Lions, Jets, Bucs pin chances on development of young QBs

US Presswire
From left to right: Class of 2009 QBs Mark Sanchez, Josh Freeman and Matt Stafford will forever be linked.

DETROIT -- Matthew Stafford is watching the quarterback class of 2009. And he knows you are, too.

Stafford will always be compared to Mark Sanchez and Josh Freeman, the quarterbacks taken behind him that spring. As the first overall pick, Stafford realizes expectations are high. He's cool with it. He gets it. And when it's all said and done, he still might end up being the best of this trio, even if he is already playing catch-up.

Stafford has already been dubbed "the injury-prone one," the kid who just can't find a way to stay on the football field. He has to learn to feel the pressure a bit better, become more adept at stepping up into the pocket to avoid crushing hits. He still has a lot to learn about his craft. And while he hasn't won a bunch of playoff games -- like Sanchez -- and he didn't post a historic touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2010 -- like Freeman -- Stafford was chosen first overall for a reason, and he does have all of the requisite talent and leadership ability to become a franchise quarterback.

NFL Quarterback Class of 2009

All three of these young QBs -- who I had a chance to observe while traveling to training camps and preseason games this week -- still have abundant time on their side. They enter Year 3 at varying stages of their development, and have yet to shape exactly who they will become, or define how they will ultimately be judged.

"Oh yeah, I definitely watch those guys," Stafford said after a feisty Wednesday practice at the Lions' Allen Park training facility. "I watch to see how they are doing. I think all three of us are in different situations, and our teams have been in different situations the last few years. But I like to keep an eye on how they are doing. That's always fun."

Health is Stafford's biggest hurdle

Despite missing much of the last two seasons due to injuries, including a shoulder injury that robbed him of almost all of 2010, Stafford is bearing the weight of expectations as well. He hasn't led his club to a winning record like Sanchez and Freeman have, but the Lions won their final four games last season, and there is a palpable playoff buzz in Detroit. Fans are hopeful this will be the year the long-suffering franchise turns it around in the standings.

But can Stafford stay healthy? If he does, this offense has the ability to strike early and often. This could be a special group, with Nate Burleson complementing Calvin Johnson at receiver and Brandon Pettigrew forming a unique tight-end tandem with Tony Scheffler, and speedy back Jahvid Best becoming perhaps more of a factor in his second season.

"One of the great things about this offense is we know we have the ability to hurt people in a lot of different ways," Stafford said. "We've got a lot of talent here and we know we need to score more points and make big plays. That's the kind of offense we want to be."

While capable backups Shaun Hill and Drew Stanton have received more work than the Lions would have expected the past two years, this unit can't come close to maximizing its diversity without Stafford at the helm. His big arm and accuracy could make him truly elite; he has the ability to stretch the field and thread things in a way many others simply cannot. He has that moxie you want from your leader -- as anyone who has seen the NFL Films footage (see video, right) of him staying in a game, and ultimately winning it, despite a dislocated shoulder his rookie year, can attest. He's confident in his ability both on the field and as a leader.

Having missed so much time, you might wonder if it's a little awkward returning after weeks away to a huddle that he frankly hasn't spent all that much time in. But other players say Stafford commands the huddle like a veteran, and there is no doubt that if this team is to reach its potential, it is because Stafford is taking this offense there.

"I'm very comfortable in this offense, and whenever I've come back to the huddle we pick right up where we left off," Stafford said.

The lockout also allowed him months to focus purely on his own recovery. There were no OTAs and meetings to attend. His shoulder is all that mattered, getting it back as strong and pain-free as ever. If the Lions find a way to keep it that way through 16 games, then just maybe their season will continue into the playoffs.

"I feel as good as I've felt in a long time," Stafford said. "I don't even think about my shoulder anymore. It's in great shape."

Consistency, accuracy key for Sanchez

Thus far, Sanchez is the only one of this bunch to experience the rush of the postseason. But he's also had the best cast around him, and he's been the most erratic of this trio as well. For Sanchez, 2011 is all about consistency and trying to find a way to sustain some of his post-season brilliance for longer stretches in the regular season.

Statistically, he leaves something to be desired in terms of accuracy. With Braylon Edwards gone, the Jets are going to have to devise new ways to maintain a vertical component as well if they are to truly evolve from Rex Ryan's "Ground and Pound" offense. Sometimes we forget Sanchez's limited college sample size as well, and for all of his polish off the field, he can still be quite raw on it.

Sanchez has completed just 54 percent of his passes through 31 starts, with 29 touchdowns and 33 interceptions. Over the past two seasons, much-maligned Chad Henne actually is superior to Sanchez in the regular season, completing 61 percent of his passes, a similar TD/INT ratio (27-33) and a better QB rating than Sanchez (Henne's is 75.3 while Sanchez posted 70.2).

