The NFC East rarely lacks for summer storylines, but the uncertain futures of the division's four starting quarterbacks heading into 2015 has made for prime off-season fodder. Eli Manning and Sam Bradford are playing out the final year of their contracts in win-now organizations, Robert Griffin III is reminded at every turn of his shaky hold on the starting job in Washington and Tony Romo faces another year at the helm of the Cowboys' circus. Which of the four has the most on the line in 2015? SI.com's NFL staff makes their cases below.
Don Banks: Robert Griffin III. Manning and Bradford indeed face the pressure of playing for their next contract this season, but Griffin is playing for no less than his NFL career in 2015. At least as a viable starting quarterback option. That’s the reality of where RGIII finds himself this year in Washington, and oh how the brilliance of his 2012 rookie season seems eons ago about now.
Injuries, ineffectiveness, coaching changes and the general dysfunction that is the state of the star-crossed NFL franchise in D.C. have conspired to make us question whether Griffin’s first year in the league was a total mirage, or merely a case of stardom cruelly short-circuited. But one way or another, this season should provide the tipping point for a final assessment on Griffin’s future in Washington.
Can he finally stay healthy and in the starting lineup? Can he thrive and consistently perform in the more pocket-oriented offense that head coach Jay Gruden introduced in 2014? Can he adjust his dual-purpose game to counter the defensive adjustments opponents have made in an effort to contain his running threat? And the biggest bottom line issue of all: Can he play well enough to win the trust of his coach, a challenge that he clearly did not meet last season, Gruden’s first in Washington, when Griffin was benched and lost playing time to backups Colt McCoy and Kirk Cousins?
Griffin’s game suffered from a crisis of confidence last year, and unlike Manning and Bradford in New York and Philadelphia, RGIII enters this season carrying the burden of proof on his shoulders in regards to earning his coach's faith. Manning has won two Super Bowl rings with Tom Coughlin, and Chip Kelly very much put his reputation on the line in swinging the blockbuster Nick Foles-Bradford trade with St. Louis this spring. But Griffin starts the year on a very short lease with Gruden, and unless there’s at least some early season success, 2015 could quickly start to look a lot like last year’s quarterback carousel in Washington. It's now or never time for Griffin in D.C.
Doug Farrar: Sam Bradford. Since he was selected first overall in the 2010 draft, Bradford has failed to live up to expectations for a number of reasons. Injuries have certainly been an issue, as have the lack of consistent targets and the myopic gameplans drawn up by many of his offensive coordinators. But now, in moving from St. Louis to Philadelphia, Bradford is in an optimal situation for his talents—if he can stay on the field. Currently, Bradford is working to recover from an ACL injury and hopes to be fully ready to go by the start of training camp. If that's the case, he should easily beat out Mark Sanchez for the starting job, and at that point, in Chip Kelly's offense, the sky is the limit. In college, Bradford dominated in an offense that was all about quarterback mobility and route combinations that forced openings against defenders. Kelly's offense is similar in many ways. It's a natural fit.
The question is, after all those injuries, whether Bradford has enough left in the tank to take advantage of it. He's in the final year of his six-year rookie contract, which will give him a base salary of $12.985 million if he sticks with the team. And the Eagles are already talking about a contract extension for their new quarterback. This is the time for Bradford to prove that he can be an NFL version of the guy who tore it up in college, and he's in the best possible offense for that. All it should take is good health, the one variable that has never been on Bradford's side.
Chris Burke: Sam Bradford. Strange to think that Tony Romo is the quarterback in this division facing the fewest questions, but here we are.
I'll go with Bradford because this is a crossroads in his career. He had five seasons, give or take, as the starter in St. Louis. Three of those years were derailed by injury—a high ankle sprain in 2011, then ACL tears in both 2013 and '14. If he fails to stay healthy this season or cannot acclimate to Chip Kelly's QB-friendly attack, it is difficult to envision him getting another starting shot anytime soon.
And that's where he slips behind Robert Griffin III, in my mind. Washington already has picked up Griffin's contract option for 2016, giving him for the moment more stability than Bradford. He also is nearly three years younger than Bradford, with two fewer seasons of wear and tear under his belt. Should Griffin stumble over the duration of his contract, some coach, somewhere will still believe he can be fixed simply by getting out of Washington and into a new system.
