New England’s soon-to-be 42-year-old starting quarterback reported to the Patriots’ mandatory mini-camp in Foxboro on Tuesday in an upbeat mood with a spring in his step, beginning his formal preparation for the defense of a record sixth Super Bowl championship. Ah, but this just in, Tom Brady is the exception, not the rule around the rest of the NFL when it comes to quarterbacks being in their happy comfort zone.
Quarterback is the most-pressurized position in football and there’s never any shortage of urgency facing QB1s as a new season looms. It’s a Not For Long type of league and last year at this time, plenty of passers entered 2018 with fluid starting situations and deliver-or-else backdrops to their seasons. Not all of them managed to produce under pressure.
Last June, Tyrod Taylor was still No. 1 in Cleveland, Miami continued to be Ryan Tannehill’s team, Baltimore had yet to end the Joe Flacco era, Blake Bortles was newly rewarded in Jacksonville, Case Keenum was the just-arrived starter in Denver, Alex Smith was taking over in Washington and Josh Rosen was the rookie heir apparent in Arizona.
Then circumstances conspired to change all of those starting situations in time, reshuffling a good bit of the deck around the league at the game’s most pivotal position. And so it goes, and likely will again in 2019. In today’s NFL, the only constant seems to be change at quarterback.
As the league approaches its six-week vacation break in mid-June, let’s take stock of the current NFL landscape and determine the 16 passers who face the greatest sense of urgency at the start of 2019. Summer is almost here and to varying degrees the heat is already on these quarterbacks.
Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay
It’s the fifth and final season of his rookie contract and he’s playing for third head coach of his Bucs tenure. ‘Nuff said. Bruce Arians was hired to play quarterback whisperer and fix Winston’s inconsistent game, but if the results don’t improve and the turnovers decline, everyone in Tampa Bay will be screaming for change.
Derek Carr, Oakland
After an off-season in which his demise as a Raider wound up being greatly exaggerated, Carr still faces “the fierce urgency of now,’’ as Dr. King once so wonderfully put it. Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock have staunchly supported Carr and didn’t draft his replacement this year, but that doesn’t mean he should feel secure in his job. Gruden is notorious for his wandering eye when it comes to quarterbacks not on his roster.
Carson Wentz, Philadelphia
It’s a different kind of pressure on Wentz in year four as an Eagle. With his last two seasons cut short in December by injury, and super-sub quarterback Nick Foles now in Jacksonville, Wentz must prove he can stay healthy and still be the The Franchise for a team that still has legit Super Bowl aspirations. It’s not a make-or-break situation for Wentz, but it’s been a while since we’ve seen the guy who looked to be the league’s MVP-in-the-making in late season 2017.
Marcus Mariota, Tennessee
Like his 2015 draft classmate, Jameis Winston, Mariota enters the final season of his rookie contract having not completely established his unquestioned future in Tennessee. He says he’ll “let it ride’’ when it comes to his contract status this season, but he has to overcome the injuries and inconsistency that have marked his first four seasons in order to secure a new deal with the Titans. He’s been good, but far from great and it hasn’t helped that Mariota is working with his third head coach and fourth new offensive coordinator in the NFL so far.
Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay
With a new head coach and a new offense and time running short in his Super Bowl-winning prime, Rodgers knows how much this fresh start in Packer-land could mean to his legacy. He seemed to partially check out on the Mike McCarthy regime in recent years, so it’s time to remind everyone of his greatness with the young and offensively-minded Matt LaFleur now in charge in Green Bay.
Andy Dalton, Cincinnati
Not to repeat myself, but if Dalton wants to extend his tenure as a starting quarterback in the NFL, he’s got to make a strong first-season impression on new Bengals coach Zac Taylor, in an offense he’s unfamiliar with. Everything seems to be on the table when it comes to changing things in Cincinnati and Dalton has to make sure he’s not seen as part of the Bengals’ losing problem.
