An X's & O'S Guide to NFL Quarterbacks: What Separates the Best and Worst?

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An X's & O'S Guide to NFL Quarterbacks: What Separates the Best and Worst?
Elsa/Getty Images

We have seen analysis and over-analysis of each quarterback in the National Football League since the advent of the forward-passing game. This has only been magnified since the Internet and social media age came about.

But most of these breakdowns leave a lot to be desired. The talking head either sits in front of a camera talking about how a quarterback lacks a necessary skill set without delving further in or simply puts his critiques on a parchment without much substance. 

This won't be one of those types of articles. Instead, I am going to go ahead and break down what makes the good quarterbacks and what defines those stuck in mediocrity. 

Prepare to be enthralled, or dumbfounded, depending on which side of the ledger you stand on as it relates to the quarterbacks in this article. 

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Eyes always down the field

One of the most important aspects of playing quarterback at this level is actually understanding what is going on down the field. You simply cannot expect to have success in the NFL if you are continually honing in on one receiver on a given play. 

Aaron Rodgers is probably the best quarterback in the league when it comes to this. He always has his eyes on multiple potential targets down the field, which leads to him being able to get rid of the ball once the pocket collapses. 

Once that pocket does collapse, it is nearly impossible for the quarterback to make a decent throw without facing a tough passing window or being forced into a mistake. 

Courtesy of NFL.com Game Rewind

As you can see above, in a Week 6 matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals, first-year quarterback Brandon Weeden failed to look past his primary read on a 3rd-and-15 opportunity. His primary focus is to get rid of the ball. 

This play came moments after Weeden was sacked by Bengals defensive lineman Wallace Gilberry for a 10-yard loss. The "young" quarterback failed to make secondary reads and this was the result: 

Courtesy of NFL.com Game Rewind

Browns tight end Ben Watson ended up catching the ball behind the line of scrimmage before turning it into a gain of three—nowhere near the down and distance that Cleveland needed to gain the first down. 

Simply put, quarterbacks need to understand what is going on at a given time. The best way to do that is to go through your secondary reads and attempt to find someone down the field to gain the first down. This specific play occurred towards the end of the first half. 

Cleveland was forced to punt. Brandon Tate returned it 31 yards and a personal foul penalty tacked on 15 after the play. Within the matter of a minute, Cincinnati had put up a touchdown to take a 14-7 lead into halftime. While Cleveland ended up winning this game going away, the two plays that preceded Cincinnati's go-ahead touchdown were both on the rookie quarterback. 

Now, Aaron Rodgers doesn't go through his progressions every time he drops back to throw. Some of this led to him being the most-sacked quarterback in the NFL in 2012, but he understands full well when to get to his secondary reads. 

The point in the video that I bring you to represents this to a tee. He goes through two different reads before coming back to a secondary option and hitting on a big play. This is repeated over and over again throughout the video. 

If Weeden had done in this on 3rd-and-long against Cincinnati, there is no telling how that play would have turned out. At the very least, take the shot. 

Chris Trotman/Getty Images
Pocket awareness is another important facet of success

It goes without saying that keeping your eyes open when facing pressure up the middle is a key attribute for a signal-caller in the NFL. More than once, I noticed Blaine Gabbert either flinch, or close his eyes altogether, when facing said pressure up the gut. 

That's not going to get it done. 

First, a quarterback must anticipate where the pressure is coming from. Second, he must attempt to avoid that pressure with movement around the pocket. Finally, he must secure the ball if he has to give in to that pressure, even if it is coming from the backside.

Some of the downright worst quarterbacks fail to do this on a consistent basis, and Gabbert is definitely an example of this, but it isn't just limited to him: 

 

Most Fumbles in 2012 (via Yahoo!)
Player Team No.
Philip Rivers San Diego 15
Mark Sanchez New York (J) 14
Robert Griffin III Washington 12
Michael Vick Philadelphia 11
Josh Freeman Tampa Bay 10
Andrew Luck Indianapolis  10
Cam Newton Carolina 10 

 

There is a combination of two different types of quarterbacks on this list. 

1. Youngsters who struggle adjusting to all the different nuances of the NFL (this list can include both the previously alluded to Brandon Weeden and Blaine Gabbert).

