The NFL regular season is about to kick off, so let's take a shot at answering some key questions involving the sport's most glamorous position - the quarterback.
HOW WILL EACH OF THE ROOKIE STARTING QUARTERBACKS FARE?
Indianapolis' Andrew Luck, Washington's Robert Griffin III, Miami's Ryan Tannehill, Cleveland's Brandon Weeden and Seattle's Russell Wilson will open their rookie seasons in their team's respective starting lineup.
Luck, the No. 1 overall draft pick last April, looked poised and polished during the exhibition season. The Colts don't have nearly enough talent on defense to contend for a playoff spot, but he should present a significant upgrade over 2011 Indianapolis quarterbacks Curtis Painter, Dan Orlovsky and Kerry Collins. Six wins should be a realistic target for the Colts, and Luck appears well on his way to becoming the franchise quarterback the team hopes he can be.
Griffin is in a better position to win right now than Luck, since the Redskins have a more complete roster. Last year, when Rex Grossman was the primary quarterback, Washington beat the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants twice.
The strength of the NFC East will make it tough for Washington to contend, but Griffin has looked excellent in the preseason. He seems to have good chemistry with top wide receiver Pierre Garcon and should be productive right away in Mike Shanahan's system.
Tannehill is probably in the toughest position of all the rookie starting quarterbacks. When the Dolphins dealt Brandon Marshall during the offseason, it made the club's wide receiver group the thinnest in the league.
The Dolphins are in a rebuilding phase and will need to show patience with Tannehill. He looked good during the preseason but is still a bit raw, as he played wide receiver at Texas A&M prior to taking over the quarterback job midway through his junior season. Tannehill is a great athlete, though, and chances seem strong that he will have a fine pro career. It's likely that there will be more downs than ups in 2012, though.
Weeden was awarded the starting job over Colt McCoy very early in Cleveland's camp, and he was mediocre during the exhibition season. Adding the talented Josh Gordon in this year's supplemental draft upgraded the Browns' receiving corps, but it's still one of the weakest in the league.
The best thing that could happen for Weeden would be quick healing by rookie running back Trent Richardson. The Browns have a good defense, and Richardson should be able to enable Cleveland's offense to control the ball. Weeden will probably be at the helm of a rather conservative offense, and he'll need to avoid the kinds of mistakes and turnovers that frequently plague rookie quarterbacks.
Weeden's strong arm will represent an upgrade over McCoy. It's just hard to envision the Browns escaping the basement in an AFC North Division that also features Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cincinnati.
The Seahawks' Wilson is the biggest surprise starter among the rookie quarterbacks. Only drafted in the third round because of his 5-foot-10 frame, he played superbly in the preseason and earned the starting job over free- agent acquisition Matt Flynn.
Seattle head coach Pete Carroll is a big believer in having an open competition for all starting positions, and Wilson took advantage of the opportunity. He completed 40-of-63 passes for five touchdowns and one interception, while running for 150 yards on 10 carries.
The league sometimes isn't kind to short-statured quarterbacks, but one would suppose the Seahawks will be able to devise game plans that will best utilize Wilson's considerable skills. If things don't go well early, Seattle will still be able to turn to Flynn, so the youngster's leash could be somewhat short. Wilson's upside can't be denied, though, and with an underrated young defense and solid Marshawn Lynch-led running game, the Seahawks could be a surprise playoff contender.
HOW WILL THE JETS UTILIZE TIM TEBOW?
Tebow is the most popular figure in pro football, but Mark Sanchez remains the starting quarterback of the New York Jets.
Sanchez played exclusively with the No. 1 offense during the preseason, with Tebow seeing almost all of his action with backups in the second half of games.
Rex Ryan and the Jets coaching staff have been secretive about how Tebow will be integrated into the attack, but the best guess is that he'll be inserted into the lineup for a half-dozen or so plays per game, primarily to run the Wildcat formation. He'll probably be on the field during plenty of third-and- short situations, as well as goal-to-go spots. It wouldn't be surprising at all if Tebow ended up leading the team in rushing touchdowns.
The big question will be whether the Jets eventually decide to give Tebow a shot at the starting gig. though there's virtually no chance of that happening in September barring an injury to Sanchez. Realistically, anyone who watches the two quarterbacks without wearing Tebow-tinted glasses would have to admit that Sanchez is the far superior passer and better all-around quarterback.
