The ongoing saga that is the New York Jets tops our list of teams to keep an eye on
The start of NFL training camps is upon us, which means the NFL is back in business. One of the main orders of business when it comes to training camp is figuring out who will make the opening day roster. And to that end, there is no position in the NFL that garners more attention than quarterback.
While the vast majority of teams are set when it comes to quarterback, there are still a few starting jobs that appear to be unsettled. Most of these situations are the result of either a coaching change or because a quarterback was drafted in April, or a combination of the two.
The quarterback battles that figure to draw the most attention during training camp and once preseason games begin are those that will be waged in the Jets’, Eagles’ and Bills’ camps. Other situations that are worth keeping an eye on are the Jaguars, Browns and Raiders. Of course the common thread with these six teams is simple — they went a combined 27-69 in 2012.
Haven’t We Seen This Script Before?
Stop me if you’ve heard this already — the New York Jets are embroiled in a quarterback controversy. The co-star of this drama may have changed, but the screenplay remains the same.
For the second straight season, the Jets are saying that Mark Sanchez is the starter, while their actions have done nothing but raise questions regarding his job security. Last season it was Tim Tebow, but with the media magnet now battling for a roster spot on the Patriots, his role has been recast and given to Geno Smith.
It’s only fitting that Smith, who many believed was not only the top quarterback prospect entering the 2013 NFL Draft, but also had a shot at being the No. 1 overall pick, ended up with the Jets after tumbling down draft boards and out of the first round altogether. The Jets decided to be the one to pull the trigger on the former West Virginia star, taking him with the seventh pick of the second round, 39th overall.
So while Smith probably won’t draw near the amount of media attention that Tebow did, his mere presence will be a distraction for Sanchez, the coaching staff and the team, especially if it’s perceived he is out-performing the presumed starter during camp.
Not that this story needs any more subplots, but there’s also additional factors at play here, such as Sanchez having to learn and adapt to new offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg’s system, the lack of established pass-catchers on the Jets’ roster, and oh yeah, the fact that Rex Ryan may be coaching for his job this season. Other than that, there’s absolutely nothing to see here.
Prediction: Sanchez figures to have the upper hand on Smith, especially considering the rookie has yet to sign his contract. That said, no one is expecting Smith to simply concede the starting job to Sanchez, not after what he had to endure during the draft. The bottom line for Ryan is he needs to win as many games as possible if he wants to keep his job. For Week 1 Ryan’s best bet figures to be Sanchez, but after that it’s anyone’s guess, especially should Sanchez struggle like he did last season.
Out With the Old, In With the New In Philadelphia?
The Eagles have a new coach in Chip Kelly and everyone can’t wait to see what the former Oregon offensive mastermind has planned for the NFL. But one of the main keys to whether Kelly’s offense will be successful or not is who is pulling the trigger.
Michael Vick is the incumbent starter for the Eagles, but he’s also 33 years old and is signed for one year. Vick’s skill set appears to be a good fit for the type of offense Kelly ran at Oregon, but injuries and turnovers are two major red flags when it comes to the former No. 1 overall pick. He played in just 10 games last season and committed 21 turnovers when he was on the field. It’s pretty clear that Vick is not the long-term solution for the Eagles’ quarterback situation.
But does that mean Nick Foles is? Foles went 1-5 in relief of Vick last season, but he also completed better than 60 percent of his passes and finished with more touchdowns (six) than interceptions (five). The problem with Foles is that he isn’t the most mobile of quarterbacks, which appears to make him a poor fit for Kelly’s preferred read-option offense.
Then there’s Matt Barkley, the former USC quarterback whom the Eagles traded up to select in the fourth round of this year’s draft. At one point Barkley was considered not only a potential Heisman Trophy winner, but No. 1 overall pick material, but neither goal was realized following a disappointing senior season. If anyone knows what Barkley is capable of, it would be Kelly because of the Pac-12 ties they share.
Kelly doesn’t lack for options, but the decision he has to make is does he go with the guy who gives him the best chance to win this season or the one who can help him win down the road?
Prediction: If Kelly is serious about finding out if his offense can succeed in the NFL or not, then Vick needs to be his quarterback. Despite his age, the wear and tear on his body, and his turnover-prone nature, Vick has the mobility and athleticism Kelly desires from his quarterbacks. Vick’s hold on the starting job will either come down to staying healthy or if the Eagles remain in the playoff chase throughout the season. In either instance, I think Foles gets the first shot with Barkley only seeing the field really late in the season or due to Foles getting hurt too.
The Future is Now in Buffalo?