Bradford no longer will have that benefit of the doubt after 2015. He has to find his way back onto the tracks, right now.
Bette Marston: Eli Manning. There’s no doubt that all eyes will be on Bradford and Griffin this season; Bradford will be expected to put all of Kelly’s major off-season changes into action, and RGIII will be back up against all of his critics, trying to prove that yes, he can in fact be a successful starting quarterback in the NFL.
But the quarterback in the NFC East with the most at stake this season is Manning. He needs to prove that he can play consistently, stop throwing the ball to the other team and reach the playoffs—and as a QB with two Super Bowl wins, he’s shown that he can do all of this—in order to get paid.
On top of veteran Victor Cruz and second-year star Odell Beckham Jr., Manning should have plenty of tools to lead what could be a dynamite passing game. New York added running back Shane Vereen in the off-season for some help in the backfield and selected tackle Ereck Flowers in the first round of the draft. With Flowers at tackle, Weston Richburg can shift back to center, the position he primarily played in college.
Also, this will be Manning’s second year under offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo; he seemed to warm up to the system by the end of 2014, throwing seven touchdowns and only one interception in the Giants’ final three games of the season.
With a reinforced offensive line and a healthy receiving corps, Manning has all the tools to make a playoff push, and that’s what everyone in the biggest NFL market will expect from him. The pressure’s on for the veteran QB to get the job done.
Amy Parlapiano: Robert Griffin III. Yes, the Redskins just picked up his fifth-year option, but the time is now for RGIII. Can he show any signs of returning to the form he displayed in his rookie year? And even if he can't, can he at least be a competent QB who doesn’t lose his team games? Can he at least not get benched for, you know, Colt McCoy? Last year was a mess for the Redskins, and not just because of their 4–12 record. There was a good deal of distracting drama between their first-time head coach and his fourth-year QB. Remember when Gruden called Griffin 'not even close to good enough'? Remember when Griffin said that QBs don't play well 'if their guys don't play well' and then Gruden responded that he needs to 'worry about himself'? Yeah. That was all a giant disaster.
Despite it all, RGIII is getting another shot as starter this season. The Redskins passed on defensive end Leonard Williams—arguably the draft's best overall player—to take tackle Brandon Scherff, a clear indication that they are focused on improving their offensive line and protecting their QB. But if RGIII doesn't have a bounce-back year, his time in Washington, at least as a starter, is likely over for good.
Ben Eagle: Sam Bradford.
Staying healthy will be priority No. 1 for Bradford. Barring a late-summer extension, he is playing on a one-year prove-it deal. If he can stay upright for 16 games, the sky is the limit. Bradford has all the skills needed to thrive in Kelly's offense and could soar with DeMarco Murray in the backfield and Jordan Matthews and Nelson Agholor out wide. If the injury bug returns, Bradford will find himself searching for backup jobs in 2016.
Kelly believes his sports science program can help keep players healthy. With so much on the line this season, Bradford better hope so.
Eric Single: Robert Griffin III. In a toss-up between the division's two biggest injury risks under center, the edge goes to the quarterback on the team with the less forgiving infrastructure. Although Bradford is playing for his next contract, the culture of interchangeable parts and roster turnover in Philadelphia is set up to funnel the credit or blame for the 2015 season towards Chip Kelly. Bradford could shine in the Eagles' fast-paced offense and see his leaguewide value discounted by the system that sparked his success; at the same time, he could flop in Philly and still entice a team with a more traditional system to make an offer next spring.
There will be no funneling of credit or blame away from Griffin. He would need the full 32 games left on his rookie deal now that the Redskins have picked up his fifth-year option to build back up the goodwill he's lost over the past two inconsistent and injury-riddled seasons. Moderate success this fall would double as a vote of confidence in the Jay Gruden regime and add to the momentum of new general manager Scot McCloughan's rebuild. By the end of 2016, he could be 26 years old and several tiers higher up the league's quarterback hierarchy with a long-term deal to match that rise, but the climb has to start now.