Fantasy versus reality. It's a theme we often explore at ESPN. So when we were asked to rank the best young quarterbacks in the game, we had to ask: for fantasy, or for real?
Fantasy rankings aren't about wins and losses, playoff grit or championship rings. It's not about who makes whom better and whom you'd pick to start a brand-new NFL franchise. It's all about regular-season stats. So we asked our panel of fantasy experts to rank the top five quarterbacks they would target in a dynasty league, a league in which you can carry most of your squad from year to year with little in the way of draft considerations. Basically, you want the players who will be the best for your team not only right now but also for the next several years.
The panel consists of Matthew Berry, Tristan H. Cockcroft, Christopher Harris, Eric Karabell, Erik Kuselias, Keith Lipscomb, AJ Mass and James Quintong. Here's how the voting went, along with selected comments on the top five quarterbacks.
1. Tony Romo, Cowboys: In a keeper fantasy league, the future counts for a lot, so I like Cutler quite a bit. He and Brandon Marshall have the potential to be very good right now and flat-out excellent for the next few years. But the present counts for something, too, and in my opinion, no offense in the NFL right now looks as good as Tony Romo and the Cowboys. Romo has his blemishes (witness his Monday night end zone fumble), but he also has Terrell Owens, the current consensus No. 1 receiver in football, a massive offensive line that might be the best in the league, my top-rated tight end and a highly vertical offensive system. Romo's 28. But he's a young 28 in NFL terms, doesn't have trouble with illness or injury, and has the arm to make all the throws. Cutler's fast start has narrowed the gap a bit, but Romo has played longer, so I think he's the safest dynasty-league pick. --Christopher Harris
2. Jay Cutler, Broncos: Not only is it Jay Cutler for me, it's not even close. Because when you are talking fantasy and dynasty, it's not just about players' skills but also about team, system and teammates. Cutler's young age, solid system (coach Mike Shanahan isn't going anywhere for a long, long time) and the youth of his top three targets (Brandon Marshall, Eddie Royal and Tony Scheffler) tells me Cutler will be an elite guy for a long time to come. Meanwhile, what happens if Romo loses T.O.? Or offensive coordinator Jason Garrett? Neither guy is a long-term guarantee for Dallas, but both are key to Romo's success. There's always risk with no matter whom you pick in a dynasty league, but Cutler clearly has the least downside and the most upside. --Matthew Berry
3. Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers: When Big Ben was a rookie, his team won a lot of games and he was a bit overrated for fantasy. He managed the team well. Now he's throwing two touchdowns per week, which is another nice way to manage, and far more valuable for fantasy. Roethlisberger was very effective near the goal line last season and should come back to the pack a bit for touchdowns, but fantasy owners can count on him as a weekly starter, no matter who his opponent is. He'll always have good weapons to throw to and also to hand off to. It's a very good situation for the dynasty-league fantasy owner to trust in a 26-year-old quarterback. -- Eric Karabell
4. Aaron Rodgers, Packers: This isn't just some fresh-faced kid out of college the Packers threw to the proverbial wolves, fingers crossed, hoping that he'd be able to fill the shoes of a legend. Rodgers was drafted way back in 2005 and has spent three years preparing to leap from understudy to superstar. He's comfortable with the playbook. He has watched hours of film. He has learned the idiosyncrasies of his receivers and can find them with his eyes closed if need be. Simply put, he's ready. Two solid starts does not make a Hall of Famer, but by learning how to be an NFL quarterback before having his confidence destroyed, like an Akili Smith or a Tim Couch, Rodgers can step right in and throw for 300 yards and two touchdowns week in, week out, and his team is young enough to be good for a long time. -- AJ Mass
5. Eli Manning, Giants: Am I the only guy who watched Super Bowl XLII? That was the night we saw Eli Manning morph from career disappointment to successful NFL quarterback. No, he's not quite his brother, but after you get past those all-world quarterbacks, Manning is no less talented -- note that word, talented -- than any other starter. His confidence level was really his only past limitation, and I think the most recent playoffs pretty much tied up that loose end. Manning looks so much more comfortable and stress-free this season than last, and that's a deep Giants squad, one I don't see crumbling anytime soon. Is he a candidate for No. 1 quarterback? No. But the guy is 27, with a lot of career ahead of him, and at worst -- worst -- he'll be top-10-worthy for the next, say, six to eight seasons. --Tristan H. Cockcroft