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Thursday, August 23, 2012
Updated: August 31, 4:54 PM ET
NFL starting quarterback rankings

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

For the past several years, my annual breakdown of the NFL's elite quarterbacks has taken plenty of criticism.

Much of it has involved semantics. I usually go with about a dozen "elite" quarterbacks each year, and I do it for a reason. This is a quarterback-driven league, so the elite category is reserved for the signal-callers who are good enough to elevate a team into the playoffs. Four of my five healthy, elite quarterbacks in the AFC made the playoffs last year. Five of my elite choices in the NFC made the playoffs.

If you can get past the terminology and go to the basis of the ratings, you'll understand my point. In the playoffs, a Joe Flacco can beat a Tom Brady. A Philip Rivers can beat a Peyton Manning. An Eli Manning can beat anyone, as he has proved in beating Brady twice in Super Bowls. For that reason, I didn't want to break up the top quarterbacks into two groups.

An elite quarterback has the ability to throw for 4,000 yards, complete 60 percent of his passes and generate more than 20 points a game. I divide the league into three categories. You have the elites. The next group is the Chad Penningtons, a position reserved for budding elites or quarterbacks who are good enough to take a team to the playoffs. The final group, which is smaller than most years, is the hit-or-miss division.

Despite some changes, I have 13 elite quarterbacks this season, and there are more who might be knocking at the door for a spot on the list next season.


Click here for No. 11 to No. 20  |  Click here for No. 21 to No. 32

SportsNation: Rank 'em -- Starting QBs

THE ELITE


1. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers

Analysis: After paying respect to Tom Brady and his three Super Bowl rings with the top spot last year, it's time to give Rodgers his due. He has a great arm and a great mind. He breezed through last season with 15 regular-season wins and leads a team that I believe will reach three Super Bowls over a six-year period. Two years ago was the first. An easy schedule helps him and the Packers this year.

Arrow is pointing: up



2. Tom Brady, New England Patriots

Analysis: With the addition of Brandon Lloyd as an outside threat and the easiest schedule in the AFC, Brady could break the single-season yardage record of 5,476 set last year by Drew Brees. He should easily throw for more than 40 touchdowns. Defenses are trying to find ways to stop his two-tight-end sets, which is why the Pats sought an upgrade at wide receiver.

Arrow is pointing: up



3. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints

Analysis: Brees will be under pressure to live up to his new $100 million contract -- a challenge he's willing to accept. He will miss Sean Payton's play calling, and a tough schedule and tougher offseason might make it difficult to win more than 10 games. But Brees will be dangerous if he makes the playoffs.

Arrow is pointing: flat



4. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers

Analysis: Roethlisberger earns the edge over Eli Manning based on his extra trip to the Super Bowl. Like Rodgers, Roethlisberger is surrounded by talent in three-receiver sets. He might battle new offensive coordinator Todd Haley over some play calling, but Haley is smart enough to know that Roethlisberger wins when he escapes the pocket and throws downfield.

Arrow is pointing: up



5. Eli Manning, New York Giants

Analysis: There is no better example of an elite quarterback getting hot at the right time and winning Super Bowls than Manning, who won each of his two championships after a four-game march through the postseason. Last year, he cut down on interceptions and threw for 4,933 yards.

Arrow is pointing: up



6. Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos

Analysis: Coming off four neck operations, Manning might be at 85 percent -- but 85 percent of Peyton Manning is still an elite quarterback. His arm strength isn't what it once was, but in 2010, he still won 10 games for the Colts and made the playoffs even though his downfield throwing ability was in decline.

Arrow is pointing: flat



7. Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers

Analysis: Even though he will miss the tall target of Vincent Jackson, Rivers should have a big year. Antonio Gates is healthy and could have a 100-catch season if he remains healthy. With the additions of Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal, Rivers will cut down on interceptions and throw for more touchdowns.

Arrow is pointing: up



8. Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys

Analysis: When will people get off his back? When healthy, Romo has thrown for more than 4,000 yards and between 26 and 36 touchdowns per season. The concern, however, is that some of the talent around him is getting older and more brittle.

Arrow is pointing: flat



9. Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles

Analysis: Vick had his best offseason of preparation, watching hours and hours of game film. He's on a mission to get the Eagles back to the playoffs. Sure, he might not be healthy enough to start more than 13 games, but he's money when he's on the field.

Arrow is pointing: up



10. Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons

Analysis: The Falcons are switching to a three-receiver offense that will feature more no-huddle, the kind of offense that fits Ryan's style. He has taken plenty of heat for losing three playoff games, but this should be the season he makes the playoffs and wins a game.

Arrow is pointing: up



Click here for No. 11 to No. 20  |  Click here for No. 21 to No. 32

SportsNation: Rank 'em -- Starting QBs