Breaking Down Preseason Performances of Rookie QBs Competing for Starting Gigs

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Breaking Down Preseason Performances of Rookie QBs Competing for Starting Gigs
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

Start or sit?

Fans ask that question every weekend when finalizing their fantasy football lineups, and it's a necessity whenever it comes to rookie quarterbacks.

While some—like Indianapolis Colts' Andrew Luck and Washington Redskins' Robert Griffin III—came into the league and were successful immediately, other quarterbacks like the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers and New England Patriots' Tom Brady sat first and matured on the bench.

It's become vogue in NFL circles to baptize young quarterbacks by fire, but it's not unheard of to put on the kid gloves either. Every coach has an opinion, as does every analyst, fan and player. The bottom line is that teams want their quarterbacks to succeed.

They also want return on their investments as quickly as possible. More than anything, teams can't afford to miss on the quarterback position. It's the most crucial position on the field, and failing there is a death knell for coaches and personnel men alike.

This year, we were told that the quarterback position wouldn't have the impact it did in 2012. While that is almost certainly true, a number of young passers have the ability to step in and contribute this season. What exactly they can contribute is another matter entirely.  

 

Just Missed the Cut: Matt Barkley (Philadelphia Eagles), Mike Glennon (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)

Barkley and Glennon don't really fit on this list because Michael Vick and Josh Freeman are the starting quarterbacks of their respective teams. That said, it's more than possible that both Barkley and Glennon could be considered the quarterbacks of the future in their cities and could see some burn if their teams' seasons get out of hand.

Barkley fell to the fourth round after a successful playing career at USC. The low evaluation left many stunned, as Barkley was once considered a potential first-round pick by fans and media alike. In my own personal grading, I labeled Barkley a fringe starting candidate in his first season.

The biggest concern with Barkley is arm strength. Now, arm strength might be one of the most overrated attributes in football because a quarterback doesn't need to have the cannon of Jay Cutler, Joe Flacco or Matthew Stafford to succeed in the league. However, there is a minimum amount one needs, and Barkley is dangerously close to missing that mark. 

The following are two throws Barkley has made this season outside the hashmarks. Every quarterback from here to Tim Tebow can make plays inside the hashmarks. It's on the outside of the field where arm strength and accuracy are judged. 

This throw, if thrown with better placement and velocity, is a perfect example of the kind of tight-window throws NFL quarterbacks need to make. However, even with Barkley's better-than-average decision-making and anticipation, the ball arrives late, and it sails high because Barkley knew he had to put some extra oomph under it. 

On this throw, much of the same happened: It's thrown when and where it needs to be, but it arrives late enough for the defender to make a play on the ball and make an immediate tackle. Arm strength can improve in the NFL with lots of focus (and lots of reps), but if Barkley plays extensive snaps in 2013, he will be a detriment to the team. 

As for Glennon in Tampa Bay, it's clear he has all of the physical tools to succeed in the NFL. My predraft grade on Glennon was actually higher than Barkley's, but the former is more of a boom-or-bust type. If Glennon gets thrown into the fire this season, it will be his decision-making and consistency that are tested. 

This is a pretty simplistic route concept on the front side for the Buccaneers. The short-in and middle-out routes are both checkdowns that leave the safeties second guessing if only for a moment. Glennon's eyes, first and foremost, are worried about the cornerback playing tight coverage on the inside receiver. If the jam slows his receiver down, it'll force Glennon to a different route. 

Or, you know, maybe not.

This is where Glennon can look fantastic against second- and third-stringers but may end up failing against the league's best. This is a fantastic throw—one of the most outstanding placements you'll see all preseason long. It goes to prove that Glennon has the tools, but against a starting defensive backfield, this pass could easily be going the other way. 

 

Geno Smith (New York Jets)

Smith should be, without equivocation, the starting quarterback of the Jets. The fact that this is even up for discussion tells us everything we need to know about head coach Rex Ryan and the Jets front office.

Ryan has gone to battle with quarterback Mark Sanchez in the past. They've been in the trenches together. Heck, Ryan has a tattoo of his wife wearing a Sanchez jersey. So, if Smith isn't the starter, it will let everyone know just how much job security the decision-makers have if they're willing to put off the future for limited immediate success. 

Smith has the physical tools to succeed at the NFL level, but he needs lots of reps to continue to refine his game—especially having come out of a college offense that doesn't sync up easily with pro-style offenses. 

