Commentary

Ranking NFL starting quarterbacks

Change is the one constant as young players rise and fading stars seek comebacks

Originally Published: August 31, 2011
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Patience is a virtue, especially for NFL quarterbacks.

Aaron Rodgers sat behind Brett Favre for three seasons, and he's now near the top of the list of elite quarterbacks. After two seasons in prison, Michael Vick took a No. 3 job in Philadelphia behind Donovan McNabb and Kevin Kolb and re-emerged as an elite quarterback. Kolb is trying to do the same in Arizona after a trade from the Eagles.

Change is a constant in the NFL, and that's reflected in my preseason quarterback rankings. Gone is Favre, whose body broke down last season and he finally ended up on his tractor on his Mississippi farm. McNabb was supposed to save the Redskins, but his status dropped so far that he had to take a pay cut with the Vikings.

I divide the league's quarterbacks into three categories -- The Elite, the Chad Penningtons and the Hit-or-Miss quarterbacks. This year, I have 13 elites. Although I am criticized for putting a Matt Schaub or a Joe Flacco in the same category as a Tom Brady or a Peyton Manning, I do it for a reason.

Elite quarterbacks are the ones who usually make the playoffs, so I categorize the elites as the ones who give their franchises the best chance. The league has 12 playoff spots, and usually 10 or 11 of the elite quarterbacks fill those positions. To be elite, a quarterback must have 4,000-yard potential, complete 60 percent of his passes and score more than 20 points a game.

The Penningtons are the quarterbacks who may not be elite but are good enough to take a team to the playoffs if the talent around them is good enough or if the schedule is easy enough.

No one knows if the Hit-or-Miss QBs will be good this season or not. They are either too young or haven't done enough recently to offer much hope.

THE ELITE

Philip Rivers and Tony RomoUS PresswirePhilip Rivers looks to rebound now that he has a full complement of targets. Tony Romo, back from injury, wants to regain his 2009 form.
1. Tom Brady, New England Patriots

Analysis: Working 39 plays a game out of two-tight end sets in 2010, Brady baffled defenses until the playoffs, winning 14 games and the league's MVP award. With the addition of Chad Ochocinco on the outside and some young runners, Brady should even be better this year.

Arrow is pointing: up

2. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers

Analysis: Rodgers' playoff run was phenomenal, particularly because the Packers had to do it as a wild card. This year, he reloads with a healthy Jermichael Finley and Ryan Grant and the chance to use a little bit more no-huddle.

Arrow is pointing: up

3. Peyton Manning, Indianapolis Colts

Analysis: The signing of Kerry Collins with the Colts is a little unnerving because it means Manning might miss regular-season time after 208 consecutive starts while waiting for nerves in his neck to heal from offseason surgery. The Colts gave him a five-year, $90 million contract -- they know Manning will play. They just don't know when.

Arrow is pointing: flat

4. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints

Analysis: Maybe it's me, but the 2010 Brees didn't look particularly sharp. His interceptions jumped from 11 in 2009 to 22 last year, and he appeared to be fighting a knee injury all season.

Arrow is pointing: flat

5. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers

Analysis: Roethlisberger barely made the top 10 in the new QBR ratings. He concedes statistics to Philip Rivers and Matt Ryan, but he has two Super Bowl rings and a 10-3 playoff record. In fourth quarters and late in games, he's dangerous.

Arrow is pointing: up

6. Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers

Analysis: Rivers is a riverboat gambler. Antonio Gates and Vincent Jackson may be double-covered, but Rivers will still get them the ball. Last year, he had Gates-Jackson-Malcom Floyd on the field for only about a quarter together. Watch for Rivers to have his best season.

Arrow is pointing: up

7. Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons

Analysis: One stat being held against him is an 0-2 playoff record. One stat that will change this season will be yards-per-attempt, which was a meager 6.5 last season. Julio Jones will stretch the field, and that will open things up for Ryan to get the ball to Harry Douglas in the slot and Tony Gonzalez at tight end.

Arrow is pointing: up

8. Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles

Analysis: Vick is once again a superstar, as he was in Atlanta, but now he's doing it in a passing offense. He averages about 30 points a game when he plays. His only concern is staying healthy because he sacrifices his body for the good of the team.

