NFC South: Matt Schaub

Sometime between now and the start of the regular season -- maybe even before training camp starts later this week -- I fully expect the Atlanta Falcons and quarterback Matt Ryan to agree to a long-term contract extension.

The Falcons want it to happen and Ryan wants it to happen. About the only question remaining is how much Ryan is worth.

The money may be astronomical, but I think this snapshot of the top-10 average quarterback salaries makes it pretty clear what Ryan’s new deal will look like:
Ryan, who has averaged $11.25 million per year on his rookie deal, is going to end up in the top five. There’s even a chance he could jump all the way to No. 1.

The top four guys all have Super Bowl rings. Ryan obviously doesn’t. But he’s only 28 and his side can make the argument he has championships in his future.

Falcons still thrive on play-action

December, 5, 2012
Michael Turner’s numbers and playing time have dipped this season, but opposing defenses still are keeping close tabs on the Atlanta running back.

Defenses still are biting on play-action fakes. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan has completed 71.1 percent (59-of-83) of his play-action passes. That percentage ranks second in the league, behind only San Francisco’s Alex Smith (80.8 percent), who has been benched.

The rest of the NFC South quarterbacks haven’t been nearly as successful as Ryan off play-action.

Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman, who has the division’s leading rusher in Doug Martin, is No. 21 with a 61.2 percent (60-of-98) completion rate. But Freeman does have nine touchdown passes off play-action, which is only one less than the league leaders.

New Orleans’ Drew Brees is tied with Matt Schaub and Peyton Manning for the league lead in touchdowns off play-action. But Brees also has thrown five interceptions off play-action, which puts him only one behind league leader Mark Sanchez. Brees is No. 22 in play-action completion percentage at 60.6 (63-of-104).

Carolina’s Cam Newton is No. 23 at 60.3 percent (70-of-116), but Newton’s 1,214 yards on play-action passes rank No. 3 in the league.

Matt Ryan thrives in shotgun formation

September, 19, 2012
Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan has been at his best out of the shotgun formation.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Ryan has the league’s best Total QBR (98.6) out of the shotgun formation. Houston’s Matt Schaub (93.3) is the only other quarterback with a Total QBR above 90 out of the formation.

Ryan has completed 23 of 32 (71.9 percent) passes for 227 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions out of the shotgun formation.

Carolina’s Cam Newton hasn’t been as efficient out of the formation, but he’s used it more often and has put up a bigger yardage total. Newton has completed 33 of 48 (68.8 percent) passes for 517 yards and two touchdowns. But Newton also has been intercepted once and sacked four times. His Total QBR out of the shotgun formation is 66.4.

Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman has been somewhat efficient out of the formation, but he hasn’t used it as much as Newton or Ryan. Freeman has completed 15 of 25 (60 percent) for 184 yards and two touchdowns. But Freeman also has been intercepted once and sacked twice. His Total QBR out of the shotgun formation is 80.2.

Surprisingly, New Orleans Drew Brees, who usually leads all NFC South quarterbacks in most statistical categories, has struggled out of the shotgun formation this season.

Brees has completed 42 of 74 (56.8 percent) attempts for 537 yards and two touchdowns. But Brees has been intercepted three times and sacked three times. His Total QBR out of the shotgun formation is 49.6.

Does Matt Ryan belong in top 10?

August, 13, 2012
The season hasn’t even started yet, but the question about Matt Ryan’s status among NFL quarterbacks already is heating up.

In a television appearance, Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff was asked if Ryan is a top-10 quarterback. Dimitroff said there’s no question Ryan belongs in the top 10.

I just did the math and I agree with Dimitroff.

Off the top of my head, here’s my list of the top 10 quarterbacks in the league.
  1. Drew Brees, New Orleans (hey, I cover the NFC South)
  2. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay (he’s right there with Brees)
  3. Tom Brady, New England
  4. Eli Manning, N.Y. Giants (yep, I’m putting him ahead of his brother -- for now)
  5. Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers (you can’t argue with Super Bowl rings)
  6. Matthew Stafford, Lions
  7. Peyton Manning, Broncos (we don’t know what he has or doesn’t have left)
  8. Cam Newton, Panthers
  9. Ryan
  10. Philip Rivers

Yeah, I know I’m skipping guys like Matt Schaub, Tony Romo, Michael Vick and Joe Flacco. There’s a reason for that. I’d take Ryan over any of them any day. And, if Ryan can win a couple playoff games this year, I think he could crack the top five.

Pat Yasinskas' QB Watch

December, 28, 2011
Aaron Rodgers and Drew BreesBrian D. Kersey/Getty ImagesAfter a shootout in Week 1, Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, right, and New Orleans' Drew Brees remained on top of their game throughout the 2011 season.
This will be this season’s final edition of QB Watch, a weekly project I’ve enjoyed tremendously this season. With that in mind, we will make this our awards edition.

