Quarterback Labels

Franchise quarterback. Although this mysterious term eludes any tangible meaning, it’s the ultimate pass-or-fail barometer for which teams are judged at the football’s most important position.

Franchise quarterback proclamations are dubious, at best – silly, for the lack of a better word. With silly-season (mini-camp tropes and the summer’s rumor mill) nearly in the rear-view-mirror, let us visit the ever-changing world of quarterback labels.


Unquestioned Status – This group is the cream of the crop – the unquestioned faces of the franchise for the city they play in for the foreseeable future.


Tom Brady – Fresh off the Super Bowl’s most improbable comeback and his fifth championship, Brady is the closest thing to a sure thing the NFL has to offer. For literally any quarterback in NFL history, a fortieth birthday spells the end-of-the-road – but not for G.O.A.T. Brady is so good, the Patriots season starts in the championship round every year as he attempts to reach his seventh consecutive AFC title game in 2017.

Aaron Rodgers – Despite of two exaggerated slumps in as many seasons, Rodgers remains the bell of the quarterback ball. No signal-caller, in the history of the NFL, is capable of more dominant stretches of virtually unstoppable play. Carrying some lackluster Packers teams to deep playoff runs, Rodgers is neck-and-neck with Brady atop the NFL QB penthouse.

Matt Ryan – Ryan responded to last year’s critics (yours truly included) with a resounding MVP campaign. His biggest challenge will be incorporating last year’s strides and offense with the play-calling of new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. Given Ryan’s attention to detail and work-habits, there is little doubt this precise-veteran will continue his ascension.

Cam Newton – Struggles in the accuracy department arose when Newton posted a staggeringly low completion percentage (52.9%) in 2016. The Panthers entered the 17-2 2015 season with question-marks scattered across the offense, but those issues were masked by the brilliance of Newton. Unfortunately for the defending NFC champions, even Superman couldn’t save the day in 2016. A better compliment of skill players and an improved line will put that million-dollar-smile back on Newton’s face.

Russell Wilson – Amidst reports that there is a noticeable rift between the face of the Seahawks and the defense that can lay claim to its place in history, the fact remains that Seattle won’t be ushering Wilson out-of-town any time soon. The diminutive Wilson’s unique skillset was matched with tremendous tenacity and toughness playing through multiple injuries in 2016, and doing so at a high-level.

Andrew Luck – 2015 brought about many questions about the “next John Elway,” and rightfully so. Luck’s play was dismal prior to being lost for the season with an injury just a season ago. Bouncing back with a consistently dominant season in 2016, Luck has earned his stripes among the NFL’s elite.

Drew Brees – Overcoming adversity is the driving force behind Drew Brees’ career. Sliding to the second round of the NFL draft and getting forced out of San Diego due to a potentially catastrophic shoulder injury were just the beginning for this future Hall of Fame player. Rumors of dead-arm began three years ago and Brees continues to post gaudy numbers backed up by the film. Who wants to doubt that Brees can continue his assault on opposing secondary’s for another three or four years? I don’t.

Reaching for the Torch – This group is within reach of joining the upper-echelon just as soon as a few of the elites call it a career. Adding one more skillset to the arsenal, or another year of seasoning could be all it takes to launch these players into the next stratosphere.


Derek Carr – After a big jump in 2016, many entered Derek Carr’s name in the MVP race. His season was better than adequate, but his game needs more refinement before he’s a player that is a shoe-in for dominant season after dominant season. It’s foolish to hold exemplary pass-protection and dynamic down-field threats against a quarterback, but Carr struggled when the pocket was compromised and he was forced to come off initial reads.

Ryan Tannehill – The much-maligned Dolphins quarterback had his best season under a coaching staff that acclimated his skillset into the game-plan. Executing in crucial third and long situations, as well as in the fourth-quarter, Tannehill earned the admiration of his teammates and quarterback-guru head coach. Starting the season slowly has been a bugaboo for Tannehill – if he comes out of the gates hot, he will have a monster-season. Improved consistency would do wonders for Tannehill’s reputation.

