Top NFL Quarterbacks (Insider Content)
The No. 1 thing I learned during 14 years in the NFL is that while there's a great difference between perception and reality, perception drives reality. It's true. Owners, general managers and even scouts aren't immune to building a profile of a player that's at least partly driven by perception, and they make decisions in part based on those perceptions. Perception becomes belief. It's not laziness, or really wrong, just a part of the culture of football. Perception is created through a combination of things -- the inherent small sample sizes of football, the emotion of the game, the size of the event and also the moment. How you perform on one big stage can stick with you forever, even in the evaluations of people who should know better. (Imagine the league perception of Joe Flacco today if Lee Evans had held on to that ball. How much more "clutch" would he be? How much better of a leader? All for the same read, the same accurate pass.)
Now think of the week Eli Manning faces. This is a week that, based on the way perception drives the league, could determine whether he's a Hall of Fame-level player. And this is a player who almost surely will finish his career with 50,000-plus yards and well more than 300 touchdown passes. But a second Super Bowl ring -- this time driven by the storyline that Manning led this charge, perhaps more than he did in 2007 -- would secure a Canton bust.
If Manning wins this week, I see him climbing onto the mantle of the other great quarterbacks in this league. And it won't be because of something he said on "The Michael Kay Show," and how we need to see him through the debate of "elite" or not. It'll be because he's improved as a player and will have totally shifted the perception of where he stands in the game. He'll be there with Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and even his big brother. And he'll have more rings than three of those guys.
Make no mistake about it: Manning is playing for almost instant "Hall of Famer" recognition this week. It's simply how the sport works.
Parameters: When I was asked to break down the top 40 quarterbacks in the NFL, I studied a lot of different factors. I used the tape, for starters, and the backroom words from evaluators and other QBs, the guys seeing it up close. I looked at the numbers, like QBR and passer rating, and win totals. I considered trajectory and which way the play is trending, so you'll see that word a lot. But I also took into account perception, because it absolutely plays a role in the way a player is valued around the league, and that matters. Labels stick.
You are also welcome to read into the order in which guys are placed within each section -- that's not declarative, but it's not an accident.
Hall of Fame Level
This category is reserved for guys who are considered the current Mount Rushmore among NFL quarterbacks -- they have secured legacies through things already accomplished. The numbers, status among peers, Super Bowl rings and franchise-leader status are all there. Plus, you'll see in each case, losing is a rarity even in a league built for parity. Trajectory is not an issue.
Peyton Manning (Colts): May not be back in 2012, but his legacy is entirely secure. From pure performance -- i.e., discounting number of Super Bowls discussion -- may be considered the best QB of his generation by his peers across the league.
Tom Brady (Patriots): New weapons have staved off decline questions, and a fourth Super Bowl win would put him in the best-ever discussion if he's not already there. Brilliant player.
Aaron Rodgers (Packers): Currently the most complete player in the NFL. Capable of becoming one of the handful of all-time greats. There were times this year where I'd break down his games and think he was the best QB going in almost any area.
Drew Brees (Saints): Record numbers, a ring and an impeccable reputation across the league as a leader. Quietly on pace for 60,000-plus yards.
Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers): This might turn heads, but Big Ben has reached this level. Two Super Bowls, an 80-33 regular-season record, and now putting up big numbers, too. And he's still on the right end of 30.
The Eli Zone
Eli Manning (Giants): Gets his own category for the purposes of this article because a second Super Bowl would really shift league perception. Minus that, he's probably more set in the next category. (Remember, that league perception hints that Eli was perhaps a little fortunate the first time around, fair or not.) And he's had ups and downs since. I do think people need to consider that he's been pretty good but is still improving.
A Ring Away
This category reflects quarterbacks who have the shown the ability to play at an elite level or are winning at an elite level and need a Super Bowl win to validate the perception of them. They don't have job-security questions and have proved vital within their offenses. Most display a solid career trajectory and have proved themselves as winners, if not title winners.