Here are the awards:

Most Valuable Player: Aaron Rodgers, Packers. He carries Green Bay and is more valuable to the Packers than any player on any team. He also seems to have the ability to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants. We all should enjoy what may be the golden age of quarterbacking. We know all about Tom Brady, who may be the greatest ever and is still outstanding, but he might be only the third-best quarterback in the league.

Best quarterback: Drew Brees, Saints. Rodgers will win the MVP award and he should, because without Rodgers, the Packers would be the Colts without Peyton Manning. But Brees is setting all sorts of records and the Saints are having a great season. You could argue Brees gets to play in one of the most quarterback-friendly offenses in history and has as many weapons as any team ever has. But it’s tough to imagine another quarterback running the New Orleans offense as efficiently as Brees.

[+] EnlargeMatt Moore
AP Photo/Gregory BullMatt Moore has been solid for the Dolphins this season.
Best surprise: Matt Moore, Dolphins. If the Dolphins had turned things over to Moore a bit earlier, their season might have been respectable. Moore’s been efficient without a lot of weapons around him. Whoever is coaching the Dolphins next year has to at least consider keeping Moore as the starter.

Worst surprise: Josh Freeman, Buccaneers. I truly believed we’d see greatness out of Freeman this year. His 2010 season, his first as a starter, was filled with all sorts of promise. But 2011 has been a disaster. Freeman deserves some of the blame, no doubt. But his supporting cast has been dismal and that’s made him look even worse. The Bucs have to do something dramatic or else they’re going to ruin this kid.

Worst injury: Jay Cutler, Bears. Before he went down, the Bears were on target for the playoffs. Once Cutler went down, they fell apart.

Best non-injury: Matthew Stafford, Lions. For the first time in his career, Stafford has been healthy enough to start every game. It’s no coincidence the Lions are in the playoffs for the first time in a generation.

Best response to injury: After starter Matt Schaub and backup Matt Leinart went down, the Texans turned to rookie T.J. Yates. He led them to victory in his first appearance and won his first two starts. The Texans have stumbled and lost the past two games, but Yates did enough to get the Texans into the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.

Best fullback playing quarterback: Tim Tebow, Broncos. Let’s be honest. Despite all the miracles, Tebow does not throw like an NFL quarterback. But he can run and he can buy so much time that it sometimes doesn’t matter if his passes are fluttering toward receivers.

Best rookie quarterback ever: Cam Newton Panthers. The numbers say it all. He’s already broken the rookie record for passing yards and has a chance at 4,000. He’s also run for more touchdowns (14) than any quarterback in history. He’s also turned around a franchise that had absolutely no hope a year ago.

Cam newton
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhCam Newton has helped make Carolina Panthers football exciting once again.
Best rookie if this had been a normal season: Andy Dalton, Bengals. Carson Palmer has been forgotten in Cincinnati. Dalton (along with Newton) is just one of five rookie quarterbacks in history to throw for 20 touchdowns.

Worst rookie: Blaine Gabbert, Jaguars. Jacksonville threw this rookie in long before he was ready, and it showed. Gabbert’s completed just 50 percent of his passes. While Newton and Dalton have shown they can be the answers for the Panthers and Bengals for the long haul, the Jaguars -- and whoever their new coach ends up being -- are going to have to decide if Gabbert really has a future or if they should look for an alternative.

Best recovery: Alex Smith, 49ers. He’s never going to live up to his 2005 draft status, but the arrival of coach Jim Harbaugh has finally allowed the 49ers to get something good from Smith. He’s not a great quarterback, but he’s shown he can be a very efficient one on a very good team.

Strongest sign that it’s time to hang it up: Donovan McNabb, formerly of the Vikings. Mike Shanahan benched him in Washington last year. The Vikings benched him in favor of Christian Ponder this year. McNabb asked for his release at a time when Chicago and Houston had major injuries at quarterback, but nobody signed him. That should tell McNabb something.

Biggest decision ahead: The Indianapolis Colts. Do they bring back Manning and hope he’s fully healthy? Or do they draft Andrew Luck?



Final Word: NFC South

December, 2, 2011
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 13:

[+] EnlargeLee Roy Selmon
Manny Rubio/US PresswireThe Bucs will wear throwback uniforms Sunday, hoping for results like the teams led by Lee Roy Selmon used to get.
Creamsicle time: The Buccaneers will be wearing their throwback uniforms against Carolina. Yeah, the orange and white uniforms are back. Might not be a bad thing, because at least in the days of Lee Roy Selmon and John McKay the Bucs actually were capable of playing very good defense. Tampa Bay has a (slightly) better record than Carolina, and the Bucs are playing at home. But I have a tough time seeing a Tampa Bay win, unless the defense suddenly starts making some tackles. Since Week 5, the Bucs have allowed an average of 30.6 points per game. Only the Colts (31.3) have allowed more. The Bucs also are allowing a league-worst 6.5 yards per play in that span.

