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The Top Battles to Be QB1

Which starting quarterback jobs are up for grabs? Plus, determining which offseason news actually matters.

Tim Tebow and Mark Sanchez

On Tuesday morning, 24 of the NFL’s 32 teams will begin their mandatory minicamps. For veteran teams who have retained most of their personnel and coaching staff, minicamp won’t be of much consequence. For teams with new coaches teaching new schemes to new players, though, minicamp is the first real shot of the league year at getting everybody on the roster to show up and begin the process of melding into a real football team.

And for quarterbacks who are hoping to retain their starting jobs or take over new ones, Tuesday is the first day of the quarterback battles that will occupy the attention of fans and observers over the next three months. Barring injury, 21 of the league’s 32 teams have a clear no. 1 candidate who is certain to start their Week 1 contest. The other 11 have some level of uncertainty surrounding their signal-callers. Some of those competitions are contests in name only, while others are actually going to be decided on the practice field and in preseason games. You can’t win a job in June, but you can certainly take the first steps toward winning or losing it. With that in mind, it seems like a good time to take a first look at the 11 starting quarterback positions that remain up for grabs in the NFL, starting with the most secure of the 11 and finishing up with the least. As the preseason goes along, we’ll add teams to this list and take them off as warranted.

11. New York Jets

Incumbent: Mark Sanchez
Challenger: Tim Tebow

It wouldn’t be totally out of the realm of possibility to see the Jets name Tim Tebow as their Week 1 starter. What it would take is an impossibly poor performance from Mark Sanchez during the preseason and enough brilliance from Tebow to convince new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano that the latter is a better fit for his run-heavy offense. A change would make Rex Ryan and Mike Tannenbaum look like absolute morons, and it seems extremely unlikely to occur in time for Week 1.

10. Indianapolis Colts

Incumbent: None
Challengers: Andrew Luck, Drew Stanton

It seems extremely likely that the Colts will follow their blueprint from the Peyton Manning era and turn the ball over to Andrew Luck from Week 1 forward. Luck’s reputation as the most pro-ready quarterback to come out of college in years precedes him, but there’s something to be said for starting with a veteran while easing a rookie’s way into the picture. If Luck is the starter in Week 1 and struggles in the first few weeks, the Colts would rightly be afraid to bench him and hurt his confidence. If they start the season with Drew Stanton, though, the team can bring in Luck when he’s definitively ready to go. With that being said, Luck’s almost surely going to be the starter.

9. Kansas City Chiefs

Incumbent: Matt Cassel
Challenger: Brady Quinn

Romeo Crennel spent the offseason harping upon the need for legitimate competition to challenge Matt Cassel for his starting job during training camp. Scott Pioli went to the market and came back with Brady Quinn, who hasn’t thrown a regular-season pass since 2009. Quinn isn’t going to offer a lot to convince the coaching staff to give up on Cassel, but then again, Cassel isn’t much of a roadblock in Quinn’s way. In Cassel’s favor: New offensive coordinator Brian Daboll believes that Cassel’s a winner, thanks to his offseason study that linked Cassel to other quarterbacks who had won 10 games in a season twice. It’s your lucky day, Brian: Terry Bradshaw’s currently a free agent!

8. Jacksonville Jaguars

Incumbent: Blaine Gabbert
Challenger: Chad Henne

General manager Gene Smith undoubtedly wants Blaine Gabbert to win this job. He traded up to draft Gabbert, and if the Mizzou product plays as poorly as he did last season, it will likely bring the curtains down on Smith’s run in Jacksonville. Head coach Mike Mularkey probably also wants Gabbert to win the job, but he wasn’t around for the draft and isn’t attached at the hip to Gabbert the way Smith is. Oh, and Chad Henne’s actually a competent quarterback, which is a huge advantage in his favor. Unfortunately for Henne, quarterback battles aren’t conducted on merit.

7. Minnesota Vikings

Incumbent: Christian Ponder
Challenger: Joe Webb

You can basically take everything from the previous paragraph and apply it to the battle in Minnesota. Ponder showed flashes of competence last year, which places him ahead of Gabbert, but Webb showed flashes of downright brilliance, which pushes him ahead of Henne. Ponder’s still very likely to win this job, though.