Some old bugaboos reappeared during the first-string offense's debut Monday night in Houston. Things bogged down in the red zone, an area of particular focus for these Jets. "That's something we need to still address, clearly," Sanchez said after that game. He found new receiver Derrick Mason a few times out of the slot -- expect to see plenty of that this season, with Mason likely emerging as a security blanket for Sanchez as he did for another young QB, Joe Flacco.

What's already become immensely clear is what a great fit Sanchez is for his team. That brash and bold Rex Ryan Jets are just fine with Sanchez. All of the intense pressure and attention that comes with being the debonair, bachelor quarterback in New York, Sanchez is cool with that.

The Super Bowl predictions from Ryan? No problem. "We want to win our division first and take it from there," Sanchez said. Dealing with a rabid and intense and multi-lingual media corps? No big deal. Sanchez adroitly handled some questions in Spanish on Monday night and does some of his best work dancing with the microphones, coolly diffusing the mini-controversy from his just-released GQ article in which he talked about wanting to fight Ryan after the coach flirted with the idea of benching the young quarterback. Sanchez quickly conceded his weight disadvantage to his hefty coach and made light of the ease with which Rex could dispense of him in the ring.

"Rex and I talked about it before the game.... It's all good," Sanchez said.

Crisis averted. But the cruel reality for Sanchez is that anything less than a Super Bowl appearance for Sanchez and his Jets will be deemed a disappointment.

Freeman eyes next step

For Freeman, reaching the postseason, following last year's remarkable ascent to a 10-6 record, is the goal. He is the fulcrum in Tampa Bay's rebuild, the centerpiece to what coach Raheem Morris calls "our youngry group." Morris was the driving force behind the Bucs taking Freeman in the first round, having intimate knowledge of him from Freeman's time in college and already knowing exactly what kind of human being the young man was.

Freeman simply has everything you could look for in a franchise quarterback. He's built like a linebacker and can run like a running back and elude defenders like a nimble wide receiver. He has a joy for the game and is the perfect ambassador for the Bucs in the community. His entire life is devoted to football and the Bucs are not shy about making it clear that, quite simply, Freeman is the franchise.

"We all get that it has to be all about the quarterback," offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. "Everyone here understands that. Raheem says it all the time, 'It's all about No. 5.' It's not meant to put undue pressure on a young quarterback, but he knew he could handle it and Josh has everything you could look for from a quarterback."

Frankly, not enough has been made of what Freeman accomplished in his first full season as a starter. It was historic. He finished 6th in the NFL with a 95.9 rating, with a startling 25-6 TD/INT ratio (ninth-best all-time for any QB with at least 20 TD passes. He had a five-touchdown game against Seattle (with no picks). Seven of his 13 career wins have been fourth-quarter or overtime comeback wins.

Some ask about how good Freeman can be; the reality is he already was great last season. If he can come close to duplicating this on a yearly basis, you're talking about a top five quarterback to say nothing of his ridiculous physical gifts running the ball and just making plays. General Manager Mark Dominik doesn't think 30-plus touchdowns are out of the question and is hopeful the Bucs can score more points in 2011.

Tampa loved Freeman from the start, but wanted to take its time with him as a rookie. After an 0-6 start to 2009, however, "we knew it was time to make the change," Dominik said. Freeman showed some tremendous flashes as a rookie, but the Bucs truly became his team following the 2009 season. Freeman essentially became like another coach, rarely leaving the practice facility for weeks on end. "He lived in our building almost," Dominik said.

The Bucs were transitioning on offense that offseason as well; Olson took over as offensive coordinator just before the 2009 season and couldn't really put his take on the West Coast offense in motion until the lead up to the 2010 season. Freeman was his prize pupil.

"He's all football," Olson said. "There are no distractions for him. No girlfriend. No wife. He's a real football junkie."

Freeman took the reigns again during the lockout, organizing some of the best-attended player-only workouts in the NFL. Prior to the lockout, the coaching staff made preparations, giving Freeman certain plays and scripts to reinforce during his work with his teammates.

"There were certain things we just wanted to make sure the guys heard and went through," Olson said. "Certain shifts, certain motions, certain moves, certain things it was just good for the guys to hear."

The Bucs know what they have. Freeman could be a once-a-generation type player. But that also realize that one season, does not a career make.

"We understand that some people might think it's premature to talk about him the way a lot of us do sometimes, because he hasn't done it for multiple seasons," Olson said. "But we see the way he approaches the game and the way he conducts himself and we can't see him not developing into a franchise player.

"He is so grounded and he totally respects the quarterback position. He wants to be the best, and it's not just talk."

Being the best of this quarterback class would be an accomplishment in and of itself. We'll all be watching, and talking about, this trio for years to come.

Follow Jason La Canfora on Twitter @JasonLaCanfora



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