Who Is the NFL's Best Young Franchise Quarterback?
It's impossible to win in the NFL without competent quarterback play.
That fact isn't up for debate anymore. The days of limping through the playoffs with a fantastic defense and Trent Dilfer or Brad Johnson under center are long gone. Front offices are hired and fired based on the decisions they make with the quarterback position, and very few survive if they're unable to bring in a great young passer to potentially lead the franchise to greatness.
To that end, Bleacher Report set out to find the best young franchise quarterback in all of football. This list is based solely on season-long film study and specific criteria that was meant to isolate a quarterback's strengths and weaknesses apart from the help (or lack thereof) he received from his teammates or the offensive scheme.
The names of the signal-callers 25 or under on this list you know. The order may surprise you. Click ahead to find out who was picked as the NFL's best young franchise QB.
Explanation of Criteria
Presence can range from Peyton Manning-esque ability to complete throws while getting hit or Steve Young's knack to extend plays all the way down to Blaine Gabbert's apparent full-fledged PTSD every time the ball is snapped. Basically, in a nutshell, can this QB complete the play when things break down around him?
This has nothing to do with completion percentage. Accuracy also can't be boiled down to, "Did the ball get there?"
Rather, one has to weigh the difficulty of the throws and of the offense. Did the quarterback put the ball where it needed to be when it needed to be there, and what factors helped him or hurt him in that process?
For a young quarterback, consistency can often ("should often" may be better) look more like an upward trending line than a totally static one. Before a QB hits his 28th birthday, he should be getting better and better each year. Can his team count on him every single Sunday on every single snap?
This is admittedly a very large category and a bit of a catch-all. When a play breaks down, can this quarterback make plays on his own? Does he put his team on his back in the clutch? Does he bring something special to the game that few of his peers could hope to emulate? One quarterback might get huge marks in this category for elite athleticism. Another might excel because of amazing leadership.
Maybe the most overrated facet of quarterback play, arm strength is also one of the least understood. If arm strength is simply "how hard the ball comes out of a guy's hand," it does a disservice to the large number of quarterbacks who excel because of mechanics rather than raw physical tools. Pure, unadulterated arm strength is just as impressive off a back-foot as it is with perfect hip rotation and follow-through.
7. Ryan Tannehill
Pocket Presence: 7/10
Perhaps the biggest positive to Tannehill as a rookie was his ability to sit in the pocket, take hits and still deliver catchable passes to his motley crew of receivers. While the speed of the game seemed to affect him at times, Tannehill showed poise and good mobility within the pocket.
He exhibited the ability to "thread the needle" at times on longer throws—especially those between the hashes—but airmailed his fair share of shorter passes and throws to the outside. His offense often lacked a sense of timing, as Tannehill tended to throw to open receivers rather than throw them open.
One look at Tannehill's 76.1 passer rating can give anyone a snapshot at how inconsistent he was as a rookie. Within the games, Tannehill often found himself struggling through long stretches only to later peak and make throws other QBs could only dream of.
He showcases above-average athleticism and can extend plays when protection breaks down. But he does have a tendency to mechanically break down at times when his team needs him at his best and took chances over the course of the season that didn't always pay off.
Arm Strength: 8/10
His best physical trait, Tannehill has the pure arm strength to make a lot of throws even when his mechanics aren't at his best. While not one of the true cannons in the NFL, he has the ability to rifle passes through zones and blow the top off of deep coverage.
He's my lowest-ranked QB on this list, but he is clearly a young man worth building a franchise around. At times, it looked as though Tannehill wouldn't be able to win with the group of guys Miami has around him. But at others, he made average skill position players look like superstars.
He has all the physical tools to succeed at the NFL level, but he has to learn to be more of a craftsman and needs a better group of guys around him.
6. Cam Newton
Pocket Presence: 7/10
An almost uncanny sense of where pressure is coming from, Newton deals with a lot of it, as his line always seems to be banged up, shuffled around or needing another two or three warm bodies to actually protect him. He gets dinged here because he sets up to run a little too quickly at times and takes rushing yards rather than easier, bigger chunks through the air.
Newton is still very uncomfortable when making difficult throws. He does not throw his receivers open except on deep routes and misses when asked to throttle down his throws. Mechanically, Newton has refined his game since college, but he still has a long way to go in terms of timing and touch.
As a "weapon," Newton consistently scares defensive coordinators. As a passer, however, Newton is as up and down as they come. He throws at his receivers' feet and often misses on easy swing routes and out routes.
Almost every point Newton gets here is because of his fantastic athleticism. While he showcased his ability to rise to any occasion at Auburn, he has not done so with regularity at the professional level. Part of that is due to the tendency to rely on his feet in clutch situations, and part of it is simply the lack of opportunities he has had.
Arm Strength: 9/10
One of the strongest arms in the NFL, Newton has a tendency to heave the ball long distances with little to no help from his hips, legs or torso rotation. He also fires the ball with incredible velocity on deeper routes outside of the hashes.
