Ahead of the 2015 season, SI.com is ranking the top 10 starters at every position group. First up: quarterbacks.
There are a lot of different ways to rate quarterbacks. You can go with historical legacies, or future prospects, or the guys you'd want under center if you were building a team. For our purposes in SI's preseason positional rankings, the criteria is pretty simple—who would you want for the upcoming season, with the cast around him taken into account? We'll start this year's rankings at the quarterback position, an unsurprising No. 1 pick, and a changing of the guard from then on.
1. Aaron Rodgers, Packers: That Rodgers is the NFL's best quarterback isn't a discussion point. Really. What's worth discussing now is where he stands in the pantheon of all-time greats. Since 2011, his touchdown-to-interception ratio is absolutely comical: Including the postseason, he's thrown 149 touchdown passes and 32 interceptions in four years. That's the kind of peak-value career performance you don't often see, if ever. At 31, Rodgers is still the best thrower in the NFL on the move, among the best when throwing the deep ball, just about the best under pressure ... there isn't a thing you're required to do as a quarterback that he hasn't mastered to a chilling, almost robotic, degree.
And there's no indication that, barring injury, he won't continue at his current pace for the next few seasons. In 2014, he had his lowest career interception percentage (five picks in 520 attempts), and over the last two seasons, he's posted his second- and third-highest career yards per attempt marks (8.7 in 2013, 8.4 in 2014). Put simply, this is how you play quarterback in the modern NFL, and Rodgers has been showing us how to do it for about half a decade now. A few more years of this, and we'll have to put him in the discussion of the best of all time. He's pretty close already.
2. Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers: In 2014, Roethlisberger posted his highest career passing yardage total (4,952), tied his best single-season touchdown total (32) and put up his second-lowest interception percentage (1.5) despite a career high in attempts (608). He completed 67.1% of his passes, a career high, and still threw for over eight yards per attempt. It's unusual for a guy who's been in the league for more than a decade and already has two Super Bowl rings to have his best season to date, but that's exactly what Roethlisberger did. Of course, he hit his 2014 peak when he set an NFL record for touchdown passes over a two-game stretch with a pair of six-touchdown, no-interception performances against the Colts and Ravens.
Perhaps most interestingly, Roethlisberger finished first in Football Outsiders's opponent-adjusted metrics for quarterbacks, while Pittsburgh's defense finished 30th (30th!) in FO's overall metrics. More than ever, the Steelers are Big Ben's team, and more than ever, he's capable of carrying the load.
3. Tom Brady, Patriots: Brady has moved to third on my list for one simple reason: a deficiency with the deep ball that's made itself evident over the last few seasons. His numbers on passes 20 yards or more in the air have been nearly cut in half since his historic 2007 season, when he completed 32 such passes in 84 attempts for 1,245 yards, 11 touchdowns and eight picks. In 2014, he completed 21 such passes on 69 attempts for 649 yards, six touchdowns and three picks. Yes, he had Randy Moss in his prime back then, and there's no equivalent weapon on the Patriots' roster today, but those numbers also indicate something that's pretty clear on tape: If Brady throws deep without pressure, he's still pretty strong. But things start to fall apart as never before when he's got a pass rush to deal with.
It's not a huge problem. Brady is perhaps better than any quarterback in NFL history at adapting to the realities around him, as he did in Super Bowl XLIX when he sliced and diced the Seahawks with underneath stuff all day. But as great as Brady still is, the decline in his deep ball can't be ignored next to the other names on this list.
4. Andrew Luck, Colts: Yes, he still throws too many interceptions—his 16 in 2014 pushed his three-season total to 43. But this is a guy who turned around a 2–14 team in his rookie season as completely as any rookie quarterback can, and he had a full Bruce Arians playbook to digest. The Colts have never reduced the game plan for Luck, and he's succeeded despite a rebuilt roster, a shaky offensive line, and almost no run game last year. As a thrower on the run, only Rodgers is better on a consistent basis, and Luck's play-action numbers are pretty insane. Per Pro Football Focus, he threw 13 touchdown passes and just one pick when running play-action in '14. That's especially impressive when no defense takes your run game seriously.
