The Most Protected Quarterbacks in the NFL

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistFebruary 4, 2016

The Most Protected Quarterbacks in the NFL

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    Gary Landers/Associated Press

    It's no secret that today's NFL is a quarterback-driven league. It is generally the teams with the top signal-callers who are able to sustain success, and those without them often find it difficult to remain consistently competitive.

    Of course, even the best quarterbacks sometimes need a little help to perform at a high level. While a team can rarely succeed without an effective quarterback, a quarterback can't always be at his best without adequate protection.

    It's that protection we are going to focus on today. While this is a list of current quarterbacks, we aren't going to concern ourselves too much with how the passers themselves fared during the 2015 season. 

    Instead, we'll be looking at the protection surrounding each signal-caller, whether it comes from a standout offensive line, a strong running game or a talented team simply built to make things easier on its quarterback.

    For these guys, it's all about the protection. 

Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders

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    Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

    Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr took some major steps forward in his second NFL season this past year. He improved his completion percentage from 58.1 percent a year ago to 61.1 percent this season. He also raised his passer rating from 76.6 all the way to 91.1.

    His improvements were enough to earn Carr a spot in the 2016 Pro Bowl as an alternate.

    Carr couldn't have made these positive strides without  protection around him. That protection started with the offensive line, which was rated second overall in pass blocking by Pro Football Focus for the 2015 season.

    In addition to an adequate offensive line, the Raiders also took steps to surround Carr with talent at the skill positions. Rookie receiver Amari Cooper (1,070 yards and six touchdowns) should provide Carr with a big-bodied No. 1 target for many years to come. Running back Latavius Murray (1,066 yards rushing, six touchdowns, 41 receptions) gives Carr the type of backfield presence needed to keep the quarterback from getting burned.

    Both Cooper and Murray joined Carr in the Pro Bowl.

    Carr was sacked 31 times this past season, tied for 13th-most in the NFL. However, only eight quarterbacks attempted more passes during the season, according to Pro Football Focus.

    When it comes to protecting Carr's future, the Raiders seem to be on the right track. 

Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Joe Mahoney/Associated Press

    Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger missed four games in the regular season due to injury, but his ailments seemed to be more the product of awkward hits and bad luck than the result of poor protection from his Pittsburgh Steelers.

    In fact, the Steelers were rated sixth overall in pass blocking by Pro Football Focus for the season.

    In addition to having strong pass protection, Roethlisberger benefited from having a bevy of stellar offensive weapons around him. Pass-catchers such as Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton helped to ensure Roethlisberger had an open target when he needed to get rid of the ball more often than not.

    Whether it was Le'Veon Bell or DeAngelo Williams toting the rock for Pittsburgh, the Steelers usually had an adequate running game, as well. The Steelers finished 16th in rushing with an average of 107.8 yards rushing per game.

    Despite only appearing in 12 games this season, Roethlisberger still dropped back to pass 493 times, according to Pro Football Focus. He dropped back more than Buffalo Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor (467 dropbacks) and Tennessee Titans signal-caller Marcus Mariota (424). Yet Roethlisberger suffered only 20 sacks in the regular season.

    Taylor and Mariota, by comparison, were sacked 36 times and 39 times, respectively. 

Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Like a couple of quarterbacks on this list, Cincinnati Bengals signal-caller Andy Dalton suffered a significant injury (broken thumb) during the 2015 season. However, Dalton sustained his while trying to make a tackle after an interception, not because poor protection allowed opponents to pound him.

    The protection in front of Dalton was, in fact, rather excellent this past season. It allowed him to pass for 3,250 yards with 25 touchdowns, throw just seven interceptions and finish with a passer rating of 106.2. Dalton accomplished all of this while only suffering 20 sacks on the year.

    Much of Dalton's protection came from the Cincinnati offensive line, which was rated ninth overall in pass blocking by Pro Football Focus. The rest came from an offensive supporting cast as talented as any in the league.

    Running backs Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard combined for 1,524 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns in 2015. Wide receivers A.J. Green and Marvin Jones combined for 2,113 yards receiving and 14 touchdowns, while standout tight end Tyler Eifert produced 615 yards receiving and a whopping 13 touchdowns.

    Having the NFL's second-ranked defense in terms of scoring (just 17.4 points allowed per game) also helped to keep the pressure off of Dalton's shoulders. 

    Because of the talent around him and the line in front of him, Dalton was able to operate as comfortably as any quarterback this past season. If not for the misguided tackle attempt that led to a broken thumb and knocked him out of the postseason, Dalton might have even operated all the way to Super Bowl 50.

Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys

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    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Yes, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo suffered a broken collarbone this past season. Twice. However, it's really hard to fault the protection in front of him for the injury and ensuing re-break.

    The Cowboys, you see, had the league's top overall pass-blocking unit this season, according to Pro Football Focus. Three of the team's offensive linemen—tackle Tyron Smith, guard Zack Martin and center Travis Frederick—were named to the 2016 Pro Bowl.

    In fact, Romo was only sacked six times in his four starts, which would put him on pace for a 24-sack season. The Cowboys line gave up 33 sacks this season, but 27 of those sacks landed on backups Brandon Weeden, Matt Cassel and Kellen Moore.

    A year ago, Romo was only sacked 29 times in 15 games, and it doesn't appear he is too worried about his protection moving forward, either.

    "I think the collarbone was a freak thing and that happens," Romo said, per Todd Archer of "But I think we're going to do things that will probably allow us to make sure that doesn't happen again." 

