Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Best Young Quarterbacks

By Brad Oremland

Young quarterbacks in the NFL have more impact now than at any other point in modern history. With so many promising young players on the field in 2012, who are the best young QBs in the NFL?

To define "young QB," I looked at both age and experience — I didn't want a definition that would exclude 29-year-old rookie Brandon Weeden. The group includes 17 players who meet all of three conditions:

1. At least 50 pass attempts in 2012
2. At least 200 career pass attempts
3. Combined age (as of Feb 3, 2013) + years of experience less than or equal to 30

Thus, we're not including Kirk Cousins or Ryan Lindley or Terrelle Pryor, because we just haven't seen enough of them in the NFL to really evaluate those guys. And we're not looking at established 30-and-under QBs like Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, and Aaron Rodgers. Those guys are known quantities, and we're really looking at players who are still prospects. Also, Tim Tebow isn't included, because he only threw 8 passes in 2012 and doesn't appear to have a future at quarterback in the NFL. If you can't get ahead of Mark Sanchez and Greg McElroy on the depth chart, you don't belong on any "best of" list.

All stats show combined passing, rushing, and sacks, except NY/A, net yards per attempt, which includes passing and sacks but excludes rushing. Turnovers include interceptions, lost fumbles, and safeties.

17. John Skelton
Age: 24; NFL Seasons: 3.
2012 Stats: 1,039 yards, 4.8 NY/A, 55.4 rating, 2 TDs, 11 turnovers
Career Stats: 3,564 yards, 5.2 NY/A, 63.0 rating, 15 TDs, 31 turnovers

This may be a little unfair. The Cardinals' offense has been a horror show ever since Kurt Warner retired and Anquan Boldin went to Baltimore. Over those seasons, Arizona is 18-30 and ranks an average of 27th in both yardage and scoring. The teams' other QBs combine for 4.96 NY/A and a 67.1 passer rating, about the same as Skelton's 5.21 N/YA and 63.0 rating. In fact, Skelton is 8-9 as starter, compared to 10-21 for Derek Anderson, Max Hall, Kevin Kolb, Ryan Lindley, and Brian Hoyer.

But the bottom line is that Skelton has failed to deliver, and last season his performance dropped from mediocre to utterly unplayable. Skelton and his fellow QBs have done what opposing defenses never could: make wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald irrelevant.

16. Blaine Gabbert
Age: 23; NFL Seasons: 2.
2012 Stats: 1,560 yards, 5.0 NY/A, 77.4 rating, 9 TDs, 9 turnovers
Career Stats: 3,579 yards, 4.5 NY/A, 70.2 rating, 21 TDs, 26 turnovers

The Jaguars haven't given Gabbert much to work with, but neither has Gabbert delivered on his potential. At no point in the first year and a half of his NFL career has he looked like an NFL quarterback. On nearly every play, he's guessing. In 2010, David Garrard had a 90.8 passer rating and the Jaguar offense was average (15th in yards, 18th in points). In each of Gabbert's two seasons, Jacksonville ranked among the bottom five in both categories and won fewer games combined (7-25) than in Garrard's last season (8-8). We can attribute some of Gabbert's struggles to his subpar supporting cast, but Garrard isn't exactly Peyton Manning, and he did just fine with most of the same players.

Gabbert is ranked ahead of Skelton solely on potential. He has the physical tools to succeed.

15. Mark Sanchez
Age: 26; NFL Seasons: 4.
2012 Stats: 2,702 yards, 5.5 NY/A, 66.9 rating, 13 TDs, 27 turnovers
Career Stats: 11,616 yards, 5.7 NY/A, 71.7 rating, 80 TDs, 91 turnovers

Look, Mark Sanchez has done some good things. He's 4-2 in the playoffs, including two AFC Championship Game appearances. He was kind of okay in the 2010 and '11 regular seasons, with over 3,000 passing yards, more TDs than INTs, and passer ratings over 75. The bad news is that after four years in the league, those are his best seasons.

Sanchez isn't accurate, he's not a play-maker, and he makes too many mistakes. In fairness to Sanchez, both the Jets and the media have done pretty much everything in their power to undermine his confidence. On another team and with a little less pressure, maybe his play would finally begin to develop. Right now, though, we're looking at a first-round bust who isn't very good and isn't getting any better.

