Commentary

Rookie review: High marks for QBs

Patriots' Ryan Mallett (164 yards) looks best of all the first-year quarterbacks

Originally Published: August 14, 2011
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the first week of preseason was how well rookie quarterbacks played.

For a class of quarterbacks deprived of minicamps, organized team activities and offseason coaching, the 2011 quarterback class exceeded expectations. Sure, most didn't face elaborate defensive game plans, but what was considered a raw group of developmental quarterbacks looked pretty poised in their debuts.

Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers and Jake Locker of the Tennessee Titans each had passing grades. Newton may not have looked great statisically, completing 8 of 19 passes for 134 yards, but he passed the eyeball test. Newton looked poised, and his throws were on the mark against the New York Giants. From what he's shown in practice and in his first game, don't be surprised if he is the Week 1 starter.

Locker looked even better, completing 7 of 10 passes for 89 yards and a touchdown against the Vikings. His quarterback rating was a staggering 130.8. He was poised in the pocket and extremely accurate throwing on the run.

Blaine Gabbert showed a strong presence from the pocket in the Jacksonville Jaguars' preseason opener. He completed 9 of 16 passes and didn't look lost.

The best performance was by Ryan Mallett of the Patriots. He burned the Jaguars for 12 completions in 19 attempts for 164 yards. If he shows that skill through the preseason, the Patriots could be getting trade calls for a higher value than the third-round pick they used to put him on the bench behind Tom Brady and Brian Hoyer.

Andy Dalton of the Cincinnati Bengals used mostly three-step drops and safe, short passes in his debut against the Detroit Lions. San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick struggled against Gregg Williams' aggressive blitzing packages against the Saints. Minnesota's Christian Ponder was sacked three times and struggled against the rush.

For having little to no offseason, though, these young quarterbacks offered optimism for their teams.

From the inbox

Q: While I understand that the NFL is bigger, stronger and faster than in the past, has anyone given any thought to the idea that less contact/less pad work actually contributes to more injury? I have the same basic question specifically directed at QBs -- they so rarely get hit. The old Oklahoma drill is brutal, but I am a firm believer in learning "how to get hit." While the fundamentals of football should be ingrained by the time someone gets to the NFL, we see poor technique all the time and poor technique (i.e. spearing, tackling with shoulders rather than extending your arms and hitting and wrapping) leads to more injuries. My belief is that the abbreviated practice rules are going to cause more injuries. They just will occur on the field at "game speed" rather than in practice.

Joel in Guthrie Center, Iowa

A: Joel, you sound as though you have coaching experience and have the old-school style of coaching. You may be right. The next couple years of "practice-lite'' treatment may prove your point. Concussions are the big reason for changes. Too many studies are showing the repeated trauma from hits -- even in practice -- have led to concussion problems for players. What can't be changed is that football is a violent sport. The players and the league are moving toward plenty of safety rules, but it's starting to look as though the league isn't going back into the old-style coaching tactics.

Q: The Philadelphia Eagles have had a unbelievable offseason and have the feel of the '08 New England Patriots team that went undefeated. The Eagles, along with the Seattle Seahawks, Pats and San Diego Chargers, have had the best offseasons. At the opposite end of the spectrum, is there another team having as bad an offseason as the New York Giants?

Garren in Clifton Park. N.J.

A: I'm with you. This has been a bad offseason for the Giants -- too many losses and not enough gains. If you include departed free agents Kevin Boss and Steve Smith, they are down four starters on offense. Their first-round pick, cornerback Prince Amukamura, is out with a stress fracture of the foot. I've had serious concerns about their offensive line for the past couple of years, and I don't think David Baas can solve all the problems there. They could have trouble at left tackle with Will Beatty. Things are looking good in Philadelphia and Dallas, and the Giants may be in a tough spot.

Q: Is Jim Harbaugh himself a reason to believe the San Francisco 49ers are heading in the right direction? It seems like there were reports or instances where players may have felt so, because of his personal conversations with them, and then they ultimately returned or signed with the team. I'm specifically thinking Alex Smith, Donte Whitner, Carlos Rogers, Braylon Edwards.

Ray in Bakersfield, Calif.

A: You've seen the positive influence of Harbaugh in the last week. Most importantly, the guy can coach. He runs smart, efficient practices that give the team a purpose and a plan. Secondly, when given the chance to recruit players such as Donte Whitner and Braylon Edwards, he talked them into signing contracts. I'm not ready to say they are a playoff team yet, but I do think he is pointing them in the right direction.

Q: We keep on hearing more and more rumblings of a team moving to Los Angeles, and now I hear they approved the framework to build an NFL stadium. I keep hearing about teams like the Buffalo Bills, Minnesota Vikings, Chargers and Jacksonville Jaguars potentially being the team to move. Who do you think will be the team moving to L.A., and when it could happen? Also, wouldn't they have to restructure the divisions if a team like Buffalo or Minnesota moved?

