5 NFL Quarterbacks with the Most on the Line in 2015

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystJuly 18, 2015

5 NFL Quarterbacks with the Most on the Line in 2015

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    Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

    If we're generous, maybe 10 quarterbacks can play the position at a premier level, and every year the rigid divide in talent among the rest is peppered with uncertainty.

    At the very bottom, there's a group of often weary journeymen who are just happy they're hanging onto a career. It's here where you'll find the Houston Texans' Brian Hoyer and the Buffalo Bills' Matt Cassel, two guys who could actually be Week 1 starters before fading out of sight again fast. Their inclusion in any legitimate competition for a job shows how far quarterback desperation can reach.

    But then there are the murky tiers in between. That's where careers begin to fizzle, or a quarterback finally starts to fulfill his potential. It's where descending veterans and rising young arms meet, with each going in the opposite direction.

    The mid-to-low tiers are where quarterbacks have the most at stake. Often a spiral needs to be halted, or progress needs to be shown quickly to avoid the looming draft-bust label.

    The realities of supply and demand at the position dictate that mediocre quarterbacks will still maintain a grasp on meaningful employment. But it's usually a tenuous one at best.

    Let's take a look at five quarterbacks with the most on the line in 2015.

Honorable Mentions: Sam Bradford, Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick

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    Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    Sam Bradford (Eagles)

    The goal here is obvious, and it's also to an extent out of Sam Bradford's control.

    Bradford has to be at the helm of a retooled Philadelphia Eagles offense, and he has to do it while staying healthy. That's proved to be a tough ask over the past two years, and he's now one more moment of pocket chaos gone wrong away from another shortened season. Bradford hasn't played a full 16-game regular season since 2012, and he's torn the same ACL in back-to-back years.

    He still hasn't been able to participate in any 11-on-11 drills this offseason, though it's expected that should change once training camp opens.

    Cam Newton (Panthers)

    In 2014 Cam Newton posted single-season career lows in passing yards per attempt (7.0), passing touchdowns (18) and passer rating (82.1). His accuracy also regressed, falling from a completion percentage of 61.7 the previous season to 58.5.

    In fairness, Newton had to claw through injuries, most notably recovering from a scary late-season car accident. The 26-year-old is still overflowing with athleticism at his size and averaged 53.0 rushing yards over his final six games in 2014, including the playoffs. But he needs to demonstrate more consistency as a passer.

    Colin Kaepernick (49ers)

    Colin Kaepernick's issues are similar to what's plagued Newton. Too often in 2014 he was a one-read quarterback who failed to go through his progressions and show patience in the pocket. That resulted in rushed throws, poor decisions and an over-reliance on his running ability.

    Kaepernick's offseason work with Kurt Warner has fueled a lot of hope. The four-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion told CSN Bay Area's Matt Maiocco that on a fundamental level he was teaching his student to be a quarterback first and an athlete second.

Robert Griffin III

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    Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

    A single screenshot summarizes Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III.

    It tells us everything we need to know about how far he’s fallen since his Pro Bowl and Rookie of the Year season in 2012. It shows us the mental hole he’s tumbled down, and no amount of physical ability can help him scale it. And most of all, it’s a clear illustration of how far Griffin regressed in 2014. Or rather, how much of a misfit he is in any pro-style offense.

    The screenshot—which will now be referred to as The Screenshot—comes from Yahoo Sports' Greg Cosell, who was brave enough to endure a film study session with Griffin as his subject midway through the 2014 season.

    The Screenshot was taken during a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and it shows Griffin under no pressure with five wide-open receivers scattered in different directions. Two were running deep corner routes that broke off about 15 yards downfield. The other three were checkdown options.

    No pass-catcher had a defender within five yards of him. Griffin’s decision? He shuffled around, left the pocket and threw the ball away.

    Griffin has been gifted with an overwhelming amount of athletic skill, and it still shows despite injuries that have slowed him, including his torn ACL and LCL during the 2012 playoffs. However, he lacks the vision and patience in the pocket for success in the NFL.

    “He’s auditioned long enough,” head coach Jay Gruden told NFL Network’s Albert Breer in November 2014, just prior to Week 12 when Griffin averaged a meager 5.6 yards per throw in a loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

    “Clock’s ticking. He’s gotta play. We’ll see.”

    For the next game he was benched in favor of (gulp) Colt McCoy, who injured his neck later in the season, and then Griffin returned. But the message was clear: Griffin’s time is running out in Washington, and Gruden’s patience is wearing thin.

    Gruden is now heaping praise on his quarterback, telling the Washington Times’ Zac Boyer in June there’s been progress during the 25-year-old’s second season in the same offense. The guidance of new quarterback coach Matt Cavanaugh has helped too.