You want efficiency on deep passes? He threw 13 touchdown passes of 20 yards or more last season, behind only Tony Romo and tied with Rodgers. Poise under pressure? No quarterback threw more touchdowns than Luck's 13 under duress. There are a few rough spots in Luck's game to be dealt with, but when you add Frank Gore and Andre Johnson to a roster that desperately needed a sustaining back and a reliable big receiver, those little things may not matter. Luck is the NFL's next quarterback paragon.
5. Tony Romo, Cowboys: Romo has never finished higher in FO's cumulative and per-play metrics than he did in 2014, and that's reflective of a few things. Yes, he had the best offensive line and rushing attack he's ever had in his career—Dallas faced more strict run defenses than it had since Emmitt Smith's glory days—and Dez Bryant has turned himself into the best receiver in the NFL: a determined, tough matchup nightmare on just about every play. But Romo has also reduced the tendencies that once made him a boom-or-bust player.
He's reduced his interception rates over the last few seasons without losing his knack for the big play, which is how he led the NFL in completion percentage (69.9%), touchdown percentage (7.8%), yards per attempt (8.5) and passer rating (113.2) in '14. Can he keep that up with a more run-of-the-mill rushing attack, as the Cowboys are likely to have in '15? It would be unwise to bet against him.
GALLERY: The best quarterbacks in the league
The NFL's Top 10 Quarterbacks
1. Aaron Rodgers, Packers
At 31, Rodgers is the best thrower in the NFL on the move, among the best when throwing the deep ball and just about the best under pressure. There isn't a thing you're required to do as a quarterback that he hasn't mastered to a chilling, almost robotic, degree.
2. Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers
In 2014, in his 14th NFL season, Roethlisberger posted his highest career passing yardage total (4,952), tied his best single-season TD total (32) and put up his second-lowest interception percentage (1.5) despite a career high in attempts (608). It's unusual for a guy who's been in the league for more than a decade to have his best season to date so late in his career, but that's exactly what Roethlisberger did and why he’s regarded so highly.
3. Tom Brady, Patriots
Brady has dropped to third on this list for one simple reason: a deficiency with the deep ball that's made itself evident over the last few seasons. His numbers on passes 20 yards or more in the air have been nearly cut in half since his historic 2007 season, when he completed 32 such passes in 84 attempts for 1,245 yards, 11 touchdowns and eight picks. In 2014, he completed 21 such passes on 69 attempts for 649 yards, six touchdowns and three picks.
4. Andrew Luck, Colts
Yes, he still throws too many interceptions—his 16 in 2014 pushed his three-season total to 43. But this is a guy who turned around a 2–14 team in his rookie season as completely as any rookie quarterback can. As a thrower on the run, only Aaron Rodgers is better on a consistent basis.
5. Tony Romo, Cowboys
Romo has reduced the tendencies that once made him a boom-or-bust player. He's improved his interception rates over the last few seasons without losing his knack for the big play, which is how he led the NFL in 2014 in completion percentage (69.9%), touchdown percentage (7.8%), yards per attempt (8.5) and passer rating (113.2).
6. Joe Flacco, Ravens
Lost in all the silly surface talk about whether Flacco is elite or not (an argument that should have been put to bed after Super Bowl XLVII) is the fact that two years after the Ravens won it all on the back of his 11–0 touchdown-to-interception differential in the playoffs, Flacco had his best overall season in 2014 following a disappointing 2013 season.
7. Philip Rivers, Chargers
Rivers did a lot with very little in the run game to help him in 2014. Undrafted rookie Branden Oliver led the team with just 582 rushing yards, but Rivers still put up quality stats. The one metric that should be cause for concern, though, is his league-leading 18 interceptions. Rivers should have a better support system in 2015 with upgrades along the offensive line and the addition of first-round running back Melvin Gordon.
