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QB Index: Quarter-season Rankings 1-32

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Four games is enough. It's enough to start believing in Andy Dalton or wondering about Ryan Tannehill. It's enough to believe this is finally Carson Palmer's year. Four weeks is enough to recognize how this season is different, while understanding how dramatically things will change from here.

Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers were playing like the best quarterbacks in the league at midseason last year. They both struggled badly down the stretch and Manning hasn't fully recovered.

This is the first week that the rankings below are based on 2015 play only, and they reflect this disruptive, unformed 2015 season. Derek Carr and Marcus Mariota are playing better than veterans like Joe Flacco and Matthew Stafford. The 2012 Rookie of the Year, Robert Griffin III, is a No. 3 quarterback playing behind Colt McCoy. The starter of the NFC Champion 49ers that season, Colin Kaepernick, is one of the league's worst.

It's early to draw sweeping conclusions, but it's not too early to marvel at how strange this all looks.

Let's get to the rankings, based on this year's play. I've included each quarterback's preseason rank in parenthesis.

The Big Two


1. Aaron Rodgers (1)
2. Tom Brady (4)

Ben Roethlisberger actually has the best average grade in my harebrained grading system, but he won't be back on the field until midseason. That leaves Rodgers and Brady to duke it out for best quarterback honors, not to mention MVP. Chris Wesseling tabbed Rodgers as his quarter season All-Pro starter and I can't disagree. Last Sunday's performance against San Francisco might have been his least remarkable outing of the year, and it included all these throws:

As a people, we need to start compiling the best Rodgers passes of the season for what might be one of the greatest seasons of all time. His best is so much better than anyone else's best, yet he rarely makes unforced errors. ... Brady is more machinelike, silently forcing opponents into submission before the snap before they know it, and then throwing a slant to Julian Edelman.

Top shelf


3. Carson Palmer (17)
4. Matt Ryan (5)
5. Andy Dalton (22)
6. Cam Newton (11)
7. Philip Rivers (6)
8. Russell Wilson (9)

It's like the last decade never happened. Palmer, for a brief time, was considered the third best quarterback in the game in 2005 behind Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Then Kimo Von Oelhoffen happened, a likable turn in Hard Knocks followed a few years later, a phony retirement threat to escape Bengals owner Mike Brown, and a brief moment when Palmer made the Raiders watchable. All roads led to Bruce Arians. Against all odds, Palmer is throwing the ball better than ever after another ACL surgery. Arians' system and the talent around Palmer give him a real chance to make the Super Bowl for the first time at age 36.

For the first two years of this column, I usually had a tier called "After Dalton." Andy was supposed to be the prime meridian of NFL quarterbacks. If your quarterback was ranked below him, you needed a new starting quarterback. His play this season is potentially destroying Wesseling's "Dalton Scale." Hue Jackson's confidence has rubbed off; Dalton don't care. He's dialing up deep plays on the run on command. He's responding to poor plays with highlight reel tosses. I don't expect him to finish the season ranked so high, but there is no arguing that he's played like a top-10 quarterback thus far. He's ranked fifth in ProFootballFocus' grades, second in ESPN's QBR and second in Football Outsiders' DVOA. Hell has frozen over.

Matt Ryan's Week 4 game against Houston was typical of his season. It's hard to imagine a quarterback being less flashy while building a 42-0 lead. The Falcons lead the league in drives over 10 plays that suck your soul. ... Rivers doesn't rank as high in advanced metrics because of his offensive line, but he's the opposite of Matthew Stafford or Ryan Tannehill. He's overcoming a miserable offensive line in front of him. ... The same is true of Russell Wilson, who has made seemingly unsustainable improvisations totally reliable. Wilson's game is the inverse of his press conferences.

As one of Cam Newton's biggest fans, his MVP buzz is overheated. His yards per attempt is at a career low. Still, his ability to make chicken salad with Ted Ginn and J-Stew is remarkable. He's playing consistent, mature ball. Like Rivers, he's raising the play of those around him.

Next level


9. Eli Manning (15)
10. Drew Brees (7)
11. Marcus Mariota (26)
12. Derek Carr (27)
13. Teddy Bridgewater (18)
14. Joe Flacco (12)
15. Peyton Manning (10)
16. Andrew Luck (3)

I can smell the blocking on Twitter that will be required after ranking Peyton and Luck this low. It's not about Peyton's legacy or his smarts or even what he'll do the rest of the season. The season is four games old, and he has struggled for more than half of it. There are strong signs things will get better, especially his Week 3 performance in Detroit. Then again, that game was indoors. ... Brees is dragged down by an awful game when he hurt his shoulder. He should rise. ... Bridgewater consistently looks better on Game Pass than he does in the box score. ... You can set your watch to Eli's outings this season. He's a consistent B-, improving the Giants' chances of winning without taking games over.

Mariota and Carr benefit from small sample sizes, but they have played better than expected. Carr's deep ball has been a revelation. Everything Mariota does is natural. ... Flacco is the anti-Eli. His games are wildly up and down and he mixes terrible decisions with fantastic throws. ... It's painful to put Luck this low when he played like a top-five quarterback last year. He had an inspiring end to the Titans' game, but even this ranking might be generous. Only Alex Smith is ranked below him in QBR.

Middle of the pack


17. Tyrod Taylor (30)
18. Jay Cutler (21)
19. Nick Foles (24)
20. Matthew Stafford (13)
21. Blake Bortles (23)

Taylor has come out of the gate faster than anyone could expect, especially without Sammy Watkins and LeSean McCoy. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman might be relieved to be free of Colin Kaepernick. ... Stafford has been consistently depressing and erratic. It's sad to see the Lions play so passively because of their offensive line. ... No one wants to admit it, but Cutler has looked just fine under coordinator Adam Gase. ... Foles made his chances count against Arizona, often against good coverage. The Rams ask him to make roughly 3-5 big plays a week. When it works, like against Seattle or Arizona, he's the picture of efficiency. ... There's no doubt Bortles is making strides. Even in his lesser games, he tosses in four to five plays that a lot of these quarterbacks couldn't make.

A large final tier


22. Alex Smith (20)
23. Kirk Cousins (28)
24. Sam Bradford (16)
25. Ryan Fitzpatrick (29)
26. Ryan Tannehill (14)
27. Jameis Winston (25)
28. Colin Kaepernick (19)
29. Brandon Weeden (NR)
30. Josh McCown (31)
31. Mike Vick (NR)
32. Ryan Mallett (NR)

No one is talking about Alex Smith's ugly three-week run even though he's making more money than similar stragglers Tannehill and Kaepernick. ... Cousins ideally will be a poor man's Dalton. For now, he's a poor man's Foles. Cousins has mostly stayed out of the way in three of his four starts, and that's how coach Jay Gruden seems to prefer it. ... Fitzpatrick's gunslinger tendencies and streaky accuracy shows up more every week.

Vick, once the ultimate hype show, is now burdened by the soft bigotry of low expectations. He played very poorly against the Ravens and folks wanted to give him credit for not blowing the game until the end. That used to be Mike Vick!

Bradford's best stretch of the season, by far, started late in the second quarter against Washington. That provides some hope he could turn around this rough start. ... Tannehill's outing in London was dispiriting. He's playing worse than he did as a rookie. ... Winston is like a far better version of Bortles a year ago. He shows enough each week to be excited about. ... Kaepernick has worked on his mechanics like crazy, but he still doesn't seem to see the field. ... Weeden has played well enough to win in both of his starts, which is more than the Cowboys could have expected. ... The most hopeless play in football: Ryan Mallett on third and long.

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