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Five teams face pivotal decisions surrounding passers


The NFL has long been regarded as a quarterback-driven league, and the 2009 regular season further provided proof that having a quality triggerman is essential to reaching the postseason.

Of the top 10 passers in the league (according to passer rating), eight led their respective teams into the playoffs, and seven of those eight also accomplished those feats while amassing 4,000-yard passing seasons.

Given the increasing importance of the passing game on the chances of a team reaching the postseason, the identification of the right quarterback to guide the offense is the biggest issue facing several teams over the summer.

With that thought in mind, let's take a look at some intriguing quarterback battles that are taking place during the summer:

Denver Broncos

Starter: Kyle Orton
Competition: Brady Quinn, Tim Tebow

The Broncos acquired Orton in the Jay Cutler trade, and the sixth-year pro responded by posting career highs in nearly every passing category. Orton started strong, leading the Broncos to sizzling 6-0 start, but his faltering ways down the stretch contributed to the team losing eight of its last 10 games. Orton tossed 11 interceptions over the team's final nine games, and his inability to throw the ball down the field allowed opponents to suffocate the Broncos' aerial attack.

In the offseason, the team added Quinn to provide some competition. Although he comes over to the team after three dismal seasons in Cleveland (Quinn sports a putrid career passer rating of 66.8 and has only completed 52.1 percent of his passes in his career), but he is a good fit in Josh McDaniels' quick-rhythm pass attack. While he is a little scattershot with his accuracy, he has a good feel for taking advantage of his weaponry, and the Broncos' use of more spread sets plays to his strengths.

Quinn showed flashes of his potential in late-season games against the Detroit Lions (304 passing yards, four touchdowns) and the San Diego Chargers (271 passing yards, three touchdowns), and he gives McDaniels a Matt Cassel-like project to develop over the summer. Insiders have been effusive in their praise of Quinn, and he could make a push for the job with a strong performance during OTAs (organized team activities) and training camp.

If adding Quinn wasn't enough to jumpstart the quarterback competition, the Broncos used a first-round pick on Tebow. While he is viewed as a developmental prospect, the Broncos' head man has reportedly been smitten with the former Heisman Trophy winner since interviewing him at the NFL Scouting Combine, and has every intention of letting him compete for the starting job if he shows that he is capable of performing from the pocket.

In the final analysis, the starting job appears to be Orton's to lose, but based on his fading performance down the stretch last season, it wouldn't surprise anyone to see Quinn unseat him as the starter prior to the season.

Arizona Cardinals

Starter: Matt Leinart
Competition: Derek Anderson

Kurt Warner's retirement was supposed to pave the way for Leinart to assume control of the Cardinals offense, but the addition of Anderson ensures that Leinart will have to earn the job with a strong preseason performance.

Anderson, who went to the Pro Bowl following the 2007 season, excels at throwing the ball down the field, and that affinity for the vertical passing game works well with the Cardinals' current cast of receivers. Larry Fitzgerald specializes at winning jump-ball situations, and Anderson has shown a willingness to throw the ball up to his No. 1 receiver during his time in Cleveland with Braylon Edwards. Although that courage could endear Anderson to his receivers, the consistent risk-taking has led to the numerous turnovers (45 interceptions in 39 games), which has resulted in his paltry 69.7 career passer rating.

Leinart, who was drafted with the 10th overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft, hasn't really earned the confidence of the team's current coaching staff with his play over the past three seasons. After surprisingly being supplanted by Kurt Warner as the team's starting quarterback in 2007, Leinart has been relegated to mop-up duty since the demotion, and questions have persisted about his work ethic, confidence and leadership skills. While he has shown some flashes (21-for-31 for 220 yards against the Titans in Week 12) at times, he has also been disappointing in key moments (13-for-21 for 96 yards against the Packers in the regular-season finale), and that has made his nomination as the team's starting quarterback tenuous at best.

In looking at his game, Leinart is best described as a rhythm passer with average arm strength. Though he doesn't possess a strong arm, he is effective when he gets rid of the ball on time and anticipates open windows to deliver the ball to receivers.

While he will occasionally throw the ball to the opposition, Leinart is a fairly conservative decision maker at the position, and his ability to avoid the big turnover may be the deciding factor in a quarterback battle for an Arizona squad making a transition to a more conventional style of offense in 2010.

Buffalo Bills

Starter: TBD
Competitors: Trent Edwards, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brian Brohm and Levi Brown

The Chan Gailey era starts with numerous questions at quarterback, and the new head coach will use the remainder of the offseason to come up with some answers.

Surprisingly, the solution will most likely come from the cast of characters that manned the position last season. Edwards and Fitzpatrick are vying for the post, and based on their past performances it looks like a coin flip may determine the winner.

Edwards has completed more than 61 percent of his passes, but has only compiled a 77.9 passer rating while passing for an average of 171.8 yards in only 30 starts. In addition to those pedestrian numbers, Edwards' game has seemingly regressed over the past year. He rarely pushes the ball up the field, and his decision to repeatedly settle for check downs allows opponents to squeeze the Bills' aerial attack.

However, Edwards' problems can be attributed to the team's woeful offensive line, and their last-minute coordinator switch prior to the 2009 season further complicated the fourth-year pro's issues. Given Gailey's reputation for maximizing the talents of unheralded players, Edwards could finally fulfill the promise that many expected when he entered the league in 2007.

