QB Index: Quarter season rankings 1-32


September wasn't a smooth month to be a future Hall of Fame quarterback. The Patriots' offense is caving in around Tom Brady in New England. Drew Brees leads a New Orleans Saints' offense that can't win on the road and is average in points scored. Aaron Rodgers was so out of synch in Green Bay that he was forced to tell Packers fans to R-E-L-A-X.

These are the equivalent of first-world problems at the quarterback position. Let's call them first-tier problems because that's what this week's Quarterback Index is all about: Ranking every quarterback on this season's play alone.

Brady, Brees and Rodgers didn't forget how to play the position, but every season brings new challenges and realities. Nothing is static in the NFL, which is part of the reason we all love it. That's why all three all-time greats are ranked lower than they were in our preseason rankings. There's a note at the bottom of the column about how the rankings are determined but let's get on with the show.

Top Shelf

1. Philip Rivers
2. Peyton Manning
3. Matt Ryan
4. Andrew Luck
5. Aaron Rodgers
6. Drew Brees

Rex Ryan is right: Rivers is an early leader for MVP, although J.J. Watt would get my vote. Rivers has carried over his sharpshooting consistency from a season ago with a few more deep throws mixed in. His performance in a victory over the Seattle Seahawks was a triumph of patience and precision against a historic defense. So many quarterbacks feel the pass rush more as they get older, but Rivers is still the best at delivering awkwardly under pressure or finding a way to buy that extra second. He doesn't get bothered. And he's done it this year with a lackluster running game and offensive line.

Peyton Manning continues to push the boundaries of what can be accomplished with a weakening arm. The Broncos aren't as explosive this season, but he limits mistakes. He makes greatness a bit boring. ... Rodgers remains this high because his performance against Chicago was as good as any quarterback has looked all year. He can make five to six throws in a game that other quarterbacks can't, even when they are not exactly scripted. Even his "off" weeks don't include many bad passes.

Ryan played my highest graded game by a quarterback this year in Week 1 and added two more very good performances (vs. Tampa and Minnesota). With three starting offensive linemen out, Ryan's improved athleticism outside the pocket will be tested. He's making more plays on the move. ... Luck can get wild occasionally, but he has as much pure talent as any quarterback since Rodgers. His last two games (against poor competition) have been close to perfect. The Colts are finally handing over the offense to him. ... Brees has played well, but he's been just off during some big moments. I wondered if my grading was fair and saw he was ranked 10th thus far in QBR, ESPN's misunderstood and useful stat. The Saints haven't been as explosive.

Next Level

7. Ben Roethlisberger
8. Matthew Stafford
9. Cam Newton
10. Joe Flacco
11. Russell Wilson

Stafford's advanced metrics rankings mirror his steady play. He's listed either seventh or eighth by Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus and QBR. He's making smarter decisions mixed with better movement. He's always been able to take a hit and deliver. Coach Jim Caldwell said his first priority was to improve Stafford's footwork, and it seems to be paying off. But we've been fooled by Stafford's progress before and want to see where this goes from here.

Newton is not adding any running value after ankle surgery, yet he's played well. He's been more consistently accurate and better going down the field. His offensive line, running game and defense have been the problems. ... Flacco looks so much better this season. Even his weak statistical games, like the win over Pittsburgh, included sharp play. It's amazing what an offensive line can do.

Roethlisberger is the same as he ever was, which is a great sign for a player who many expected to decline early. He's completing more safe passes than ever, but still mixes in some deep beauties. ... Wilson still sometimes misses open receivers and leaves the pocket too quickly. He hasn't taken that next step many expected before the season.

The next level after that

12. Eli Manning
13. Tony Romo
14. Alex Smith
15. Jay Cutler
16. Colin Kaepernick
17. Tom Brady
18. Andy Dalton

This sounds almost condescending, but Eli has been a pleasant surprise the last three weeks. It's been a rare stretch of solid and predictable play from Manning without crazy highs or lows. (Although the first half against Washington was sweet.) ... Romo has been rather different with two poor starts followed by vastly improved play. His performance against New Orleans was electric. He has more support around him than ever. ... Throw out the Week 1 nightmare against Tennessee, and Alex Smith has kept up his second-half surge from a year ago. Against Miami, I charted only one bad pass the entire game. And only one pass over 10 yards. That's hard to do. As Chris Wesseling has said, the more you watch Alex Smith, the more you like him.

Culter remains the ultimate enigmatic "Yeah, but" player, with the current excuse being he hasn't had Alshon Jeffery or Brandon Marshall truly healthy since Week 1. ... Kaepernick has mostly struggled since a sterling opener. Even in the 49ers' win over Philadelphia, he was mostly disappointing. He mixes in a few great plays with head scratchers like when he throws the ball away with no pressure around him or doesn't see open receivers. It looks like the game hasn't slowed down for him.

Brady has played like a quarterback too aware of his teammates' limitations, and his own. The offensive line has been dreadful. It's strange to see the Patriots so cautious and afraid to make mistakes. ... I went back over all my notes to make sure I wasn't been unfair to Dalton. But there's a reason he's No. 21 in QBR; he's not the reason Cincinnati is winning games. His best plays are dumpoffs and screens. He's actually missed a high percentage of mid-to-deep throws that were available. Dalton has done a nice job limiting mistakes, but he needs more than two to three nice plays per game to truly climb.

After Dalton

19. Austin Davis
20. Nick Foles
21. Kirk Cousins
22. Carson Palmer/Drew Stanton
23. Ryan Tannehill
24. Brian Hoyer

This ranking might look silly in a few months, but Davis has legitimately looked like he's belonged for 2.5 starts. He's made more "wow" throws down the field than we'd ever expect considering his relatively weak arm. ... Cousins struggled to close against Philadelphia, and crumbled when things got rough against New York. We need to see more. ... Stanton, like Palmer, can pull off some gorgeous deep passes. The Cardinals just might be able to contend with him. ... Foles doesn't deserve to be any higher based strictly on his 2014 play. His Week 1 was a nightmare, and he was all over the place in Week 2. He's either missed seeing open receivers or missed them with inaccurate passes. No other player has more misleading numbers. ... Tannehill quieted controversy with a great game against Oakland, but we have no idea what's coming after Miami's bye. ... Hoyer makes just enough throws each week to make you think the next week could be better.

End Game

25. Matt Cassel
26. Ryan Fitzpatrick
27. Geno Smith
28. Jake Locker
29. Josh McCown
30. Derek Carr
31. EJ Manuel
32. Chad Henne

Fitzpatrick has cut down on his gunslinger ways just enough to stay out of the way. ... Geno Smith has taken too much blame for the Jets' slow start, and we still believe he will climb out of this tier soon enough. (Right after he stops the three to four mind-numbing decisions that sink each game.) ... Locker still can't throw straight or stay healthy. ... McCown turned back into McCown from his previous decade. ... Carr showed some promise considering the circumstances. ... Manuel's benching was an act of mercy. The same goes for Henne.

Too early to rank: Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater and Mike Glennon: Why weren't these guys starting in Week 1 again?

On the rankings: I watch as many games as possible on Game Rewind during the week. It winds up being at least three out of every four games played. I chart goofy things like bad passes, completions under pressure and big plays. I have a wildly imperfect and largely subjective grading system. I try to account for opponents, mix that all up in a stew, and then adjust for sanity. Of course this is all subjective, like any power rankings or opinion. It's meant to be made in a vacuum of a quarterback's play for this year only.

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