NFC West: Jaws' QB Countdown

ESPN's Ron Jaworski recently gave Aaron Rodgers the edge over Peyton Manning for the top spot in his 2013 rankings for NFL starting quarterbacks.

With an eye toward the NFC West, we consider how quarterbacks from this division fared during the 2012 regular season and playoffs against the players listed above them in the rankings. Quarterbacks do not face one another directly, of course, but they're usually pivotal to a game's outcome. Teams with the higher Total QBR scores have won 86.3 percent of games since 2008 (1,103-175-2).
  • 22. Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams. 4-5-1 record, 54.8 Total QBR score, 83.5 NFL passer rating. Bradford completed 210 of 336 passes (62.5 percent) with 11 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He averaged 6.8 yards per pass attempt. Bradford was at his best (82.0 QBR score) during a Week 10 tie against the 49ers (Alex Smith started that game, but Kaepernick was behind center most of the way). Bradford also played particularly well during a 31-28 victory over Robert Griffin III's Washington Redskins. He completed 74.3 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and one interception in that game. The Rams either won, tied or lost by fewer than eight points in seven of the 10 games. Bradford was a footnote in lopsided defeats against Brady's Patriots and Rodgers' Packers. Those QBs tossed seven touchdown passes without a pick against the Rams.
  • 23. Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals. 1-9 record, 39.3 Total QBR score, 88.5 NFL passer rating. Palmer, playing for the Oakland Raiders last season, was very good (85.1 QBR score with three touchdown passes) during a 34-31 victory over Ben Roethlisberger's Pittsburgh Steelers. He played pretty well in defeat against Philip Rivers' San Diego Chargers. Palmer barely played at all (three pass attempts) during a 17-6 defeat to Cam Newton's Carolina Panthers. Setting aside the Carolina game, Palmer finished five of the remaining nine games with an NFL passer rating of at least 94.2. His Total QBR scores were quite a bit below average (no higher than 42.9) in seven of those nine games, however. That suggests Palmer put up decent passing stats in some of those games without doing much to affect the outcome.

My sense is that Kaepernick, Wilson and Bradford are gaining in these evaluations, and that Palmer should benefit from better talent around him this season. The NFC West in its current form has never projected more positively at quarterback.

Jaws' QB Countdown: Alex Smith

June, 25, 2012
We already knew the San Francisco 49ers' Alex Smith would stand as Ron Jaworski's highest-ranked quarterback from the NFC West.

We did not know how high Smith would rank, or what Jaworski would say about him in his ongoing "Countdown" segments for "SportsCenter."

Now we know.

Smith ranks 16th, ahead of Sam Bradford and two of the NFC West quarterbacks still fighting to win a starting job. The No. 27 ranking for Matt Flynn qualifies as the most provisional one of the four simply because he has played so little.

Smith ranked two spots higher than NFC West alum Matt Hasselbeck.

Some thoughts from Jaworski, courtesy of ESPN's Allison Stoneberg:

"Two statistics speak to Smith’s play in 2011. He threw the fewest passes of any 16-game starter, and he had the lowest interception percentage in the National Football League. Smith was managed brilliantly by first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh perfectly understood his quarterback's strengths and limitations.

"The majority of Smith's 20-plus-yard completions came on first down, primarily out of base personnel. Play-action was also utilized. The 49ers got a lot of single-high safety coverages. That defined the reads for Smith. Here [refers to video highlight], he initially looked left; he saw the safety match up to Vernon Davis. He knew he had Michael Crabtree man-to-man on the crosser. The shot plays also came on first-and-10; the result of great design, attacking and breaking down anticipated coverages. Again, it was single high. When the safety jumped the crossing route, Smith hit Crabtree over the top. The wheel route was featured in the 49ers pass game. That played to Smith's passing strengths. He throws with excellent touch and consistent accuracy.

"I was really impressed with Smith in the playoff win against the Saints. He read the blitz, he was decisive and accurate. He pulled the trigger on the tight-window throws. The winning touchdown showed his development as a quarterback. Davis was in the tight slot. Smith's throw had to beat the deep safety to that side. You have to throw it early with great anticipation.

"Right here [more video], Smith began his delivery. That is as good as it gets, folks. The throw made this touchdown. You know what offensive coaches always emphasize? Run the offense the way it is structured and designed. Alex Smith did that with great efficiency. He's not the most physically gifted and talented thrower in the league, but he played at a very high level in 2011, and I expect the same in 2012."