Philip Rivers (Chargers): Struggled behind a bad O-line in 2011, but there's nothing he can't do as a passer. With four straight 4,000-yard seasons and respect around the league, he just needs to get to that next level as a winner.
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireJoe Flacco stepped up in the AFC Championship Game.
Tony Romo (Cowboys): Wildly underrated, mostly based on overblown "clutch" questions, Romo just finished a season with 31 TD passes against 10 interceptions. He was behind only Rodgers, Brees and Brady from a statistical standpoint, while playing dinged up. Want to know where Romo stands? Just ask fellow quarterbacks.
Matt Ryan (Falcons): Faces trajectory questions after another bad playoff performance, but very highly regarded among evaluators. I don't put a ton of stock in "QB wins," but Ryan has a 43-19 record as a starter and is only 26. He adapted quickly to the NFL and now must take the next step.
Joe Flacco (Ravens): Enigmatic but quietly pretty good, too, with elite arm strength. I put Flacco here because I think his trajectory could continue to get better with more help and a different offensive philosophy. He played well enough to get his team to the Super Bowl this year.
Matthew Stafford (Lions): He won't be 24 until next week, but Stafford showed off just how wildly talented he is this season. He just had the best age-23 season since Dan Marino and now is showing he can lead a winner. Only this low because putting it together for two straight seasons (including health) matters. He's got a Hall of Fame trajectory if he can stay healthy.
Jay Cutler (Bears): Rose in my perception this year from lower group based on how he carried the Bears' offense. Like Stafford, an extremely talented player who I think still has tremendous upside if the Bears get him some help. I don't think there's any reason at this point to say Cutler isn't capable of leading a Super Bowl team. Improved trajectory.
Matt Schaub (Texans): It's not unfair to say that the Texans would be a good bet to reach the Super Bowl had Schaub been healthy. He has limitations but might be the best deep passer in the game. Good trajectory.
This is the group currently hurt by the fact that 2010-2020 will almost surely give us the best quarterbacking the game has seen in terms of depth across the league. For instance, I went to a Pro Bowl in 1997. That year, Alex Smith very well may have been the fifth-best QB in the league. But the standards have gotten higher, the players better. This group has guys who have elite ability but aren't quite there yet based on age, health or recent issues.
Cam Newton (Panthers): He has the talent and trajectory of a Hall of Fame player. Amazing arm talent, size, speed and an advanced ability to learn and make adjustments. It's just a matter of how he adjusts as the league adjusts to him.
Michael Vick (Eagles): It feels wrong to have Vick here, because the guy is an MVP-caliber player, but he's down a little right now as we wonder whether he can stay healthy. It wouldn't surprise me one bit if he was dominant in 2012.
Andy Dalton (Bengals): Much more than a scrappy gamer, Dalton was ahead of all rookies entering the league when it came to reading the game, and his physical skills aren't far behind. He could become a star, and his supporting cast will only improve.
Josh Freeman (Bucs): At the outset of 2011, I said he had a higher ceiling than any QB in the league under 27. Perhaps Newton and Stafford have surpassed him, but he is still extremely talented with exceptional physical traits and ability. I expect him to become elite.
Carson Palmer (Raiders): He takes heat, but this is a guy other quarterbacks consider the definition of what you want in quarterback in terms of physical ability and even in the way he sees the game. The perception tops the recent performance. He struggled in coming back late in 2011 but should be better in 2012.
Matt Hasselbeck (Titans): Proved that, when healthy, he still can lead a winning NFL team. That's the league perception of him, and I think it's fair.
Could Go Either Way
This is a group of quarterbacks who have shown talent and even results but are facing major questions regarding the future trajectory of their careers. Most have pretty decent job security, but each is in a situation now in which his league perception is filled with questions. There is also a wonder in each case whether the environment is the best one to succeed in.
Kirby Lee/US PRESSWIREKevin Kolb's true talent level is still unknown.
