Previewing the NFL Offseason's Biggest Quarterback Controversies
With an unusually late NFL draft finally behind us, the first wave of workouts, rookie camps, OTAs and minicamps seem to have arrived unusually early.
With live contact forbidden at this point in the offseason, we won't learn much about the new offensive linemen or defensive linemen. Same goes for the linebackers and running backs. Receivers and defensive backs can do drills, but they can't hone their craft against each other.
Besides the specialists, the only players who can really do what they do are the quarterbacks—and in the offseason, there's nothing that better occupies fans' minds than a good quarterback controversy.
There are some teams with hotshot rookies who've got an uphill battle to earn the starting gig. There are some teams with established veterans who might not be as comfortably established as they think. There are a few teams whose quarterback depth chart is completely wide-open.
All of it adds up to the most interesting thing going at the only time of the NFL calendar when nothing's going on.
Honorable Mention: St. Louis Rams
There is absolutely no quarterback controversy in St. Louis.
Head coach Jeff Fisher is excruciatingly clear on that point.
NFL Network's Michelle Beisner quoted Fisher at a press conference that Bradford "is our starting quarterback." He also quashed rampant rumors that the Rams were looking to trade Bradford and draft his replacement.
"We have all the confidence in the world (Bradford) will be back," Fisher said, as if he had no say in it.
But Fisher and the Rams are the same ones who signed veteran Shaun Hill—who presumably thought his chances of supplanting Bradford were better than his chances of supplanting Matthew Stafford. The Rams also drafted a quarterback, Garrett Gilbert, in the sixth round.
Does Fisher protest too much?
Honorable Mention: Cincinnati Bengals
Andy Dalton was good enough to lead the Cincinnati Bengals to an 11-5 record and the No. 3 seed in the AFC last season. Unfortunately, for the third straight season, he wasn't good enough to lead them beyond the first round of the playoffs.
Early in the 2013 season, I wrote the Bengals are like a sports car with a sputtering engine; they'll go only as far as Dalton's inconsistencies will let them. It seems the Bengals are coming around to the same viewpoint, signing underrated journeyman Jason Campbell in free agency and drafting Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron in the fifth round of the 2014 draft.
Dalton will be the unquestioned starter at the beginning of the season, but how quickly will he get the hook if he falters?
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Mike Glennon vs. Josh McCown
Technically, there's no controversy here. Back in March, new Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith declared free-agent signee Josh McCown the starter.
"There has to be a starting spot," said Smith, quoted on Twitter by Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times, "a starting point, a starting person to go out there first and that would be Josh.'' That decision wasn't surprising; McCown had one of the best seasons of any quarterback in 2013.
It's that fact that's surprising: In eight games (and only five starts), per Pro Football Reference, McCown completed 66.5 percent of his 224 passes for 13 touchdowns, just one interception and an average of 8.2 yards per attempt. The 34-year-old's NFL passer efficiency rating of 109.0 brought his career rating up to just 77.5.
Nobody saw Mike Glennon's 2013 performance coming, either.
When the relationship between then-starter Josh Freeman and then-head coach Greg Schiano imploded just a few weeks into the season, the third-round rookie went out and completed 59.4 percent of his 416 attempts for 19 touchdowns, nine interceptions and an average of 6.3 yards per attempt. This, with star tailback Doug Martin gone for much of the season and the franchise imploding around his ears.
Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht turned down trade offers for Glennon in the run-up to the NFL draft, per Stroud; Smith said "We like Mike Glennon, and Mike has an excellent future in the league."
That having been said, Smith has a working relationship with McCown from Chicago, and he clearly trusts him. Barring injury, McCown will start Week 1. After that, he's certainly got a leg up—but if McCown's 2014 play is anything like his play from 2002-2012 (inclusive), the Bucs could easily turn to Glennon.
Projected Week 1 Starter: McCown
Projected Week 17 Starter: McCown
Minnesota Vikings: Matt Cassel vs. Teddy Bridgewater
Teddy Bridgewater might have been the most NFL-ready quarterback prospect in the draft, but he might have gone to the team least interested in starting a rookie quarterback.
The Vikings have veteran Matt Cassel signed for the next two seasons. He hasn't played like a quality starter since leaving New England, but he's a very solid option, especially if the Vikings aren't thinking they'll make a playoff run this season.
