With Peyton Manning’s retirement and Tom Brady’s looming four-game suspension, there will be a void on the marquee this year for the quarterback capable of stepping up.

By The SI Staff
May 20, 2016

Nothing is guaranteed more than a year out in the NFL, but for the franchise players at the game’s most important position, reputations can swing on a week-to-week basis. Even among the league’s quarterbacks, there are a number of veterans who enter this season with a little more on the line, whether injuries have thrown a wrench in their upward trajectory or off-field drama has put their on-field performance under additional scrutiny. And with Peyton Manning’s retirement and Tom Brady’s looming four-game suspension, there will be a void on the marquee this year for the quarterback capable of stepping up. This week, SI.com's Don Banks, Chris Burke, Doug Farrar, Melissa Jacobs and Amy Parlapiano each named the quarterback they believe has the most to prove in 2016. Eric Single explores the runner-ups.

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Even if his pass protection manages to keep him pristine in the pocket, no quarterback in the NFL will face the unrelenting pressure that Arizona’s Carson Palmer will be subjected to this season. And there won’t be any escaping it, at least until January rolls around, when he could make it all go away.

That’s the stark reality that Palmer faces in 2016. It boils down to this: After an MVP-level season, Palmer experienced a monumental meltdown in the playoffs for a Cardinals team that was on the cusp of a Super Bowl. And in built-to-win-now Arizona, the Super Bowl remains the goal. There’s pressure of varying degrees on a host of starting quarterbacks this year, but for Palmer, the heat on him is at a whole different level. And it can’t be dismissed for months and months.

No matter what he accomplishes in the regular season—even if he leads the Cardinals to another stellar 13–3 record and a second consecutive title in the rugged NFC West—Palmer has to deal with the stigma that he clearly buckled under the pressure in last year’s playoffs. He looked shaky at times in Arizona’s epic 26–20 overtime win over visiting Green Bay in the divisional round, but that uneven performance was nothing compared to his six-turnover (four interceptions, two fumbles lost) catastrophe in the Cardinals’ stunning 49–15 collapse at Carolina in the NFC Championship Game.

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All quarterbacks have to learn to turn the page after a rough showing, but has there ever been a quarterback turning the page after a disaster like Palmer’s? He’s 36 and playing for an organization that has incrementally improved in each of coach Bruce Arians’s three seasons (from 10–6, to 11–5, to 13–3), and there’s no time to waste. By leaps and bounds, this is the most talented team Palmer has ever played for, and if he can’t get these Cardinals to the Super Bowl, he will probably never get a better shot to scale the NFL’s ultimate summit. It’s now or never for Palmer—and perhaps the 63-year-old Arians—too, and it’s all riding on how the No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft responds to that sense of urgency.

Right now, Palmer is saying all the right things about flushing his putrid eight-turnover postseason and moving on, but what else can he do? The only thing that matters now is how he plays if the Cardinals can get back to the playoffs, and there are miles and miles to go before that opportunity again knocks. What he does in January will be the only answer that anyone remembers anyway.

“You just turn the page,” Palmer told the Arizona Republic earlier this off-season. “You have to. There is no dwelling. There is no feeling sorry for yourself. There is no locking yourself in a closet. I’ve played 150-something games. You can’t let one game define you. You just have to move on ... There’s a lot of pressure, but it’s a good pressure.”

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Perhaps, but for now, the debacle against Carolina will define Palmer until he forces the narrative to change. His 29–9 record as Arizona’s starter since 2013 is not the statistic that lingers on everyone’s mind at the moment. Instead it’s the memory of him falling apart against Carolina, essentially robbing Arizona of whatever little chance it had to beat the 16–1 Panthers on that day.

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Yes, the gambling Cardinals defense was very much a culprit as well in Charlotte, and to be sure, Palmer still seemed to be battling the effects of the right index finger he dislocated in a Week 15 blowout win over Philadelphia. But those are details that tend to get lost in the NFL, where the quarterback gets both the outsized blame and credit no matter how fair or unfair it may be.

The bottom line is that Palmer didn’t play remotely well enough to win the biggest game of his career. And like it or not, that will be the theme of the Cardinals’ 2016 season: their Super Bowl chances disintegrated when they were poised on the doorstep last January. Just as Cam Newton and the Panthers must live down their uncharacteristic struggles on Super Bowl Sunday, the Cardinals this year will be focused on trying to make amends for the ugly events of the NFC title game. And those efforts start with making up for Palmer’s wildly disappointing play.

