1. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
Put simply, Rodgers is in the prime of a career defined by a rare (and perhaps unprecedented) combination of game intelligence, functional mobility, and ridiculous deep ball accuracy. More than any other quarterback on this list, he has the ability to transcend everything around him and excel. Bad offensive line? Lack of a running game? Receivers in and out? Rodgers seems to tune it all out. The hope for the Packers is that the additions of rookie backs Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin will balance that offense out, but the team revolves around the best quarterback in the league, and -- yes, it could already be argued -- one of the best of all time.
Yes, we're basing a great deal of Manning's high ranking on his remarkable recovery from the surgeries than kept him out of the league for the entire 2011 season, but this is also about the targets he has around him. When you combine Manning's fanatical football knowledge with receivers Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, and Wes Welker, you have a group of factors ready to wow the NFL.
In the hands of most other quarterbacks, Brees' 2012 season would have been an abject disaster. BountyGate was perhaps the most franchise-depleting sports story since the Black Sox scandal, and New Orleans' defense was an embarrassment. Brees was without Sean Payton, his head coach and offensive partner. And yet, the man as able as any in league history to make those around him look better than they are still got it done, with his third season of more than 5,000 passing yards in the last five years, and his second in a row. The best thing that can be said of Brees is the best thing that can be said of any quarterback -- everyone who plays around him is made better by his presence and ability.
Tom Brady fourth? Well, one tends to wonder just how far the Fates can push this guy. Wes Welker is in Denver, Rob Gronkowski is in injury purgatory, Aaron Hernandez is in Rolling Stone magazine for all the wrong reasons, and his leading preseason receivers are undrafted rookie Kenbrell Thompkins, second-round rookie Aaron Dobson, longtime reserve Julian Edelman, and impressive but injury-prone Danny Amendola. And when the 2013 season is done, they might be his leading regular-season receivers, as well. We all know how great Brady is, and that offense will get better once he gets on the same page with his new guys, but New England's offense is terribly dependent on complex routes that require time and chemistry. It could be a rocky start this year.
Now that Flacco has hit that nebulous "elite" designation, the question remains: Will he be the quarterback who enjoyed one of the best postseasons in NFL history, the uber-talented but inconsistent passer he was before, or a combination of the two? Probably the combo, and it doesn't help that Flacco lost Anquan Boldin to the 49ers and Dennis Pitta to a hip injury that will either end his season or take him out for most of it. If Flacco wants to be in the upper echelon, he'll have to do what the guys above him have done -- make those around him better on an every-down basis. He's never really been tasked with that before.
Before the 2012 season, I considered Ryan to be an "in-the-box" quarterback -- a guy with tremendous physical talent and football intelligence, but saddled with certain physical limitations (primarily a lack of functional mobility) that kept him as a player who couldn't always overcome serious adversity. Those questions will likely remain until and unless Ryan's Falcons win a Super Bowl (or get very close), but there was clear improvement last season. Atlanta's offense was defined more by the pass (especially on first down), and Ryan proved that he was a complete pocket passer by working more efficiently to throw his receivers open. Yes, he's got a lot of talent in those receivers, but he's now helping them as much as they're helping him.
When we talk about "rare" quarterbacks, we often mean players whose skill sets are almost without precedent. Roethlisberger is exactly that type of player. When was the last time you saw an NFL quarterback this able to make stick throws with defenders hanging all over him (frequently as the result of a well-below-average offensive line), and able to convert those throws into important plays under negative coverage circumstances? It would be nice for Big Ben if his protection was better and if he hadn't lost Mike Wallace to free agency, but you can expect him to play successfully -- and quite unconventionally -- until he hits the inevitable wall that comes from playing so physically outside of structure.
Ten years into his NFL career, it could be argued that Manning doesn't do any one thing at an "OMG" level, but he does everything required of a quarterback more than well enough to consistently succeed. Perhaps his most important attribute -- and it's one that many more talented quarterbacks don't have -- is his selective amnesia. Manning remembers the elements of a bad play (or a series of bad plays) that are important to improvement, but he doesn't seem to let them get him down. More than any other quarterback in our Top 10, Manning seems to have important traits that are tough to quantify.