Breaking in the rookie: After losing Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart to injuries, the Texans are expected to start rookie quarterback T.J. Yates against the Falcons. Good luck with that. Since 2002, the Falcons are 11-1 when facing a rookie quarterback. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the only team with a better record against rookie quarterbacks in that span is the Steelers (14-1).

Happy (almost) anniversary: Atlanta’s defense is coming up on what would be a very big milestone. The Falcons have not allowed an individual running back to rush for 100 yards in 14 straight games. The last time it happened was when Carolina’s Jonathan Stewart went over 100 yards on Dec. 12, 2010.

A tip for the Detroit defense: Hey, any defense going up against the Saints can use all the help it can get. If it’s third down, you might want to put some tight coverage on New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham. He’s caught 13 passes on third downs this season. All 13 have been turned into first downs.

Shades of 2009: I’ve said several times that the Saints of this season are starting to remind me of the Saints of 2009, who went on to win the Super Bowl. Here’s the latest example. A victory against the Lions would put the Saints at 6-0 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for only the second time in franchise history. The only other time that happened was 2009.

Who is T.J. Yates?

November, 28, 2011
If you’re a fan of the Atlanta Falcons, you’re probably asking yourself this question: Who is T.J. Yates?

First off, he’ll probably be the guy starting for the Houston Texans against the Falcons on Sunday. We all know starter Matt Schaub suffered an injury last week. On Sunday, replacement Matt Leinart, who at least was a name, suffered a shoulder injury Sunday that could sideline him for the rest of the season.

That leaves Yates, unless Houston goes out and brings back Warren Moon or Dan Pastorini.

So here’s a quick overview of Yates:
  • The Texans picked him in the fifth round (No. 152 overall) in this year’s draft.
  • Yates played at North Carolina from 2007 through 2010.
  • He holds 37 North Carolina records, including career and single-season passing yards.
  • Yates appeared in his first NFL game Sunday after Leinart was injured. He completed eight of 15 passes for 70 yards.

Pat Yasinskas' QB Watch

November, 23, 2011
Leinart/HanieJim O'Connor/US PresswireBecause of injuries to Matt Schaub and Jay Cutler, Matt Leinart, left, and Caleb Hanie, right, will take over the starting quarterback job for their respective teams.
Don’t feel too sad for the Houston Texans and Chicago Bears.

Sure, they each have lost their starting quarterback to injuries. But the Texans still might be on a path to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history even without Matt Schaub. The Bears were in the playoffs last season, but, at least in the short term, they’ll have to go on without Jay Cutler.

Schaub suffered a foot injury that’s likely to keep him from playing again this season. Cutler reportedly will have surgery on his thumb Wednesday and the Bears say there is some hope he could return sometime around the end of the regular season.

Earl Morrall
AP Photo/Steve StarrEarl Morrall (15) filled in for an injured Bob Griese during the Miami Dolphins' 1972 Super Bowl run.
If you’re thinking the Texans and the Bears will fall apart with Matt Leinart and Caleb Hanie as their respective starters, you might be wrong. There’s a moral to this story. It’s the story of Earl Morrall.

This story of a backup stepping in for a long haul and the team not missing a beat would not apply to just any team. But the Texans and the Bears fit the profile quite nicely because they’re already 7-3.

Morrall wasn’t the most talented backup in the history of the world. He got traded several times, started and backed up, but never really did much of anything until finding the perfect landing spot -- twice.

In 1968, Johnny Unitas got hurt and Morrall stepped in and led the Baltimore Colts all the way to the Super Bowl before losing to Joe Namath and the Jets. Don Shula was the coach of that Baltimore team and was coaching the Miami Dolphins in 1972 when he spotted Morrall’s name on the waiver wire. Shula spent $100 and claimed Morrall.

"I happen to have a good memory," Shula said at the time. “I remember what Earl did for me in 1968."

When Bob Griese went down in October of 1972, Morrall stepped in and helped the Dolphins complete an unbeaten regular season. Morrall started a couple of playoff games before Griese returned to lead the Dolphins to a Super Bowl victory.

The best news of all for the Texans and Bears might be that Schaub and Cutler certainly never will be confused with Unitas. Maybe not even Griese. They’re decent quarterbacks who’ve looked good this year because they have good teams around them.

Leinart and Hanie could be confused with Morrall, who, when it came right down to it, was “just a guy." Morrall worked his magic with excellent players all around him.

You could even draw parallels to when Jeff Hostetler took over for an injured Phil Simms late in the 1990 season and led the New York Giants to a Super Bowl win. Hostetler also was “just a guy" who suddenly found himself playing quarterback for a good team.

It’s not all that difficult to imagine Leinart taking the Texans into the postseason. He’s got Arian Foster to hand off to, and Foster’s presence means that Leinart, who hasn’t thrown an NFL pass since 2009, should get some wide-open shots at Andre Johnson. Plus, Houston’s defense isn’t going to give up a lot of points. Even if the Texans go 3-3 the rest of the way, they probably make the playoffs.

