Ranking NFL quarterbacks is difficult and the criterion endless.
Montana versus Johnny-U versus Elway versus Favre? Is winning championships all that matters? What about statistical production and re-writing the record books? What about pure, raw, God-given athletic ability (looking at you Elway)? Or are intangibles and leadership ability more important?
To truly and objectively rank quarterbacks all of the above must be used to evaluate a player. I have attempted to rank all 32 starting quarterbacks in the NFL season for the 2012 year. This means, I don’t get a 22-year-old Peyton Manning or a 32-year-old Cam Newton.
So I put my general manager's hat on and asked this question:
If my goal is to win the Lombardi Trophy in 2012, who do I want running my offense?
Note: Age is at time of start of 2012 season
1. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay (Age: 28, Record: 41-21)
2011 Stats: 4,643 yards, 45 TD, 6 INT, 257 rush yards, 3 TD
There is little debate on who is the best quarterback on the planet right now. Rodgers came close to multiple single-season NFL records in 2011 until sitting out the final game of the year. Nevertheless, his 122.5 QB rating broke an NFL record and his career 104.1 QB rating is the highest in the history of the sport. He has the arm strength, the athleticism, the leadership, the championship ring and is only 28 years old.
2. Tom Brady, New England (Age: 35, Record: 124-35)
2011 Stats: 5,235 yards, 39 TD, 12 INT, 109 rush yards, 3 TD
The starting record is staggering as Mr. GQ enters his 13th NFL season. He has led the Patriots to five Super Bowls, an undefeated regular season and has turned plenty of also-ran wide receivers into Super Bowl MVPs. He would have shattered Dan Marino’s single-season passing yards record last fall had it not been for Drew Brees, and is the only QB to ever throw 50 touchdowns in a season (2007). Needless to say, Brady still has what it takes to be the best despite turning 35 in August.
3. Drew Brees, New Orleans (Age: 33, Record: 92-61)
2011 Stats: 5,476 yards, 46 TD, 14 INT, 86 rush yards, TD
His yardage total from last year speaks for itself. The Austin (Texas) Westlake product has led the NFL in completion percentage three years running and the has led the league in yards and touchdowns three times each. He has the championship ring and leadership skills to overcome his overall lack of raw physical skills (he is listed generously at 6-foot).
4. Eli Manning, New York Giants (Age: 31, Record: 69-50)
2011 Stats: 4,933 yards, 29 TD, 16 INT, 15 rush yards, TD
He has not been doing it as long or at high a level as his older brother, but Eli is the defending Super Bowl champion – for a second time. He set a career high in yards last fall by nearly 1,000 yards and has proven to be as clutch as any player in the playoffs. When he finally learns to cut down on his interceptions, he could easily find himself atop this list. Additionally, he hasn’t missed a start since taking over as the Giants starter in Week 10 of 2004 — that is 119 straight regular-season starts if you are counting at home.
5. Peyton Manning, Denver (Age: 36, Record: 141-67)
2011 Stats: None
If not for four (that we know of) neck surgeries and a new area code, the elder Manning would be no lower than No. 2 on this list. But there are still question marks surrounding No. 18’s ability to return to his Hall of Fame effectiveness. If he returns to full health, even at 36 years old, he is securely in the Top 3.
6. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh (Age: 30, Record: 80-33)
2011 Stats: 4,077 yards, 21 TD, 14 INT, 70 rush yards
Big Ben is an interesting case study as there feels like a clear drop-off after the Top 5. Statistically, he has never been one of the league’s elite passers, topping 20 touchdowns only three times with only one season of at least 30 scoring strikes. He has also missed five games over the last three years and has only started all 16 games in a year one time (2008). That said, he also is as tough a customer as there is in the game today and has two World Championships to prove it. Oh yeah, he also has won more than 70 percent of his games to this point.
