Training camp is still two months away, but some quarterback battles are starting to crystalize across the NFL. We expected some of these battles to take place; others are surprise appearances. But there are enough of them that we thought it would be interesting to compare these battles using football relativity. Here’s how it will work: 10 is the battle most likely to impact a team’s fate, and 1 is a battle least likely to matter. This rating includes the quality of the players in the battle as well as how long the battle will go on.
For more on these (and other) quarterbacks as individuals, check out this post on the top signal callers for 2009 and beyond. And this site of NFL depth charts has become a resource that I’ve gone back to several times now, and so I thought it was worth a link.
10 – Vikings (combatants: Tarvaris Jackson, Sage Rosenfels and potentially Brett Favre) – Jackson and Rosenfels both have talent, and they both have moments in which they look like they should be NFL starters. Rosenfels is a long-time backup who has 12 career starts in eight years and a career passer rating of 81.5, which is slightly above average. But Rosenfels also seems to make the killer mistake at the killer time way too often. Jackson was demoted at the beginning of last season, only to reclaim the starting job when Gus Frerotte was hurt, and at the end of the season Jackson played really well. His passer rating for the season was 95.4, which is a standout mark. But Jackson’s tendency to make a killer mistake showed up in the playoffs, when his pick-6 ultimately cost the Vikings the wild-card game against Philly. If either Rosenfels or Jackson put it together and played consistently, the Vikings’ championship chances would rise, because the rest of the team is contender-caliber. But the question is whether either guy can be consistent, and whether Brad Childress and company will stick with the guy they pick. Plus, the specter of Brett Favre looms over the situation, but would that even be an improvement?
9 – none
8 – Jets (combatants: Kellen Clemens and Mark Sanchez) – Clemens, a former second-round pick, has only gotten one extended chance to start (half a season in ’07), but he’s the veteran hand who has the reins to begin. That means that Sanchez, who didn’t have that many starts at USC, has a real shot to be the opening day starter. I believed in Sanchez over Matthew Stafford at draft time, but even a Sanchez-phile like me isn’t sure about the wisdom of starting him from Day One. I like Sanchez’s attitude and confidence, but that could be shaken if he performs poorly, especially in the media jungle of New York. The Jets could have used a Byron Leftwich type of guy as a bridge, but they didn’t get one in the offseason. So while there’s a ton of upside potential here, there’s lots of downside potential as well. It’ll be interesting to see whether Sanchez can show enough to demonstrate that he’s ready to go when the season opens, especially with a team that looks to repeat on last year’s winning record.
7 – Browns (combatants: Derek Anderson, Brady Quinn and Brett Ratliff) – Everyone will have an eye on this battle through training camp because of Quinn’s golden boy status and Anderson’s one shining year in ’07. Anderson isn’t consistent, but he has a big arm and can get hot enough to throw with the best of them. Quinn doesn’t throw as powerfully, but he’s more consistent and more suited to a timing offense. It seems like the new Browns coaching regime under Eric Mangini would favor Quinn, who would be a bit easier to build a run-first offense around, but that’s merely a guess. A small part of me is afraid that Mangini is silly enough to give Brett Ratliff, the former Jets’ No. 3 QB who came over in the Mark Sanchez draft day trade, a shot. Ratliff played well in the preseason last year, but preseason QB phenoms who can’t play when the real games start are far too common to count on Ratliff. But Mangini appears to have a man crush on Ratliff, and that’s worrisome when figuring out whether Anderson or Quinn has the edge.
6 – Broncos (combatants: Kyle Orton and Chris Simms) – It’s quite a fall for Denver from Jay Cutler, a Pro Bowl level talent, and two workmanlike journeymen like Orton and Simms. Simms, like Leftwich, gets a lot of attention as a prospect, but he hasn’t played significant snaps since 2006, and he didn’t get a lot of attention in free agency. He’s probably good enough to be OK, but he’s not a winning quarterback unless there’s a really good team around him. (And there’s not in Denver, at least not at this point.) Orton has a similarly strange career path – he started 15 games as a rookie in ’06, then sat behind Rex Grossman for two years before becoming a starter again last year. He played OK in Chicago, and he has actually shown more upside than Simms, but Orton isn’t going to scare anyone. He’s good enough to be an average NFL starter, and he’ll have a few moments where he looks better than that, but Orton isn’t a guy you can build a team around – no matter what Josh McDaniels thinks.
