QB Index, Week 1: Aaron Rodgers poised for MVP run

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This is the sixth straight year I've written the QB Index. The initial idea was to track the vaunted quarterback class of 2012, which was headlined at the time by Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill, Brandon Weeden, Nick Foles and Russell Wilson. That group has experienced every up and down imaginable over the last six years, from Super Bowls to benchings, from getting cut to suffering career-changing injuries. Luck, Griffin and Tannehill all are embarking on comebacks of various levels of visibility and difficulty this season, while Foles is trying to write a sequel to perhaps the most unlikely playoff run by a quarterback in NFL history.

A lot can change in six years, including the format of a column that I don't want to get stale. There will be a complete ranking of every starting quarterback every four weeks, including the one below. Change will be the only constant.

If I've learned anything in half a decade of performing this exercise, it's that a quarterback's career is never a straight line. Consistently erratic quarterbacks like Matthew Stafford can turn simply consistent. Can't-miss players like Luck can be suddenly forced to confront their sporting mortality. Matt Ryan can win an MVP and Kirk Cousins can change the league's salary structure.

Cousins was the forgotten member of the 2012 class, a fourth-round pick whose very spot on Washington's roster was a source of controversy. Why would coach Mike Shanahan and his son (and offensive coordinator) Kyle waste a pick on another young quarterback when No. 2 overall selection RGIII was the team's present and future?

Cousins wound up starting one December game that year, and his impressive debut was a sign of things to come. RGIII would go on to win the Offensive Rookie of the Year award and also tear his ACL, which was the moment that their two careers began to head in opposite directions.

This season will inevitably include similar sharp turns in quarterback career arcs. I'll track them here, starting with my preseason ranks, which try to answer the question: Which quarterback would I want running my (sadly imaginary) team for the 2018 season?

1
Aaron Rodgers
QB
Packers

I wrote a column about why Rodgers is set up for another MVP season. The logline: He's more talented than anyone else, and he's due.

2017 stats: 7 games | 64.7 pct | 1,675 pass yds | 7.0 ypa | 16 pass TD | 6 INT | 126 rush yds

2
Tom Brady
QB
Patriots

It's almost as if Bill Belichick is trying to increase the degree of difficulty for Brady, just to keep him engaged. Brady will be playing with a new left tackle (Trent Brown) and a wide receiver crew that will rely heavily on former first-round picks that other teams didn't want to keep: Phillip Dorsett and Cordarrelle Patterson. None of this makes sense with Brady being 41 years old, but ranking him any lower after the best two-year stretch of his career would be disrespectful.

2017 stats: 16 games | 66.3 pct | 4,577 pass yds | 7.9 ypa | 32 pass TD | 8 INT

3
Drew Brees
QB
Saints

Saints watchers have been monitoring for signs of slippage from Brees for years, taking every vertical pass that comes up a little short as some ominous sign. And then Brees lights up another defense. It's hard to fret too much when Brees is coming off a heroic playoff run and is protected by perhaps the best Saints offensive line of his tenure.

2017 stats: 16 games | 72.0 pct | 4,334 pass yds | 8.1 ypa | 23 pass TD | 8 INT | 2 rush TD

4
Russell Wilson
QB
Seahawks

It would be nice if the focus surrounding Wilson wasn't always about the quality of the Seahawks' offensive line. Here's to hoping we get a better view this season of what Wilson can do with competent protection.

2017 stats: 16 games | 61.3 pct | 3,983 pass yds | 7.2 ypa | 34 pass TD | 11 INT | 586 rush yds | 3 rush TD

5
Matthew Stafford
QB
Lions

Detroit's offensive line and running game look a whole lot better on paper. The receiver crew is deep, and there is tremendous continuity with coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, who's been in place since the middle of the 2015 season. The trendy "Matt Stafford could be an MVP candidate" talk sounds like a first cousin to the dearly departed "Jay Cutler could be an MVP" narrative, but this season sure does shape up well.