7. Matthew Stafford, Detroit (Age: 24, Record: 13-16)
2011 Stats: 5,038 yards, 41 TD, 16 INT, 78 rush yards
The word projection comes to mind when trying to place Stafford. There are few quarterbacks with as much physical talent as the former Georgia Bulldog and he likely has the biggest arm in the game today. He also has played one full season as a starter — one that saw the Lions make the playoffs for the first time since 1999 and was littered with passing and receiving team records. Health is really the only issue surrounding the Lions passer, as he played only 13 of his first 32 possible games before last year's breakout performance.
8. Tony Romo, Dallas (Age: 32, Record: 47-30)
2011 Stats: 4,184 yards, 31 TD, 10 INT, 46 rush yards, TD
Few players are more scrutinized in football than Romo. But after missing most of the 2010 season, he did his best to lead a team that lacked depth and had changed coaches to within one win of the NFC East crown. He posted his best statistical year last fall and feels like a young 32 — having begun his starting career at age 26 back in 2006. He is a classic overachiever, but is as tough as they come and is a quality leader. He needs to add to his one career playoff win to move up this list, however.
9. Philip Rivers, San Diego (Age: 30, Record: 63-33)
2011 Stats: 4,624 yards, 27 TD, 20 INT, 36 rush yards, TD
The word knucklehead quickly crops up when talking about Mr. Rivers. He constantly runs his mouth and sometimes his temper can get the best of him. But he also produces big numbers — four straight seasons above 4,000 yards — and wins a lot of games — he made the playoffs in each of his first four seasons as the starter. Yet, he has never been able to get his very talented teams into the big game and turned the ball over 25 times last fall. A return to the postseason this fall cements Rivers as one of the league’s top 10 signal callers.
10. Matt Ryan, Atlanta (Age: 27, Record: 43-19)
2011 Stats: 4,177 yards, 29 TD, 12 INT, 84 rush yards, 2 TD
When it comes to the NFL’s best it feels like Ryan is consistently overlooked. But his numbers play on any roster and his win-loss record is pristine. He has never had a losing season and has only missed the postseason once (at 10-6 nonetheless). He has improved his touchdown total four straight seasons (16, 22, 28, 29) and has increased his yards three straight years. He is a consummate professional who quietly accounted for 31 total touchdowns a year ago. Ryan has missed two games in his career and is about to enter his prime.
11. Joe Flacco, Baltimore (Age: 27, Record: 44-20)
2011 Stats: 3,610 yards, 20 TD, 12 INT, 88 rush yards, TD
Indelibly linked with Ryan forever as fellow first-rounders back in 2008, Flacco, too, has been the consummate professional. He has never missed a start in four seasons in the league and is the only quarterback in the NFL to have won a playoff game in each of the last four seasons. He has a huge frame, strong arm and put together one of the league’s best performances a year ago in the memorable 23-20 road win over the Steelers (300 yards, TD, 0 INT). He may never be considered one of the league’s elite, but he is much better than given credit for from the national media and is entering only his fifth season.
12. Matt Schaub, Houston (Age: 32, Record: 32-34)
2011 Stats: 2,479 yards, 15 TD, 6 INT, 9 rush yards, 2 TD (10 games)
When healthy, Schaub has proven to be one of the league’s best, but he has missed at least five games in three of the last five seasons. Unfortunately, he had his team poised for its best showing in franchise history before getting hurt in Week 10 last fall. Schaub should post his third career 4,000-yard season this fall and could get his first-ever postseason start, provided the savvy 6-5, 235-pounder can stay on the field.
13. Jay Cutler, Chicago (Age: 29, Record: 41-37)
2011 Stats: 2,319 yards, 13 TD, 7 INT, 55 rush yards, TD (10 games)
The Vanderbilt grad has taken his share of criticism for his mental maturity and on-the-field decisions. And rightly so. He has never been an extremely efficient player — a career 61.1 percent passer — and tends to turn the ball over — 42 interceptions in his first two years in Chicago. But he also has plenty of raw talent, and, aside from one weird NFC Championship game incident, has proven he can take a beating. Still under 30, Cutler’s legacy hasn’t been written in stone yet, but the next few years will decide where he ranks amongst this generation’s best passers.
14. Michael Vick, Philadelphia (Age: 32, Record: 53-37-1)
2011 Stats: 3,303 yards, 18 TD, 14 INT, 589 rush yards, TD
No one doubts the raw physical talents of Michael Vick. He is the most explosive athlete to ever play the position at the NFL level. And that is what gets him into the most trouble. Vick has played one full season (2006) and has missed seven games over the last two years. He is a career 56.0 percent passer and has topped 20 touchdown passes one time in his career (21, 2010). Overcoming his off-the-field issues is a credit to his work ethic while simultaneously staining his lasting legacy. The next few seasons will determine where Vick ranks in the annals of NFL quarterbacking.
15. Carson Palmer, Oakland (Age: 32, Record: 50-56)
2011 Stats: 2,753 yards, 13 TD, 16 INT, 20 rush yards, TD (9 games)
Not just anyone could walk into Cincinnati and turn the Bengals into a perennial playoff contender but that is essentially what the No. 1 overall pick did in 2003. Cincy lost at least 10 games in five straight seasons before drafting Palmer. By 2005, the Bengals had their first winning season since 1988. In fact, Cincy has three postseason appearances since 1990 and two have come on the strong right arm of Palmer. After a brief six-game hiatus, all he did last year in Oakland (for a lame duck coach) was post his highest yards-per-game total of his career (275.3 ypg). At 32 years old, he still has plenty left in the 6-foot-5, 235-pound tank.
16. Cam Newton, Carolina (Age: 23, Record: 6-10)
2011 Stats: 4,051 yards, 21 TD, 17 INT, 706 rush yards, 14 TD
Newton has a chance to be a special talent long-term. He was a five-star recruit at Florida, a NJCAA Player of the Year and national champ at Blinn College before winning the Heisman Trophy and national championship at Auburn. Clearly, he has been successful at every level. But even a talent like Vick, for example, went from 676 yards and 9 TD in 2010 to 589 yards and one TD rushing in 2011. And the NFL tends to catch-up very quickly with new ideas, talents and skillsets. Newton could be a great player long-term, but he is almost guaranteed to have growing pains in his sophomore campaign.
17. Andrew Luck, Indianapolis (Age: 22, Record: None)
2011 Stats: 3,517 yards, 37 TD, 10 INT, 150 rush yards, 2 TD (Stanford)
The best prospect since John Elway has the unenviable task of replacing a legend in Indy. But Luck has what it takes to be an All-Pro quarterback at this level. He is incredibly intelligent, hard-working, athletic and has a huge, accurate arm. In fact, he is nearly a carbon copy of the last great quarterback to come to the NFL from the Bay Area (see No. 1 on this list). If he comes close to the 3,739 yards, 26 TD and 28 INT rookie season line of the last No. 1 overall pick in Indy, Colts fans will be ecstatic.
18. Andy Dalton, Cincinnati (Age: 24, Record: 9-7)
2011 Stats: 3,398 yards, 20 TD, 13 INT, 152 rush yards, TD
College football experts have known about how good Dalton has been for years. What he lacks in arm strength he makes up for in pure leadership and will to win. He has adequate size and above average athletic ability, but it is his natural intangibles that make him such a sound signal caller. The arm strength could be an issue in the AFC North come December and January, but Bengals fans will take their chances if it means playoff games — something Dalton delivered for his team for only the third time since 1990.
19. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Buffalo (Age: 29, Record: 17-31)
2011 Stats: 3,832 yards, 24 TD, 23 INT, 215 rush yards
The Harvard grad set career highs last year in completion percentage, yards, touchdowns, attempts and completions. But the positive growth and development that led to the Bills' 5-2 start last fall crumbled down the stretch. Fitz averaged 248.4 yards per game, threw 14 touchdowns, seven picks and completed at least 68 percent of his passes in five games over that span. His yardage totals dropped and he threw 16 interceptions and only 10 touchdowns in the final nine games of the year. Most importantly, the Bills finished 1-8.
