Ranking contenders by QB dependence 

August, 23, 2014
Aug 23
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Tarvaris JacksonJoe Nicholson/USA TODAY SportsIf Russell Wilson can't play, the Seahawks remain confident with Tarvaris Jackson at quarterback.
The days when the San Francisco 49ers could switch quarterbacks at midseason and still reach the Super Bowl feel increasingly distant with each Blaine Gabbert misfire during the 2014 preseason. Gabbert averaged 2.4 yards per attempt on 25 passes through two preseason games, making the stat line for fellow backup Josh Johnson appear dynamic by comparison.

Gabbert's struggles, compounded by dropped passes, provide an opportunity to size up where the 49ers fit among other contending teams in perceived ability to win without their starter. Conversations with two NFL general managers, one coordinator and a position coach produced a range of opinions. I've drawn from those conversations in putting together a 1-10 ranking for the teams Las Vegas has assigned the best odds for winning the Super Bowl this season.


1. Seattle Seahawks (6-1 Super Bowl odds)
Starter: Russell Wilson
Backups: Tarvaris Jackson, Terrelle Pryor

Teams can win while minimizing the QB position if they play great defense and/or run the ball effectively. The Seahawks can do both as well as any team. Jackson grew up in the offensive system while playing under current Seattle coordinator Darrell Bevell in Minnesota. He went 7-7 as the Seahawks' starter in 2011, when the team had less of a supporting cast.

"Seattle has a great supporting cast with playmakers on both sides of the ball," one GM said.
Russell WilsonAP Photo/Elaine ThompsonRussell Wilson led the Seahawks to a Super Bowl title in 2013 ... and is making just $750,000 in 2014.
RENTON, Wash. -- Swank homes in the distance along Lake Washington's shoreline provided a fitting backdrop for Seattle Seahawks general manager John Schneider during lunch in the team's cafeteria Sunday. The football picture has never been prettier in Seattle, but as with those waterfront dream homes, the Seahawks will require maintenance. A hefty bill coming due raises questions about sustainability for the defending Super Bowl champs, and they know it.

"The challenge when you do pay your quarterback, it definitely changes," Schneider said.

Quarterback Russell Wilson is earning $750,000 per year on the rookie contract he signed as a third-round draft choice in 2012. That is about 3.8 percent of the $20 million annual average he might command once he becomes eligible for a new deal after the 2014 season.

The current bargain price tag for Wilson has helped the Seahawks supplement their roster with luxury buys central to their success. What happens when that dynamic changes? Will the team ultimately need more from Wilson, and can he deliver? I posed those questions to Schneider and others in the organization in search of a blueprint for keeping open Seattle's championship window.

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Matthew StaffordGeorge Gojkovich/Getty ImagesCan Matthew Stafford become a Tier 1 QB? The evaluators we polled are split on the answer.
Twenty-six NFL coaches and personnel evaluators almost unanimously placed Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees in the top tier of starting quarterbacks for our recently published QB Tiers project. Most thought Andrew Luck was in the process of joining them (he cracked Tier 1 as the No. 5 QB in the rankings), and that veterans Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger weren't far behind.

Another question lingered. What about some of the other potential Tier 1 candidates? Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, Matthew Stafford and Cam Newton are four ascending young players who generated enough discussion during the QB Tiers project to address in some detail here. What would they have to do to reach Tier 1 status? Coaches and personnel people weren't short on opinions.


Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions
What he has already: All the physical ability required, and then some.
Biggest question areas: Mechanics and decision-making mindset.

Stafford was the player mentioned first most regularly when I asked coaches and personnel people which QB outside the top tier was best equipped to reach that top status. But one GM said he thought Calvin Johnson, not Stafford, was the biggest difference-maker for the Lions.

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Quarterback Andrew Luck Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesThough he's not a finished product, Andrew Luck already possesses some elite attributes.
In late 2012, when Russell Wilson was emerging as a candidate for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, I put together a chart comparing him to Andrew Luck in games against seven common opponents. Wilson had fared better by wide margins in key statistical categories. Wilson had a 16-1 ratio of touchdown passes to interceptions, compared to 13-12 for Luck. Wilson averaged an additional yard per pass attempt, had a higher passer rating (115.6 to 74.9) and was better in Total QBR as well.

But if you had spoken with NFL coaches and personnel people throughout the league at that time, I feel confident saying zero of them would have traded Luck for Wilson. When I recently asked 26 coaches and personnel people to grade all 32 starting quarterbacks on a 1-5 scale for my QB Tiers project, Luck was the only QB to join Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees in the first tier.

