Playing quarterback in the NFL never looked better than it did in 2009.
The question is will it still look this good after the 2010 season?
Of last year's 10 quarterbacks who threw for more than 4,000 yards and the nine who threw for 3,000-plus, one, Kurt Warner, has retired and another, Brett Favre, just might do the same.
If Favre does call it quits, that still would leave 17 teams with prolific passers who could easily duplicate what they did in '09. And who knows how well some of the younger guns, such as Mark Sanchez and Matthew Stafford, will perform?
However, with a draft that appears to offer little, if anything, in the way of dynamic quarterbacks, one has to wonder who will fill what could be at least two gaping holes in the league's quarterbacking landscape -- not to mention the lingering voids in places like Buffalo and Cleveland.
The Cardinals aren't entirely sure what sort of replacement they have for Warner in 2006 first-round draft pick Matt Leinart. If Leinart had the goods to take over the starting job, he would have kept Warner on the bench. Instead, Warner not only reclaimed the No. 1 spot, he remained and led the Cardinals to the Super Bowl in 2008 and back to the playoffs in 2009 with a 3,753-yard, 26-touchdown season.
That has led to speculation that the Cards might be interested in selecting a quarterback with the 26th overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, although it's unlikely that either of the only two players at the position projected for the first round (Oklahoma's Sam Bradford or Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen) would still be on the board. Even if one were to slide that far, it's unlikely he would do anything but watch as a rookie. That probably would be the case regardless of which team does the picking.
As for Leinart, the Cardinals realize they're heading into unknown territory with a quarterback who has made all of 17 career starts in four seasons. Coach Ken Whisenhunt understands that Leinart has plenty of critics. The only way he can silence them, Whisenhunt said, is to "play well." In the meantime, there will be all sorts of debates about whether Leinart can fill some massive shoes.
"There's not a lot that's going to happen between now and the season that's going to change anybody's opinion or anybody's feelings on that," the coach said during the NFL Scouting Combine. "I think Matt's just got to continue to work the way he's been working and understand the sense of urgency is different. And I think he's up to that challenge.
"He's had the great fortune of learning and working behind a quarterback that's played at as high a level as anybody in the league. And hopefully, we'll see the benefits of that this year."
That's a word you'll hear a lot from the Minnesota Vikings if Favre finally does choose to walk away. Hopefully, Tarvaris Jackson and/or Sage Rosenfels can pick up the slack, at least for the coming season. Or, maybe, a quarterback the Vikings might pick up in a trade (perhaps someone from that long Philadelphia Eagles QB depth chart) can do the job. The Vikings certainly can't expect either Bradford or Clausen to do a free fall to them at No. 30, and if one did, they'd still be likely turning to a more experienced replacement for at least this year.
"As I mentioned last year, we were going to be a good football team with Brett and a good football team without him," coach Brad Childress said at the combine. "As it stands right now, (Jackson and/or Rosenfels) will be able to ably man that position."
Still, it's hard to imagine that "ably" is going to translate to the 4,202 yards and 33 touchdowns Favre had last season.
The Washington Redskins' offense could remain in the shaky hands of Jason Campbell for another year. The Bills look as if they'll be in for more of the same mediocrity with Trent Edwards or Ryan Fitzpatrick. The Browns just might have to try and make it work with someone from the unspectacular duo of Brady Quinn and Derrick Anderson.
There are other quarterbacking questions. The problem is, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of answers, least of all from the draft.
How risky is the Jets' release of Jones?
NFL front-office people with whom I've spoken fully understand the business reason the Jets will release running back Thomas Jones before having to pay him a $3.3 million roster bonus on top of his $2.8 million base salary. All of them acknowledge it is something they, and other teams, would be inclined to do under similar circumstances.
What no one truly knows, however, is how Jones' departure might impact New York's ability to remain at the level that allowed it to make a surprise run to the AFC Championship Game?
The bottom line is that the Jets are saying goodbye to a player who was highly instrumental to their top rushing offense last season. They are showing the door to a player who, as Jets guard Brandon Moore told the New York Daily News, "ignited sparks in everybody" with his passion. Jones had the sort of qualities, center Damien Woody pointed out, "that you can't put a price on."
But the Jets did, and, in these highly uncertain economic times for the NFL, they simply decided it wasn't worth shelling out that much cash for a player who lost his effectiveness toward the end of last season and was replaced by standout rookie Shonn Greene as the primary ball carrier in the playoffs. New York is also hopeful that Leon Washington will return from his surgically repaired broken leg that cost him much of last season.
As the front-office types explained, the value of emotional leaders who command great respect isn't always easy to quantify, and, therefore, it almost always is secondary to on-field production. Still, when you take that away from a team, there's always a risk of negative consequences.
Thin year for running backs
You know it's a thin year for running backs in the draft when the widely viewed best player at the position has to defend his worthiness as an elite talent to reporters during the combine.
Such was the case with Clemson's C.J. Spiller, who is projected to be taken in the middle of the first round and who figures to have helped his draft stock considerably by running the 40-yard dash in a blazing 4.37 seconds at the combine. His perceived flaw is the fact that he stands only 5-foot-11.
"Everyone can voice their own opinion," Spiller said during the combine. "The only thing I can do is just go out there and perform. I can't worry about that. I know I play the game with a lot of passion, and I'm going to go out there and compete at the highest level, no matter my size or my height. I know what I can do as a football player."
NFL teams have good reason to question whether smaller backs can withstand the pounding of a 16-game season. But Spiller is a solid 196 pounds, and Clemson did have him do quite a bit of inside running.
"We ran inside, did a lot of zone blocking inside, did a lot of power downhill running," he said. "I think by me doing that, hopefully I showed people I can also be an inside runner as well as a good outside runner."
The only other back who seems to consistently receive discussion as a first-round prospect is Georgia Tech's Jonathan Dwyer. However, he was a fullback who spent most of his collegiate career in an option scheme, so he faces a significant transition switching to halfback in a pro-style NFL offense. Dwyer made a point of getting his 5-11 frame down to 229 pounds so he could maximize his speed as a halfback.
"That's just a question that is going to continuously be asked," Dwyer said of the switch. "But if they go back to the 2007 season, when I was a true freshman and played behind Tashard Choice (in a pro-style scheme)... It's nothing new for me to be able to play 7 yards deep. I'm just going out there to show them that I'm an athlete, and I have the ability to adjust to any kind of offense they throw at me."