Analysis  

 

Most Improved for 2013: Brandon Weeden heads quarterbacks

It happens every fall. A player bursts onto the scene, makes a big play or helps his team win a pivotal game, and the collective football world celebrates his arrival as a true difference maker in the NFL. Let's get ahead of the curve! In advance of the 2013 season, NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks identifies candidates for significant improvement, concentrating on quarterbacks below. Click here for other positions.

Most Improved Quarterback for 2013: Brandon Weeden

Weeden's backstory: The Cleveland Browns drafted Weeden with the 22nd selection in the 2012 NFL Draft, hoping to solve the team's long-term woes at quarterback. Entering the NFL at age 28 -- thanks to a five-year stint in professional baseball -- Weeden was expected to step in and immediately contribute, while adding much-needed leadership and guidance in the huddle. Additionally, the Oklahoma State product's big arm was supposed to add a vertical element to the Browns' aerial attack, resulting in more explosive plays and points.

In hindsight, former head coach Pat Shurmur's dink-and-dunk offense didn't play to Weeden's strengths as a deep-ball thrower. And the inexperience permeating Cleveland's receiving corps led to several miscues in key moments. Factor in the difficult transition from college to the pro game, and it's not surprising Weeden struggled to live up to lofty expectations as a rookie.

Why he will improve in 2013: New head coach Rob Chudzinski and new offensive coordinator Norv Turner will make Weeden a vastly improved player in his sophomore campaign. Each brings a distinguished track record of success developing young quarterbacks in a scheme originally derived from the Don Coryell/Ernie Zampese system.

Chudzinski, who served as the Carolina Panthers' offensive coordinator before returning to his former employer in Cleveland, helped Cam Newton become the first rookie to pass for 4,000 yards in 2011. In his first two NFL seasons, Newton guided an offense that ranked sixth in completions of 20-plus yards in both 2011 and 2012. However, Chudzinski's work with Newton pales in comparison to his masterful job of transforming Derek Anderson into a Pro Bowl quarterback as the Browns' offensive coordinator in 2007. Prominently targeting Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow in the vertical-based passing game, Anderson threw for 3,787 yards with 29 touchdown passes (and 19 interceptions), leading the Browns to their only 10-win season since 1994.

Turner has also developed an esteemed reputation as a quarterback guru, having worked with a bevy of notable signal-callers, including Troy Aikman and most recently Philip Rivers. Under Turner's guidance, Rivers became just the fifth quarterback in NFL history to pass for 4,500-plus yards in back-to-back seasons (2010 and '11). In addition, Turner has coached the NFL's leading rusher five times. A productive ground attack sets up a dangerous play-action passing game that typically results in several big plays on the perimeter.

Given Weeden's strengths as a deep-ball thrower, the marriage with a pair of vertical-pass proponents should yield big results for the Browns. Chudzinski and Turner will craft game plans that routinely feature deep shots off an assortment of play-action fakes designed to lure linebackers and safeties to the line, while exploiting single coverage on talented young receivers Josh Gordon and Greg Little. With Trent Richardson likely commanding eight-man fronts due to Cleveland's increased commitment to the running game, Weeden should be able to make more vertical throws like the one highlighted in the video just above.

Factor in the invaluable experience gained from Weeden's 15-game stint as a rookie starter -- he missed the season finale with a spained right shoulder -- and the second-year man will not only thrive in a system conducive to his talents, but he will silence the critics questioning his potential as a franchise quarterback.

Impact on the team: The Browns will be very competitive in the AFC North, with Weeden, Richardson and Gordon emerging as a formidable offensive trio. It will not be enough to make a playoff push, but a .500 season is a realistic possibility in 2013.

Projected 2013 stat line: 59.5 completion percentage, 3,950 passing yards, 28 touchdowns, 13 interceptions.

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Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins: The second-year pro came on like gangbusters for the Dolphins down the stretch in 2012, displaying an enticing combination of athleticism and arm talent. While his numbers didn't jump off the stat sheet, Tannehill's efficiency and decisiveness led to better play over the final six games. With a set of marquee free agents (Mike Wallace, Dustin Keller and Brandon Gibson) upgrading the offensive lineup, Tannehill could direct one of the NFL's most potent offenses in 2013.

Christian Ponder, Minnesota Vikings: Critics took Ponder to task a season ago for his inconsistent play, but a closer look at the All-22 footage reveals a player who performed much better than most believed. Ponder compiled an 81.2 passer rating, while completing 62.1 percent of his passes with an 18:12 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Most impressively, he posted those totals despite losing his top target (Percy Harvin) in the middle of the season. Given an experienced No. 1 receiver (prized free-agent acquisition Greg Jennings) and a dynamic playmaker to target on the perimeter (rookie Cordarrelle Patterson), Ponder should take another step forward in his development.

Jake Locker, Tennessee Titans: Locker is considered a bit of a disappointment following an inconsistent 2012 campaign, when he connected on just 56.4 percent of his throws and tossed more picks (11) than touchdowns (10) in 11 starts. Those numbers should improve dramatically with a new offensive scheme and an improved supporting cast, particularly along the offensive line. Mike Munchak's renewed commitment to the run will create bigger passing lanes downfield on play-action fakes, reducing Locker's accuracy woes and resulting in more explosive plays in the passing game.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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