A very real issue that will go largely unspoken this year in Arizona is how Palmer must somehow regain the trust of the teammates and coaches he let down last January. It’s a challenge he can’t completely accomplish, however, until he performs in the playoffs like he does in the regular season for the Cardinals. It’s a classic Catch-22, and anyone in Arizona who says there has been no loss of faith in No. 3 is not being honest. Until they see Palmer get it done in January, where he’s just 1–3 in his career as a starter, there will be doubts about whether he can.   

That’s the unremitting pressure Carson Palmer must cope with this season. And even if he’s perfect from September through December, the only thing that really matters is what comes after that.

Stay tuned all week as other SI.com NFL analysts make their respective cases for the quarterback with the most to prove in 2016. 

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Ryan Tannehill is not a bad starting quarterback. But is he a good one? Can he ever be great?

This is the conundrum facing franchises trapped in a veritable no man’s land at the game’s most important position: They lack a truly “elite” option at QB, but are still better off than those clubs that are unsure of who’ll be taking snaps in 2016. Teams in this murky gray area suffer from the NFL treadmill effect. They are led by quarterbacks who keep their teams running but struggle to ever really go anywhere.

Quarterbacks like Tannehill.

QBs with the most to prove: Carson Palmer faces unrelenting pressure

The 27-year-old has been Miami’s starter for four full seasons now, ever since he was the No. 8 pick in the 2012 draft. He has 64 career starts, over 15,000 career passing yards and a total of 92 touchdowns (87 passing, five rushing) to his credit. He’ll also be on his fourth NFL offensive coordinator in the 2016 season. After he struggled to fully click with former play caller Bill Lazor, Tannehill was relegated rather openly to a game manager role under interim coach Dan Campbell and OC Zac Taylor.

And now, Adam Gase’s arrival in Miami marks a fork in the road of Tannehill’s career. If the Dolphins' new head coach, who helped turn Tim Tebow into a playoff-winning QB in Denver and then revitalized Jay Cutler in 2015 as Chicago’s offensive coordinator, cannot elevate Tannehill from that frustrating middle ground to an upper-echelon starter, then perhaps it cannot be done at all.

Tannehill is a year removed from signing a six-year, $96 million extension which carries his contract through 2020. The structure of said contract, however, puts the onus on him now. Per OvertheCap.com, the Dolphins could shave $9.9 million off their cap by releasing Tannehill prior to 2017, with the number jumping to $15.2 and $18.7 million for the ’18 and ’19 seasons, respectively.

“We do have a different group than what we had in Chicago as far as the skill set, where are our strengths are,” said Gase at the 2016 scouting combine. “We’re going to have to figure out what we do best and that’s what we're going to hang our hat on.”

How much of the perceived strength will lie with Tannehill?

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Make no mistake: This is still Tannehill’s team, for the time being. New general manager Chris Grier spoke during his introductory press conference back in January of trying to “build competition ... not just for Ryan, but for [Ndamukong] Suh, everybody on our roster.” He has yet to do that under center, at least on paper. Tannehill is followed on the depth chart by longtime Miami backup Matt Moore, 2016 seventh-round pick Brandon Doughty, Cardinals castoff Logan Thomas and Zac Dysert, who spent two seasons in Gase’s system with Denver.

Barring a stunner in training camp, none of those names is a threat to push Tannehill for the 2016 job. And given the quarterback landscape around the league, Miami should be in no rush to toss out Tannehill. Barring a full-on tank so they can draft a QB early in 2017, parting ways with their current starter would leave the Dolphins in the same desperation-fueled purgatory teams like Houston, Cleveland, Denver and the Jets are in this off-season. Is an $18 million-per-year deal, like what the Texans handed Brock Osweiler, really preferable to the $20 million cap hit Tannehill will carry next season?

Right now, probably not, but Tannehill still has to prove he is worthy of such a hefty commitment under a new coaching/GM regime. The Dolphins invested heavily during this year’s draft to ensure he has pieces to work with, adding falling first-round tackle Laremy Tunsil and WR Leonte Carroo in the third round. Grier also picked up RB Kenyan Drake to pair with Jay Ajayi, the expected fill-in for No. 1 back Lamar Miller, who is now in Houston.