Hanie faces a similar situation. Although he has only minimal NFL experience, he can rely on running back Matt Forte and a very good defense.

Leinart and Hanie don’t have to carry the Texans and Bears. They can hop on the backs of their teammates and, as long as they hold on, everything could work out just fine.



Wrap-up: Texans 37, Buccaneers 9

November, 13, 2011
Thoughts on Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 37-9 loss to the Houston Texas on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium:

What it means: The Buccaneers have been searching for an identity all season. Looks like they finally found it. They are a mediocre team with problems in a lot of places on offense and defense. They’re 4-5 and have to face the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers next. Coach Raheem Morris has been saying all year that his team’s goal is to win the NFC South. That’s probably not going to happen, unless the Bucs suddenly get dramatically better and the Saints stumble.

Same old story: Tampa Bay’s offense started off the way it has pretty much all season -- very slowly. The Bucs didn’t score their first points until Connor Barth hit a field goal just before halftime. They didn’t score their touchdown until the fourth quarter. Maybe the Bucs should take a lesson from former coach Sam Wyche. Back in the mid-1990s, the Bucs were starting poorly after halftime. So Wyche actually had his team practice its halftime routine. Maybe the current Tampa Bay offense should practice starting a game.

Albert’s Army: The Bucs picked up defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth during the week because injuries had left them thin in the middle of the defensive line. Haynesworth was fairly active, making four tackles. But the problems on Tampa Bay’s defense go way deeper than the middle of the defensive line. Matt Schaub only had to attempt 15 passes, but he threw for 242 yards and two touchdowns and the Texans had no problem running the ball.

Insult to injury: Derrick Ward, the same guy who was a free-agent bust with the Bucs, ran for a touchdown against his former team.

What’s next: The Bucs travel to Green Bay to play the Packers next Sunday.
When the New Orleans Saints move their training camp to Oxnard, Calif., next week it might be a more pleasant experience for the offense than the defense.

It could have been a miserable week for both units, but the first-team offense finally showed signs it’s getting on track in Saturday night's 27-14 preseason loss to the Houston Texans. It took until the sixth preseason possession, but the first-team offense scored its first touchdown.

Even before that, the Saints looked good on their first two drives. But the first drive ended with Drew Brees getting hit and fumbling in the red zone. Brees completed 7 of 14 passes for 109 yards and the first offense moved the ball well after struggling in last week’s preseason debut.

The first-team defense didn’t have nearly as much success. The Texans scored 17 points against New Orleans’ starting defense. That was a big switch from last week when the defense was dominant against San Francisco.

Although the humidity in Oxnard should be much lower than Louisiana, fiery defensive coordinator Gregg Williams probably won’t notice the difference. He’s going to be looking to fix a lot of things -- and probably won't be in the best of moods -- after Matt Schaub, Arian Foster and Andre Johnson made his defense look bad.

Some other observations on the Saints.
  • I liked the way Sean Payton mixed the playing time for running backs Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles with the first-team offense. All three made contributions and Ingram scored the lone touchdown for the first offense on a powerful 1-yard run.
  • Zach Strief got the start at right tackle after the Saints released former starter Jon Stinchcomb. But Charles Brown also got some playing time and the Saints will soon have to make a decision on which of the two young tackles they want to start. On the Saints’ television broadcast, general manager Mickey Loomis said the team likes both Brown and Strief and “there’s no bad choice’’ for the starting job.
  • Joseph Morgan, an undrafted rookie from Walsh College, continues to be one of the biggest surprises of the preseason. Right after Brees and the starters left, backup quarterback Chase Daniel hit Morgan on a 56-yard touchdown pass. Morgan returned a punt for a touchdown in the preseason opener and is making a strong case for a roster spot.
  • With free safety Malcolm Jenkins sitting out, Paul Oliver got the start. Things didn’t go well for him. He was beaten in coverage several times and missed an open-field tackle on Foster.
  • Jonathan Casillas got the start over Scott Shanle at weak-side linebacker. Casillas was active, but maybe a little too eager to make a big impression. He got flagged for an unnecessary-roughness penalty for a late hit.
  • The Saints have a crowded backfield, but there might be room for Patrick Cobbs, who was signed this week. He looked good as a runner and receiver late in the game. He's also got a track record as a strong special-teams player.

Hitting the NFC South hot spots

June, 25, 2011
Time for a plunge into the NFC South mailbag.

Rick in San Diego asks what the cap hit would be if the Saints release Reggie Bush and wonders if it would be better to trade him.

Pat Yasinskas: Trading Bush really isn’t an option because the new team would have to pick up the final year of his contract, which includes an $11.8 million base salary. He currently is scheduled to cost the Saints $16 million against this year’s cap. If they release him, they still would take a $3.5 million cap hit for pro-rated bonus money, but it would be a savings of $12.5 million in cap space compared to where things currently stand.

