Don’t look now NFL, but there are some pretty good young QBs in the league. Thanks to college offenses using more pro-style offenses, or actually doing the innovating with the young talent in sets like what RG3 is using similar to his Baylor offense, or the pistol sets that the 49ers are using with Colin Kaepernick, young QBs seem better prepared to succeed than ever. Well, at least the good ones.
I’ve tried to rank the top young quarterbacks in the league who are at a maximum of twenty five years of age. And it was much harder than I thought it would be. Part of this ranking is a bit of a fallacy and I’ll say so right out up front. Someone like Matthew Stafford is ranked lower than rookie and second year players mostly because we’ve seen him in more negative scenarios than we have with the younger players. Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, and RG3 are playing out of their minds, but they haven’t hit the wall yet. Stafford has hit the wall several times in his young career, but he’s still very young with lots of reps under his belt. He might turn out to be more than he is right now, which is closer to Jay Cutler than Dan Marino.
(And no, I’m not ranking Tim Tebow. He hasn’t played all year long and if anyone thought he was special, they would’ve traded for him already.)
I run out a few important stats under each player. Note that QBR seems to not average out well, so I include the player’s best QBR score, or in the case of the rookies, their only QBR score.
13. Blaine Gabbert
Career QB rating: 70.2
Best QBR: 40.94
Career W/L record: 5-19
Gabbert’s short career thus far in Jacksonville has been a big disappointment. Part of the issue is that he came from a spread offense in college, had no training camp and just a short preseason in 2011 because of the strike, and is on a Jacksonville team that is in shambles. Offensively, the Jags have been without their best offensive player for much of the season (and after a long holdout) in MJD and Gabbert and first round pick Justin Blackmon couldn’t find chemistry together. Case in point: the game Gabbert went down, Blackmon went for 7 and 236 and has had at least five catches in four out of his last five games, all without Gabbert. He only had five catches or more in two of his previous nine games, all when Gabbert was the QB.
Gabbert has also made fans clamor for Chad Henne, which should never, ever happen. With Timmy Tebow possibly headed to Jacksonville in 2013, Gabbert will be an in absolute no-win situation.
12. Jake Locker
Career QB rating: 72.9
Best QBR: 49.24
Career W/L record: 3-7
Locker’s pedigree seems to show that he’ll probably never be a high completion percentage kind of quarterback. He’s a high risk/high reward type and you can see that if you look at his 2012 game log. He’s also been hurt a lot this season after winning the QB job out of training camp.
Warren Moon would like him to take less chances, but I’m not sure that’s who Locker is. In college, he only completed 53.9% of his passes and it was his stellar athleticism that he relied on to get him out of jams. I’m not even sure who he plays like as you don’t see many QBs today who don’t complete at least 60% of their passes and stick around for long.
11. Ryan Tannehill
Career QB rating: 76.9
Best QBR: 53.74
Career W/L record: 7-8
Tannehill got off to a slow start as shown on HBO’s Hard Knocks series. He signed late and didn’t have an entire training camp before being thrust into the starting lineup after David Garrard went down and he beat out incumbent Matt Moore (whose numbers in twelve starts last year are actually better than Tannehill’s this year). Much like many young QBs, Tannehill has had an up and down season, winning three straight early on before immediately losing three straight, but the Dolphins have won three of their last five, and he is back in good graces. He hasn’t thrown a pick in his last four games, though his completion percentage is still less than stellar during those same four games. The Dolphins have played it safe with him so as to not put too much on his plate, and outside of Brian Hartline who is probably a second or third receiver on a good team, and Reggie Bush, who may never be reliable enough to be an every down back, he doesn’t have very many weapons.
Vikings fans might wish that they had Tannehill instead and I probably would too, but it’s hard to discount the Vikings’ 9-6 record as of this writing. Ponder has something to do with that right? Now, his detractors will say that having all-world running back Adrian Peterson on his team should turn him into a finely tuned downfield passer and his 6.4 yards per attempt show that he’s more of a dink and dunk guy. Those detractors are probably right. But, the team is completely reliant on Peterson moving the football while Ponder just has to not screw up. His low number of interceptions say that he’s doing his share, but he’s not helping Peterson move the chains. It’s pretty hard to throw for less than 3,000 yards when you start every game, but unless Ponder lights up Green Bay this weekend, he’ll probably be under that mark for the season.
