The 2014 fantasy football draft season is upon us, and with the premium placed on quarterback play in the NFL, it's vital to identify which signal-callers to choose if the truly elite options aren't available.
Mobile, athletic QBs that can extend plays with their feet are an increasingly desirable commodity. However, with that comes the opportunity for defenses to attack as if they were any other ball-carrier, increasing the risk of injury.
Those dynamic, playmaking field generals will have to prove in the years to come that they can sustain success for a long, productive career. Playing from the pocket has been winning championships for years, so those who hang out predominantly there have a better chance at steady, expected fantasy production.
With all of that said, the first of the following three QBs is a magnificent athlete, yet is one who is still young, thickly built and can absorb—even deliver—the punishment that results in barreling down the gridiron, ball in hand. The next two veterans have never quite reached their potential and are now in line for career years.
Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts
In guiding the Colts to 11 wins and the playoffs in each of his first two seasons, Luck has had to battle plenty of adversity. He's lived up to his billing as the No. 1 overall pick in 2012, pulling off eight fourth-quarter comebacks and 11 game-winning drives overall, per Pro-Football-Reference.com.
Under his former college play-caller, Pep Hamilton, for a second straight year, Indianapolis has helped Luck by bringing in free-agent receiver Hakeem Nicks. The former first-round pick has won a Super Bowl in the past with the New York Giants and is just 26 years old.
With just a one-year deal to prove his worth, immense talent and a change of scenery, Nicks has to step up—something the Colts need badly. Reggie Wayne is coming off a torn ACL, while T.Y. Hilton could use a complement on the outside to ease the burden on him.
Rookie third-round wideout Donte Moncrief could very well become a factor, according to Nicks, per Colts.com's Steve Andress:
Luck cut down on his picks in a big way last year, too, with the number cut in half from 18 to nine. Hamilton likes to pound the rock, but a crushing torn Achilles injury for Vick Ballard and Indy's added depth to the receiving corps should lead to Luck airing it out more.
That also opens up a big shot for Trent Richardson to be the workhorse back the Cleveland Browns thought they were getting third overall in the 2012 draft. Richardson is Luck's classmate, a bruising force between the tackles who had 51 receptions as a rookie and has 86 so far in his two-year career.
Talented tight end Dwayne Allen returns from injury after playing just one game last year. Allen will complement Luck's former Stanford roommate Coby Fleener at tight end, supplying Luck with two viable pass-catching options at that position.
Since he hasn't produced like the top-five QB many expect him to ultimately be, fantasy drafters are bound to go after more proven options than Luck, who has a career 6.85 yards per attempt and 81.5 passer rating.
Analysis like this from FiveThirtyEight.com is also bound to scare Luck doubters away:
But everyone involved in the Colts offense will be more comfortable with Hamilton's playbook. Luck, armed with an unprecedented NFL supporting cast to go with his immense understanding of the system, is in for his best year yet.
Oh, and Luck has some serious wheels, running for nine touchdowns so far and increasing his rushing production from 255 yards in 2012 to 377 yards last season—on just one more carry. There is a trend of improving proficiency as both a passer and runner that forecast a big year from Luck in 2014.
Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears
It can't be emphasized enough how much instability Cutler has endured since taking over for a slew of incompetent predecessors as Chicago's franchise quarterback.
Finally, Cutler will enter 2014 with the same system for a second year in a row under head coach and play-caller Marc Trestman. The West Coast style offense has allowed Cutler to get the ball out faster and into the hands of his favorite receiver, Brandon Marshall, and emerging star Alshon Jeffery.
Cutler also lauded massive tight end Martellus Bennett for the matchup problems he can create, per Larry Mayer of ChicagoBears.com:
In certain situations he’s really hard to cover. He’s such a big guy that even some of the intermediate stuff over the middle, he’s able to get separation. He played basketball, so he knows how to high-point the ball down in the red zone. We’ve just got to keep throwing different stuff at him and incorporating him in different ways.
Having the faith to sling it to friendly targets with humongous catch radii such as Marshall, Jeffery and Bennett will take some stress off Cutler in his efforts to finally capitalize on his immense promise.