This love for Luck has baffled many of the NFL fans I interact with on various social platforms. They see Luck's obvious talent, but they see comparable production from other QBs. They've also seen Luck suffer eight interceptions in three playoff games. They have a hard time understanding how NFL insiders could consider Luck to be a top-five quarterback at this early stage.

Why so much love for Luck? Let's take a look.

What's not to like?

With Luck, there's really nothing personnel evaluators or coaches would want to change about him -- physically, mentally or in terms of his demeanor. That separates Luck from every other QB in the league.

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LuckAP Photo/Matt SlocumAmong NFL experts, opinions differ on whether is Andrew Luck a top-tier quarterback.
A clash between a coach and a general manager can tear apart a franchise: It happened in San Diego with Marty Schottenheimer and A.J. Smith; in Dallas with Jimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones; and in St. Louis with Mike Martz and Rams executives.

Still, even when the marriage between coach and GM endures, tension tends to develop. Coaches work in the moment, while front offices make decisions with the future in mind. Disputes, naturally, ensue.

The differences in outlook between coaches and personnel evaluators being well-established, I was eager to see how the two groups split on the subject of signal-calling. For my QB tier rankings project, I asked 15 personnel people (eight general managers, two former GMs, four pro personnel evaluators and a top executive) and 11 coaches (seven coordinators, two head coaches and two position groups) to grade all 32 projected starting quarterbacks on a 1-5 scale.

As it turns out, opinions on each side of the divide were mostly similar. However, six big-name quarterbacks created a split in consensus.

The evaluations of Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, Eli Manning, Colin Kaepernick, Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford shed light not only on the quarterbacks themselves, but also on those who graded them.

Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts

Coaches and personnel people almost unanimously placed Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers in the top tier. A much higher percentage of personnel people, though, thought Luck also belonged in that exclusive club, albeit a few lengths behind those more established stars.

Ten of the 15 personnel people placed Luck in Tier 1, a designation that only four coaches agreed with. Still, all 11 coaches thought Luck would eventually be good enough for inclusion in the top group. They just didn't think he was there yet.

Coaches and personnel people did not exactly clash over Luck. Rather -– and not surprisingly -- the GM types seemed to have a greater appreciation for how weak Luck’s teammates have been and how much weight he has carried. Most couldn't resist placing him in the top tier, ahead of Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers, who led the second tier in voting.

"With so many of these quarterbacks, everything around them has to be right," one GM said. "You knew Luck was a slam dunk. There are very few of those. Even with a Drew Brees, had Miami not flunked him on a physical way back, he probably goes to the Dolphins with Nick [Saban] and they don't play the same way the Saints have played. It's not the same. Luck, he could go anywhere, no doubt. I think he is phenomenal."

Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers


Eleven of 15 personnel evaluators placed Newton in Tier 2, while nine of the 11 coaches gave Newton a Tier 3 grade. A quarterbacks coach even placed him down in the Tier 4, noting that the Panthers have been relying on their ground game and defense to win games.

"He has all the tools and he is a big dude, too,” one defensive coordinator remarked. “Can you give him a 2½? I think if he has the same year he had last year, he elevates to a [Tier] 2. I give him a 3 right now."

Luck, like Newton, is an athletic marvel. Their rare physical attributes make them especially appealing to personnel types. Coaches appreciate those things as well, but are more likely to value a finished product. Luck accumulated a vast amount of experience in a pro-style offense at Stanford, while Newton was relatively raw coming out of Auburn.

Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers


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10 players generating buzz at OTAs 

June, 23, 2014
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Marquees WilsonAP Photo/Nam Y. HuhMarquess Wilson could emerge as the Bears' No. 3 wide receiver this season.
Brick buildings and dense woods frame the Baltimore Ravens’ practice fields, providing a setting that is tough to beat anywhere in the NFL. The soundtrack tends to be less idyllic, but that's not a knock. Chatter from veteran defender Terrell Suggs serves as an entertaining soundtrack when a speaker system isn't sampling coach John Harbaugh’s music playlist to simulate crowd noise (if opposing stadiums play Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, this Ravens team isn't likely to be fazed).

As the Ravens’ minicamp was winding down late last week, my eyes kept returning to a 6-foot-7, 298-pound figure with surfer’s blond hair and a sleeveless jersey revealing biceps worthy of the additional exposure. Brent Urban, a fourth-round pick from Virginia, has caught coaches’ attention. He has little pedigree but is making sufficient impact this offseason to raise initial hopes and expectations for the season.

