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Thursday, January 27, 2011
How do AFC East QBs stack up for 2011?

By Tim Graham

All four AFC East starting quarterbacks are under contract and in place for 2011.

Yet each comes with his own set of intriguing circumstances and at least one major question for next season.

Tom Brady
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady led the NFL in TD passes this season.
Even the resident superstar, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, hasn't won a playoff game in three years and faces a recovery from foot surgery.

The other three -- Mark Sanchez, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Chad Henne -- certainly don't come with any guarantees.

Sanchez's sophomore season seems like a success in the afterglow of another deep postseason run with the New York Jets, but he still has a long way to go to deserve his Sanchize nickname.

The Buffalo Bills like Fitzpatrick but could be tempted to draft a quarterback with the third overall pick. The Miami Dolphins already could be searching for Henne's replacement.

With those issues in mind, let's look ahead to the 2011 season by breaking down each quarterback in the context of what we learned about him in 2010.

I've ranked them in terms of impact and asked Scouts Inc. analyst Matt Williamson to weigh in with his thoughts.

1. Tom Brady


Big 2011 question: How long can he keep doing it?

Pluses: Brady showed he can win with practically any supporting cast. His teammates have been transitory regardless of perceived significance (e.g. Randy Moss). Even with inexperienced help and a few retreads, Brady obviously was the league's MVP and earlier this week was announced as the only unanimous All-Pro selection.

Brady is the ultimate field general. He manipulates defenses, makes quick decisions at the line of scrimmage and delivers the ball with pinpoint accuracy. He broke the record for consecutive throws without an interception and led the NFL in touchdown passes.

Minuses: The combination of age and injuries are the biggest concern -- if there is one. Brady will turn 34 before next season begins and had foot surgery last week to repair a stress fracture. It was his second major operation in three years. At this rate, we can't expect Brady to be in his prime four or five more years. The window is closing.

Brady, though, doesn't rely on mobility. Perhaps his biggest shortcoming -- a flaw that opened the door for people to make a case for Michael Vick as MVP -- is that Brady doesn't make plays with his legs. As Williamson noted, Brady's not the best improviser when a play breaks down.

Brady also has lost three straight postseason games. While some would chalk that up to happenstance, it's a trend that certainly will be on Brady's mind the next time they make it, which should be in a year.

Williamson's take: "To me, he's still the king of the castle. It's pretty hard to argue against Brady or Peyton Manning. The bar is set so high that 30 teams in the league would kill for either of those guys to be their quarterback, and that will be true a year from now.

"He's so competitive. His work ethic is so great. He can throw the football as well as anyone. His supporting cast is phenomenal. His head coach isn't going anywhere. If your biggest problem is 'How much longer is he going to last?' then that's not much of a problem. The guy's great."

2. Mark Sanchez

Big 2011 question: Can he evolve into a truly great quarterback in his third season?

Mark Sanchez
Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez continued to play his best in big games this season.
Pluses: Sanchez seemed ordinary for major chunks of 2010. I would have ranked Fitzpatrick ahead of him halfway into December. But Sanchez proved to be a money quarterback with two more road playoff victories and another solid performance in the AFC Championship game.

Sanchez is developing into a clutch quarterback, a topic I examined in a column last week. Authorities such as Bill Parcells and Sam Wyche have been impressed with Sanchez's ability to rise to the occasion. His postseason stats dwarf his regular-season numbers. He has five fourth-quarter comebacks and won back-to-back overtime road games this season, something that never had been done before.

Sanchez is only 24 years old and already has played in six playoff games. His combination of age, experience and potential will keep him in the spotlight for a long time. Jets backup quarterback Mark Brunell told me last week that Sanchez is "going to be an elite quarterback someday."

Minuses: There are plenty of negatives to keep Williamson and me from jumping on the Sanchez bandwagon. Sanchez is inconsistent from game to game and inaccurate with his throws. He's prone to turnover flare-ups, proving he can be rattled. He has trouble coping with blitzes.

Sanchez completed 54.8 percent of his attempts, third-worst in the NFL. He threw only 13 interceptions (wonderful number compared to the 20 he threw as a rookie). But Football Outsiders charted 15 more dropped interceptions, an excessive number. Football Outsiders managing editor Bill Barnwell noted Sanchez should have thrown more interceptions than a year before because he had only five dropped as a rookie. Defenders held onto 80 percent of potential picks in 2009, but just 46 percent this season.

So Sanchez's abysmal 75.3 passer rating (fifth from the bottom and behind Henne) downplayed how scattershot he was. Take away Sanchez's four games with 100-plus passer ratings and he threw six touchdowns and 12 interceptions.

You can see why the Jets need to maintain their infrastructure and not become dependent on Sanchez yet.

Williamson's take: "I have been a huge basher of him. I think he's been vastly overrated. To talk about him as a top 10 quarterback, top 12 or 15 quarterback, is crazy to me. But these last two games have opened my eyes. I will give him much more benefit of the doubt now.

"I still need to put an asterisk next to him. In the AFC Championship Game, that's as good as he's going to play, and that's good enough for the Jets to win. They have the formula. He has great receivers, a great line and one of the best defenses in the league. But he still has issues. His best moments are something that anybody can do. He still struggles with the blitz. His arm is still average. He's not a guy who can attack outside the numbers. He can't drive the ball deep downfield.

