Three NFL quarterbacks that need big 2012 performances

In an era of professional football where the demand of having a high-quality quarterback on a roster is at an all-time high, some quarterbacks have a lot to prove in 2012.  For some of these quarterbacks, 2012 will be the deciding year in determining if they have what it takes to be a franchise quarterback or if they will be thrown in the “bust bin.”

2011 presented each franchise with a different set of challenges due to the NFL lockout.  Free agency did not take place until after a collective bargaining agreement had been reached, but the 2011 NFL Draft took place anyway.  Four quarterbacks (Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder) came off the board after the first 12 picks.  Two showed glimpses of success in 2011 while the other two left much to be desired.

Christian Ponder arguably bears the biggest burden of anyone in the NFL.  Minnesota drafted Ponder 12 overall in the 2011 draft, which was a huge surprise.  Even though speculation exists that had Tennessee passed on Jake Locker and Minnesota would have taken Locker instead, the point still remains that Ponder was selected with the 12 overall selection and brought with it the high expectations of being a early-pick quarterback.

Christian Ponder’s 2011 can be described as unimpressive at best.  Should Ponder’s 2012 fare as well as 2011, that could lead many fans and even the front office to question whether they drafted the right guy.  Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier wants both to feel like Ponder can be the franchise quarterback.  By adding USC offensive tackle Matt Kalil, the Vikings want to give Ponder more protection to find the open receiver in the passing game.  Minnesota’s rushing attack is led by Adrian Peterson and gives offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave hope for major improvement in 2012.

Musgrave utilized Peterson as well as Percy Harvin last year.  If Ponder makes huge strides in 2012, this is an offense that very productive heading into 2012.

Speaking of the need of improved play out of a team’s quarterback, perhaps no team went through more changes this past offseason than the Jacksonville Jaguars.  Not only does this team have a new head coach in Mike Mularkey, but the franchise is also under new ownership in Shahid Khan who hopes to build attendance back to where it needs to be.  Gene Smith remains as the team’s general manager from a year ago, giving the rest of the team some familiarity heading into 2012.  Smith drafted Gabbert in 2011 who, like Ponder in Minnesota, did not play very well at quarterback.

Mularkey was hired mainly to develop Gabbert into becoming a successful NFL quarterback.  Khan’s hopes that Gabbert’s successful development will mean increased attendance by the fans.  The addition of former Oklahoma State wideout Justin Blackmon will certainly help both.

Gabbert needs to have a strong showing in 2012 to gain confidence from both himself and the front office, but most importantly Gabbert wants to gain confidence from the new owner.  Another lackluster performance could lead Khan to think that maybe his franchise does not have the quarterback of the future.

The last of the three quarterbacks needing a big 2012 is actually a guy who has had success in the past, but rumors continue to swirl that maybe he’s not quite the guy his franchise believes he is.  For years, people have looked at Dallas and wondered if Tony Romo can truly succeed in the NFL.  Dallas continues to stand behind Romo, but their stance can quickly shift if Romo does not reach the level that everyone wants him to.

Being in the NFC East means battles against Michael Vick and Eli Manning.  Being compared to quarterbacks like that can be difficult, especially if one just came of a Super Bowl championship like Manning did.  So if Romo does not play at a high level, Jerry Jones might find someone who can.

Unlike Ponder and Gabbert, however, Romo’s situation is not as bleak.  Romo has succeeded before, and that success can be used to argue that Romo is their guy.  Romo has made the throws that head coach Jason Garrett asked him to make, but a mediocre season could make all of that success irrelevant.  Romo’s record in the playoffs continues to plague him, but a few playoff wins could cure that and silence Romo’s critics once and for all.

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Vols’ offensive line will carry this year’s burden

2012’s arrival did not just bring about the change of a new year, it also seemed to initiate a year of change for the Tennessee Vols.  Several assistant coaches, not to mention former defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, accepted offers elsewhere and left the Vols with many questions to answer in the upcoming season.  Change, as it always does, creates both excitement and anxiety in the fans.

The 2012 season holds that same excitement and anxiety for Big Orange Country.  Great attention will be paid to new defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri and his defense, and the attention is well-deserved.  Tennessee’s defense found it difficult to play at a high level for four quarters a year ago, which many attributed to Tennessee’s youth and inexperience.

Among one of the other changes to Tennessee’s coaching staff was the addition of Sam Pittman, the Vols’ new offensive line coach.  Pittman, who coached the North Carolina Tarheels offensive line in 2011, faces the challenge of taking a group, who struggled against the NFL-talented defensive squads of Alabama and LSU, and turn them into a reliable group that offensive coordinator Jim Chaney can rely on to generate a running game.

A change in defensive coordinator and offensive line coach might make any fan believe that the former will play a larger role in a team’s performance.  While Tennessee’s defensive play will help determine how many wins the Vols can get, the offensive line play will lay the foundation for success on both sides of the ball.

In fact, it is because of Sunseri’s arrival that Tennessee’s offensive line must play better.  Regardless of the amount of time the defense takes in transitioning into Sunseri’s system, the presence of a running game means one thing: more time of possession for Tennessee.  That means that the offense takes the pressure off of the defense and it keeps junior quarterback Tyler Bray and his arsenal of receivers on the field.

If the transition into Sunseri’s system takes more time, then Tennessee’s offensive line can help give those guys a break.  If the transition does not take that long, then an improved defense and offensive line means Tennessee makes a stronger argument to win the SEC East.

Without improved play from the offensive line, however, the defensive-transition issue becomes irrelevant.  Should Tennessee’s offense become plagued with three-and-out’s against Florida, Alabama or Georgia, the defense stays on the field longer.  The longer this goes on in one season, the more tired a defense can become overall.  Tennessee wants their defense to make plays and contribute to their success, but at this stage they do not want to ask the defense to do too much.

Paying attention to Tennessee’s defense makes sense as the new defensive coordinator poses a huge question mark for this team in 2012.  Make no mistake about it though, Tennessee’s offensive line will control the team’s destiny this season.