    “You can see the progress every day that he makes, and it’s exciting to watch,” Gruden said.

    More time with Gruden’s offense will certainly help, especially for a quarterback whose development in something other than a zone-read system was derailed when he injured his ankle in Week 2 of 2014.

    But the true test won't come until real game action, when Griffin will face a more intense pass rush. His feet have instinctively been twitchy when confronted with that fire, and he’s reduced to one thought: escape now. That led to a rather remarkable 33 sacks taken in 2014 on only 265 dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus. For perspective, the Bills’ Kyle Orton was also sacked 33 times, but at least he needed 484 dropbacks to get there.

    The Redskins picked up Griffin’s fifth-year option, which is guaranteed for injury only. His leash will be short and attached to a choke collar, and without a leap forward when it matters, 2015 will be his final year in Washington. It could also be his last season as a regular starting quarterback.

Geno Smith

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    Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

    New York Jets quarterback Geno smith has potential in the right system, or he’s a one-man turnover factory. You see the flashes of brilliance he’s shown and think there’s room for so much more, or you see a mere mirage.

    At the very best of times, Smith is confusing. He was the only quarterback to post a perfect passer rating in 2014, doing that during a Week 17 win over the Miami Dolphins in which he completed 80 percent of his passes. It was the conclusion of a four-game stretch when his completion percentage climbed to 65.1, far above Smith's overall season percentage of 59.7.

    That was the flickering-hope section of Smith’s season, which has become somewhat of an annual tradition through two years. But overall his ratio of touchdowns to interceptions was even at 13 apiece.

    Smith has thrown the fourth-most interceptions since 2013. Which sounds awful but not woeful until you consult the list and see how economical he’s been with his turnover-creating. He’s needed only 810 attempts to throw 34 interceptions. The Ravens’ Joe Flacco has chucked the same number of picks during that two-year time period but on 1,168 attempts.

    What’s especially discouraging is that, like Griffin, Smith often becomes attached to one read and crumbles when faced with the slightest bit of pocket pressure. He connected on only 38.5 percent of his passes while under pressure in 2014, per PFF, which ranked 26th among the 27 quarterbacks who took at least half of their team’s dropbacks.

    But despite all the cringing and sailing footballs, there are sources of hope going forward during what could be Smith’s last season to prove himself, this time under the eye of a new coaching staff led by Todd Bowles.

    Offensive coordinator Chan Gailey is part of that staff, and his tendency to trot out a spread offense is better suited for Smith. He thrived at West Virginia in a similar system, and getting in touch with your college roots is a fine last resort.

    Predictably, Smith has still gone through growing pains while he adjusts to Gailey’s approach, which is what CBSSports.com’s Jason La Canfora observed in June with minicamp winding down. But Gailey has called him the “unquestioned starter” (via ESPN’s Adam Schefter), which means he’ll be given plenty of opportunities to fail.

    That's the right decision, because in a league where squeezing even average play out of your quarterback can require voodoo tricks, Smith hasn’t had much of a supporting cast. Now, Brandon Marshall and Devin Smith have been added to a wide receiver corps that already included Eric Decker, and they will inject much-needed vertical speed into the passing offense.

    Smith is in a system that fits his skill set, and he has weapons at his disposal to eliminate excuses. Now he needs to end the confusion by turning those flashes of competence into weekly effectiveness.

Jay Cutler

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    Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

    If Jay Cutler wasn’t named Jay Cutler, he would no longer be the Chicago Bears' starting quarterback.

    Actually, that’s only a half truth. If Cutler’s name wasn’t on a contract that gives him $15.5 million in guaranteed money for 2015 and comes with a $16.5 million cap hit, he would probably be throwing his interceptions elsewhere.

    But the soul-destroying lack of decent quarterback options in both the draft and free agency often leads to a choice between two evils: paying and praying with the guy you have, or starting over with the unknown and doubling your praying.

    The old Bears regime choose the former option when Cutler was given a seven-year deal worth $126.7 million in January 2014, and now the franchise’s regret runs deep. Cutler was briefly replaced by Jimmy Clausen in 2014, the same Clausen who hadn’t thrown a meaningful pass since 2010.

    Cutler floundered in former head coach Marc Trestman’s offense and proved to be impressively resistant against the quarterback whisperer’s charm.

    Trestman's system prominently features high-percentage throws to give the quarterback comfort. And Cutler notched a career-high 66 percent completion percentage in 2014. The problem came when he was asked to push the ball downfield, which shouldn’t be an insurmountable challenge with his booming arm and twin-tower receivers as the intended targets (Marshall and Alshon Jeffery). Yet Cutler's accuracy percentage (completion percentage including dropped passes) on his 20-plus-yard throws was only 32.8, which ranked a lowly 21st, per PFF.