Zac in Pfafftown, N.C., asks about the possibility of trading Jimmy Clausen and what his value might be.

PY: Nice idea and a lot of Panthers fans are wondering about trading Clausen. But really it makes no sense at this point and it’s not in their plans. Yes, the Panthers just drafted quarterback Cam Newton essentially to replace Clausen. But they still need a backup for Newton and it’s possible Clausen could be the opening-day starter if Newton is slow to pick up the playbook in training camp. There also are people within the organization who believe Clausen still has a chance to be a good NFL quarterback and was simply put in a bad spot last season. Besides, after last season, Clausen really wouldn’t have much trade value right now.

Let things play out. Clausen could play some this season and maybe he plays well and that jacks up his trade value. The Panthers could end up with a situation like the Falcons had a few years ago when they were able to get quality draft picks by trading Matt Schaub. But Clausen doesn’t have that kind of value right now and the Panthers still need him in case Newton’s not ready right away.

Matt in West Palm Beach says my column on Drew Brees never mentioned my thoughts on if he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer while my column on Tony Gonzalez was very clear that the Atlanta tight end should go in on the first ballot.

PY: I'm doing periodic looks at potential Hall of Famers from the NFC South and I started with Brees and Gonzalez. There's no set formula for this project. In fact, the approach I'll take in some upcoming installments will be far different from what you already have seen. I'm thinking about doing a combo piece where I explore the chances for veteran defensive backs Darren Sharper and Ronde Barber. I may do something similar with receivers Roddy White and Steve Smith.

The columns were written with different premises. In Brees’ case, I was only writing about his chances of making the Pro Football Hall of Fame and speculating ahead because he likely will be playing for at least a few more years. In Gonzalez’s case, I was arguing he should go in on the first ballot. That’s a pretty big issue in Gonzalez’s situation because voters have traditionally been reluctant to let tight ends go in on the first ballot. Shannon Sharpe had to wait until his third year of eligibility and will be inducted this summer.

But, if you’re asking for my thoughts on if Brees will go in on the first ballot, I think he’s got a real shot. But it will depend on if he can put up big numbers for at least a few more seasons and it wouldn’t hurt if the Saints win another championship or two.

Karim in Chicago asks if defensive end Ray Edwards really is worth the money many are expecting the Falcons to throw at him in free agency.

PY: If you look at Edwards’ sack totals, they’re not overwhelming. He had eight last season and 8.5 the year before that. He never got above five sacks in the first three seasons of his career. But the past two seasons showed an upward trend and Edwards is only 26. In these situations teams have to look at their system and personnel and project a guy into that and ask if they think he can thrive.

Lots of scouts around the league think Edwards can produce double-digit sacks in a season, but it’s not like he’s got the resume of a Julius Peppers. Conventional wisdom is that Edwards is the guy the Falcons will target, but we don’t know that for sure. Carolina’s Charles Johnson could be a target if the Panthers don’t re-sign him and there could be another guy or two the Falcons like.

Alex in Rochester, N.Y., wrote to say all the quarterback talk in Carolina is about Newton and Clausen. He wonders if Tony Pike is so bad that he doesn’t deserve mention.

PY: Pike was a sixth-round pick for a reason last season and it’s rare for a sixth-round pick to become anything more than a backup quarterback. I’m the first to admit Carolina had a unique situation last year because former coach John Fox was so opposed to the youth movement. He grudgingly played Clausen when he had no choice. When Clausen and Matt Moore were both out with injuries, the Panthers signed veteran Brian St. Pierre off the street and started him ahead of Pike.

The word out of Carolina was that Pike had shown no signs of progress in practice and that’s why Fox went with St. Pierre. I’m sure Pike will get a look from the new staff in training camp, but he better show something. Clausen and Newton are practically guaranteed roster spots and there’s talk the Panthers might bring in a veteran to mentor them. Unless he has a very strong camp, Pike might not have a roster spot.

Matt in Houston says he repeatedly has heard about the Saints’ offseason workouts, led by Brees, and wonders if other teams have been less active.

PY: Any workouts that have been done around the league have been positive because they help players stay somewhat sharp so they’ll be ready when the lockout ends. But none of these workouts are even close to what usually happens in the offseason when coaches are working with players. I’m sure Brees has done a great job with the Saints’ workouts and all indications are attendance has been great.Not to sell their efforts short in any way and I think the Saints are in the best shape of any division team coming out of the lockout, but I should point out their workouts have been open to the media and drawn far more attention than in most places.

Matt Ryan's been doing similar workouts with the Falcons, but Atlanta is a one-newspaper town and the television stations don't come out for every workout, so it’s not like there’s been wall-to-wall coverage. The Panthers didn’t do anything formal until a few weeks ago and only opened the last workout to the media. Josh Freeman has been leading workouts for offensive skill-position players for the Bucs since March, but he tried to keep them pretty private and didn’t allow much media access. The Bucs will be doing a minicamp -- that will include defensive players but won't be too heavy on linemen on either side of the ball -- next week that will be open to the media and it should get plenty of coverage.