Yes, there are other factors at play here, like how quickly the oft-criticized offensive line jells, DeVante Parker’s health and the ceiling for an Ajayi/Drake duo. But eventually, it will all boil down to what Tannehill can and cannot do.

One change expected to be on the docket for him is more control over play-to-play operations. The Dolphins’ 2015 staffs stripped him of much of his ability to improvise on the fly via audibles at the line. Gase empowered Cutler, and Peyton Manning before him in Denver, with a great deal of autonomy.

“The quarterback in this system does have the ability to move in and out of plays, and it’s going to be how much can our group handle,” Gase said in February. “Early on, it’s probably not going to be as much as it will be later.”

Therein lies an important footnote: There will be some built-in wiggle room for Tannehill as this transition continues. Last training camp, Gase all but ensured the Bears would scuffle offensively out of the gate before finding their footing. Sure enough, Chicago’s offense needed five or six games to hit its stride.

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Still, Miami has yet to top .500 with Tannehill and has made the playoffs just once in the past 13 seasons, so patience for its QB likely won’t last too long. And as Tannehill heads into his fifth year as the starter, with a substantial pay increase on the horizon, he has minimal chances remaining to show he can be anything more than an average NFL quarterback.

Stay tuned all week as other SI.com NFL analysts make their respective cases for the quarterback with the most to prove in 2016.

Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Nothing has ever been given to Bills starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor. He’s had to earn everything in the NFL from the start. A sixth-round pick in the 2011 draft out of Virginia Tech, Taylor frequently impressed for the Ravens in the preseason but was stuck behind Joe Flacco on the depth chart. Over four seasons in Baltimore, Taylor completed 19 of 35 passes for 199 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions, adding 27 rushes for 136 yards and a touchdown—far from earth-shattering totals, which limited his options in free agency during the 2015 off-season.

He signed a three-year, $3.35 million contract with the Bills, a deal that would void in the final year if he played more than 50% of the snaps in the 2015 or 2016 seasons. To do that, he would have to win a three-headed quarterback competition with EJ Manuel and Matt Cassel, administered by head coach Rex Ryan and offensive coordinator Greg Roman.

That’s just what he did, and last year for the first time in his pro career, Taylor entered the season as a starter. He got off to a rocky start, with modest numbers in a victorious season opener against the Colts and a three-interception game the next week against the Patriots, but he settled in nicely. After Week 2, Taylor threw 16 touchdowns and three interceptions, electrifying Buffalo’s long-dormant passing offense with several excellent, accurate deep throws, connection especially well with receiver Sammy Watkins. He finished 2015 with 18.2% of his 380 attempts traveling 20 yards or more in the air (per Pro Football Focus), the highest percentage of deep throws among all starting quarterbacks in the league. On those deep passes, he totaled 1,014 yards and 12 touchdowns—both top-five numbers—with a completion rate just over 44%.

QBs with the most to prove in 2016: Carson Palmer | Ryan Tannehill

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When under pressure, Taylor showed an excellent understanding of how to extend a play with his legs and when to use them: He gained 568 yards and scored four touchdowns on 104 rushes. With very little regular season experience against first-string NFL defenses and their advanced schemes, Taylor proved to be the perfect quarterback for the Bills to establish a relatively steady passing game and a league-leading rushing attack.

Of course, now he has to do it again—with the pressure of the starter’s role on his back from the start. Taylor must prove to Buffalo’s coaching staff and general manager Doug Whaley that he is the long-term solution for a team that hasn’t seen the postseason in this millennium. Buffalo’s 8–8 record and Taylor’s status as an alternate Pro Bowler were steps in the right direction, but it’s clear that as much as he’s shown, the Bills need to see more from Taylor before they give him the lucrative contract extension he desires.

“He’s warranted enough for us to continue down the road to see if he can be the franchise guy of the future,” Whaley said in January. “I mean, if you think about it ... if I told you a former sixth-round pick in his first year starting went 8–6, and with his stats and his quarterback rating and what he’s brought to the team, I think it warrants him a chance to prove it. Absolutely. And the thing that we like the most about him is the locker room believes in him, we believe in him, and hopefully the fans believe in him.”

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No offense designed by Roman and overseen by Ryan is ever going to lead the NFL in passing attempts, and Taylor seems to know that. However, a repeat performance may be difficult in 2016. Watkins recently suffered a fractured foot, and his timetable for return could sideline him for part of training camp. In addition, there’s no guarantee that running back LeSean McCoy won’t face league discipline from his alleged role in a February nightclub brawl, though charges have not been filed. There’s also the matter of Taylor’s injury history. He played through shoulder and knee injuries in 2015, but his relatively slight build (6' 0", 221 pounds) and playing style puts him at risk for more serious issues.