The above play almost sets up like a downfield screen. The receiver and H-back release down the field but are primarily blockers. The key to the play is the fullback who releases through the line and is meant to surprise the linebacker or secondary with a big block as soon as the defender thinks he's about to tackle the receiver. Then, a single cut inside and the running back should have green grass in front of him. 

Smith makes the play, but a high throw to the outside slows everything down and messes with the timing. The fullback has to slow down, and the Detroit Lions defensive backs (not exactly an elite unit) have time to fight through their blocks and make the play. 

This play is another example of Smith making the right throw but being a second late. These are the types of throws that NFL quarterbacks refer to as "anticipation throws." Smith shouldn't be throwing to a receiver with his hands up. The receiver should turn around and have the ball hit his hands almost immediately. 

Look at where the receiver is—hands up, tapping his feet, knitting a sweater—and look at where the ball is. This isn't a technical issue. It doesn't mean Smith can't play quarterback. It means that he needs more time developing chemistry with his wide receivers and his timing in the offense. 

Finally, this play showcases where Smith might get himself into trouble mechanically if the Jets actually do start him like they should. Smith makes the correct read and gets the ball out, but does so falling away.

Throws like this work at West Virginia. In the NFL, they'll turn into six points for the other team rather quickly. 

Overall, Smith has had a disappointing offseason due to both injury and the fact he's had to heavily split reps with Sanchez. Yet, he's done little to prove he's not up to the task, nor has Sanchez done anything to prove he's more than the replacement-level quarterback we've seen all along. 

 

EJ Manuel (Buffalo Bills)

Manuel was my highest-rated quarterback in this year's draft. It wasn't because he was a finished product (by any means). It also wasn't because I thought he would go first—although, I'm impressed with the Bills' long-term strategy. 

No, Manuel had my highest rating as a starter with high upside because of his elite physical tools. Some guys with those tools flame out, but in today's NFL, Manuel has the chance to pressure defenses with his legs and contribute in ways that guys like Vince Young never had.

Young is actually a pretty poor comparison for Manuel, who has showcased the size, arm strength and poise of a younger version of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger

This throw is an NFL-caliber throw right off the bat. Manuel drops back and hits his blanketed receiver where only he can catch the football. He hits him in-stride and gives him a chance to make a play. It's both gutsy and potentially dangerous.

Once Manuel starts going up against the NFL's best, many cornerbacks will try to undercut that route. Although, with guys like wide receiver Stevie Johnson and running back C.J. Spiller on the field, they should be able to create some separation as well.  

This is one of my favorite preseason plays of any quarterback. Manuel stared down his first read, but the pressure started to collapse the pocket around him.

Instead of taking off and running like so many young quarterbacks might—and rather than throwing the ball into coverage—Manuel kept his eyes down the field and extended the play. It's a more veteran move from Manuel than we saw for most of his college career. 

Look at the matchup on the top of the screen. That's press coverage—something the Minnesota Vikings are doing with a lot more frequency these days—but also a sign that it's preseason, and Manuel isn't running against complex zone schemes. Manuel is going to wait to see if this receiver beats the press before he goes to any of his other reads. 

Why?

Because this will happen. 

Once the press is beaten, the middle of the field is wide open, and Manuel throws a strike. It's a beautiful throw in stride and allows the receiver to maintain momentum and make more plays down the field. 

Finally, here is where Manuel is still struggling. The Vikings dial up an overload weak-side blitz. There are more blitzers than blockers, and no one in a Bills jersey seems to recognize it. Manuel certainly doesn't, and he reacts to strong-side pressure by spinning directly into the teeth of the Vikings' blitz. 

Here's the outcome:

Ouch. 

In college, that kind of tactic works. In the NFL, it's a one-way ticket to the IR (or the ER). In the pros, the way to beat that blitz is to first recognize it. Secondly, a quarterback either needs to check into a better play or find a hot route that will replace the blitzers with a receiver in the open field. Manuel did neither and got crushed. 

Manuel is going to sit out the rest of the preseason and give Kevin Kolb a chance at the starting position, but Kolb is a known product. Manuel was taken in the first round because of his fantastic physical ability. Now he just needs to be put in a position to succeed for the Bills, and that means starting Week 1. 

 

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. 

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