Buffalo surprised many when the Bills reached into the collegiate ranks and hired former Syracuse head coach Doug Marrone. Turns out the team was just getting started with its eye-opening moves.
After Ryan Fitzpatrick signed with Tennessee as a free agent, the Bills agreed to terms with former Arizona starter Kevin Kolb on a two-year deal. Then the team made EJ Manuel the first quarterback taken in the draft when the Bills took the former Florida State star with the 16th pick overall.
Whether the team took Manuel too high is certainly up for debate, but it’s also immaterial at this point. If Manuel is the future, the only question that remains is when will that future be?
Kolb’s track record as a starter in the NFL certainly leaves a lot to be desired. He’s just 9-12 in four seasons and has yet to start more than nine games in a season. His two years in Arizona can best be described as forgettable, as injuries limited him to 14 starts and he managed just 17 touchdown passes.
Manuel went 25-6 as the Seminoles’ starter and everyone raves about his athletic ability. The jury is still out on if he’s ready to step in right away, and if that’s the case, then Kolb probably gives the Bills the best chance to win in 2013. On the other hand, three rookie quarterbacks led their teams to the playoffs in 2012, and the Bills do have some pieces already in place in running back C.J. Spiller and wide receiver Stevie Johnson. What’s a rookie NFL head coach to do?
Prediction: Manuel is the future and I think he will get on the field at some point this season. However, unless Kolb gets hurt (which is certainly probable) or the Bills’ brain trust just decides to start the rebuilding process in earnest, I think it’s the veteran’s team as far as 2013 is concerned.
Gabbert’s Last Stand in Jacksonville
Blaine Gabbert, the No. 10 overall pick of the 2011 draft, is entering his third season in the NFL and also is on his third (technically fourth) head coach. The lack of coaching stability alone is enough to justify his awful 5-19 showing as a starter, but the reality is the NFL doesn’t work that way.
The good news for Gabbert is that a new head coach (former Seattle defensive coordinator Gus Bradley) offers him yet another opportunity to impress a new staff. The bad news is that this is probably his last chance, and the Jaguars still have plenty of other questions on offense.
The selection of Texas A&M left tackle Luke Joeckel with the second overall pick and the return of All-Pro running back Maurice Jones-Drew are good starts, but they alone can’t be the cure-all for the NFL’s 30th-ranked offense. Gabbert himself could be part of the solution, but that’s only if he can improve upon his career 53.8 percent completion rate and 21:18 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
If Gabbert struggles out of the gate, Bradley probably won’t hesitate to turn the offense over to Chad Henne. The sixth-year pro and former Dolphins’ starter won just one game after Gabbert was lost for the season with an elbow injury in Week 11, but Henne out-performed Gabbert (11 TD passes compared to 9) in fewer starts (6 vs. 10).
Even though the main battle should come down to Gabbert and Henne, don’t be surprised if the other quarterbacks on the roster — veteran Mike Kafka and undrafted free agents Jordan Rodgers and Matt Scott — all get their chance to stake their claim to the job. That’s what happens when a team enters training camp with a new head coach for a third straight season.
Prediction: In his defense, Gabbert hasn’t gotten many breaks to go his way. It seems only fair for Bradley to give the former first-round pick one more shot to show what he can do. But life in the NFL is anything but fair and Gabbert is going to have to prove early that he’s the quarterback that puts the Jaguars in the best position to compete on a weekly basis. The optimist in me says Gabbert earns the starting job with a strong showing in camp, but the realist in me says he won’t finish in that role by season’s end. Whatever happens this season, I think it’s almost a forgone conclusion that Jacksonville will have a new starting quarterback in 2014.
Make or Break Season for Weeden in Cleveland
The Browns went through a complete front office makeover this offseason, meaning not only is there a new head coach (former Carolina offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski), but also a new CEO and general manager as well. With new decision-makers now in place the next step in the rebuilding process is to use this season to assess the roster.
Cornerstones like running back Trent Richardson and left tackle Joe Thomas aren’t going anywhere, but the same can’t be said for quarterback Brandon Weeden. The Browns’ first-round pick (No. 22 overall) last April, Weeden beat out incumbent Colt McCoy for the starting job in 2012.
Weeden had his share of moments as a rookie, but he also struggled on more than one occasion. He finished with more interceptions (17) than touchdowns (14) and never seemed to fully adjust to former head coach Pat Shurmur’s West Coast system.