Mark Sanchez (Jets): Still has a high ceiling in my opinion not just because of talent, but through the way he's carried himself and won some huge games, but if the Jets want a ground-and-pound scheme under Tony Sparano, will we ever see if Sanchez develops into an upper-tier passer? Hard to say.
Sam Bradford (Rams): Lacks surrounding talent and now about to team with his third offensive coordinator in his first three years, a "plan" that didn't do much for Alex Smith in the same division. Bradford has elite arm talent and smarts, but 2012 is a big year for him, and he's in a division that is becoming pretty tough for passers.
Kevin Kolb (Cardinals): League perception says there's a lot of talent, as did Arizona's commitment. But we really don't know anything yet.
Matt Cassel (Chiefs): A really good quarterback in both 2008 and 2010 but obviously faces big questions regarding his trajectory.
Ryan Fitzpatrick (Bills): Can be very good and very accurate, but will turn 30 in 2012 and still faces big questions about decision-making. Plus, this is an organization that desperately needs a winning season.
Kyle Orton (Chiefs): There's no question Orton can spin it, but he really needs the right environment, and we don't know where that is.
Matt Moore (Dolphins): Moore was quietly pretty effective in 2011, to the extent that the Dolphins could at least think twice if they feel the price of an acquisition (Matt Flynn?) is too high. Not a high-ceiling guy, but maybe a late bloomer.
Jason Campbell (Raiders): No idea what his future holds, and if there's a starting job to be found. No longer in the "upside" discussion at 31.
Guys who may begin 2012 as starters but have no guarantee to last without improved performance.
Tim Tebow (Broncos): A nice storyline, but was frankly pretty bad as a passer in terms of accuracy. He has to show significant development, hopefully starting with some mechanics issues. No doubt he'll be working hard.
Blaine Gabbert (Jaguars): He needs more weapons around him but looked overmatched as a rookie. Might have been a mistake to start him.
Colt McCoy (Browns): You get the sense the Browns could have another quarterback in mind (Robert Griffin III?) even as McCoy sits at No. 1 on the depth chart. I believe in McCoy but am not sure he has a great chance to succeed there.
Christian Ponder (Vikings): He will be the Week 1 starter but will need to show he's on an upward trajectory for 2012.
Rex Grossman (Redskins): May be relegated to a future as a backup.
Tarvaris Jackson (Seahawks): The Seahawks might believe in his future, but league perception is that they probably could do better. He has to show more, because the Seahawks aren't devoid of weapons.
Curtis Painter (Colts): Almost certainly a backup to enter 2012.
John Beck (Redskins): See: Grossman, Rex.
Intriguing Wild Cards
Guys who don't have the reps but could have high ceilings as starters.
Matt Flynn (Packers): After Andrew Luck and Griffin III are gone, the bidding war could be for Flynn's services. He'll be 27 by Week 1 but has been very good in the brief playing time he's had. Guess here is he begins 2012 as a starter.
Jake Locker (Titans): Great skill set, but accuracy questions remain. Can he beat out Hasselbeck if the Titans feel they can be a playoff team?
T.J. Yates (Texans): Got great experience and is now clearly a prospect in terms of league perception.
John Skelton (Cardinals): He had his own Tebow stretch, going 5-2 as a starter, minus any of the publicity. Probably still on the backup path in terms of trajectory, but answered some questions about whether he belongs.
Brian Hoyer (Patriots): A guy I've liked since he went undrafted in 2009. Has the upside to start but with only 43 career passes while serving the ultimate apprenticeship. Could get a shot in 2012 if a team offers him enough, given he's a restricted free agent.
Before joining ESPN as an NFL analyst in July 2008, Trent Dilfer played 14 seasons as an NFL quarterback. His work can be seen across a wide range of ESPN programming. He can be found on Twitter @TDESPN.
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Before tip, Griffin tossed in a 75-footer that managed to go in, which seemed to excite his teammates even more than the raucous crowd.