Quarterback rankings: Intangibles make the best leaders
Posted: May 14, 2009
Many factors go into grading a quarterback, and every scout places different levels of emphasis on different aspects of the game. Scouts also must consider things that can't be measured: Leadership, the quarterback's role within a system and performance under pressure. All this makes for uncertainty and goes a long way toward explaining why it is so hard to find agreement on players at the NFL's marquee position.
Here are our top 20 quarterbacks:
1. Peyton Manning, Colts. Critics point to the postseason loss to San Diego, but Manning is the reigning MVP and threw for more than 4,000 yards for the ninth time in 11 NFL seasons, tossed 27 touchdowns to just 12 interceptions and completed 66.8 percent of his passes. And he did it all while recovering from offseason knee surgery. He also had to adjust to life without the real Marvin Harrison. Healthy and with nearly the whole supporting cast back, Manning again should be the NFL's top quarterback in 2009.
2. Tom Brady, Patriots. Before that fateful September day when his knee turned the wrong way, Brady was on his way to becoming perhaps the best QB in league history. After missing the rest of the season, he is practicing with a knee brace and ready to battle Manning for the No. 1 spot. Brady never had elite mobility anyway, so as long as the system and the receivers are in place we expect vintage Brady in '09.
3. Drew Brees, Saints. Last season, Brees became the first QB since Dan Marino in '84 to pass for more than 5,000 yards. Brees also completed 65 percent of his passes and led the NFL in TD passes (34), attempts and completions and was second in yards per attempt (8.0). Here's the best part: He did it with RB Reggie Bush, TE Jeremy Shockey and WR Marques Colston -- his top three weapons -- missing a combined 15 games. They're all healthy now.
4. Carson Palmer, Bengals. Palmer has received the all-clear on his elbow, but it remains to be seen what kind of arm strength the man nicknamed "Jugs" will show in '09. Still, he is a smart, experienced leader who can win games on his own. The good news is an improved line, veteran receivers and talk of a balanced attack won't put the weight of the season on Palmer's arm.
5. Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers. The Steelers were battered by injuries and hurt by inconsistent line play for much of '08, so Big Ben didn't have his best statistical season. But he saved his best for the biggest games, didn't he? He is a tough, clutch performer who wins big games. As he heads into his prime and the Steelers become more entrenched in a pass-oriented team, he will get more chances to shine.
6. Philip Rivers, Chargers. Rivers has moved into the top tier of NFL quarterbacks the past two seasons. In '08, he set career highs in completion percentage, yards per attempt and touchdowns, and cleared the 4,000-yard plateau for the first time in his career. With LaDainian Tomlinson seemingly in decline, San Diego could lean more heavily on the passing game. Rivers has the perimeter receivers, and TE Antonio Gates is healthy and could again be a difference-maker.
7. Donovan McNabb, Eagles. Contrary to those who think McNabb is on the decline, he set a personal career high in passing yards last year and the 23 touchdowns were his most since 2004. McNabb still has a strong, accurate arm, so this season looks promising. The line has been upgraded significantly, and potential impact players have been added at the skill positions.
8. Kurt Warner, Cardinals. Warner got paid in the offseason, and now he can focus on putting his quick release back to work in the Cardinals' explosive attack. It looks as though all the pieces will be back in '09, and as long as he stays healthy -- a bigger concern as he turns 38 in June -- another 4,000-yard, 30-touchdown season is within reach.
9. Eli Manning, Giants. Giants fans will be irked that Eli isn't ranked higher. But Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer are gone, and we're not sure he will have a go-to receiver in '09. If they are relying on rookie Hakeem Nicks, Manning is in trouble. Elite quarterbacks can carry teams on their back, but Manning failed last year when Burress and Brandon Jacobs got hurt. The Super Bowl 42 win was great, but this is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league.
10. Tony Romo, Cowboys. The Cowboys' plan to run more in '09 speaks to the strength of their running backs and the relative inexperience and lack of depth at wide receiver. It also raises a flag with regard to the coaches' confidence in Romo after an up-and-down '08 campaign. He will be on a short leash as Dallas looks to limit turnovers and costly errors.