2017 stats: 16 games | 65.7 pct | 4,446 pass yds | 7.9 ypa | 29 pass TD | 10 INT

6
Ben Roethlisberger
QB
Steelers

To the extent that Big Ben's lesser (for him) first half in 2017 should factor into his ranking, it looks like it will go down as a slight off period -- like Tom Brady's 2013 season or Drew Brees' 2014 season -- from an aging quarterback who is otherwise redefining how long a prime lasts.

2017 stats: 15 games | 64.2 pct | 4,251 pass yds | 7.6 ypa | 28 pass TD | 14 INT

7
Philip Rivers
QB
Chargers

When I talk up Rivers at this point, it's as if people simply don't believe me. The Chargers have hurt too many writers with failed predictions. Rivers has been praised too often by folks like me without providing playoff success to convince the masses. It's too bad. Rivers is a Hall of Fame quarterback who has too often been let down by his organization.

2017 stats: 16 games | 62.6 pct | 4,515 pass yds | 7.9 ypa | 28 pass TD | 10 INT

8
Matt Ryan
QB
Falcons

After a season where he was remarkably unlucky, Ryan was remarkably erratic on opening night. The deju vu ending is a tough way to start the season, but it will take more than one inaccurate game against a difficult pass rush for real concern to set in.

2017 stats: 16 games | 64.7 pct | 4,095 pass yds | 7.7 ypa | 20 pass TD | 12 INT | 143 rush yds

9
Andrew Luck
QB
Colts

This ranking figures to be far too high or way too low. Either I'm overly optimistic that he can return to his pre-injury self, or I'm not giving enough credit to someone who is going to be a top-five player when healthy. No one knows how any of these quarterbacks will play this year, but everyone admits they don't know how Andrew Luck will play.

2016 stats (missed all of 2017): 15 games | 63.5 pct | 4,240 pass yds | 7.8 ypa | 31 pass TD | 13 INT | 341 rush yds | 2 rush TD

10
Cam Newton
QB
Panthers

I'm bored of writing that Newton is the streakiest passer in football from quarter to quarter, game to game and season to season. His incomparable rushing value helps make him an asset even when he's not shooting quite straight -- and man is it sweet when all the parts of his game come together.

2017 stats: 16 games | 59.1 pct | 3,302 pass yds | 6.7 ypa | 22 pass TD | 16 INT | 754 rush yds | 6 rush TD

11
Jimmy Garoppolo
QB
49ers

If Jimmy G broke hearts all over NorCal by choosing to retire and pursue his passion with a career in botany rather than continuing to play football, he would leave the game as its first perfect player. It's almost a shame Garoppolo has to play at all again, given that it opens the door for him to blemish his unblemished record and make an occasional mistake. Jimmy G can make mistakes, right?

2017 stats: 6 games | 67.4 pct | 1,560 pass yds | 8.8 ypa | 7 pass TD | 5 INT | 1 rush TD

12
Dak Prescott
QB
Cowboys

This portion of Prescott's career could position him as Troy Aikman Lite. The passing numbers might not quite match Prescott's value to the team, but weekly watchers of his play will know.

2017 stats: 16 games | 62.9 pct | 3,324 pass yds | 6.8 ypa | 22 pass TD | 13 INT | 357 rush yds | 6 rush TD

13
Kirk Cousins
QB
Vikings

If nothing else, Cousins is well-practiced at playing behind a banged-up offensive line after last season with the Redskins. It was Cousins' performance a year ago amidst difficult circumstances in Washington that helped elevate him to the tier of quarterbacks who make others around him better.

2017 stats (with Washington): 16 games | 64.3 pct | 4,093 pass yds | 7.6 ypa | 27 pass TD | 13 INT | 179 rush yds | 4 rush TD

14
Deshaun Watson
QB
Texans

This week's exercise is to pick which quarterbacks I'd want for 2018 and 2018 alone. This is hopefully the only season of Watson's career in which he'll be coming off a torn ACL. It's definitely the only season of his career he'll begin with six pro starts under his belt. The uncertainty is enough to rank Watson lower than safer options, with the expectation that he won't be ranked this low again.

