The NFL's top 10 quarterbacks
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.
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.
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