Analysis  

 

Andrew Luck, Cam Newton among potentially elite quarterbacks

Whenever the "elite quarterback" discussion crops up in NFL circles, the same four names top the marquee. Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees represent the Mount Rushmore of quarterbacking in today's game, based on remarkable individual and team success over the years.

And I'm not here to announce a changing of the guard; this quartet will reign supreme until further notice. But I thought it would be fun to look at the signal-callers who could eventually claim top-shelf status. What do these particular players need to improve upon to join the ranks of the truly elite?

To be clear, I believe an "elite" quarterback is one who exhibits exceptional physical traits (arm talent, accuracy, athleticism, etc.), as well as the intangibles (intelligence, composure, clutch factor, etc.) needed to thrive on the biggest and brightest stages. Plus, an elite quarterback wins at a high level, enabling his team to consistently contend for a title.

For the purposes of this discussion, I decided to focus on the "20-somethings" at the position, so veteran quarterbacks like Eli Manning, Jay Cutler, Tony Romo and Ben Roethlisberger aren't included. Neither are the youngsters who have yet to make the playoffs (sorry, Sam Bradford and Ryan Tannehill) -- as I stated just above, winning matters.

With that in mind, here's my look at 10 rising signal-callers and what they must do to get beyond the velvet rope of the elite quarterback club:

Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts

Plenty of NFL scouts and coaches believe Luck is on the verge of truly joining the ranks of the elite, considering he joined a 2-14 team and immediately produced back-to-back playoff campaigns. The 2012 NFL Draft's No. 1 overall pick has been a spectacular playmaker in his first two professional seasons, orchestrating 11 game-winning drives and eight fourth-quarter comebacks -- including this past January's unbelievable wild-card win over the Kansas City Chiefs. Most impressively, Luck capably replaced a living legend in Indianapolis and re-established the Colts as a viable contender in the AFC.

What's the next step?

Luck has already accomplished a lot in his brief career, with several rookie passing records and a pair of Pro Bowl berths under his belt. But the third-year pro has to take his game to another level to affirm his status as an elite quarterback. Luck must continue to reduce his turnovers -- while he sliced his regular-season interception total in half last season (from 18 in 2012 to nine in '13), he tossed seven picks in two playoff games -- and he must improve his overall efficiency from the pocket. If the 24-year-old can push his completion percentage to the mid-60's and compile a quarterback rating north of 100 while continuing to drive the Colts into the postseason, he will merit serious consideration as the premier quarterback of the new generation.

Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks

With a Super Bowl ring and a 24-8 regular-season record to his name, Wilson has gone from third-round afterthought to franchise pillar in two years' time. Although some view Wilson as a "game manager," thanks to the Seahawks' run-first mentality, the fact that he sports a career QB rating of 100.6 suggests that he is an efficient passer capable of making plays with his arm when called upon. Considering that Wilson has also directed 10 game-winning drives and eight fourth-quarter comebacks, he should receive more credit for his ability to come through in the clutch.

What's the next step?

Wilson must show observers that he is capable of carrying the Seahawks' offense. Although he has directed the attack in superb fashion, the Seahawks are a ground-based squad that largely revolves around bruising running back Marshawn Lynch. Thus, Wilson needs to step out of the shadow of "Beast Mode" and guide the 'Hawks to victory while compiling big numbers as a passer. He has just three 300-yard passing performances in 37 career games (playoffs included), and his skeptics likely wonder whether Wilson can get it done in a big spot were an opponent to shut down the Seahawks' powerful rush offense.

Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers

After leading the 49ers to a Super Bowl appearance and another berth in the NFC Championship Game with his unique playing style, Kaepernick has been hailed as the future of the position by some observers. The fourth-year pro has compiled a 31:11 touchdown-to-interception ratio and rushed for 937 yards (at 6 yards a pop) as a dual-threat playmaker in the 49ers' run-heavy scheme. Since taking over as a starter midway through the 2012 campaign, Kaepernick has led the team to a 21-8 record, including a 4-2 mark in the postseason.

What's the next step?

