Make or Break: Predicting the Fate of the NFL's Young QBs in Prove-It Years
Quarterback is without question the most glamorous position in the NFL. They get the fattest contracts and most of the individual awards.
However, quarterback is also easily the most pressure-packed position in the NFL. When a team's winning, the QB is the best guy ever. But when it isn't, then the fingers start pointing.
For many young quarterbacks, handfuls of digits were angled in their direction in 2017.
Losses aren't the only thing that can get fans and pundits questioning a young signal-caller's future. Sometimes the wins are there, but the individual stats aren't. A return from injury can be cause for concern. So can a huge new contract.
Whatever the reason, every quarterback on this list has a lot to prove in 2018. And even more to lose.
Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Stakes: Justifying a Megadeal
It's fair to call Jameis Winston's third NFL season uneven. His 2017 completion percentage (63.8) and passer rating (92.2) were the highest of his career. His passing yards (3,504) and touchdown throws (19) were the lowest—largely because he missed three games with a shoulder injury.
Most importantly, of Winston's 13 starts, he won three. Over his first three seasons, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft is 18-27 with no playoff appearances.
To say this is a make-or-break season for Winston and his shot at a fat new contract isn't an exaggeration.
And it's not off to the best of starts.
As Marc Sessler reported for NFL.com, Winston will miss the first three games of 2018 because of a personal-conduct suspension. The suspension stems from a 2016 incident in which Winston was accused of inappropriately touching a female Uber driver in Arizona.
Winston, who initially denied the accusation, has apologized and will accept the suspension as part of a settlement with the league.
It's a big blow to the Buccaneers, and it only serves to hammer home that whether on the field or off, Winston has a long history of making bad decisions.
On the field, Winston has an equally long history of making mistakes with the football. He's the prototypical gunslinger—the guy who always believes he can make the throw. Winston has tossed 44 interceptions and committed 59 total turnovers.
We've been waiting for Winston to grow up since before he entered the NFL—and yet the same song keeps playing.
That won't suddenly change.
Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans
The Stakes: See Winston, Jameis
On one hand, 2017 was the most successful season of Marcus Mariota's NFL career. The player taken just after Winston in 2015 led the Titans to their first postseason victory since 2003.
On the other hand, Mariota's individual numbers were down substantially in a number of areas. He threw just 13 touchdown passes—half what he tossed in 2016. Mariota threw more interceptions (15) than touchdowns for the first time, and his passer rating was 16.3 points lower than in the previous campaign.
Part of that drop can be attributed to his playing hurt—an issue that has dogged the mobile signal-caller so far in the NFL. Mariota told Jason Wolf of the Tennessean that he thinks he's finally learning to take care of himself:
"I think it comes with playing the game, having experience. Obviously there's a time when the journey's ending, and you have to just understand that and either get down or throw the ball away. I think the last three years I've kind of learned when that time is. Obviously there's a time and a place to try to extend plays and try to get a first down; at the same time there's also opportunities for us as quarterbacks to protect ourselves, and we have to understand that and understand the situation."
This is the first offseason of Mariota's career where he hasn't been rehabbing an injury, and with Titans wideout Corey Davis (the fifth overall pick in 2017) also healthy, Mariota should have the best targets of his career.
The team may not win a playoff game again this year, but Mariota's numbers will bounce back in 2018 and the Titans will feel comfortable committing to him long term.
Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys
The Stakes: Texas-Sized Rebound
Dak Prescott's third NFL season wasn't supposed to be make-or-break.
After passing for 3,667 yards and 23 touchdowns with just four picks as a rookie and leading the Cowboys to an NFC East title, Prescott was a sensation. But reality crashed around him in 2017. Prescott's numbers were down last year across the board—except for the interceptions, which were way up (13).
Now, the starting quarterback for America's team enters a pivotal season for both the player and franchise. Since Prescott wasn't a Round 1 pick, there's no fifth-year option on his rookie deal. How the fourth-rounder plays in 2018 will go a long way toward determining what sort of contract he gets.
Prescott insisted to Jon Machota of the Dallas Morning News that he's not worried about those upcoming negotiations.
"My [focus] this year is just winning games," Prescott said. "That's my main goal. That's really my only goal, not any individual success or numbers or worry about the contract. It's about going in and winning enough games to get us to the playoffs and then winning one game at a time at that point. The rest of the stuff will come."
Prescott will get paid—one way or the other.
Whether he'll be able to lead Dallas back to the playoffs in 2018 is another matter.
Yes, Prescott will have Ezekiel Elliott back for the entire season after Elliott was suspended six games a year ago. And the Cowboys possess one of the NFL's best offensive lines. But with Dez Bryant and Jason Witten gone, the Cowboys' receiving corps is one huge question mark. There's no go-to receiver, and the entire group has combined for all of one 1,000-yard season (Allen Hurns, 2015).
