There is little doubt that quarterback play ultimately determines which teams emerge as contenders in the NFL. Teams with top-notch quarterbacks typically remain in the hunt, while all others tend to fall by the wayside.
Given that premise, I thought I'd take a look at five intriguing quarterback battles taking place across the league, knowing that however they play out will significantly shape the season.
The background: New Buffalo Bills coach Doug Marrone shocked the NFL scouting community when he made Manuel the first quarterback picked in April's draft, but let's not forget that the former Florida State star is a gifted passer with the physical tools evaluators covet in a franchise quarterback. Most importantly, he is experienced with NFL-like verbiage, thanks to his time running a pro-style system under Jimbo Fisher in college. While Manuel certainly will experience his fair share of ups and downs if he starts as a rookie, getting him on the field could help accelerate the Bills' long-term development.
Kolb is heading into his seventh NFL season, but he is still a relatively inexperienced quarterback with just 21 career starts. Although he has flashed potential and promise as a starter, concerns about his durability, arm strength and pocket presence have led many to view him as a short-term option in this quarterback battle. Of course, Kolb could alter that perception with a strong performance in camp, but the veteran's track record suggests he's slated to spend time on the sidelines, either because of an injury or disappointing play.
And the winner will be: Based on his superior physical tools and lofty draft status, Manuel is the odds-on favorite to win this battle. Additionally, the recent success of rookie quarterbacks like Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson will encourage the Bills to put their young signal-caller on the field and begin the development process immediately in Buffalo.
The background: After arriving as the 10th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Gabbert has been labeled a colossal bust in Jacksonville. Critics have taken him to task for his questionable poise, awareness and confidence within the pocket. Additionally, skeptics have pointed to Gabbert's abysmal passer rating of 70.2 as evidence that he lacks the stuff to develop into a franchise quarterback. A closer look at the film, however, suggests that Gabbert made tremendous strides in his development a year ago, and that he remains a talented passer with the tools to eventually become an upper-echelon signal-caller. Of course, Monday's ankle injury, which obviously has the potential to seriously change the outlook for Gabbert, is worth monitoring.
Though Henne has been a solid performer throughout his career, he lacks the kind of sizzle that some coaches covet in starting quarterbacks. While he can make every conceivable throw in the playbook, he will also make a number of head-scratching decisions that result in critical turnovers. It's true that a lack of explosive playmakers on the perimeter limited Henne's productivity in Jacksonville last season. Still, the veteran turns the ball over too frequently for a quarterback with 37 career starts under his belt.
And the winner will be: The quarterback battle in Jacksonville is probably the truest competition in the NFL, given the new regime's lack of loyalty toward either participant. Therefore, performances in preseason games (and training camp practices) will ultimately determine the outcome. Because he is more talented and has a higher ceiling, Gabbert should be the choice in this one, provided he doesn't miss too much time with his ankle injury.
New York Jets
The background: Sanchez was viewed as the next "Broadway Joe" after leading the Jets to back-to-back AFC title games during his first two seasons in the NFL. Since then, that opinion has changed, to say the least, with New York missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons thanks largely to the 52 turnovers Sanchez coughed up in that span. Sanchez has shown an inability to make sound decisions under pressure, failing to display the kind of growth expected of a franchise quarterback entering his fifth pro season. Jets officials must wonder if he can ever become the kind of leader capable of guiding a championship-caliber team.
Smith, meanwhile, entered the NFL with skeptics questioning his overall talent and leadership skills. Those concerns sparked a surprising draft-day slide in April that allowed the Jets to grab Smith in the second round with the 39th overall pick. Reports have been mixed about Smith's performance in offseason workouts, but he certainly possesses arm talent similar to that of his competitor, and he might emerge as a better leader, despite perceptions about his quiet demeanor.
And the winner will be:Jets coach Rex Ryan must win in order to retain his job, which will make it tough for him to start a rookie. However, Ryan will be forced to go with Smith, thanks to the lack of confidence the team has in Sanchez. The veteran simply does not seem to have the moxie and work ethic of a true leader; it's hard for anyone to envision Sanchez orchestrating a dramatic turnaround in New York.
The background: Flynn entered camp as the anointed favorite, but as someone who failed to close out a similar quarterback competition against Russell Wilson with the Seattle Seahawks a year ago, he is certainly not a lock to retain his No. 1 standing in Oakland. Flynn's unimpressive physical dimensions/arm talent make him susceptible to another upset, though he does carry an edge in experience over his counterparts with the Raiders. Even that advantage, however, is slight, what with Flynn having just two career starts under his belt. While the five years' worth of practice repetitions Flynn has accumulated are beneficial, the speed, tempo and complexity of the game still will prove challenging at this stage of his career.
Wilson and Pryor might not be ready to assume the role of team leader, but each has more talent, better arm strength and greater potential than Flynn. Wilson has reportedly been the star of offseason workouts, but questions about his game persist after he faltered as a senior at Arkansas. Pryor, meanwhile, has shown flashes of talent and athleticism as a spot player, but the coaching staff doesn't appear to be on board when it comes to his long-term prospects.
And the winner will be: Based on his experience and leadership skills, Flynn will take the competition coming out of training camp, but Wilson or Pryor could nab the gig during the regular season. Pryor, in particular, is a guy to watch, considering the recent trend of dual-threat quarterbacks terrorizing the NFL.
The background: With his dynamic athleticism and strong arm, Vick appears to be the perfect fit for new coach Chip Kelly's fast-paced offense. As one of the most explosive dual-threat quarterbacks in NFL history, Vick has the speed and quickness to make things happen in the open field. However, he also has been a brittle player throughout his career (having played a full season just once) and has shown a propensity for committing turnovers the past two seasons. Additionally, he's been erratic with accuracy and ball placement, struggles that have kept the Eagles' offense from staying in rhythm in the passing game.
Foles, who lacks athleticism and running ability, doesn't appear to have a skill set that matches what Kelly desires in a signal-caller, but he is a strong pocket passer with outstanding arm talent. He showed promise in six starts as a rookie last season, completing 60.8 percent of his passes and notching six touchdowns against five interceptions. Most importantly, he appeared to spark an attack that struggled to score points under Vick's guidance. While a shift in offensive philosophy could render that a moot point, the fact that Foles enjoyed a moderate level of success as a first-year player makes him a serious contender.
Barkley is also in the mix as a candidate, based on the familiarity that Kelly, as a former Oregon coach, has with the USC product's game. That said, most observers view him as a down-the-road candidate for the position.
And the winner will be: Given his fit within the scheme, Vick should be the choice. He is capable of executing some of the zone-read tactics popularized by Kelly at Oregon, and he also possesses the skills to operate in a pro-style system that features vertical routes on the perimeter. While Foles definitely could make a run at the job with a strong performance in camp, I predict Vick's experience and athletic advantage will give him the first crack when the regular season commences.