Now that Washington’s Kirk Cousins and Buffalo’s Tyrod Taylor have been named starters, that makes nine NFL teams that will open the season with a different quarterback atop the depth chart than the one that was considered the No. 1 at the close of the 2014 season. That number does not include either Tom Brady’s life in legal limbo in New England, or Carson Palmer’s return to health in Arizona after his season-ending knee injury last year, since neither situation represents a true change at the position.
But the spinning of the quarterback carousel for these nine teams, none of whom made the playoffs last year, is standard operating procedure. In 2014, all of them featured multiple starters at the game’s most pivotal position, with almost half of the list—four out of nine—slogging their way through the season with three different starting quarterbacks. So Week 1 assignments aside, no promises or projections should be made beyond mid-September.
Taking stock of the nine new No. 1’s, here’s our ranking of them in terms of the potential for their 2015 success—or lack thereof:
1. Sam Bradford, Philadelphia
So much for the oft-repeated theory that Bradford is at best a curious, and perhaps laughable, fit for Chip Kelly’s furiously-up-tempo offense. This season, Bradford has looked as if he’s been playing for Kelly since his Pop Warner days, with all four of the drives he led in August producing Eagles touchdowns. Bradford’s 10-of-10, 121 yard, three-touchdown showing against Green Bay on Saturday night—preseason or not—was the perfect sedative for all those jittery non-believers out there in Philly Nation. If he stays healthy, and we know that’s the biggest 'if' in the league this year, Bradford is going to roll up some gaudy statistics and be the league’s slam-dunk Comeback Player of the Year in 2015.
• What’s on the way? A division title and a legitimate playoff run for the Bradford-led Eagles.
2. Marcus Mariota, Tennessee
Mariota’s impressive preseason showing has quieted a lot of the noise surrounding him as well. The issue of how he’ll transition from Oregon’s spread offense to Ken Whisenhunt’s pro style attack doesn’t seem quite as high a mountain to surmount these days, does it? He has been up to the task in almost every way, sees the field very well, and has rarely looked like a rookie quarterback with the weight of a struggling franchise placed on his shoulders. This kid is the real deal, and he’ll quickly become one of the stories of the young season when he and the Titans (spoiler alert!) go into Tampa Bay in Week 1 and out-play and out-point Jameis Winston and the Bucs. You heard it here first. I’m not predicting a Titans playoff run or anything crazy like that, but Mariota is my pick for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
• What’s on the way? With a strong first year from Mariota, the Titans find their franchise quarterback and everybody knows it.
3. Tyrod Taylor, Buffalo
With his zero career starts and just 35 pass attempts in four NFL seasons (all spent behind Joe Flacco in Baltimore), Taylor is easily the riskiest pick among the nine new starting quarterbacks. But the Bills went with him over the more experienced Matt Cassel and EJ Manuel because they’re focused on the potential reward. They see in Taylor a gifted athlete who can make creative plays outside the pocket and challenge a defense with his legs in ways Cassel and Manuel can’t. But if the Bills think they have the next Russell Wilson on their hands, they’re probably setting themselves up for a letdown. The defense and running game components in Buffalo might match Seattle’s blueprint, but we have no way of knowing yet if Taylor can take care of the football and make the necessary critical third down conversions when they arise.
• What’s on the way? Some thrills and highlight reel plays from Taylor, but some killer mistakes, too. Buffalo will keep Cassel loose in the bullpen at all times.
4. Nick Foles, St. Louis
If I had to choose between his mind-boggling success of that breakthrough 2013 season in Philadelphia (27 touchdown passes and just two interceptions) and the underwhelming and injury-shortened follow-up act with last year’s Eagles, I’d confidently predict the Rams are in line for more of the latter than the former. But Philadelphia did average almost 30 points per game last season and the Eagles were 6–2 in Foles’ eight starts, and those numbers would get a statue built in your honor in offensively-challenged St. Louis. Foles alone isn’t going turn the Rams into a juggernaut, but he’s a tough-minded player who will keep coming at you, and he’ll fare well enough to pass as a first-year success in the rugged NFC West. If the running game and defense provide what Jeff Fisher thinks they will provide, Foles will only have to do his part to keep the chains moving.
• What’s on the way? The Rams will flirt with .500 all season as Foles gives them their steadiest, most reliable starter since the end of the Marc Bulger era.