2. Running quarterbacks, who tend to hold the ball away from their body when they are in scramble mode. 

3. Veteran quarterbacks (Philip Rivers, Mark Sanchez, Michael Vick and Josh Freeman), who really don't have any excuses. 

Is it a surprise to you that those four veterans struggled a great deal this past season? As it relates to Vick, he fumbled 11 times in 418 drop backs for an average of one fumble every 38 dropbacks (via Pro Football Reference, subscription required). 

For comparison's sake, Tom Brady fumbled twice in 669 dropback opportunities (via Pro Football Focus, subscription required). 

That's the difference between possessing pocket awareness and not having the slightest clue what you are doing back there. I fully understand that New England's pass protection in front of Brady was much better than what Vick had to work with in Philadelphia, but the enormous difference here is more likely related to pocket awareness. 

Wilson shows poise and pocket awareness in just his 12th NFL start

Then you have young quarterbacks that seem to possess the poise of a veteran. Russell Wilson's comeback effort against the Chicago Bears in Week 13 last season was a prime example of this, sans one mistake down the field on a near interception. 

He went through a variety of different reads, but also understood when the pressure was coming and where it was coming from. When the pressure was coming from up the gut, Wilson was able to utilize his mobility to sidestep it. When it was coming from the back end, Wilson stepped up and either ran with the ball or found an open receiver. 

This is ridiculous pocket awareness for such a young quarterback. 

Another young quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, is seen as more of a running or read-option threat than anything else. That couldn't be further from the truth. As evidenced in San Francisco's comeback win over Atlanta in the NFC Championship Game, Kaepernick performs extremely well in the pocket. 

He understands when and where the pressure is coming from, allowing him to find open holes behind the line of scrimmage in order to give himself more time to find open receivers. This is evident in the video above. 

Sanchez has ZERO pocket awareness

I know it might seem unfair to show highlight reels of Wilson and Kaepernick while giving you Mark Sanchez bloopers, but the video provided proves my point more than any photo or set of words possibly could.

As you can see, he steps up into the pressure multiple times with the end result being either a fumble, sack or interception. It's the inability to actually understand what is happening behind the line of scrimmage that continues to get Sanchez in trouble. 

He doesn't sidestep oncoming pass-rushers like some of the better quarterbacks. In addition, when pressure is brought from the back end, Sanchez isn't able to sense it. This has led to multiple turnovers in key situations. For someone that has made 40 more career starts than Wilson and Kaepernick combined, this obviously isn't acceptable. 

Elsa/Getty Images
More so than any point in his career, Michael Vick struggles with decision making.

Maybe I should quiz my readers here. What do you get when you combine a lack of pocket awareness, inability to advance to secondary reads, and horrible decision-making? Suffice it to say, it's not Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers. 

One quarterback that I have studied a great deal since the end of the 2012 season is Michael Vick. I was intrigued to see whether there was any evidence that he could return to form this upcoming fall. 

Honestly, I disliked what I saw in my study of about six different games.

No matter how strong a quarterback's arm might be, he simply cannot throw into tight windows or double coverage and expect to limit his mistakes. As everyone knows, what works in college football doesn't necessarily work in the NFL. Throwing against the grain when going in an opposite direction is also a recipe for disaster. 

Via NFL.com Game Rewind: Throwing across your body rarely works

Going against the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens in Week 2 last season, Vick opened up the game with an impressive drive. He led Philadelphia on a 70-yard march and entered the red zone. 

What followed was something that seemed to plague Vick all season long. He made one bad decision and it could have cost the Eagles the game. Facing pressure up the middle, the veteran quarterback rolled to the right. Instead of throwing the ball away or gaining a couple yards on the ground, Vick threw across his body. 

The result was an interception in the end zone by Bernard Pollard, ending the Eagles' opening drive. Philadelphia would go on to win the game by a single point, but Vick ended up turning it over a total of three times. 

This scene was repeated over and over again throughout the season. Upper-echelon quarterbacks just don't make these mistakes. Heck, I barely saw any of the top-three rookie signal-callers make the same horrible decisions that became commonplace in the tapes that I watched of Vick. 

