QB Index, Week 1: Dak Prescott demands your respect

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Dak Prescott is not the biggest story in Dallas entering this season, a strange phenomenon for a Cowboys quarterback to grow accustomed to.

Even as Prescott authored what was unquestionably the greatest statistical season by a rookie quarterback in NFL history, his injured backup stayed in the spotlight. When Prescott narrowly won Offensive Rookie of the Year over teammate Ezekiel Elliott, the universal response was surprise. Prescott is that rare star player overshadowed by his own offensive line. Try to find a superlative statement about Dak without a qualifier explaining the support around him. When I mention Prescott's limitless ceiling on sports talk radio, some variation of the same joke comes back: "Yeah, but I think you or I could complete a few passes behind that line."

This season, Prescott can end that disrespectful nonsense for good. The Cowboys will ask him to do more, and he's shown every indication he can handle the extra responsibility. Even a modest second-year leap in his development could elevate him to the ranks of the game's great players, a development no one, least of all the Cowboys, saw coming at this time last year. (Jerry Jones famously regretted not trading up for Paxton Lynch and also tried to nab Connor Cook.) Prescott is the young quarterback most likely to crack into the Brady-Rodgers hegemony at the position, yet he's seemingly hiding in plain sight, without top billing even in his own town. He can change that starting Sunday night against the rival Giants.

This is the Quarterback Index. Every week, I'll rank each signal caller's play on this season alone. Since there are no games to evaluate yet, this week's rankings are based on one, simple question: Who would you want as your QB for the 2017 season?

THE GREATEST

1) Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers

2) Tom Brady, New England Patriots

These are your two options for the 2010s All-Decade Team, both coming off perhaps their most brilliant stretches of their respective careers late last season. Everything points to them staying on top again.

Rodgers has stuck around long enough in Green Bay to see multiple cycles of general manager Ted Thompson's offensive team-building. There were the early attacks constructed around pass catchers Greg Jennings, Donald Driver and Jermichael Finley. Next came Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Eddie Lacy, although they were rarely all healthy at the same time. Now Rodgers is protected by an excellent offensive line, with wideout Davante Adams having emerged and tight end Martellus Bennett added to the mix. This cycle could be tough to keep together for long, but this offense is well set up to peak now.

Brady similarly has more talent around him than in any season since 2007, even after Julian Edelman's season-ending injury. New England's deep backfield and multiple-TE sets will provide an endless stream of formation and matchup advantages. It feels wrong to rank Brady anything less than No. 1 after his latest title, but Rodgers' age (33) and unsurpassed ability to make any throw gives him a slight edge for this forward-looking exercise.

TOP SHELF

3) Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers

4) Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks

5) Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints

6) Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys

7) Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons

8) Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders

9) Philip Rivers, Los Angeles Chargers

10) Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers

Roethlisberger is running out of time to enjoy that dream season where his body, teammates and skill set come together for an MVP run. The 35-year-old ranks third here in large part because he's still excellent, even in a relative down season like 2016.

Wilson, looking fitter than ever, is currently the last starting quarterback left standing from the famed Class of 2012. (Andrew Luck and Ryan Tannehill will be back. Robert Griffin III might not.) Wilson is a strong candidate to play better than his numbers show because of the offensive uncertainty around him.

Look for Brees to happily give up the league lead in passing attempts because the Saints' running game and defense take pressure off him. On the flip side, Prescott's arm is poised for more of a workout.

I've written this column four straight seasons, grading each quarterback's play weekly to determine a year-end ranking. Matt Ryan's year-end rankings: 11, 9, 15, 2. A regression to the mean this season is inevitable, it's a matter of how much he regresses. Like Ryan, Carr enjoys enviable continuity with the offensive personnel around him, despite working with a different coordinator.

Rivers has been let down by his team for so long that he might not know what to do with the surplus of riches around him this year.

Newton is the toughest player on this list to rank because of his streakiness within games and seasons. He would be higher if not for his shoulder surgery and the lack of practice time it allowed him this offseason while the Panthers attempted to change their offensive identity.

