By: Tom Di Benedetto
Part 2: The Best and Worst Supported
A top-tier QB can carry an offense on his back. The rest are more reliant on their supporting casts. Here are eight quarterbacks situated for success or struggles based on what they will have to work with in 2016.
Set Up To Break Out
1. Andy Dalton
Andy Dalton essentially had his break out in 2015. But it crumbled to pieces after a broken thumb on an awkward play in Week 14 ended his season and robbed poor Marvin Lewis of an excellent shot at a postseason victory. Prior to the injury he was flat-out spectacular, posting a stellar 106.3 QB rating and 25/7 TD/INT ratio. He’ll have to back up that play this year to satisfy his many doubters, but the same solid cast that aided in his success is back for more. AJ Green, Tyler Eifert, a solid running back tandem and a steady group of pass protectors have Dalton in good shape for another shot at that postseason win in 2016.
2. Jameis Winston
The rookie-led 2015 Bucs posted over 6,000 yards of total offense, good for fifth in the NFL and better than Tom Brady’s Patriots. They also finished 6-10. Just don’t blame the offensive unit, which boasted the fifth-best rushing output behind Doug Martin and saw Jameis Winston rack up over 4,000 yards in his debut. Mike Evans, Vincent Jackson and Austin Seferian-Jenkins will continue to serve as productive targets while the offensive line will attempt to repeat their fourth-ranked performance in the fewest sacks allowed category. The most exciting thing about this offense, however, is the signficant room for improvement still in Jameis’ game. If he can take another positive step, the pieces are in place for another big year for Tampa’s offense.
3. Blake Bortles
The Jaguars were finally the subjects of some buzz this offseason and the progression of their passing attack is a big reason why. The Allens, Robinson and Hearns, have been remarkably consistent targets for the developing Blake Bortles and the addition of Chris Ivory to TJ Yeldon in the backfield should boost the ground game in 2016. All things seem to point to an impending improvement for an offense that was 10th in passing last season. But the same question remains for this team: can they protect Bortles? He has been sacked a ridiculous 106 times over the last two seasons, tops in the league in both years, leading to consistently horrendous third down play and chronic drive stalls.
Set Up To Struggle
1. Matt Stafford
Matt Stafford may be the NFL’s best kept secret. The tremendously talented slinger has shown consistent improvements in recent seasons leading to his ridiculous 2015: 32 TD/13 INT/4,262 YDS/67.2%. There were locked-in moments last year when Stafford looked like one of the best players in the game. And yet Detroit was only able to turn his incredible production into a 7-9 record. They don’t seem poised to improve upon that mark. The team’s leading rusher in ’15, Ameer Abdullah, ranked 34th in the NFL with 597 yards. His backup, Theo Riddick, had more yards receiving (697). “Number one wide receiver” Golden Tate managed just 813 yards and 6 touchdowns despite Stafford’s outstanding play. Head coach Jim Caldwell is just the finishing touch on a truly uninspiring Stafford support system.
2. Marcus Mariota
Exceptionally solid as a rookie, I fully expect Marcus Mariota to take another step forward in 2016. However, I also expect him to be employed in the same conservative, game-managing role this season, despite the fact that he actually posted a better QB rating in ’15 than Derek Carr. Reason number one for this is the fact that Tennessee has no wide receivers. Reason number two is the team is stacked at running back. Mike Mularkey, who miraculously shed his interim tag in the offseason, has made it clear that running the ball is his priority, and the team will be once again looking to protect their young QB every chance they get. There appear to be better times on the horizon for this franchise, but they are not here yet.
3. Ryan Tannehill
Stuck in a Groundhog’s Day of perpetual make-or-break years, Ryan Tannehill once again faces a critical season in 2016. It’s actually tough to statistically knock Tannehill, who has now posted back-to-back 4,000 yard seasons with 51 TDs to only 24 INTs over that time and a QB rating over 90. However, many questions remain. Will he improve his third down and fourth quarter play? Will he find a way to make better use of his considerable scrambling ability as a weapon? And can he mitigate the issues in the pocket that have resulted in his leading the NFL in yards lost due to sacks in two of the last three seasons? The burden of these issues lies on Tannehill’s shoulders this season. His supporting cast isn’t bad, led by elite slot WR Jarvis Landry and what should be a solid offensive line, but other primary weapons Kenny Stills, Devante Parker, Jordan Cameron and Jay Ajayi are relatively unproven commodities that will be reliant on QB leadership to reach their full potential.
Too Tough To Tell
1. Eli Manning
It’s an underratedly critical year for Eli, who is in the back end of his prime at 35 and facing a new leadership role with the departure of team patriarch Tom Coughlin. His last two seasons have been solid, with noticeable bumps in completion percentage and yardage and a much needed drop in interceptions. Unfortunately, horrendous defense and some particularly costly mishaps resulted in two straight 6-10 seasons and the end of an era for Big Blue. It’s hard to know exactly what to expect this season from the Bob McAdoo Giants, their offensive rookies Paul Perkins & Sterling Shepard and constant injury threat Victor Cruz. More than ever, the GMen will be reliant on Eli to lead the way.
