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Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees headline list of top QBs

Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees headline list of top QBs Photo: Simon Bruty/SI

This week has brought a boon for the draft class of 2011. First, Patrick Peterson landed a contract extension to make him the league's highest-paid cornerback, and then Tyron Smith inked an eight-year deal to lock him up at more than $100 million overall.

We are talking about the quarterback position here, though, and no draft in recent memory has better highlighted just what a crapshoot that position can be.

The No. 1 overall pick that year was Cam Newton, by the Panthers. Though Newton took home Offensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2011, only now is he scratching the surface of his full potential. Two QB prospects drafted a full round after him, Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick, have seen more immediate NFL success, at least in terms of wins and losses. Between the Newton selection at No. 1 and the Dalton pick at No. 35, three other QBs came off the board: Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder. Locker is the lone one with a starting gig awaiting him in 2014.

RANKINGS: WRs | TEs | Safeties | CBs | D-tackles | Pass rushers | LBs | OL

Finding the Next Great NFL Quarterback has been a challenge failed by several teams, time and again. Not every franchise has that problem. Those lucky enough to land a true No. 1, or better yet a future Hall of Famer, have reaped the benefits. 

As we wind down our NFL positional rankings, here are the top 10 quarterbacks in the NFL as he '14 season approaches:

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Honorable mention: Cam Newton, Panthers; Colin Kaepernick, 49ers; Matthew Stafford, Lions; Jay Cutler, Bears; Nick Foles, Eagles; Alex Smith, Chiefs; Robert Griffin III, Redskins; Eli Manning, Giants; Joe Flacco, Ravens

Newton is closer -- far closer -- to being included among the league's upper-echelon than ever before. Last season, he made strides as a decision-maker, inside and outside the pocket. As a result, his completion percentage ticked above 60 for the first time in his career, his TD passes increased and the Panthers found a little offensive balance. They do, however, need more moving forward from their franchise quarterback.

Kaepernick has worlds of talent and has been extremely successful in his one-and-a-half years starting for the 49ers. He was, however, downright mediocre at times in 2013. His new contract was a bet on his potential by the 49ers more than on where he currently sits in the QB pecking order.

Which other honorable mentions stand out? How about Manning, a two-time Super Bowl champion? On that basis alone, he has a top-10 QB argument; on his 27-interception showing of 2013, he deserves to be on the outside looking in. Foles was a revelation in Chip Kelly's offense, posting a ridiculous 27:2 TD-to-INT differential. If he does it again, Foles will be impossible to ignore. Stafford and Cutler are not far removed from the top 10, either -- certainly not from a statistical or talent standpoint. Brandon Marshall recently said Cutler could win the MVP award this season, which is not all that outlandish a statement if Cutler stays healthy.

10. Matt Ryan, Falcons

Is there a statute of limitations on when a quarterback can enter "elite" classification? Back in February, Ryan's longtime (and now retired) tight end Tony Gonzalez said during an ESPN interview that Ryan was "not elite" but that he's "this close" and "he'll get there."

Until then, Ryan lingers near the top of the Tier 2 guys, as a plenty capable quarterback with the occasional penchant for brilliance. What he has lacked so far is the ability to flip the switch and carry those around him, as the Peyton Mannings of the world can. Ryan is more of a right-place, right-time quarterback -- a potential star, so long as there is not chaos in the ranks.

Last season provided evidence both of why Ryan is on this top-10 list ... and why he's not any higher. Behind a brutal offensive line and with Julio Jones and Roddy White banged up, Ryan completed 67 percent of his passes for more than 4,500 yards. He started every game despite taking 44 sacks and being hammered repeatedly. But he also fired a career-high 17 interceptions and generated just one game-winning drive.

Still, in a better situation this season, Ryan again will be a Pro Bowl-caliber QB.

9. Russell Wilson, Seahawks

The Seahawks' passing attack was seen as a bit of a weakness last season, what with Wilson completing less than 20 passes in 13 of 16 regular-season games. Most of that, however, was by design as the Seahawks leaned on a strong run game and dominant defense. And a closer look at the numbers reveals just how effective Wilson was. To wit:

• Wilson finished top five in yards per completion (13.1), yards per attempt (8.2) and top 10 in touchdowns (26).

• Wilson ranked in the top 10 in Football Outsiders' DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) and DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) -- a pair of ratings similar in concept to baseball's WAR.

• Wilson was Pro Football Focus' No. 4 QB, and the second-rated QB when he ran the football, behind only Cam Newton.

Seattle's offense has been crafted perfectly around Wilson and his abilities, but as he progresses, the demands placed on him will increase. In turn, expect the defending Super Bowl-winning QB to increase his stats.

8. Tony Romo, Cowboys

Barring a Super Bowl breakthrough in the next couple of seasons -- and a glance at Dallas' defense hints that it won't come in 2014 -- Romo may later walk off into retirement with a wholly unfair reputation. Yes, he tends to turn in some ghastly errors and has all of one playoff win to show for his career. He also has far more talent than he is given credit for, especially in light of an inconsistent roster around him.

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7. Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers

There were times last season when Roethlisberger was flat-out awful, his passes taking off in seemingly random fashion. Of course, much of Roethlisberger's aura has come from making the best of bad situations. Though he was sacked 42 times last season (his sixth time topping the 40-sack mark), Roethlisberger is the toughest QB in the league to bring down. His improvisational abilities are what take him from a solid QB to one of the best. He was far better late in the year than he was at the start, offering hope that he can pick up in 2014 where he left off in '13.

6. Philip Rivers, Chargers

Maybe it is because Rivers slogged through 2011 and '12. Maybe it is his 4-5 playoff record, a mark that does not yet include a Super Bowl trip, or that his sideline reactions are why internet memes were created. Whatever the reasoning, Rivers often gets overlooked in the top-QB discussion.

It's a mistake. As the NFL saw last season with Rivers in a friendly offense, backed by a solid run game and a breakout rookie WR Keenan Allen, the Chargers' QB still has plenty left in the tank. Keep in mind that he's just 32, five years younger than Peyton Manning and four younger than Tom Brady. In other words, Rivers still has time to deliver that one unforgettable season. For now, he'll enter 2014 off a season in which he led the league with a 69.5 completion percentage, buoyed by strong decision-making and a still-lively arm.

5. Andrew Luck, Colts

Is there enough evidence to justify Luck's high standing here? Some of you might argue no. I say, without hesitation, yes.

In just two NFL seasons, Luck has guided (according to Pro Football Reference) eight fourth-quarter comebacks and 11 game-winning drives. His flare for the dramatic is matched only by his beyond-his-years feel for the pocket -- The MMQB's Andy Benoit recently tabbed Luck as the "NFL's best running quarterback," a notion borne of Luck's knack for knowing exactly when he must escape. His passing improved last season as well, with his interception total dropping from 18 to nine.

This is the NFL's next great quarterback.

4. Tom Brady, Patriots

Statistically, Brady's 2013 season was a marked step back. He finished outside the top 10 in touchdown passes, outside the top 15 in QB rating. Yet, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Brady's critics will argue that the future Hall of Famer, who turns 37 this weekend, is a shell of his former self. The Patriots, after all, have gone a decade since their last Super Bowl win and Brady's stats have regressed each of the past two seasons.

Others will point to the laughable situation Brady has had to endure at WR and TE, with Aaron Hernandez in jail, Rob Gronkowski in and out of the lineup and a rag-tag collection of receivers struggling to provide any production at all. In spite of all that, Brady still soared past 4,000 yards through the air and helped guide New England to the AFC title game.

The truth lies somewhere in between those two stances. Brady is no longer at the height of his greatness -- Super Bowl wins in 2003 and '04, MVP honors in 2007 and '10. He remains, however, an irreplaceable QB able to diagnose defenses as well as any quarterback ever.

3. Drew Brees, Saints

Were such things possible, it would be quite interesting to see an alternate timeline where San Diego committed to Brees over Rivers way back in the mid-2000s. Would Brees have been able to get the Chargers over the top? Would Rivers have made the move from San Diego to New Orleans? Could he have won a Super Bowl there, as Brees did?

Questions that, obviously, have no answer.

And the Saints are tickled with how this universe unfolded. Brees has stood with the NFL's top quarterbacks for close to a decade now, with nearly 40K yards passing to his credit as a Saint. More than 10,000 of those yards have come over the past two seasons, with the 2012 season standing as a massive disappointment by Brees' standards -- a league-high 19 interceptions to go along with his NFL-best 43 touchdowns, as the Sean Payton-less Saints finished 7-9.

Last season was more like it. Brees earned his sixth consecutive Pro Bowl nod in guiding New Orleans back to the playoffs. Perhaps he would not have enjoyed such a prolific NFL career playing elsewhere. As the Saints quarterback, though, Brees keeps shredding defenses.

2. Peyton Manning, Broncos

Nearly had to drop Manning further down because of this:

 

 

Dancing monstrosities aside, what more really needs to be said about Manning's talent? His 2013 showing, en route to the MVP award, was absolutely absurd: 450 completions for nearly 5,500 yards. Oh, and 55 touchdowns, nearly 3.5 per game. A shoo-in Hall of Famer and a worthy candidate for the title of "Greatest QB ever," Manning has buried his lost 2011 season -- and, for the most part, the neck injury that caused it -- by adding to his resume with back-to-back sensational seasons in Denver.

Granted, the arm strength is not what it once was, due to a combination of that prior injury and the fact that Manning is now 38 years old. The Seahawks also totally confounded him in the Super Bowl by generating repeated pressure, pinning the immobile Manning in a collapsing pocket.

The end is nearer than the beginning for Manning's career. Still, if an NFL team had its pick of any quarterback for the upcoming season, Manning would receive myriad backing. Almost as much as ...

1. Aaron Rodgers, Packers

Despite his team capturing the NFC North again, Rodgers probably would just as soon forget the 2013 season. He left the Packers' eighth game with a shoulder injury and did not return until Week 17, just in time for the Packers to be bounced from the playoffs a few days later.

His numbers then are not even in the same vicinity as what Brees or Brady or Manning posted last year.

But before that, Rodgers had been on a remarkable run. It began with a Pro Bowl 2009 season, continued on through a Super Bowl win and MVP award in '10, and included a stretch from '11-12 that saw Rodgers throw 84 touchdown passes to just 14 interceptions. Prior to suffering that injury against the Bears last season, Rodgers was on pace to throw for more than 5,000 yards, 30-plus touchdowns and less than 10 interceptions.

Rodgers had the highest QB rating in the league in both 2011 and '12, and he threw touchdown passes on a staggering nine percent of his throws the first year. (Foles landed at 8.5 percent and Manning at 8.3 percent last season, for comparison's sake.)

No quarterback in the league so brilliantly meshes accuracy, vision, the ability to move the pocket and a knack for the clutch play like Rodgers. When he is healthy, Rodgers is arguably one of the two or three best players in the league on a consistent basis. Without taking anything away from what Manning accomplished last season, or what the likes of Brady and Brees have done through their careers, Rodgers sits atop the QB totem pole right now.

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