I suspect Harbaugh and Smith can live with that assessment relative to so many others. Jaworski did mention Smith's limitations early. He did credit Harbaugh for "managing" Smith. Those types of comments diminish Smith; Smith and Harbaugh have appeared sensitive to those types of characterizations.

But Jaworski also hailed Smith for his touch and consistent accuracy. He said he expected Smith to continue producing at a high level. If that happens, the already shrinking references to "limitations" and "managing" might disappear from the analyses altogether.

Jaws' QB Countdown: Sam Bradford

June, 21, 2012
A year ago, when the San Francisco 49ers were approaching training camp, ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer told me he suspected Alex Smith would be the best quarterback in the NFC West for 2011.

The thought caught me a bit off-guard. Sam Bradford seemed to be ascending. The Arizona Cardinals were excited about Kevin Kolb. Smith hadn't even consistently proved he could be the best quarterback on the 49ers' roster.

When I followed up with Dilfer -- we had been speaking informally at 49ers headquarters following a practice -- he wasn't necessarily down on Bradford, Kolb or the other quarterbacks. He just thought Smith was better prepared than the others to succeed under the circumstances.

Smith was the best quarterback in the division last season, and now we know another ESPN analyst, Ron Jaworski, expects more of the same this season. "Jaws' QB Countdown" unveiled the St. Louis Rams' Sam Bradford as the 20th-ranked projected starter in the NFL, ahead of Kolb (25th) and Seattle's Matt Flynn (27th). We do not yet know how high Smith will rank, just that it'll be somewhere among the top 19.

In the meantime, Jaworski offered the following on-air thoughts regarding Bradford:
"I remember studying him when he came out of Oklahoma in 2010. What I really liked was his ability to sit in the pocket on his back foot, then drive through his throws and deliver with velocity and accuracy. Then I saw this red-zone throw in his fourth game in his rookie season [20-3 victory over Seattle in 2010], and I was even more impressed.

"Let me show you why that touchdown [a 15-yarder to Brandon Gibson] was so special. The defense dropped eight in coverage. That really squeezes your passing lanes. Here’s the throw. That is where Brandon Gibson caught the ball. Bradford delivered it right here. That is rare anticipation, for any quarterback, much less a rookie. There is no question Bradford is a top arm talent. At his best, he is a commanding pocket passer with a compact delivery and a strong arm. He can also get outside the pocket, extend plays and throw accurately on the run, even deep down the field.

"In 2011, Bradford, with very few exceptions, did not look like the same confident pocket quarterback that I saw as a rookie. He was tentative in the pocket, a function of both erratic offensive line play and receivers that could not win on the outside. But I was troubled by Bradford’s increasing tendency to anticipate the rush. I call that cabin fever. And Bradford struggled with that.

"2012 is an important year. The Rams' new coaching staff will manage Bradford in a run-first approach that ideally limits risk. But this is the NFL. You have to stand firm in the pocket and deliver the football. Right now, Bradford is a question mark."

I think it's clear Bradford has the talent. It's also clear the window could close on him if the Rams don't improve around him. Early indications suggest the Rams' new leadership is on its way to upgrading the roster. The team also has four first-round picks over the next two seasons.

The arrow continues to point up for Bradford's career, in my view. He has shown the competitive drive and toughness players need to persevere. We saw that when Bradford took every offensive snap as a rookie amid concerns over his durability. We saw it again last season when he fought through a high-ankle sprain to return ahead of schedule and stay on the field when he could hardly move.

Jaws' QB Countdown: Kevin Kolb

June, 18, 2012
Ron Jaworski isn't among those assuming Seattle will get better quarterback play than Arizona during the 2012 NFL season.

The ESPN analyst has listed the Cardinals' Kevin Kolb 25th, two spots above Seattle's Matt Flynn, in his rankings for projected starting quarterbacks. Neither Kolb nor Flynn has been named the starter. Both are the highest-paid quarterbacks on their rosters. Both appear to be favorites to win the job. Which one outplays the other stands as the No. 1 variable in projecting which team will fare better during the 2012 season.

Jaworksi's thoughts on Kolb from his ongoing QB Countdown series, which aired over the weekend and will conclude July 10:
"Many forget that Kevin went through the 2010 offseason and training camp as the Eagles' starting quarterback. 2011 was not his first year as an NFL starter. And quite honestly, I was a little disappointed in Kolb last year in Arizona.

