesota reached for a quarterback who didn't possess the skills needed to play at a high level. Some of these concerns were injury related, but it was damn near impossible to question his talent.
Minnesota didn't take it slow with Ponder. His first start came against the Green Bay Packers in late October. While statistics didn't show it, the Florida State alum had a solid rookie campaign. He threw 13 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in route to winning just two of his 10 starts.
The Vikings then selected a franchise offensive tackle in the form of Matt Kalil in the first round of April's draft. This has helped the young quarterback progress greatly from last season.
He has Minnesota with a 6-4 record and has thrown 12 touchdowns compared to eight interceptions. Equally as impressive, the game seems to have slowed down a bit for Ponder. He is making much better decisions and reading the field much better than what we saw in 2011.
Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins
With only a handful of starts under his belt at Texas A&M, some figured that Tannehill was going to be a two- or three-year project for Miami when it selected him in the top 10 of the 2012 NFL draft. Surprisingly, he made the first start of the season and has taken almost every snap for the Dolphins since.
Statistics might not tell us a great story about how Tannehill has performed as a rookie, but he has been impressive. Miami started the season 4-3 but has since lost three consecutive games to fall out of the AFC playoff picture.
Tannehill has thrown two touchdowns compared to five interceptions during this current three-game skid. With that in mind, it is nearly impossible to not be impressed by the way he has looked on the field as a rookie.
Brandon Weeden, Cleveland Browns
Weeden might be older than Alex Smith, who has been in the league since 2005, but he has to be considered Cleveland's quarterback of the future. In reality, the Oklahoma State product is probably the most purely talented quarterback the Browns have had in over two decades.
He has been pretty darn impressive as a rookie. Despite winning just two of his first 10 starts, you can easily see that Weeden belongs as a starter in the NFL. In order for the 2012 first-round pick to have continued success at this level, he is going to need to get more weapons on the offensive side of the ball in Cleveland.
Trent Richardson and Josh Gordon might be a good start, but Cleveland needs to acquire more talent. If that happens, Weeden will be an above-average NFL quarterback.
Other Notable Young Quarterbacks
Jake Locker (Tennessee Titans), Blaine Gabbert (Jacksonville Jaguars), Nick Foles (Philadelphia Eagles), Ryan Mallett (New England Patriots), T.J. Yates (Houston Texans), Brock Osweiler (Denver Broncos), Ryan Lindley (Arizona Cardinals).
There are a whole host of young quarterbacks with bright futures. The talent level of some of these players is far beyond what we have seen in the past in the NFL.
Needless to say, Luck and RGIII are the cream of the crop. They have everything you look for in a Super Bowl-winning quarterback. These two youngsters are also leaders off the field and represent their franchises in the best possible way. You just don't see that type of maturity from rookie quarterbacks.
It is the likes of Wilson and Kaepernick who really intrigue me, however. They fell out of the first round for different reasons. Seattle's young starter doesn't have prototypical size, while Kaepernick ran a pistol offense at Nevada, which led some scouts to believe he was nothing more than a gimmicky quarterback.
While we have no idea what their careers will turn out like, it goes without saying that these two young NFC West quarterbacks have tremendously bright futures ahead. That doesn't even take into account what promises to be an interesting rivalry between Seattle and San Francisco moving forward.
We are currently looking at a total of about 10 quarterbacks who have been selected in the last two years who could turn out to be Pro Bowl-caliber performers in the NFL. That has never happened in the modern history of the league.
Rule changes to help facilitate offense have played a part in very impressive numbers, but the talent at the quarterback position is undeniable.
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