But the bottom line is that while workouts may help a little bit, they’re no substitute for working with the coaches. Every team around the league is going to have to do some serious catching up in training camp.

Jimmy Clausen has backup plan

May, 23, 2011
Jimmy Clausen received his degree from Notre Dame over the weekend. Given the fact Clausen’s rookie year was far from spectacular and the Carolina Panthers just used the first overall pick in the draft on Cam Newton, this might have been a wise move for Clausen’s future.

Clausen returned for the spring semester to earn the remaining credits he needed to graduate with the class he entered Notre Dame with. In all seriousness, Clausen’s football career is far from over.

The Panthers still believe he can develop into a quality NFL quarterback and feel he was put in a bad spot last season when John Fox was a lame-duck coach who didn’t want to draft Clausen in the first place. But Clausen’s rookie season didn’t show the Panthers any conclusive evidence he’s a quality starter and that’s why they went out and got Newton.

The Panthers say they’ll let Newton and Clausen compete for the job in training camp. But, if the lockout doesn’t shorten training camp, Newton will probably get every benefit of the doubt and Clausen will be relegated to a backup role.

The Panthers still view Clausen as insurance in case Newton doesn’t adjust well to the NFL. They also see Clausen as a guy who could develop some trade value down the road, like Matt Schaub did when he was backing up Michael Vick in Atlanta.
QB Power Rankings IllustrationNew England's Tom Brady received six of the eight first-place votes to edge out Peyton Manning.’s NFL writers rank the top 10 quarterbacks in the league today.
Next week: Top 10 safeties.

Take eight football writers scattered from Seattle to Tampa and ask them to come up with a list of the top 10 quarterbacks in the National Football League.

Sounds easy enough, in theory. You take the golden gunslingers, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, and let everyone else fall naturally into order after that. Well, it didn’t quite work out that simply in’s Power Rankings for quarterbacks.

Heck, we couldn’t even come up with a top 10. We’re going with a top 11 because Baltimore’s Joe Flacco and Dallas’ Tony Romo tied for No. 10 with five points each in our voting system.

Even at the top, there was more disagreement than you might expect. Brady emerged as No. 1, but it wasn’t unanimous and, although Manning finished a strong second, two ballots had a man some consider the best quarterback ever at No. 3.

But let’s start analyzing the rankings by focusing on just Brady and Manning. Six voters put Brady at No. 1, but Paul Kuharsky and Mike Sando put Manning in the top spot. Let’s hear them out.

“Brady's fantastic, let's start with that,’’ said Kuharsky, who covers the AFC South, also known as “The Division Manning Built and Owns." “But no one is asked to do more or does more as a quarterback than Peyton Manning. He almost plays a different position. And while Brady's got three rings to Manning's one and is the reigning MVP, look at their touchdown and interception numbers in their last four playoff games. Manning's are better.’’

Sando has no horse in this race, because voters unanimously agreed the NFC West is the division that forgot quarterbacks, at least until Sam Bradford gets another season under his belt.

“Brady has the better stats over the last couple seasons, but the Colts would undoubtedly be far worse off than the Patriots if both teams had backups under center,’’ Sando said. “Once that was established, Brady's recent postseason struggles became a deciding factor. These quarterbacks have, to an extent, switched roles recently. Manning has won a championship more recently than Brady has won one. Brady has seven touchdowns, seven picks and one victory in his last four playoff games. Manning has seven touchdowns, two picks and two victories in his last four.’’

For rebuttal, let’s head up to the AFC East, to the man who covers Brady and the New England Patriots.

“I'm not sure why everybody needs to consider career achievements when filling out a Power Rankings ballot,’’ Tim Graham said. “Power Rankings are a snapshot of the moment and are expected to change regularly, not encompass years of work. But if the reason for selecting Manning ahead of Brady is recent playoff performances that go back a few years, then Ben Roethlisberger should be ahead of Manning with that logic. Roethlisberger has been to a pair of Super Bowls and won his second title more recently than Manning's only championship.’’

We’ll come to Roethlisberger in just a moment, but nobody put him ahead of Manning on his ballot. Kevin Seifert and I each put a quarterback ahead of Manning.

Seifert put Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers at No. 2.

“Mostly, I didn't think I could face NFC North blog readers if I voted any other way,’’ Seifert said. “Seriously, I think the big advantage Manning and Drew Brees have over Rodgers is time. They've been playing longer and therefore have mostly better career numbers and a bigger frame of reference for knowing how they will perform in the long term. But when you take out longevity, Rodgers is right there with them. All three have one Super Bowl victory. Rodgers has a higher career passer rating than any quarterback in the history of the NFL with qualified attempts, better than Manning and Brees and Brady for that matter. So to break the tie, I think you can look at what they did most recently. I think Rodgers had a better 2010 season than Manning or Brees, and that's how I would justify this order.’’

