The Franchise QB Question: Rating Every NFL Team's Need for a New Signal-Caller

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystDecember 14, 2017

The Franchise QB Question: Rating Every NFL Team's Need for a New Signal-Caller

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    Quarterbacks run the NFL.

    Teams are either winning because they have a franchise quarterback or losing because they don't. Those in the latter category of sadness spend every waking moment trying to figure out how to clean up a messy QB depth chart.

    For those without a quarterback, the position becomes a nagging riddle to solve, and the solution can be foggy at best. Swings and misses during the search for an elusive franchise pivot lead to unemployment for coaches and general managers. The Cleveland Browns, for example, are going through another front office overhaul after passing on both Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson.

    Those draft mistakes are easily avoided when the great quarterback problem every NFL decision-maker wrestles with has been put to rest. Being able to breathe normally while handing the ball to the likes of Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers is a luxury in a league where quarterback supply doesn't meet demand.

    Which general managers get to kick their feet up in the offseason and focus their energy elsewhere, and which will experience the joys of sleep deprivation while searching for an answer?

    Let's assess the level of QB desperation with a 1-10 rating for each NFL team. The higher the number, the higher the panic.

Arizona Cardinals: The Carson Palmer Era Is Ending

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    Blaine Gabbert is fine as a temporary solution. He's fine as someone to trot in off the bench for a handful of starts and provide serviceable play. And for a stretch he may even be able to do all that without embarrassing himself.

    But unintentionally, Bruce Arians told us everything we need to know about the Arizona Cardinals' quarterback desperation when the head coach recently said he'd be "very comfortable" with Gabbert as his starter in 2018.

    Gabbert has been solid enough since Carson Palmer's season ended due to a broken arm in Week 7. He took over once Drew Stanton predictably failed and has thrown for 897 yards over four games with six touchdown passes. But he's also thrown five interceptions in that short time and completed only 60.8 percent of his throws.

    A tiny sample size doesn't erase the larger picture of what Gabbert has been as an NFL quarterback, which is a wildly inaccurate passer who sees ghosts in the pocket. Gabbert has a lowly career completion percentage of 56.4 with 42 interceptions over 47 career games.

    He's not about to magically morph into a franchise quarterback at the age of 28 and be Palmer's successor if the 37-year-old veteran retires, which seems likely.

    Rating: 9

Atlanta Falcons: Matt Ryan Is Rounding into Form

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    Stephen Brashear/Associated Press

    It's taken some time for Matt Ryan to get comfortable in Steve Sarkisian's offense, which was a maddening process that seemed to restrict the abundant talent available to the quarterback and reigning MVP.

    Both Ryan and the offense around him took a midseason plunge when the Falcons averaged just 13.7 points during a three-game losing streak. But those struggles are becoming a memory now as the Falcons' offensive firepower has been restored.

    The Falcons have turned their 2017 season around with wins in four of their last five games, a stretch when that per-game point average has jumped to 24.8. Overall in 2017 Ryan is averaging a solid 7.9 yards per throw, though he did have a hiccup during a Week 14 win over the New Orleans Saints when the 32-year-old threw three interceptions.

    He's still the rock-solid cornerstone of his offense and franchise. If the Falcons keep rising, they'll be a scary playoff opponent.

    Rating: 1

Baltimore Ravens: Joe Flacco Isn't a Starting-Caliber Quarterback Anymore

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    In human time, 2012 wasn't that long ago. Oh sure, the world was different then, mostly because it was still a good idea to make Men in Black movies. But five years can zoom by fast.

    In football time, however, five years is an eternity, and the memories of Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco and his scorching-hot play that led a Super Bowl run are getting foggier by the day.

    That version of Flacco had more than a strong arm. He also had pinpoint accuracy and used it to throw 11 touchdown passes with zero interceptions during the 2013 playoffs, all while averaging nine yards per attempt.

    Flacco earned a contract that briefly made him the highest-paid quarterback in league history, and in 2016 he agreed to a three-year extension that put a record $40 million signing bonus in his pocket. The extension lowered his cap hit, but Flacco is still owed a base salary of $30.5 million combined in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, and the dead cap hits tied to those numbers ($28.8 million in 2018 and $16 million in 2019) make it hard to stomach releasing him.

    Which makes him the heaviest franchise anchor in the league.

    Flacco's decline has been swift, and now it'll be expensive too. He's far removed from those glory days of 2012 and only retains his starting job because of that Super Bowl ring. The 32-year-old isn't a starting-caliber quarterback anymore and is averaging a meager 5.7 yards per attempt with a 78.0 passer rating.