20. Sam Bradford, St. Louis (Age: 24, Record: 8-18)
2011 Stats: 2,164 yards, 6 TD, 6 INT, 26 rush yards (10 games)
It isn’t difficult to see the raw talent Bradford brings to the field. But he also brings a long history of injury concens. The question becomes, is this more of a function of the horrific supporting cast he has had in St. Louis or a brittle frame that has dealt with multiple major surgeries? Only time will tell, but the upside of Bradford is still extremely high. Stafford was hurt more in his first two seasons and produced one of the Lions’ finest passing years in history in Year 3. Will the former Sooner turn into Kurt Warner this fall? Of course not, but he should be dramatically improved in 2012.
21. Robert Griffin III, Washington (Age: 22, Record: None)
2011 Stats: 4,293 yards, 37 TD, 6 INT, 699 rush yards, 10 TD (Baylor)
Griffin III is a special player who is very well suited to be an NFL star. But the comparisons to Cam Newton have to stop. RG3 is much more of a pocket passer who will run a pro-style attack for Mike Shanahan. And his running style is dramatically different as he is four inches shorter, 20 pounds lighter and more explosive than Newton. He is not a bulldozer who will pile up short yardage and goalline carries. I fully expect Griffin III to be in the Top 15 by next year, but not in Year 1.
22. Mark Sanchez, New York Jets (Age: 25, Record: 27-20)
2011 Stats: 3,474 yards, 26 TD, 18 INT, 103 rush yards, 6 TD
Sanchez is one of the most intriguing stories in all of football. He has never had a losing record. He has led his team to two AFC Championship games. He is one of only three quarterbacks who have won a playoff game in at least two of the last three years. He has done something most only dream of when he outplayed Tom Brady on the road in a playoff win over the Patriots. He finished second to only Cam Newton in rushing touchdowns by a quarterback last year. He set career highs in yards, touchdowns, completions and attempts last fall. And he is still only 25. Yet, he might be the most scrutinized signal caller in the league and takes entirely too much blame for a roster loaded with knuckleheads and egomaniacs.
23. Matt Hasselbeck, Tennessee (Age: 36, Record: 78-69)
2011 Stats: 3,571 yards, 18 TD, 14 INT, 52 rush yards
The Titans' current starter is about as safe a bet as there is in the league. There is little upside with the aging vet, but he is a dependable leader who makes few mistakes and gives his team a chance to win. He has Super Bowl experience and nearly got the Titans to the playoffs last year. Jake Locker is breathing down his neck and could take the job early in 2012, but Hasselbeck likely gives Tennessee the best chance to win now.
24. Josh Freeman, Tampa Bay (Age: 24, Record: 17-23)
2011 Stats: 3,592 yards, 16 TD, 22 INT, 238 rush yards, 4 TD
The massive signal caller regressed as a third-year player and reverted back into the turnover machine he was in college. He threw 34 interceptions and only 44 touchdowns at Kansas State and was even worse last season. Some of that is due to his supporting cast, but Freeman has never protected the football — try 80 INTs over last six years of football and 26 fumbles in three pro seasons — and has never been an overly efficient passer (59.1 percent in college, 60.5 percent in the NFL). He is what he is.
25. Alex Smith, San Francisco (Age: 28, Record: 32-34)
2011 Stats: 3,144 yards, 17 TD, 5 INT, 179 rush yards, 2 TD
Under quarterback whisperer Jim Harbaugh, Smith finally showed something that resembles No. 1 overall talent. While he will obviously never be an NFL star, he was perfectly capable of managing the offense a year ago by protecting the football. It was only his second season of 16 games and he is entering his prime at age 28. Smith could move up this list with another solid campaign in 2012.
