It’s roster planning season in the NFL, and not surprisingly there has a been a great deal of focus on quarterbacks.
Peyton Manning is expected to announce his retirement as early as this week (and certainly before March 8, when his $19 million contract in Denver becomes guaranteed). New England's Tom Brady just had his contract extended two more years through 2019 (and the age 42). Baltimore’s Joe Flacco will have his deal restructured and extended to something more cap-friendly. And Johnny Manziel is awaiting a grand jury's decision on whether to indict him on assault charges, assuming he will be sober enough to process the moment, or whatever remains of his career or his life.
Then there is Matt Ryan. He is not a player the Falcons will make a decision on right now. But they have to be thinking about it. Ryan has three years left on his contract but I believe he has only two to prove his value to the Falcons.
He took a significant step back last season in efficiency rating (89.0), touchdowns (21), interceptions (16) and third-down efficiency (89.8). I understand the position of Ryan’s defenders that he has suffered from poor offensive line play, or that offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan should be blamed more for last season’s ills than the quarterback. But anybody who absolves Ryan of blame isn’t watching the games objectively. He frequently missed receivers and made poor decisions last season. He did things that an eight-year starting NFL quarterback with a $20-million-plus salary cap hit should not be doing.
Ryan’s base salary each of the next two seasons is $15.75 million. I don’t foresee any scenario in which he would have such a bad 2016 season that the team would look to trade him after the year. Also, the projected salary cap hit from his pro-rated signing bonus would be enormous: $10.4 million. But Ryan’s $28 million signing bonus will be paid off after 2017, making a change before the 2018 season plausible. The cap hit would be minimal ($2.4 million).
I’m not predicting the Falcons will make a change. I’m certain that’s not their preference. But at the time they gave him a $103.75 million extension, it was with the idea that he was -- and would continue to be -- one of the top 10 quarterbacks in the NFL.
Is he that now? I don't think so.
Here’s my top 10 quarterbacks for the next two years. Ryan didn’t make the cut. I also didn't include Phillip Rivers (34), Eli Manning (35) or Carson Palmer (36), at least in part because of their age, although that hasn't hindered a few guys on the list. It's also worth noting that three of my top 10 play in the NFC South.
1. Tom Brady: He threw for 36 touchdown passes, 7 interceptions (in 624 attempts) and 4,770 yards at the age of 38. So he could slide and still be great in two years. Also four years.
2. Aaron Rodgers: He took a slight step back last season but that was more the result of the Packers collapsing around him than the quarterback’s numbers (31 TDs, 8 ints. Despite being sacked 46 times)
3. Cam Newton: Sure, he needs to grow up a little more and his numbers dramatically improved this season (from 18 TDs and 82.1 rating in 2014 to 35 and 99.4 this season) and he makes plays to win games. And he has led Carolina to three straight division titles and a Super Bowl appearance.
4. Ben Roethlisberger: The man could lose major organs and still throw for 4,000 yards. Pittsburgh had no business winning a playoff game this season and nearly upset Denver in the playoffs, while Roethlisberger was being held together with duct tape.
5. Russell Wilson: He’s 46-18 in the regular season in four years and has won playoff games every year (7-3, including two AFC titles and a Super Bowl win). Stats: 34 TDs, 8 ints.
6. Drew Brees: His interception total dropped from 17 to 11 and at the age of 37 he still ranked among leaders in yardage (first), gains of 20 yards or more (second) and rating (sixth).
7. Jameis Winston: He had an impressive rookie season under offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, now his head coach, and that’s even before you consider the 20-yard scramble on third-and-19 against the Falcons during which he made their defense look like 11 kinds of silly.
8. Andrew Luck: He had three great seasons and then one injury-plagued bad one. I’ll use the first three as my compass.
9. Marcus Mariota: I don’t have a lot of confidence in the Tennessee organization in general or new head coach Mike Mularkey in particular. But Mariota is as poised of a young quarterback as you’ll find and he will only get better.
10. Matthew Stafford: The question about Stafford has always been leadership, even going back to Georgia. But his talent is undeniable and I still believe he can win at a high level in the NFL – just not Detroit, which has been a grease fire for too long. His future is worth watching. He has only two years left on his contract, and trading or cutting would not be cap-prohibitive after next season.
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