Most teams are willing to tolerate the struggles of a young QB during their first season. By the second or third year of that all important rookie contract, teams want to see progress. Around the NFL, there are a few squads who will go as far as their young signal callers will take them. Now, a look at four different QBs who hold the key to their team's collective success.
- Jake Locker, Tennessee Titans
Locker's athleticism coming out of Washington had teams drooling, as he was compared to Steve Young by NFL GMs. In college, he struggled with accuracy, never completing more than 58.4 percent of his passes in a season, a poor harbinger for future success. There will always be a team willing to gamble on a big, strong, athletically gifted QB, and in Locker's case, the Titans have been patient in his development. He spent 2011 seasoning as a backup to Matt Hasselbeck. He beat out Hasselbeck for the starting job in 2012, and since then, it's been a roller coaster ride filled with erratic performances, injuries and the occasional flash of brilliance. He missed a good portion of the 2012 season with a torn throwing shoulder and his 2013 campaign was cut short by hip and foot maladies. The hope in Nashville is that he continues to build on his abbreviated 7 game season in 2013, when he showed signs of becoming a franchise QB. He led Tennessee to a thrilling 20-17 win over the playoff contending San Diego Chargers, throwing a 34 yard TD strike to Justin Hunter with 15 seconds left to lead a thrilling Titans comeback. He posted a 60.7 completion percentage, a career best. Locker also cut down on the turnovers, throwing only 4 INTs over 183 pass attempts. With Ken Whisenhunt coaching, if Locker can stay healthy, he may finally reach the potential scouts saw in him.
- EJ Manuel, QB, Buffalo Bills
Manuel is another player who's alternated between looking injury prone and showing signs of becoming a franchise QB. His 2014 season became all the more crucial when the Bills pushed their chips to the middle of the table, sacrificing next year's first round draft pick for the tantalizing young receiver Sammy Watkins. They also spent another late round pick acquiring Tampa Bay's Mike Williams. With Watkins and Williams joining incumbent receivers Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin, the message is clear: this is a no excuses season for Manuel. He struggled to stay healthy in 2013, missing 6 games with knee injuries. Manuel struggled with accuracy, but showed a knack for avoiding interceptions. Minus a 4 INT outing against Tampa Bay, Manuel threw only 5 over his other 9 starts. Manuel also displayed scrambling skills, adding 186 rushing yards and 2 TDs in the ground game. In his sophomore season, he will need to show more gumption pushing the ball down the field to take advantage of his new weaponry. He averaged less than 200 yards passing per contest, which won't cut it again. Anything less than playoff contention, and the Bills' brass will have egg on their faces from their controversial draft day trade.
- Geno Smith, New York Jets
All indications are that Michael Vick accepts his role as the backup and that this is Geno's job to lose. Of all the QBs on this list, Smith has the furthest to go. At times, he looked befuddled last season and hemorrhaged turnovers. 21 interceptions and 7 fumbles were not what the Jets wanted to see from their young QB. After living through the Mark Sanchez butt fumble, the last thing they needed was their new QB providing them with this gem:
The Jets have done a good job of providing more tools for Geno to work with, signing Chris Johnson and Eric Decker. They also added prized young tight end Jace Amaro in the draft. With a notoriously impatient New York fanbase, Smith will have to show immediate gains. Otherwise, expect to hear incessant boos and the inevitable "WE WANT VICK!" chants by Week 6 at the earliest. I went more in depth on the Geno Smith conundrum recently, read here for more.
- Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals
Dalton's in the toughest position of all. He's already led his team to the playoffs in each of his first three seasons and put up dazzling numbers. Over the last three years, he's thrown for 11,360 yards and 80 TDs, against 49 INTs. So why is he on this list? Simple: lack of playoff success. Three trips to the playoffs and not only have the Bengals come up empty each time, but Dalton has played very poorly in each game. In 2011, despite having the good fortune to face Texans backup T.J. Yates, Dalton threw three interceptions in a 31-10 rout. In 2012, Dalton managed only 127 yards and for the second straight year, failed to throw for a touchdown, leading to a miserable 19-13 defeat to those same Texans. 2013 saw Dalton finally score in the postseason, but he undid the Bengals' chances with turnovers on three consecutive possessions, culminating in a 27-10 embarrassment at the hands of San Diego. While I don't always prescribe to the "clutch" theory, after 3 straight terrible playoff performances, it's fair to wonder if Dalton is a QB who can't get it done when it counts. His career playoff line is ghastly: 56.9 completion percentage, 1 TD, 6 INTs. The Bengals have moved slow on extending Dalton's rookie deal, and unless he's willing to take a vast discount, it looks as if he will enter a contract year. If he does not lead the Bengals back to the playoffs, and win at least one game, he could be headed for a new zip code next season.