There are plenty of similarly intriguing candidates around the league. A few come to mind after visiting the Ravens, Houston Texans, Kansas City Chiefs, Tennessee Titans, Seattle Seahawks, Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins over the past few weeks. I’ve put together a list featuring Urban and nine others who are generating buzz based on their OTA performances, including another potential find in the Seattle secondary, a tight end in Green Bay and wide receivers galore.

Brent Urban, DE, Baltimore Ravens: There are a few candidates in Baltimore, including defensive lineman Kapron Lewis-Moore, a 2013 sixth-rounder coming off ACL surgery, and Ricky Wagner, who could wind up starting at right tackle after playing mostly as a sixth blocker last season.

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Alex SmithJed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesAlex Smith is in line for a new contract. Will it be as lucrative as Jay Cutler's?
The Kansas City Chiefs could not beat Andrew Luck in the playoffs last season. They will have to overcome another strong-armed quarterback, Jay Cutler, to succeed in contract negotiations with their own starter, Alex Smith.

That is because the deal Cutler signed with the Chicago Bears in January set some financial guideposts on a course the Chiefs presumably do not want to follow too closely.

On the surface, this should be a straightforward negotiation for Kansas City. The Chiefs are credible when they say they value Smith. They traded two second-round choices to acquire him after all. Nothing I heard from coach Andy Reid or anyone else during a recent visit to Chiefs headquarters suggested the team was wavering.

Smith, having learned early in his career that money does not ensure professional happiness, is not the type to make unreasonable demands. Re-signing Smith was never particularly problematic during his career with the San Francisco 49ers -- not in 2011, when all parties initially figured a fresh start was in their best interests, and not in 2012, after the team investigated Peyton Manning's availability.

But the Cutler deal presents challenges for the Chiefs as they potentially pursue a contract extension with Smith.

Smith’s likely asking price

Smith and Cutler both have first-round draft pedigrees. Both know what it’s like to bounce from one offensive scheme to another with supporting casts of varying quality. Smith is 30. Cutler is 31. Both learned new systems under offensive-minded head coaches in 2013. If you look at their conventional stats over the past three seasons, Smith can make a case that he is worth Cutler money:

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The loaded 2015 free-agent WR class 

June, 13, 2014
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Dez BryantAP Photo/Kevin TerrellDez Bryant is looking at a profitable future, as he tops a deep WR group of would-be free agents.
Quarterbacks drive the car in the NFL, but they need help. Supply them with insufficient horsepower and even the good ones will bog down to some degree.

We saw it last season when Eli Manning's offensive line fell apart. We saw it when Tom Brady seemingly at once lost all his key weaponry, and when Colin Kaepernick lost both Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree for stretches. Matt Ryan certainly missed Julio Jones. Even the eventual Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks hit some rough patches offensively when quarterback Russell Wilson lost both projected starting receivers, Percy Harvin and Sidney Rice.

A look ahead shows 10 notable wide receivers under age 35 entering contract seasons: Dez Bryant, Randall Cobb, Crabtree, Jordy Nelson, Hakeem Nicks, Cecil Shorts, Torrey Smith, Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Roddy White. Their teams must decide over the next nine months how much value each holds. Right now, Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Harvin, Mike Wallace, Dwayne Bowe and Vincent Jackson are the only NFL wide receivers earning more than $11 million per season, but they figure to have company within the next year, as these other 10 "name" receivers enter the final year of their contracts.

With the help of two NFL GMs, an offensive assistant and a defensive coordinator, I ranked them in order of their likelihood to cash in on big deals next offseason, led by a player considered a "must" to re-sign by one of our sources.

Bryant

Bryant

1. Dez Bryant, Dallas Cowboys
Bryant lined up on the perimeter for 89.1 percent of his routes last season, the highest percentage for any player on this list. Versatility is great and teams certainly feature players from the slot, but being labeled as a "slot guy" isn't the best thing for a player's value in evaluators' eyes. "It's such a difference when you have outside guys that can stretch the field," a veteran assistant coach said.


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Andy DaltonStephen Dunn/Getty ImagesThe decision whether to re-sign Andy Dalton will be a complicated one for the Bengals.
This is not a rip job on Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. In polling a large cross-section of NFL coaches and executives, prevailing opinion says at least a dozen NFL teams would be better off with Dalton in their lineup. But the issue, in the face of the Bengals' looming contract extension negotiations with their QB, isn't whether Dalton is good enough to start. He is. The issue isn't whether the Bengals can be a playoff team with him. They already have been one.