9. Josh Freeman
Career QB rating: 79.9
Best QBR: 64.65
Career W/L record: 23-32
Though Freeman is as old as rookie QB Russell Wilson, he’s been starting in Tampa Bay for four years and has nearly 2000 pass attempts under his belt. His second season was his best as led the Bucs to a 10-6 regular season record, throwing 25 touchdowns and just six picks. But he’s never thrown less than 16 in any other season. So it seems like his sophomore year was the deviation from the norm. While his completion percentage this year is also the lowest its been since his rookie year, there are some good things he’s done this year. He’s already achieved career highs in touchdown passes and passing yards. But he’s also cemented his third losing season in four years. Tampa’s defense has given up the 8th most points this year, so it’s not as much Freeman’s fault as it is an entire team effort, but with legit stars on offense like Doug Martin and Vincent Jackson, Freeman’s ball control needs to be much better.
8. Sam Bradford
Career QB rating: 77.4
Best QBR: 49.66
Career W/L record: 15-25-1
I may like Bradford more than most, but I think he’s going to continually get better as his team does. I’ve also watched him play the 49ers since he was a rookie so I’ve seen him more than some of the other quarterbacks on this list. And there are two things I like about him specifically that aren’t really easily quantifiable. I like his demeanor/toughness. And I like his leadership. He’s had to bounce back from nasty injuries in both college and the NFL. He plays in the NFC West and has to face the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers’ defenses twice a year. He’s directed the Rams to both a victory and a tie against the 49ers this year and I never felt that the 49ers took him out of his game.
In order for the Rams to make a playoff push starting next year, he’ll have to get better at hitting the long ball as well as completing a higher percentage of his passes. But he’s not someone I look forward to playing. Your defense can’t really shake his confidence like you can other QBs.
7. Matthew Stafford
Career QB rating: 82.6
Best QBR: 65.51
Career W/L record: 17-27
He was the hardest guy for me to rank. Like I mentioned above, he’s at times resembled a poor man’s Dan Marino and at others, more like a Jay Cutler breed. Like Freeman, Stafford has been starting for four years now, though in his first two years, he was injured (and nearly lost his entire second year). In 2011, he had a near outstanding year, but has come back to earth in 2012. He plays in an offense that’s allowed him to throw a lot, and he will probably go over 700 attempts this season. But last year, he threw 41 touchdowns while this year, he’s thrown just 17, which is really the difference in his seasons. His completion percentage and yards per attempt are a little lower this season, but there’s not a huge difference.
But some of Detroit’s last place finish in the NFC North should be his responsibility. Defensively, they’ve taken a step backward, and he didn’t take the step forward into being one of the elite quarterbacks in the league. Give the man a consistent running back and let’s see what he can do next year.
I know many folks would rather have Stafford than Kaepernick. Some may like Bradford better. But in his short stint with the 49ers, he’s really opened my eyes at how bright he is, how sharp his decision making is, and it’s also simply a joy to watch his athleticism and confidence. I would argue that Kaepernick’s entry into starting quarterback ranks was tougher than just about everyone else’s on this list. For the young QBs who started immediately, they simply had to be an improvement over what the position provided previously. But Kaepernick had to improve upon Alex Smith, a new fan favorite (after years and years of being disliked by the 49ers fanbase) who was also the NFL’s leading passer at the time Jim Harbaugh made the switch. The pressure was on him to not take a step back and if anything, the offense is very similar with one caveat; he’s a playmaker whereas Smith isn’t.
Really, the team hasn’t missed a beat. He faced what was the league’s best defense in his first start and shredded them. He went into New England and stood toe-to-toe with Tom Brady and won. He’s also had some small misses, which you’d expect from a young quarterback who threw all of five passes in 2011. But if Kaepernick continues to improve, he’s the X factor in the playoffs. He runs like a wide receiver on a reverse, throws lasers, and is very accurate already.
5. Andy Dalton
Career QB rating: 83.7
Best QBR: 51.37
Career W/L record: 17-13
Dalton’s stats aren’t gaudy. In fact, they are worse than Stafford’s and yet I still believe that Dalton would be able to do just as good of a job in Detroit as Stafford has. But I’m not sure Stafford could win in Cincinnati. In his two years as starting QB for the Bengals, he’s taken them to the playoffs each season. He joins of list of just three other quarterbacks who have taken the Bengals to the playoffs more than once; Carson Palmer, Boomer Esiason, and Ken Anderson round it out.