Further, as ESPN.com's Ben Goessling wrote, offensive coordinator Norv Turner hasn't started a rookie at quarterback since his first season as a head coach, when first-round pick Heath Shuler started eight games. Some of that is explained by who Turner had to work with, but he has a track record of favoring veteran starters.
Finally, general manager Rick Spielman has to get this one right. He blew it when he took Christian Ponder with the No. 12 overall pick of the 2011 draft, and if he ruins Bridgewater, it'll likely mean his job. Goessling reported Spielman has talked about the importance of giving a rookie a "redshirt" year, so Bridgewater will not likely see the field unless there's a very good reason.
Projected Week 1 Starter: Cassel
Projected Week 17 Starter: Cassel
Jacksonville Jaguars: Chad Henne vs. Blake Bortles
Of all the 2014 quarterback controversies, this is the least controversial.
Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell made a statement at a post-draft press conference, quoted by the team's official site, and it was an offering of support for Chad Henne.
"Chad is going to be the guy," Caldwell said. "I like what Chad’s been doing in this offseason stuff. He will probably give us the best chance of winning this year and Blake will be the guy of the future.”
Yet, Henne's started 19 games over his two seasons in Jacksonville with poor results: a 5-14 record, 74.9 NFL passer efficiency rating and miniscule 4.87 adjusted net yards per attempt.
Bortles is the future, and for Jaguars fans the future can't come quickly enough. The instant the Jaguars are eliminated from playoff contention, Bortles will be in there.
Projected Week 1 Starter: Henne
Projected Week 17 Starter: Bortles
Oakland Raiders: Matt Schaub vs. Derek Carr
It seems like no matter what the Raiders do, everyone pronounces it a classically Raiders move destined to fail.
Let young free agents like Jared Veldheer and Lamarr Houston walk? That's so Raiders. Sign fading veterans like Justin Tuck and LaMarr Woodley? Total Raiders move.
Of course, only the Raiders would bring in competent replacements like Donald Penn, draft can't-miss defensive prospects like Khalil Mack or effectively manage the quarterback position by signing a steady veteran and drafting a high-ceiling prospect.
Schaub left the Houston Texans in disgrace, but he got a hero's welcome in Oakland. Raiders head coach Dennis Allen introduced "your 2014 Raiders quarterback, Matt Schaub" as "a proven, winning starting quarterback in the National Football League."
Historians can debate how much of Schaub's "winning" was a result of the defense, running game, protection and skill-position talent that surrounded him, but he's certainly more "proven" as a starting quarterback than anyone the Raiders employed in 2013.
Behind him, though, is Derek Carr, a raw prospect with much more natural throwing talent than Schaub has ever had. You don't draft a player like that in the second round unless you believe in his ability.
As Sports Illustrated's Doug Farrar noted, there was "some noise" Raiders owner Mark Davis wanted Carr in the first, and when the owner says jump, you ask "how high?" Given the grace already extended to Allen and general manager Reggie McKenzie over the last two seasons, it's worth wondering if Carr's medium- and long-term job security is better than Allen's or McKenzie's, let alone Schaub's.
That said, it's hard to see Allen deciding the undeveloped Carr will give him a better chance to win at any point in 2014.
Projected Week 1 Starter: Schaub
Projected Week 17 Starter: Schaub
Houston Texans: Case Keenum vs. Ryan Fitzpatrick vs. Tom Savage
Many Houston Texans fans fell in love with Case Keenum when the native son (born in Texas, schooled at the University of Houston) ended up starting for the Texans in 2013.
Keenum turned in some surprising performances, narrowly losing games with his legs, arms and moxie. Unfortunately, "narrowly losing" is not the same as "winning," and Keenum doesn't have a starting-caliber toolset.
That's why the Texans brought in Ryan Fitzpatrick, a 31-year-old journeyman with 77 starts under his belt. Fitzpatrick's never been a difference-maker, either, but he's skilled enough to steer the Texans to a record more reflective of the talent they have on the roster.
New head coach Bill O'Brien said at the Texans' town hall meeting that they'd draft at least one quarterback "and maybe two."
Though they only took one, Tom Savage, it's clear O'Brien has little faith in Keenum or longtime backup T.J. Yates. Fitzpatrick should begin the season as starter, and the Texans have enough talent to hang in the wide-open AFC playoff race until the end of the season.