5 – Buccaneers (combatants: Byron Leftwich, Luke McCown, Josh Freeman) – At one point this offseason, McCown was resigned and told he would have a chance to win the starting job in Tampa Bay, and even after Leftwich came on board and Freeman was selected, McCown still asserted the job was his to lose. We still figure that McCown will lose it, most likely to Leftwich, who looked impressive as a Steelers backup last year. But remember that Leftwich looked pretty rotten the two previous years in Jacksonville and Atlanta. He’s good enough to challenge McCown, and probably best him in ’09, but he’s not a long-term solution, no matter how personable he is. Freeman doesn’t really figure into the competition this year, but he is the QB of the future. The question is how soon that future will come – late in 2009, 2010, or even later. The Bucs look like they’ll take a step back before taking a step forward, and it’s possible that Leftwich is good enough to keep them competitive and around .500. But it’s also easy to see Tampa slipping to 6-10 or even worse.
4 – Raiders (combatants: JaMarcus Russell and Jeff Garcia) – Russell, a former No. 1 overall pick, started a full season last year, and while his touchdown-to-interception ratio was OK at 13 to 8, his completion percentage of 53.8 didn’t cut the mustard. He’s still the future in Oakland, but the Raiders added Jeff Garcia as a backup. That’s where the dysfunction begins. Garcia is still a solid performer who can lead a team and move it downfield, and performance-wise he’s a really good backup quarterback. But he doesn’t have the personality of a backup. It’s not that he will try to undercut Russell, but Garcia won’t be the supportive caddy. Instead, he’s going to try to beat Russell out, whether that’s the best thing for the future of the organization or not. And it’s not the best thing for Garcia to beat out Russell. The Raiders need Russell to be the answer if they are to build a foundation, but the 39-year-old Garcia doesn’t care. He just wants to start as many games as he can before his career is over. And that mindset could lead to a lot of tension in Oakland going into Game One – especially if Russell struggles in the preseason.
3 – 49ers (combatants: Shaun Hill and Alex Smith) – The expectations on Hill, a former undrafted free agent, and Smith, a former No. 1 overall pick, couldn’t be more divergent. But it’s Hill who has the leg up on the job in San Fran going into the season. Hill spent five full seasons in the league before he threw his first pass, but he played well at the end of the ’07 season, and when he became the starter in ’08 he continued to perform. In the 12 games he’s played over the last two seasons, Hill has completed 64 percent of his passes and has 18 touchdowns versus just 9 interceptions. His career passer rating of 90.5 makes you take notice. Smith, on the other hand, has just one halfway decent season out of the three that he played, and he missed all of last season due to injury. He would have been cut by the 49ers in the offseason had he not taken a big pay cut. Hill is more consistent in the short passing game, and he can run an offense effectively. But he’s not the kind of quarterback who can shoulder the burden of carrying a team to the win. Smith has the talent but hasn’t put it together in the four different systems the Niners have used since he was drafted. So while Hill has a clear leg up in this competition, Smith should still be more than an afterthought. He still has enough talent that he could take advantage of a chance to play. That’s no certainty, but it should be a consideration.
2 – Lions (combatants: Daunte Culpepper, Matthew Stafford and Drew Stanton) – This isn’t a battle as much as it is a test of Stafford’s readiness. Stafford will be the guy in Detroit when he’s ready, but even though he was a 2 1/2-year starter in the SEC, most draft analysts didn’t think Stafford would be ready right away. Until the Lions want to throw him in there, it appears that Culpepper will be the caretaker. It’s a strange role for a guy who was briefly one of the top 5 QBs in the game (circa 2004), but injuries have robbed Culpepper of most of his elite skills. Although Culpepper is in better shape than he was after signing midseason in Detroit, it would be foolish to expect great play out of him. The Lions can only hope that Culpepper doesn’t kill them until Stafford gets in there. And don’t expect a Joe Flacco type of situation here; Drew Stanton, a former second-round pick, might get the nod instead of Stafford were Culpepper to get hurt before opening day.
1 – Rams (combatants: Marc Bulger and Kyle Boller) – This isn’t a battle most people are expecting, but I’m forecasting that at some point the heat is on Bulger big time. That point could even come in the preseason. Bulger has a good reputation, but the last 2 years his passer ratings have been 70.4 and 71.3. Those numbers aren’t good, and with a new coaching staff who has no loyalty to Bulger (despite his bloated contract), a change is possible. I’ve always had a predisposition to like Boller – maybe because I saw both of his really good games – but he has talent, and if he puts it together he could well be a better option than Bulger. So keep an eye on St. Louis to see if a battle develops under the arch under center.