I put Brees at No. 2 and don’t really want to write a story in which I quote myself, so I’ll just say Brees and Manning each have one Super Bowl ring and Brees’ numbers over the last four years are just as good or better in most categories. Plus, Brees hasn’t spent most of his career surrounded by the likes of Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark and Edgerrin James.

In the final analysis, Brees finished third and Rodgers fourth. Roethlisberger, who has two Super Bowl rings, came in at No. 5. San Diego’s Philip Rivers, who has zero Super Bowl rings and some gaudy statistics, is No. 6. Relatively speaking, the order from Brees to Rivers, the guy who took his place with the Chargers, was pretty clear-cut.

After that, we had some close calls, strong differences of opinion and one very big coincidence. At No. 7, we’ve got a tie between Philadelphia’s Michael Vick and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, who each finished with 26 points. For those who don’t see the irony in that, Vick was the face of Atlanta’s franchise for a long time and Ryan now holds that role.

Eli Manning of the New York Giants came in at No. 9, and Flacco and Romo tied for the final spot. Only three other quarterbacks received votes. They were Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman, who I think could be near the top of this list in another year or two, Houston’s Matt Schaub and Kansas City’s Matt Cassel.

On to some other notes about the Power Rankings.

Michael Vick
Michael DeHoog/Sports Imagery/Getty ImagesOne recent year of success wasn't enough to put Eagles quarterback Michael Vick on John Clayton's ballot.
The Vick factor. Despite a hugely productive season last year, Vick was left off one very important ballot. John Clayton, the dean of all of us, didn’t have the Philadelphia quarterback on his ballot and was the only one of us who didn't.

“The only reason Michael Vick didn’t make my top 10 is because I, after an offseason of thinking, have Michael Vick as my No. 11 quarterback,’’ Clayton said. “That still makes him elite. I have 12 elite quarterbacks. Vick moved into the elite category with his performance last year, but it’s just one year. He can clearly move up the list this season, but he’s in the mix and knocking on the door of the top 10. A year ago, he wasn’t a consideration.’’

Fighting the Eli fight. Speaking of Clayton, let’s continue to ride that train as we discuss Eli Manning. Seifert, Sando, Graham and I didn’t even include Manning in our top 10, but he still made the list.

“I will continue to fight the argument Eli Manning is an elite quarterback,’’ Clayton said. “I moved him to No. 8 above Tony Romo, but if Romo had a full season last year, he might have been ahead of Eli. Remember that Carson Palmer, Brett Favre and Donovan McNabb dropped from my elite quarterback categories, which moved guys like Eli up in the mix. Eli has a Super Bowl ring. He’s a 4,000-yard quarterback. He wins.’’

No tiebreaking here. Speaking of Romo: Clayton and Sando each had him at No. 9. AFC North blogger James Walker had Romo at No. 10. That was good enough to get Romo five points and a tie with Flacco. One interesting note here: Flacco wasn’t on Walker’s ballot. I respect James for not doing the easy thing and being a "homer," although I’m sure some Baltimore fans might have different opinions.

"Joe Flacco is a good quarterback, but I don’t consider him an elite, top-10 quarterback just yet,’’ Walker said. “I need to see more consistency, especially in the playoffs and other big games against the Steelers. Flacco has a lot of natural ability, and I believe he’s ready to break through. But, in my book, Flacco needs to first prove it on the field in the biggest games to be elite.”

The final analysis. If you look at this list from a distance, you could say the Atlanta Falcons, San Diego Chargers and New England Patriots are the big winners. The Patriots, of course, have Brady, but they also drafted Cassel, whom they later traded to Kansas City. If you want to get really technical, the Chargers drafted Brees and Eli Manning and worked a draft-day trade with the Giants to end up with Rivers. If you count the few minutes Manning and Rivers were crossing paths, you could say the Chargers, at one time or another, had three guys on this list. You also could say the Falcons drafted Vick, Ryan and Schaub, who finished in a tie with Freeman for No. 12.
Western Pennsylvania is often referred to as being a cradle of quarterbacks.

[+] EnlargePat evlin
AP Photo/Darron CummingsDelaware QB Pat Devlin has an interesting background that could make him a good fit as Atlanta's backup to Matt Ryan.
It fits. Think Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly and dozens of others. But there’s one NFC South team that’s had some very good luck mining a tiny pocket of Southeastern Pennsylvania and I’m suggesting the Atlanta Falcons should reach there once again.

Not that he’ll listen and, if he does, then he might not be as smart as I think he is, but Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff should go ahead and take a shot on Delaware quarterback Pat Devlin.

It makes sense on so many levels. The Falcons already are a very good team. They’re heading into this draft with only a few big needs (a pass rusher and some speed at running back and receiver) and they’ve got their full slate of draft picks, plus two extra choices in the seventh round.

