Only five starting quarterback positions in the NFL are even reasonably in doubt as we approach the start of the season, barring injuries to an established starter. That may be generous, but here is my take on the current unknown situations, from Chip Kelly’s first year to rookies in the AFC East, to Oakland and Jacksonville.
Philadelphia Eagles: Michael Vick or Nick Foles
The current #1 quarterback on the Philadelphia Eagles’ depth chart? That would be Michael Vick/Nick Foles. Unless they morphed into one individual, shouldn’t second string also be Vick/Foles, and not Matt Barkley? Setting aside that pet peeve to Chip Kelly’s trolling, it is clear that Kelly does not want to reveal too much. A month ago, it was reports that Nick Foles had surpassed Vick in camp.
In the last week, Michael Vick was the one out in front for the team last week, providing leadership when the Riley Cooper situation broke. That’s a role for the team’s quarterback, and Kelly asked Vick to do it. A sign that Vick still has the upper hand? A breakdown from the weekend shows that Vick has come on, and the two are very close in camp passing statistics (and Barkley way behind). Of course, if the two are relatively close as passers in the offense, Vick has the upper hand.
The prediction: MICHAEL VICK. Kelly wants the competition to continue, figuring it is driving both players. I don’t expect an announcement until after the third preseason game. I do expect Vick to start that game, and to be named the starter as the veteran out in front for the team this preseason. Foles will be waiting if Vick reverts and holds the ball too long in the new offense, or has turnover issues again.
New York Jets: Mark Sanchez or Geno Smith
The early assumption was that Geno Smith would be given time, and Mark Sanchez would at least get to start the season. Not so fast. In Saturday’s scrimmage, Geno Smith played three series with the starters, while Mark Sanchez had one (and got intercepted). Smith’s numbers weren’t great (9 for 16, 77 yards) but we are grading on a butt fumble curve, where Sanchez was 5 for 10 for only 36 yards and that interception. Sanchez was booed. The team and fans are ready to move on (Keyshawn Johnson thinks so).
Publicly, Rex Ryan says it is an even battle. Mark Sanchez is starting preseason game #1 this week. Mark Sanchez floundered last year, when the addition of the Tebow circus was supposed to motivate him. How many more chances does he get? Remember that rookie quarterbacks that have failed to beat out journeymen have typically been worse than those that either sat behind quality starting veterans or came in and started right away.
The prediction: GENO SMITH. Sanchez is here because of the contract. That doesn’t mean he has to start. I think this franchise needs a new start. I expect a conservative approach (think Sanchez’ rookie year) and look for Geno Smith to try to do the one thing that Sanchez could not consistently do when adopting that approach–limit turnovers. (The defense, of course, has to be among the best in the league to pull that off). Remember, even though it seems unlikely, 9 of the last 14 teams to start a rookie quarterback on opening day have made the postseason, after Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck, and Robert Griffin III all did it last year. (and its revisionist history to think that people were calling for any of those teams to likely make the postseason).
Buffalo Bills: Kevin Kolb or E.J. Manuel
Much like the Jets, the Bills are in a situation with a highly drafted rookie going against a much-maligned veteran. There are differences. The Bills have a new coach in Doug Marrone, and the quarterback he selected as the first one taken in this year’s draft, ahead of his own college quarterback (Ryan Nassib) and Geno Smith. Kolb also has no ties or history in Buffalo, so the fan reaction isn’t the same as that faced by Sanchez. Manuel will start at some point this year, and it is just a matter of when.
With Kolb slipping, Manuel may get his opportunity sooner. He is even impressing Kolb. “He’s doing great, I’m not going to lie. He’s doing an unbelievable job.” Manuel then had a more uneven performance in Monday’s scrimmage, with Kolb not playing due to a death in the family.
The prediction: You know what you have in Kolb, who will go out there and take a beating. If Manuel is not completely overwhelmed once the team faces players from other teams in the preseason, I think the new coach starts the era with his young quarterback, knowing that C.J. Spiller is there to make life easier. E.J. MANUEL.
Jacksonville: Blaine Gabbert or Chad Henne
Again, another team with two quarterbacks listed first. This is a competition with no real winners, so the question really becomes “Do the Jaguars give up on Gabbert to start the year, acknowledging Henne is a stopgap?” or does Gabbert get the first part of the year to show vast improvement. You might be surprised to know, that while Gabbert looked horrible and Henne had one memorable performance last year, Henne was worse once you account for opposing team schedule and strength of pass defenses faced. Part of Jacksonville’s question, then, is even if Gabbert is not the answer, is he worth playing instead of Henne.
The prediction: It is Gabbert’s job to lose in the preseason, but we have seen plenty of Gabbert’s ilk, quarterbacks two to three years in, lose it with poor performances in the preseason (Matt Leinart comes to mind). I think it comes down to Gabbert getting the start in the third preseason game, and he will have to not have a horrible performance. Reluctantly, I say BLAINE GABBERT starts the opener.
Oakland: Matt Flynn or Terrelle Pryor or Tyler Wilson
This one only gets on here because no one has any sort of experience as a team’s starter. Flynn was supposed to be the starter in Seattle last year before Russell Wilson took hold of it and never let go. Getting someone like Wilson to emerge as a rookie and start right away is rare. The buzz around Russell Wilson was way more than anything we are hearing about Tyler. Bucky Brooks said Flynn might be the “next franchise quarterback” just 18 months ago, and after no more starts since that Packers-Lions game, said Flynn now has “unimpressive physical dimensions/arm talent”. I would agree with the latter, but it is simply a matter of whether Flynn’s known traits are sufficient to start the season. (I questioned Flynn when everyone was anointing him after the Detroit game). If he is to be surpassed, it will more likely be Pryor in the short term.
The prediction: MATT FLYNN will start opening day. If he struggles in the first month, he won’t have a long leash, and Pryor will get a look. Wilson may get reps late in the year if Oakland is out of it and Flynn and Pryor have failed to move the offense.
[Photos via USA Today Sports Images]