Projected Week 1 Starter: Fitzpatrick
Projected Week 17 Starter: Fitzpatrick
Cleveland Browns: Brian Hoyer vs. Johnny Manziel
The breakout star of the 2012 college football season, Johnny Manziel, became the breakout star of the 2014 draft when he fell through much of the first round before the Cleveland Browns traded up to get him.
Of course, the Heisman Trophy winner is a more exciting talent than incumbent starter Brian Hoyer has ever been. Still, Browns owner Jimmy Haslam recently quoted head coach Mike Pettine, saying, "'Johnny, right now you're our backup quarterback and you need to act as such,'" per Mary Kay Cabot of The Plain Dealer. Haslam went on to admonish Manziel against distractions, adding, "This is not Hollywood."
The Browns reinforced that message by banning national media members from attending Browns OTAs. As I recently wrote, that move might have backfired by bringing more national attention to Manziel's NFL transition, not less.
Given Manziel's unpolished talent and unconventional college offense, it's tough to see him unseating a competent incumbent. Yet, with the Browns frantically churning their receiver corps in the wake of star wideout Josh Gordon's indefinite suspension, per T.J. Quinn and Don Van Natta Jr. of ESPN.com, it's hard to see Pettine keeping him on the bench all season—even if it'd be the best for his development.
Projected Week 1 Starter: Hoyer
Projected Week 17 Starter: Manziel
New York Jets: Geno Smith vs. Mike Vick
With the way quarterbacks were the talk of the 2014 draft, you'd think we'd have plenty of quarterback controversies. Instead, the New York Jets are the only contending team going into the year with a wide-open competition at quarterback.
Geno Smith is the incumbent, a second-round pick coming into his sophomore year. Though many analysts (including yours truly) thought highly of his decision-making coming out of college, Smith's rookie season could be charitably termed a disappointment. As the unquestioned starter from Week 1, Smith completed 55.8 percent of his 443 attempts, for 12 touchdowns, 21 interceptions and an average of 6.9 yards per attempt.
There were a few glimpses of hope—like when he shredded the Falcons in the Georgia Dome, going 16-of-20 for 199 yards, three touchdowns and no picks. There were also five games where he threw for no touchdowns and multiple interceptions.
Mike Vick is, well, Mike Vick. At different points in his career, he has been hailed as a game-changing talent, reviled as a selfish thug, done hard time in Leavenworth and become the NFL's greatest reclamation project.
For most of his 11-season career, though, Vick's been mediocre, a conflicting mess of peaks and valleys that averages out to an 80.9 career passer efficiency rating. Between his running ability putting him in harm's way and having to re-earn starting gigs, Vick's only started all 16 games in a season once.
In 2013, Vick proved he could still make plays with the Philadelphia Eagles—but when another injury handed the reins to backup Nick Foles, Foles blew past Vick (and the rest of the NFL).
Who will prevail in the Jets' two-horse quarterback race? Of course, the Jets would prefer Smith to make good on his potential, and head coach Rex Ryan has been publicly puffing him up.
"This young man is going to be hard to beat out," Ryan told WFAN-AM, quoted here via NFL.com's Dan Hanzus. "Even as talented a player as Mike Vick is, I think Geno Smith has made that big a stride." Ryan pointed out that Smith "knows the offense forward and backward," which is nice. Vick, though, had the greatest season of his career in 2010, under current Jets offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg.
One of these two quarterbacks has gone to the Pro Bowl while executing Mornhinweg's offense, and it sure isn't Smith.
CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora opined as much on May 14. "I don't believe Geno Smith will hold off Mike Vick long," La Canfora wrote. "Vick has executed the system at a high level and he is refreshed. The guys in that locker room will gravitate to him, young players flock to him because he's been through the wars and there ain't no way Rex Ryan won't view Vick as his best option sooner rather than later."
Given that Ryan's job was saved only by the narrowest of margins in 2013, he will have to do everything he can to win every game. Smith may be the long-term answer, and the Jets shouldn't give up on him no matter what happens in 2014, but Ryan will hook him for Vick at the first sign of trouble.
Projected Week 1 Starter: Vick
Projected Week 17 Starer: Vick