    He's failed to hit 200 passing yards in seven games this season; worse, he's logged five games when his per-attempt average dropped below five yards.

    Flacco is only worth backup money now, and that might be generous. Unfortunately, the Ravens have locked themselves into one of the worst quarterback contracts in recent memory.

    Rating: 9

Buffalo Bills: Tyrod Taylor Is Still a Fine Short-Term Solution

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    Rookie Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott clearly doesn't see Tyrod Taylor as a long-term solution at quarterback for his team.

    He hasn't said that directly, but those words aren't necessary anymore. His actions have communicated plenty after the baffling decision to bench Taylor in Week 11 with the Buffalo Bills in the middle of a playoff race. Rookie Nathan Peterman proceeded to throw five interceptions in one half. McDermott admitted failure by going back to Taylor in the second half and then again in Week 12.

    It's possible to disagree with McDermott's midseason decision but agree with his long-term view of Taylor.

    Taylor isn't a franchise quarterback, someone who can be inserted as a pillar at the position for years. He's an athletically gifted passer and is on pace for his third straight season with 400-plus rushing yards. But during that time his per-attempt passing average has fallen each year, going from eight yards in 2015 to 6.9 in 2016 and now 6.4 in 2017.

    He's not a risk taker or a quarterback who can push the ball deep downfield effectively when his team is behind. But Taylor is average in other areas, and there's always value in being average as a quarterback.

    His greatest skill is ball security and making good decisions to minimize turnovers. The 28-year-old has thrown only 16 interceptions over his 40 starts for the Bills. Combine that with the plays he can create through scrambling, and Taylor is the ideal fit for a run-oriented offense.

    There are only so many long-term solutions in a quarterback-starved league, and the Bills don't seem to realize they have one of the better short-term answers.

    Rating: 7

Carolina Panthers: A Healthy Cam Newton Is Still an Offensive Pillar

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    The Cam Newton experience has been frustrating at times in 2017. He's struggled with inaccuracy, and as a result the Carolina Panthers have had a wildly inconsistent offense.

    But even in his low moments, Newton can do more than enough to win games while supported by a strong defense. Sometimes he does that with his arm, like in Week 10 when he threw four touchdown passes during a win over the Miami Dolphins.

    Other times, when the Panthers passing offense isn't clicking, he can move the ball with his legs. There have been plenty of those games in 2017 for Newton, most recently a Week 14 win over the Minnesota Vikings when he averaged only 5.5 yards per pass attempt but ran for 70 yards. It was his fourth game of the season with 70-plus rushing yards.

    Newton has never been a conventional quarterback, and that's not about to change. He may not age as gracefully as other quarterbacks due to his reliance on athleticism to compensate for what's lacking as a passer. But at 28 years old, Newton is still in his prime, and the Panthers shouldn't have to worry about the franchise quarterback problem for a while.

    Rating: 1

Chicago Bears: Trubisky Hasn't Answered the Franchise Quarterback Question Yet

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    Patience isn't fashionable with young NFL quarterbacks anymore. After just a handful of starts, we need to know if they're the answer for what ails a team at the position, and the bust label is tossed around freely.

    Which brings us to the sad tale of Mitchell Trubisky's rookie season. Yes, he's struggled mightily, logging only two games with 200-plus passing yards over nine starts. The 23-year-old has also posted a passer rating of just 80.0.

    But realistically, anything other than a rocky start would have been surprising from Trubisky. He became a first-round pick after making only 13 starts in college and then was thrust into a starting role early with a thin supporting cast. The Bears' wide receiver depth chart was decimated after Kevin White and Cameron Meredith suffered season-ending injuries, leaving Trubisky with Kendall Wright, Dontrelle Inman and Josh Bellamy as his top wideouts.

    That's not an ideal situation for any quarterback, especially an underdeveloped rookie. The Bears won't be able to get a proper read on Trubisky's pro potential until at least the end of 2018.

    Rating: 4

Cincinnati Bengals: Andy Dalton Will Be Just Fine

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    Andy Dalton had a rocky start to his 2017 season that can mostly be blamed on a rickety offensive line. He was sacked three-plus times in four straight games to begin the year.

    That leaky offensive line still limits Dalton's effectiveness, leading to a drop in his weekly yardage. Dalton's per-game passing average has tumbled from 262.9 yards in 2016 to 211.3 yards in 2017. But his per-attempt average hasn't fallen much (7.5 in 2016 and 7.1 in 2017), which shows Dalton is still capable of pushing the ball downfield when given time. He has taken care of the ball too, throwing only one interception since Week 8.

