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Monday, August 23, 2010
Updated: September 4, 3:58 PM ET
Ranking NFL starting quarterbacks

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

Manning/Brady
Colts QB Peyton Manning, left, threw for 4,500 yards in 2009, the 10th time he has surpassed the 4,000-yard mark in a season. Patriots QB Tom Brady has a 93.3 career QB rating.
The Golden Age of NFL Quarterbacks continues to evolve.

Bubble screens make it easier for quarterbacks to continue drives through the air. More talent is moving into the slot in three-receiver sets, giving quarterbacks even more passing options. The increased use of shotgun formations and no-huddle offenses gives quarterbacks more control than ever and turns fourth quarters into thrilling roller coaster rides.

For the past couple of years, I've preached how the league is divided into teams with elite quarterbacks and those without them. To win in this league, you must have an elite quarterback. Without one, the season can be long and frustrating.

In ranking the league's starting quarterbacks, I have three categories. The first is the Elite level, which includes quarterbacks who can carry teams into the playoffs. An elite quarterback is one who can complete better than 60 percent of his passes, has the potential to throw for 4,000 yards and has fourth-quarter comeback ability. I am criticized for putting Baltimore's Joe Flacco in this category with Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees, but he absolutely belongs. In two seasons, Flacco has the numbers (6,584 passing yards, 61 percent completion percentage) and three road playoff victories to back up my ranking. You'll probably be more interested in who I don't have in this group.

The next category is what I call the Chad Pennington Division. Pennington, a former starter who's now a backup with the Dolphins, doesn't have the strongest arm but he once was good enough to take a team to the playoffs with a good surrounding cast or a favorable schedule. The quarterbacks who fit this mold include Denver's Kyle Orton, who I think has a very small chance even now to end up in the elite group.

The third category I call the Hit-Or-Miss Division. It is filled with young QBs -- hello, Mark Sanchez and Kevin Kolb -- who easily could climb my ladder or veterans who have reached their ceiling (Jake Delhomme) and have no chance of moving up.

In the Pennington and Hit-Or-Miss divisions, I rate the chances those QBs have to reach elite status. Some have a greater chance than others because they have not reached their ceiling. Others (Alex Smith, Byron Leftwich) have hit their head on the ceiling and have no chance to reach elite status.

You can rank the starters on your own here.

So let the arguments begin.

Brett Favre & Aaron Rodgers
Could this be the season Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, left, passes Minnesota's Brett Favre as the NFC North's top QB? (Great Debate: NFC North blog.)

THE ELITE

1. Peyton Manning, Indianapolis Colts

Analysis: At 34, Manning doesn't show any signs of slowing. He sets the agenda for modern NFL quarterbacks with the no-huddle and three-receiver offenses and generates 12-win seasons as easily as he completes passes. Under Manning, the Colts have won 12 or more games for seven consecutive seasons.
Arrow is pointing: Up

2. Tom Brady, New England Patriots

Analysis: I resisted the urge to put Drew Brees ahead of him, but Brady, with three Super Bowl rings, is still the master. The knee injury slowed him a little in 2009 (4,398 yards, 28 TD passes), but I expect his numbers to be much better this season.
Arrow is pointing: Flat

3. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints

Analysis: The combination of Brees and Sean Payton is scary. Brees is a master at finding the open receiver, and Payton is one of the best playcallers in the business.
Arrow is pointing: Up

4. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers

Analysis: With two Super Bowl rings, Roethlisberger ranks with the elite of the elite quarterbacks in the league. His suspension is a wakeup call, but as a quarterback, he's almost impossible to stop when he rolls out of the pocket and when the game is on the line in the fourth quarter.
Arrow is pointing: Flat

5. Brett Favre, Minnesota Vikings

Analysis: It's amazing to think Favre had his best season at age 40. Even though he says this is his final year, Favre loves the game and can still play it at a high level.
Arrow is pointing: Slightly down

6. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers

Analysis: This could be the season Rodgers passes Favre as the best quarterback in the NFC North. His arm is strong and he finally learned how to win games in the fourth quarter. Rodgers has had a scintillating preseason. (By the way, NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert and ESPN national columnist Gene Wojciechowski debate the merits of Rodgers and Favre here.)
Arrow is pointing: Up

7. Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers

Analysis: He's the biggest reason the Chargers stay ahead of the other AFC West teams. A great leader, Rivers is fearless throwing to tight end Antonio Gates and other pass-catchers even when they appear to be covered.
Arrow is pointing: Up

8. Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys

Analysis: Now that Romo has won a playoff game, watch out. The only thing that could prevent him and the Cowboys from playing host to a Super Bowl an aging offensive line faltering.
Arrow is pointing: Up

9. Donovan McNabb, Washington Redskins

Analysis: Mike Shanahan offers McNabb play-action options he didn't have with the Eagles' pass-heavy offense. With McNabb at the helm, the Redskins could be one of the surprise teams in the NFC.
Arrow is pointing: Spinning as he adjusts to a new offense

10. Carson Palmer, Cincinnati Bengals

Analysis: The additions of Terrell Owens, Jermaine Gresham and Jordan Shipley could allow Palmer to relive his 4,000-yard days. Marvin Lewis prefers running the ball, but Palmer would love for the Bengals' offense to open up.
Arrow is pointing: Up

11. Eli Manning, New York Giants

Analysis: Despite recording his first 4,000-yard passing season in 2009 and already owning a Super Bowl ring, Manning doesn't get the respect he is due. He lacks the fiery leadership of his brother, but he continues to improve each season.
Arrow is pointing: Flat

12. Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens

Analysis: With the Ravens' problems in their secondary, Flacco may be asked to throw more, which is fine by him. Anquan Boldin will help him working from the slot and Donte' Stallworth could help to stretch the field on occasion when he returns from injury.
Arrow is pointing: Up

13. Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons

Analysis: Like Flacco, Ryan should have a breakthrough season. Most top quarterbacks come into their own in their third season, and Ryan has studied every top quarterback trying to improve his game.
Arrow is pointing: Up

14. Matt Schaub, Houston Texans

Analysis: Schaub finally moved into the elite group by staying healthy and throwing for a league-high 4,770 yards in 2009. (By the way, that was 270 yards more than Peyton Manning had last season.) The next step for Schaub and the Texans? Win in the AFC South and make the playoffs for the first time.
Arrow is pointing: Up

Cutler/Orton
Chicago's Jay Cutler, left, threw a career-high 26 interceptions in 2009. He has struggled in the preseason. Denver's Kyle Orton, an ex-Bear, threw for 3,802 yards and had an 86.8 QB rating in 2009.

CHAD PENNINGTON DIVISION

15. Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears

Analysis: Cutler was an elite quarterback in 2008 when he played for the Broncos, but 26 interceptions for Chicago in 2009 moved him out of my top group. With Mike Martz calling the plays, Cutler should regain his 4,000-yard form and re-emerge as the elite quarterback the Bears thought they acquired in a trade with Denver.
Chance of being elite: 95 percent

16. Kyle Orton, Denver Broncos

Analysis: There is a huge drop-off after Cutler, but Orton is finally getting his due. Despite using a first-round choice on Tim Tebow, Denver realized Orton's importance by giving him a one-year contract extension last month. People seem to forget Orton threw for 3,802 yards last season.
Chance of being elite: 10 percent

17. Matt Hasselbeck, Seattle Seahawks

Analysis:A three-time Pro Bowl selection, Hasselbeck lost his elite status because of two seasons getting rocked behind bad offensive lines. Hasselbeck is the one hope Pete Carroll has for challenging for the NFC West title.
Chance of being elite: 25 percent

18. Vince Young, Tennessee Titans

Analysis: He's a 66 percent winner as a starter even though he struggles to complete 60 percent of his passes. Young isn't a great thrower, but he finds ways to win.
Chance of being elite: 10 percent

19. Jason Campbell, Oakland Raiders

Analysis: In Washington, Campbell was the handpicked franchise quarterback of Joe Gibbs, but he was always outperformed by Eli Manning, Tony Romo and Donovan McNabb in the NFC East. His fresh start in Oakland has allowed him to grow as a leader of a younger group of offensive players. He also gives the Raiders a quarterback who can complete better than 60 percent of his passes.
Chance of being elite: 10 percent

20. David Garrard, Jacksonville Jaguars

Analysis: This might be his final season as the Jags' starter, but don't underestimate him. He is a good leader and still has the ability to complete 60 percent of his passes.
Chance of being elite: 5 percent

21. Alex Smith, San Francisco 49ers

Analysis: It's hard to believe this is Smith's sixth season. The pressure is on him to get the 49ers to the playoffs. He has not lived up to his No. 1 billing in the draft, obviously, but the surrounding cast is good enough to make a playoff run. One of the faults I noticed when I saw him in the preseason is that he doesn't always hit receivers in stride.
Chance of being elite: 0 percent

