QB Index: Tom Brady owns No. 1 in year-end rankings

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The insanity of this Tom Brady season gets taken for granted because of the insanity of his entire career. Oh, of course the 39-year-old all-time great authored one of his best campaigns, largely without Rob Gronkowski, after being suspended for one of the most ridiculous reasons in sports history. That's just what Tom Brady does.

No matter where your hot take resides in this MVP debate -- and I'll accept Matt Ryan and Ezekiel Elliott arguments -- the 2016 regular season stands as one of Brady's defining career achievements. He's recalibrating what is possible at the position, truly playing better in his late 30s than he did during his 20s.

Brady finishes at No. 1 in my year-end QB rankings for the first time in four years of this exercise, which includes charting and grading every start. He's never finished lower than fourth. While his greatest rival in the GOAT debate develops as a commercial actor, Brady has put his team in prime position to reach his seventh Super Bowl. While fans might be getting bored with this unprecedented sustained excellence, Brady surely is not.

This is the Quarterback Index. For one final time this season, we ranked every starter based on 2016 performance alone. For context, each QB's 2015 year-end ranking is in parentheses.

Best of the best

1) Tom Brady, New England Patriots (Final 2015 ranking: 3)

2) Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons (2015: 15)

3) Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers (2015: 9)

Ryan is Chris Wesseling's pick for MVP and it's hard to find fault with his case. Ryan's footwork and pocket movement are a sight to behold. Little plays -- like avoiding a sack to pick up 6 yards -- have helped keep Falcons drives on schedule all year. He mixes speeds like a pitcher and was the scariest quarterback to face on third-and-long.

Rodgers' defining move might be his frisbee-like release on tosses to the outside; he barely needs to throw it overhand to get juice on the ball. Consider it a good sign that Rodgers wasn't all flash the last few weeks. We saw more routine throws, quick decisions and fast processing of his reads. Now that he's running well again, he's playing better than any quarterback entering the playoffs. This marks the third time in four years Rodgers finished as a top-four QB in my rankings.

Top shelf

4) Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts (2015: N/A)

5) Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders (2015: 10)

6) Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints (2015: 7)

7) Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys (2015: N/A)

8) Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions (2015: 19)

9) Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks (2015: 4)

10) Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers (2015: 5)

There are reasons to be optimistic about Luck's 2017 season. The Colts' offensive line showed real progress down the stretch and the team should be able to upgrade its running game.

I supplied my thoughts on Carr's season last week, and his team's reaction to his injury speaks volumes.

This was Roethlisberger's first finish outside my top five in four years. The quarterbacks above him did a better job minimizing damage in their off weeks, while Big Ben had four games where he bottomed out.

The Lions weren't explosive in the second half of the season, yet Stafford has largely been the same guy every week. That's all Lions fans ever asked for; he hasn't been the problem in their slide.

Brees is still so good at moving around defenders in tight quarters, finding room in a phone booth. His best chance for Brady-like longevity is for Sean Payton to never leave his side.

After we got burned by RGIII's rookie season and Colin Kaepernick's breakout year, this rookie season from Dak Prescott almost feels too good to be true. One underrated part of his game, pointed out in Matt Harmon's excellent Next Gen Stats article: Prescott was one of the best deep-ball passers into tight windows. The Cowboys didn't need Prescott to throw in great volume, but he nearly always delivered when asked.

Part of the solution

11) Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers (2015: 8)

12) Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals (2015: 2)

13) Kirk Cousins, Washington Redskins (2015: 11)

I mentioned in The Debrief this week that Rivers has worn down in the second half of the season for three seasons running. The statistical falloff is dramatic. Combine Rivers' first half of the season and Palmer's second half of the season and you'd have a top-five quarterback. Any analyst claiming Palmer was the problem in Arizona this season didn't watch the games.

Cousins showed improved pocket toughness and deep-play ability all season. There is a risk that he's maxed out his potential, but a mid-level starting quarterback has plenty of value.