If Edwards is unable to put a stranglehold on the position, Fitzpatrick could sneak into the spot as the unlikely starter. The fifth-year pro has started 20 games over past two years for the Bills and Cincinnati Bengals, and he has played decent in spots in those contests. While his career numbers fail to match Edwards' production, the Bills' offense seemingly moved better last season under his direction. Fitzpatrick took more chances down the field, and his willingness to take a few risks led to more plays from the unit. However, those few moments aren't enough to make him the starter, and he will have to display more accuracy and consistency to emerge as Gailey's top quarterback.

Gailey keeping an eye on Brohm
Bills coach Chan Gailey focused much of his attention on Brian Brohm during a 70-minute session Friday that kicked off a three-day weekend minicamp for rookies and select veteran players. More ...

While those options likely won't appease a rabid Bills' fan base looking to crack the postseason for the first time in more than a decade, Gailey's track record with developing quarterbacks should inspire confidence among the team's supporters. He has transformed unlikely players such as Jay Fiedler, Kordell Stewart, Mike Tomczak and Tyler Thigpen into solid players, and it is quite possible that a darkhorse candidate such as Brian Brohm or Levi Brown could emerge as the team's franchise quarterback.

Brown, the Bills' seventh-round pick, is an interesting candidate given his impressive résumé at Troy University. He directed the Trojans' high-octane spread attack with outstanding precision, and his skills (excellent intangibles and decision-making ability) are ideally suited to thrive in Gailey's system. He had outstanding success tutoring Thigpen during his time as the offensive coordinator in Kansas City, and Brown possesses the same ability and potential.

The Bills have several dogs in the hunt for the top spot, and there doesn't appear to be a clear favorite at this point. Regardless of who eventually secures the post, it is very likely that he will maximize his potential under the tutelage of Gailey.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Starter: Ben Roethlisberger
Competitors: Byron Leftwich, Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon

Roethlisberge's suspension forces the Steelers to trot out a new quarterback for the first four to six weeks of the season, and the team's decision on the interim starter will go a long way toward determining its postseason chances.

The three players (Leftwich, Batch and Dixon) battling for the role have filled in admirably at various times for Roethlisberger in the past, but the importance of getting off to a great start without their franchise quarterback under center puts each under the microscope during OTAs and workouts this summer.

Batch appears to be first in line for the position based on his annual status as the team's No. 2 quarterback, but he last started a game in 2007 and hasn't played a meaningful snap in the past two seasons. Still, he is a strong contender for the job due to his extensive experience in the team's system and his solid decision-making skills. While he lacks the flashy playmaking ability of his counterparts, his steady play could comfort a coaching staff looking to avoid pivotal mistakes on the offensive end.

While Batch was entrenched as the team backup for seven seasons, Leftwich, re-acquired in a trade with the Buccaneers this spring, is attempting to reprise his role as the top substitute at the position and gives the team another experienced veteran to trot out in Roethlisberger's place. He performed well in spot action in 2008, and his comfort level running the Steelers' shotgun offense could allow the team to fully use their playbook in the season's opening weeks. Although Leftwich's exaggerated release could lead to more sacks behind the Steelers' offensive line, the team's reported decision to incorporate more runs into the game plan will provide more time for the veteran and allow him to take advantage of his superior arm strength.

Although Dixon flashed some promise while logging one start last season, he is considered the darkhorse. The third-year pro is an outstanding athlete with the movement skills to act as a dual threat on the edge. While he shows solid skills as a passer, he still is acclimating to the pro game, and is susceptible to making errors in the passing game due to his unfamiliarity reading complex coverage. Given the slate of tough games facing the Steelers out of the gate, Dixon might not be the best choice for the team in this situation.

With the Steelers' quarterback race coming down to the two veterans, the production and big play ability of Leftwich may be enough to sway Mike Tomlin's vote in his favor.

Carolina Panthers

Starter: Matt Moore
Competitor: Jimmy Clausen

Moore headed into the offseason under the impression that he was the Panthers' quarterback of the future after the team dumped Jake Delhomme at the start of free agency.

However, after an unexpected turn of events on draft day, the team has created competition at the position with the selections of Clausen and Tony Pike. Though both rookies will get plenty of reps during camp, Clausen's draft position and talent makes him the most likely challenger to Moore for the team's starting quarterback position.

Clausen, who was selected with the 48th overall pick after a stellar three-year career at Notre Dame, steps into a system that is very similar to the scheme he played in under Charlie Weis, and he enjoys the luxury of serving as a game manager in the Panthers offense. With a strong running game, stout offensive line and a dynamic No. 1 receiver in place, Clausen could thrive as the director of this offense. He has the arm strength to make all of the requisite throws, and his accuracy rates as one of the strengths of his game.

Although Moore remains unheralded on the national scene, he has quickly developed into a star-quality player in the minds of scouts and coaches within the organization. He efficiently runs the offense by cleverly picking apart a defense with an assortment of short and intermediate throws, but he is more than a "small-ball" passer. Moore gets the ball out of his hands quickly and has enough arm strength to stretch the field on deep throws. More importantly, he is a winner with the moxie to lead his team to wins.

Given Moore's 6-2 career record and his proven leadership skills and intangibles, it is high unlikely that Clausen will make a serious run at Moore's job prior to the season. However, a slow start by the unheralded signal caller will open the door for the rookie, and he could prove to be too talented to keep on the bench once he gets his chance.

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