This Cowboys team won't make the playoffs this year.
And Prescott, just like Tony Romo before him, may find himself blamed for things that aren't in his control.
Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles
The Stakes: NFL MVP Contention
Don't look at me like that.
Seriously, knock it off. It's unsettling.
Yes, Carson Wentz of the Philadelphia Eagles broke out in a big way last year. Before tearing his ACL against the Rams in Los Angeles on Dec. 10, Wentz was playing as well as any quarterback—maybe better.
He won 11 of 13 starts, passed for 3,296 yards, posted a passer rating of 101.9 and threw 26 more touchdowns (33) than interceptions (7). This year Wentz made his debut on the NFL Top 100 list put out annually by the NFL Network.
At No. 3—overall.
And yet, 2016's No. 2 pick and possibly the dumbest "pass" in Cleveland Browns draft history (that's saying something, folks) still faces something of a prove-it season.
The reason can be summed up in two words: Nick Foles.
Foles' run to a win in Super Bowl LII is the stuff of legend. Don't be surprised to see a Mark Wahlberg movie made at some point about it.
But it also may have planted the seeds for a quarterback controversy. If Wentz comes out of the gate looking like anything less than the MVP candidate we saw last year, it won't take many Eagles losses before the calls start for Foles.
However, Eagles head coach Doug Pederson told Dave Zangaro of NBC Sports Philadelphia that Wentz's rehab is progressing on schedule:
"It's just a matter of steady progression as we build towards training camp. He's going to work extremely hard over the next month, month and a half, and be ready for camp, obviously, and then we'll just reevaluate. But those boxes will all get checked based on what our doctors and training staff will put forth for him."
So long as there's no setback in that rehab, then it's full Wentz ahead in 2018.
Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs
The Stakes: A Playoff Berth
It's not exactly fair to slap a second-year quarterback who has all of one career start with the make-or-break label.
But life as an NFL quarterback isn't always fair.
And no second-year signal-caller is facing more pressure than the Kansas City Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes.
With Alex Smith now in Washington, D.C., it will fall to Mahomes to lead the Chiefs offense in 2018. And Kansas City isn't looking to rebuild. Or hoping to be a fringe contender. The Chiefs are the defending AFC West champions.
To Mahomes' credit, tight end Travis Kelce told ESPN.com's Adam Teicher that Mahomes has taken control of the offense:
"He just took control out there on the first day. That's the biggest thing is seeing that he does have control of the room at such a young age, knowing this is his first rodeo in the NFL. He's not shy about taking the lead and that's huge. It makes it easier on all of us to see the direction of where this can go and it's easy to follow that."
That offense has no shortage of firepower. In fact, Bleacher Report's Brad Gagnon ranked Mahomes' supporting cast as the NFL's best.
But we're still talking about a quarterback who has attempted all of 35 career passes and may well have to win shootouts in 2018 because the Chiefs defense is suspect.
This isn't an indictment of Mahomes. The youngster has the potential to be an excellent NFL quarterback.
But if Mahomes is measured by his team's success in 2018 and the bar's set at "playoff trip," he isn't likely to clear it.
AJ McCarron, Buffalo Bills
The Stakes: Status as a Viable NFL Starter
AJ McCarron isn't necessarily young. He'll turn 28 at the beginning of the 2018 season—his fifth in the NFL.
The pressure's on him, though, and he's still inexperienced. As Jason La Canfora reported for CBSSports.com, this may be McCarron's last chance to become a starting NFL quarterback, even though the long-term conditions aren't favorable:
"This might be McCarron's only shot at being a starter, and he does [have challenges with] three veteran offensive linemen gone and few skill players in the pass game he can count on with a team that is very much rebuilding. Those heady days when Hue Jackson was trying to trade for him in Cleveland seem like an eternity ago, and after a far more established and successful quarterback (Tyrod Taylor) was benched quickly in Buffalo a year ago on a team that would still eventually reach the playoffs."
It gets worse. After the Bills signed McCarron to a modest two-year, $10 million deal in March, Buffalo moved up in the first round of the 2018 draft to select Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen. The Bills also still have second-year pro Nathan Peterman, who outplayed McCarron in minicamp, per 104.5's Benjamin Allbright.
Granted, Peterman's familiarity with Buffalo's offense should afford him an early leg up. But it goes to show there's zero guarantee McCarron will even win the starting job in Buffalo.
If he does, it will be on the shortest of leashes—with a pair of younger quarterbacks (one of whom is the franchise's future at the position) nipping at his heels. Playing behind a retooled offensive line. With a group of skill-position talent that includes tailback LeSean McCoy and…not much else.
Maybe leaving Cincinnati wasn't such a hot idea after all.
Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco 49ers
The Stakes: NFC West Contention
Like McCarron, Jimmy Garoppolo is something of an old soul relative to some of the quarterbacks on this list. The 2018 season will mark Garoppolo's fifth—just like McCarron.