He will have a chance at a fresh start running new offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s system, which reportedly will put Weeden in the shotgun more, a position he is accustomed to going back to his days at Oklahoma State. Weeden also is different from the rest of his 2012 draft class in that he’s older, so his age (will turn 30 in October) is another factor to consider here. In other words, it’s pretty much now or never for Weeden if he wants to be the Browns’ quarterback of the future.
The Browns traded McCoy to San Francisco in the offseason and signed Jason Campbell as his replacement. Campbell has started 71 games for four different teams, including one for Chicago last season, in his seven-year career, while Weeden has a total of 15 starts under his belt. Thaddeus Lewis is also on the roster and he, not Weeden, was the Browns’ starting quarterback in Week 17 last season.
Prediction: Chudzinski, the coaching staff and the Browns’ front office need to find out if Weeden is the long-term answer or not. Unless he fails to grasp Turner’s scheme, Weeden will be Cleveland’s starter in Week 1. Whether he keeps that job throughout the season remains to be seen, but should Weeden get replaced for some reason other than injury, then expect to see a new face at the position for the Browns in 2014.
It’s All About the Future in Oakland
As of right now, Matt Flynn is the starter in Oakland. That doesn’t mean that something can’t change between now and Week 1, especially considering Flynn is with his third team is as many seasons and his next start will be just the third of his career.
Flynn started in Green Bay, where he backed up Aaron Rodgers for four seasons (2008-11). He started just two games during this time, but he made that last one count. Subbing for Rodgers in the 2011 regular-season finale, Flynn set franchise records by throwing for 480 yards and six touchdowns against the Lions.
That game alone was largely responsible for netting Flynn a three-year free agent deal with Seattle, but he suffered an elbow injury early in the preseason and ended up losing his job to third-round draft pick Russell Wilson. With Wilson firmly entrenched as the Seahawks’ franchise quarterback, Flynn was traded to Oakland for two draft picks (fifth-rounder in 2014 and conditional one in ’15) in April.
The assumption is that Flynn will replace the departed Carson Palmer, who was traded to Arizona, but he will still probably have to beat out backup Terrelle Pryor, fourth-round pick Tyler Wilson and undrafted free agent Matthew McGloin in training camp.
This could very well be Flynn’s last chance to be a full-time starter in the NFL, as the Raiders will probably struggle to win games once again this fall and will end up with yet another top-five pick for the 2014 draft. Even if Flynn impresses, he’s already 28 and unless Pryor or Wilson or McGloin emerge, chances are the Raiders will probably strongly consider finding their next franchise quarterback in the 2014 draft. There figure to be no lack of options next April with players like Tajh Boyd, Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel and Braxton Miller among those who could be available.
Prediction: It’s Flynn’s job to lose, which very well could happen, but that matters little. Barring something unforeseen happening, such as Tyler Wilson or McGloin becoming the next Russell Wilson, Oakland will be active in the quarterback market next offseason, whether that be through the draft and/or free agency.
Other Teams to Watch
Arizona — Quarterback was a disaster for the Cardinals last season, as in 11 combined touchdowns and 21 interceptions from four different starters. The team acquired Carson Palmer from Oakland during the offseason and are hoping the 33-year-old veteran can do what Kurt Warner did when he resuscitated his career back in 2005. It’s clearly Palmer’s job, but Arizona also added Drew Stanton to compete with Ryan Lindley, the lone holdover from last season, for the backup job. Even if Palmer pans out, don’t be surprised if the Cardinals add another new face or two to this depth chart during the next offseason.
Tampa Bay — Josh Freeman is the starter in Tampa Bay until further notice, but he’s also entering the final year of his rookie contract. The 25-year-old has shown plenty of promise, as he threw for a career-high 4,065 yards last season, but he’s also thrown 63 interceptions in 57 career games. The Buccaneers drafted NC State’ Mike Glennon in the third round, so Freeman needs to show the team he is the long-term answer at the position or he may be playing somewhere else in 2014.
Tennessee — It’s Jake Locker’s show, but the third-year signal-caller also needs to show significant improvement as a passer and overall this season or else the Titans may move on. Locker’s dual-threat ability is certainly intriguing, but he completed just 56 percent of his passes and threw 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in 11 games. He missed five game because of injury, which is another concern since missed time only hinders his development. Backup and mentor Matt Hasselbeck is now in Indianapolis, but the Titans made a wise move in signing former Buffalo starter Ryan Fitzpatrick to take his place on the roster. Titans head coach Mike Munchak is going to give Locker every opportunity to succeed and seize the starting job by the throat, it’s now up to Locker to live up to his first-round billing.
2013 Athlon Sports NFL team-by-team schedule analysis: