NFL starting quarterback rankings

Which signal-callers are capable of greatness? Which ones are going nowhere?

Originally Published: August 23, 2012
By John Clayton |

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 proven 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 to see No. 1 to No. 10  |  Click here to see No. 21 to No. 32
SportsNation: Rank 'em -- Starting QBs


11. Matt Schaub, Houston Texans

Analysis: Thanks to Schaub's accuracy and ability to work a rollout passing offense, the Texans made their first trip to the playoffs and are the favorites to repeat as champs of the AFC South. With Peyton Manning gone, Schaub has a window to rule the division until the Colts rebuild their roster around Andrew Luck.

Arrow is pointing: up

12. Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions

Analysis: Welcome to the world of the elite, Matthew. After two injury-plagued seasons, Stafford stayed healthy last year and threw for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns. If that's not elite, I don't know what is.

Arrow is pointing: up

13. Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens

Analysis: I almost was ready to give Flacco a one-year vacation from the elite category, but a visit to Baltimore's training camp persuaded me to keep him in the group -- even though I dropped him down a couple of spots. He is taking more ownership of the offense and plans to be more aggressive through the air.

Arrow is pointing: up


14. Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears

Analysis: Watching Cutler work with Brandon Marshall, Earl Bennett and a raw talent such as Alshon Jeffery, I see him throwing for 4,000 yards this season. He had an elite season in his final year in Denver. Then the Josh McDaniels tornado swept through, forcing him to the Bears. Cutler should return to elite after this season.

Arrow is pointing: up

15. Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers

Analysis: Newton is knocking on the door of the elite after an incredible rookie season in which he threw for 4,051 yards and hit more big plays than any other rookie in recent memory. He has worked on his short and intermediate throws to make sure he doesn't have a sophomore slump.

Arrow is pointing: up

16. Josh Freeman, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Analysis: I probably rushed Freeman onto last year's elite list, so I dropped him back a couple of spots and out of that category this year. An easy schedule in 2010 brought inflated views of the Bucs' roster for 2011. If Freeman does have an elite season, there could be nine elite quarterbacks in the NFC next season.

Arrow is pointing: up

17. Alex Smith, San Francisco 49ers

Analysis: Smith had the greatest rise of any quarterback in football last year. I ranked him 28th going into last season, and his résumé made him more a miss than a hit. Thanks to Jim Harbaugh's scheme and hard work by Smith, he has become a playoff-caliber Pennington.

Arrow is pointing: up

18. Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams

Analysis: Getting rid of the Josh McDaniels offense should add a touchdown per game to the 12.1 points the Rams averaged last season. Bradford will work shorter, smarter passes, which will illustrate his potentially elite skills.

Arrow is pointing: up

19. Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals

Analysis: Bengals fans blasted me last year for putting Dalton at the bottom of my ratings. Well, if the entire first round of teams pass on you, it's difficult to give a top grade. Dalton played like a Pro Bowler last year and jumped up 14 spots.

Arrow is pointing: up

20. Matt Cassel, Kansas City Chiefs

Analysis: Dwayne Bowe's holdout is over, and the Chiefs' offense appears to be loaded. They are deep at wide receiver and running back, and they need to be healthy at tight end. Cassel and the Chiefs are thinking playoffs.

Arrow is pointing: up

Click here to see No. 1 to No. 10  |  Click here to see No. 21 to No. 32
SportsNation: Rank 'em -- Starting QBs

John Clayton

NFL senior writer