14. Christian Ponder
Age: 24; NFL Seasons: 2.
2012 Stats: 3,004 yards, 5.3 NY/A, 81.2 rating, 20 TDs, 17 turnovers
Career Stats: 5,912 yards, 5.3 NY/A, 77.1 rating, 33 TDs, 32 turnovers

The Vikings made the playoffs last season, and Ponder played a little better than as a rookie. He also didn't have much of a receiving corps after Percy Harvin's injury, and that makes it difficult to evaluate a quarterback fairly. But Ponder did have the best running back in the NFL to take pressure off him. When opponents focus on stopping the run, that creates opportunities in the passing game, and Ponder seldom took advantage. Only once last season did he pass for 300 yards in a game, and only once did he pass for 3 TDs.

He needs to start taking some chances. A statistic that's not shown above, yards per completion, works as a rough measure for degree of difficulty. Anyone can throw a bunch of five yard screens, but great QBs separate themselves by completing long passes, or hitting the receiver in stride so he can gain yardage after the catch. A quarterback with low yardage per completion doesn't stretch the field, doesn't hit big plays, settles for the check-down too often, and gains four yards on 3rd-and-9. Among the top 32 passers in the NFL, here are last year's bottom five in yards per completion:

28. Matt Cassel, 11.2
29. Andy Dalton, 11.2
30. Ryan Fitzpatrick, 11.1
31. Philip Rivers, 10.7
32. Christian Ponder, 9.8

Ponder is the King of the Checkdowns, perhaps the least exciting full-time starter in the NFL last year. He did seem to improve later in the season, and it's appropriate for the team to give him another year to justify his draft status and starting position. But if Ponder doesn't show substantial progress in 2013, Minnesota will look for another option to lead the team before Adrian Peterson declines.

13. Brandon Weeden
Age: 29; NFL Seasons: 1.
2012 Stats: 3,310 yards, 5.9 NY/A, 72.6 rating, 14 TDs, 18 turnovers

Colt McCoy only threw 17 passes last year, so he's not eligible for this exercise, but McCoy's passer rating in 2011 (74.6) was better than Weeden's in 2012 (72.6), and the 25-year-old McCoy is significantly younger, as well. Like most of the quarterbacks on this end of the list, Weeden doesn't have a lot to work with. He's not surrounded by great players in Cleveland, and in particular, he's not surrounded by good receivers. But he didn't have an impressive rookie season, and he'll turn 30 in October.

Weeden brings some good things to the table. With a little more NFL experience and better players around him, he'd be an interesting player. But his ceiling is low. Does anyone believe Weeden will ever be a top-10 QB? His best case scenario is probably to settle in as an average starter for four or five years, then shift to a veteran backup-type player.

12. Jake Locker
Age: 24; NFL Seasons: 2.
2012 Stats: 2,316 yards, 6.0 NY/A, 74.0 rating, 11 TDs, 15 turnovers
Career Stats: 2,877 yards, 6.2 NY/A, 78.4 rating, 16 TDs, 15 turnovers

Locker's backup, Matt Hasselbeck, 2012 stats: 1,302 yards, 5.4 NY/A, 81.0 rating, 7 TDs, 6 turnovers. Hasselbeck is 37 and well past his prime, but his stats come out roughly equal to Locker's, and Hasselbeck went 2-3 as starter (.400), about the same as Locker's 4-7 (.364). With Locker replacing Hasselbeck as starter in 2012, both Kenny Britt and Nate Washington fell off the map, while first-round pick Kendall Wright failed to develop.

This was Locker's first season as a starter, and there's every reason to believe he can improve, but with so many young QBs showing signs of greatness immediately, Locker has yet to join them.

11. Nick Foles
Age: 24; NFL Seasons: 1.
2012 Stats: 1,610 yards, 5.5 NY/A, 79.1 rating, 7 TDs, 8 turnovers

When Nick Foles replaced the injured Michael Vick as starting QB, the Eagles were 3-7 and had just lost their fifth game in a row. Foles didn't get to throw to DeSean Jackson, who went on injured reserve after just two games with Foles. Compared to Vick, Foles was generally a little less successful across the board, especially as a rusher, but he did throw significantly fewer interceptions.