Arrow is pointing: up

9. Eli Manning, New York Giants

Analysis: I tried to move him higher in the rankings, but that notion was intercepted. He is now expected to throw for 4,000 yards a season because he's that good. But he can't continue to have 25-interception seasons. The loss of Kevin Boss and Steve Smith along with an unsettled offensive line will make his job tougher.

Arrow is pointing: down

10. Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys

Analysis: Give Romo and the Cowboys a mulligan for a horrible 2010 season. He got hurt, and Wade Phillips lost his job. Romo has looked great in practices and in games so far and should throw for 4,000 yards and 25 touchdowns.

Arrow is pointing: up

11. Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens

Analysis: Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron is supposed to unleash a new Joe Flacco, one who will have more chances to go downfield and carry the team with his arm. Last year, the Ravens ran 23.8 plays a game out of two-back formations, but the addition of Lee Evans at split end and maybe Torrey Smith running some long routes could open up the offense a little more.

Arrow is pointing: up

12. Matt Schaub, Houston Texans

Analysis: I don't know if Schaub can do more. He's thrown for 9,140 yards and 53 touchdowns the past two seasons, but that hasn't been good enough to get the Texans to the playoffs. In fact, they ended up 6-10 last season. He needs some help from his defensive friends.

Arrow is pointing: flat

13. Josh Freeman, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Analysis: He posted enough numbers to graduate into the elite level. He has a 63.5 QBR. Scouts Inc. placed him in the top 200 players, 13th among quarterbacks. He generated six fourth-quarter comebacks last season. He completed 61.4 percent of his passes with a young, unheralded receiving corps.

Arrow is pointing: up

CHAD PENNINGTON DIVISION

Sam Bradford, Donovan McNabbUS PresswireSam Bradford is the next elite quarterback in waiting, the up-and-comer. Donovan McNabb, meanwhile, has tumbled from the elite ranks and is looking for a comeback.
14. Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams

Analysis: He's the next elite quarterback. The only thing preventing his jump is a 6.0 yards-per-attempt number. Bradford showed remarkable poise winning seven games and completing 60 percent of his passes as a rookie. I just wish he had a more explosive group of receivers to take him to the next level.

Arrow is pointing: up

15. Matt Cassel, Kansas City Chiefs

Analysis: Cassel is almost like Pennington, a quarterback who took four teams to the playoffs for the Jets and Dolphins. He manages the game well enough to win and get a team into the playoffs. What holds him back is the lack of a big arm and his struggles in games against elite quarterbacks.

Arrow is pointing: flat

16. Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears

Analysis: Cutler has elite talent, and he's improved his legwork during the offseason. Thanks to the rule moving the kickoff to the 35-yard line, Cutler will be asked to do more because great Bears returns routinely gave him drive starts past his 30. Now, he must generate drives from his 20 because of touchbacks.

Arrow is pointing: flat

17. Mark Sanchez, New York Jets

Analysis: We all know and applaud his four postseason victories and how his numbers and performances are better in the postseason than the regular season. Still, he's a 54.8 passer who has to work with older receivers Derrick Mason and Plaxico Burress and an offensive line that has question marks.

Arrow is pointing: flat

18. Kevin Kolb, Arizona Cardinals

Analysis: Neat fact: Kolb won two NFC Player of the Week awards in his seven starts in Philadelphia. He will throw the ball to Larry Fitzgerald 10 or 11 times a game. If he can complete eight or nine passes to other players -- which he should -- Kolb can get the Cardinals to eight wins.

Arrow is pointing: up

19. Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions

Analysis: When he has played -- which has been rare -- Stafford has shown the ability to put up more than 24 points a game as a starter. He has been one of the more impressive quarterbacks in the preseason, and he appears to be ready to have a breakout year.

Arrow is pointing: up

20. Kyle Orton, Denver Broncos

Analysis: He outlasted Rex Grossman in Chicago. He survived a Tim Tebow challenge. Even though he might not be the people's choice in Denver, he's a good quarterback who was on pace for a 5,000-yard throwing season early last year.