6. Washington Redskins

Incumbent: Rex Grossman
Challenger: Robert Griffin III

This is the first opportunity on our list where each guy has at least a 25 percent chance of ending up with the gig for Week 1. Why is RG3’s path to the job a little cloudier than Luck’s? Well, because Rex Grossman already knows the offense and is a better player than Drew Stanton. At the very least, he has more experience. Of the quarterback situations surrounding the draft’s top two picks, this is the one more likely to start with the veteran taking the reins at the beginning of the year before giving way to the rookie sometime later. Can’t you see the Redskins trailing by three touchdowns to the Falcons at home in the first half of Week 5, benching an ineffective Grossman for RG3, and nearly making it all the way back in the second half before narrowly coming up short? This is going to happen.

5. Arizona Cardinals

Incumbent: Kevin Kolb
Challenger: John Skelton

Once the Cardinals financially committed to keeping Kevin Kolb on the roster this year, the issue of actually playing him became a sunk cost. At this point, they need to just play whichever quarterback actually looks best in camp. That should favor Kolb, who looks like a legitimate NFL starter when there’s a half-speed pass rush bearing down on him, but he’ll also have to stay healthy for the next three months to ensure that he lines up in September. Health might be John Skelton’s biggest asset in this competition.

4. Seattle Seahawks

Incumbent: Tarvaris Jackson
Challengers: Matt Flynn, Russell Wilson

This one remains very much up in the air, although Matt Flynn’s the favorite after signing with the team in free agency this offseason. While Flynn is the most talented of the three players right now, he still has to learn the offense and gain a level of rapport with his receivers. Russell Wilson is basically an option in name only for Week 1, but the battle between Flynn and Jackson could linger all the way to the preseason. One thing worth noting: Jackson was a fantastic preseason quarterback in Minnesota, where he was 92-of-156 for 1,039 yards with seven touchdowns and no picks, but he was just 32-of-55 for 269 yards with a touchdown and two picks during Seattle’s preseason last year.

3. Cleveland Browns

Incumbent: Colt McCoy
Challengers: Brandon Weeden, Seneca Wallace

Browns general manager Tom Heckert has come out and said that the organization expects Weeden to start their Week 1 game against the Eagles, but Weeden is still learning the playbook and hasn’t faced a live pass rush yet. There’s still a lot of time to find flaws in his game and temporarily turn the ball over to either McCoy or Wallace. If the team trades McCoy before training camp starts in July, it’s a clear sign that they’re really going to turn the ball over to Weeden. Until then, it’s reasonable to doubt that the Browns truly know what they’re doing.

2. Miami Dolphins

Incumbent: Matt Moore
Challengers: Ryan Tannehill, David Garrard

Veteran scout Reggie Bush vouched for Tannehill on Monday, noting that he already knows the system being implemented by new offensive coordinator Mike Sherman and that Tannehill is “really good” and “smart.” Of course, Tannehill’s going to look great in drills and out of pads; once he has to throw over the middle against that aforementioned live pass rush, though, he’s going to start looking a lot worse. Based on his college performance, Tannehill’s not ready to be the guy. That won’t necessarily stop the Dolphins, but in terms of Week 1, the lean is still toward one of the two veteran passers on the roster, likely Matt Moore.

1. Tennessee Titans

Incumbent: Matt Hasselbeck
Challenger: Jake Locker

This is almost literally a dead heat so far. How close? Mike Munchak plans to split the reps between Matt Hasselbeck and Jake Locker exactly in half, with both quarterbacks spending time working alongside the first-team offense. In fact, the deciding factor could come down to something entirely out of the quarterbacks’ control. If gimpy wideout Kenny Britt (multiple knee surgeries) and inconsistent tight end Jared Cook look good in camp, their ability to stretch the field vertically could call for the huge arm of Locker. On the other hand, if Britt isn’t able to go and Cook works his way back into the doghouse, the Titans might build a more conservative offense around Chris Johnson and go with Hasselbeck. Locker’s obviously going to get the job at some point during the 2012 season, but it might not be in Week 1.


Does This Matter?

Last week was a great time to bust out The Detector (patent pending) to determine whether the story lines and speculation being pushed by players and anonymous team sources were likely to have any basis in reality. This week, there’s much more in the way of hard news to discuss. That’s great, but there’s also no guarantee that the news will have any impact whatsoever on the upcoming NFL season. That’s where it becomes time to ask the age-old question: “Does this matter?”

What Happened: The Patriots cut Chad Ochocinco.
Does It Matter? No.

