QB Index: Cam Newton breaks into the top five


Cam Newton is playing like a top-five quarterback. He has thrown the ball better over the last month than at any point in his career. It just so happens that he wasn't able to run for most of that time.

Did staying in the pocket make Newton a better passer? That seems like too convenient a narrative. It's more likely that Newton is developing like we all hoped he would. Newton -- and Andrew Luck -- should no longer be talked about as future great players. They might be young, but they've arrived.

Everyone expected the Panthers' passing attack to collapse after the team jettisoned their top three receivers and watched half their offensive linemen retire in the offseason. Instead, Newton has led a dramatic improvement. FootballOutsiders ranks the Panthers' passing attack seventh in the league. Newton's accuracy has been far more consistent, and Carolina is pushing the ball down the field. Cam is carrying a shaky offensive line that can't pass-protect and a running game that featured Darrin Reaves and Fozzy Whittaker last week. He's making better decisions and taking fewer sacks. He's making the team around him better.

Fantasy owners were excited to see Newton run with abandon again in Cincinnati. The Bengals dared him to keep the ball on the read option and he responded with six first downs, a touchdown, and 107 yards. His running backs combined for 40 yards. Newton only ran twice in the first half, but he took what the Bengals gave him after that.

Newton's running ability adds enormous value, but it's his consistent throws that have impressed more this year. He no longer gets into funks for an entire half and still brings the best fastball around. (Newton leads the league in throws that go too fast for the end zone-angle camera operators.) Newton looks like the same quarterback every week, and that's the final step toward joining the best.

On to this week's quarterback rankings. These rankings are based on 2014 play only.

Top Shelf

1. Philip Rivers
2. Aaron Rodgers
3. Peyton Manning
4. Andrew Luck
5. Cam Newton

Rodgers is on an insane run of outrageous plays. I've long said that Luck is the "flashiest" player in the league because he consistently drops the most jaw-dropping throws each week, but Rodgers owns the honor this season. His touchdown to Randall Cobb last week was ridiculous, and the 4th-and-10 completion to Nelson below was a classic. With the game on the line, Rodgers delivers a dime while he's getting blasted by a pass rusher coming up the middle.

Manning had his worst game of the year in New York. (Not bad when your worst game includes three touchdowns and no picks.) There were some ugly incompletions and a four-drive stretch that totaled nine yards. His best plays surprisingly occurred when he evaded the Jets' pass rush to buy time. ... Luck, like Newton, is getting better at avoiding cold streaks.

Next level

6. Matt Ryan
7. Tony Romo
8. Ben Roethlisberger
9. Drew Brees
10. Russell Wilson
11. Tom Brady

It's amazing how much less criticism Romo takes because his teammates have improved. After an ugly first two games, Romo has played just like he has for most of the last decade. He's just getting asked to do so much less. Dallas' incredible offensive line and running game put him in favorable situations. The defense doesn't require him to put up 40 points. And then he makes a few plays each game that you just can't teach by avoiding pressure. His third-and-20 throw to Terrance Williams essentially won the Cowboys the game. It's the play of the year thus far.

Roethlisberger's receivers have let him down with drops or running the wrong route at crucial moments. The Steelers have made a ton of mental mistakes. ... The Tampa game in Week 5 was typical for Drew Brees this year. He's throwing the ball a lot while getting hit, taking chances and paying for it more often than usual.

Wilson finished last week's game against Dallas on a 2-for-11 stretch. After his great throw to Jermaine Kearse on the game's first drive, Wilson threw 25 passes for 65 yards. He didn't pull the trigger a few times he had receivers open and was lucky to only have one turnover. I charted more "bad passes" per attempt than any game since his rookie year. It's rare to see such a meltdown from Wilson, and it's hard to imagine it becoming a trend. ... If I was grading just the last two weeks, Brady would be in the top five.

Dropped from the top

Eli Manning: Pass protection was a big problem in Philadelphia, but Manning also admitted that he held the ball too long on many of the six sacks he took. It's been a solid season for Manning overall, but he has two stink bombs in only six games.

Matthew Stafford: Like Romo, Stafford is looking better in part because he's getting more help from his defensive teammates. Unlike Romo, Stafford has not been playing well the last two weeks. The Lions' offense has essentially scored 17 points in the last two games combined. (The defense set up or scored the rest.) Stafford did not do much on either touchdown drive other than hand the ball off and throw short passes. His best plays are often screens. Drops and shakier protection have hurt Stafford, but we can't put this all on the lack of Calvin Johnson. Stafford has missed throws and is not playing aggressively. He's admitted that he's struggling to "cut it loose" in coordinator Joe Lombardi's new offense. It's very strange to see Stafford play such a "game manager" role. He's not playing terribly, but doesn't currently belong among the league's best.

Stuck in limbo

Ryan Tannehill: His performance against Green Bay was typical. He was just a little late with a lot of his passes and slow to recognize what the defense was showing him. Things go poorly when he throws deep, and he can stare down receivers like in the play below.

And then, magically, things will turn around. Tannehill played a very strong second half against Green Bay, barely throwing a bad pass while showing off his athleticism. (Although it's not a great sign his best plays are often improvised.) He's turning into the toughest kind of young quarterback to evaluate. He's shown too much to the Dolphins for them to give up on him but not enough signs he's making progress.

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