8. Peyton Manning, Broncos
Did Manning's late-season regression in 2014 have more to do with his quadriceps injuries or the inevitable passing of time? If the 39-year-old quarterback makes a full recovery from his injuries and is able to plant and throw as he did in previous years, Denver might be able to get another great season out of him, albeit with fewer attempts and different concepts. But there is concern about Manning's future, and there should be.
9. Russell Wilson, Seahawks
During last season’s playoffs, Wilson did a lot to prove that he can stand in the pocket and fire the ball downfield with the best of them. He led all quarterbacks with 12 completions on 19 deep attempts, for 422 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. If he can build on that with new targets Jimmy Graham and Tyler Lockett and maintain his threat as a read-option runner, Wilson may indeed prove to be worth the huge contract he wants. This is the year he has to prove it.
10. Matt Ryan, Falcons
Ryan's name has gotten lost in the shuffle of late when the subject of great quarterbacks has come up. That has more to do with Atlanta's regression as a team than anything Ryan's doing wrong. In 2014, with a Swiss cheese offensive line, Ryan threw for nearly 4,700 yards, 28 touchdowns and 14 picks.
6. Joe Flacco, Ravens: Lost in all the silly surface talk about whether Flacco is elite or not (an argument that should have been put to bed after Super Bowl XLVII) is the fact that two years after the Ravens won it all on the back of his 11–0 touchdown-to-interception ratio in the playoffs, Flacco had his best overall season following a disappointing 2013 season. Flacco thrived in Gary Kubiak's system in 2014, and with Marc Trestman as Baltimore's new offensive coordinator, you can expect a lot of bailout passes to backs and favorable route concepts to go along with Flacco's well-known and estimable deep ball. With Torrey Smith off to San Francisco in free agency, it's up to Steve Smith and rookies Breshad Perriman and Maxx Williams to keep the momentum going.
7. Philip Rivers, Chargers: Like Luck, Rivers did a lot with very little in the run game in 2014. Undrafted rookie Branden Oliver led the team with just 582 rushing yards, but Rivers still put up quality stats. The one metric that should be cause for concern, though, is his league-leading 18 interceptions. The blame for those picks fell on Rivers's moments of carelessness and the predictability of first-year offensive coordinator Frank Reich's route concepts.
Rivers should have a better support system with upgrades along the offensive line and the addition of first-round running back Melvin Gordon. It's odd the Chargers don't set up more plays in which Rivers uses play-action. Last season, he had the lowest play-action percentage of any starting quarterback (7.8%) but completed 83.3 percent of his passes and threw four touchdowns and no interceptions out of play-action. If Reich opens up the playbook a little bit, the Chargers might just leap over the Broncos in the AFC West.
8. Peyton Manning, Broncos: Does Manning's late-season regression in 2014 have more to do with his quadriceps injuries or the inevitable passing of time? There's a clear line of demarcation where Manning's performance started to go downhill last year: last December, when Manning threw just three touchdowns and six interceptions. In the playoffs, he averaged fewer than five yards per attempt and completed fewer than 57% of his passes, including one completion out of eight pass attempts 20 yards or more.
Manning decided to give it one more go in 2015 after agreeing to a pay cut, but what will the Broncos have in the 39-year-old all-timer? If Manning makes a full recovery from his injuries and is able to plant and throw as he did in previous years, Denver might be able to get another great season out of him, albeit with fewer attempts and different concepts. But there is concern about Manning's future, and there should be.
9. Russell Wilson, Seahawks: Wilson's financial demands this off-season have put the focus squarely on his value as a pure quarterback, and that's a door he opened himself. It's true that he's not yet a fully-developed signal-caller—nobody would mistake him for fellow 2012 draftee Andrew Luck in that regard. Those who believe that Wilson has a long way to go point to the help he gets from Seattle's all-time-great rushing attack and defense. Those who believe that he's a superstar waiting to bust out will point to his sub-par offensive line and receivers who are generally unable to get separation from press coverage.
During the playoffs, Wilson did a lot to prove that he can stand in the pocket and fire the ball downfield. He led all quarterbacks with 12 completions on 19 deep attempts for 422 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. If he can build on that with new targets Jimmy Graham and Tyler Lockett and maintain his threat as a read-option runner, Wilson may indeed prove to be worth the contract he wants. This is the year he has to prove it.
