We obsess year-round about the state of quarterbacking in the NFL because the league grows more aerial-centric every year.

By Don Banks
July 21, 2016

We obsess year-round about the state of quarterbacking in the NFL because the league grows more aerial-centric every year, and the supply of quality passers never remotely exceeds the demand. How else can you explain journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick being able to hold the Jets’ entire off-season hostage? The arms race will never end in the NFL because the pass-first mentality dominates the DNA of the league.

So what better way to help welcome the looming arrival of training camp than to cap our 2016 position rankings with the current crop of quarterbacks, at least in the upper third or high-rent district of the NFL’s glamour position? As each new blockbuster contract for a franchise-level passer proves to us, the best quarterbacks are more valuable than ever, and the teams lucky enough to have one usually find themselves playing at least a game or two every January. And the debate begins.

Just missed the cut

Matt Ryan, Falcons: So many choices. Eli Manning and Joe Flacco—the only two Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks not in my top 10—came quickly to mind, but I settled on Ryan because he’s better than he gets credit for being and is hardly the primary reason the Falcons own just one playoff win since he arrived in 2008. For a guy who had just one real receiving target last season in Julio Jones, Ryan was pretty productive and reliable. He’s still mistake-prone at some inopportune moments, but he’s also capable of saving Atlanta’s bacon with one of his patented fourth-quarter comebacks. Ryan needs more talent surrounding him to vault himself into the league’s upper echelon of quarterbacks, but the reality is he’s part of the solution for the Falcons, not part of the problem.

The next big thing

Derek Carr, Raiders: No quarterback in the league matched the quantum leap forward Carr took in 2015, improving dramatically in year two after a decent rookie effort. His mostly steady performance earned him a top 10 grade among quarterbacks from Pro Football Focus, and a stronger set of receiving weapons in Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree allowed his playmaking skills to flourish. Carr’s leadership, toughness and impressive throwing arm are already well-developed and solid components of his game, and if his play takes another sizable jump in 2016, Oakland likely will be playoff-bound with one of the game’s rising quarterback stars leading the way.

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Classifying Rivers as an elite quarterback is a case that’s getting tougher to make all the time. He’ll roll up some pretty decent statistics every season, and no one in the game burns with as much on-field intensity as Rivers, but he has ended the past two seasons on a downswing and his days of being the difference between the Chargers winning and losing seem long gone. Playing in San Diego, given the losing and the relocation issue, is no easy feat, but Rivers hasn’t been able to rise above it and sustain his performance at a high level. At 34, he’s still young enough to surprise us and put together a monster season, lifting the Chargers back into playoff contention. But it’s also entirely possible that we’ve already seen his best work. 
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Last season appeared to be the one that would change the narrative surrounding Dalton, transforming him from an inconsistent tease to a full-fledged franchise passer who finally elevated his game to star material. Then he broke his thumb in December, and the story had a much different ending than the one many of us expected. But Dalton was much better last season before he was sidelined, leading the league in passer rating at 106.2 and eliminating most of the forehead-slapping mistakes that plagued him in years past. The glass half-full view is that he has arrived as a play-maker, and his prime promises more of what we saw in 2015. Then again, it’s up to Dalton to prove last season wasn’t a prematurely ended career year.

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That’s right, Luck makes my top 10, even with the still-fresh memory of his ugly and underachieving 2015 season, when he was both injured and ineffective for the Colts. I don’t absolve him of accountability in last year’s disappointment, when the Colts missed the playoffs for the first time in his four NFL seasons, but I’m taking the long view here and averaging out his performance from 2012 on. There’s no way to pretty up the seven games Luck managed to play last season, but he has the potential to live up to his No. 1 overall draft status and lead a team to the big confetti shower that awaits a Super Bowl winner. Perhaps 2015 will wind up being a positive in the long term, teaching him a lesson in perseverance and convincing him that success is not always ordained in steady, one-rung-at-a-time intervals.
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Go figure when it comes to Palmer. He followed one of the best regular seasons in recent NFL quarterbacking history with perhaps the ugliest two-week playoff meltdown in memory. His epic six-turnover performance against Carolina in the NFC title game left you with the distinct impression that he folded under pressure, and nothing he accomplishes this year will truly matter unless he conquers his postseason demons. That said, Palmer played at an MVP level for the Cardinals and was as consistently productive on a week-to-week basis as any quarterback in the league. Was that a career year aberration? We’re about to find out in Arizona, where Palmer’s bounce-back from January will be the story of the year.

Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon SMI

The reality of how high Drew Brees has set the bar for himself: He led the NFL with 4,870 passing yards last season (in only 15 starts), throwing 32 touchdown passes with a 101.0 passer rating, and still elicited questions of whether his game might be in decline. Some slippage. Brees remains deadly accurate on deep balls, short passes and everything in between, and his knowledge of how to attack a defense is almost unparalleled. If the Saints’ retooled receiving corps is as good as advertised, Brees at 37 will again be one of the league’s most prolific passers, capable of putting his team on his shoulders and winning any game he starts.

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A game manager, huh? Thankfully some perceptions die of natural causes. Wilson emerged as a playmaking machine in the second half of last season, doing it all for a Seattle team that needed its quarterback to carry the load without a healthy Marshawn Lynch. Wilson proved that his arm is plenty capable of NFL elite status, and when you combine that with the threat he presents with his legs—on both scripted and improvisational plays—there are only so many ways to defend him. Just remember how Wilson saved the day in the playoffs on that bitterly cold day in Minnesota, when his knack for finding a way to execute even when things were breaking down all around him made the difference for the Seahawks.

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Big Ben can still sling it—maybe better than he ever has, with a gaudy completion percentage of 68.0 and 328.2 passing yards per game (both career highs) last season. But his superb 8.4 yards per pass in 2015 was somewhat offset by the reality that he only started 11 games due to an assortment of injuries to his shoulder, knee and foot. That was the fewest starts of his 12-year career, and the Steelers need him for something closer to 16 games if they want to harbor legitimate Super Bowl dreams this year. Roethlisberger still takes a ton of punishment in the pocket, but last year he started to pay the price for all that pounding and big-play potential. With so much skill-player talent surrounding him, the goal in Pittsburgh has to be keeping Roethlisberger upright.

Chris Keane

The rest of the NFL clearly didn’t have an answer for Newton’s multi-faceted game last season, at least until Denver pressured the daylights out of him in the Super Bowl, forcing some rare mistakes. But the 2015 MVP played a daring and breathtaking style of quarterback and almost single-handedly carried the Carolina offense to the biggest stage in football. Newton might never match his career year statistically, with those 35 passing touchdowns and 10 more on the ground, but he’s a unique talent who should only stand to benefit this season by No. 1 receiver Kelvin Benjamin’s return from injury.

Winslow Townson

Let’s just watch Brady accomplish more in 12 regular season games than most quarterbacks can with a full complement of 16. Wouldn’t that be so Brady? Even with quality-control issues on his offensive line and injuries to his receiving corps last season, Brady still had himself involved in the MVP debate for most of 2015, and when all was said and done New England barely missed out on a seventh Super Bowl trip with him at the helm. He’ll be 39 in early August, and at some point his age has to put some limitations on his game. But once again he’ll have something to prove this season when he takes the field post-suspension, and we’ve seen how much he can milk out of the man-on-a-mission routine. Pick against the Patriots in the AFC East at your own peril.

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Granted, we did not remotely witness Rodgers at this best in 2015, but has he ever been more resourceful or shown a greater flair for the dramatic, turning the late-game Hail Mary into a high percentage pass? Rodgers and the Green Bay passing game never truly got in sync after the preseason loss of No. 1 receiver Jordy Nelson last year, but he’s still in his physical prime at 32 and capable of dissecting defenses with his deadly accurate right arm. Even if he didn’t crack 4,000 yards in the air a year ago, if there was a must-win game today, there’s no one I’d rather line up under center. With a healthy Nelson returning to the lineup, look for a highly motivated Rodgers to resume his rightful place as the game’s most complete quarterback in this passing-centric league.

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