Arrow is pointing: flat

21. Donovan McNabb, Minnesota Vikings

Analysis: McNabb went from sitting behind an elite quarterback in Philadelphia to backing up Rex Grossman in Washington at the end of the season. McNabb acknowledges he's more comfortable in Bill Musgrave's version of the West Coast offense than he was in Washington. He's looking for a comeback.

Arrow is pointing: down

22. David Garrard, Jacksonville Jaguars

Analysis: Garrard never has really received credit for how well he has played at times in Jacksonville. He has a respectable 57.3 QBR, but after this season, he's DFA, designated for assignment. Blaine Gabbert will either get a chance to start this year or will be the starting quarterback next year.

Arrow is pointing: down

23. Jason Campbell, Oakland Raiders

Analysis: Campbell has a coach who believes in him in Hue Jackson. Too bad he doesn't have an offensive line that can block for him.

Arrow is pointing: down

24. Matt Hasselbeck, Tennessee Titans

Analysis: Despite last year's playoff victory over the Saints, the Seahawks decided to cut ties with Hasselbeck and let him move on to Tennessee, where he's the bridge to Jake Locker. Hasselbeck's been banged up in recent years in Seattle, but he goes to a team with a good offensive line and a nice running game.

Arrow is pointing: up

HIT-OR-MISS DIVISION

Colt McCoy, Cam NewtonUS PresswireColt McCoy, who started eight games, turned out to be a pleasant rookie surprise last season. Expectations are high for No. 1 pick Cam Newton. Will he find success as a rookie?
25. Colt McCoy, Cleveland Browns

Analysis: At 6-foot-1, McCoy may not stand tall in the pocket, but he shows promise running a West Coast offense. He's a 60.8 percent thrower and seems to improve each time he's on the field. There might be some hope in Cleveland.

Arrow is pointing: up

26. Chad Henne, Miami Dolphins

Analysis: Henne's only hope is big seasons from Brandon Marshall and Reggie Bush.

Arrow is pointing: down

27. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Buffalo Bills

Analysis: Just when Fitzpatrick was building a nice passing offense with Lee Evans and Steve Johnson, the Bills trade Evans to Baltimore and now lack the outside threat to take coverage away from Johnson. Bills fans can start following the Stanford schedule of Andrew Luck, who might be the Bills' next quarterback.

Arrow is pointing: down

28. Alex Smith, San Francisco 49ers

Analysis: 49ers fans are getting the seven-year itch for a new quarterback. It's been seven years, seven offensive coordinators, 19 victories and no playoffs during the Smith years in San Francisco.

Arrow is pointing: flat

29. Kerry Collins, Indianapolis Colts

Analysis: Am I missing something? Wasn't Collins offered the chance to be the Titans' quarterback and take the Matt Hasselbeck job of grooming Jake Locker? Now, he's in Indianapolis filling in for Peyton Manning. All of the sudden the AFC South has become the care-takers division for quarterbacks.

Arrow is pointing: flat

30. Tarvaris Jackson, Seattle Seahawks

Analysis: Jackson was beaten out by Gus Frerotte and Brett Favre during his five seasons with the Vikings. Unless Dave Krieg comes out of retirement, he should beat out Charlie Whitehurst for the starting job.

Arrow is pointing: flat

31. John Beck-Rex Grossman, Washington Redskins

Analysis: In a quarterback-driven league, Mike Shanahan and his son, Kyle, believe scheme and coaching are everything. If this daily double gets the Redskins to the playoffs, Shanahan will be coach of the year. If not, the Redskins could be looking at Andrew Luck.

Arrow is pointing: down

32. Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers

Analysis: Newton's mechanics functioning in an NFL offense have exceeded expectations. The Panthers will live and die by Newton, who came out of nowhere to become a legend at Auburn.

Arrow is pointing: up

33. Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals

Analysis: Carson Palmer gave his heart, soul and body to make the Bengals a winning franchise. After two playoff losses and years of enduring frustration, Palmer gave up. Now it's Dalton's turn to try to do the same with a smaller body and not as strong an arm.

Arrow is pointing: down

  • 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.

    John Clayton

    NFL senior writer