Most experts are saying Devlin’s probably a fourth- or fifth-round guy. If the Falcons get into one of those rounds and Devlin is there, go ahead and take him. The Falcons aren’t looking for a franchise quarterback or even a starter. They’ve got Matt Ryan and he’s going to be around for a decade or so.

But do you really feel like the Falcons have the greatest backup situation in the league? They’ve got Chris Redman, who can get you through a game or two with a good team around him. But, suppose Ryan goes down for a month or six weeks? That’s huge trouble. The other option is John Parker Wilson and there’s a reason why he came to the Falcons as an undrafted free agent and why he’s been stuck at the No. 3 spot on the depth chart.

That’s why the Falcons should go back to their private quarterback mine. Devlin is from Downingtown, Pa. If you know anything about Pennsylvania geography (and I grew up in that state), you know that Downingtown is one of those Philadelphia suburbs that you can drive through and be in the next town and the town after that without even knowing it.

Those are towns like Downingtown, Exton and West Chester. You could throw in Coatesville, Malvern and Paoli, but let’s just stick with the first three for the sake of simplicity.



According to Mapquest, Downingtown is 4.73 miles from Exton. You know who grew up in Exton? Ryan. I’m not saying Devlin is going to be the next Ryan and he sure wouldn’t be sitting in the fourth or fifth round if anybody really believed that. But I think Devlin has a chance to be a poor-man’s version of Ryan.

Actually, once upon a time, Devlin was a better prospect. Ryan went to private school at William Penn Charter and wasn’t all that heavily recruited before blossoming at Boston College. At nearby Downingtown East High, which Ryan could have attended, Devlin came out of high school rated as the No. 1 quarterback in the nation by many. He committed to Miami, but Joe Paterno, who doesn’t do a ton of recruiting in the Philadelphia area because he thinks it is basketball country, went in and told Devlin he needed to come to Penn State.

Devlin listened, because not many Pennsylvania kids have the guts to ignore Paterno. But things kind of got sidetracked in Devlin’s sophomore preseason when he and junior Darryl Clark finished in a dead heat for the starting job. In Paterno’s world, the veteran always gets the nod and Clark did. Devlin got some playing time that year and did well, including leading a game-winning drive against Ohio State after Clark got hurt, but he knew he wouldn’t start until his senior season and he transferred to Delaware, where the school motto is "Look what we did for Joe Flacco''.



Now, let’s pull out the map and Atlanta history one more time. If you’re in Downingtown and head south 8.03 miles, you land in West Chester. There’s a high school there called West Chester East. A few years before Ryan and Devlin surfaced, West Chester East had a quarterback named Matt Schaub. Paterno didn’t want him either, so Schaub went to Virginia and had a pretty nice career.

Back in 2004, the Falcons were in situation similar to now. They had a franchise quarterback, Michael Vick, but wanted a solid backup. They took Schaub in the third round and thought he’d be a nice insurance policy.

But a funny thing happened along the way. Schaub became perhaps the best preseason-game quarterback of our generation. The Falcons went to Tokyo in the summer of 2005 and Schaub ended up being selected the Most Valuable Player of the American Bowl.

Schaub suddenly became more than a backup. He became valuable currency. Not knowing Vick’s career was about to hit major turmoil, the Falcons traded Schaub to Houston and got second-round picks in 2007 and 2008. Schaub’s now the starter with the Texans.

I don’t know that Devlin will ever end up being an NFL starter. He has size and background in common with Ryan and Schaub, but the knock on him is he doesn’t have the world’s strongest arm.

But Devlin’s been compared to Ryan and Schaub all his life and those are good quarterbacks to be mentioned along with. Drafting those two guys worked out very well for the Falcons. Maybe they need to look into their history and pull one more gem with a trip on U.S. Highway 322.

Falcons, Panthers by the numbers

December, 30, 2010
The package of notes passed along by ESPN Stats & Information on Sunday’s game between Atlanta and Carolina focuses entirely on the Falcons. Understandable since there really is nothing left to say about the Panthers.
  • Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan has been better this season when facing five or more pass rushers. In those situations, Ryan has a 100.1 passer rating with 14 touchdowns and four interceptions. When faced with four or fewer pass rushers, Ryan has an 84.5 passer rating with 12 touchdowns and five interceptions. For the record, Carolina has blitzed on 34.2 percent of opponent dropbacks. That puts the Panthers slightly above the league average, 33.2 percent.
  • Ryan also has been at his best when throwing outside of the pocket. In those situations, he ranks in the league’s top five in completion percentage, touchdown passes and passer rating. His 98.6 passer rating outside the pocket ranks second in the league. In a bit of irony, four of the top five guys in that category are current or former NFC South quarterbacks. Houston’s Matt Schaub, who previously played for Atlanta, leads the league with a 109.6 passer rating. Philadelphia’s Michael Vick, another former Atlanta player is fourth at 93.5. Current Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman is fifth at 90.6.