10. Matt Ryan, Falcons: Ryan's name has gotten lost in the shuffle of late when the subject of great quarterbacks has come up. That has more to do with Atlanta's regression as a team than anything Ryan's doing wrong. In 2014, with a Swiss cheese offensive line, Ryan threw for nearly 4,700 yards, 28 touchdowns and 14 picks. Ryan gets a free pass from a lot of people because of his line's inefficiency, but what's interesting is that he wasn't particularly great under pressure: He completed nearly 57% of his passes when flushed from the pocket, but threw five of his interceptions and just four touchdowns under pressure. Ryan has never been an especially mobile quarterback, but the hope is that new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, whose primary success has been with mobile guys, can get the line in check and allow Ryan to hit his targets in stride.
GALLERY: The best player on every NFL team
Who's the Best NFL Player From Every NFL Team?
Arizona Cardinals | Patrick Peterson
The Cardinals made a terrific move in 2011, drafting cornerback Patrick Peterson with the fifth-overall pick in the NFL Draft. Peterson has been nothing short of spectacular, making the Pro Bowl all four seasons of his career while landing two All-Pro spots. Peterson has five touchdowns and 15 interceptions, showcasing his talents both on defense and special teams. Honorable mention: Larry Fitzgerald, Mike Iupati.
Atlanta Falcons | Julio Jones
Julio Jones had another huge year in 2014, catching 104 passes for 1,593 yards and six touchdowns. At 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, Jones is a nightmare to cover with a rare blend of ideal size and elite speed. Provided the 26-year-old can stay healthy, he is a mortal lock to be in the Pro Bowl again. Honorable mention: Matt Ryan, Roddy White.
Baltimore Ravens | Marshall Yanda
Another one of those teams with plenty of solid candidates, but the choice has to be Marshal Yanda. He might be the best guard in the game today, showcasing his incredible skills throughout the last eight years. Honorable mention: Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil.
Buffalo Bills | Marcell Dareus
Marcell Dareus is changing from a defensive tackle to an end this season in Rex Ryan’s 3-4 scheme, but the Bills’ behemoth is still going to be devastating. Honorable mention: Mario Williams, LeSean McCoy.
Carolina Panthers | Luke Kuechly
So many fans immediately think of Cam Newton when the Panthers are brought up in conversation, but the team’s best player is actually on defense. Inside linebacker Luke Kuechly has led the NFL in tackles each of the last two years, becoming one of the best players in the game. Honorable mention: Thomas Davis, Cam Newton.
Chicago Bears | Matt Forte
Chicago has been down in the dumps over the last few seasons, suffering through the horrific Marc Trestman Experience. However, one of the players able to thrive in that chaos was running back Matt Forte, one of the most complete running backs the NFL has to offer. The Bears have plenty of weapons on offense, but none match Forte. Honorable mention: Alshon Jeffery.
Cincinnati Bengals | A.J. Green
A few years ago, this could have been defensive tackle Geno Atkins. Currently, it is not a contest. While the Bengals have some terrific running backs in Jeremy Hill and Giovanni Bernard, neither strike fear into opponents like A.J. Green. Honorable mention: Andrew Whitworth.
Cleveland Browns | Joe Thomas
The Browns have not been good since coming back into the league in 1999, but that does not mean they are without talent. Thomas was selected with the third-overall pick of the 2007 NFL Draft, and he has starred from the first snap. Honorable mention: Joe Haden.
Dallas Cowboys | Dez Bryant
This was clearly going to come down to someone on offense, and Dez Bryant stands alone. While Tony Romo merits consideration, Bryant could make an argument as the best receiver in the NFL today. Last year, Bryant caught 88 passes for 1,320 yards and 16 touchdowns. Honorable mention: Tony Romo, Tyron Smith.
Denver Broncos | Von Miller
Denver has plenty of players to pick from, but the mention must go to outside linebacker Von Miller. While Miller has dealt with some off-field issues, he is nothing short of a machine on it. Honorable mention: Peyton Manning, Demaryius Thomas.