Physically speaking, it would not be out of the question to select Cam Newton as the quarterback to build a team around because of his elite athleticism and the promise he still has. However, he has failed to consistently improve at the NFL level, and question marks there keep him lower than the following names on this list.
5. Matthew Stafford
Pocket Presence: 8/10
Relatively invincible when pass rushes come from the outside, Stafford has shown a knack for hitting complex throws even while getting hit. However, he takes too many hits because he tends to stick his feet in one place and does not often reset once he moves. This is especially noticeable from interior pressure.
This is probably the most noticeable flaw in Stafford's game, yet also the one easily masked by the presence of Calvin Johnson. Lions receivers have struggled with drops in the past few seasons, and some of fault has to lie with Stafford, who struggles with consistent placement on throws long, short, outside and over the middle.
Mechanically speaking, he is the most maddening quarterback on this list. His arm slot, footwork and read progression all break down at times with little rhyme or reason. Stafford's struggles with consistency trace back to Georgia, where he often ran hot and cold. He has not improved this facet of his game, and it leaves many questioning if he ever will.
Stafford has better athleticism than he is often credited for and can pick up yardage with his legs when he is so inclined (though that is rarely the case).
He also gets high marks for the ability to up his game in the fourth quarter, where he is almost always fantastic whether it leads to a Lions victory. Yet many of those holes he's digging himself out of are by his own design, and he has not shown that he can be depended upon to lead a team without plenty of help.
Arm Strength: 10/10
After Joe Flacco, Stafford has the strongest arm in the NFL. He can throw intermediate routes outside the hashes side-armed and has hit deeper routes off his back foot. The sheer strength of his arm has been both a blessing and a curse for the Lions.
If one was building prototypical pocket passers, it's likely that everything below the neck would come right from Matthew Stafford. Just like Newton, he has the potential to be great but clearly needs more help than he's been given.
Often left out of the "great young passer" group, Stafford just had his 25th birthday and has some time (though not much of it) to develop his acquired talents above the shoulders.
4. Colin Kaepernick
Pocket Presence: 6/10
While this facet of Kaepernick's game improved over the course of the season, he still threw too many errant passes in the face of the rush and showed little mobility within the pocket. As he grows into the 49ers offense, Kaepernick needs to learn to run more to set up the throw rather than simply run for yardage.
He throws well in terms of velocity on the run, but his accuracy breaks down. Even if the ball gets to the intended target, it rarely gets there in stride or with acceptable placement within the catch radius. Set up in the pocket with time to throw, Kaepernick is rarely off-target on intermediate routes, but needs to develop the deftness of touch both on shorter routes and over 20 yards.
My oft-repeated maxim for Kaepernick is that he makes throws Alex Smith couldn't make, but he also throws a ton of passes Smith wouldn't take. Kaepernick needs to develop an even better chemistry with receivers and familiarity with the nuances of his progressions before he scores higher marks here. Still, at his age, he goes through long stretches of veteran-like poise.
He exhibited rare ability in the clutch during his time at Nevada, and that showed itself at the NFL level once he got his chance to shine. He also gets a boost here from his incredible running ability and aptitude with an NFL-style passing offense melded with a college-style QB rushing attack. Few quarterbacks could pull that off and pressure defenses in the way Kaepernick is able.
Arm Strength: 8/10
Incredible arm talent capable of hitting longer throws in stride without the need to go over the top, Kaepernick shows almost identical strength while on the run, which puts him in good company with some of the strongest arms in the NFL. But he has gotten into some trouble while trusting his arm too much and subsequently underthrowing balls when his mechanics aren't at their best.
One of my favorite quarterbacks of his class when he came out of school, I didn't trust that Kaepernick could take the reins so soundly from Smith, who was having a better season than he's often given credit for. If a general manager were picking any QB in the NFL, it's not much of a gamble to bet on the kid who took his team to the Super Bowl in his first season as the starter.
3. Robert Griffin III
Pocket Presence: 6/10
Easily the biggest flaw in RGIII's game, his lack of pocket composure stems from his elite athleticism and the fact that he doesn't need to stay in the pocket when he is just as dangerous on the ground. The most troubling aspect, however, is that RGIII doesn't feel pressure as well as some mobile QBs and often finds himself running to contact rather than away from it.
RGIII has refined his deep accuracy from college to the pros and has the ability to throw receivers open deep rather than throw to a spot and hope his target gets there before the safety.
He also has top-notch timing on shorter throws and enough touch at every level. The biggest knock here is on intermediate throws, which the Redskins offense did not ask for as much. Both ball placement and timing became a lot less automatic between seven and 15 yards.
He improved as the season went on and showcased the ability to make plays with his legs when everything else was failing him. However, he needs to show he can do the same with his arm when negative yards pile up despite him.
He's obviously one of the best athletes at the position and pressures defenses in ways no one else does. RGIII also exhibits tremendous cool under pressure and leadership that is truly special for a rookie.