The issue is what to do when a QB such as Dalton finishes his team-friendly rookie contract. The Bengals have been one-and-done in the playoffs for three years running despite the flexibility that comes with having a young, drafted quarterback earning $1.3 million per year under the rookie wage scale. What happens if Cincinnati pumps up Dalton's average to $15 million or more a year? The roster will become more difficult to maintain, and Dalton might not improve enough to overcome the difference.

The case against re-signing Dalton is not an easy one to make. Any coach or exec will tell you just how horrible it feels when your team lacks a viable starter. The dread becomes consuming. That partly explains why teams felt OK paying $18.1 million a year for Jay Cutler or $17.7 million a year for Matthew Stafford, even though neither QB had been exceptional or consistent before signing for those respective amounts.

These dynamics make the Bengals' QB outlook compelling as Dalton, a player without the raw abilities that made Cutler and Stafford first-round draft choices, enters the final season of the four-year rookie deal he signed as a second-round pick in 2011. The case against re-signing Dalton is philosophical, not personal. Is it practical? Will the Bengals or another team dare to turn the short-term advantages associated with cheap QB labor into a long-term edge by continually moving on from drafted middle-tier starters instead of paying them market value? They should, and here is why.

The beauty of cheap QB labor

Five of the NFL's eight division winners from last season featured QBs playing on rookie contracts negotiated under the current wage scale.

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Eli Manning and Joe FlaccoGetty ImagesEli Manning and Joe Flacco will be adjusting to new offensive coordinators next season.
When the Baltimore Ravens and New York Giants won two of the past three Super Bowls, their quarterbacks shredded playoff opponents for a combined 20 touchdown passes with just one interception. It was a beautiful thing to watch unless your team was on the losing end, but now the beauty is a faded memory. Those same quarterbacks have combined for more picks (64) than TD passes (63) since winning it all, and now both teams are hoping new offensive coordinators can orchestrate turnarounds.

"Baltimore is very intriguing to me with Gary Kubiak and a pretty good quarterback," an offensive coordinator from another team said recently.

It's that time of year in the NFL. Since last season, 21 of the 64 offensive and defensive coordinator jobs have turned over. As teams work their way through organized team activities, coaches and executives around the league are forming early opinions. Some newly hired coordinators have big shoes to fill (think Paul Guenther in Cincinnati or Frank Reich in San Diego). Others are preceded by their reputations.

I've singled out five compelling coordinator changes for a closer look through the eyes of league insiders: Kubiak in Baltimore, Ben McAdoo with the Giants, Ray Horton in Tennessee, Kyle Shanahan in Cleveland, and Gregg Williams in St. Louis. Which ones will produce the desired results?

1. Kubiak to the Ravens as offensive coordinator

Quarterback Joe Flacco is ditching the three-digit play system for West Coast terminology and expanded zone concepts with the bootleg action Kubiak used when Matt Schaub was his quarterback in Houston. We won't know until the season starts whether this will be a full or partial conversion. Sometimes, a new coordinator adjusts not only to his personnel but to the preferences of the head coach. Kubiak, as a longtime former head coach, is more established than the majority of coordinators. A similarly established offensive coach from another team said he thought that could be a very good thing in Baltimore.

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Colin KaepernickAP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezThe 49ers have gone all-in on Colin Kaepernick as their franchise quarterback.
The San Francisco 49ers had some options with quarterback Colin Kaepernick after watching him suffer three game-changing turnovers in the fourth quarter of their NFC Championship Game defeat this past season. They could have made him play out his rookie contract. They could have named him their franchise player next offseason and waited to see if another team would give up a couple of first-rounders for him.

Critics would have ripped them for taking chances at the most important position, but remember, during Jim Harbaugh's tenure, this team has won a higher percentage of its games with Alex Smith starting (.759) than it has won with Kaepernick in the lineup (.724).

Instead of playing it coy, the 49ers announced Tuesday that they had gone all-in with Kaepernick, signing him to a six-year deal that is expected to make him one of the highest-paid quarterbacks in the game (update: the deal is not as lucrative as initial reports suggested, making this a very sensible deal from the team's standpoint).

Kaepernick's work ethic makes this an understandable bet for the 49ers, a bet worth making, in my view. There's a very good chance the 49ers will go deep in the playoffs and possibly even win the Super Bowl next season. The price for Kaepernick was only going to go up, most likely, particularly now that San Francisco has improved its weaponry at receiver.

