Sunday spotlight: Stafford and Sanchez

This time last year, Matt Ryan(notes) was a guy who threw too many interceptions in his senior year at Boston College. He was drafted third overall by an Atlanta Falcons team coming off a complete disaster of a season, in which Michael Vick(notes) and Bobby Petrino were fighting for blame in the franchise's tailspin. This time last year, Joe Flacco(notes) was a small-school (Delaware???) shotgun quarterback drafted 18th by the Baltimore Ravens, who traded up to take him because the cupboard was so bare at the position - their other options were Kyle Boller(notes) and Troy Smith(notes). Not much was expected in their first seasons.

Obviously, that's all changed now, According to Football Outsiders' adjusted stats, Ryan had the best rookie season of any NFL quarterback since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, and Flacco became the first rookie QB to author two playoff victories. Not only did Ryan and Flacco make for two of the NFL's best stories last season - they've also raised the bar for first-year signal callers to seemingly impossible heights.

Enter Matt Stafford and Mark Sanchez(notes), the first to face those new expectations. Taken first overall by a Lions team that became the only NFL squad ever to lose all 16 games in a season, Georgia's Stafford brings impressive arm strength and a quick command of the playbook to the rebuilding effort. Sanchez, who started only 16 games at USC, replaces He Who Shall Not Be Named as the Jets' quarterback. He'll use his unusual command of the pro-style offense and impressive intangibles to break down the expectations heaped upon him by the largest and harshest media market in the country.

Both Stafford and Sanchez will start right away, because that's how it goes these days. The success of Ryan and Flacco, and the ginormous contracts these rookies received (guaranteed money: Stafford -- $41.75 million; Sanchez -- $28 million) insure that future high picks will be far more likely to start under center from day one than even a few years ago. Both quarterbacks alternated between impressive plays and head-shaking mistakes in the preseason (as you might expect), but now, it's all live and it all counts.

Mercifully, both quarterbacks face easy defenses. Stafford faces the Saints, who finished 23rd in FO's Pass Defense DVOA metric last season. The Saints gave up 53 pass plays of 20 yards or more last season, third-worst in the NFL. Stafford has the arm, and the receivers (Calvin Johnson(notes), Bryant Johnson(notes), Brandon Pettigrew(notes)), to take advantage. Sanchez will go up against the Houston Texans, who finished 24th in Pass Defense DVOA last season and are changing their coverage techniques from backpedal to shuffle. Cue Houston defensive coordinator Frank Bush:

"It's a big change, because most guys teach backpedal, most college players are backpedallers and that's kind of the way it works around the league. Coach Gibbs has a little system that he likes that gives a guy a chance to have his eyes on the football. There is some good and bad involved in that so you really have to hone in on the technique.

"It's rare. It's starting to be hit or miss throughout the league. We still backpedal, but in certain techniques we'd rather have them shuffle out so they can see the quarterback in some of our different coverages. Teams do it, but it's rare. More people are still just traditional backpedal-type people."

Well, that should be interesting. There's your preview of the two new franchise quarterbacks - we'll be back to summarize their NFL debuts at the end of the day.

Photo credit: US Presswire

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