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QB Index: Is Brian Hoyer the real deal?

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Brian Hoyer makes a handful of throws each week that make you believe. He is slowly melting the icicles that have built up around every Browns fan's heart, a fan who has grown inured to hope, always expecting pain around the corner.

Hoyer is not as good as his numbers suggest. He's on pace for more than 4,000 passing yards, 24 touchdowns and four interceptions. He is this year's Nick Foles, a surprisingly solid starter in the right offense that looks better in the box score than on the field. But there are signs that Hoyer is making progress.

Sunday's performance in Tennessee was his best of the season, and his Week 3 effort against Baltimore was his cleanest game before that. Like Andy Dalton, Hoyer is not quite consistently accurate enough to be an ideal "game manager." Unlike Dalton, Hoyer makes a few plays each week that truly surprise:

Yes, Brian Hoyer can be fun to watch. He is aggressive and can pull off some low-percentage throws. Most of of Hoyer's incompletions in Tennessee came on tipped passes or miscommunications with his receivers, often Andrew Hawkins.

Coach Mike Pettine told Daniel Jeremiah for the Move the Sticks Podcast that Hoyer is using "in-game info" well, which is evidenced by his second half numbers. It's remarkable that the Browns are fourth on offense in Football Outsiders' DVOA rankings, and Hoyer ranks in the NFL's top 10 in net yards per attempt. Taylor Gabriel is Hoyer's best deep threat, and the team has just six catches from Jordan Cameron. In short: Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan deserves a raise.

Ben Roethlisberger famously has an 18-1 record against Cleveland, but it's not so crazy that the Browns are slightly favored against Pittsburgh on Sunday. This Steelers' defense is a below-average group, and Hoyer is playing well enough to take advantage. Hoyer turning Johnny Football into a non-story is one of the upsets of this season.

On to the quarterback rankings. These are based on 2014 play only.

Top Shelf


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

Rivers, like the Chargers, no longer has off weeks. He doesn't play down to the level of his competition, and he throws in a handful of beautiful passes to go along with his steady decision-making. The splash plays are the slight difference between Rivers and Manning this year. Manning's receivers make a lot of plays for him. Rivers makes more plays on his own.

Rodgers is starting to remind me more of Brett Favre in his prime. His physical talents and innate feel for the game can make up for when the Packers' offense isn't quite in synch. Rodgers made more plays in rhythm against Minnesota, which is a good sign. ... Based just on the last three weeks, Luck would probably be ranked No. 1. ... Atlanta's game plan against New York is telling. Ryan was effective, but the Falcons wanted the ball out of his hands quickly because they don't trust their offensive line.

Next level


6. Ben Roethlisberger
7. Cam Newton
8. Russell Wilson
9. Drew Brees
10. Eli Manning
11. Matthew Stafford
12. Tony Romo

Roethlisberger is playing well, but his performance against Jacksonville was the type of game that has kept me from ranking him in the top tier. The Steelers' passing game is less than the sum of its parts thus far. Finally backed by a great running game, the Steelers should be better than 18th in points scored and 11th in net yards per attempt in passing. ... Cam Newton continued the most consistent passing stretch of his career against Chicago. He survived a lot of unlucky tips and drops that killed drives. Kelvin Benjamin makes a rookie mistake for every great catch, but Newton keeps delivering strikes. If he maintains these gains once he starts running again, he'll be a top-five quarterback.

There's a reason Brees is ranked 13th in ESPN's QBR ranking. It's not just the lack of big plays, it's the decision-making to force throws that aren't there, too. It caught up to him against Tampa. ... Everyone should apologize for anything negative they wrote about Giants offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo in the preseason. Eli looks like a different quarterback. ... Russell Wilson makes unrepeatable plays repeatable.

Stafford had his second-lowest grade of the year against Buffalo, according to my wildly subjective methods. Detroit's offense scored seven points in 14 drives. Jim Caldwell has coached Stafford out of making the backbreaking mistakes, but the Lions aren't pushing the ball downfield without Calvin Johnson in the lineup. Stafford is taking a lot of sacks and throwing a lot of dump-off passes. If not for Golden Tate, this offense would be in trouble. ... Romo is being asked to do less this season, and it suits him just fine. That approach will be tough to maintain in Seattle.

Going up


Tom Brady: The Patriots are no longer the vertical team they once were. New England's two tight end, power-running approach against Cincinnati was a logical adjustment. Brady is still sharp throwing bullets between the numbers, and the improving agility of Rob Gronkowski could be the key to Brady's season. But we don't assume that the Patriots' problems are solved because of one game. The "old" Patriots system is not about two tight ends. It's about dramatically changing the game plan each week based on the opponent. You need the offensive line and receivers on the same page for that to happen.

He couldn't face a tougher test this week. Buffalo's defensive line is the best in the league, and it's hard to imagine Brady having much time to survey the field. If Brady plays well against the Bills, then he's really back.

Kyle Orton: Orton made a massive difference for the Bills' offense. His performance started out rough in Detroit, but the ball came out of his hand quickly, and he showed surprisingly good pocket movement. Buffalo found a way to win despite 49 rushing yards. And Orton showed he can still uncork a beauty:

Going down


Andy Dalton: Dalton's performance Sunday night in New England was not that different from his first three games. The result just changed. But it helped to show why he was ranked in the middle of the pack despite the Bengals' fast start. When Dalton is asked to throw the ball outside the numbers, the ball usually goes outside the field.

Alex Smith: I love watching Smith this season and believe he's playing as well as he ever has. But his performance against San Francisco showed his limitations. With literally no big plays at his disposal -- the Chiefs didn't have a catch over 18 yards -- Smith had to be insanely precise to win. He missed a key third-and-4 throw late in the third quarter that killed a drive and then tossed a game-sealing pick in the fourth quarter. He plays with such a small margin for error.

The latest Around The NFL Podcast discusses the top 10 disappointments and breaks down the surprising NFC East. Find more Around The NFL content on NFL Now.

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