Detroit Lions | DeAndre Levy
Yep, it’s not Calvin Johnson. Last year, Johnson began to sustain the type of nagging injuries that can plague and slow down a player who is beginning to age into the latter stages of his career. So, while Megatron's track record is certainly undeniable, DeAndre Levy is getting the love after a tremendous 2014 season. He was second in the league with 151 tackles to go with an interception and 2.5 sacks from his outside linebacker spot. With Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley gone, Levy will have even more tackles to make. Honorable mention: Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson.
Green Bay Packers | Aaron Rodgers
Aaron Rodgers. Aaron Rodgers. Aaron Rodgers. The two-time Most Valuable Player and Super Bowl champion might be the best player in the sport, so this was no contest. If you were to put a quarterback together from scratch, you would build Rodgers and stop. Honorable mention: Clay Matthews Jr., Jordy Nelson.
Houston Texans | J.J. Watt
J.J. Watt is the best in the business on defense, making a strong argument each week that he is the best defensive specimen to play since Lawrence Taylor. Honorable mention: Arian Foster.
Indianapolis Colts | Andrew Luck
Of all the teams, this had to be the easiest choice. Taken with the first-overall pick of the 2012 NFL Draft out of Stanford, Luck has become perhaps the best quarterback in the game with his rifle arm and uncanny ability to stay alive in the pocket. Honorable mention: Vontae Davis.
Jacksonville Jaguars | Sen'Derrick Marks
One day, this might be Blake Bortles or Denard Robinson. For now, the honor goes to Sen’Derrick Marks, one of the most unheralded players in the NFL. Marks had 8.5 sacks in 2014 and is becoming one of the more disruptive 4-3 defensive tackles going. Honorable mention: Stefen Wisniewski, Allen Robinson.
Kansas City Chiefs | Jamaal Charles
While brutal to chose between Jamaal Charles and Justin Houston, the honor goes to Charles. Houston enjoyed a career season with 22 sacks, a franchise single-season mark for an organization used to great pass-rushers. However, Charles does it all for the Chiefs, allowing their offense to go despite limitations elsewhere. Honorable mention: Justin Houston, Jeremy Maclin.
Miami Dolphins | Ndamukong Suh
The Dolphins swung from the heels in free agency and landed the biggest fish of them all with defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. He comes over after five glorious seasons with the Detroit Lions, capped by a 2014 where he made 53 tackles and notched 8.5 sacks. Honorable mention: Cameron Wake, Brent Grimes.
Minnesota Vikings | Adrian Peterson
Although the Vikings have a better roster than many realize, this has to be Adrian Peterson. Despite missing 15 games last season for his legal problems involving his young son, Peterson is still one of, if not, the best running backs in the game. Peterson will make Teddy Bridgewater’s life much easier, with teams stacking the box to slow him down. Honorable mention: Evernson Griffen, Harrison Smith.
New England Patriots | Tom Brady
This is really a choice between Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, and while Gronkowski is the best tight end in football by a mile, and Brady is no longer the best quarterback in the game, Tom still might go down as the greatest to ever play along with Joe Montana and Johnny Unitas. Honorable mention: Rob Gronkowski
New Orleans Saints | Drew Brees
It’s not secret here, especially with Jimmy Graham now suiting up for the Seattle Seahawks. Drew Brees has been the heart and soul of the franchise since showing up right after Hurricane Katrina, winning a Super Bowl in 2009. Brees has been one of the most prolific passers in NFL history, surely earning himself a spot in the Hall of Fame. This one wasn’t even close. Honorable mention: Marques Colston.
New York Giants | Odell Beckham
Few players can come straight out of college and absolutely destroy the NFL. Apparently, Odell Beckham Jr. has that rare ability. The Giants’ 2014 first-round selection missed the first four games with hamstring issues, and then proceeded to amass 91 receptions for 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns. Honorable mention: Jason Pierre-Paul, Eli Manning.
