There are few things that can turn around the fate of an NFL team faster than a quarterback who dramatically improves their game. It’s not just that a team gets better play from the QB position that fuels the improvement. Better quarterbacking causes the team to be more confident, and it forces opposing defenses to work harder and question more. Here’s a look at five guys who could take major steps forward in their development this year:
Chad Henne, Miami Dolphins - I am very high on Henne this year. At Michigan Henne was a proven warrior that made several receivers look very good - including Braylon Edwards of the Jets, Mario Manningham of the Giants, and Steve Breaston of the Cardinals. In his first year as a starter last year in Miami there was a lot to like. His completion percentage of 60.8 was very good, he threw for almost 3,000 yards, and his yards per attempt of 6.4 has a lot of room for improvement but is solid for a first-year starter.
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Henne’s the prototypical NFL QB, and he can throw the ball a mile. He’s behind a good offensive line, including perhaps the best left tackle in the league in Jake Long. Most significantly, an already solid, underappreciated receiving corps has received a massive boost this year with the addition of Brandon Marshall. Henne has shone in the past with stud receivers, and he should do so again. Henne is on the road to being one of the good ones, and I look for a big step forward this season.
Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens - Flacco certainly isn’t going to sneak up on anyone - he already has had two good seasons, and has made progress. I think there is still a lot left to show, though. From his first year to his second Flacco showed solid improvement in the two categories that I want to see - YPA and TD/Int ratio. He also showed that he can develop strong relationships with more than one receiver - both Derrick Mason and Ray Rice had big years catching the ball. Most significantly, it seems likely that he wasn’t healthy at the end of the year - that his leg was bothering him. Assuming he’s healthy now there is definitely room for him to take another step into the elite of the league’s QB fraternity. It certainly isn’t going to hurt that he has two very appealing new targets on board in Dante Stallworth, and especially Anquan Boldin.
Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions - There were a lot of issue with Stafford last year, and it didn’t lead to a pretty season. He was essentially thrown to the wolves last year, though, and if he’s as good as some people think he is then he’ll learn and improve from that. I started to believe that Stafford could have a future last year when he played by far the best game of his season in a win over Cleveland despite playing with a separated shoulder in his non-throwing arm. That’s toughness, and you have to be tough to be good in this league.
This year Stafford still is on a team with a world of issues, but there are reasons to be at least a bit optimistic. There is a feeling of competence and confidence around the team for the first time in a long time. The addition of Nate Burleson isn’t going to be magical for Stafford, but it adds some needed depth at receiver, and should free up some room for Calvin Johnson to make magic. I don’t think Stafford is going to set records this year, but he does have the chance to be surprisingly good.
Jason Campbell, Oakland Raiders - Campbell is a decent quarterback who was in a bad situation in Washington the last couple of years. His confidence was obviously shot with the Redskins. He didn’t play nearly as badly as was perceived in Washington, and he took some steps forward each season. He’s not a superstar, but he is certainly capable. Now he’s got a fresh start on a team that not only wants him but is going to be thrilled that he’s not JaMarcus Russell. The Raiders have a positive vibe going for the first time in a long time, and their coaching is surprisingly solid. I wish that the receiving corps was better, but I still think Campbell can open some eyes this year.
Matt Cassel, Kansas City Chiefs - People expected miracles from Cassel last year and he didn’t deliver, so he was widely viewed as a disappointment. Given the lack of tools to work with and the chaos with offensive coordinators, though, he didn’t really have a chance. Things look much brighter this year. I’m not a big Charlie Weis fan, but he has a proven ability to work with quarterbacks, and Cassel will benefit from working with just one guy all year. The talent is a little bit improved around Cassel, and the confidence is much higher than it was. Cassel is clearly capable of playing well, and this year could be the year that we see what he can do.
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