QB Index: Taking a big-picture look at the position

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Kirk Fouts  Cousins hasn't just earned a big contract with his recent play. He's changed his league-wide status from a replacement-level starter to someone who should get chances to start games for most of the next decade.

So which other quarterbacks have solidified their long-term status in 2016? Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota have erased any lingering questions as to whether they are franchise quarterbacks. Dallas found a keeper in Dak Prescott. The end for Carson Palmer is closer than we imagined.

After 12 weeks, we have a good idea of how each quarterback is playing this season. So with this edition of the QB Index, I thought it would be fun to take a snapshot of how the position stands as a whole. Every relevant quarterback below in the NFL is grouped together by identity. Hope it makes sense.

(And for the ranking-obsessed among you, the 2016-only rankings are listed at the bottom of the column.)

Living legends: Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger

Rodgers has the most career left, but this championship group is Canton-bound even if everyone in it retired tomorrow. Every accomplishment and record broken from here on out is gravy -- and there's every indication these quarterbacks will keep piling up numbers. Rodgers' vintage performance on Monday night moved him up the rankings below, while Brees is a dark-horse MVP candidate if the Saints could finish with a big winning streak.

In-their-prime franchise quarterbacks: Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford

The quarterbacks in this group give their teams a chance to win a title in any given season, provided their teammates cooperate. Wilson, Luck and Newton are the best players here, walking reminders that a quarterback's prime probably doesn't start until Year 5. They all have added elements to their game since signing a second contract. Wilson has reached the status where a lackluster game like last week in Tampa stands out because it is so rare.

Ryan and Stafford are enjoying career years, cementing their status as top-10 quarterbacks. The Lions' offense essentially is built around Stafford creating late-down and late-game magic each week ... and he does it. The Falcons and Lions understand the value of Ryan and Stafford and will make sure both players don't go anywhere for most, if not all, of what remains of their respective careers.

Made men: Philip Rivers, Joe Flacco, Eli Manning

All three quarterbacks sit near the top of the league's pay scale, even if Rivers is playing at a much higher level than the other two this season (and at a much higher level, on balance, for his career). Unfortunately, Rivers could be the poor man's Dan Fouts, not appreciated enough historically because of the lack of a Super Bowl appearance. This Chargers roster could give him a chance in 2017 to make the kind of sentimental title run Tony Romo is missing out on this year.

Flacco and Eli aren't only living off their past titles, but they help. Both players are better options than trying to find what's behind Quarterback Door No. 2, although Flacco could use a strong stretch run to remind everyone of his talent.

Young franchise quarterbacks: Derek Carr, Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, Dak Prescott, Carson Wentz

This group is proof that the position's future is in good hands. While the quarterbacks here are in different stages of their development, it would be a shock if they don't all get big second contracts with their respective teams. Carr has taken a significant step forward each season. Winston and Mariota both overcame early struggles this season to smooth out the edges in their games, providing far steadier weekly play.

Prescott would be receiving even more hype if he had been drafted No. 1 overall rather than in the fourth round. He's done everything asked of him. Resident NFL scout Daniel Jeremiah believes Wentz has the brightest future out of the quarterbacks in this group. He's shown off all the tools you want to see out of a rookie in a difficult situation with the Eagles.

Point guards: Andy Dalton, Kirk Cousins, Alex Smith

In a pass-happy league with a dearth of downfield throws, one does not need the biggest arm to be a capable starting quarterback. Perhaps Cousins has truly transformed into a modern-day Elway and deserves to be in a different tier, but we want to see it for a little longer.

This trio knows how to distribute. Perhaps they have to be in the right situation to succeed, but they won't get you beat.

Is he or isn't he? Tyrod Taylor, Sam Bradford, Ryan Tannehill

All three quarterbacks are playing well at the moment -- but none of these three has done quite enough to inspire boundless faith that he can lead his team to the promised land. This is always the trickiest type of quarterback to handle. Teams can wind up spinning wheels for close to a decade with a guy like Jay Cutler, comfortable in the knowledge that he's better than plenty of other options. How high are their ceilings? The tools are there for all three players to have Stafford-like mid-career revelations.

