If you were to ask a group of NFL general managers, coaches and personnel people to name the best quarterback in pro football, they'd probably tell you it's Aaron Rodgers. Ask the same group whom they'd most want to build a franchise around, and the consensus almost certainly would be Andrew Luck.
But if you were to ask who has performed best at the position this year, the answer would be quite different.
It's been a tough season for star quarterbacks: Rodgers' Packers have lost three straight games, Peyton Manning was horrific last week while trying to play through painful injuries, Ben Roethlisberger has missed nearly half the season in Pittsburgh, and the aforementioned sterling prodigy in Indianapolis (Luck) has been brutalized by a horrific offensive line.
Looking at the current quality of play at quarterback this season can bring more ambiguity, because it becomes harder to separate the individual performance of the signal caller from the personnel around him. There are incredibly talented receiving corps in Arizona, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, and a corresponding lack of playmakers at those positions in Carolina and Seattle. Surely, those factors affect the way we perceive the efforts of the QBs involved.
For the purposes of this column, I studied objective QB factors like wins (particularly on the road), explosive plays per attempt (gains of 20-plus yards), interceptions per attempt and third-down conversion percentage. Subjectively, I factored in some of the unique or extenuating circumstances surrounding each situation.
With that in mind, here is my ranking of the five quarterbacks who have stood out the most thus far in the 2015 campaign:
5) Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers
Data can be helpful and illuminating, but there are some things that the numbers just don't show -- especially in a sport as interdependent as football. So even though Newton ranks only 21st in ESPN's QBR metric, he remains essential to his team and its success. No club relies more heavily on its quarterback -- for both running and passing -- than 9-0 Carolina. Newton likely will throw fewer than 500 passes this season, but he generates an explosive play (20-plus yards) every nine throws -- a strong rate. His signature win so far this season: The come-from-behind victory he engineered at Seattle.
4) Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
Brees is 36, and many questioned his physical skills earlier this year. Yet, he's still delivering, leading the Saints to wins in games they have no business even being in. Despite playing with the league's worst defense, he has kept the Saints in most of their contests. He has performed under immense pressure, as the running game is a disappointment, and the sorry state of the defense means Brees enters games knowing he probably needs to score points in bunches to come out on top. His 47 percent third-down conversion rate is second-best in the league, all the more impressive since the Saints also rank second in number of third-and-long situations.
3) Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals
For those who want to look at Dalton objectively, the numbers are undeniable. Explosive plays (a 1-in-7 rate, tied with Carson Palmer for best in the league) are up, and his interceptions (one in every 65 attempts) are way down. Road wins at Baltimore, Buffalo and Pittsburgh make it clear that this is not the Dalton of old -- no one can deny he is playing with more calm and confidence than he has in years past. Yes, he has a wide array of weapons around him, and skeptics will say he still needs to prove it in the playoffs (which is true). But judging quarterbacks on what they've done this season, Dalton ranks near the top.
2) Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals
Few quarterbacks have seen a potentially brilliant career more undermined by injury than the resolute Palmer. Recall how well the Bengals were playing when Palmer suffered his first serious knee injury as a pro, during the 2005 playoffs. And recall that, in his second act, Palmer was guiding an 8-1 Arizona team last year before season-ending knee surgery. The Cardinals are strong again this year -- presently the only team to be ranked in the top 10 in yardage on both offense and defense. Palmer is having an MVP-caliber season, and his impact on this 7-2 team is undeniable. He's tied with Dalton in explosive-play rate, and he has become an expert at reading defenses, as well as playing to his strengths. His win in Sunday night's shootout in Seattle -- Palmer shredded the "Legion of Boom" for 363 yards and three touchdowns -- was nothing less than spectacular.
1) Tom Brady, New England Patriots
You almost would think Brady entered this year with a chip on his shoulder ... As though he had something to prove, even after having just won his fourth Lombardi Trophy. His third-down conversion rate and interception ratio are both the best in the league. And Sunday against the Giants, he proved what he could do when the game was on the line. With a patchwork offensive line, less than two minutes to play, no timeouts and his best wide receiver injured, Brady engineered a 12-play drive that ended with the game-winning field goal on the road. What's more, if you were watching the game, that drive -- and that result -- seemed inevitable. The road to the Super Bowl in the AFC will go through Gillette Stadium, where New England's 23-1 since the beginning of the 2013 season (with that one loss coming in Week 17 of 2014, when the Pats had already clinched the top seed and Brady only played a half).
Lastly, I must mention two other quarterbacks:
» What Ben Roethlisberger did last week -- even given that it was against a poor Cleveland team -- was remarkable. The only reason he is not on this list is because he has missed four games. If he stays healthy the rest of the season, Big Ben likely will rival Brady for the top spot.
» And a word on Eli Manning, who has, as usual, been underappreciated. His 15-play drive to take the lead vs. New England late in the fourth quarter was quite impressive. Overall, though, Eli has room for improvement, especially in explosive-play rate (presently 1-in-12) and on third down.
Follow Brian Billick on Twitter @coachbillick.