He’s taken a boatload of sacks this year (nearly twice as many as last year), but he’s also improved his completion percentage by 4% and has thrown six more touchdowns. And his chemistry with AJ Green is amazing. The Green/Dalton tandem has hooked up nearly 100 times this year with one game to go.
4. Cam Newton
Career QB rating: 86.2
Best QBR: 55.04
Career W/L record: 12-19
Newton’s 2012 season has been a bit overlooked. Part of that is because Carolina is no better this year than they were last and they were a trendy pick to make the playoffs before the season started mostly due to Newton. And the consensus is that he’s been bad this year. That couldn’t be further from the truth. While Newton’s leadership can be questioned for sure, his output is just as good and maybe slightly better than his record breaking rookie season (which will be outdone by RG3 by the way). He won’t throw for as many yards as last year, but he’s been much better in the other major categories including interception percentage, yards per attempt, and yards per completion (in which he leads the entire league).
He’s also already rushed for over 700 yards for the second season in a row. If he can pair up with a strong head coach who is knowledgeable about the position, he may be able to become the best of them all. And he’s still only 23.
3. Russell Wilson
Career QB rating: 98.0
Best QBR: 69.99
Career W/L record: 10-5
I really wanted to see it with my own eyes. When Wilson played the 49ers the first time, he looked like a young quarterback who was frustrated by a good defense. I checked him off as being a little overrated at the time. And then he started piling up big numbers. I got to see him face the 49ers a second time and he demolished them. He’s just as good or better than anyone says. Part of why he’s in the third spot and not in the top two is because he basically inherited a playoff caliber football team. Like Kaepernick, his job originally was simply not to screw it up. He’s done much better than that.
He’s perfect for the team. With a bruising running back like Marshawn Lynch, an array of solid to good wide receivers, and a good offensive line that he makes better because he’s so damn elusive in the pocket, he’s going to be a nightmare for NFC teams for years to come. As a 49ers fan, I am really going to hate him soon enough.
2. Robert Griffin III
Career QB rating: 104.1
Best QBR: 71.09
Career W/L record: 8-6
RG3 is one win away from becoming legendary. If he can get this Washington Redskins team into the playoffs, I’m not sure there’s anything he won’t be able to do. Last year, the Redskins were an underdog hopeful after starting out 3-1 and then went on to lose six games in a row. They completely fell apart and Redskins fans felt hopeless. But there is now an abundance of hope. The only thing that can stop RG3 it seems is injury, which is why I have him second rather than first. He’s probably smaller and lighter than his 6’2, 223 listed frame. You now wince when you watch him run into traffic because you simply don’t want to see him leave the field.
Here’s a few did you knows about RG3:
- Did you know that he’s thrown just 5 interceptions all season long?
- Did you know that he’s second in total quarterback rating to Aaron Rodgers?
- Did you know that he leads all of the NFL in yards per attempt?
- Did you know that he is 21st in all of the NFL in rushing yards?
- Did you know that he leads the entire NFL in yards per carry?
- Did you know that he has more rushing touchdowns than both Chris Johnson and Jamal Charles?
In 1997, the Indianapolis Colts went 3-13 (with Jim Harbaugh as their starting QB). In 1998, with rookie sensation Peyton Manning at the helm, they went 3-13 again. And then in 1999, they went 13-3 before losing their first playoff game. In 2011, the Colts went 2-14. In 2012, with rookie sensation Andrew Luck at the helm, they already have 10 wins. Where’s the hard knocks football life for young Andrew Luck?
That is the sole reason that Andrew Luck is atop this list for me. The Colts don’t have any really strong wins outside of beating Green Bay in Green Bay, but they are winning because they can now score points. They are still 22nd in points allowed and thanks to getting blasted in New England, have given up far more points than they’ve scored, but Luck is doing this with the great tandem of Vick Ballard and Donald Brown running the football, averaging 4.0 yards par carry combined. He’s helped Reggie Wayne rejuvenate his career even though he’s more possession receiver than downfield receiver now. He’s also made T.Y. Hilton and Donnie Avery into dependable second and third options.
Because he throws the football a lot, to the tune of 600 passes attempted, he also throws a lot of picks. He leads the league with 18 interceptions and is only completing 54% of his passes. But that little piece of leadership that Newton seems to be lacking, Luck seems to have in spades.
The difference between he and Griffin is minimal and my mind may change next week, but right now, I think Andrew Luck is the best 25 and under QB in all of football.