With the ever increasing emphasis on the passing game, quarterback breakouts seem to be a regular occurrence each NFL season. In recent years, the breakouts have either come from stepping in for the injured starter and never looking back (Colin Kaepernick and Nick Foles), resurrecting your career (Alex Smith), or rookies who made an immediate impact (Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, etc). This year, it is tough to find clear cut choices for breakouts at the quarterback position as each team seems to fall in one of three categories. For the most part, teams are set with their starters and have them signed for the long term. Those who aren’t are using “bridge” quarterbacks (think guys such as Matt Schaub, Chad Henne or Matt Cassel) until they find their newly drafted rookie ready for action.
Other than that, there are a few quarterbacks who are entering “make or break” seasons with their respective teams. These players can be there for different reasons. Sam Bradford and Jake Locker are in the last years of their respective rookie deals playing to prove their worth for the future. Ryan Tannehill is entering only his third year, but a season without a playoff berth for the Dolphins could equal a coaching change. Each regime usually selects their own quarterback so if that does happen, the new coach might not be convinced Tannehill is their franchise guy. Coincidentally, I had chosen all three of those quarterbacks to break out in previous years.
The quarterbacks I feel will take their games to the next level in 2014 were all rookies this past season. Chances are at least one of these guys won’t be starting week one for their respective team, but my feeling is that all of them will play big roles on teams that are looking to make a postseason run this year.
EJ Manuel, Bills: If you’re a team trading two years worth of first rounders for a playmaker at the top of the draft, it is basically a general managers way of saying their team is ready to “win now”. By going up and trading for Sammy Watkins, the Bills are resting on their roster full of talent and betting the house on Manuel. Manuel missed six games due to injury last year and many saw him as a raw player coming out of college in the first place. Now, instead of developing and making up the games/reps missed, he’ll be at the helm for a team in “win now” mode. If that wasn’t enough pressure, try doing it for a team with a diehard fan base that hasn’t made the playoffs since Clinton’s last term in office.
One thing the Bills front office was correct on was that they do have the makings of a “playoff ready” roster with depth on both sides of the ball. In Manuel’s case, he is going to have a very formidable supporting cast around him. He has three running backs in C.J. Spiller, Fred Jackson and Bryce Brown that all have the ability to be starters around the league. Both Spiller and Jackson are also effective receivers, but this offense will most likely be run heavy. Along with the dynamic Watkins, the Bills also have Robert Woods who formed a nice little rapport with Manuel last year to go along with Mike Williams who when healthy (or attentive) has the skills to be a very good receiver in the league.
With weapons around him and a nice defense, the Bills performance this season all comes down to Manuel. While he has the physical gifts, there have been mixed reports this offseason on his development. Some have said he has a much better understanding of the offense compared to last year. Others who have watched him say he has been inaccurate and indecisive in his reads. Despite being viewed as a possible franchise guy, there is a very good chance 2014 falls under the “make or break” category for Manuel. The front office is convinced the pieces are in place for the playoffs, but when it is all said and done the NFL is a cutthroat business and a quarterback league. The Bills have done everything they can to put Manuel in a position where he could succeed. Now the rest is up to him.
Geno Smith, Jets: Like most rookie quarterbacks, Smith had his ups and downs in 2013. The main issue he had was with turnovers. For the year, Smith had a whopping 25 turnovers with 21 of those coming off interceptions. The good news is that early reports are Smith has improved on ball security this offseason and the Jets got him some weapons. One stat that was interesting to find about Smith was that his yards per pass attempt was higher than established quarterbacks such as Andrew Luck, Alex Smith and Joe Flacco.
The Jets brought in a big time receiver in Eric Decker who should help Smith out tremendously. Decker isn’t going to put up the numbers he did while in Denver being the focal point of the offense, but he gives Smith a receiver that can beat defenders deep, while being effective in short and intermediate areas. Along with Decker, Smith will also have the raw Stephen Hill, Jeremy Kerley (who will now be able to operate out of the slot) and a pass catching tight end in rookie Jace Amaro. The running game can be a young quarterbacks best friend and the Jets gave Smith options there as well. They went out and added Chris Johnson who while he isn’t “CJ2K” anymore, is still very explosive in the open field to compliment the more physical running style of Chris Ivory.
Last year, the Jets went 8-8 and overachieved in doing so thanks in a big part to their defense. With the defense looking to build off last year, now it is up to Smith to see if the Jets can take the next step.
Mike Glennon, Buccaneers: New head coach Lovie Smith has said Glennon will start the year as the backup to Josh McCown, but I don’t see that lasting long. The Buccaneers brought in McCown after his very impressive stint replacing an injured Jay Cutler. While McCown has the skillset and a great story to go with it, those numbers are a huge outlier amongst the rest of his career numbers. It also didn’t hurt that was throwing to multiple Pro Bowl caliber talents and was working with head coach/quarterback savant Marc Trestman. McCown will begin the year as the starter, but if early indications tell us anything he is going to take a beating early on behind the Buccaneers offensive line. Like I previously mentioned, there has been a young backup that fills in for the injured starter and takes the job permanently each of the past two seasons. Glennon is the best bet to continue that trend.
While the offensive line is an issue, Glennon is similar to Foles in that he is deceptively athletic and is able to move in and around the pocket. Like the Bears team McCown worked with last year, the Buccaneers are going to have some massive targets at their disposal. Vincent Jackson (a Pro Bowl receiver in his own right) along with new draft picks Mike Evans and Austin Seferian-Jenkins are all 6’5’ or taller. Along with that, Glennon also has a pretty deep backfield led by Doug Martin that contains multiple players who can contribute as receivers. The Buccaneers are viewed by many pundits as a darkhorse playoff team this season. They have talent on both sides of the ball, but it might not be until Glennon gets the call as the starter where things begin to really come together.