5. Brian Hoyer, Houston
I’m in the minority on this one, but I see Hoyer as an underrated talent who has better play-making, mobility and leadership skills than is widely recognized. I know the bottom dropped out on him in Cleveland last year in late November, but the Browns started 7–4 with him in the lineup and I’m not sneezing at any quarterback who can help deliver seven wins for the NFL’s most snake-bitten franchise. Like dog years, seven wins in Cleveland is worth 11 or 12 in almost any other league market. I don’t think Hoyer has enough weapons around him this year in Houston to do a lot of damage in the AFC South, especially without Texans running back Arian Foster to start the season, but with that defense as the team’s strength, Hoyer will play smartly enough to keep Bill O’Brien’s team in almost every game.
• What’s on the way? Hoyer gives the Texans a chance for competent season-long quarterbacking, but he won’t elevate them to playoff material this year.
6. Ryan Fitzpatrick, New York Jets
Pun intended, it was a break for the Jets when Geno Smith had his jaw cracked by then-teammate IK Enemkpali early last month. Because Fitzpatrick was going to wind up playing ahead of Smith at some point anyway this season, due to injury or ineffectiveness, so you might as well cut to the chase and see what the veteran can do for Gang Green. In reality though, I feel like we all know by now exactly what Fitzpatrick brings to a team. He’ll be solid. Occasionally superb. Sometimes sloppy. But overall, solid. And with a Jets team that hopes to beat teams up on defense and out-execute them on a Chan Gailey-coordinated offense, that might be just enough to muster something close to a .500 season.
• What’s on the way? The Jets are better off with the journeyman Fitzpatrick than riding the Geno-coaster, but not by that much.
7. Josh McCown, Cleveland
The Browns are convinced they’re getting more of the McCown circa 2013 in Chicago than 2014 in Tampa Bay, and I don’t disagree. The Bucs were a disaster on offense last year for the most part, but plenty of that was due to losing coordinator Jeff Tedford to a health issue just before the season started, with unproven quarterbacks coach Marcus Arroyo being asked to take over the play-calling. McCown, at 36, isn’t going to conjure up memories of Randall Cunningham’s late-career renaissance of 1998, but as the Bucs themselves just found out last weekend in Tampa, he can still play very efficiently, as his 17-of-23, 117-yard, two-touchdown performance in a Browns rout proved.
• What’s on the way? Much as they were for most of last season with Hoyer at quarterback, the Browns won’t be a pushover with McCown under center. Alas, they won’t be a playoff team either, but reside somewhere in the NFL’s murky in between.
8. Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay
Admittedly I might be letting Winston’s uneven preseason color my projection of his rookie season a bit too much. But every time I hear someone rave about how high Winston’s football IQ is, I keep coming back to the question of whether he will learn to take care of the football and make sound decisions, because if there’s anything that can make a young quarterback look dumb, it’s turnovers. Winston adds excitement and electricity to the game, and he’ll sparkle at times this season with his penchant for swinging for the fences. But if he doesn’t have enough early success playing that style of game, that tendency to alternate big plays and big mistakes can really wear poorly on a team, and frustrate his teammates and the fans. The best thing the Bucs could see out of Winston this season is a steady improvement and his learning what not to do to get you beat in the NFL.
• What’s on the way? The much more typical ups and downs and growing pains experienced by a rookie quarterback, in comparison to Winston’s quarterback classmate, Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota. Five wins sound about right in Tampa Bay.
9. Kirk Cousins, Washington
I’m fairly convinced Washington could be the league’s worst team this season, so I’m not giving Cousins much of a chance to avert the train wreck that appears to be on its way in our nation’s capital. Cousins has some skills, a nice passing touch and a pretty good grasp on Jay Gruden’s offense and where the plays are to be made in it. But his history is to get careless and start turning the ball over at times, and he won’t have this job for long if he throws interceptions as often as he did last year (nine in 204 attempts, for a dismal 4.4 INT rate). Cousins won’t be the biggest reason Washington struggles once again this season, and he is the best of Gruden’s three quarterback options at the moment. But would it surprise anyone if both Colt McCoy and Robert Griffin III each get starting shots again this season, as all three quarterbacks did in 2014?
• What’s on the way? It’s football season in D.C., and that means the forecast calls for steady doom and gloom, with intermittent false hope.