Sam Bradford – The lacking element from Bradford’s 2016 season was something beyond his control. The offense was forced into an in-season overhaul when the offensive line had more injured players than healthy members. Bradford is pinpoint accurate, can attack all levels of the field and highly cerebral. With more help, or better pocket manipulation, he’ll take the next step.

Matt Stafford – A broken finger slowed the Lions quarterback’s remarkable season late in 2016. Still, Stafford mixes preparation with a brand of sandlot football that’s somewhat transcendent to the league. Brett Favre comparisons are thrown around a lot, but Stafford is probably the most deserving of that designation. Removing some of those costly gun-slinger mistakes is the quickest route to the top-tier for Stafford.

Kirk Cousins – The biggest indictment of Kirk Cousins might be his own employer’s apprehension to agree to a long-term contract. Cousins flourished in Jay Gruden (and Sean McVay’s) scheme and began to show more of an off-script prowess late in the 2016 season. With McVay, DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon all gone, Cousins can claim his spot at the top of the mountain by repeating his dynamic success with a remade cast around him.

Dak Prescott – There really isn’t anything Dak needs to do differently to make the next-level jump – he was terrific as a rookie. One year of experience in an offense with four all-pros around him is going to raise concerns from the detractors, but the game has already slowed for Prescott the way it does for a five-year veteran.

Riding Off into the Sunset – These players, at one time or another, were nearing the top of the QB pantheon but are on a slow-descent down.


Carson Palmer – Elements of Palmer’s game remain on the periphery of elite while others point to an exit from the league altogether. By virtue of the Cardinals offensive scheme, a stationary player like Palmer needs adequate pass-protection – something he did not get in 2016. The Cardinals are still a playoff threat under Palmer’s watch but the Big Game might be out of reach.

Ben Roethlisberger – It’s difficult to get a legitimate grip on a player’s mindset immediately following the end of the grind that is an NFL season. Roethlisberger flirted with retirement following a substandard year, but returns to a loaded Pittsburgh team. In 2016, the offense funneled through the supporting players more than the quarterback and that trend will continue in 2017.

Phillip Rivers – The crippling interceptions, paired with devastating injuries to virtually every unit of the Chargers team derailed Rivers’ 2016 season. Between the ears, Rivers is as crisp as ever, but the physical attributes may be deteriorating as the potential Hall of Fame quarterback struggled when he was asked to put the team on his back late in games last year.

Boom or Bust – These two quarterbacks will be linked for the entirety of their careers and while their lofty-draft positioning would suggest their early arrival as dominant players, both have a number of holes to work out.


Marcus Mariota – There were stretches of 2016 where Mariota looked like the transcendent quarterback that Robert Griffin promised to be, but inconsistent mechanics cause equally cringe-worthy stretches. Protecting the ball and throwing the short and intermediate ball with more accuracy are key points for Mariota to take the next step.

Jameis Winston – Fortunate occurrences seem to follow Winston – until they don’t. A mixed bag of off-script brilliance and bone-headed decisions made for an up-and-down sophomore season for the former Florida State Seminole. Like Mariota, Winston needs to clean up the details of his game and resist the temptation to make the impossible happen every play.


Keeping the Seat Warm – These players could be replaced as soon as mid-season this year if the performance isn’t up to snuff – deserving or not.


Alex Smith – The least deserving of falling in this category, Alex Smith is essentially being forced out by management. Smith is a terrific athlete that plays smart, safe football with an occasional splash-play. That brand of football that has led to a successful career is the very attribute that will ride him out of Kansas City in favor of rookie Patrick Mahomes.

Andy Dalton – Dalton may not be an obvious choice for the 2018 quarterback unemployment line, but there are two factors that could play against the six-year veteran. One: Despite Mike Brown’s reluctance to change, Marvin Lewis will have a difficult time surviving another failed season. Two: A.J. McCarron is schedule to become an unrestricted free-agent after the 2017 season and the Bengals could turn to the backup if Dalton continues to disappoint rather than venturing back into the tumultuous land of searching for a quarterback.

