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Tuesday, January 4, 2011
Ranking NFL starting quarterbacks

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

Donovan McNabb & Michael Vick
Donovan McNabb, hobbled by his supporting cast in Washington, fell in John Clayton's rankings. Meanwhile, Michael Vick, his replacement in Philadelphia, is rising.
While Michael Vick of the Philadelphia Eagles came out of nowhere to regain elite status in my season-ending starting quarterback rankings, three veterans plunged from the top category.

I ranked Brett Favre fifth in my preseason rankings, but the Minnesota Vikings' quarterback finally got old and played nowhere near elite status (11 TDs, 20 picks) in 2010. Donovan McNabb, ranked ninth in the preseason, struggled playing with inferior talent on the Washington Redskins, got benched and will be playing elsewhere in 2011. Like Favre, he dropped a tier in my rankings.

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer was in the elite category and 10th overall in my preseason rankings. But despite flickers of elite play late in the season, he didn't do enough to merit staying among the best. Twenty interceptions, which tied Palmer's career high, will do that to you.

I divide this quarterback-driven league into three categories:

•  Elite Division: These quarterbacks complete better than 60 percent of their passes, have 4,000-yard passing potential and demonstrate fourth-quarter comeback ability. These players can carry a team to the playoffs.

•  Chad Pennington Division: Pennington, a former starter for the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets, never had a strong arm, but he once was good enough to take a team to the playoffs with a good surrounding cast or a favorable schedule. These quarterbacks have a deficiency or two that keep them from joining my elite category. The quarterbacks who fit this mold include the Denver Broncos' Kyle Orton, the Kansas City Chiefs' Matt Cassel and a surprise. (Hint: Think NFC North.)

•  Hit-Or-Miss Division: It includes young players who have potential to be elite (Detroit's Matthew Stafford) but have a ways to go, declining veterans (McNabb) and players who have zero chance to move to the top category (Derek Anderson).

For my season-ending review, I added Eagles backup Kevin Kolb, who began the season as a starter. He should be attractive to teams that want to trade for a quarterback in the offseason. Orton also could draw trade interest now that Tim Tebow has been given a three-game starter audition. Orton was near the top of the Chad Pennington Division when the season began.

Expect Josh Freeman of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and rookie Sam Bradford of the St. Louis Rams -- both of whom had breakout seasons -- to join my elite category in the next year or two.

QBs in the elite category are assigned an arrow, denoting whether their play continues to improve or remains flat. 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. I have seen enough of QBs Vince Young, Alex Smith and Rex Grossman, for example, to know they have little or no chance to be elite.

Now, on to the rankings.

Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers
Drew Brees' interception total jumped this season -- a surprise from a normally cool customer. Ben Roethlisberger, center, threw for 3,200 yards in 12 games, and Aaron Rodgers finished the regular season with a 101.2 passer rating.

THE ELITE DIVISION

1. Tom Brady, New England Patriots

Analysis: Brady's remarkable season included an in-season change from a big-play offense that featured Randy Moss to a move-the-chains approach with high-percentage passes. He should be voted the league's MVP, a reason I am moving him ahead of reigning MVP Peyton Manning in my rankings. Brady's TD pass-to-interception ratio of 9-to-1 is remarkable.
Arrow is pointing: Up

2. Peyton Manning, Indianapolis Colts

Analysis: Manning hasn't lost anything from his game, just weapons. At times operating with neither a running game nor an inside passing game, Manning had a tough month in which he forced too many passes, resulting in interceptions in bunches. But he showed he still has it in carrying the Colts into the playoffs.
Arrow is pointing: Flat

3. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints

Analysis: The strange part of this season was his high interceptions total (22, second most in league). Brees is normally a cool customer who makes few mistakes, but teams dropped more defenders into coverage to make it tougher for him to throw deep.
Arrow is pointing: Flat

4. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers

Analysis: Roethlisberger grew up as a person after starting the season with a four-game suspension and remained every bit as good as a quarterback. The only knock is his tendency to have low-scoring games against top defenses.
Arrow is pointing: Flat

5. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers

Analysis: Unable and unwilling to slide, Rodgers will never earn elite baseball status. His inability to slide resulted in a worry about concussions, but his ability to throw and run gives opponents headaches.
Arrow is pointing: Up

6. Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers

Analysis: Rivers had his best season even though he was missing many of his top offensive weapons. He's a leader who is willing to make tough throws at tough times no matter how tight the coverage.
Arrow is pointing: Up

7. Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons

Analysis: In his third season, Ryan evolved into a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback. His extra work in the offseason studying other elite quarterbacks paid off.
Arrow is pointing: Up

8. Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles

Analysis: Vick revamped his game by becoming every bit as dangerous throwing from the pocket as he was running out of it. He was the story of the year in the NFL.
Arrow is pointing: Up

9. Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys

Analysis: A broken left clavicle in late October separated him from an underachieving Cowboys team and turned this season into a mulligan. He still has 4,000-yard ability and a lot of weapons returning next year.
Arrow is pointing: Flat

10. Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens

Analysis: At some point, those who like to give me flak about Flacco's elite status will have to concede he has it all. He doesn't throw many interceptions (10 this season); he has a big-time arm; and he wins playoff games (3-2 record).
Arrow is pointing: Up

11. Eli Manning, New York Giants

Analysis: Sure, the Giants had plenty of injuries at wide receiver, but Manning must accept the blame for leading the league in interceptions (25).
Arrow is pointing: Flat

12. Matt Schaub, Houston Texans

Analysis: Schaub established himself as a 4,000-yard thrower the past two years. Too bad he didn't get a chance to play his own defense each week. He would have been a 5,000-yard passer against the porous Texans.
Arrow is pointing: Up

Josh Freeman and Sam Bradford
The arrow points up for second-year Tampa Bay QB Josh Freeman, left, and St. Louis rookie Sam Bradford -- both are on track to become elite quarterbacks.

CHAD PENNINGTON DIVISION

13. Josh Freeman, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Analysis: With his ability to move his offense for fourth-quarter drives, Freeman has moved ahead of the good class of quarterbacks in 2008. He could easily be elite by his third season.
Chance of being elite: 85 percent

14. Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams

Analysis: Were he not a rookie, I would immediately make him an elite quarterback as quickly as I did Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco. Only three quarterbacks have thrown for more than 3,000 yards as rookies, and Bradford was one of them.
Chance of being elite: 99 percent

Carson Palmer
Cincinnati's Carson Palmer tied a career high with 20 interceptions and fell from elite status.
15. Carson Palmer, Cincinnati Bengals

Analysis: Palmer threw five pick-sixes this season, but some of them can be attributed to poor route running by his receivers. He passed for nearly 4,000 yards this season, and he looked good without Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens in Week 16. But those 20 interceptions and the 4-12 finish for the Bengals drag him down.
Chance of being elite: 75 percent

16. Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears

Analysis: The combination of Cutler's arm and Mike Martz's play calling helped to win the NFC North. But Cutler threw too many interceptions (16) to advance him back into the elite group he was a member of while with the Broncos in 2008.
Chance of being elite: 95 percent

17. Matt Cassel, Kansas City Chiefs

Analysis: I mean this positively: He's a taller version of Chad Pennington. Give him a good running game and good yards-after-catch receivers, and Cassel will win.
Chance of being elite: 20 percent

18. Donovan McNabb, Washington Redskins

Analysis: He should change his name to Donovan McDissed. McNabb would have had a 4,000-yard season if his receivers were any good. He still can put up solid numbers.
Chance of being elite: 50 percent

19. Kyle Orton, Denver Broncos

Analysis: Orton is a better pocket passer than anyone expected. Had the Broncos not switched to Tim Tebow, Orton would have been a 4,000-yard thrower. If the Broncos try to deal him, he should draw a second-round offer in exchange.
Chance of being elite: 10 percent

20. Mark Sanchez, New York Jets

Analysis: Sanchez didn't suffer a sophomore slump as a second-year starter, but he didn't progress that much, either. Despite having as talented a group of skill players around him as he will ever have as a Jet, Sanchez completed only 54.8 percent of his throws.
Chance of being elite: 50 percent

21. David Garrard, Jacksonville Jaguars

Analysis: His accuracy (64.5 percent) and leadership made the Jaguars a contender for the AFC South a year or two ahead of schedule. His combined work with Maurice Jones-Drew always gives the Jaguars a chance.
Chance of being elite: 5 percent

22. Jason Campbell, Oakland Raiders

Analysis: Even though Tom Cable benched him after six quarters, Campbell rebounded to help double the scoring on a Raiders offense that averaged 12.3 points a game under JaMarcus Russell last season. He almost made Oakland a contender.
Chance of being elite: 10 percent

Young, Smith & Kolb
From left, Vince Young, Alex Smith and Kevin Kolb all had watershed seasons, and not in a good way. Kolb emerges in the strongest position -- he could draw considerable trade interest.

