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Ben Roethlisberger to have best year among QBs from 2004 class

This September will mark the 10-year anniversary of an event that changed the course of NFL history: Ben Roethlisberger's first game with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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Big Ben came off the bench Sept. 9, 2004, against the Baltimore Ravens, throwing two touchdown passes and two picks in a loss -- and he never looked back, taking the reins of Pittsburgh's offense and compiling a 13-0 record en route to a playoff win and the Offensive Rookie of the Year award.

Roethlisberger wasn't even the most-hyped signal-caller in a draft class that also famously included Eli Manning and Philip Rivers. As these players approach their 11th seasons in the league, I thought I would look at the five quarterbacks drafted in 2004 who are still on NFL rosters today and rank them according to who I'd pick to lead an offense in 2014 -- a ranking that does not quite match up with what one might have expected 10 years ago.

1) Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers

Drafted 11th overall by the Pittsburgh Steelers

Though it might have been a bit obscured by the Steelers' disappointing season, Big Ben still produced in 2013, posting the second-highest totals in passing yards (4,261) and touchdown passes (28) of his career -- ninth- and seventh-best in the NFL, respectively. Yes, he was sacked 42 times, but a whopping 15 of those sacks came during Pittsburgh's 0-4 start, when the team was hampered by lackluster offensive line play.

Roethlisberger is 32 and has taken plenty of licks over the years -- he has 386 career sacks, 13th-most all-time among quarterbacks -- but I think he's in a great position to continue thriving. For one thing, he's so strong; tacklers bounce off of him like you wouldn't believe. He's got great size and excellent athletic ability, and he can still make all the throws. Furthermore, it looked like he was speeding up his reads and making quicker decisions toward the end of last season, his second working with offensive coordinator Todd Haley. And it looks like he's got a reliable ground game to lean on between the emergence of Le'Veon Bell and the addition of LeGarrette Blount.

In the 2004 NFL Draft, Roethlisberger was eclipsed by Manning and Rivers. Ten years later, he's made the most Super Bowl appearances (three) of the trio and has as many rings as Manning (two). He also carries what is easily the best career winning percentage of the group (.669 compared with .617 for Rivers and .563 for Manning). I think Big Ben has five more good seasons in him.

2) Eli Manning, New York Giants

Drafted first overall by the San Diego Chargers

It's impossible to discuss Manning without mentioning the two Lombardi Trophies he brought to New York, but it's almost equally impossible to overlook his struggles last season, when he had career highs in interceptions (a league-leading 27) and sacks (39) and near-lows in touchdown passes (18) and quarterback rating (69.4). He's topped the NFL in picks before -- in 2010 and the Super Bowl-winning campaign of 2007 -- but 2013 marked his first full campaign as the Giants' starter in which he had more interceptions than scoring tosses. It was also the first season in which he finished with a losing record.

I would by no means write Manning off just yet, however. He's still a very hard worker with excellent throwing mechanics and footwork, and he's still accurate, with a quick release. Plus, he should be healthier than he was last year after undergoing offseason ankle surgery. Ultimately, he's got so much pride that I'm sure he'll do everything possible -- like cutting down on bad throws -- to erase memories of last season. We should note that even with the issues that dogged Manning and the Giants in 2013, including a lesser supporting cast, the team still managed to pull out a 7-9 record after starting 0-6.

Ten years ago, Manning was the first quarterback off the board, heading to New York -- and famously swapping teams with Rivers -- in a draft-day trade between the Bolts and the Giants. Heading into the 2014 season, however, I'd slot him behind Roethlisberger, as Big Ben has a stronger arm and is a bit more athletic -- though it's ultimately a close call. I'm confident Manning will be a factor in 2014.

3) Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers

Drafted fourth overall by the New York Giants

Rivers looked like a player in decline in 2011 and 2012, compiling a 15-17 record and notching career-highs in interceptions (20 in 2011) and sacks (49 in 2012), but he turned the whole thing around in 2013, approaching personal bests in touchdown passes (32) and quarterback rating (105.5). He also gave up just 11 picks while helping San Diego make its first trip to the playoffs in four years and notch its first postseason win in five. In short, the 32-year-old was phenomenal.

The durable signal-caller (he's started all 16 games in each of the past eight seasons) is a vocal and competitive on-field leader with a remarkable feel for pressure; when guys come around the corner or approach his blind side, he reacts like he's got a camera back there, stepping up into the pocket and making his throw. That said, I think he's in for a bit of a regression in 2014. Last year, the Chargers focused on having him get the ball out a lot more quickly than he'd been doing under former coach Norv Turner, and while that worked to great effect, I think opposing defenses will be expecting that tactic this year. While I don't see Rivers returning to the doldrums of 2011 and 2012, I think he'll fall short of his 2013 success.

4) Matt Schaub, Oakland Raiders

Drafted 90th overall by the Atlanta Falcons


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Schaub's career trajectory has been decidedly more circuitous than that of Roethlisberger, Manning or Rivers. Traded to the Texans after serving as a backup in Atlanta for three years, Schaub put together a seven-season tenure in Houston that included two Pro Bowl nods and a playoff victory. Of course, it also culminated in his being shipped to Oakland following a disastrous 2-14 campaign in which he threw 14 picks against 10 touchdown passes and was displaced atop the depth chart after suffering an ankle injury.

I'm not sure exactly what happened with Schaub last season, but I do think he's going to come back to life with the Raiders in 2014. He has good pocket presence and leadership qualities, and he can really drill the ball on the slants. He's also got good size and a nice frame. Heading into last season, everybody had him as a top-10 quarterback; I think NFL teams probably think better of him than the fans or media do.

5) Luke McCown, New Orleans Saints

Drafted 106th overall by the Cleveland Browns

McCown, a veteran backup with the New Orleans Saints, hasn't seen meaningful game action since 2011. But his presence on this list does serve to illustrate, via the subsequent travails of the team that drafted him, the perils of passing up on major quarterback talent. Because while the Browns didn't have a shot at landing Manning or Rivers when they picked No. 6 overall in 2004, they did leave the top quarterback on our list -- Roethlisberger -- on the board, choosing instead to draft tight end Kellen Winslow and take a flier on McCown in the fourth round.

Since that draft, Cleveland has started 15 different quarterbacks -- including McCown, who went 0-4 as a rookie -- while posting just one winning season. Meanwhile, Roethlisberger -- who went to high school and college in Ohio, no less -- has, of course, kept the Steelers in the upper echelon of the NFL for most of his career.

As for Winslow, a leg injury interrupted his rookie season, and while he did reach the Pro Bowl with the Browns in 2007, he hasn't done much since, making largely fruitless stops with the Bucs, Patriots and Jets. Last season was marred by a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing substances, and in January, he was charged with possession of synthetic marijuana. The 30-year-old is currently without a team.

If the Browns had seen fit to invest in Roethlisberger in 2004, it's safe to say they wouldn't now be hoping Johnny Football can become their first consistent quarterback since Vinny Testaverde in the early 1990s.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.

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