NEXT LEVEL

11) Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

12) Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans

13) Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions

14) Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals

15) Kirk Cousins, Washington Redskins

16) Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals

America was able to witness up close what makes Jameis Winston so special throughout this season of "Hard Knocks." His play mirrors his personality, with a contagious love for the sport jumping off the screen. Still just 23, he can be a difference-maker while making his share of mistakes. (Philip Rivers, Eli Manning and Brett Favre silently nod.) Marcus Mariota's leadership could hardly be more different, with his understated style, yet he inspires similar belief from his teammates. It could take this dramatically re-formed Titans offense some time to get rolling, but Mariota finally has a full complement of weapons.

Stafford timed the best season of his career well, before cashing in again. Now he has to prove the progress is here to stay. His year-end QB Index ranks, starting in 2013: 13, 17, 19, 8.

Dalton and Cousins know how to execute a game plan. They are settling into roles as reliable veterans, with a tendency to rise and fall based on their teammates rather than raising others' level of play.

Palmer quietly played excellent football down the stretch last season. It's telling that Bruce Arians, who has coached Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger, wrote in his book, "The Quarterback Whisperer," that Palmer has the best pure arm talent of any quarterback he's tutored.

MIDDLE OF THE PACK

17) Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs

18) Sam Bradford, Minnesota Vikings

19) Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles

20) Trevor Siemian, Denver Broncos

21) Eli Manning, New York Giants

22) Jay Cutler, Miami Dolphins

23) Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens

24) Tyrod Taylor, Buffalo Bills

This tier shows the depth at the position. Bradford is coming off an underrated season in which he showed improved toughness and vertical ability, yet it's tough for him to crack the top 20. Siemian has shown first-round potential despite his seventh-round pedigree. Perhaps what Chiefs rookie Patrick Mahomes has is contagious, because Smith suddenly threw the ball more aggressively down the field in practice and in the preseason. Wentz is either incredibly overrated or the next big star at the position, depending on who you talk to. It's always worrisome, though, when a quarterback's biggest weakness is accuracy.

Manning showed significant signs of decline last season and isn't well-suited to an offensive line that can't pass protect.

Cutler has the tools around him to write an incredible comeback tale, but ranking him any higher feels like wishful thinking.

Lost in Flacco's back concerns: his mediocre play over the last few seasons, with the Ravens struggling to settle on any offensive direction for long.

Taylor's play over the last two seasons in Buffalo is worthy of a higher rank, but the negative drumbeat about his fit with this Bills staff is hard to ignore.

TIER QUESTION MARKS

25) Brian Hoyer, San Francisco 49ers

26) DeShone Kizer, Cleveland Browns

27) Jared Goff, Los Angeles Rams

28) Mike Glennon, Chicago Bears

29) Tom Savage, Houston Texans

30) Josh McCown, New York Jets

31) Blake Bortles, Jacksonville Jaguars

32) Scott Tolzien, Indianapolis Colts

If Russell Wilson is likely to look better than his numbers show, Hoyer could be the opposite after re-teaming with Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco. Goff's offseason was encouraging, but he's still getting used to a new offense with an entirely new group of starting receivers around him.

Glennon and Savage are in very similar situations. Glennon has shown enough talent to start in the past, ranking as my No. 22 overall quarterback in his rookie season of 2013, but he's not set up for success with a promising rookie quarterback (Mitchell Trubisky) behind him and a wide receiver group led by Kendall Wright. Savage is an even bigger mystery, fighting uphill with a thin receiver group and shaky offensive line.

Kizer showed more next-level quarterback traits and pocket instincts in his first preseason than some veterans, like Bortles, show in their whole career.

McCown, now 38, invites injury and respect by playing with a total disregard for his own body.

Tolzien is just keeping Andrew Luck's spot warm, but it's worth wondering if the Colts will be out of the playoff hunt by the time Luck returns.

Check the Air Index each week to see which quarterbacks are delivering at the top of their game, just like FedEx Ground delivers with fast and affordable shipping.

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