    A strong running game could certainly help protect Romo, of course, and the Cowboys have been able to provide one. Despite parting ways with league rushing leader DeMarco Murray last offseason, Dallas still finished with the ninth-best rushing attack (118.1 yards per game) in the NFL.

    If anything, the breakdown in Romo's protection occurred when Cowboys owner Jerry Jones decided to put him back in the starting lineup late in the regular season. 

Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Bob Leverone/Associated Press

    Pass protection was probably a bit of a concern for Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston heading into his rookie season in 2015, and it rightfully should have been. The Buccaneers were starting two rookies, tackle Donovan Smith and Guard Ali Marpet, in front of him.

    As the season went on, though, it became evident the Buccaneers had a solid plan in place to protect their rookie gunslinger. A strong ground attack protected Winston early, and as the youngsters on the line gained experience, the blocking group in front of him solidified.

    By year's end, the line looked like a cohesive unit and Winston was playing in the Pro Bowl.

    Bleacher Report NFL Analyst Brent Sobleski recently explained how the progress was made: 

    Winston also wasn't the only young player on the roster to display continued growth. Second-year wide receiver Mike Evans set new career highs with 74 receptions and 1,206 receiving yards. Plus, the team's much-maligned offensive line improved throughout the campaign, and it'll only get better next year since a pair of rookies—Ali Marpet and Donovan Smith—will be in their second seasons under [head coach Dirk] Koetter. 

    The presence of Evans and running back Doug Martin (1,402 rushing yards, six touchdowns) ensured that Winston wasn't hurting for playmakers.  

    Winston finished his rookie year taking just 27 sacks, fewer than 18 other quarterbacks took in the regular season. Of the 13 quarterbacks to attempt as many or more passes than Winston (536), only Eli Manning, Carson Palmer, Kirk Cousins and Ryan Fitzpatrick were sacked 27 times or fewer.

Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    We have to give some credit here to the New Orleans Saints for finding ways to protect 37-year-old quarterback Drew Brees

    The Saints didn't provide Brees with a top-tier running game (ranked 24th, averaging 93.2 rushing yards per game) or a standout defense (ranked dead last with an average of 29.8 points per game allowed). However, the Saints still allowed Brees to lead the league's top passing offense throughout the season.

    No team averaged more than the 310.6 yards passing per game averaged by New Orleans. 

    Despite missing a game with a shoulder injury, Brees still managed to lead the NFL with 4,870 passing yards. He finished second in pass attempts with 627.

    The Saints protected Brees by giving him weapons to target such as receiver Brandin Cooks (84 receptions) and tight end Benjamin Watson (74 catches). New Orleans also put Brees behind a vastly underrated offensive line.

    The Saints line was rated 11th overall in pass blocking by Pro Football Focus and was primarily anchored by left tackle Terron Armstead, perhaps the biggest Pro Bowl snub of the year. Armstead was himself rated third overall among all offensive tackles by Pro Football Focus for the season.

    Ultimately, Brees was sacked 31 times in the regular season. That's fairly impressive when you consider 12 quarterbacks were sacked more in 2015, but no quarterbacks racked up more yardage than Brees.

Eli Manning, New York Giants

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    The 2015 season may not have been the greatest for the New York Giants, but it was basically a career year for quarterback Eli Manning in terms of individual statistics.

    Manning finished the year with 4,432 yards passing and a career-high 35 touchdowns. He also threw just 14 interceptions, which is tied for the lowest total since he threw nine as a rookie back in 2004. His passer rating of 93.6 was also a career best.

    There's no way Manning could have had the year he did without solid protection around him. 

    Protection is exactly what Manning got, especially at the interior of his offensive line. Guards John Jerry and Justin Pugh were both rated in the top 25 of guards in pass blocking by Pro Football Focus for the season. Pro Football Focus rated center Weston Richburg second at his position in terms of pass blocking.

    Manning also experienced the type of protection that an elite receiver such as Odell Beckham Jr. can provide. Beckham, who finished with 96 receptions, 1,450 yards receiving and 13 touchdowns, consistently provided Manning with a target in which he could have supreme confidence.

    For the season, Manning was only sacked 27 times. This, despite the fact he had the eighth-most dropbacks of any quarterback (653) on the season, according to Pro Football Focus.

Ryan Fitzpatrick, New York Jets

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    Bill Wippert/Associated Press

    The most surprising quarterback campaign in 2015 might have come from New York Jets signal-caller Ryan Fitzpatrick. The journeyman has bounced around the league for 11 years, but he made New York his place of business this past season.

    The bearded barn-burner finished his year with career highs in both passing yards (3,905) and passing touchdowns (31). He also helped to lead New York to a 10-6 record and come within a win of reaching the postseason. 

    Could Fitzpatrick have made such an impact without superior protection keeping the opposition out of his face? No way.

    Fitzpatrick dropped back to pass 615 times in 2015, 11th-most of any quarterback, according to Pro Football Focus. Despite this, he was only sacked 19 times overall.

    Not only did Fitzpatrick benefit from an efficient offensive line, but he also had the shield of a strong running game, a pair of top-tier receivers and a standout defense that kept the pressure away.

    The Jets defense allowed just 19.6 points per game (ninth-fewest in the league) in 2015. Running back Chris Ivory finished with an AFC-leading 1,070 yards rushing, while receivers Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker combined for 2,529 receiving yards and 26 touchdowns.

    All of this came together to help give Fitzpatrick the best season of his career while rarely allowing him to feel the sting of opposing pass-rushers. 

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