However, he loses marks here because of his running style and tendency to get hit, which is especially problematic with his frame that's smaller than that of guys like Newton and Kaepernick. None of the positives on this report matter if he doesn't learn to protect himself better.
Arm Strength: 8/10
He has more than enough arm to hit the deepest of throws in stride and can do so on the run. RGIII made his share of fantastic throws while being hit as well. But he can fall into the habit of throwing off of his back foot occasionally, leading to underthrows.
Simultaneously, RGIII is the most electric quarterback in the NFL and one of the most frightening for both his front office and his divisional opponents.
If he comes back from another knee injury just as electric as before and stays healthy, 32 NFL general managers might pick him to start a franchise over any other QB on this list. Until he comes back though, I'm not positive you could find one who would take that chance over the two quarterbacks I have ranked above him.
2. Andrew Luck
Pocket Presence: 8/10
If pocket presence were reduced to simply delivering the ball while being creamed in the pocket, Luck would probably score an 11 in this review. However, he went through significant stretches of obvious "rookie" errors while being pressured in 2012. Still, more often than not, he showed veteran-like poise under the worst of circumstances.
Luck can make some seriously impressive throws to the sideline and between defenders, but he also misses on some intermediate and deep throws that end up going the other way.
While taking chances is a factor in the Bruce Arians offense, throwing the ball into the defender's hands is not. Luck also periodically struggled with short-throw accuracy and timing, though he is well ahead of most rookies.
It's hard to knock a rookie quarterback for accuracy when he led his team to the playoffs. However, Luck was up and down within games for much of the year. One moment he would make you forget he was a rookie, then he would remind you in near mind-numbing fashion.
Luck has more than enough athleticism to make plays with his feet, though the Colts did not often use him that way. It will be interesting to see how much that is done moving forward with Pep Hamilton at the helm.
Luck is a leader and immediately inserted himself as the face and voice of the Colts offense. He has command of the game pre- and post-snap and has shown himself to be an active carrier of the clutch gene.
Arm Strength: 7/10
One moment Phil Simms is questioning his arm strength. The next, Luck makes a dazzling throw and everyone pretends he has a howitzer.
Luck showcases more than enough arm strength to make all of the throws at the NFL level when he is set up in the pocket or when he is on the run and has enough time to fully rotate his torso. He also has one of the prettier deep balls of any young quarterback.
Luck is a phenomenal prospect and will only continue to get better at the NFL level. Any franchise would be lucky to start its rebuilding plan with a quarterback as physically talented and mentally sharp.
1. Russell Wilson
Pocket Presence: 8/10
Had this review been only of the first half of the season, this score would be much lower. Wilson's height makes him prone to move around as passing lanes open and close in front of him. As the game slowed down for Wilson, that movement went from jittery to more deliberate and instinctual.
Wilson's deep-ball accuracy was never really in question, but I'm not sure anyone expected it to be so good so quickly at the NFL level. He exhibits the ability to throw a catchable ball at every level and doesn't lose much in terms of accuracy on the run. The only knock here is that he does fall out of rhythm at times and can find himself throwing to where his target is rather than where he's going to be.
High marks here because Wilson's level of play was on a clear upward trajectory all season long. He showcases elite ability to work himself out of slumps, play within himself when teammates let him down and improve drive after drive.
Athletically, Wilson puts a ton of pressure on defenses with both his arms and his legs. Above the shoulders, Wilson has digested his third playbook in as many years and shown he is a tremendous student of the game. He's also a high-character individual who was immediately accepted as a leader by his peers.
Arm Strength: 8/10
Wilson throws one of the harder balls on this list, but much of that has to do with his mechanics both on the run and in the pocket. He rarely breaks down, but when he does, passes do flutter a bit. However, as a former baseball player, he clearly has more than enough arm strength.
It does Wilson a disservice when people try to pretend that his below-average height doesn't matter. It does, but he overcame that one negative check mark by being phenomenal in every other facet of his game.
Nothing about the second half of Wilson's season would make anyone think "rookie," and he should continue to improve as the Seahawks put more help around him.
So, which of these quarterbacks would be best to build a franchise around?
The obvious answer based on scouting is Wilson, but honestly, all are fantastic choices. Each one of these young men has proven he can put his team on his back and win football games based on a variety of physical and acquired talents.
A number of starting quarterbacks missed this list because they fell below the scouting threshold of 30. This group includes: Sam Bradford, Josh Freeman, Andy Dalton, Jake Locker, Christian Ponder and Blaine Gabbert (note: incoming rookies were not evaluated for this study).
This isn't to say a franchise couldn't/shouldn't be proud to build around any of those young men. However, each has shown enough of a deficit in one area (or across the board) that sets him behind the players on this list.
With today's NFL continuing to emphasize the passing attack, the teams that drafted the seven young men on this list are in good hands and have set the bar for the numerous teams that are looking for quarterback help in 2013 and beyond.
Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.