The best quarterbacks in the NFL have included the same names for the past several years.
Manning. Brady. Brees. Rodgers. You could argue that Roethlisberger and the other Manning belong in that company too, but the big four undoubtedly make any “best quarterback alive” list in some order.
It’s easy to see why. Manning just set regular season records for yards (5,477) and touchdowns (55). Brees previously held the regular season yards record and holds the record for highest regular season completion percentage (.712). Rodgers holds the record for highest regular season passer rating (122.5). They all have Super Bowl rings, and Brady has three.
Along with being the best NFL throwers, they share another common trait. They’re all at least 30. While Rodgers just reached the mark last month, Brees is 34, Brady is 36, and Manning, miraculously, is doing what he does at 37.
All still appear to have varying years of dominant play left. They’re the present, and have proven to be both the best at their position, and in the entire NFL.
But if you want to look towards the future, Sunday at 1 p.m. seems like an opportune time to do so. Because when the San Francisco 49ers play the Carolina Panthers in the second round of the NFL playoffs, fans will get a glimpse at what the elite quarterback position will look like for the next decade.
Both teams feature superstars and future franchise cornerstones at quarterback. 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick may be the most exciting player in the league, a title he took from Panthers counterpart Cam Newton. Both players have helped revolutionize how the quarterback position is played in 2014.
The two share plenty of similarities. They both have absolute cannons for arms. Both are terrifying when they take off and run, and are nearly impossible to bring down in the open field. They both have the size of the prototypical quarterback: Kaepernick is 6-4 and weighs 230 pounds, while Newton is 6-5, and weighs 245.
They both have proven that the quarterback position is the most marketable in all of sports. Kaepernick started just 10 games last year, but the excitement he brought led to endorsements from Jaguar, Beats by Dre, and McDonalds. Newton was signed by Under Armour before he played his first NFL snap.
And they both have received universal criticism, some of which has been unfair. After an electrifying rookie campaign, Newton struggled last year, and was often accused of lack of leadership and immaturity. Earlier this season many wondered aloud if Kaepernick was a one-hit wonder, even though he was playing without top receiver Michael Crabtree and a banged up Vernon Davis.
What they do with their legs is the most obvious reason why they’re changing the position. Their mix of speed and strength just isn’t something we – or opposing defensive coordinators – are used to seeing.
But both have made strides in the passing game, which makes them so effective. Newton looks to pass first, second, and third before taking off. Kaepernick can make all of the throws when he has his full complement of weapons. You can’t gameplan for a quarterback capable and willing to beat you deep, while also able to beat your defensive backs in a footrace when they see an opening.
The trend extends further than just these two. Russell Wilson already looks like he has the same intangibles that make Brady so effective. But he also has the speed and awareness to take off whenever the pocket breaks down to keep defenses honest. Andrew Luck typically beats defenders with his arm, but is big and fast enough to use his legs if needed.
The days of the pure pocket passer – when guys like Manning and Brady stayed in the pocket and picked apart defenses – may be over. Defenses are too fast now. Coordinators run too complex of schemes. The threat of a game-breaking run changes the way teams have to gameplan for quarterbacks.
The big four will still dominate football for the near future. But on Sunday, fans will get a preview of what the position will look like in the not-so-distant future.
Follow Stefen Lovelace on Twitter @StefenLovelace.