Statistically, what jumps out is that Foles could not find the end zone. His 2.26% touchdown percentage was roughly half the league average. It was about 2/3 of Vick's TD% (3.42%); fellow rookie Russell Wilson checked in at 6.62%, and Aaron Rodgers led the league at 7.07%. Altogether, 15 players who threw at least 200 passes more than doubled Foles' TD%. Cutting down on Vick's mistakes, especially in the red zone, was critical, but if Foles starts in 2013, he'll need to do a better job of putting points on the board.

10. Ryan Tannehill
Age: 24; NFL Seasons: 1.
2012 Stats: 3,271 yards, 5.9 NY/A, 76.1 rating, 14 TDs, 17 turnovers

Like Foles, Ryan Tannehill struggled to turn passes into points. He had the misfortune to take over quarterbacking duties on a team that had just (inexplicably) traded Brandon Marshall for a pair of third-round draft picks, and good luck finding a rookie QB who will succeed with Brian Hartline as his top target. It will be difficult to properly evaluate Tannehill until he gets to play with a credible deep threat. That will create big-play opportunities, and it should open up some passing lanes underneath as well.

9. Sam Bradford
Age: 25; NFL Seasons: 3.
2012 Stats: 3,596 yards, 5.9 NY/A, 82.6 rating, 22 TDs, 14 turnovers
Career Stats: 8,869 yards, 5.4 NY/A, 77.3 rating, 47 TDs, 44 turnovers

In Week 9 of last season, I asked rhetorically "If you were making a list of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL, would Sam Bradford crack the top 8?" Evidently my answer is still no, though just barely.

The good news is that Bradford seems to be improving. 2012 was his best season statistically, with career-highs in most significant categories, including yards, TDs, and passer rating. The bad news is that after three years and 42 games, you expect a player to be developed and near his best. Most great — or even very good — QBs make a Pro Bowl within their first three seasons as starter. Bradford doesn't look like he's ever going to be in that top tier of quarterbacks, but he does appear to be a legit starter, maybe even above-average if he continues to develop or gets some more help from the Rams' personnel department.

8. Matthew Stafford
Age: 24; NFL Seasons: 4.
2012 Stats: 4,881 yards, 6.3 NY/A, 79.8 rating, 24 TDs, 21 turnovers
Career Stats: 12,456 yards, 6.2 NY/A, 82.8 rating, 87 TDs, 63 turnovers

The inexperienced players are the toughest ones to rate here, because we haven't gotten a chance to see very much of them in the NFL, or observe their development as pros. But among the guys who have been playing, Stafford is absolutely the toughest to rank, and I originally had him higher than this. Stafford is so tough to evaluate for three reasons:

1. He throws a ton, so his numbers are big.
2. He plays with Calvin Johnson, the greatest wide receiver of this era.
3. 2011 was an outlier, and it's hard to know whether or not that's the real Stafford.

In 2012, Stafford broke the single-season record for pass attempts (727), but he did not have a great season. He completed under 60% of his passes (barely), he threw less than half as many TDs (20) as the previous year (41), and the disappointing Lions fell to 4-12. If you took away Megatron, would Stafford look like Weeden and Gabbert? On the other hand, if you gave the Lions a respectable running game to take some pressure off Stafford and Johnson, how much easier would the quarterback's job become?

Right now, it's obvious that Stafford has a big arm and he can do some good things, but he really needs to improve the mental aspects of his game: reading defenses and making good decisions. Also, and this is partly on the front office, he needs someone to throw to in the red zone when Johnson is double- or triple-teamed.

7. Josh Freeman
Age: 25; NFL Seasons: 4.
2012 Stats: 4,043 yards, 6.7 NY/A, 81.6 rating, 27 TDs, 19 turnovers
Career Stats: 13,243 yards, 6.2 NY/A, 79.8 rating, 82 TDs, 75 turnovers

Josh Freeman can be a great quarterback. He had a charmed 2010 season (25 TD, 6 INT, 95.9 rating), and went on a brilliant five-game run in 2012 (4-1 record, 13 TD, 1 INT, 115.9 rating). In all five games, Freeman passed for multiple touchdowns and a passer rating over 100. Through Week 10, Freeman had a 98.2 passer rating and the Buccaneers had the 3rd-best scoring offense in the NFL (28.9 ppg).