Kirk Cousins, Minnesota
Year one of the Cousins experiment in Minnesota started with grand expectations and ended in disappointment and underachievement. He certainly didn’t bomb, but he also didn’t elevate a Vikings team that had made the NFC title game the year before under Case Keenum. That ratchets up the sense of urgency in 2019, especially since the NFC North won’t be the Bears and three so-so clubs again this season.
Joe Flacco, Denver
Banished from Baltimore, Flacco has been given a new leash on his NFL life with the perpetually quarterback-needy Broncos. But for how long, Joe? John Elway already drafted Flacco’s potential successor in Missouri’s Drew Lock and that means the clock is already ticking on Flacco’s window of opportunity in Denver. A fast start would be advised because the Broncos haven’t shown much patience at quarterback of late.
Eli Manning, New York Giants
This is it, right? We’ve finally and officially reached last stand time for Manning in New York, even if it has been three years coming. With No. 6 overall pick Daniel Jones on hand and waiting in the wings, Manning has to play well enough and win enough to keep the rookie off the field and give the Kansas City model (Alex Smith for a year, then Patrick Mahomes) a chance to be emulated. When it comes to Eli’s chances, I don’t have high expectations. Do you?
Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh
Big Ben has a rich new deal, so it’s not about the pressure to protect his job in Pittsburgh. But with no Antonio Brown or Le’Veon Bell around any more — in all that encompasses — it’s kind of all on Roethlisberger’s shoulders to make the Steelers great again. Pittsburgh’s most recent Super Bowl appearance was nine years back, and time is getting away in the Tomlin/Roethlisberger era.
Lamar Jackson, Baltimore
After a breathtaking starting debut in the second half of last season, there’s a whole new offense for Jackson to learn under first-year offensive coordinator Greg Roman, and there’s no safety net beneath him in the form of Joe Flacco either. Following up on rookie-season success can be challenging, and expectations remain high in Baltimore after last season’s return to the playoffs. Let’s see if Jackson’s game adjusts and grows, and if he can again handle anything the rough and tumble AFC North throws at him.
Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco
Pressure can take many forms and in this case it’s just a byproduct of Garoppolo missing almost all of last season with the knee injury he suffered in Week 3 in Kansas City. He’s 6-2 as a starter for the 49ers in 2017-18, but the year after an ACL tear isn’t all hiccups and giggles. San Francisco’s power structure of coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch need some success to trumpet in year three of their tenures, and the key to everything is Garoppolo coming back strong and in effective form.
Nick Foles, Jacksonville
He saved the Eagles’ season the last two years in Philadelphia, but now he’s expected to be the savior in Jacksonville, where the Jaguars were ever-so-close to being a Super Bowl team a little more than 16 months ago. Foles is leading a team built to win with defense and a running game, but there’s pressure to win this season on Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone and football czar Tom Coughlin, or their jobs could be on the line. That’s nobody’s idea of an easy-street assignment for a quarterback.
Matthew Stafford, Detroit
His huge 2017 contract extension still means job security in Motown, but the reality is Stafford has 10 NFL seasons under his belt and he has zero playoff wins and zero NFC North titles to his credit. His 2018 season wasn’t up to his usual standards and more mediocrity early in 2019 will undoubtedly bring renewed questions of how and when the Lions will replace him? Stafford needs a bounce-back year in Detroit to quiet the noise and continue one of the NFL’s longer one-team starting quarterback runs.
Dak Prescott, Dallas
The Cowboys want to extend Prescott and may wind up getting it done before he even has to start his fourth NFL regular season. But at the moment he’s still eligible for unrestricted free agency after 2019 and there’s a level of uncertainty in that reality. Prescott isn’t in the same kind of limbo as Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett, who is guaranteed to work in his walk year, but Dallas has high hopes and a lot of key players to re-sign and that means there’s pressure enough to go around.
Baker Mayfield, Cleveland
The thrill of the chase is always fun. But not everyone can handle being chased. That’s the new backdrop in Cleveland, where the Browns are the NFL’s hottest thing going and the favorites to win the AFC North and return to the playoffs for the first time in 17 years. I’m expecting the ever-confident Mayfield to thrive under the pressure of great expectations, but it’s almost time to live up to the hype in Cleveland.