I've made the point before that Romo may be the only NFL player who is overrated and underrated at the same time. For all the talk about his alleged inability to perform in clutch situations, he's actually done so with above-average efficiency through the last half-decade. His DVOA, (Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted efficiency metric) is better than the norm in late and close situations (defined as any play in the second half or overtime with the score within eight points). Some of Romo's foibles are his responsibility, but he's been given a sub-par offensive line and inconsistent receivers, as well.
In his rookie season, Luck threw a lot of long passes and took a lot of hits -- more than what you'd generally expect of a first-year quarterback. His relatively high interception rate should be seen in that context, as well as the fact that he was playing behind a vulnerable offensive line and throwing to undefined targets, Reggie Wayne aside. New offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton will bring aspects of Luck's former system at Stanford to the Colts, so expect higher efficiency and fewer explosive plays.
Schaub has quietly become one of the NFL's most prolific quarterbacks from a yardage perspective, but the next step for him is to become a more effective passer in the red zone -- and that's an issue that has reared its head this preseason. Schaub is a surprisingly mobile quarterback who thrives on the Texans' boot-action passing game, and he's at his best when Gary Kubiak's offense is balanced.
Putting Griffin at #12 obviously assumes that his knee will be in great shape for the 2013 season, and he's projected to start the Redskins' season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles. When healthy, Griffin presents an unprecedented degree of difficulty for any defensive coordinator. Not only does he have demon speed on designed runs, but he runs option and Pistol packages to perfection, and the Redskins were the most effective play-action team in the league last season. One of the primary reasons for this is Griffin's propensity for testing defenses deep after they bite on run fakes. If he learns when to throw the ball away and move on to the next play, he has a better chance to stay in the game ... and to continue to present nightmare scenarios for Washington's opponents.
Stafford is one of two quarterbacks in NFL history to throw for more than 4,950 yards in two consecutive seasons -- Drew Brees is the other -- but the 2012 season in which Stafford matriculated his team for 4,967 passing yards is seen as an overall negative by many because his touchdown total plummeted from 41 in 2011 to 20 last season. Stafford plays from the shotgun more than anyone else in the league, often goes with single-read looks (though he is capable of more), and has inconsistent mechanics that cause him to break down under pressure. He's got all the talent required of the position, but he's still putting it all together.
It would take an exceptional set of circumstances for an allegedly too-short quarterback, selected 75th in the 2012 draft, to end the season tying Peyton Manning's rookie record for touchdown passes, but that's exactly what Wilson did. The Seahawks kept him under wraps early in the season, but Wilson proved that he could run an offense soon enough. Wilson rolled out of the pocket on 25 percent of his passing attempts, by far the highest percentage in the league last year, so we'll see what defenses to do contain that.
15. Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers
2013 marks Kaepernick's third year in the league, but his first year as a starter from the opening game, and his second season as a starter at all. Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman meshed Kaepernick's running speed and deep arm perfectly with a complex series of blocking schemes on the way to a near-Super Bowl win. But the 49ers have some fairly serious receiver issues this season, and Kaepernick may have to make more plays on the fly with his arm as defenses look to tack the box until he forces them to go with a different plan.
Newton set all kinds of rookie records in 2011, but his sophomore campaign could only be seen as a disappointment. Beyond Newton's performance, there were two primary reasons for this -- first, former offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski went away from the run-based passing game that helped Newton so much the year before, and the routes Carolina's receivers were running often tasked Newton to make deep timing throws he simply could not. New offensive coordinator Mike Shula, formerly Newton's quarterback coach, wants to set things right schematically, and make the most of Newton's arm and rushing ability. Newton's part of that bargain? He must make better decisions and become more accurate on long passes.