Unfortunately, Freeman posted a passer rating below 80 in six of the last seven games, and Tampa Bay went 1-5 down the stretch, including two 4-INT games by Freeman. That said, Freeman still set career-bests for yardage and touchdowns, and he's still young, younger than Colin Kaepernick. He's a good runner — not in the same class as Kaepernick or Cam Newton or RG3, but he can run — and he can throw deep. All his problems are correctable, and his biggest issue is just inconsistency. In the short term, Freeman needs to work on his accuracy and do a better job of locating his secondary targets. I love deep passes, but I think sometimes Freeman was too locked in on Vincent Jackson, and he needs to get through his reads a little better to find the check-down.

6. Andy Dalton
Age: 25; NFL Seasons: 2.
2012 Stats: 3,560 yards, 6.0 NY/A, 87.4 rating, 31 TDs, 20 turnovers
Career Stats: 6,950 yards, 6.0 NY/A, 83.9 rating, 52 TDs, 35 turnovers

In Andy Dalton's first two years, the Bengals reached the postseason back-to-back for the first time since 1981-82. They never made consecutive playoff appearances with Boomer Esiason or Jeff Blake or Carson Palmer, but Dalton's done it immediately. Granted, he's had a lot help. Cincinnati has a very good defense, and A.J. Green makes Dalton's life a lot easier. That said, it's really rare to see a young player come into the NFL and succeed so quickly. Dalton has done a particularly good job of limiting mistakes.

Most inexperienced QBs either commit too many turnovers, or they're too cautious and they don't generate enough positive plays. Over time, successful passers learn to find a balance. Dalton skipped past the "over time" phase and found his balance almost immediately. He needs to keep improving — more positive plays, fewer turnovers — because right now he's still a pretty average quarterback. But to reach that level so early in his career has to make Dalton and Bengals fans pretty happy.

5. Andrew Luck
Age: 23; NFL Seasons: 1.
2012 Stats: 4,383 yards, 6.2 NY/A, 76.5 rating, 28 TDs, 23 turnovers

Maybe the ranking I'm least comfortable with. Despite the consistent hype to the contrary, Andrew Luck did not play well as a rookie. He was not terrible, but he was certainly not great — more like average. Luck completed 54.1% of his passes, posted a subpar 76.5 passer rating, and threw as many interceptions as Robert Griffin, Colin Kaepernick, and Russell Wilson combined. And he did all that against the easiest schedule in the NFL.

Luck is ranked here, rather than 10th or so, because he reminds me of his predecessor, Peyton Manning, who showed flashes of promise through a mostly unsuccessful rookie season but quickly delivered on the potential that made him a top overall draft pick. This rank is pure projection: I think Luck is going to be a very good quarterback. But I also suspect he's in for a rough 2013 season, as Indianapolis faces a tougher schedule and very likely has to deal with more injuries.

4. Colin Kaepernick
Age: 25; NFL Seasons: 2.
2012 Stats: 2,117 yards, 7.3 NY/A, 98.3 rating, 15 TDs, 6 turnovers
Career Stats: 2,150 yards, 7.3 NY/A, 97.9 rating, 15 TDs, 6 turnovers

There's a strong argument to be made for ranking Kaepernick higher than this, maybe #1. He's here on lack of experience. He's only started 7 games in the regular season, 10 if you count postseason. He hasn't really played enough games for fans (or opposing defenses) to be sure what his weaknesses are. Even mediocre QBs can look great for half a season, especially before defenses have gotten a chance to adjust.

I don't believe Kaepernick is mediocre. Again, you could rank him at the top of the list and I wouldn't have a problem with it. He's a dynamic player who can make all the throws and threaten defenses with his speed. I would point out, though, that in 2012, Kaepernick did not significantly out-perform Alex Smith. Coincidentally, they both threw 218 passes last season:

CK: 136 completions, 1,814 yards, 10 TD, 3 INT, 98.3 rating
AS: 153 completions, 1,737 yards, 13 TD, 5 INT, 104.1 rating

That doesn't include sacks or rushing, which are both advantages for Kaepernick, but even considering those, it's reasonably close. Smith has been in the NFL for 8 seasons, and he's never been a great quarterback. If he can post a 104.1 rating with those coaches and receivers, Kaepernick's 98.3 looks less outstanding. Let's see how both players fare down the line before we fawn over Kaepernick any more than we already have.