HIT-OR-MISS DIVISION

23. Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions

Analysis: When he's healthy, Stafford could move to the top of my Chad Pennington Division, but he has started only 13 games in two years. Still, he has a strong arm, and he averaged 23.6 points a game this season when he started.
Chance of being elite: 50 percent

24. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Buffalo Bills

Analysis: Face it, Fitzpatrick went from being a good backup to a decent starter. Although he has 4,000-yard potential in Chan Gailey's offense, he has won only 34 percent of his career starts. He teased the Bills enough to make them pass on a first-round quarterback next year.
Chance of being elite: 5 percent

25. Vince Young, Tennessee Titans

Analysis: Young could officially be called a coach-killer if Titans owner Bud Adams keeps him and fires Jeff Fisher, who doesn't want the QB. VY improved his ability to read defenses, but he didn't get an A for studying during the week.
Chance of being elite: 10 percent

26. Kevin Kolb, Philadelphia Eagles

Analysis: If Kevin Kolb is supposed to be the next Matt Schaub, it's appropriate that Michael Vick, whom Schaub backed up in Atlanta, would take away his chance of being a starter. He's accurate and competitive. To get him in a trade, it might cost a team at least first- and third-round choices.
Chance of being elite: 50 percent

27. Brett Favre, Minnesota Vikings

Analysis: Replays of Favre throwing in a pickup game in the Wrangler commercials looked better than what we saw this season. My preseason No. 5 elite quarterback finally got old, and now it's time for him to crank up the tractor and retire for good.
Chance of being elite: 0 percent

28. Alex Smith, San Francisco 49ers

Analysis: This was his make-or-break year, and the season broke the wrong way for Smith, who will enter the No. 1-pick witness protection program that harbors David Carr, Joey Harrington, JaMarcus Russell and others.
Chance of being elite: 5 percent

29. Matt Hasselbeck, Seattle Seahawks

Analysis: Too many interceptions down the stretch could end his reign as the Seahawks' quarterback. He's unsigned after this season; the Seahawks aren't sure whether they want to bring him back.
Chance of being elite: 5 percent

Chad Hanne
Miami's Chad Henne struggled this season, throwing more picks (19) than TD passes (15).
30. Chad Henne, Miami Dolphins

Analysis: Whether you blame head coach Tony Sparano, offensive coordinator Dan Henning or the quarterback himself, Henne regressed this season. The Dolphins' conservative style didn't take advantage of Brandon Marshall.
Chance of being elite: 25 percent

31. Kerry Collins, Tennessee Titans

Analysis: Collins turned 38 on Dec. 30, but he doesn't plan to retire. He's still a good quarterback coming off the bench for extended starts, but his best days are behind him.
Chance of being elite: 0 percent

32. Rex Grossman, Washington Redskins

Analysis: Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan believes he has something left, but there are more doubters than believers leaguewide.
Chance of being elite: 1 percent

33. Colt McCoy, Cleveland Browns

Analysis: McCoy was supposed to sit and learn this season, but he exceeded expectations with his accuracy and his leadership. In his limited playing time, he was more polished than former Browns QB Brady Quinn.
Chance of being elite: 10 percent

34. Jimmy Clausen, Carolina Panthers

Analysis: Outgoing Panthers coach John Fox restricted Clausen's development by not letting him work out of three- and four-receiver sets. When the coaches spread the field on third downs, Clausen did some good things, but overall I didn't learn much about him this season.
Chance of being elite: 10 percent

35. Tim Tebow, Denver Broncos

Analysis: Everyone knows Tebow is a work in progress. In his second start, the Broncos let him throw screens and passes out of the pocket, but it could take a lot of time to smooth out his mechanics and accuracy.
Chance of being elite: 5 percent

36. Derek Anderson-John Skelton-Max Hall, Arizona Cardinals

Analysis: Ken Whisenhunt should burn the tapes of this season's passing offense. In retrospect, the Cardinals should have acquired Donovan McNabb or simply kept Matt Leinart. Leinart couldn't have been as bad as what we saw from Cardinals quarterbacks this season.
Chance of being elite: 0 percent

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.