Pro Bowl running back Matt Forte is also brilliant in that he can be on the field for all three downs. Even though he's getting up there in age, Chicago won't have to worry too much since it drafted Ka'Deem Carey in the fourth round.
Carey averaged over 1,900 yards in his final two collegiate seasons at Arizona, bringing with him the ability to pluck the ball, too. He managed 62 receptions in the aforementioned span, even in a Rich Rodriguez offense that relied so heavily on the ground game.
USA Today's Arthur Akush provided a glimpse into Bears camp Monday and reported on how Carey is faring:
The complementary pieces around Cutler are as good as he's ever had entering his ninth season. Another positive sign is that his 2013 total QBR was his second-best, only to the final year he had in Denver where he threw for a career-high 4,526 yards.
Never before has Cutler eclipsed the 30-touchdown barrier through the air. It stands to reason that Trestman will let Cutler come to his own and take full command of this Bears team as they try to keep their offense operating at a high level in the competitive NFC North.
Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals
All the notable offenses Bruce Arians has been associated with have taken flight rather quickly. That should inspire a ton of optimism for Cardinals fans and their faith in Palmer, considering Arians won 10 games in the tough NFC West in his first year as a head coach.
Arians was Manning's QB coach in Indianapolis for a 1998 rookie year in which Manning threw 26 touchdowns to 28 interceptions, then threw the same amount of TDs to just 15 picks the year after.
In Arians' first year as offensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers, young quarterback Ben Roethlisberger tossed a career-high 32 touchdowns to 11 picks after a personal worst of 23 the prior year. Then Luck got his career started on the right path in Arians' vertical offense.
With a year in the same system under his belt, Palmer is bound to minimize his mistakes from year one under Arians (22 picks), with a supporting cast that fits the scheme even better. Big-bodied youngster Michael Floyd's emergence—he had 17 catches of 20 or more yards in 2013—combined with the presence of perennial Pro Bowler Larry Fitzgerald should give defenses enough problems.
CBSSports.com's Pete Prisco recently said that Floyd could be even better than Fitzgerald this season, per Fox Sports' Peter Schrager:
Kyle Odegard of AZCardinals.com alluded to a crazy Pro Football Focus statistic that suggests Fitzgerald may indeed have the strongest, surest hands in the game:
Then there's rookie John Brown, whose speed is drawing rave reviews from training camp.
NFL Network's Albert Breer made an appropriate comparison to a recent Arians pupil who has enjoyed instant professional success in Colts wideout Hilton:
General manager Steve Keim must be feeling great about taking the unheralded Brown out of Pittsburg State in the third round.
Keim was effusive in his praise, per ESPN's Josh Weinfuss:
Don't forget Ted Ginn Jr.—another weapon who can be a blur in the open field and can stretch the field with the best of them. Even with a modest cast of receivers in Carolina last season, Ginn had arguably his best year as a wideout, catching 36 passes for 596 yards and a career-high five scores.
Explosive running back Andre Ellington is a capable receiver out of the backfield (39 receptions in 2013), providing Palmer with another secure option to check down to. Plus, last year's first-round pick, Jonathan Cooper, will fill in at one of the guard spots, providing better protection for Palmer and a better rushing attack to work with.
Rookie tight end Troy Niklas is another potential contributor based on his 6'6", 270-pound size, soft hands and his previous grooming at Notre Dame under 2013 first-round draft choice Tyler Eifert.
Everything is aligned for Arizona to be a legitimate contender in the NFC West yet again. If Palmer can produce under the favorable circumstances, the Cardinals should be able to secure a playoff spot.
At the very least, Palmer fantasy owners ought not to be disappointed by his numbers in 2014, what with the San Francisco 49ers' weakened cornerback corps. That should eliminate at least one tough divisional foe from shutting Palmer and Co. down, and the rest of the NFL had better be on notice with Arians involved.
The bottom line for Luck, Cutler and Palmer is that they have loaded, perhaps underrated, skill players at their disposal and brilliant minds to call plays into their helmets. But most importantly, they should have more than adequate offensive balance to light up the scoreboard this year—much to the delight of fantasy owners who steal them late in drafts.