Jake in San Jose, Calif.

A: The list starts with the San Diego Chargers. If they can't get the city of San Diego to sign off on a downtown stadium, I could see the Chargers moving up the coast. They have what it takes to be successful. They have a stud at quarterback, Philip Rivers. They have a hot offense. They are a winning team. Owner Dean Spanos is doing everything to keep the team in San Diego. But with Chargers' lease up at the end of the year, San Diego has to do something to prevent them from being the Los Angeles Chargers.

[+] EnlargeMatthew Stafford
Andrew Weber/US PresswireLions QB Matthew Stafford missed most of last season with a shoulder injury.
Q: I guess just to be prepared for the season given that the Detroit Lions have a tendency to disappoint I read through some of the old Power Rankings comments from 2002 til last year. Oddly, some of them sound similar to what we're hearing now. Given that at one point there was a good feeling about Joey Harrington, Kevin Jones, Charles Rogers and others that the Lions drafted, what happened? Harrington was inconsistent, yes, but so was Matt Schaub at first in Houston. Does this mean the Lions should have tried him out a little longer? Give him some more consistency coaching-wise? I know injuries derailed Jones, but I also wonder if it might have been lack of desire on his part?

Gary in Middlebury, Ind.

A: The difference is that the organization is doing a better job of evaluating and getting players. You saw how Matt Millen put together the team. Too many times, you'd look on the field and you'd see about five or six starters who wouldn't be on any other team. This time it's different. Martin Mayhew, the general manager, is getting better starters. It's still going to take time, though. The Lions need one or two more drafts to fill out the defense for starters and depth. They junked the entire starting lineup from three years ago, and no team can rebuild a unit that quickly. You are right to be concerned about the backfield. But I like Matthew Stafford better than Joey Harrington. Sure, Stafford had some tough breaks with injuries, but I think you'll see more of him over the next couple of years and will like what you see.

Q: The Tampa 2 defense has been becoming a dinosaur for years. Heck, teams don't even use 4-3 looks much anymore! But the Bears got to the NFC Championship last year using the Cover 2 scheme mostly because of the success of Julius Peppers at not giving quarterbacks time. The Eagles acquired a pass-rushing end in Jason Babin to complement Trent Cole on the outside. As everyone knows, they also got Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to help in the secondary. The Eagles, as well as the Bears, will be running a Tampa 2 scheme. Are these two teams resurrecting the 4-3 and Cover 2 schemes of old?

Cameron in Lebanon, Pa.

A: The pure Cover 2 isn't a dinosaur, but those using it have to change some. New England, Cleveland and Denver have junked the 3-4 to go to the 4-3. The 4-3 is making a comeback. But teams are making those moves with more man-to-man coverage and better cornerback play. Quarterbacks are too good for defenses to sit in a Cover 2 zone and not expect to be beaten. Slot receivers and tight ends pick apart the Cover 2. That's why the best teams have to have a good mix of man and zone. The Cover 2 won't go away, but it has to be updated with other options to be effective.

[+] EnlargeGreg Olsen
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonGreg Olsen, above, and Jeremy Shockey give the Panthers a solid 1-2 punch at tight end.
Q: Everyone is saying the Panthers are "the same team as last year," so don't expect much. I'd say DeAngelo Williams, Jeff Otah and Thomas Davis back from injuries, the additions of Greg Olsen, Jeremy Shockey, and Legedu Naanee, and Jon Beason back as middle linebacker make them a completely different team from last year.

Gary in Orange, Calif.

A: I agree with you. The Carolina Panthers arguably had four of the top 15 free agents on the open market and re-signed all four. They have a good offensive line. Their linebacking corps is one of the highest paid and among the best in the game. They have runners. They have Steve Smith and some interesting young receivers. Adding Olsen was huge. So is the addition of Shockey. It's going to take time for the young quarterbacks to develop, but once Cam Newton comes on, the Panthers have a chance to be a decent football team.

Q: I am still hearing talk that the Arizona Cardinals need a pass-rusher. In your expert opinion, do you believe the Cardinals have enough now to make a difference? I mean, there are only so many elite pass-rushers out there. At what point do you just stop and realize that what you have will have to work? A lot also depends on the schemes, right?

Edward in Tempe, Ariz.

A: The pass rush is one area the Cardinals didn't address during the offseason, but they did more than a lot of people expected. They are deeper along the offensive line. They have a legitimate quarterback (Kevin Kolb). They are deep at wide receiver. I love the addition of Stewart Bradley at inside linebacker. Once they extend the contract of Larry Fitzgerald, they can focus on upgrading the pass rush, particularly at outside linebacker.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Follow Clayton on Twitter @ClaytonESPN

John Clayton

NFL senior writer