For all the credit Kaepernick receives for adding a different dimension to the 49ers' offense, he needs to show the naysayers that he can consistently pick apart defenses as a disciplined pocket passer. Whereas Kaepernick is comfortable working through his primary and secondary reads before fleeing the pocket as a runner, elite quarterbacks fully work through their progressions before turning to their athleticism. Kaepernick must prove that he can play as a "connect the dots" passer capable of utilizing all of the options in the route concept to pick apart defenses intent on making him win with his arm. The Niners have three No. 1-quality receivers on the roster (Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree and Stevie Johnson) and a dynamic asset at tight end (Vernon Davis) -- meaning Kap has more than enough weapons to thrive as a thrower.

Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers

The two-time Pro Bowler has grown immensely as a quarterback over the past three seasons under Panthers coach Ron Rivera. Newton claimed the 2011 Offensive Rookie of the Year award as a dynamic run/pass threat, but he has quietly become an efficient pocket passer capable of beating top defenses with his arm. Despite lacking a premier receiver on the perimeter, Newton guided the Panthers to an NFC South crown last fall with his adept play in the pocket (24:13 touchdown-to-interception ratio; 88.8 QB rating).

What's the next step?

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The departures of receiver Steve Smith (release) and tackle Jordan Gross (retirement) leave the Panthers with a leadership void on offense. Thus, Newton must establish himself as an unquestioned leader by exhibiting composure and confidence under pressure. After accumulating just two game-winning drives in his first two NFL seasons, Newton racked up four in 2013. He must continue to show that he is capable of putting the team on his back when the game is on the line. Without a proven star in the receiving corps, Newton's quarterbacking prowess certainly will be put to the test in 2014. If he can carry the Panthers back to the postseason, the former No. 1 overall pick will be taking a big step toward the elite class.

Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions

Talent trumps everything in the evaluation process, so it's not a surprise that Stafford remains in this discussion despite his unsightly record as a starter (24-37). The sixth-year pro has teased evaluators with his spectacular arm talent and wowed observers with impressive statistical production as the director of the Lions' high-powered offense. Although the Lions' failure to emerge as a perennial playoff contender can be partially blamed on Stafford's turnover woes (73 interceptions in 61 career starts), the tantalizing talent has directed 12 game-winning drives and flashed the ability to make critical plays when the game is on the line.

What's the next step?

If winning at a high level is the standard for elite NFL quarterbacks, Stafford must get Detroit back on track this fall. He must show better judgment within the pocket and take the conservative route when necessary. In addition, Stafford has to display the leadership skills evaluators associate with elite players at the position. If the Lions return to the playoffs this season, the No. 1 overall pick from 2009 won't just be known as a fantasy stat-stuffer.

Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens

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When a young quarterback wins a ring -- and claims Super Bowl MVP honors in the process -- he immediately joins the conversation as an elite quarterback candidate. Thus, Flacco deserves consideration, based on his ability to guide the Ravens to a championship with stellar play in the pocket (see: 11 touchdowns against zero interceptions in the 2012 postseason). With a strong career resume that includes a 62-34 regular-season record and five playoff berths in six seasons, it is hard to dispute Flacco's effectiveness as the Ravens' starter.

What's the next step?

Some would argue that Flacco already deserves a seat at the table based on the Ravens' success, but skeptics point out that the team's defense and a punishing running game -- headlined by Ray Rice -- have carried Baltimore through much of his tenure. The quarterback needs to show the football world that he can routinely put the Ravens on his back when it matters. Sure, Flacco has amassed 19 game-winning drives and orchestrated 12 fourth-quarter comebacks, but he has been maddeningly inconsistent as a passer, and some question his judgment under duress. In a new offense directed by coordinator Gary Kubiak, Flacco can silence the doubters by playing at an efficient level that pushes his completion percentage into the mid-60's and puts his touchdown-to-interception ratio closer to a 3:1 rate.

Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons

With a nickname like "Matty Ice" and a consistent track record for delivering when the game is on the line (24 game-winning drives, 17 fourth-quarter comebacks), it's hard to exclude Ryan from this discussion. In six years as the Falcons' starter, he boasts a 60-34 regular-season record and four playoff berths. Ryan is remarkably efficient as a playmaker and exudes all of the qualities (intelligence, leadership, competitiveness, perseverance and clutch factor) that evaluators covet in franchise quarterbacks.