3. Russell Wilson
Age: 24; NFL Seasons: 1.
2012 Stats: 3,404 yards, 6.8 NY/A, 100.0 rating, 30 TDs, 13 turnovers

Wilson beat high-priced free agent Matt Flynn to win a starting job I thought was hopeless. In April, I named the Seahawks a draft-weekend loser and wrote, "I don't understand how Matt Flynn, or anyone else, is going to succeed with those receivers and that offensive line." I was wrong about the line, and Seattle's top receivers made some nice plays late in the season, but this offense thrived on Marshawn Lynch and Wilson. Only two Seahawks topped 400 receiving yards, and no one reached 750.

Perhaps most encouraging for Seattle supporters was Wilson's consistent progress:

September: 2-2, 151 yds/gm, 4 TD, 4 INT, 73.5 rating
October: 2-2, 224 yds/gm, 6 TD, 4 INT, 90.4 rating
November: 2-1, 217 yds/gm, 7 TD, 0 INT, 128.6 rating
December: 5-0, 252 yds/gm, 13 TD, 2 INT, 115.2 rating

The Seahawks began the year as a perfectly solid team, with a good defense and a strong running game. As Wilson developed and earned the confidence of his coaches and teammates, Seattle became one of the most dangerous teams in the league. People worry about Wilson because he's short for the position, but he's only an inch behind Drew Brees. Wilson is smart, he's accurate, he's a dangerous runner, and he's getting better.

2. Cam Newton
Age: 23; NFL Seasons: 2.
2012 Stats: 4,366 yards, 7.0 NY/A, 86.2 rating, 27 TDs, 16 turnovers
Career Stats: 8,863 yards, 6.9 NY/A, 85.3 rating, 62 TDs, 35 turnovers

I'm sure some readers will see this ranking as too high. Newton got off to a shaky start in 2012, and Carolina finished a disappointing 7-9. But keep in mind how we raved about Newton in 2011. Last year, he had fewer turnovers, a better passer rating, and more rushing yards. Over the last two months of the season, Newton averaged 275 yards per game, with 19 TDs, 4 INTs, and a 94.7 passer rating, as the Panthers won their last four games in a row. After just two seasons, he's +27 in touchdown/turnover differential, the best of any quarterback listed here.

Seven of Carolina's nine losses were by less than 7 points, and the defense deserves at least as much blame (and probably more) than Newton. Cam seemed disturbingly bummed out by the close losses last season; no one wants a player who's okay with losing, but the mopey press conferences were odd and worrisome. As long as he keeps his head on straight, though, there's every reason to forecast a bright future for Newton. He's a fantastic physical specimen: big, strong, and fast. He's a good passer and a good runner, and he knows when to do which. He's already one of the better QBs in the league, and he's still just 23, younger than Kaepernick or Tannehill or Russell Wilson. It's incumbent now on the Panthers to provide him with a stronger receiving corps.

1. Robert Griffin III
Age: 22; NFL Seasons: 1.
2012 Stats: 3,798 yards, 7.1 NY/A, 102.4 rating, 27 TDs, 7 turnovers

None of us know how Griffin will look when he returns from knee surgery. Maybe he'll never be the same player, a modern Greg Cook, a one-year wonder, a what-if story. But based on what he accomplished as a rookie, Robert Griffin III tops the list of the best young QBs in the NFL.

As a passer, Griffin threw four times as many TDs (20) as interceptions (5), broke the rookie record for passer rating, and led all qualified passers in yards per attempt (8.14). As a runner, he ranked in the top 20 in the NFL in rushing yards (815) and TDs (7). He passed for a higher rating than Tom Brady or Matt Ryan. He rushed for more yards than Michael Turner or DeAngelo Williams. His interception percentage (1.3%) was the best in the NFL, tied with Brady, and another rookie record, shattering the mark set by Charlie Batch in 1998 (2.0%). Griffin rushed for more TDs than Jamaal Charles, C.J. Spiller, or Matt Forte.

Keep in mind that Griffin did this with a receiving corps led by Pierre Garçon, 33-year-old Santana Moss, and someone named Leonard Hankerson. You might also remember that injuries (knee and head) caused Griffin to miss part or all of three games, and he basically put up all those numbers in a 14-game season. Simply as a football fan, I hope RG3 comes back healthy. The game is more interesting with him in it.

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