11. Matt Hasselbeck, Seahawks. This team goes as Hasselbeck goes, and that was good until last year. He turns 34 in September and has a history of back and leg problems. His receiving corps, even with T.J. Houshmandzadeh, lacks an explosive weapon. Still, Hasselbeck has proven capable of raising the play of those around him, so we're holding out hope for '09.
12. Jay Cutler, Bears. Cutler has a big arm, a competitive spirit, plenty of mobility and a knack for making big plays. The Bears should have an improved offensive line and a strong running game, and Cutler will be motivated to prove himself after a turbulent offseason. The big question: Who's he throwing to? We like TE Greg Olsen, but Devin Hester is terribly inconsistent and there isn't much else.
13. Matt Ryan, Falcons. The '08 Offensive Rookie of the Year, Ryan has a strong, accurate arm and displays more maturity and intangibles than anyone could have expected. Ryan has the support of a strong running game, and the addition of All-Pro TE Tony Gonzalez will make him more effective in the short passing game. Ryan is off to a nice start, and he should continue to move up this list.
14. Aaron Rodgers, Packers. Rodgers was among the league's top passers in his first year as a starter, throwing for 4,038 yards, 28 touchdowns and just 13 interceptions and showing a tremendous amount of toughness by playing much of the season after separating his shoulder. The talk in Green Bay has been about the defense, but everyone except OT Mark Tauscher returns on offense and Rodgers is sure to improve in Year 2 as a starter.
15. Jake Delhomme, Panthers. Delhomme is a fiery, emotional leader who got his team to the playoffs in '08, but he then turned the ball over six times in Carolina's first playoff game. He also hasn't delivered a strong statistical season since '05. He is in decline, for sure, but has a strong line and a great running game. Panthers coach John Fox will try to get him back on track by asking him to just play within the system.
16. Joe Flacco, Ravens. Flacco has a big arm and certainly proved himself as a rookie, but he was protected by an elite defense and the AFC's No. 1 running game. The coaches gave Flacco conservative game plans to limit his mistakes, yet he still threw 12 interceptions (14 touchdowns) and struggled at times against aggressive, pressure defenses. There is plenty of room to improve.
17. Matt Schaub, Texans. When healthy, he can look like a top-10 QB. Schaub just hasn't been able to stay on the field. Since coming to Houston in '07, he has missed 10 games. Last season, he passed for 3,043 yards in just 11 games while completing 66.1 percent of his passes and putting up an 8-yard per attempt average. With a growing arsenal of weapons led by WR Andre Johnson and TE Owen Daniels and consistency in the coaching staff with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and line coach Alex Gibbs, Schaub could skyrocket up this list if able to stay healthy.
18. Jason Campbell, Redskins. Campbell struggled in Jim Zorn's West Coast offense last year, particularly in the second half of the season when he didn't post a 250-yard game. He also threw just five touchdown passes in that span. Redskins officials tried to trade for Cutler and trade up to draft Mark Sanchez in the offseason, so they don't believe Campbell can turn it around. He can be successful, however, in a system that takes advantage of his strong arm and athleticism.
19. Chad Pennington, Dolphins. We love Pennington. He's smart, deadly accurate, a natural leader and consummate pro and has a better arm than advertised. He made a run at NFL MVP honors last year by bringing the 1-15 Dolphins to the playoffs. With all that said, he has played only a full 16-game schedule three times in nine NFL seasons and it is only a matter of time before heir apparent Chad Henne gets a shot.
20. Matt Cassel, Chiefs. Cassel wildly exceeded expectations in New England last year, but a good portion of his success can be attributed to the Patriots' system. New coach Todd Haley certainly will play to Cassel's strengths, inserting him in a pass-first, shotgun-heavy attack. Smart coaching and a favorable system are enough to keep him on this list, but he will not be lining up behind Patriots' line or have Randy Moss and Wes Welker outside. And it remains to be seen whether RB Larry Johnson has anything left to offer.
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Let the Friday discussion commence.