What's the next step?

Ryan must get the Falcons back on track in the NFC South after a highly disappointing 4-12 season. While critics suggest Ryan is playing with a supremely talented supporting cast that makes his job easy (Tony Gonzalez is retired, but Ryan still has one of the best receiving duos in the game going forward), it is hard to dispute his production and efficiency. Given how quickly a Super Bowl can change public perception, a Lombardi Trophy could gain Ryan access to the elite club.

Nick Foles, Philadelphia Eagles

If the numbers never lie, Foles just tossed his name out for elite consideration. After taking the reins from the injured Michael Vick last October, Foles enjoyed a remarkable breakout season, posting a 119.2 quarterback rating (the third-best mark ever) and a sparkling 27:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Not to mention, the Eagles finished second in total offense. Of course, skeptics believe Foles' striking success is a byproduct of coach Chip Kelly's brilliantly conceived scheme.

What's the next step?

Foles has to show observers that he can consistently perform at a high level, year in and year out. While no one expects him to match his ridiculous production from 2013, the Pro Bowler must prove he isn't a one-year wonder by adroitly handling the defensive adjustments he will face in 2014, with opponents having spent the offseason picking apart the Eagles' scheme. If Foles can continue to produce against defenses intent on taking away LeSean McCoy and using more bump-and-run tactics with DeSean Jackson out of the lineup, the young Eagles star will erase all suggestions that he's a flash in the pan.

Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins

It's easy to dismiss Griffin as a viable candidate following his disastrous sophomore campaign, but then you'd be ignoring the spectacular playmaking ability he displayed while guiding the Redskins to an NFC East title as a rookie. The 2012 Offensive Rookie of the Year terrorized opponents that season with his explosive run-pass skills, producing in an extraordinarily efficient manner (102.4 QB rating, 20:5 TD-to-INT ratio, 815 rushing yards). Although a torn ACL ended his debut season and contributed greatly to his regression last year, RGIII was so dynamic in 2012 that he remains a candidate to eventually attain elite status.

What's the next step?

After essentially being benched for the final three games of last season, Griffin has to respond with a strong showing in 2014, proving that he has regained his confidence and swagger as an electric presence in the backfield. Thus, he needs to show the athleticism and speed to do damage with his legs while also displaying the patience and poise to efficiently pick apart defenses from the pocket. That latter point is especially crucial under new coach Jay Gruden, who has expressed that Griffin's designed runs will be "few and far between." Although RGIII has showcased the ability to make plays in the passing game off play-action, he has to show his critics that he can make progression reads in traditional concepts that require him to work through multiple options to find the open receiver. The wins could pile up in Washington if Griffin maximizes the 'Skins offensive talent; this would allow RGIII to re-emerge as one of the faces of the future at the position.

Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals

Dalton's inclusion in the elite quarterback discussion would raise eyebrows in some NFL meeting rooms, based on his overall talent, but it's impossible to ignore the fact that he has guided the Bengals to three straight playoff berths despite working with a young supporting cast on the perimeter. While most observers would point out that said supporting cast is also exceptionally talented -- especially when it comes to A.J. Green -- you have to give Dalton credit. He has improved each season (annually raising his TD total and QB rating) and won enough games (30-18 regular-season record) to warrant consideration as a possible blue-chipper under center. The Bengals must have noticed the strides Dalton has made early in his career, as they just handed him a lucrative contract extension.

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What's the next step?

Dalton is widely viewed as the quintessential game manager based on his talent and playing style, but he can shed that label by delivering better performances in key games -- particularly in the playoffs, where his 0-3 record stands as a glaring blemish. Elite quarterbacks raise their level of play in big spots, so it's imperative for him to turn it up a notch when the Bengals are facing top competition. Now, that doesn't mean he has to put up ridiculous numbers, but he must make a handful of plays in the right moments. From connecting with Green on deep throws to hitting Tyler Eifert, Jermaine Gresham and Marvin Jones over the middle, Dalton has to be an efficient performer in the passing game to get the Bengals over the hump. With new coordinator Hue Jackson revving up the offensive pace and adding some wrinkles to help out his young quarterback, this could be the year Dalton truly breaks through.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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