Mark May of ESPN had the following to say about Geno Smith's leadership ability back in March: 

A lot of experts on the outside were shocked that Geno Smith lasted until the second round in the draft. After all, he was the consensus No. 1 quarterback in the draft class. 

What caused his fall? This was a huge question that many of us were asking as the first round of the draft wrapped up. It seems that NFL executives knew exactly what Smith lacked—something that us in the outside world had yet to understand: leadership

Jason Cole over at Yahoo! Sport filed the following report on Smith a week after the draft had concluded. These quotes come directly from an executive within the NFL. 

"He doesn't have much presence, not much of a leader," said another league executive, who spent a great deal of time studying Smith before the draft. "I don't think he's a bad person, but that's not enough to be a quarterback in this league.

Al Bello/Getty Images
Leadership and character questions led to Geno Smith's fall in the draft

More so than any other position on the football field, the leadership quality is huge for a quarterback. He is the face of the franchise and a leader of the 53-man roster on Sundays. An inability to lead or inspire players could have a major impact on the success of the team. 

If a quarterback prospect is unable to show this leadership during the draft process, he is likely to fall on draft day. On the other hand, if a prospect shows scouts he is self-accountable and willing to understand where he needs to improve and give insight into his mental makeup, he is sure to go high as long as the skills fit the bill on the field. 

NFL.com had the following to say about EJ Manuel in their blurb heading into the draft: "As gifted as any quarterback in the class, with a strong arm and good mobility. Scouts appreciate his leadership qualities and toughness."

There you have it—two quarterbacks on the opposite end of the leadership spectrum. One going much higher than most anticipated, and the other falling much further than nearly everyone thought was possible.

Going a step further, our very own Ryan Lownes drew this comparison between Manuel and another 2013 draft prospect, Tyler Bray: 

This tweet came back in February after Manuel impressed scouts at the Senior Bowl. At that point, Bray was considered a better prospect than Manuel. As most of you already know, Manuel was the first quarterback off the board, while Bray signed on with the Kansas City Chiefs as an undrafted free agent. 

I am not indicating who is going to be the better pro quarterback of the three. Instead, this was meant to be a precursor to my following point:  Name one successful quarterback in the NFL today that doesn't possess above-average leadership qualities. Go ahead, I dare you. 

Former Dallas Cowboys defensive back Everson Walls had the following to say about Tony Romo's leadership in an ESPN Radio interview back in 2011 (h/t ESPN)

Romo’s ability to lead this team has been questioned all around the league. The fact that he is in the position to step up means that he has been knocked down a couple of pegs. I’m not anti-Romo as much as I am about pro-production.

Anyone who hasn't been hiding in a cave over the last five years fully understands that Romo's leadership qualities have been under fire. Some of this has to do with the Cowboys' inability to actually win meaningful games, but there has to be more to it, right? 

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Tony Romo seems to have the leadership role down, finally.

No, those questions about leadership have been quieted over the last couple seasons and it has as much to do about what he has done off the field as what he has done on it. There can be no doubt that this is one of the primary reasons that Jerry Jones felt he was worth a six-year, $108 million contact extension last month.

This is one example of a quarterback getting a nice payday not because of success on the football field, but because he showed he can be the guy to lead that team moving forward. Without this, a quarterback is left in the dustbin of history with thoughts of what could have been and not living up to expectations. 

I could have easily focused on arm strength, accuracy and athleticism in this article, but those examples are too generic and have been repeated ad nauseam in this social media age. We already know who possesses the arm strength—Colin Kaepernick, Ben Roethsliberger and Joe Flacco, among many others.

We already have a good idea of who are the most athletic quarterbacks in the league (e.g. Robert Griffin III and Cam Newton). In addition, it's hard not to watch Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers without marveling at their accuracy. 

None of this would matter if these quarterbacks didn't have the necessary qualities that I mentioned and broke down in this article. Without this you are left with a combination of JaMarcus Russell, Jeff George and Ryan Leaf. 

That's my take. 

 

Vincent Frank is an NFL featured columnist here at Bleacher Report. Vincent is the head sports editor over at eDraft, co-host of Draft Sports Radio, which airs every Monday and Wednesday from 3 to 6 p.m. ET, and a fantasy writer for Pro Football Focus.

Go ahead and give him a follow on Twitter @VincentFrankNFL.

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