All season long, we've heard about young quarterbacks, and for good reason. Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson, all rookies, are making major noise in the NFL, leading their teams to playoff contention, winning big games and putting up stellar numbers.
But that's just for right now. What about the long-term future? Of the 28 first- or second-year quarterbacks currently rostered in the NFL, how many will be top-notch starters for years? How many can bring home a championship?
I've evaluated each of the quarterbacks in their first or second years who have logged enough minutes to provide an idea of their future potential, judging them according to 11 key traits for quarterbacks (see box to right). Then I ranked the top 13 quarterbacks according to their future capabilities, placing them in three tiers: A, B and C. To show how they stack up physically, I've included their measurements and 40-yard dash times.
These quarterbacks will all be starters for a long time and should take their teams to a Super Bowl or two in their careers. They all have the required physical dimensions (with one notable exception) and skills necessary to excel at the position.
1) Andrew Luck, rookie, Indianapolis Colts (6-foot-4, 235 pounds, 4.61-second 40-yard dash): Luck is very intelligent and has great poise; he can handle pressure. He's strong and tough. In Week 10, after Luck was picked off by Dawan Landry, he ran downfield to lay a big hit on the Jacksonville Jaguars defender. Many quarterbacks in that situation would try to avoid contact, but Luck sought it out. When guys see their quarterback doing stuff like that, it has an enormous impact. Luck is an outstanding decision-maker, thanks in large part to his great work ethic off the field.
2) Robert Griffin III, rookie, Washington Redskins (6-2 1/2, 223, 4.45): RG3 can beat you with his arm or his legs. His biggest challenge in the NFL will be staying healthy. An interesting note: When the Redskins visited the Dallas Cowboys over Thanksgiving, I talked to Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, who told me that after Griffin threw at his pro day, Snyder's biggest concern was that the Colts would change their mind and pick RG3 first overall in the draft rather than Luck.
3) Cam Newton, second year, Carolina Panthers (6-5, 248, 4.54): The highly competitive Newton has a passion for the game. He needs to be in a program with a strong coach, but he can take a team to the Super Bowl. Newton has outstanding arm strength but tends to throw the ball high. He did not have a lot of experience coming out of college, but did win big games for Auburn against Alabama and Oregon.
4) Russell Wilson, rookie, Seattle Seahawks (5-10 5/8, 205, 4.52): This guy's really something. The only difference between him and the three quarterbacks listed ahead of him is his height; he's the notable exception I mentioned in the "Group A" description. Wilson is an amazing player with great work habits. He is such a nice guy and works so hard, he's almost too good to be true. He's like a faster and more talented Doug Flutie.
These quarterbacks have many of the physical attributes and talents of the quarterbacks in Group A, but so far, they have not performed up to that same standard. They have the potential to take a team to the Super Bowl, but they must have talented playmakers around them.
5) Andy Dalton, second year, Cincinnati Bengals (6-2, 217, 4.8): Dalton doesn't have a great arm, but he's very smart and disciplined. He has a quick release, good accuracy and can make big plays when needed. He took the Bengals to the playoffs in 2011 with an average supporting cast, and has big-game experience, leading TCU to a victory against Wisconsin in the 2011 Rose Bowl.
6) Ryan Tannehill, rookie, Miami Dolphins (6-4, 225, 4.68): Tannehill has the size, arm strength, toughness and athletic ability to succeed, though he needs to adjust his release point so that it's higher. Tannehill did not have much college experience. He has the potential to move into Group A.
7) Colin Kaepernick, second year, San Francisco 49ers (6-4 5/8, 235, 4.51): The extremely competitive Kaepernick has a very strong arm; at the 2011 NFL Scouting Combine, he threw the ball 59 mph, getting the most velocity on the ball. He can make the big throws, but must learn to play under control. Against the St. Louis Rams last Sunday, Kaepernick had a 50-yard run, the longest scamper by a quarterback in franchise history, but he also made mistakes that probably cost the 49ers the game. He needs to get stronger.
These quarterbacks have the ability to start and make the playoffs, provided they're buoyed by a strong enough supporting cast.
8) Christian Ponder, second year, Minnesota Vikings (6-2, 230, 4.65): The smart, very athletic Ponder is a good leader. He just doesn't have the strongest arm in the world. He's at his best indoors. If you stuck him in Cleveland, for example, and had him play on the shores of Lake Erie eight times a year instead of inside in Minnesota, he'd have a tough go of things.
9) Brandon Weeden, rookie, Cleveland Browns (6-3 1/2, 225, 4.9): If you saw the rookie's performance against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 1 (12-for-35, 118 yards, zero touchdowns, four interceptions and two sacks), you would've thought there'd be no way he'd make it. But he's really improved. Weeden has led the Browns to wins in two of their past three games, and almost got them past the Dallas Cowboys in Week 11. He's an older player, but he's got a chance.
10) Jake Locker, second year, Tennessee Titans (6-2 1/2, 230, 4.55): Locker is a great athlete with excellent arm strength and outstanding physical ability who needs to work on reading defenses. He also must improve his accuracy.
11) Blaine Gabbert, second year, Jacksonville Jaguars (6-4 1/2, 235, 4.65): Gabbert put on a great show at his pro day, but he should have stayed at Missouri for his senior year rather than entering the 2011 NFL Draft. I was reluctant to rank him this high, but he does have ability. He just hasn't shown the competitiveness needed for the position.
12) Nick Foles, rookie, Philadelphia Eagles (6-5, 245, 5.15): Foles is not fast -- he's a pocket passer -- but he can dodge pass rushers. Foles has a live arm, and is playing well as the Eagles' starter right now after impressing in the preseason.
13) T.J. Yates, second year, Houston Texans (6-3 1/2, 220, 5.0): Yates is smart, and is at his best when playing in a West Coast offense. He does not have great arm strength.
TOO SOON TO TELL
We haven't seen enough of these signal-callers to be able to truly gauge their potential:
Greg McElroy, second year, New York Jets (6-2, 220, 4.85): McElroy was a winner in high school and college. The question is, can he do it in the NFL? He's pretty smart; usually, if a guy is smart enough, he can get it done.
Ryan Lindley, rookie, Arizona Cardinals (6-3 3/4, 230, 4.85): A four-year starter at San Diego State, Lindley has played in three games this season, two of which he started, and did not look very accurate. Kind of a heavy-footed guy, Lindley looks too inconsistent.
» I noticed two unsung heroes in Week 13. On the defensive side of the ball, Dallas Cowboys nose tackle Josh Brent forced a crucial fumble late in Sunday's win over the Philadelphia Eagles, knocking the football away from running back Bryce Brown. (Cowboys cornerback Morris Claiborne then scooped it up and ran it back for a touchdown.) On the offensive side, Washington Redskins receiver Josh Morgan came up big, catching a fumble by RG3 in the air and running it in for a score in Monday's victory over the New York Giants.
» In the history of the Heisman Trophy, only two players have finished in the top three three times: Doak Walker (SMU) and Herschel Walker (Georgia). Doak and Herschel each won once.
» Phone call of the week: Outgoing Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, soon to be the president of Purdue, called to get my thoughts on a few candidates for the school's vacant head-coaching position.