My own feeling from watching the 49ers is that Kaepernick's performance fell off in 2013 largely because the team ran low on offensive weapons. I also feel as though Kaepernick needs to learn when to suppress the big-play mentality that made him an appealing alternative to Smith. The big plays are great, but a little restraint in the NFC title game would have gone a long way for the 49ers.

I've made a few trips and lots of calls around the league this offseason to poll NFL decision-makers on quarterbacks. Those efforts remain in progress (and a full post examining the rankings is forthcoming), but with Kaepernick reaching his big extension Tuesday, this is a good time to look at some of the preliminary findings.

What follows is a list of QBs in line for new deals, arranged based on preliminary voting among 15 decision-makers I've consulted so far.

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Why NFL should expand playoff field 

May, 29, 2014
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Patrick Peterson, Tyrann MathieuChristian Petersen/Getty ImagesThe Cardinals are a team that figures to benefit from an expanded playoff field.
The NFL has no shortage of critics on player safety, commissioner-ordered discipline and the push to leverage public funds for billionaire owners seeking new stadiums. For some, a ramped-up Thursday night schedule came off as just another money grab for a league that paid $44.2 million to its commissioner in 2012 alone.

Next on the NFL agenda is a plan to grow the playoff field from 12 teams to 14 in time for the 2015 season. It looks like another play for cash, and it surely is, but it’s not a shameless one. In fact, the NFL would be smart to expand the playoffs not just because of the money, but because it would improve the quality of teams in the field.

Here's why: Recent history shows little difference between 7-seeds and 4-seeds. And while we know that the 2014 season won't see an expanded playoff field, we can spin that history forward to identify teams likely to benefit from an expanded format in 2015.

Seventh seeds are like fourth seeds

The NFL currently welcomes 37.5 percent of its teams into the postseason, lower than the percentages for the NBA and NHL (both 53.3 percent). One-third of Major League Baseball teams qualify. Expanding the NFL playoff field by two teams would up the percentage to 43.8, in line with the other leagues.

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Sammy WatkinsElsa/Getty ImagesThe Bills gave up a lot to draft Sammy Watkins at No. 4 overall.
The Buffalo Bills succinctly explained why they paid so much for the chance to draft Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins two weeks ago.

"This game is about making plays and surrounding our quarterback with playmakers," general manager Doug Whaley said. "He's automatically going to make our quarterback better and us better."

The thinking sounds logical whether or not Buffalo paid too much to trade up five spots to select Watkins fourth overall. The Bills think EJ Manuel is going to be a franchise quarterback, and if they are right, they're going to win regardless. But if Manuel is just another QB, as some evaluators suspect, how much would a top-flight wide receiver elevate his play? Is a top-level receiver enough to help a team win with a midlevel QB? The answer has implications for all teams with elite wideouts and developing quarterbacks who have not reached an elite level consistently.

Cincinnati, Chicago, Tampa Bay, Detroit, Houston and the New York Jets come to mind as potential examples. We'll address each one of them separately.

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Offseason grades for every NFL team 

May, 22, 2014
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videoThe 2014 NFL draft is finished and free agency has pretty much run its course. Rosters aren't quite set for training camp, but they're close enough to hand out letter grades for front offices based on offseason work completed to this point.

Bill Polian, Louis Riddick, Field Yates and Matt Williamson joined me in filling out report cards. We averaged the results, then solicited additional grades from a current general manager for the 10 teams that drew large disparities between high and low votes.

The Oakland Raiders -- who finished with the only F grade on the report card we handed out for work completed during the first week of free agency -- rallied to avoid detention. Six teams wound up with lower offseason grades than the Raiders. The two lowest grades went to 2013 playoff teams with young franchise quarterbacks.

Voters took into account all aspects of the offseason: coaching changes, ownership issues, contract dynamics, free agency, the draft, off-field incidents, etc.

Here are the 2014 NFL offseason grades:

A GRADES

St. Louis Rams
Grade: A-


Re-signed: LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar, OL Rodger Saffold

Veteran additions: WR Kenny Britt, DE Alex Carrington, QB Shaun Hill

Veteran subtractions: QB Kellen Clemens, G Harvey Dahl, CB Cortland Finnegan, FS Matt Giordano, TE Mike McNeill, CB Quinton Pointer, QB Brady Quinn, G Shelley Smith, SS Darian Stewart, G Chris Williams, LB Will Witherspoon