"I'd rather play against him than with him. Still, he plays his best when it matters most, and most quarterbacks don't. His intangibles are really encouraging. I don't think the stage ever is too big for him."

3. Ryan Fitzpatrick

Big 2011 question: Will he be the long-term answer or just a stopgap?

Ryan Fitzpatrick
Buffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick could enter next season as the Bills' starter after some inspired play this season.
Pluses: Fitzpatrick was a journeyman backup who could be on the verge of his first full-fledged offseason as somebody's starting quarterback. The Bills brain trust opted for Trent Edwards at the start of training camp and gave him all of the first-team reps. But two games into the season, new head coach Chan Gailey had seen enough and inserted Fitzpatrick.

Despite Fitzpatrick's limited interaction with the first-teamers, he provided a noticeable spark with his mobility and deep throws. The coaching staff and his teammates almost immediately seemed to have renewed faith in the offense. He helped previously anonymous receivers such as Steve Johnson and David Nelson turn into dangerous contributors.

Fitzpatrick also became easy for Bills fans to root for. He was a seventh-round draft choice out of Harvard who nearly became the first Bills quarterback to throw 30 touchdowns in a season since Jim Kelly. Fitzpatrick challenged defenses and took chances downfield.

Minuses: Fitzpatrick is 28 and probably has hit his ceiling. He might be satisfactory as a caretaker, but his prospects as a playoff quarterback are dubious. He was a backup his first five years in the league and didn't stand out in 15 starts with the St. Louis Rams and Cincinnati Bengals. The fact he signed with the Bills to be a backup in 2009 reflected his worth on the open market.

Fitzpatrick is fun to watch because he takes chances, but his swashbuckling tendencies get him into trouble. He's liable to feather a pass between two defenders or throw a horrendous interception on any given play. He committed five turnovers in Week 16 against a Patriots team that had nothing to play for.

General manager Buddy Nix told Buffalo News reporter Mark Gaughan this week that the Bills need to draft a quarterback in April. Whether the Bills grab Cam Newton or Blaine Gabbert with the third overall pick will clarify the plan for Fitzpatrick as a long-term solution.

Williamson's take: "I don't think Fitzpatrick is the answer. I don't think he can ever be in the top 50 percent of starting quarterbacks in this league. He can get you to 8-8, but in the end you're going to want to replace him. But I wouldn't fault the Bills at all to say 'Let's give him another year. Let's give him an entire offseason as The Man.' They should say 'This is your team, and we're going to go out and get you a receiver, a defense and a blocker or two.'

"The Bills can jump off that bridge a year from now. The Bills can't reach on a quarterback in the first round and have him sit behind Fitzpatrick. That organization has too many issues. Their needs are too great to spend No. 3 money on the 12th-best player in the draft. You tread water with Fitzpatrick for now and hope he gets a little better."

4. Chad Henne

Big 2011 question: Will he be able to seize the starter's job again?

Pluses: Henne was benched once and pulled from a game late in the season. He had a rough year, but he's 25 years old -- young enough to be considered a prospect yet with substantial experience. Henne was a four-year starter at Michigan and sat for a year behind Chad Pennington before taking over the Dolphins' job in 2009.

Henne has a strong arm and can make all the throws. He's also tough, missing only one week with a knee injury that the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported would "more than likely" end his season. Henne returned in Week 12 and, on the other side of the country with the season on the line, threw for 307 yards and two touchdowns against the Oakland Raiders.

Henne could benefit from some new voices. Offensive coordinator Dan Henning retired, and quarterbacks coach David Lee took a job with Ole Miss. The Dolphins hired young offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, who has been exposed to Brady and Brett Favre. Receivers coach Karl Dorrell, the former UCLA head coach, will be Henne's position coach.

Minuses: The Dolphins publicly expressed their dissatisfaction in Henne by benching him. He flopped in 2010 even though the Dolphins made one of the offseason's biggest acquisitions, trading two second-round draft choices and committing a metric ton of cash to star receiver Brandon Marshall. Henne also had one of the league's top slot receivers, Davone Bess.

But Henne's erratic play doomed their season. He produced a trio of three-interception games and posted a passer rating below 70 five times.

Henne plays like a robot. Every motion appears purposeful, as though it was programmed, rather than coming naturally. He doesn't perform well off the script, can lock onto receivers and freezes in the pocket.

Williamson's take: "If we had this conversation 365 days ago, I would have been all about Chad Henne. I was very much a believer in him before this season. There wasn't one player in the league who let me down more than Henne. I thought he was on the verge of being really good.

"The Dolphins really handcuffed him with the play-calling and lack of a vertical passing game. That hurt him. He needs to throw the ball a lot. He needs to go deep. He needs to use his arm.

"But when you watch him play the game now, he's not even close to being good enough. I think a change of scenery would do him a world of good, but they can't afford to get rid of him for nothing. They would be foolish not to bring competition in for him.

"I like his skill set and think he can be very good, but he looks the worst I've ever seen him, and I was involved at trying to recruit him out of high school to Pitt. He was horrible this year."