Ignore the excuses and reasoning being thrown around to justify this release and just focus on the numbers. Chad Ochocinco had 15 catches for 276 yards in 15 games last year. His output was roughly similar to the likes of Naaman Roosevelt, Louis Murphy, and Jerricho Cotchery last season, and those guys didn’t get to play with Tom Brady. It didn’t work out, and at 34, it’s not like Ochocinco was suddenly going to get significantly better within the Patriots offense.

The problem with signing Ochocinco is that he doesn’t play special teams, which makes him very difficult to carry as a reserve wideout on any team’s roster. The only team in the league that was really in need of a veteran wide receiver to suit up and strictly play on offense was Miami, so it’s no surprise that the Dolphins signed him on Monday night. This is likely an all-or-nothing proposition, since it wouldn’t make sense for the Dolphins to carry him on the roster as a backup wide receiver. In other words, Ochocinco will either make the team and see significant action at wideout, or he’ll be cut at the end of training camp.

Oh, and yes: If you believe that HBO leaned on the Dolphins to sign Ochocinco and give them a lead character for Hard Knocks, you’re not alone.

What Happened: New England then locked up Rob Gronkowski with a six-year contract extension.
Does It Matter? Yes.

This is the classic Eagles/Indians/Rays contract, locking up a talented young player through his prime by guaranteeing him some extra money up front. They had Gronk under contract for the next two years at a price of $1.17 million, and by giving him an $8 million signing bonus, they get the opportunity to lock him up for the subsequent six years at a bargain price. As the Boston Globe‘s Greg Bedard notes, this is essentially two different contracts: A guaranteed four-year, $18.2 million contract that starts now, followed by a second four-year deal for $36.9 million that the Patriots can get out of by declining Gronkowski’s $10 million option bonus in 2016. Consider that the Patriots are paying Gronkowski about as much as the Jaguars gave Marcedes Lewis in his deal. That’s how good of a contract this is.

It’s not surprising that Gronkowski would accept a deal that guarantees him extra money upfront. He’s an injury risk who only fell to the second round of the 2010 draft because of a back injury that cost him his final season at Arizona. He’s been relatively healthy during his time in New England, but Gronk is a much bigger health risk than the average 23-year-old NFL player. And if he stays healthy and outproduces his deal, of course, he can always hold out and try to get a new one before the 2016 season. It’s a win-win.

What Happened: It basically came out that Terrell Suggs’s torn Achilles was a result of an injury from playing basketball, not from “conditioning drills.”
Does It Matter? Yes.

The problem isn’t that Suggs didn’t tell the truth; it’s that he suited up to play basketball in the first place. Suggs isn’t the first NFL player to get injured while playing an innocuous game of pickup hoops. Broncos tackle Ryan Clady tore his patella playing basketball in 2008, while Chad Pennington tore his ACL doing the same last offseason. Clady’s never been the same player, and Pennington is essentially retired. Suggs, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, has a history of playing basketball regularly during the offseason.

Three players isn’t a huge sample, but it’s enough of one to raise concerns about whether playing basketball is a good idea for NFL players. Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said that he didn’t care how Suggs got hurt, which misses the point entirely. Bisciotti would likely have been unhappy if Suggs got injured riding a motorcycle (à la Kellen Winslow) or in a bar fight (as Terrance Knighton did this offseason) because those are dangerous activities for a player to be involved in. It’s becoming clear that basketball may very well be another one of those activities. The Ravens won’t try to recoup any of the money paid to Suggs for a 2012 season he’ll likely miss, which is Bisciotti’s prerogative, but it’s naive of him to suggest that he was proud of Suggs for playing basketball because ” … the weight room is boring.” You can play basketball after you retire.

What Happened: D.J. Williams posted a picture of a page from his playbook on Twitter.
Does It Matter? No.

D.J. Williams tweeted out a photo of the iPad given to him by the Broncos, and on that iPad screen was a page from the super-secret, super-important Broncos defensive playbook. You know, from the impenetrable unit that ranked 24th in points allowed last year! With the secrets of “Sink Sam 1 Tite” revealed, John Fox will be forced to spend the next two months rewriting his entire playbook to get rid of the huge money plays Williams just showed the world! Heavens to Betsy!

This is one front from a defensive playbook with dozens more therein. Any NFL coach or player worth his salt could learn more about the Fox defense from watching tape (or contacting an old Carolina player) than from the page Williams posted onto Twitter. All this tells us is that Williams might not be thinking before tweeting, but this is the same guy who tried to use non-human urine to pass a drug test. It’s not totally surprising that he might do something dumb.