Draft picks: 1a-Greg Robinson (OT), 1b-Aaron Donald (DT), 2-Lamarcus Joyner (CB), 3-Tre Mason (RB), 4-Maurice Alexander (S), 6a-E.J. Gaines (CB), 6b-Garrett Gilbert (QB), 7a-Mitchell Van Dyk (OT), 7b-Christian Bryant (S), 7c-Michael Sam (DE), 7d-Demetrius Rhaney (C)

Analysis: The 2013 Rams ranked 24th in passer rating allowed (94.7) and 20th in Total QBR allowed (55.9) despite their obvious talent and production along the defensive line. Hiring Gregg Williams to replace Tim Walton as defensive coordinator seemed like a positive move, but the Rams were only getting started. Adding Aaron Donald with the 12th pick in the draft gave St. Louis the first defensive tackle off the board and a fourth defensive lineman selected among the top 15 overall picks.

"Their draft was excellent," Riddick said. "Aaron Donald should have been under consideration for best player in the draft. Greg Robinson could be one of the next great offensive tackles. Tre Mason is a stud competitor. Combine him with Zac Stacy and they have it going there. They did everything they could. The quarterback position will make it all go or not."

St. Louis chose Robinson second overall when Sammy Watkins was also available. Going with Robinson and then Donald showed the Rams were serious about upgrading where it matters in the physical NFC West: along the lines.

"Their big men are better and their little men are the same," Williamson said.

This was the second and final year in which St. Louis went into the draft with Washington's first-round pick, courtesy of the trade that delivered Robert Griffin III to the Redskins in 2012. The Rams wound up using those choices to select Alec Ogletree, Stedman Bailey and Robinson. They also used one of the picks to maneuver for Stacy. Mel Kiper Jr. gave them an A-minus grade for their work in the 2014 draft.

"Because of the nature of the RG III trade, the draft has to drive them, and we'll see," Polian said. "Their fans have every right to be optimistic, but as Suzy Kolber says, I'm 'Buzz Kill Bill.' I don't get excited about draft choices until they prove it."

Denver Broncos
Grade: A-


Re-signed: head coach John Fox, GM John Elway

Veteran additions: WR Emmanuel Sanders, CB Aqib Talib, SS T.J. Ward, OLB DeMarcus Ware, C Will Montgomery, DT Marvin Austin

Veteran subtractions: FS Mike Adams, DE Robert Ayers, CB Champ Bailey, G Zane Beadles, LB Stewart Bradley, DB Marquice Cole, WR Eric Decker, WR Trindon Holliday, CB Michael Huff, CB Quentin Jammer, C Dan Koppen, LB Paris Lenon, DE Jeremy Mincey, RB Knowshon Moreno, LB Shaun Phillips, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, C Steve Vallos, LB Wesley Woodyard

Draft picks: 1-Bradley Roby (CB), 2-Cody Latimer (WR), 3-Michael Schofield (OT), 5-Lamin Barrow (OLB), 6-Matt Paradis (C), 7-Corey Nelson (OLB)

Analysis: After the Broncos added Ware, Ward and Talib in free agency, it would have been easy to say they mortgaged the future to maximize their championship window with Peyton Manning.

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How good do rookie QBs need to be? 

May, 13, 2014
May 13
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videoNewly selected first-round draft choices Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater have been mentioned as candidates to sit and watch at the start of the 2014 season, and their new teams have made the usual comments about not wanting to rush their young prospects onto the field. Moreover, nearly every evaluator I've encountered thinks the 2014 quarterbacks aren't ready to play at as high a level as rookie stars Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan did just yet.

But here's an important stat to remember amid that discussion: 14 of the last 16 first-round quarterbacks started more than eight games as rookies, and 10 started at least 14 games. The trend is clear. NFL quarterbacks have made 243 starts as rookies over the past four seasons, up from 131 from 2006 to '09 and 133 from 2002 to '05.

So, while no one knows how much Bortles, Manziel or Bridgewater is going to play in 2014, precedent justifies considering how well their teams might fare with them in the lineup. One of the projects I've worked on this offseason could help along these lines. I started by dividing NFL defenses into performance quartiles, then looking to see which teams play the most games against the best defenses. Some of the disparities uncovered were striking. St. Louis and Cincinnati have big decisions to make about their quarterbacks, but the Rams play a league-high eight games against defenses that finished 2013 ranked in the top quartile, as measured by defensive expected points added, while the Bengals play only one game against a defense in that category.

What do similar dynamics say about how Bortles, Manziel and Bridgewater might fare as rookies? What types of recent performances by other rookies might these three first-round choices need to approximate for their teams to reach the playoffs? The numbers offer some answers.

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