No time period in a young quarterback's career is as important as his first full NFL offseason.
Think about it this way: A passer gets drafted into the NFL and is thrust into a spotlight few college players can fathom. Then, he is often either asked to lead the team right away or is bombarded by constant questions and speculation about when he'll finally take over.
Then, that quarterback is handed a playbook twice as big as the one he's used to seeing and a scheme that has far more nuance than what his college coaches asked him to do. On top of that, he's thrown into a game that is much faster than even the top college opponents ever threw at him—and that's just an unpadded practice.
The season goes on long after his body tells him it's time to quit. The weather gets colder—either at home or (worse yet) on the road—than his college season and warm-bowl games ever really challenged him with. The off-the-field demands of the profession may not include calculus or any foreign languages, but they still manage to eat up any time he might have had outside of the 24/7 job of being a professional athlete.
No quarterback really enters the NFL ready to do anything but hold on for the ride.
It is the first full offseason of a young quarterback's career that can truly make the difference. It's the time to put him on the path to greatness or realize he might not be all he was expected to be. It gets the team ready to either ascend to its playoff aspirations behind him or start scouting the next couple of draft classes for his replacement.
Oh, and don't even talk to me about a "sophomore slump."
So, which second-year quarterback is going to come out on top in 2014?
Who Doesn't Stand a Chance?
No quarterback's situation over the past year vexes me as much as that of Tampa Bay Buccaneers passer Mike Glennon.
Before the draft, I was likely one of his biggest proponents, with a starter's grade on his physical skills even though I had big question marks about his consistency. I chuckled as pundit after pundit questioned his accuracy, even though plenty of tape existed that showed he could make all the throws even though his mechanics were a mess.
When Glennon was drafted by the Buccaneers, I said—immediately—that he could take the job from Josh Freeman, and he did.
Then, he fell flat on his face.
Look, Glennon had some moments last season, but Bucs fans grew tired of Freeman's endless supply of unfulfilled potential and talking heads who wanted a young passer to latch onto overinflated Glennon's rookie season as if he had fixed everything that ailed him.
In reality, Pro Football Focus listed Glennon as the No. 34 passer (subscription required) in the league last season—behind such luminaries as Matthew McGloin, Brandon Weeden and Thaddeus Lewis. Yet, it is worth noting that he was ahead of rookie QBs EJ Manuel and Geno Smith.
All that said, you can disagree with me about Glennon's rookie season and still be wise to the fact that he's probably not in for a boost this offseason. He'll be getting backup reps (albeit probably boosted ones, since Josh McCown isn't a long-term solution either), so he's not getting the full-time method of improvement that he needs.
Most importantly, Glennon may have the public support of head coach Lovie Smith as the franchise's quarterback of the future right now, but don't pretend as if that isn't still under intense scrutiny as he prepares for the 2014 season. If he falters with those backup snaps or in his extended preseason work, the team is not married to the idea of him starting for it in 2015 and beyond.
I believe Glennon has the potential to take over for McCown down the road, but offensive coordinator and once-heralded QB guru Jeff Tedford is going to spend the next 12 months breaking down Glennon and rebuilding him from the ground up, hoping he can get him where he needs to be.
The Philadelphia Eagles still have some long-term hopes for Matt Barkley, but he's mired behind Nick Foles, who was stellar in Chip Kelly's system last season and now has to contend with Mark Sanchez for the No. 2 spot. Even if he makes a pronounced leap in ability, we won't be seeing it on the field.
A similar notion could be had about New York Giants QB Ryan Nassib, who may be fighting for a roster spot if the Giants only keep two quarterbacks and Josh Freeman or Curtis Painter provides the team with a clearer picture of what New York needs.
Tyler Wilson (Tennessee Titans), Zac Dysert (Denver Broncos) and McGloin (Oakland Raiders) are all in situations that would be extremely fortuitous if those young men ended up as backups for the upcoming season. Though some modicum of talent is there in each of those cases, these are guys struggling to stay relevant in their teams' building plans—not working on becoming cornerstones.
With these sophomore quarterbacks out of the way, that leaves us with Buffalo Bills QB EJ Manuel and New York Jets QB Geno Smith.
Making the Case—and Obliterating It—for Geno Smith
Right now, it looks as if Smith has the upper hand in the Jets QB race, as Dom Cosentino of NJ.com points out, quoting offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg:
There is competition. Now, it may not quite be like the competition we had last year [between Smith and Mark Sanchez], where everything was 50/50. We're trying to continue the progression with Geno, and then have Mike ready to go. It's just that simple, and Mike knows the exact expectations and roles that he has, and Geno knows the exact expectations.