Cutler may be the NFL's best arm talent, but a strong of offensive systems and poor pass protection -- not to mention mechanics you wouldn't wish on a fourth-grader -- have conspired to lead to his underachievement at times. New Bears head coach Marc Trestman, a longtime quarterback guru, will try to set things right.
Like Cutler, Rivers is an estimably talented signal-caller who has been let down by his protection over the last few seasons. And like Cutler, he'll try to get things fixed with a new head coach known for helping quarterbacks in former Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy.
Palmer goes from a fairly nightmarish Raiders offense (in which he was surprisingly productive) to a Cardinals team with an excellent offensive coach in charge of things (head coach Bruce Arians) and a pretty decent cadre of receivers. Could be a rebound for a guy who's been under the radar for the last few seasons.
20. Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles
Vick would seem to be a perfect match for Chip Kelly's high-tempo offense, especially given the complexity of the running game. He's still got an amazing arm, and if Kelly can corral his more questionable on-field tendencies, we could see the best of Vick in 2013.
Smith is what he is, and nothing more -- not a top-level quarterback, but a smart, efficient player with a decent arm and a need for things to be working around him. New Chiefs head coach Andy Reid has excelled through his career with such players.
This is the year for Dalton to hit the proverbial next level. He's got the best young receiver in the game in A.J. Green, a good offensive line, a rookie tight end in Tyler Eifert, and an improving running game. If the Bengals are to advance in the postseason, it's on Dalton to improve his decisions under pressure and strike more consistently on intermediate and deeper throws.
There are many in the league who still believe in Bradford, despite the fact that the first overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft really hasn't lived up to the promise he showed in college. He's gone through a laundry list of offensive coordinators, receivers, and blockers. Bradford has the arm to lead the Rams to a higher level -- the question is whether he has the weapons around him, and whether three years of bad overall offense has made him gun-shy.
Freeman is perhaps the most frustrating quarterback in the league. He alternates between jags of outstanding play, and times when you want to hide your eyes. He's under the gun in 2013, and if he doesn't perform, rookie Mike Glennon has a shot to usurp him in the long term.
Tannehill is great when it comes to rolling out of the pocket and throwing under pressure. Now, he needs to advance his pocket presence and focus.
At Oklahoma State, Weeden was a first-read guy who stared down his receivers and benefitted from a fairly simple offense. Like most quarterbacks under these circumstances, the adjustment to the NFL has been a process. Weeden has stretches of fine play, but he telegraphs too much and breaks down when defenses get difficult. He needs to build on his impressive ability to stand in the pocket and make deep throws.
In his third year, Ponder is a mixed bag at best -- when he's on, he's an efficient game manager in the Alex Smith mold. When things go south, he does not possess the physical tools to improvise in special ways. The Vikings completed just 28 passes of 20 yards or more, by far the lowest total in the NFL. Ponder's a mobile guy, but one expects more of a quarterback when every opposing defense is focused almost entirely on stopping Adrian Peterson.
Locker's pocket presence hasn't improved much from his days at Washington. He's a superlative athlete who's always been better at the occasional shot play than with the play-to-play consistency that the NFL requires.
If he's healthy, Manuel will start for the Bills in his rookie season. At Florida State, he was an inconsistent quarterback, though he has a good head for the game and impressed a lot of people at the Senior Bowl.
Through two NFL seasons, Gabbert has shown very little. Now, he's not just fighting for a starting spot in Jacksonville -- he's battling to prove that he can play in this league at all.
Sanchez hasn't proven much more, though he's certainly paid like he has. He's got a reasonably good arm, but his decision-making processes can be unfortunate under the best of circumstances, and one wonders if he'll ever succeed without a change of scenery. This is as much Geno Smith's job as it is Sanchez's, and it's far more Smith's job over time.
32. Terrelle Pryor, Oakland Raiders The Raiders traded for Matt Flynn in the offseason, but Pryor has surprised a lot of people by outplaying Flynn behind a horrid offensive line. Pryor has a long way to go as a pure passer, but he's mobile and gutsy, and with the Raiders, that's enough for now.