New York Jets | Darrelle Revis
Darrelle Revis might have a hard time figuring out which team he wants to play for, but he has no issues locking down the receiver across from him. Revis, who turns 30 in July, remains one of the top corners in the game and will likely end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Honorable mention: Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson.
Oakland Raiders | Khalil Mack
This was really no contest. While quarterback Derek Carr threw for more than 3,000 yards and 21 touchdowns as a rookie last season, it was the man picked a round before him who stole the show. Mack posted 13 stuffs to lead the team and came on in the pass-rushing situations as the year progressed, notching four sacks along with 75 tackles. Honorable mention: Derek Carr, Charles Woodson.
Philadelphia Eagles | Jason Peters
With all of the moves that head coach Chip Kelly made this off-season, it is hard to keep track of who remains on the Eagles. However, the best player suiting up for Philadelphia last year and this remains the same guy; Jason Peters. Last year, Pro Football Focus ranked him as the top tackle in football. Honorable mention: DeMarco Murray.
Pittsburgh Steelers | Ben Roethlisberger
This was one of the tougher calls to make across the league. There was really nobody to talk about on defense, but the Steelers have an embarrassment of riches on offense. So why Big Ben? Last year, he threw for 4,952 yards, a career-high and tying Drew Brees for the league passing title. While Pittsburgh could survive for a month or two without Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, it would be absolutely sunk without Roethlisberger. Honorable mention: Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown.
St. Louis Rams | Aaron Donald
The Rams don’t have anybody worthy of consideration on offense, but the defense is absolutely loaded. While Robert Quinn is the easy answer, the correct choice is Aaron Donald. He racked up nine sacks and a pair of forced fumbles as a 4-3 defensive tackle last season, and on the same line as Nick Fairley, Chris Long and Quinn, Donald will be a destroyer of worlds for years to come. Honorable mention: Robert Quinn, James Laurinaitis.
San Diego Chargers | Eric Weddle
Most probably expected to see Philip Rivers here, but the stunner prevails. Eric Weddle is the best player on the Chargers, and has been for a few seasons. Weddle has been overshadowed at his position with Eric Berry, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor drawing headlines, but nobody has been steadier than Weddle. Honorable mention: Philip Rivers, Corey Liuget.
San Francisco 49ers | Anquan Boldin
Last year, this would have been impossible because of the litany of candidates. This year? It’s like finding a needle in a haystack. At 34 years old, Boldin caught 83 passes for 1,062 yards and five touchdowns, even with Colin Kaepernick at the helm. He's a terrific run-after-the-catch receiver, not because of speed but heart and strength. He’s also one of the best clutch receivers in the game. Honorable mention: Eric Reid, Joe Staley.
Seattle Seahawks | Richard Sherman
Richard Sherman might have a big mouth, but he backs it up with tremendous play. He's truly a rare breed of cornerback for a few reasons. First, he doesn’t follow the best receiver around the field all day long, he simply stays on his side of the field. Second, and more importantly, Sherman picks off a ton of passes despite quarterbacks trying to avoid him. Honrorable mention: Kam Chancellor, Marshawn Lynch.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers | Mike Evans
Mike Evans is only entering his second NFL season after being a first-round pick by the Buccaneers in 2014, but there is plenty to like already. He took the league by storm despite having Mike Glennon and Josh McCown throwing his way, catching 68 passes for 1,051 yards and 12 touchdowns. Honorable mention: Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David.
Tennessee Titans | Jurrell Casey
Um, can we get a player to be named later here? The Titans don’t have much known talent on the club, although Jurrell Casey has proven to be one of the better defensive linemen in the league. Casey, 25, enjoyed two terrific seasons in 2013 and 2014 with little help around him, totaling 15.5 sacks in that span from a 3-4 end spot.
Washington Redskins | Ryan Kerrigan
Although the Redskins are a lackluster franchise in every conceivable way at the moment, they still have some quality players. Ryan Kerrigan is at the top of the list, providing almost all the pass rush for a team that has issues hitting the quarterback. Last year he had a career-high 13.5 sacks while Washington had 36 as a team. Honorable mention: DeSean Jackson, Trent Williams.