2. Jay Cutler
Jay Cutler is an average NFL quarterback. He has been remarkably middle-of-the-pack statistically almost every season of his career and even boasts a career .500 record (67-67) as a starter. He’s good enough to be effective when decently supported, but therein lies the big question this year. What will former 7th overall pick Kevin White contribute this season? How will an exciting but raw group of runners (Jeremy Langford, Ka’Deem Carey & Jordan Howard) fare in replacing Matt Forte? These tough questions seem tied to Cutler’s success or failure this season. There is certainly potential for this offense to look good but there’s also legitimate risk in relying so heavily on unproven commodities. One thing we can rely on: Jay Cutler will be average.
Part 3: The Undefinables
This group of quarterbacks are difficult to categorize for individually varying reasons. They are the league’s outcast QBs and here’s my best guess as to how 2016 will go for each of them.
1. Blaine Gabbert/Colin Kaepernick
So Gabbert won the starting job and Kaepernick became an activist. Not exactly what most were expecting coming into the season. I was actually impressed with Gabbert at times last season, but his inability to establish a consistent rhythm from week to week continues to plague him as it has his entire career. He’s more talented than most realize though, and certainly has the physical tools to mimic an Alex Smith style of play. That is admittedly an optimistic appraisal, and I expect Kaepernick to end up seeing considerable action as the season wears on.
2. Robert Griffin III
Boy have the RGIII expectations run the gamut this offseason. I have seen experts suggest that he will start all 16 games en route to a triumphant comeback player-of-the-year award and others say he will be the NFL’s worst quarterback in 2016. I believed in him as a prospect and don’t think his rookie season was a fluke. But he has noticeably lost all of his bravado in the playmaking department, specifically on downfield throws and his running ability. I don’t think we’ll ever see him run the same way again, but if he can recover his long-range confidence and touch, he will return to the ranks of legitimate NFL starters. Big IF though.
3. Trevor Siemian/Paxton Lynch
Not the outcome we expected for the Super Bowl champs, but former 7th rounder Trevor Siemian once again humiliated Mark Sanchez and convincingly beat him out for the job. I watched a lot of both QBs this preseason and it was apparent that the man with zero NFL pass attempts was the less risky option than the man who has been to two AFC Championship games. The decision was easy, but Siemian doesn’t exactly blow you away on film. His arm is not strong, nor is he particularly athletic, but he demonstrated surprising rhythm and timing in the offense and (for the most part) consistent accuracy in short & mid-range passing schemes. The Broncos are in no rush to get to Lynch, especially if they’re successful early in the season. But I do think Gary Kubiak will end up making another mid-season QB change in 2016.
4. Tyrod Taylor
How can one possibly know what to expect from Tyrod Taylor and Rex Ryan’s Wild Bills this season? Taylor had an impossibly impressive 2015 , perhaps best exemplified by this mindboggling stat: he shared an IDENTICAL 99.4 QB rating with MVP Cam Newton. He showed poise, good touch downfield, keen scrambling ability and threw just six interceptions in 14 starts. Can this be replicated? Do I have any faith in Rex Ryan’s ability to develop quarterbacks? Is Taylor really one of the top ten QBs in the league, as his 2015 numbers suggest? I don’t think I need to spell out where I’m leaning on this one.
5. Case Keenum/Jared Goff
This is Jared Goff’s franchise. Every single quarterback decision Jeff Fisher makes will revolve around his development. I believe that includes him eventually playing this season. And there will certainly be clamoring for this from fans in LA. Case Keenum is serviceable, but my confidence in his ability to hold off the Goff wave is not particularly high.
6. Shaun Hill/Sam Bradford
What happened to Teddy Bridgewater and the Vikings was about as brutal as the NFL can get. Following it up with a swap of a first round pick for Sam Bradford was an almost equally shocking turn. Yet in the short term, it was a shrewd decision. Mike Zimmer clearly has his team in a win-now mindset and Bradford turns out to be a surprisingly fitting replacement for Bridgewater. These numbers may suprise you: Bradford in 2015 (19/14/3,725/65.0%/86.4 rating) vs Bridgewater in 2015 (14/9/3,231/65.3%/88.7 rating). Look familiar? Their styles as passers are similar as well, and I think Bradford will fit decently in the offense. It will once again be a game-managing, run dominant game plan for Minnesota, a plan that was extremely effective last year.
Part 4: The Power Seven
Here are my top seven quarterbacks heading into the season. There isn’t a whole lot to say that hasn’t already been said about this group. They are franchise pillars and any one of them could wind up garnering an MVP award this season. Nearly all of them should also be right in the thick of things when January comes around. I will update this ranking as a part of my weekly posts throughout the season, so stay tuned!
1. Tom Brady
2. Aaron Rodgers
3. Cam Newton
4. Ben Roethlisberger
5. Russell Wilson
6. Drew Brees
7. Carson Palmer