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The next step

Which young QB is poised to become a superstar?

Posted: Thursday June 9, 2005 5:03PM; Updated: Thursday June 16, 2005 2:41PM
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Carson Palmer
Carson Palmer had a 77.3 passer rating in his first season as a starter for the Bengals.
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In my never-ending effort to illuminate the NFL, get an early edge for my fantasy team and fill column space in June, I began an exhaustive statistical analysis to figure out who will be the next superstar quarterback in the NFL.

There had to be a sabermetric trend that forecasts when QBs make the leap from promising to Pro Bowler. I pulled out my Texas Instruments calculator with scientific notation, packed enough food and water to last three days, and headed off to the SI library.

After spending hours combing through every statistics book I could find, the numbers revealed an overwhelming truth: I couldn't find a trend. Quarterbacks take seemingly random paths to stardom. Some start off brilliant (Dan Marino, Daunte Culpepper), some take off in their second season (Peyton Manning, Joe Montana) and some need a few years to get going (see Brett Favre, Dan Fouts).

After the numbers failed to teach me anything, I decided I had only one option: Go straight to the source -- Dr. Z. If there's a trend, SI.com's Paul Zimmerman has already charted it extensively.

"You're wasting your time," he said. "There's no telling when the light bulb will come on for a quarterback. I've looked before. It just happens or it doesn't."

I told Z that theory wasn't going to impress anyone. I wanted cold, hard numbers ... stats with acronyms no one had ever heard of like DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average).

What Dr. Z could offer was plenty of advice on where to find a good pinot noir in New Zealand and more realistic pointers on how to tell when a QB is on the verge of making it big. He said to forget about the numbers and see if the quarterback starts to develop poise. As QBs get good, they don't scramble as much, they understand their progressions and get rid of the ball quicker. If a quarterback knows how to stay with a play and when to bail, the numbers will soon follow.

Currently, there is a clear-cut class of elite young QBs -- Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Donovan McNabb, Daunte Culpepper -- with Michael Vick falling into a category of his own somewhere right below them. Another group of younger veterans have had success, but not consistently (Drew Brees, Aaron Brooks, Jake Delhomme, Marc Bulger), and Ben Roethlisberger had a surprising gem of a rookie year.

This year, another group of young quarterbacks have a chance to make a big leap. Statistically, however, it's not likely more than one or two of them will become stars. Here's my take, with a little help from the good doctor, on which QB has the best chance to break out.

1. Carson Palmer, Cincinnati Bengals: Palmer had a 96.8 passer rating over his last six starts of 2004 -- a stretch that included games against Baltimore, Pittsburgh and New England. It's a mistake to dismiss Palmer just because he faces the brutal defenses of the AFC North. He lit up the Ravens in Week 13 (29-of-36, 382 yards, 3 TDs and 1 INT), and had moderate success against against a Pittsburgh defense that might take a step back this year.

The offseason was positive for Palmer, who is reportedly totally recovered from a knee sprain that ended his season two weeks early. The Bengals re-signed WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh and RB Rudi Johnson, maintaining Palmer's potent stable of targets. The No. 1 overall pick in 2003, Palmer has the pedigree, the supporting cast and the right coaching staff. Even if the Bengals struggle to make the playoffs in this ultra-competitive division, Palmer will stand out and earn a trip to Honolulu.

2. David Carr, Houston Texans: Carr has steadily improved throughout his three seasons. The sacks still remain a problem (140 over the last three years), however, so the coaching staff has been focused on getting the ball out of Carr's hands faster. Expect receivers to run more timing routes and for coach Dom Capers to hound Carr to get rid of it.

Like Palmer, Carr has an impressive supporting cast, with RB Domanick Davis and WR Andre Johnson. The big question mark is the line, which has been a problem since the Texans' inception. Houston still needs help left tackle, its Achilles heel since picking an injured Tony Boselli in the 2002 expansion draft. Carr has had accuracy problems at times, but that might be because of the constant pressure.