Brian Hoyer – Signed for his familiarity with Kyle Shanhan’s system, even Brian Hoyer knows that the 49ers will go all-in on acquiring a prominent-passer this coming off-season. Even if Hoyer plays well, his best-case scenario is bridging the gap to a rookie quarterback in 2018.

Mike Glennon – Originally thought to have the keys to his first team, Glennon was rudely-awoken from his dream on draft night when the Bears moved up to select a quarterback with the second pick in the draft. The Bears would not only have to keep the young quarterback on the shelf for two years if Glennon survives the 2017 off-season, the team would have to pay the former Buccaneer $16 million.

Glory Days Are Gone – A pair of former Super Bowl champions living off of their reputations.


Eli Manning – Manning has been erratic for the last two seasons and suffered from a tired arm far before the 2016 season’s conclusion. It’s only a matter of time before the Giants grow tired of Manning burying passes in the dirt and holding back a dynamic offense.

Joe Flacco – Flacco’s ‘aw-shucks’ body language is indicative of his lack of attention-to-detail. His lazy mechanics result in far too many fade-away throws, sailed passes and generally awful quarterbacking.


Plenty to Prove – Sophomores and rookies, this group has yet to make a splash on the NFL scene.


Carson Wentz – The Eagles have sold-out on surrounding the heavily-invested-in quarterback with talent on offense. The offense is his for the foreseeable future, but he needs to fix that funky hitch in his delivery and show better drive on passes to the boundary and down the field.

Jared Goff – Confused from day one through Hard Knocks all the way through the season finale, no quarterback had less on his plate – and it showed. Goff had a simplified scheme and still struggled to complete the easiest throws in the playbook. Unless he makes drastic improvements, he will go down alongside Jamarcus Russell, Ryan Leaf and Tim Couch as biggest draft busts of all-time.

Cody Kessler – In a year that was supposed to be a red-shirt season, Kessler impressed in his limited action. Being thrust into the line-up, Kessler executed the simple things and grew as an improviser as the year went on. Still, he had plenty of warts to iron out and deserves the opportunity to do that as the Browns starter in 2017.

Deshaun Watson – The college resume is there, but the film is highly-questionable. There are staple-throws in Bill O’Brien’s playbook that Watson struggled immensely with in college. He will have a number of seasons to prove himself, but he’s taking over a team loaded with talent.

Paxton Lynch – Forecasting Lynch as the winner of the competition in Denver is more about what Siemian did in 2016 than anything Lynch has ever done. John Elway put his stamp on the kid drafting him in the first round 16-months ago and with Gary Kubiak out of the picture, Siemian may not have anyone left in his corner.

Future Backups – Retaining starting-spots due to a lack of alternatives, the next contracts these players sign will be under backup pretenses.


Tyrod Taylor – There aren’t a lot of things Taylor does well. The Bills essentially drug Taylor’s name through the mud from the end of the season up to retaining the embattled quarterback. He doesn’t recognize coverages pre or post-snap and his accuracy is a random proposition.

Blake Bortles – With the ugliest delivery I can remember, Bortles throws footballs that are even uglier. He’s on his final leg with the Jaguars and was warned by head coach, Doug Marrone, that if he continues to turn the ball over, he will lose his job – there’s no reason to think he’ll correct that area of his game.

Who Cares? – Really, who cares?

Honestly, does anyone really care who the Jets trot out? A journeyman competing with two low-level young quarterbacks showing no signs of life as NFL players.

Revisiting this column in a year will almost certainly reveal some misconceptions, but that’s the beauty of the NFL. Opinions on quarterbacks are as volatile of a subject as there is in the league and sixteen games have a way of reshaping everyone’s beliefs.

Taking the information available and making the best, logical conclusion is all anyone can do. This list is an accurate summation of the league’s most important position. For now.

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