It is a question that no one has had to ask in more than 15 years: Who is the best quarterback in the AFC East?
Now that Tom Brady has taken his talents to Tampa Bay, the quarterback picture in the AFC East is as hazy as it has been since the early Brady days when there was a question whether he or Chad Pennington would rule the division.
To help answer this question, we turned to three NFL quarterbacks turned media members: Boomer Esiason, the 1988 MVP who now works for CBS and WFAN; Dan Orlovsky, who played 13 seasons in the NFL before joining ESPN; and Chris Simms, an eight-year NFL veteran now with NBC Sports.
The situation breaks down like this in the division: two quarterbacks entering their third seasons — with the Bills (Josh Allen) and Jets (Sam Darnold) — an unproven second-year quarterback for the Patriots (Jarrett Stidham) and a first-round rookie (Tua Tagovailoa) waiting to take over for a journeyman (Ryan Fitzpatrick) in Miami. Allen, Darnold, Stidham and Tagovailoa are all 22 or 23 years old and in the early stages of their careers.
The three quarterbacks-turned-analysts all gave an edge to Allen because of not just his talent but the talent around him. Buffalo went 10-6 and made the playoffs last year. The Bills have largely the same team back and added an elite receiver in Stefon Diggs this offseason.
“If you’re asking me who I think is the best player, it’s Sam Darnold,” Orlovsky said. “He’s probably the guy who was put in the worst situation.
“If we’re saying who is set up to have the most success both team-wise and individually in the 2020 NFL season, it’s definitely Josh Allen. Obviously, coming off of what Buffalo was as a team last year is a big deal. They have a top-five defense. They’re not asking Josh to carry their football team the way that Sam’s going to be asked to carry the team.”
Allen edged Darnold in QB rating last year 85.3 to 84.3. Allen is a better deep passer and runner than Darnold, but Darnold is more accurate and a better pocket passer. To Simms, Allen showed what he is capable of last year in leading the Bills to the playoffs.
“Josh Allen has superstar qualities,” Simms said. “I think if you’re watching the Bills and watching the last two years, yeah it’s a little raw and needs a little polish, but man he can make a lot of big-time plays and do things most quarterbacks in the game can’t do. He puts a lot of pressure on a defense. To me, that’s where he’s special. The stats aren’t really going to tell the greatness of Josh Allen. He really makes you defend the whole field.
“He’s the guy I look at and say, ‘Watch out.’ He can be going to another stratosphere this year.”
Simms said he also liked what he saw from Darnold at the end of last year and believes Darnold is ready to make a big step in Year 3. But he gives the edge to Allen because of the team around him.
Esiason said Darnold has been hurt not by just his surrounding cast but by the drama that has filled his first two years.
“The talent gap [between Allen and Darnold] is not significant at all,” Esiason said. “They are both where I would say I expected them to be. Unfortunately for Sam, there’s been a little more upheaval around him whether it is coaching, mononucleosis, his foot, his ghost story. There is more unintended drama around him. I also think it’s because of the franchise he plays for, that bleeds into all of that.”
While there are questions about how Allen and Darnold will progress in their third seasons, the bigger questions in the division are with the Patriots and Dolphins.
“The unknown is New England. We have no idea,” Esiason said. “If Bill Belichick is going to go with Stidham and is happy with him, that tells me all I need to know about what he thinks of him as a football player.
“That’s the wild card. That’s the biggest question mark in the division.”
Orlovsky said he sees traits in Stidham that will fit the New England system, but he thinks the Patriots are more than just a quarterback away from returning to championship form.
“I can make the case that it’s the worst skill group in football,” Orlovsky said. “I think that’s going to be very difficult for a new quarterback to go into.”
Simms, who spent time as a Patriots scout after his playing days, said he thought Stidham could have been a first-round pick in 2019. The Patriots took him in the fourth. Simms believes Belichick will not put too much on Stidham’s plate.
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“I don’t think New England is going to ask him to carry the team,” Simms said. “I think they’re going to play a very similar style to what you saw last year from New England. Tom Brady didn’t win New England any games last year. I’m not trying to be a jerk saying that. They won games with their defense and playing a certain way and really not letting their offense screw the game up. I think it will be similar.”
The three analysts were split on when Tagovailoa should or would take over for Fitzpatrick with the Dolphins, who took him with the No. 5-overall pick last month. Orlovsky believes this should be a “redshirt” season for Tagovailoa to watch Fitzpatrick and recover from the hip injury he suffered last year at Alabama. Esiason said if the season goes south in the middle of the year, that may be the time the Dolphins make the switch.
Simms felt Tagovailoa was overrated in the draft and should have gone later in the first round. He is skeptical the Dolphins will let him ride the bench, though.
“I think eventually Tua will be the starter down there,” Simms said. “I really think if we have a preseason and he shows that he’s athletic and good and he’s telling them he’s 100 percent healthy, I just think it’s inevitable. It’s the same story, ‘Philadelphia is going to stay with Sam Bradford. Carson Wentz won’t play.’ We hear this every year. ‘Eli Manning is our starter for the whole year. Daniel Jones is going to sit there and learn.’ OK, sure.”
The AFC East quarterback crown has been abdicated by Brady. One of these young quarterbacks now has to take it.
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