    The Bengals can easily wiggle free of Dalton's contract after the 2017 season. The guaranteed portion of his six-year deal is done, and releasing or trading the 30-year-old wouldn't come with a cap penalty, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

    But moving on means dipping your toe into the murky quarterback draft or the free-agent and trade markets, where supply never meets demand. While the Bengals could retain restricted free agent AJ McCarron, he's unproven after only three career starts.

    There's value in having a quarterback whose talent falls somewhere between above-average and good. There are a few potential playoff teams in 2017 who would pay a lot of money right now to have such a quarterback (hi there, Jacksonville Jaguars).

    Dalton may be aggravating at times. But the future is just as uncertain.

    Rating: 5

Cleveland Browns: DeShone Kizer Is Already a Bust

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    The need for patience applies to DeShone Kizer too. Just to a much lesser degree, because he has truly been inept for long stretches.

    Much like Trubisky, Kizer hasn't been given much support. The Browns were just able to add wide receiver Josh Gordon to their game-day roster, and Corey Coleman has been brittle, appearing in only 16 games since being a first-round pick in 2016. Then there's Kenny Britt, the free-agency flop who created little separation for Kizer on his way to only 18 receptions before being released.

    Even when all that is factored in, Kizer has been thoroughly unimpressive while making the Cleveland Browns regret their 2017 draft decision to pass on Deshaun Watson.

    Kizer has poor field vision and worse anticipation, and he leads the league in interceptions with 17. Kizer has also completed only 53.9 percent of his pass attempts and has a lowly passer rating of 61.2.

    He's become another failed experiment for the Browns, and soon enough they'll surely be adding to a long, painful list of starting quarterbacks.

    Rating: 10

Dallas Cowboys: Dak Prescott Is (Still) the Answer

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    The Dallas Cowboys have only a faint playoff pulse, and the play of quarterback Dak Prescott is at least partly to blame.

    The Cowboys are one game back of the second wild card spot in the NFC but have four teams to jump over and only three games remaining. In Weeks 10-12, they recorded three straight losses in which they scored a combined 22 points. During that stretch, Prescott didn't throw a touchdown pass, and he averaged only 5.7 yards per pass attempt.

    Of course, that was also the start of running back Ezekiel Elliott's suspension, which has changed the character of the Dallas offense. Prescott, the 2016 Offensive Rookie of the Year, has also been walloped repeatedly behind a struggling and injured offensive line that had to play without star left tackle Tyron Smith for two of those three games—one of which included the sophomore quarterback taking eight sacks.

    Prescott still has the physical tools to be a multithreat quarterback for a long time. He's shown that with his five rushing touchdowns in 2017 and 23 touchdown passes with only four interceptions as a rookie. Now he has to show the resilience to come back from a bit of adversity. 

    Rating: 2

Denver Broncos: There's No Starting-Caliber Quarterback on the Roster

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    Reed Hoffmann/Associated Press

    The Denver Broncos can't blame just one quarterback for their offensive issues. No, they should blame the front office, and specifically John Elway, for thinking any of the three quarterbacks on their roster can be trusted for a full season.

    Trevor Siemian can sometimes look like a decent enough placeholder, but that's being nice. When in the right situation, he could be a classic game manager, staying out of the way while the defense and rushing offense do the heavy lifting.

    But he's struggled to leap over even that low bar, throwing 13 interceptions in only 340 pass attempts. He hit the rockiest bottom in Week 13. In a loss to the lowly Miami Dolphins, Siemian threw for just 200 yards on 41 attempts (4.9 yards per attempt) with three interceptions and a passer rating of 30.5.

    He's still trotted out every week because he's the best quarterback on the depth chart. Brock Osweiler has no business being on any NFL roster, and he threw four interceptions over three starts. Then there's Paxton Lynch, who can't stay healthy and is atrocious when on the field. He completed nine of his 14 attempts for 41 yards (just 2.9 yards per attempt) in a Week 12 loss to the Oakland Raiders.

    The Broncos will be in position to target one of the top quarterbacks available in the draft, or they could dive into a rare quarterback market filled with appealing options. Either way, Elway needs to find a solution.

    Rating: 10

Detroit Lions: Matthew Stafford's Job Feels Pretty Safe

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    Gail Burton/Associated Press

    The Detroit Lions won't have a quarterback question of any kind for at least the next five years.

    That's the plan after Matthew Stafford signed a five-year extension in late August. The new deal showered him with a whole lot of cash—so much that he's now the highest paid player in league history, with an average annual salary of $27 million.