"But Kevin has always been very good recognizing pressure and coverages. He’s an intelligent quarterback who sees the field very well. It’s one reason he was efficient versus the blitz in 2011. Kolb read the blitz before the snap [during a play for which ESPN showed highlights]. He knew he did not have enough blockers. He had three to block four; the outside rusher could not be accounted for. So Kolb moved away from the pressure to give himself room and time to deliver the ball. He knew he would get hit; that was a big-time throw.

"When Kolb reads pressure and coverage correctly, he’s decisive. He looks like a quality starter. If what he expects is not there, he’s prone to sacks and turnovers. In addition, Kolb is not very good outside the pocket. He did not show the ability to effectively extend plays.

"Entering 2012, Kolb is a pocket quarterback who must sharpen and further develop his pocket skills. That’s the objective. One final point I need to make that relates to that -– Kevin missed too many open receivers. He left far too many plays on the field. I always liked Kevin Kolb as a quarterback. I know he approaches the game the right way. 2012 is his crossroads season. I would expect to see improvement. But right now, he’s in the bottom-third of my quarterback rankings."

Those criticisms match up with my perceptions and with what the numbers say. Kolb's NFL passer rating against five or more rushers was an impressive 92.5. But he took sacks on 11.2 percent of these plays, the eighth-highest rate in the NFL among quarterbacks with at least 70 attempts in these situations (Tarvaris Jackson, John Skelton and Alex Smith ranked among the five worst in this category). That high sack percentage against five-plus rushers helped explain why Kolb scored only 37.9 out of 100 in Total QBR in these situations.

Kolb's numbers were worse when opponents rushed at least one defensive back (70.7 NFL passer rating, 27.1 QBR).

Durability is a primary concern for Kolb. He suffered a concussion in the 2010 opener. He missed seven games last season. He'll need to do a better job responding to the rush. That's been a point of emphasis for the Cardinals this offseason and one I'll explore more closely later in the week.

Jaws' QB Countdown: Matt Flynn

June, 15, 2012
The Seattle Seahawks have not yet determined where Matt Flynn ranks on their depth chart. They might not know for another month or longer.

Jaws' QB Countdown, the 30-part series featuring analysis from ESPN's Ron Jaworski, put Flynn at No. 1 in Seattle and No. 27 among projected NFL starters for 2012.

[+] EnlargeMatt Flynn
Joe Nicholson/US PresswireMatt Flynn is angling to be the starting quarterback in Seattle.
That seems reasonable given that Flynn owns only two career starts and has not yet won the starting job. The players ranked behind Flynn -- Christian Ponder, Blaine Gabbert and Tim Tebow -- also lack extensive track records. Tebow isn't even a starter.

Jaworski's take on Flynn:
"Matt Flynn has started two games in his four-year NFL career. To his credit, though, he played well in both, including a record-setting performance at the end of 2011. But, make no mistake, Flynn is a projection at this point. That's why he's 27th on my list.

"I broke down both of Flynn's starts: New England in 2010 and Detroit last season. What I saw was a timing and rhythm passer who's decisive with his reads and his throws. He was consistently accurate in the short to intermediate areas. He displayed a nice feel in the pocket with some subtle movements, like this slight shoulder roll to manipulate the coverage."

At this point in the analysis, SportsCenter showed a clip of Flynn, then with Green Bay, tossing a touchdown pass to James Jones against New England.
"Flynn also showed the ability to get out of the pocket and throw on the run. But the more throws I watched, the more his arm strength limitations were evident. The fade is not an arm-strength throw. It's more of a touch throw. In fact, I was concerned that his few deep balls lost energy at the back end. They had a tendency to die."

The video then showed another Flynn touchdown pass, this one against Detroit.
"This touchdown came off play-action. And, of course, in Seattle with Marshawn Lynch, I would expect to see a heavier dose of it. But, what have we always known about play-action? You do not have to be a strong running team to execute it effectively. Look at that safety react to the stretch-run action [also vs. Detroit]. That left Jordy Nelson one-on-one with the corner with no safety help in the deep middle. It was a shock play, a specific call in a specific situation, designed to produce a big play.

"I believe Flynn can be a successful NFL starter. I'm reminded of Bill Walsh and his strong belief that a good coach manipulates the play of his quarterback with his play concepts and his play-calling. That will have to be the case with Flynn in Seattle."

Jaworski was a strong-armed quarterback when he played. Strong-armed quarterbacks -- think Phil Simms, who raised questions about Andrew Luck -- might place additional value on that trait. I don't know if that's the case with Jaworski in relation to Flynn, but the thought came to mind.

The series continues Friday with Jaworski's 26th-ranked starting quarterback.