The coaching staff's loyalty to Sanchez could be tested, though, if the Jets struggle during a tough early season schedule in which the first five games are against Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Miami, San Francisco and Houston. Sanchez might need to win at least two of those games, and he'll definitely need to cut back significantly on the turnovers that plagued him last year.
If he does, the Jets' defense should enable them to win enough games and keep the league's most popular player on the sideline most of the time. If Sanchez does not, the coaches could determine that Tebow's ball-control, mistake- avoiding style would give them the best opportunity to win.
WHICH QUARTERBACK WILL TAKE THE NEXT BIG STEP FORWARD?
Last year, Detroit's Matthew Stafford realized his potential and became a top- five quarterback in the NFL. Two passers who could have a chance to join the ranks of Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Drew Brees among the NFL elite this year could be Atlanta's Matt Ryan and Chicago's Jay Cutler.
Ryan had the best of his four NFL seasons last year, throwing for 4,177 yards, 29 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. The Falcons have been slowly transitioning from a Michael Turner-led, ball-control offense to a more wide-open, downfield passing attack.
The change demonstrates the Falcons' faith in Ryan and his excellent receivers, led by budding star Julio Jones and reliable Roddy White. The new offensive philosophy and Ryan's talent could possibly lead to 4,500-plus passing yards and 35-40 touchdowns this year.
Of course, he'll need to start turning around his 0-3 postseason record if NFL fans are to ever consider him truly elite, however.
Cutler is entering his seventh NFL season. The last three have been spent with the Chicago Bears, who previously did little to upgrade their receiving corps over that time. That all changed this offseason, when they dealt a pair of third-round picks to Miami for Marshall, then drafted former South Carolina standout Alshon Jeffery.
The Marshall acquisition was the key. He was Cutler's favorite target when the veteran quarterback threw for a career-high 4,526 yards with the Denver Broncos in 2008. Cutler was traded to the Bears after that season, and has never surpassed 3,666 yards in any year since.
During his Chicago tenure, though, Cutler has been throwing to the likes of Johnny Knox, Earl Bennett and Devin Hester. Now he has a legitimate No. 1 target, plus a young player with the potential to someday become one in Jeffery. Cutler could be in line for what would be only his second career 4,000-yard season.
WHICH QUARTERBACK WILL BE FIRST TO LOSE HIS STARTING JOB?
This one seems easy. Since the Arizona Cardinals became the last team to officially name a starting quarterback until John Skelton got the nod over Kevin Kolb last Friday, the guess is that he won't have too long a leash.
Skelton performed well after taking over for an injured Kolb last season, and it seemed to be his job to lose after enjoying the better of the play through the Cardinals' first three preseason games. Kolb outplayed Skelton considerably in the fourth game, however, making the decision even more difficult for head coach Ken Whisenhunt.
Skelton eventually won out, but one would figure that the Cardinals' considerable investment in Kolb (he signed a six-year, $65 million contract in 2011 and was paid a $7 million roster bonus in March) will eventually give him another chance to regain the job.
WHICH QUARTERBACK WILL BE COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR, NON-PEYTON DIVISION?
As long as he gets through this season relatively healthy, new Denver quarterback Peyton Manning figures to be a lock to win the NFL Comeback Player of the Year Award. After all, the future Hall of Famer missed the entire 2011 season after undergoing multiple neck surgeries. Now the ex-Indianapolis Colts star is expected to lead Denver's effort to repeat as AFC West champion.
So, for this exercise, let's not count Manning. The other quarterback who figures to bounce back from a trying 2011 season is Tampa Bay's Josh Freeman.
Two years ago, Freeman threw 25 touchdowns and six interceptions in leading the Buccaneers to a 10-6 record and close to the playoffs. He slipped considerably last season, however, totaling 16 touchdowns and 22 interceptions.
Still only 24, Freeman will now have a legitimate No. 1 receiver in free-agent signing Vincent Jackson, who will provide the deep threat Tampa Bay had lacked. That should open things up for fellow wideout Mike Williams, who was miscast as the Bucs' top target last year. Now Williams is unlikely to see any double-teams.
Also, LaGarrette Blount was the Buccaneers' starting running back in 2011 and caught just 15 passes. This year, first-round draft pick Doug Martin will take over for Blount and provide much greater help in the passing game.
Tampa Bay is likely to feature a ground-heavy attack with Greg Schiano now at the helm, but Freeman should be able to thrive in a more conservative offense by avoiding the kinds of mistakes that plagued him last year.
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