- Ashley Fox
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There is no doubt that the National Football League has evolved into a passing league. If you don't have an upper-echelon quarterback named Manning, Brady, Brees, Rodgers or Roethlisberger, you haven't won a Super Bowl in the past nine seasons. Quarterback play is essential to success.
But there also is no doubt that the NFL is getting younger at the most important position. As many as five rookies could start at quarterback when the season opens. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, there haven't been more than two rookie QBs starting in Week 1 since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.
And this is one year after we were given Cam Newton, who set the bar for rookie starting quarterbacks by throwing for 4,051 yards, eclipsing Peyton Manning's 13-year-old record. Barring an injury before the second Sunday of September, these four rookies will start: Andrew Luck for Indianapolis, Robert Griffin III for Washington, Ryan Tannehill for Miami and Brandon Weeden for Cleveland. Russell Wilson for Seattle could be the fifth. (If some vocal Eagles fans could get their wish, Nick Foles would be the sixth, but that's another topic for another day.)
To be successful, rookie quarterbacks need a ton of help. A solid offensive line is a plus, as is a reliable running back to ease some pressure and create balance. Sure-handed receivers who know how to get open are a necessity.
With that as a guide, which rookie quarterback is in the best position for success, and who might struggle? Here's a look:
Andrew Luck: We'll start with the No. 1 pick. By all accounts, Luck is mature and solid, a can't-miss prospect with a terrific attitude, an appetite to learn and a willingness to take responsibility when things don't go smoothly. Accountability will earn Luck respect in the locker room. It already has.
Although no one with the Colts will utter the R-word, the franchise is rebuilding. Indianapolis has a new general manager in Ryan Grigson, a new coach in Chuck Pagano, a new quarterback and a revamped roster that will leave Colts fans needing a cheat sheet to identify the players. This team will grow with Luck, and, although he has many positive attributes, he can't do it alone.
The offensive line has three new starters: center Samson Satele, right guard Mike McGlynn and right tackle Winston Justice. It will take time for the line to jell. The Colts' approach to the ground game appears to be running-back-by-committee, and they don't have much depth on either side of the ball. They need more pieces.
The good news for Luck is that the team will grow as he grows, and owner Jim Irsay is going to be patient. The Colts should be better than their 2-14 season a year ago, but things probably will be a little bumpy.
Robert Griffin III: None of the rookies has walked into as pressure-packed an environment as Griffin has. Redskins fans are nuts, and ever since Washington made the trade with St. Louis to be able to draft Griffin one slot after Luck, Griffin has been viewed as the savior of the franchise.
Washington has been to the playoffs just three times in the past 19 seasons. The Redskins haven't had a franchise quarterback in forever. And on it goes.
But Griffin has welcomed the pressure, and he has dazzled with his playmaking ability. He has a strong arm and an ability to improvise and extend plays. He has no fear. This will earn him much respect as long as he can protect the football.
The Redskins brought back their entire offensive line from last season, but right tackle Jammal Brown tweaked his hip on the first day of training camp and is on the physically unable to perform list. Guard Kory Lichtensteiger probably won't play in any preseason games after having offseason knee surgery, although Mike Shanahan has said he hopes Lichtensteiger will be ready for Week 1. Will the line be able to protect Griffin, and will he be able to minimize the punishment he takes outside the pocket?
The good news for Griffin is he has a lot of talented options at wide receiver. Santana Moss is a proven veteran. Pierre Garcon is stepping into a new role as a No. 1 with a new team. Leonard Hankerson showed what he could do last season in Week 11, catching eight passes for 106 yards before suffering a season-ending hip injury. Josh Morgan is also an option and is a good run-blocker.
Griffin has options, but Redskins fans aren't going to be patient.
Ryan Tannehill: First-year coach Joe Philbin elevated Tannehill to the starting job last week, opting for the rookie over Matt Moore and David Garrard, who is injured. Tannehill is familiar with offensive coordinator Mike Sherman and his West Coast offense because he played for Sherman at Texas A&M.
But there are significant questions about the Dolphins' offense. Who is the No. 1 receiver? Who is the No. 2 receiver? Who is the No. 3 receiver? Miami has solid running backs, but where are the points going to come from?
On defense, the Dolphins are switching to a 4-3 under new defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle. That is an adjustment. And there are questions in the secondary.
In a division that includes the explosive Patriots, an improved Buffalo team and the enigmatic Jets, Tannehill could have a tough season.
Brandon Weeden: Browns ownership is changing hands, which creates an environment of uncertainty that isn't healthy for anyone in the organization. No one's job is safe, and there will be extra pressure on a second-year head coach for the team to have positive results.
Weeden is part of a rebuilt offense that will rely heavily on a couple of other rookies: running back Trent Richardson, right tackle Mitchell Schwartz and wide receiver Josh Gordon, a supplemental draft pick. Richardson is coming off an arthroscopic knee procedure earlier this month, and Gordon -- who did not play in college last season -- has struggled.
The Browns need time. We will see whether new owner Jimmy Haslam will give it to them.
Russell Wilson: Might happen. Might not. It depends on what Pete Carroll decides: Go with free-agent acquisition Matt Flynn or the 5-foot-10 third-round draft pick. After Wilson dazzled Friday night, leading the Seahawks' first-teamers to three touchdowns and three field goals on their first six possessions against Kansas City, Carroll could be leaning toward Wilson. He said after the game that "I'll let you know later," The Seattle Times reported.
The Seahawks don't necessarily need a quarterback to be phenomenal to win games. They have a top-10 defense, have upgraded their pass rush and have a formidable running game. The quarterback will have to manage games that should be lower-scoring and hand off to Marshawn Lynch. Not a bad gig.