Nearing the end: Carson Palmer, Tony Romo

Kurt Warner-style late-career runs aren't out of the question for Palmer and Romo, but retirement looms for both players. Romo hasn't been able to stay on the field for three straight games in his last three tries. Palmer is starting to anticipate the pass rush and make poor decisions, typical "circle of life" habits that occur both at the beginning and end of a quarterback's career.

This isn't working: Brock Osweiler, Blake Bortles

The whole "AFC South is the place for young quarterbacks" narrative turned out to be half-true. Osweiler and Bortles need to reverse course fast to end this season, or their respective teams will have to look for alternatives in the offseason.

Replacement level: Jay Cutler, Colin Kaepernick, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Nick Foles, Robert Griffin III

This group occupies the purgatory between backup and starter. It's painful to put Cutler here, but perhaps he's been here all along. No one knows they're in quarterback purgatory until it's too late.

The future: Jared Goff, Jimmy Garoppolo, Paxton Lynch

Expect this trio to start a lot of games down the road, with No. 1 overall pick Goff being a "franchise quarterback" by dint of his draft pedigree. Let's see more before making some kind of grand evaluation.

Too young to know: Trevor Siemian, Cody Kessler, AJ McCarron

I was tempted to put Siemian in the "Is he or isn't he?" section, because he's already proven he can play. He has shown a lot of positive traits and has performed far better than his numbers. Broncos coach Gary Kubiak seems to be one person who shares my high hopes for Siemian.

Kessler and McCarron have not displayed the same potential, but they have done well with the snaps they've been given. It's easy to imagine Kessler or McCarron moving into the "point guard" tier if given the right chance.

Veteran backups: Derek Anderson, Chase Daniel, Mike Glennon, Matt Moore, Colt McCoy, Josh McCown, Case Keenum, Chad Henne, Matt McGloin, Ryan Mallett, Matt Cassel, Shaun Hill, Mark Sanchez, Luke McCown, Matt Schaub, Kellen Clemens, Drew Stanton, Scott Tolzien

Of this group, Glennon is the guy I'd most like to see get another crack at an extended starting gig.

Former high picks gone wrong: EJ Manuel, Brandon Weeden, Blaine Gabbert

It's hard to imagine Gabbert getting another chance at a Week 1 starting job again.

The longshots: Bryce Petty, Matt Barkley, Sean Mannion, Trevone Boykin, Cardale Jones, Landry Jones, Connor Cook, Christian Hackenberg, Ryan Nassib, Brett Hundley

Probably exists: Tom Savage

After suspicions that he was a Sidd Finch-like creation of the Draft Industrial Complex, it appears that Tom Savage Is Real. He might even wind up starting this season for the Texans.

And with that silliness out of the way, here are our straight quarterback rankings based on 2016 play only.

2016 QB Index Rankings

1) Tom Brady, New England Patriots (Last week: 1)

2) Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons (LW: 2)

3) Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints (LW: 4)

4) Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts (LW: 5)

5) Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders (LW: 7)

6) Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks (LW: 3)

7) Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions (LW: 6)

8) Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys (LW: 8)

9) Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers (LW: 10)

10) Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers (LW: 9)

11) Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers (LW: 11)

12) Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers (LW: 12)

13) Kirk Cousins, Washington Redskins (LW: 14)

14) Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans (LW: 13)

15) Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (LW: 15)

16) Tyrod Taylor, Buffalo Bills (LW: 16)

17) Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals (LW: 18)

18) Sam Bradford, Minnesota Vikings (LW: 17)

19) Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins (LW: 23)

20) Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals (LW: 19)

21) Eli Manning, New York Giants (LW: 20)

22) Trevor Siemian, Denver Broncos (LW: 24)

23) Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs (LW: 21)

24) Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles (LW: 22)

25) Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens (LW: 25)

26) Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers (LW: 27)

27) Ryan Fitzpatrick, New York Jets (LW: 28)

28) Jared Goff, Los Angeles Rams (LW: 32)

29) Blake Bortles, Jacksonville Jaguars (LW: 30)

30) Josh McCown, Cleveland Browns (LW: NR)

31) Matt Barkley, Chicago Bears (LW: NR)

32) Brock Osweiler, Houston Texans (LW: 31)

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