2017 stats: 7 games | 61.8 pct | 1,699 pass yds | 8.3 ypa | 19 pass TD | 8 INT | 269 rush yds | 2 rush TD

15
Alex Smith
QB
Redskins

It's almost cruel that Smith hasn't won more than two playoff games by this point, but he's collected hard-earned respect in both San Francisco and Kansas City. The same figures to be true as he begins his tenure in Washington, where the personnel and coaching staff should put Smith in position to win yet again.

2017 stats (with Kansas City): 15 games | 67.5 pct | 4,042 pass yds | 8.0 ypa | 26 pass TD | 5 INT | 355 rush yds | 1 rush TD

16
Derek Carr
QB
Raiders

I admittedly still don't exactly know what to make of Carr. The skill set is obvious. The numbers are all over the map, depending on the season, and the eye test often shows a quarterback who has gone through too many scheme changes. Jon Gruden's hiring is Carr's chance for stability, although stable wouldn't exactly describe the state of the roster since Gruden arrived.

2017 stats: 15 games | 62.7 pct | 3,496 pass yds | 6.8 ypa | 22 pass TD | 13 INT

17
Marcus Mariota
QB
Titans

Mariota followed up a season in which he threw more interceptions than touchdowns with an offseason that included a dramatic change in mechanics and a preseason where he wasn't accurate (12 for 21 for 193 yards in Week 3). This ranking is probably unfair and hopefully an overreaction to a stretch that has Mariota believers uneasy.

2017 stats: 15 games | 62.0 pct | 3,232 pass yds | 7.1 ypa | 13 pass TD | 15 INT | 312 rush yds | 5 rush TD

18
Jared Goff
QB
Rams

So much of Goff's improvement from his rookie season to his second year was credited to coach Sean McVay, but it's worth remembering Goff is still only 23. McVay isn't going anywhere, and Goff looked like he was ready to take another step with his command of the Rams' offense this offseason.

2017 stats: 15 games | 62.1 pct | 3,804 pass yds | 8.0 ypa | 28 pass TD | 7 INT | 1 rush TD

19
Andy Dalton
QB
Bengals

Remember that intro I wrote about all the crazy ups and downs each quarterback goes through? That applies for everyone but Dalton, Chris Wesseling's official prime meridian of starting quarterbacks. Dalton played at a different level for half of the 2015 season, but it feels like that was a long time ago now.

2017 stats: 16 games | 59.9 pct | 3,320 pass yds | 6.7 ypa | 25 pass TD | 12 INT

20
Joe Flacco
QB
Ravens

I'm probably being swayed way too much by a preseason in which Flacco looked healthier than he has in years. When he's right, Flacco has proven he can make more plays on his own than guys below, like Ryan Tannehill.

2017 stats: 16 games | 64.1 pct | 3,141 pass yds | 5.7 ypa | 18 pass TD | 13 INT | 1 rush TD

21
Tyrod Taylor
QB
Browns

It's not that crazy to imagine Taylor being the next Alex Smith, Jon Kitna or Kurt Warner. Playing in front of a No. 1 overall draft pick doesn't always have to end a career. Sometimes, it can ignite it.

2017 stats (with Buffalo): 15 games | 62.6 pct | 2,799 pass yds | 6.7 ypa | 14 pass TD | 4 INT | 427 rush yds | 4 rush TD

22
Patrick Mahomes
QB
Chiefs

In terms of pure box-office draw, Mahomes could wind up rivaling Michael Vick, Andrew Luck and Aaron Rodgers back when they were first-time starters who needed to be seen on a weekly basis. I have no clue as to whether Mahomes can produce at a level close to what the trio above did in their initial swing around the league, but the "wow" factor here is outrageous.

2017 stats: 1 game | 62.9 pct | 284 pass yds | 8.1 ypa | 0 pass TD | 1 INT

23
Ryan Tannehill
QB
Dolphins

I used to love watching Tannehill play football. I probably loved it too much, in retrospect. This feels like the last year in Miami for Tannehill to convince the organization to love him -- and to remind his remaining believers why they enjoyed his presence so much in the first place.