Middle of the pack

14) Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans (2015: 22)

15) Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2015: 20)

16) Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers (2015: 1)

17) Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals (2015: 6)

18) Tyrod Taylor, Buffalo Bills (2015: 16)

19) Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs (2015: 21)

20) Sam Bradford, Minnesota Vikings (2015: 23)

Wesseling doesn't like when I group Mariota and Winston together, but the similarities in their seasons can't be overlooked. They finished with nearly identical QBRs (64.9 and 64.8) and were similarly close in Football Outsiders' DYAR metric. Both had long stretches of beautiful top-10 play that previewed MVP chases in seasons to come. Mariota had more brilliant highs mixed with a few no-shows, including late in the season. Winston needs more help from his line and running game and can work on his deep accuracy, but both players are right on track in their development.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera admits that Newton needs to evolve his game after a rough season from the pocket. But is offensive coordinator Mike Shula the right man to oversee that evolution? Newton is still ranked this high because he completes 3-5 passes each game that few others even attempt. With his rushing value waning, though, the Panthers need to change gears. They were caught trying to run back the same offense as 2015, a recipe for stagnation.

Taylor should be starting for some team next season. EJ Manuel's Week 17 start indirectly showed how valuable Taylor was.

Dalton fell back to the middle of the pack this season, but he will always be partly the product of his surroundings. Give him a better line, a healthy A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert, and he will be fine. The offense didn't collapse and that was because of Dalton.

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said Sam Bradford has earned the right to be the team's Week 1 starter next season, which is a strong statement at this time of year. Minnesota's passing game quietly improved down the stretch during the most promising season of Bradford's career.

This makes three straight seasons with nearly the identical ranking for Smith, who has finally started to run the ball again late in the season. There were games when the surrounding pieces significantly outshined the quarterback -- like on Christmas against the Broncos, when Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and even Dontari Poe did most of the heavy lifting on the scoring front.

Tier mediocre

21) Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens (2015: 18)

22) Trevor Siemian, Denver Broncos (2015: N/A)

23) Eli Manning, New York Giants (2015: 12)

24) Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins (2015: 26)

25) Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles (2015: N/A)

The Eagles put a lot on Wentz's plate in Year 1, which should benefit him next season. He wound up fifth in pass attempts and the team's coaching staff almost went out of its way to test Wentz in difficult situations. Given a third-down late in games with a lead, Wentz was allowed to let it rip. He almost has too much confidence in his arm and didn't use his running ability enough, but this was a positive season. His rookie year was not so different in shape from Jameis Winston's campaign a season ago.

I receive a lot of feedback from Giants fans, always polite and well-reasoned, about Eli's low ranking. If anything, this might be overrating him. He finished No. 27 in ESPN's QBR ranking, while Pro Football Focus ranks him 35 out of 36 qualifiers. This was a steep fall in my pecking order, as Eli finished No. 12 in the year-end rankings the last two seasons. The tough throws downfield, which used to make up for Eli's inconsistency, were absent in 2016.

Another veteran heading in the wrong direction is Joe Flacco. Perhaps another year away from ACL surgery will help, although it's not promising that the Ravens decided to retain dink-and-dunk enthusiast Marty Mornhinweg as offensive coordinator.

Siemian proved that he can spin it when protected. Kyle Shanahan would be an ideal head coach in Denver, although Siemian will have to hold off Paxton Lynch in 2017.

Known unknowns

26) Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers (2015: 32)

27) Blake Bortles, Jacksonville Jaguars (2015: 13)

28) Ryan Fitzpatrick, New York Jets (2015: 14)

29) Matt Barkley, Chicago Bears (2015: N/A)

30) Robert Griffin III, Cleveland Browns (2015: N/A)

31) Brock Osweiler, Houston Texans (2015: 28)

32) Jared Goff, Los Angeles Rams (2015: N/A)

This tier includes a stew of young quarterbacks hoping to improve and veteran quarterbacks hoping to stay employed. It was somehow fitting that RGIII and Kaepernick, so recently among the game's brightest young stars, enjoyed their best moments on Christmas Eve while their respective teams jostled to avoid the worst record in football. They are similar players in many ways, with Kaepernick the superior version because he still mixes in the wow plays Griffin lacks. They are both likely headed for backup jobs next season. That's also true of Barkley. The USC favorite son had his moments, but he also threw 14 interceptions in only 216 attempts -- a rate that would make Ryan Fitzpatrick blush through his beard.

That (28) next to Osweiler's name is a reminder that he didn't play particularly well in Denver, either. His lack of touch and inability to keep deep passes inbounds haunt Bill O'Brien's dreams. The Texans might be better off just moving on from this mistake before any more damage can be done.

Goff deserves a fresh start with an NFL-caliber coaching staff, but the depths of his struggles should not be ignored. By some measures, Goff passed Ryan Leaf as the least efficient rookie quarterback ever with at least 200 dropbacks.

Goff's development will be one of the stories to track next season. Until then, thanks for tuning in.

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