26. Matt Flynn, Seattle (Age: 27, Record: 1-1)
2011 Stats: 518 yards, 6 TD, 2 INT, rush TD
The major question marks at starting quarterback begin with Flynn. No player has ever turned one game into more earning potential than Flynn’s 480-yard, 6-TD performance in Week 16 against the Lions last fall. He went toe-to-toe with Stafford and won 45-41. He was a championship quarterback in college and has a Super Bowl ring as well, but his ability to lead a franchise is still relatively unknown.
27. Christian Ponder, Minnesota (Age: 24, Record: 2-8)
2011 Stats: 1,853 yards, 13 TD, 13 INT, 219 rush yards (10 games)
I had my doubts about Ponder’s NFL ability but he was a pleasant surprise last fall for the Vikings. He obviously has much to learn and needs to prove he can stay healthy, but he showed flashes of ability against Carolina, Green Bay and Denver. His upside isn’t as high as Dalton’s or Newton’s, but Ponder could work his way up this list in 2012.
28. Brandon Weeden, Cleveland (Age: 28, Record: None)
2011 Stats: 4,727 yards, 37 TD, 13 INT, rush TD (Oklahoma State)
Few players will ever enter the NFL better prepared to be a professional than Mr. Weeden. He has the frame, the arm strength, the maturity and leadership skills to be successful. And for now, his age (he will turn 29 in October), works in his favor. Should he stick in Cleveland, his age won’t be a factor for another seven or eight years. And Browns fans will take it if it means playoff appearances.
29. Matt Moore, Miami (Age: 28, Record: 13-12)
2011 Stats: 2,497 yards, 16 TD, 9 INT, 65 rush yards, 2 TD
Moore is merely a stop-gap until Ryan Tannehill is ready to enter the starting line-up, but Miami fans could do much worse. One of the more impressive numbers in all of the NFL last year was Moore’s 6-6 record as the starter for Miami. The Fish were 0-4 (and 0-7) before finishing 6-3 down the stretch. There is a chance this stop-gap lasts the entire year and lands a starting spot elsewhere.
30. Kevin Kolb, Arizona (Age: 28, Record: 6-10)
2011 Stats: 1,955 yards, 9 TD, 8 INT, 65 rush yards (9 games)
The injury-prone quarterback from Houston has never started more than nine games in any season as a professional. He is a career 59.4 percent passer and has more career interceptions (22) than touchdowns (20). He has some nasty weapons to use in Arizona, but still has to prove he is an NFL starting quarterback.
31. Matt Cassel, Kansas City (Age: 30, Record: 28-26)
2011 Stats: 1,713 yards, 10 TD, 9 INT, 99 rush yards (9 games)
The story is well-known: Cassel didn’t start a game at USC, sat behind Brady, went 10-5 when called upon in New England and parlayed one year into a big contract. Yet, he is a career 59.0 percent passer, is 18-21 as the Chiefs' starter with 32 interceptions and 22 fumbles over that span and has had major injury issues. Cassel has one more year to prove he is the franchise quarterback in KC
32. Blaine Gabbert, Jacksonville (Age: 22, Record: 4-10)
2011 Stats: 2,214 yards, 12 TD, 11 INT, 98 rush yards
The former Mizzou star certainly didn’t have much to work with in Jacksonville, but it was hard to watch him compete a year ago. He never truly had the look of an NFL quarterback and the numbers play that out. He completed a staggeringly low 50.8 percent of his passes with less than one touchdown pass per game (he had five games in which he failed to throw a scoring strike). Until he shows dramatic improvement, and gets some help, Gabbert will continue to look like a deer in the NFL headlights.
- by Braden Gall
2012 Athlon Sports NFL team-by-team schedule analysis:
New England Patriots
New York Jets
Kansas City Chiefs
San Diego Chargers
New York Giants
Green Bay Packers
New Orleans Saints
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
San Francisco 49ers
St. Louis Rams