But the reason the upcoming season is so important for Garoppolo couldn't be more different.
Whereas McCarron's fighting for his NFL life (as a starter at least), Garoppolo's status as the No. 1 quarterback in San Fran isn't in question. Not after peeling off five straight wins to close out last season and signing a five-year, $137.5 million contract in February.
That last part is what kicked Garoppolo into make-or-break mode. Garoppolo's contract made him (temporarily) the highest-paid player in terms of average annual salary in NFL history.
Not bad for a guy who has started all of seven games.
With a king-sized paycheck comes immense expectations. And while Garoppolo has yet to lose an NFL start there were a few red flags last year. Garoppolo did toss five interceptions for the 49ers, and as Bleacher Report's Doug Farrar wrote, nothing will derail a game (or a season) faster than turnovers:
"When watching Garoppolo's five picks on tape, one sees a combination of receiver drops and bad quarterback decisions. Though he's learned a lot about the position, he is also prone to throwing into coverages that have already converged, and that's a problem he'll need to fix quickly if he's going to live up to what his contract says about his responsibilities."
It's possible Garoppolo's 2018 season could be derailed by the expectations and hype heaped onto him. He won't keep winning every game. In fact, given where the 49ers are set to open the season (at Minnesota), that winning streak will likely end in Week 1.
But Garoppolo has weapons. Head coach Kyle Shanahan is one of the NFL's best offensive minds. And Jimmy G has a knack for winning football games—one way or another.
So long as the hypeacane doesn't carry him off to Oz (yeah, yeah, yeah—it was a tornado), Garoppolo will be fine.
Teddy Bridgewater, New York Jets
The Stakes: Getting Back on Track
It wasn't that long ago that Teddy Bridgewater appeared to be on the road to stardom.
In 2015, his second NFL season, Bridgewater topped 3,200 yards passing and led the Minnesota Vikings to the playoffs. It looked like the Vikes had gotten a steal at the end of Round 1 the year before.
Then the bottom fell out. Bridgewater suffered a horrific knee injury in camp the following summer that nearly cost him his leg. He missed all of 2016 and played just a few snaps last year.
The quarterback who had looked like he'd be the starter in the Twin Cities for years entered free agency with his NFL career in limbo.
The New York Jets rolled the dice on Bridgewater, and early returns have been promising. So promising, in fact, that many believe Bridgewater may beat out veteran Josh McCown and hold off rookie Sam Darnold for Gang Green's Week 1 starting gig.
McCown told Eric Allen of the team's website he's been impressed by what he's seen of Bridgewater.
"He's playing at a high level, and there is a reason why he was a first-round pick," McCown said. "It is great to see him out there competing, and I think that he is an excellent player."
"He's a better guy than people said," McCown continued. "I think he's great to be around. I've heard a lot of great things about him before, and he's even better to be a part of the quarterback room."
Success in New York may be wishful thinking, though. It's possible that even if Bridgewater continues to shine, he'll either be replaced by Darnold at some point or traded before the season even starts.
But all Bridgewater has to do to make it in 2018 is get his career back on track. Show he still can be an effective NFL starter.
And while it's still early, he already appears to be doing just that.
Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders
The Stakes: Joining the Elite at QB
On some level, it seems odd to say the Oakland Raiders' Derek Carr is entering a make-or-break season. Four years into his career, Carr is firmly entrenched as Oakland's starting quarterback. About this time a year ago, Carr inked a $125 million contract extension—a reward for a playoff trip the year before.
That big payday was followed by a 6-10 backslide in which Carr's numbers dropped considerably across the board.
Granted, there are those who have no doubt Carr will rebound in 2018. One NFL Network analyst went so far as to rank Carr as the league's No. 4 quarterback—ahead of Russell Wilson.
"Derek had some back issues last year, and I think he returned too quickly," the analyst said. "Now healthy and able to go through an entire offseason, his mobility is back. Given that, along with Derek's arm talent and ability to buy time behind a solid O-line, and I'm not sure how defenses will cover this dynamic offense."
That analyst? David Carr—Derek's older brother. The same David Carr who was sacked 267 times over 12 NFL seasons.
Derek Carr is a good NFL quarterback. He's not a top-four quarterback, but he's good. But prior to last season, the general belief was Carr was on his way to greatness.
Now, Carr will attempt to bounce back without his most reliable receiver of the past few years (Michael Crabtree) and with a new head coach who hasn't walked an NFL sideline since Carr was in high school.
If Jon Gruden and Jordy Nelson can't recapture past glories, Carr may be hard-pressed to do so as well. Amari Cooper is as inconsistent as he is talented. Oakland's run game is, well, old. The defense ranked 23rd in the NFL last year.
And another disappointing season in Oakland could leave many wondering if the $70 million Carr got in guarantees was such a great investment after all—and if that greatness will ever come.