22. Matt Cassel, Kansas City Chiefs

Analysis: Cassel showed in New England that he can be a playoff-caliber quarterback if he's surrounded with pass-catchers with yards-after-the-catch ability. He lacks the downfield arm to stretch a defense, but if the Chiefs get him more playmakers, Cassel could thrive.
Chance of being elite: 0 percent

Mark Sanchez, Kevin Kolb, Matthew Stafford
From left, the Jets' Mark Sanchez had 20 interceptions and 12 TD passes in 2009; Philadelphia's Kevin Kolb threw for 300 or more yards in his only two starts last season; Detroit's Matthew Stafford threw for 13 TDs in 2009.

HIT-OR-MISS DIVISION

23. Mark Sanchez, New York Jets

Analysis: The additions of Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes at wide receiver and LaDainian Tomlinson catching passes out of the backfield should allow Sanchez to be a 60 percent thrower. Another ally will be the motion packages offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer can install now that Sanchez has a year of experience in the offense.
Chance of being elite: 50 percent

24. Kevin Kolb, Philadelphia Eagles

Analysis: Kolb is the perfect quarterback for Andy Reid's West Coast offense, which is why the Eagles traded Donovan McNabb to the Redskins. Kolb is a rhythm passer out of three- and five-step drops, and he should have a big statistical year.
Chance of being elite: 50 percent

25. Chad Henne, Miami Dolphins

Analysis: Henne has a strong arm and a flair for fourth-quarter comebacks, giving him a chance to be a top-level quarterback. It did seem as though defenses figured him out in the second half of the season, but Henne is smart enough to adjust. Plus, he now has Brandon Marshall as his main target.
Chance of being elite: 45 percent

26. Byron Leftwich, Pittsburgh Steelers

Analysis: Leftwich lacks mobility and tends to stay in the pocket too long, but his strong arm and good leadership could bail out the Steelers filling in for Roethlisberger in September. If Leftwich can't generate a 2-2 start, though, he might fall into a permanent backup role. Leftwich should withstand a challenge from Dennis Dixon, who flubbed his chance to claim the job with a poor preseason performance against Denver.
Chance of being elite: 0 percent

27. Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions

Analysis: Stafford survived a painful rookie season in which he was pounded by defenses (24 sacks, 20 interceptions), but he showed flashes of greatness. Tight end Tony Scheffler and wide receiver Nate Burleson will pull coverage away from go-to receiver Calvin Johnson and give the Lions' offense -- and Stafford -- a chance.
Chance of being elite: 55 percent

28. Matt Leinart/Derek Anderson, Arizona Cardinals

Analysis: For Anderson, this is a chance to rebuild his career after tough seasons in Cleveland in 2008 and 2009. He's not very accurate, never completing more than 60 percent of his passes in a season in the NFL. For Leinart, this is the end of the line as a Cardinal after this season if he doesn't regain a starting job he had no business losing.
Chances of being elite: 0 percent
Update: Leinart was released by the Cardinals.

29. Josh Freeman, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Analysis: Freeman is a big, athletic quarterback who is being paired with a promising, young receiving corps. The small fracture on the tip of his right thumb is a slight setback, but Freeman is the perfect quarterback for the Bucs to build around.
Chance of being elite: 35 percent

30. Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams

Analysis: What amazes Rams management about Bradford is his accuracy and how calm he seems in the pocket. Unfortunately, his rookie season will be tough because St. Louis lacks big-play receivers and the offensive line is struggling.
Chance of being elite: 85 percent

31. Trent Edwards, Buffalo Bills

Analysis: Call it deja Bills. When Edwards entered the league in 2007, the Bills were a bottled-up offense desperately looking for receivers who could pull coverage away from Lee Evans. Edwards' lone target remains Evans, but the offensive line is now much worse.
Chance of being elite: 0 percent

32. Matt Moore, Carolina Panthers

Analysis: He has a 6-2 record as starter, but a slow start could speed the Jimmy Clausen era in Carolina.
Chance of being elite: 5 percent

33. Jake Delhomme, Cleveland Browns

Analysis: Interceptions in the playoff loss to Arizona in 2008 led to a downward spiral for a quarterback who won a lot of games for John Fox and the Panthers. At 35, Delhomme has no chance of being a starter anywhere else if he doesn't cut it in Cleveland.
Chance of being elite: 0 percent

  • SPORTS NATION: Rank the NFL starting quarterbacks
  • John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.