Last year, the Bills got an unexpected bargain by putting their faith in a former backup, who generated starter’s numbers for an $833,333 cap hit. This season, Taylor will either prove his worth as a long-term starter and raise his price accordingly or fall back to the middle and struggle to gain a foothold as anything more than a reliable reserve. The tape indicates that Taylor is more than a one-year wonder, but the circumstances surrounding 2016 undoubtedly make it the most important season of his career.

Stay tuned all week as other SI.com NFL analysts make their respective cases for the quarterback with the most to prove in 2016.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Last season was unquestionably Andrew Luck’s worst as a professional. A partially separated shoulder, a lacerated kidney and a partial tear of the abdomen trimmed Luck’s hellacious season to just seven starts. There were a bevy of un-Luck-like stats sprinkled throughout—the most telling were 12 interceptions on less than 2,000 passing yards. But the more worrisome one was this: Without Luck, the Colts were 6–3. With him, they were just 2–5.

The excuse bank was in overdrive last year. Yes, the offensive line was mostly ineffective (though interestingly, Pro Football Focus ranked the Colts’ line within the top half of the league.) Yes, the injuries were frequent and reportedly more severe than originally thought.

• QBs with the most to prove in 2016: Palmer | Tannehill | Taylor

But the brutal reality is that last year, Luck, a player who once inspired the “Suck for Luck” draft sweepstakes, actually just sucked. He often mistimed his reads as he overthrew receivers. As pockets began to collapse, his reaction time was off, making his escapability nonexistent.

Now, with a summer to reflect and time to heal his wounds, Luck needs to get back to his upward trajectory that once looked to have no ceiling. The Colts need him to be sensational in 2016. They need to get back to the playoffs. They need stability as the potentially tension-filled relationship between GM Ryan Grigson and head coach Chuck Pagano continues. They need Luck at his best because his backup quarterback is no longer ageless wonder Matt Hasselbeck, who retired; it’s Scott Tolzien, who has thrown five interceptions and just one touchdown over his career.

But even more than the Colts, the NFL as a whole needs the old Andrew Luck back.

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From the moment Luck was drafted No. 1 overall in 2012, he assumed the role of heir apparent to the quarterback monarchy that has ruled the NFL for so long now. So polished for his years, the uber-talented and wildly smart Luck instantly become our generational insurance policy as Peyton Manning’s body broke down, Drew Brees’s skills deteriorated, Tom Brady crept closer to 40 and Aaron Rodgers celebrated his 30th. Sure, he wasn't the only young quarterback to emerge during this time period. One-year wonder Robert Griffin III narrowly edged Luck as the 2012 season’s Offensive Rookie of the Year. Multi-year wonder Russell Wilson has concocted a never-ending list of magical plays and has a Super Bowl ring to boot. We all marveled at Cam Newton last season. And quarterbacks like Derek Carr, Teddy Bridgewater and even Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota have shown early intrigue. Still, there’s no precedent to support the notion that Newton or Wilson, or any run-heavy quarterback, can craft a decade-plus of sheer dominance. And most of the NFL’s quarterback nucleus is clogged with potential-ridden veterans like Jay Cutler, Matt Stafford and Joe Flacco, who are good at being streaky but aren’t able to shred defenses consistently enough to make them must-watch TV every week.

Luck’s first three years were different. His stats weren’t always pretty, but he was a consistent winner, a rare Brady-esque QB whose mere presence turned around a franchise. During the 2011 season, when the Colts were without an injured Manning and right before they drafted Luck, they were 2–14. During Luck’s rookie year, the team sailed to 11–5 and the playoffs. It was as if the previous season had been a slight technical difficultly in the baton handoff from one future Hall of Famer to another. Over his first three years, Luck led 14 game-winning drives and the Colts went three for three in playoff berths. It didn’t matter that Indy lacked receiver depth or had a faulty offensive line. Luck was a quarterback you absolutely had to watch every week.

Then last year happened, and as a result, confidence in Luck to be the guy whose sustained success will keep the quarterback era alive has waned. This year, Luck should be healthy and will have an improved offensive line that features rookie first-round center Ryan Kelly. This season should provide some answers on whether last year was just an aberration. 