Isolated from the rest of his (terrible) teammates, it's arguable that Smith had the best season out of all the rookie quarterbacks; though, honestly, that's not really saying much. Frankly, it's easy to make the case that Smith was horrendous in his first year, but it's almost as easy to point out he wasn't even close to being the weakest link on that offense.
So, the Jets spent the offseason giving Smith a new running back (Chris Johnson), wide receivers (Eric Decker and some quantity-over-quality rookies like Jalen Saunders and Shaquelle Evans) and a tight end (Jace Amaro).
Combine that with a Rex Ryan-coached defense sure to take a step back into prominence this season, and it suddenly looks like the Jets might have as good of a supporting cast as any young quarterback could ask for.
Yet, let's pump the breaks on that sunny-side-up prediction before we go overboard. Yes, if Smith does truly win the starting job outright, he'll have infinitely more help this year than last, but that's leaning on a lot of new faces and a lot of players with big question marks.
Can Decker become more than the No. 2 receiver with good production that came from playing with Peyton Manning?
Can Johnson regain some semblance of the burst that made him famous but has been hidden?
Can Amaro and the rookie receivers hit the ground running?
Can Mornhinweg get out of his own way?
Those aren't just minor annoyances that should perturb Jets fans. No, those are huge, keep-you-up-at-night-level horrors if someone really thinks Smith is going to break out in his sophomore season or that the Jets are going right back to the playoffs in 2014.
Smith can do it, and if he does, it will remind people why so many had him as the top quarterback in last year's rookie class. Still, it's an uphill battle, and if any of those pieces don't fit together just right, the team may not hesitate to let Mike Vick handle taking some of the lumps instead.
Buffalo and EJ Manuel Set Up For the Biggest Leap
I am excited to watch the Buffalo Bills play offense this season.
Those words, long left unsaid, almost taste sour because they've been so untrue for so long thanks to mostly boring (read: slow, non-dynamic) skill-position players and even more inept quarterback play—all held together for the past decade by countless offensive coaches that failed to innovate or even evolve along with the game.
Now, Doug Marrone and the Bills front office are looking to change that. From Bleacher Report AFC East Lead Writer Erik Frenz:
Compartmentalized, the Bills' offseason has been under-the-radar. In the bigger picture, they're going all-in. In the end, the Bills' turnaround is going to come down to whether Manuel makes the necessary steps forward as a quarterback.
That's especially true since the Bills' offseason edict was to surround Manuel with more weapons.
During the 2014 NFL draft, the Bills used four of their seven picks on offense, including their first two, and traded for a running back. It's all in an effort to give Manuel the best possible chance to succeed.
What have the Bills done? Let's start with last season.
Receivers are notoriously slow starters in the NFL. The expectations in terms of polish, route running, etc. for the position are just vastly different on Sundays than they are for college offenses against college competition. So, while it's great that we're looking forward to Sammy Watkins, the real break-out receivers may be Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin—two second-year players.
Watkins, though he'll certainly be their No. 1, may need to be "schemed" open by Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett as he acclimates to the NFL game. That is not (in any way) a slight against Watkins, who I believe has all-pro potential, but it's the reality of the position he plays.
Add in Mike Williams and T.J. Graham, and the Bills suddenly have one of the most potent young receiving corps in the game.
Perhaps more importantly, the Bills have doubled down on the offensive line, adding tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and guard Cyril Richardson. Both should be able to find reps, if not starting positions, along a Bills offensive line that struggled (at times) both protecting the passer and opening up holes for the running game.
Long term, the key on that front may be Kouandjio's ability to pass-block at the NFL level and overall health—two concerns that kept him from being the lock first-round pick that so many assumed he would be before the season.
Seantrel Henderson, too, could be a wild card if the coaching staff gets anything out of him, because the talent level is still there, even if it was rarely on display at Miami.
For Manuel, though, while that's all well and good, the key to his sophomore breakout campaign is going to be getting NFL-level coaching for the first time in a full offseason. As discussed earlier, quarterbacks are tasked with moving from an arithmetic-level grasp of the game to algebra in their first full offseason, and the quarterback thinks he's getting there, according to BuffaloBills.com:
“Obviously being a young guy sometimes you would look past somebody in a progression when you could’ve just held on a half second longer and he may have come open," said Manuel. "So just going through my own film study this offseason is something I noticed."
For Manuel, in Marrone's scheme, the ability to make quick reads and take advantage of package plays is going to be the difference between a breakout season and being seen as a bust.
The way the Bills have pushed the chips all in on Manuel, though, means they believe in him and he's got all of the physical tools to prove them right. With added help and a better grasp of the offense, he could clearly move to the top of the class.