|The NFC South has the top QB quartet: Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton and Josh Freeman (from left to right).|
I began my NFL scouting career with the Baltimore Ravens in 2003. After four years there, I accepted a promotion to join the Cleveland Browns in 2007. I vividly remember telling a few of my buddies in the league about my decision to take the job with Cleveland. Most of them gave me the standard "Congratulations" or "I'm happy for you," but one response caught me off guard:
"Why are you going to another AFC team? All of the top quarterbacks are in that conference. If you go to an NFC team, the path to the playoffs is a heck of a lot easier."
Things have definitely changed since 2007. The balance of power at the QB position has clearly switched to the NFC. To prove this point, I've ranked each division by the collective strength of its quarterbacks. I've also ranked the four QBs inside each division. These rankings are based off my expectations for the 2012 season.
1) NFC South
I put this division on top because of the combination of depth, production and upside. Brees is a perennial MVP candidate. Ryan has been incredibly consistent in the first four years of his career. Newton's remarkable rookie season included a QB-record 14 rushing touchdowns. Freeman has lost weight and I expect him to have a bounceback season in 2012.
2) NFC North
This division is loaded at the position. Rodgers is the top QB in the league. Stafford finally stayed healthy and posted monster numbers in 2011. Cutler has always had the ability and I've seen growth in his decision making. I'm not yet sold on Ponder, but I saw some good things last season.
3) NFC East
The QBs in this division are all must-see TV. Manning has two Super Bowl rings and a growing reputation as a clutch performer. Romo had an excellent 2011 season that should quiet some of his critics. Vick started poorly last season, but he became more patient and efficient during the last quarter of the season. RG3 landed with the perfect coach to take advantage of his talents.
4) AFC West
This division added some major star power with the arrival of Manning. Health and age are a concern, but an old Manning at 75 percent is still pretty darn good. Rivers tossed too many picks in 2011, but he played well down the stretch and should return to form in 2012. Cassel was having a disappointing 2011 campaign before suffering a season-ending hand injury. Palmer should benefit from a full offseason after joining the Raiders mid-year in 2011.
5) AFC North
It was a tough call putting this group behind the AFC West QBs. Big Ben has two Super Bowl rings and is arguably the best in the league at extending the play. Last season, Flacco was a dropped pass away from making his Super Bowl debut, while Dalton would've been the talk of the league if not for Cam Newton's amazing rookie year. I'm not the biggest Weeden fan, but he does have size and a live arm.
6) AFC East
I almost feel guilty ranking Tom Brady's division this low, but there are simply too many questions with the other three QB situations. At the age of 34, Brady threw for more than 5,000 yards and made his fifth Super Bowl appearance. Despite accounting for 32 touchdowns last season, Sanchez is under heavy scrutiny and must deal with the arrival of Tim Tebow. Fitzpatrick has to be more consistent and do a much better job of protecting the football in 2012. Despite the addition of Tannehill, I expect Moore to start the majority of the season.
7) AFC South
This group is best described as "under construction." After two healthy and productive years, Schaub was forced to miss the final six games of the 2011 regular season with a foot injury. Luck is the most pro-ready QB to enter the league in the last decade. Hasselbeck is going to get a strong push for his job from the younger, more gifted Locker. Gabbert should benefit from the wide receiver additions, but he's still very raw and unpolished.
8) NFC West
This division only returns one QB (Smith) that started more than 10 games in 2011. Smith wasn't flashy last year, but he did a great job of protecting the ball and making clutch throws. Bradford has the most ability in the division, but he is going to have a hard time thriving with the lack of help around him. The Cardinals paid a steep price for Kolb, but Skelton outplayed him last year and should be the favorite to win the job. Flynn is a good decision maker, but his overall skill set is average at best.
Follow Daniel Jeremiah on Twitter @MoveTheSticks.