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And if it wasn’t? Well, maybe it won’t matter if Luck isn’t the same quarterback he was out of the starting gate. Maybe with social media and fantasy we can cycle through new star quarterbacks like speed dating and be O.K. without the embedded memories.

But I don’t think so. I think Manning’s absence is going to add a hollowness to this season that we can’t yet feel, and Brees and Brady’s retirements in the next four years will be a gut punch. We need the comfort of knowing that we already have the next one of those guys playing in the NFL, and this is Luck’s chance to prove that he’s still it.

Stay tuned all week as other SI.com NFL analysts make their respective cases for the quarterback with the most to prove in 2016.

Jack Dempsey/AP

In a photo from Week 12 of the 2015 NFL season, an overjoyed Brock Osweiler is standing in the snow at Sports Authority Field, arms lifted high above his head, his helmet in his hand, firework smoke above him. He is victorious, and at last, he is front and center.

That night, in just the second start of his career, the 25-year-old dramatically led the Broncos back from a 21–7 fourth-quarter deficit to beat their hated conference rival Patriots 30–24 in overtime—New England’s first loss of the season. Osweiler was the David to Brady’s Goliath in that moment, the underdog who finally had his chance to show he was ready to be a successful starter after sitting on the sidelines for three and a half seasons. Headlines proclaimed that a star was born. He was the future of the Denver Broncos and the future started now.

The future was short-lived. By Jan. 3 he was back on the bench. And by March, he was a Houston Texan—a very, very rich Houston Texan.

• QBs with the most to prove in 2016: Palmer | Tannehill | Taylor | Luck

In his four-year NFL career, Osweiler has seven starts, five wins and 11 touchdowns. And for that, the QB-desperate Houston Texans offered him $37 million in guaranteed money to be their starter.

It is going to take a lot more than five wins and one particularly memorable comeback on a snowy night to justify that kind of payday.

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If there’s one lesson we’ve learned from the NFL, it’s that a quarterback’s brief success is not indicative of his long-term performance. Remember Matt Cassel’s 11–5 season? Matt Flynn’s six-touchdown day? Small sample sizes have too often doomed teams into trusting quarterbacks who weren’t able to live up to the over-inflated expectations. Is Brock Osweiler any different? He needs to answer that question in 2016, and with the amount of trust and funds the Texans have invested in him, it needs to be a resounding yes.

No doubt about it, Osweiler was productive in Denver, and he helped secure the No. 1 seed that proved crucial to the Super Bowl run. He was a good fit for Gary Kubiak’s system—much more so than Peyton Manning—and he showed flashes of skill and poise at times. He threw a touchdown in every game he started except for one, and quickly earned the trust and support of his teammates amid a tricky situation after Manning was benched. During that abbreviated 2015 season, he threw for a total of 1,967 yards and 10 touchdowns.

But he also made mistakes that young, inexperienced quarterbacks make. He missed receivers and mistimed throws, and he was lucky enough to have the incomparable Broncos defense to bail him out when his efforts were stagnant. In that aforementioned Patriots game, he had a brutal first half, only really finding his rhythm at the end, and even with his heroics, his stat-line was 23-for-42 for 270 yards and a 35.2 QBR. The comeback was a nice story, but is it really anything more than that? When he was relegated back to the bench in favor of the hobbled Manning in the middle of his two-pick season finale against the Chargers, was anyone really that surprised?

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This coming season may mark his fifth in the NFL, but he still has some serious growing pains to iron out. Which is all well and good, except that you don't hand a quarterback a four-year, $72 million deal with $37 million in guaranteed money so that he can slowly work through his issues. The clock is ticking. He has to show that he has the upside that other backup QB busts have lacked, and he needs to do that this year.

The pieces are in place for him in Houston. The Texans’ defense is not as good as Denver’s, but it’s strong enough that the Osweiler-led offense shouldn’t have to put up 40 points a game in order to win. Not only do they boast a dynamic talent in receiver DeAndre Hopkins, but they also gained one of the best wideouts of the 2016 draft in Will Fuller, and Lamar Miller will give that running game a spark. This team has the potential to go very far with the right quarterback, and Houston thinks it has finally found him. 