2016 stats (missed all of 2017): 13 games | 67.1 pct | 2,995 pass yds | 7.7 ypa | 19 pass TD | 12 INT | 164 rush yds | 1 rush TD

24
Sam Bradford
QB
Cardinals

The best two seasons of his career came in 2015 and '16. His performance for the Vikings in their season opener last season against New Orleans (27 of 32 for 346 yards and three touchdowns) has become the stuff of legend on the Around The NFL Podcast. Not unlike a mid-career Carson Palmer, Bradford is plenty capable -- if he can stay on the field.

2017 stats (with Minnesota): 2 games | 74.4 pct | 382 pass yds | 8.9 ypa | 3 pass TD | 0 INT

25
Case Keenum
QB
Broncos

Amazon's first season of "All of Nothing" captured a difficult (if not downright painful) portion of Keenum's career during his time with Rams. He appeared to hold the ball too tight during his first chance as a starting quarterback, failing to find answers in what amounted to an impossible situation under Jeff Fisher. After a slow burn of a career as an unlikely underdog, it's worth wondering how Keenum will respond to the challenges of being a Week 1 starter, with the franchise-quarterback contract to match.

2017 stats (with Minnesota): 15 games | 67.6 pct | 3,547 pass yds | 7.4 ypa | 22 pass TD | 7 INT | 160 rush yds | 1 rush TD

26
Eli Manning
QB
Giants

Year 2 of Evan Engram + Year 3 of Sterling Shepard + the return of Odell Beckham + the addition of a real left tackle + an uber-hyped rookie running back - Ben McAdoo should equal plenty of support for Manning after two depressing seasons from the quarterback.

2017 stats: 15 games | 61.6 pct | 3,468 pass yds | 6.1 ypa | 19 pass TD | 13 INT | 1 rush TD

27
Sam Darnold
QB
Jets

Wins and losses won't define success for Darnold this season. Showing tangible growth and displaying precocious quarterback skills over 16 games like he did in the preseason will be more than enough for the Jets to believe they've found The One.

28
Nick Foles
QB
Eagles

Foles is capable of the highest highs the sport has to offer and cavernous lows, a combination that could provide vertigo if he were to start an entire 16-game season. His play during the preseason and sluggish outing against Atlanta aren't promising omens early.

2017 stats: 7 games | 56.4 pct | 537 pass yds | 5.3 ypa | 5 pass TD | 2 INT

29
Mitchell Trubisky
QB
Bears

Give the football cognoscenti some credit. The famously fickle group is higher on Trubisky now than when everyone was panning the Bears' selection of him at No. 2 overall in the 2017 NFL Draft. A newer, kinder world has emerged post- Jared Goff, in which everyone is open to providing a young quarterback ample time to grow before getting too judgmental.

2017 stats: 12 games | 59.4 pct | 2,193 pass yds | 6.6 ypa | 7 pass TD | 7 INT | 248 rush yds | 2 rush TD

30
Blake Bortles
QB
Jaguars

Starting three playoff games doesn't erase the 61 starts that came before. Bortles proved last year he could perform like a replacement-level starter in the aggregate, but even a plus year from Bortles will include a month's worth of games in which he barely gives his team a chance.

2017 stats: 16 games | 60.2 pct | 3,687 pass yds | 7.0 ypa | 21 pass TD | 13 INT | 322 rush yds | 2 rush TD

31
Nathan Peterman
QB
Bills

Peterman was nearly flawless in the preseason, but he'll be on a short leash, with first-round pick Josh Allen behind him. It's pretty rare for a fifth-round pick to start in Week 1 of his second season, much less one who had as rough a rookie introduction as Peterman.

2017 stats: 4 games | 49.0 pct | 252 pass yds | 5.1 ypa | 2 pass TD | 5 INT

32
Ryan Fitzpatrick
QB
Buccaneers

You could do worse than starting Fitzpatrick for three games. Of course, you couldn't do worse than to start him for 16 at this stage of his career. Luckily, the Bucs don't have to worry about that.

2017 stats: 6 games | 58.9 pct | 1,103 pass yds | 6.8 ypa | 7 pass TD | 3 INT

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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