    Stafford isn't going anywhere, which is the way it should be after he tied a single-season record in 2016 with eight game-winning drives in the fourth quarter and overtime. And now in 2017, he has his team in playoff contention while averaging 7.9 yards per throw. He's also tossed just nine interceptions even though Stafford is among the top five in attempts.

    Rating: 1

Green Bay Packers: Aaron Rodgers Isn't Getting Younger

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    The Green Bay Packers will always have one of the league's best quarterbacks as long as Aaron Rodgers is on their roster.

    Any question about how long he'll stay on that roster isn't so much tied to his contract, though Rodgers will need a new one soon enough. His deal is set to expire at the end of the 2019 season.

    Instead, any uncertainty is tied to his age.

    There aren't quite enough candles on Rodgers' birthday cake to call him old for his position. But at 34, he's approaching that territory, and not every high-end passer is going to age as slowly as Tom Brady. There just isn't enough avocado ice cream to go around.

    Rodgers had the bad luck of breaking his collarbone in Week 6. That might result in a lost season for the Packers—and another offseason of making the necessary moves to capitalize on however many prime years Rodgers has left.

    Rating: 1

Houston Texans: Get Well Soon, Deshaun Watson

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    Stephen Brashear/Associated Press

    The Houston Texans made a significant draft sacrifice to finally, mercifully, get some stability at quarterback. They sent 2017 and 2018 first-round picks to the Cleveland Browns for a QB who might end up being worth much more than that.

    Deshaun Watson set a new record by throwing 19 touchdown passes in just his first seven games. He dazzled as both a passer and an athlete, and finished that stretch with 269 rushing yards and an average of 8.3 yards per pass attempt.

    Then Watson tore his right ACL in practice Nov. 2 in the lead-up to Week 9's game, because of course he did. In a year filled with soul-crushing injuries, we, the football-watching public, can't ever have nice things. But if he returns to his 2017 form in 2018, Watson will have MVP potential.

    Rating: 1

Indianapolis Colts: Questions Still Hover Around Andrew Luck's Future

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    AJ Mast/Associated Press

    The Indianapolis Colts don't need another franchise quarterback. They just need their current one to have a fully functioning throwing arm again.

    Andrew Luck is 28 years old and is plenty young enough to have a long, thriving career. But a lingering shoulder issue has raised serious questions about that career's longevity.

    Luck had shoulder surgery in January to repair a torn labrum. Initially, there was optimism around his ability to play in 2017. But that faded when Luck wasn't able to participate in training camp and couldn't make starts early in the season.

    Eventually, the struggling Colts acknowledged reality and shut Luck down for the season in early November. But that decision came with concerns for 2018.

    As NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported at the time, Luck was throwing in practice and experienced soreness in his shoulder. That led to a cortisone shot and more rehab work. But the shoulder wasn't getting better, and that's when Luck sought opinions from several different doctors.

    Those doctors told him to stop throwing for several months, with the hope the soreness would fade. That sounds a bit encouraging, but also a little ominous.

    Luck is nearly a year removed from surgery and there's still no firm timetable for his recovery. The hope is that time can heal this wound, as it does with so many others. But that hasn't worked yet.

    Rating: 3

Jacksonville Jaguars: Blake Bortles Still Isn't the Answer

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    We would be talking about the Jacksonville Jaguars as a Super Bowl contender if they could find a serviceable quarterback.

    Yes, their defense is that damn good. It's led by 23-year-old Jalen Ramsey and 26-year-old A.J. Bouye, who form the league's best young cornerback tandem and lead a secondary giving up only 6.0 yards per attempt. Up front the Jaguars lead the league in sacks with 47, and 12.5 have come from defensive end Calais Campbell, who's justified the $30 million in guaranteed money Jacksonville gave him as a free agent.

    The problem, of course, is that Blake Bortles looms as a threat to derail the swarming shutdown defense.

    Bortles has turned the ball over 11 times in 2017, and over his career the 25-year-old's interception total is up to 59 over 59 games. He lacks the decision-making and ball security to be the quarterback a team like the Jaguars desperately needs. That is someone who can make the odd key throw, but mostly he has to be steady and stay out of the way while riding the defense and running back Leonard Fournette to wins.

    The Jaguars will try to find that guy during the offseason.

    Rating: 9

Kansas City Chiefs: The Offense Will Be Handed to Mahomes Eventually

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    Sarah Warnock/Associated Press

    The Kansas City Chiefs already took the leap to secure the young, exciting quarterback they hope will become an offensive cornerstone for years. Now it's just a matter of when Patrick Mahomes will make his regular-season debut.

    Alex Smith has regressed since a sizzling start to 2017, but the Chiefs' struggles can't be blamed solely on him. The most glaring example of the helpless situation Smith has been placed in came during a 38-31 Week 13 loss to the New York Jets. The Chiefs fell for the sixth time in seven games, even though Smith threw for 366 yards and four touchdowns while averaging 11.1 yards per attempt. He also added 70 rushing yards.

    Prior to that, the offense had been sluggish, scoring only 36 total points over a three-game stretch leading up to Week 13. That's what led to whispers of a possible Smith benching.

    But it's a little less than ideal to insert a rookie into a playoff chase to make his first career start, even one as talented as Mahomes. It's much more likely he is given the keys to the offense to begin 2018, and the Chiefs' transformation under him could be fun to watch after he threw four touchdown passes during the preseason, with no interceptions and a passer rating of 109.3.

    Suddenly, the Chiefs offense will be frighteningly athletic with Mahomes on the field alongside running back Kareem Hunt and wide receiver Tyreek Hill.

    Rating: 2

Los Angeles Chargers: Philip Rivers Isn't Slowing Down Yet

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    Much like Tom Brady, 40, and Drew Brees, 38, we keep waiting for Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers to start fading. He just turned 36 years old, an age where a decline often begins for QBs.

    And also much like Brady and Brees, it looks like we're about prolong that wait.

    Rivers has the Chargers firmly back in playoff contention after leading his team to wins in seven of its last nine games. Over that stretch, Rivers has thrown 17 touchdown passes with just three interceptions and posted six games with a passer rating over 100.0.

    There still has to be at least mild concern about Rivers' career longevity, though, as he's not far removed from a 21-interception season in 2016. He's signed through the end of the 2019 season, which is when Rivers will be 38 years old. The Chargers will almost certainly need a succession plan in place.

    Rating: 4

Los Angeles Rams: Jared Goff Seems to Enjoy Life Without Jeff Fisher

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    The rapid rise of Jared Goff in 2017 says a lot about former head coach Jeff Fisher and even more about current head man Sean McVay.

    In Fisher's system, Goff wasn't deemed ready to start as a rookie until Week 11. Then he was pummeled, getting sacked 26 times over seven games and 205 attempts. He was a scattered, inaccurate mess, completing only 54.6 percent of his throws.

    Now with Fisher gone, Goff has looked like more than just a top prospect. He's pushed himself into the MVP conversation and leads the league's most explosive offense.

    The Los Angeles Rams are averaging 30.5 points per game (second) and are doing it with a quarterback whose yards-per-attempt average has gone up dramatically compared to his rookie year (from 5.3 to 8.1), as has his passer rating (63.6 to 99.2).

    Goff has grown into the solution the Rams thought they drafted No. 1 overall in 2016. Of course, being paired with a young, creative offensive guru as his head coach has fueled the 23-year-old's second-year growth, as has the steady support of running back Todd Gurley.

    Rating: 1

Miami Dolphins: Still Lots of Uncertainty Surrounding Ryan Tannehill

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    The Miami Dolphins can win games and be a playoff team with Ryan Tannehill as their quarterback. They did that in 2016, the team's first year under head coach Adam Gase. So as Miami stumbles through 2017, it's easy to view Tannehill's 2018 return from his torn ACL as a lifeline.

    But doing that would overlook the fact that the 2016 Dolphins won 10 games by minimizing Tannehill. The 29-year-old attempted just 389 passes, and his 29.9 per-game attempt average ranked 29th.

    Gase took the ball out of Tannehill's hands because he identified a core weakness that isn't about to get better. Tannehill struggles mightily when under pressure, as Pro Football Focus' Scott Barrett noted, and over his past four seasons he has the fifth-worst passer rating when in an unclean pocket.

    Handling pressure well is an essential skill for any high-level quarterback, and Tannehill has also had issues with his deep accuracy. His per-attempt average fell below seven yards in each the Texas native's first three NFL seasons.

    So there are still lingering questions surrounding Tannehill, in addition to a knee injury that's been limiting him since the end of 2016. At best the Dolphins can be cautiously optimistic about their QB situation.

    Rating: 6

Minnesota Vikings: Case Keenum Has Given the Vikings a Great Problem

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    Few looked at Case Keenum as a viable starting quarterback prior to 2017, but that was mostly because the Jeff Fisher stink attached to him remained strong.

    Fisher, then well on his way to getting fired from his role as head coach of the Rams, benched Keenum after Week 10 of the 2016 season. At that time, Keenum had earned his benching by throwing 11 interceptions and posting a passer rating of only 76.4.

    But he was never put in a position to succeed with the Rams. Now that's changed in 2017 with the Minnesota Vikings.

    Keenum was forced into a starting role after Sam Bradford went down with a knee issue early in the season. He's been the Vikings' starter since Week 2, throwing 18 touchdown passes and only seven interceptions over that time. The 29-year-old has showcased impressive arm strength, and he's combined it with the ability to face pressure in the pocket and still deliver difficult pinpoint throws. That's translated to a completion percentage of 66.8, and Keenum has been up over 70 percent in six games.

    His success will give the championship-contending Vikings a tough decision to make in the offseason. Keenum is an impending free agent, and Teddy Bridgewater—their first-round pick in 2014—is healthy and ready to prove himself again. Then there's Bradford, who is on injured reserve after suffering a serious knee injury for the third time in the past four seasons.

    The Vikings have a lot of potential and promise to mull when it comes to their future at quarterback. But they don't have an established signal-caller who has performed at a high level over a long period.

    Rating: 6

New England Patriots: Tom Brady Might Play Forever

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    Never, ever lose perspective and take what Tom Brady is doing for granted amid the constant avocado ice cream jokes made here and elsewhere.

    The New England Patriots quarterback is, once again, an MVP candidate while averaging eight yards per attempt. He's also thrown 27 touchdown passes and just six interceptions even though he is second in the league with 481 attempts. Oh, and he's averaging 297.3 yards per game.

    Brady is doing all that at the age of 40. And here's all you really need to know about how historically amazing his play is already. Brady is 13 games into his age-40 season, and his single-season passing-touchdown total puts him second among all 40-plus-year-old quarterbacks, according to Pro Football Reference.

    It's still true that time remains undefeated. But it sure seems like Brady is going to take his fight to the 12th round and beyond. 

    Rating: 1

New Orleans Saints: Brees Isn't Running the Show Anymore, and That's Just Fine

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    There was a time, not long ago, when Drew Brees had to do everything for the New Orleans Saints offense, and even when he did, they often couldn't win. That was in 2016, a season when Brees averaged 325.5 passing yards per game while leading an offense ranked second in points per game (29.3). Yet the Saints still finished 7-9 and missed the playoffs.

    Now Brees is getting the defensive and backfield support he's needed. The latter has been truly spectacular, with running backs Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram combining to lead the league's fourth-best rushing offense.

    As a result of that offensive shift, Brees' production as a passer is down in some areas, but only by his high standards. He's still ranked fifth in passing yards (3,569) and is averaging 8.1 yards per attempt with a passer rating of 104.2.

    His arm strength and ability to push the ball downfield are fading, which tend to be the first signs of aging. Still, Brees is able to play at a high level when needed, which we saw recently when he led a comeback against the Washington Redskins in Week 11 with two fourth-quarter touchdown passes.

    The Saints have a delicate decision to make, with Brees set to become a free agent. The right decision is to trust he can still age gracefully as he gets set to turn 39 in January, and then use an early draft pick on a quarterback in either 2018 or 2019.

    Rating: 4

New York Giants: The Eli Manning Era Is Ending

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    Let's set aside the Eli Manning benching debacle for a moment and acknowledge he's not a long-term answer for the New York Giants at quarterback.

    That's clear for a lot of reasons, and the first is his age. The Giants are a rebuilding team with a soon-to-be 37-year-old quarterback whose accuracy has gone on a sharp decline, as has his ability to push the ball downfield. Manning is averaging only six yards per attempt in 2017, and his per-game passing average has fallen from 251.7 yards in 2016 to 219.9 yards.

    Playing behind a putrid offensive line obviously hasn't helped matters in 2017, and neither did the ankle injuries to wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Odell Beckham Jr. But Manning is still on the downslope of his career.

    That doesn't mean his time in the NFL is over yet. He could follow his brother Peyton's path by pursuing a championship on a team with other strong pieces in place.

    But the Giants aren't that team. They have talent but are likely about to go through at least one tough season as a fresh regime lays out its new foundation. That process will start at quarterback. 

    Rating: 10

New York Jets: McCown Has Impressed, but He's Still Only a Short-Term Option

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    Josh McCown gave the New York Jets more than they could have dreamed of with his play in 2017 before he suffered a broken hand in Week 14.

    Heading into the year, it didn't seem like the Jets had a chance to win even two games. Now they have five victories with three games left. That they even have a shot at finishing as a .500 team is staggering, and much of that success was the product of McCown's play.

    The 38-year-old threw just two interceptions over his last six games. He was careful and accurate, leading to a completion percentage of 67.3 and six multi-touchdown games through the air. McCown was also surprisingly athletic, with five touchdowns as a runner.

    But he's an impending free agent, and although the Jets will surely make a push to bring him back on another short-term deal, McCown isn't a long-term answer due to his age. The problem, of course, is that the Jets don't have such an answer on their depth chart.

    They only have busts beyond McCown, most notably Christian Hackenberg. He was selected with the 51st pick in 2016 and still hasn't started a regular-season game. In the preseason, Hackenberg was a disaster and averaged only five yards per attempt against second- and third-team defenders throughout August. Bryce Petty hasn't developed much either and threw seven interceptions over only four starts in 2016.

    McCown can keep being a bridge, but the Jets still aren't sure what's on the other side.

    Rating: 10

Oakland Raiders: Derek Carr Is Locked in Now After His Massive Payday

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    Derek Carr was briefly the NFL's highest-paid player when the Oakland Raiders gave him a five-year contract extension in June worth $125 million.

    Of course, every quarterback has a limited time on that lucrative perch, and Detroit's Matthew Stafford soon knocked him off ($135 million over five years). But the message communicated by the Raiders remains the same. They feel confident that at 26 years old, Carr is just entering his prime after a stellar 2016. So confident that Carr was given a mammoth $70.2 million in total guaranteed money.

    The immediate returns have been shaky at best, however.

    A back injury limited Carr earlier in the season, and he missed one week. The injury may have factored into his four multiple-interception games and a per-game passing average that's fallen from 262.5 yards in 2016 to 245.2 yards in 2017.

    Rating: 1

Philadelphia Eagles: Carson Wentz Has Developed Quickly

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    The Philadelphia Eagles traded a truckload of picks to the Cleveland Browns in 2016 to snag Carson Wentz with the second overall pick in the draft. In total, five selections went to the Browns, including the Eagles' first-round pick in 2017 and second-rounder in 2018.

    And every pick was worth it.

    Wentz has quickly developed into a quarterback who can either escape or muscle his way through contact in the pocket, and do it while showing off the arm strength to heave balls deep downfield with accuracy.

    The most impressive example of how well he blends athleticism and sheer arm power came during a Week 13 loss to the Seattle Seahawks, when Wentz completed a 51-yard yard pass to wide receiver Nelson Agholor while scrambling from the pocket and getting tackled.

    He was among the MVP front-runners in 2017 before he suffered a season-ending ACL tear in a 43-35 Week 14 win over the Los Angeles Rams. He had a league-leading 33 touchdown passes, only seven interceptions and a passer rating of 101.9 at the time of his injury.

    Rating: 1

Pittsburgh Steelers: Ben Roethlisberger Likely Isn't Far from Retirement

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    The retirement question will inevitably hover around Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the rest of his career—especially at the end of each season.

    He flirted with the idea after the 2016 campaign but chose to come back.

    The 35-year-old's reasons for considering retirement are in part health related, as he's taken plenty of hits over the years. But mostly, the demands of football can become too much for players in their mid-30s who begin feeling the tug of family life that they're missing.

    Roethlisberger told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette's Ed Bouchette:

    "I've been blessed to do this a long time. I think it's just seeing my kids growing up, and in the offseason I love getting to spend time with them, and then I come here and football season just has to take up so much of your time. Even when you get home, I try my best to turn it off when I walk in the front door. I think I do a pretty good job of that but it still consumes you in a way.

    "Just all those things combined—being healthy, being able to play catch with my kids. I feel good mentally, but I know this new study that came out that 90 percent [of NFL] players' brains who were studied had CTE."

    On the field, Roethlisberger is starting to look like an aging quarterback. His 13 interceptions in 2017 already matches the total he threw throughout 2016. And he's logged only four games with 300-plus passing yards this year, though Roethlisberger soared past that mark in Week 14 with 506 yards in a 39-38 win over the Baltimore Ravens.

    Roethlisberger might keep waffling each offseason under the weight of a tough decision. But it's clear the end is coming, and the Steelers need to find his successor.

    Rating: 7

San Francisco 49ers: Jimmy Garoppolo Will Finally Provide Stability

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    The San Francisco 49ers have gone through repeated cycles of hope and heartbreak at quarterback over the past decade or so.

    First Alex Smith was a potential franchise QB, and then he showed a limited ceiling, leaving him labeled a game manager. Then Colin Kaepernick came along, but soon defenses learned how to contain his running, knowing the then-rising young pivot was mediocre as a passer.

    Now a long-term answer has been found. The 49ers brought in Jimmy Garoppolo in a midseason trade with the New England Patriots, sending a 2018 second-round pick the other way.