Osweiler reportedly left Denver because he wanted to get out of the shadow that Peyton Manning cast, instead seizing the chance to create his own legacy elsewhere. Perhaps Osweiler-to-Hopkins will become the next must-see QB-receiver tandem. The spotlight is all his, and his moment of triumph doesn’t need to be fleeting. This is his chance to show that the comeback against the Patriots was just the beginning of a long, successful story. Because for $72 million, he certainly better prove that this time, the future really does start now. 

Nam Y. Huh/AP

If the year-to-year portion of Jay Cutler’s gigantic seven-year deal began this spring instead of next spring, would the Bears have kept him around? After bottoming out during a turbulent 2014 season that led to Chicago overhauling its front office and coaching staff, Cutler quietly stabilized his game under the direction of offensive coordinator Adam Gase, throwing fewer interceptions (11) than he had in any other full season as a pro. But one year of a steady stat line is not enough to counterbalance many years of city-wide ambivalence towards him. If new offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains sticks to his word to keep things largely the same as they were under Gase, Cutler will have some rare continuity to pair with the equally rare positive off-season momentum he’s taking into a make-or-break season.

Bob Leverone/AP

Kirk Cousins is the fifth quarterback to be the target of his team’s franchise tag in the past 10 years. The other four: 2009 Matt Cassel, 2011 Peyton Manning, 2011 Michael Vick and 2012 Drew Brees. Only Cassel entered that off-season with a shorter track record of success than Cousins, and even he received a long-term extension to avoid playing under the tag by Week 1, just as Vick, Brees and Manning did. The Redskins will likely do the same by training camp, but that doesn’t make 2016 any less critical for Cousins. Jordan Reed proved his worth as a gamebreaker last season, and the combination of DeSean Jackson and rookie Josh Doctson will open up every inch of the field to a quarterback who can get the ball to every inch of the field. If Cousins doesn’t get results, the aw-shucks charm of his rise to fame in 2015 will fade fast among a fan base well-versed in the impermanence of competent quarterback play. It’s notable that only Brees still has a chance to live out his extension with the team that tagged him.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

All the deadlines have been passed and bluffs have been called, and Colin Kaepernick is still a 49er. In the next three and a half months, he has a new coach to win over in Chip Kelly and a backup quarterback to hold off in a competition for reps in Blaine Gabbert—and then the games finally start. A healthy, efficient, controversy-free campaign is the only way Kaepernick stays in San Francisco past this season, as the team wields another simple opt-out next off-season, but the ceiling is high within Kelly’s relentless QB-friendly offense.

Winslow Townson

One sullen press conference in the moments after an emotional Super Bowl loss has erased much of the goodwill built up by countless ebullient ones throughout the season. One decision not to sell out for a fumble has overshadowed countless situations in which Cam Newton has taken off running and dared defenders to dent his 6' 5", 245-pound frame. What the reigning MVP and the Panthers present for an encore in 2016, now that everyone has formed an opinion on his playing style and potential, may be even more compelling than his stat sheet-stuffing breakout season.

“What’s wrong with Drew Brees?” we asked as he scuffled through two disconcerting losses to open 2015 and sat out the next week with a bruised rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder. Then he nearly doubled his season passing touchdown total with seven TDs in a Week 7 win over the Giants; then he threw 12 touchdowns and just one interception in December, playing through a partially torn plantar fascia in his foot in the final two games (both Saints wins). Still, Brees is 37, and now that we’ve seen him look human in short spurts, it should be easier to notice when his play takes a step back for good.

Steven Senne/AP

He made himself few friends with the way he handled the Eagles’ quarterback transactions this off-season, but as the season gets closer it should become clearer that Sam Bradford’s hold on the starting job in 2016 was never in doubt. To win some supporters back this fall, he needs to raise his game against the top competition: He did just enough in that out-of-nowhere win over the Patriots to give Philadelphia its only win over a playoff team in five tries last year, but overall there was hardly any difference between his numbers in wins and losses. That’s not the admirable type of consistency.

Andrew Weber/Getty Images

After Dalton took the heat for the Bengals’ four playoff losses in his first four years as a starter, he got to see the other side of the coin this year after his late-season broken thumb preserved the glow of a dominant campaign. (The Bengals proceeded to lose in the first round of the playoffs without him.) Barring another unlucky injury, Dalton will be back in the crosshairs this season. Six consecutive one-and-done playoff trips would drive many teams to make a very dramatic, very visible change, and while the Bengals are no ordinary franchise in their patient, methodical approach, breaking the pattern this winter would do a world of good for both Dalton and coach Marvin Lewis.

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