Any list of the NFL's best quarterbacks has to start with four men: Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees, in some order. Philip Rivers played at that level last season. Andrew Luck played at that level in spurts, but we judge quarterbacks in 16-game increments. Wilson, Luck, Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton made significant progress in 2013, but they didn't take over.
Our weekly Quarterback Index will track the progress of the young guns and the old guard throughout the season. We've set up a preseason rankings below as our 2014 baseline. The rankings are an attempt to capture where each quarterback stands in the larger picture right now. We'll write about where each quarterback goes throughout the season.
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Rodgers is due for another MVP campaign. An improved offensive line and running game will give him more support than usual. ... Manning is a fascinating case study. How long can you be an MVP candidate with the worst arm strength of any starter? It hasn't hurt the Broncos much yet, but defenses could start to dare Denver to throw it deep. ... Brady's decline has been exaggerated, but his accuracy and pocket presence is no longer as consistent as it was at his peak. His weapons and continuity, however, are much improved this year. ... Brees, like Rodgers, should be helped by an improved running game and defense. The Saints' offense could be the best in the league if young receivers Kenny Stills, Brandin Cooks and Nick Toon develop quickly.
Rivers' play a year ago was worthy of the top rung on this list, but his slight career inconsistency knocks him down a peg. His added responsibility in new coordinator Frank Reich's offense suits him perfectly. ... Watch Roethlisberger closely last year, and many of the Steelers' problems had nothing to do with him. He played great down the stretch, with 16 scores and five interceptions in the second half of the year.
Luck can be the best quarterback in the league for a half at a time. He still has stretches where he's not as accurate. It would not be a surprise if he climbs up a tier this season. ... Newton gets a ton of value from his running, so it will be a challenge as he recovers from ankle and rib injuries. This season is the ultimate test of how far he's come because he played with such a small margin for error last year. His offensive line is a problem. ... Ryan should rack up fantasy numbers while he tries to keep up with the Falcons' struggling defense. ... Wilson looks ready for a third-year leap. The Seahawks will ask him to do more this year and he looks ready to crash the top tier.
Romo has always been oddly underrated, but his played dipped slightly the last two seasons, and he's coming off back surgeries. ... Kaepernick, like Wilson, will be asked to do more this year. ... Stafford has reached the part of his career where Cutler has been for a few years. He's fun to watch and you can win with him. But he hasn't developed the mental side of the game like other great quarterbacks. Are both signal-callers stuck? ... Foles received terrific protection in 2013, but his play often looked better in the box score. He can be slow to pull the trigger on some passes. He shows great touch and is in a QB-friendly scheme, but would you really start your team with him versus the players ranked above?
Flacco showed that he can't carry a truly terrible offense. He needs more help, and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak should provide it. ... Smith's toughness and scrambling ability are underrated. He'll never make a lot of "wow" plays and he's stuck in a difficult situation in Kansas City. A dip in numbers could follow. ... Griffin is the biggest wild card at the position. Nothing would surprise us.
Above the Dalton Scale
Tannehill is a hard player to evaluate. We love his raw skills, but he still looks like a player that hasn't played quarterback long enough. It could take him a while to get up to speed on offensive coordinator Bill Lazor's offense, and the weapons around him are lackluster overall. ... The Eli Manning from 2011 was the outlier in his career. We don't expect him to get back to that level. ... Palmer won't rise up the rankings like Rivers last year, but he has all the tools and talent around him to experience a late-career renaissance.
Chris Wesseling introduced a theory on the Around The NFL Podcast that essentially says this: Andy Dalton is the measuring stick for all starting quarterbacks. If your starting passer is worse than Dalton, you need to find a better solution. If your starter is better than Dalton, then he qualifies as "The Guy."
The Bengals' insistence that Dalton is worthy of franchise-quarterback money doesn't change the scale. Only Dalton's play can do that. Until then, the Bengals will stay stuck in the middle. Dalton led the league in shoulder shrugs by disappointed receivers. When he's cold, he's really cold.
Of this group, Locker and Geno still have breakout potential. Locker has the right coach in Ken Whisenhunt, and the Titans will build a safer offense around his strengths. He just mixes in too many passes that randomly miss by 15 yards -- we call those "Freemans." Smith's problems last year were more about the speed of the game and decision-making. Those are traits that experience should help. ... Cassel was rather competent down the stretch last year, and he's in a much better situation this time around.
Yes, there's a chance Shaun Hill is not much worse than Sam Bradford. There's also a chance that Shaun Hill of 2014 coached by Brian Schottenheimer is a lot worse than Shaun Hill of 2010, playing alongside Calvin Johnson. ... Ryan Fitzpatrick is a strange fit for a Patriots-style offensive system. His random decisions could drive coach Bill O'Brien and Texans fans crazy. ... Chad Henne could get the hook in Jacksonville by the team's Week 3 home opener. ... Few quarterbacks need a better Week 1 than EJ Manuel. He has the right matchup against the Bears. He looked lost too often last year despite not being asked to do much.
"Josh McCown is a Week 1 starting quarterback under Jeff Tedford" is a sentence I never expected to write. ... Brian Hoyer is a journeyman coming off a torn ACL with little talent around him and a difficult system to learn. The odds are stacked against him. ... Carr is essentially unranked here because we have nothing to go off, but the Raiders had no choice but to start him.