Of the 256 players selected in the most recent NFL Draft, 16 of them were quarterbacks. Cleveland, Jacksonville and Minnesota all took quarterbacks in the first round in hopes of landing a franchise signal-caller. Whether any of these rookies start a game (or more) this fall remains to be seen, but at least they don’t have to worry about job security just yet. The same can’t be said for a number of veterans around the league.
Here are 10 quarterbacks under the most pressure in 2014:
1. Jake Locker, Tennessee Titans
When it comes to Locker, it’s really pretty simple. There’s a reason the team didn’t exercise the fifth-year option on his rookie contract. The Titans’ brass still isn’t sure what exactly they have in Locker, who has made just 18 starts the past two seasons because of injuries. Locker has a golden opportunity to show first-year head coach Ken Whisenhunt he’s the long-term answer, but to do so he’ll not only need to stay healthy, he’ll also need to improve his accuracy (57.2 career completion percentage) and decision making (22:15 TD:INT ratio).
2. Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams
The Rams had two shots at drafting Johnny Manziel, but passed on him, a show of confidence in Bradford. This doesn’t mean Bradford is completely off of the hook, however. Even though the Rams appear to have a defense that’s capable of keeping up with the Seahawks and 49ers in the NFC West, it’s the offense’s improvement in 2014 that will likely determine their fate. The No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft was off to a great start last season (60.7 completion rate, 14:4 TD:INT ratio) before tearing his ACL in Week 7. Besides continuing to improve his production, Bradford needs to show he can stay healthy, especially with just two years remaining on his six-year, $78 million ($50 million guaranteed) rookie contract.
3. Geno Smith, New York Jets
Smith is just in his second year, so he should be pretty “safe.” However, head coach Rex Ryan needs to win to keep his job and the team also brought in veteran Michael Vick as an insurance policy. Everyone with the Jets wants Smith to succeed and seize the starting job by the throat, but another interception-prone season (21 last season, compared to just 12 TD passes) may be too tough to swallow.
4. Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals
Palmer helped lead the Cardinals to 10 wins last season, but it wasn’t enough to get into the playoffs. The 11-year veteran will turn 35 in December and is entering the last year of his contract. The team drafted Logan Thomas in May, but he’s considered a long-term project. The Cardinals are built to win now so Palmer should be safe, at least this season. But with weapons like Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and Andre Ellington, Palmer better improve on his production (24:22 TD:INT ratio in 2013) if he wants to stick around beyond 2014.
5. Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs
In the past three seasons, Smith has gone 30-9-1 as a starter for the 49ers and Chiefs. While the 2005 No. 1 overall pick hasn’t fully fulfilled his draft status, he has proven he’s capable of winning games consistently. Still, the 30-year-old is in the final year of his contract, despite posting an impressive 23:7 TD:INT ratio last season and performing even better (9:0) in three career playoff games. “Game manager” is a hard label for a quarterback to shed and that looks to be Smith’s challenge as he seeks to sign a contract extension with Kansas City.
6. Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals
When it comes to Dalton, it’s a Jekyll and Hyde situation. The second-round pick from the 2011 draft has been extremely solid (30-18 record, 80:49 TD:INT ratio) in the regular season, leading his team to a franchise-first three straight playoff appearances in the process. Once he gets to the postseason, however, it’s been a nightmare, as he’s 0-3 with just one TD pass and six interceptions. Despite this glaring discrepancy, the team showed its faith in Dalton by signing him to a six-year, $115 million contract extension in early August. Just because Dalton got paid, however, it doesn't take any of the pressure off of him to perform. Especially come playoff time.
7. Matt Schaub, Oakland Raiders
Pretty much whatever could go wrong for Schaub last season did, starting with the NFL-record four consecutive games with an interception returned for a touchdown. An ankle injury just added to his misery, and following Houston’s 2-14 meltdown, the two-time Pro Bowler was traded to Oakland for a sixth-round pick. The Raiders drafted Derek Carr in the second round, but the starting job should belong to Schaub. That said, considering the pay cut he took upon his arrival with his new team, it’s pretty safe to say the 33-year-old is not only playing for his spot with the Raiders, but his professional future.
8. Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins
The good news for Tannehill is that he doubled his TD passes (12 to 24) in his second season as the starter. Unfortunately, the interceptions (13 to 17) also ticked up and he improved in the win column by just one game (7-9 to 8-8). He still has two years to go on in his rookie contract, but Tannehill needs to take another step forward this season if he wants to silence his critics. Of course, a little more support from his offensive line (sacked NFL-high 58 times in 2013) certainly wouldn’t hurt.
9. Josh McCown, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
After thriving (13 TDs, INT) primarily in relief of an injured Jay Cutler last season, McCown finally gets his shot at being the full-time starter. Even with a new head coach (Lovie Smith) and several new faces, expectations are pretty high for the Buccaneers this fall, so McCown will need to maintain his 2013 level of performance if he wants to prolong his starting status. After all, the Bucs still have Sean Glennon on the roster. Besides being more than a decade younger than McCown (35), Glennon (25 in December) fared pretty well as a rookie last season, posting a 19:9 TD:INT ratio in 13 starts.
10. EJ Manuel, Buffalo Bills
Similar to Geno Smith, Manuel is in just his second year in the league. Unlike Smith, Manuel missed six games due to knee injuries and fared a little better (11:9 TD:INT ratio) when he was on the field. Still, Manuel can’t develop as a quarterback if he’s not healthy enough to play. This season could be a critical one in that respect with first-round pick Sammy Watkins and former Tampa Bay wide receiver Mike Williams added to the roster. There are still plenty of analysts and pundits who question the Bills’ decision to take Manuel with the 16th pick of the 2013 draft. It’s now up to Manuel to prove them all wrong.