    Because of Cutler's contract, new Bears head coach John Fox and offensive coordinator Adam Gase are stuck in a marriage with a quarterback who desperately needs divorce papers. The Bears tried to trade Cutler during the draft, according to a report from Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, but that was only greeted by a hearty laugh from the Tennessee Titans.

    Progress for Cutler in a new offense means consistency, and achieving something that resembles consistency means sustaining drives. And sustaining drives means fewer interceptions after Cutler tied for the 2014 league lead in that category.

    The chain of failure runs deep, and at 32 years old Cutler is long past his youthful stage where there's hope for development. He is, as they say, who he is at this point, and at best he may only be a placeholder.

Blake Bortles

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    Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

    The Jacksonville Jaguars had good intentions just after they selected quarterback Blake Bortles with the third overall pick in 2014. Bortles, they said, would have the equivalent of an NFL redshirt year.

    He would watch, wait, learn and develop. Then, the young quarterback flower would finally blossom the following season. 

    “That’s the plan,” general manager David Caldwell said shortly after the draft, via John Breech of CBSSports.com. “Chad [Henne] is going to be the guy.”

    It was a grand, rosy plan that lasted all of two-and-a-half games. Henne stayed true to himself, completing only 53.8 percent of his pass attempts during that short stretch, and Bortles entered after halftime in an eventual blowout loss to the Indianapolis Colts.

    Clearly, the Jaguars’ front office and coaching staff expected to be watching through their collective fingers after Bortles was forced into game action that early. They correctly identified that patience would be needed with their hopeful quarterback cornerstone, so there couldn’t have been much shock when the rough times began.

    The hope, of course, was that mentally the NFL’s warp speed would slow down for Bortles, and he would feel more comfortable as the season wore on. He would adjust while showing some ease in the pocket.

    We’re still waiting on all of that.

    Over the Jaguars’ final six games, Bortles averaged a woeful 5.0 yards per attempt. That included the Week 17 finale when his per-attempt rate fell to 3.5.

    In fairness, Bortles was teed up to have both his confidence and body shattered. The NFL learning curve becomes impossibly steep when you’re trying to navigate around an oncoming car accident each dropback and often failing.

    Bortles was sacked a league-high 55 times during his rookie season while playing behind an offensive line that offered the resistance of soggy oatmeal. The most notable liability was left tackle Luke Joeckel, the 2013 second overall pick who allowed eight sacks, per PFF, which was tied for the third-worst total among tackles.

    The free-agency addition of right tackle Jermey Parnell will hopefully give Bortles at least a few more nanoseconds to process what’s happening in front of him. However, splurging on tight end Julius Thomas was the most significant offseason upgrade, as he’ll provide Bortles with a wide-bodied and athletic red-zone target.

    The arm talent is evident with Bortles, and the predraft comparisons to the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger were appropriate given his immense size (6’5” and 232 lbs) and mobility (419 rushing yards in 2014, fourth-most among quarterbacks). Now he has to take a leap forward.

Andy Dalton

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Our planet’s axis is altered after nearly every quarterback mega-extension. We’re all wary of implosions when money is heaped on an arm that’s questionable at best (see: Cutler, Jay), so instinctively concern is voiced and keyboards are mashed.

    Which is what happened during the 2014 offseason when Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton signed a six-year extension worth $96 million. That number is now screamed until lungs ache every time the 27-year-old throws an interception (which is often).

    What’s overlooked, or conveniently disregarded, is that in truth he’s not playing under a $96 million contract. No, Dalton's extension only gave him an initial $17 million in guaranteed money, and then another $4 million in guaranteed cash came three days into the 2015 league year.

    Which means his pay reflects who he is as a quarterback: a short-term solution not worthy of a long-term commitment.

    There’s a reason why the Bengals structured his deal in that manner and can now escape it with only a moderate dead money hit. Dalton has grown to define what it means to be a safe quarterback.

    He can make impressive downfield throws that often land in the waiting, usually far outstretched hands of wide receiver A.J. Green. In 2013 Dalton finished tied for the league lead in 40-plus-yard completions, largely because of Green’s magnetizing presence.

    The core problem with Dalton is that when pressure mounts, he vanishes. That isn’t exactly ideal because playoff football comes with a wee bit of pressure.

    Dalton’s playoff performances have been infamously brutal. Over four games he’s averaged 5.5 passing yards per attempt and 218.3 per game. He’s also completed only 55.7 percent of his passes while chucking six interceptions with just one touchdown.

    That’s translated to four straight January thuds for the Bengals. With Dalton unable to move the offense, they’ve been outscored 103-43 in those games.

    At some point the Bengals have to glide over the playoff hump and win a postseason game for the first time since 1990. That means they'll likely have to decide if shredding Dalton’s contract at little cost is the right direction, albeit a painful one.

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