    In his first start for the 49ers during a 15-14 Week 13 win over the Chicago Bears, Garoppolo looked polished and comfortable as the new leader of head coach Kyle Shanahan's offense. He finished the game with a 70.3 completion percentage and threw for 293 yards, averaging 7.9 yards per attempt.

    There is some concern surrounding Garoppolo's lack of experience after he started just two games while playing behind Brady with the Patriots. But flip that around, and it's a positive: He learned behind Brady, benefited from Bill Belichick's coaching for three-plus years and has a second-round draft pedigree.

    Rating: 3

Seattle Seahawks: Russell Wilson Wants to Play into His 40s

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    Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

    Russell Wilson is already looking far beyond 2017. He wants to make sure the Seattle Seahawks don't have to think about finding a new franchise quarterback for a long, long time.

    Wilson just turned 29 in November. That puts him in middle-age territory at his position, and he still has at least five years until questions about aging start following.

    But if he has it his way, it'll be a lot longer than that.

    "I definitely want to play into my mid-40s," Wilson told ProFootballTalk's podcast.

    "I'm constantly getting work and getting stretched so that way my body [can] be super mobile and can maneuver really well. That's really key to feel fresh every day. I have always had a big dream of playing for a long time."

    Wilson is taking that mission seriously before he hits his 30s. He has a personal trainer, chef and physical therapist, all of whom work with him on a full-time basis. It's a body maintenance regimen that sounds Brady-like, and it bodes well that Wilson's diving in with such dedication already.

    Advancements in body science, approaches to dieting and training methods will give us more Bradys in the future and more generational talents who last far past the typical expiration date for quarterbacks. But no amount of off-field training or Wheaties consumption can save Wilson from the physical punishment he's endured.

    He has taken 235 sacks over nearly six full seasons. Much of that is due to Seattle's penchant for putting weak offensive lines in front of him. However, Wilson's free-wheeling style often leaves him vulnerable to repeated blows, which could hurt his prospects of playing for over a decade longer.

    Rating: 1

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Jameis Winston Still Hasn't Taken a Leap Forward

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    Dylan Buell/Getty Images

    We're still seeing much of the same wild inconsistencies from Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston.

    Sometimes he'll slide to escape pressure and laser a perfectly placed throw downfield. Other times he'll make awful decisions that come with equally awful consequences. He's turned the ball over 51 times in 42 career regular-season games.

    Winston has not progressed well as a deep passer. He missed three games due to a shoulder injury in 2017, and as Pro Football Focus' Mike Guerrelli noted, during the eight-game stretch prior to that, the 23-year-old completed only 29.7 percent of his throws targeted 20-plus yards downfield.

    Winston will still be given plenty of chances to prove himself because teams offer lots of rope to No. 1 overall picks. But nearly three full seasons in, we're still waiting on him to put the entire package together and be an accurate passer, a gifted athlete and a good decision-maker.

    Rating: 5

Tennessee Titans: Marcus Mariota Has Regressed in 2017

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    Michael Reaves/Getty Images

    The good news for the Tennessee Titans in 2017 still trumps the awful. But the awful news is still the sort of thing that makes Titans coaches and executives look out the window and sigh loudly.

    On the positive side, of course, is that the Titans hold a playoff spot after losing just twice over their last eight games. But they've done that while overcoming the play of their young quarterback instead of being pushed by it.

    During that eight-game period, Marcus Mariota has thrown 11 interceptions, which is more than the nine he threw in all of 2016. He's also logged just two multi-touchdown games through the air in 2017, though he's scored five times as a runner, more than his previous two NFL seasons combined (four).

    For the first time in his career, Mariota has looked uncertain and mistake prone, which has led to more interceptions (14) than touchdown passes (10). He can only rely on his scrambling ability so much to keep the offense moving and eventually has to regain comfort as a pocket passer.

    Rating: 4

Washington Redskins: Kirk Cousins Is Probably Gone in 2018

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Life without Kirk Cousins is getting closer for the Washington Redskins. That's a terrifying thought for a team that's already eliminated from the playoffs even though its quarterback has played well.

    Cousins has put together another quality season while averaging 7.8 yards per attempt and throwing 22 touchdown passes with only nine interceptions.

    He's playing under the franchise tag for the second straight year. Slapping him with the tag for a third time would mean paying Cousins a fully guaranteed $34.5 million for one season, which is a salary-cap anchor no team can afford. That would likely occupy more than 20 percent of the Redskins' salary allotment and severely restrict their ability to either re-sign pending free agents or address needs by bringing in outside free agents.

    The Redskins have horribly mismanaged Cousins' contract situation, and now it's difficult to envision the foundation of their offense's return in 2018.

    Rating: 9