On Wednesday, the 11th- and 10th-ranked quarterbacks (Matt Ryan, No. 77, and Cam Newton, No. 73) in "The Top 100 Players of 2015" were revealed on NFL Network. While we wait to see how the upper crust at the game's most important position shakes out, NFL Media analysts are taking their turns providing their top 10 quarterbacks heading into the 2015 season. NOTE: Click on tabs below to see each analyst's list.
When I sat down to consider my top 10 quarterbacks, I weighed a variety of factors, including age, health concerns and supporting cast (and how it was affected during the offseason), as well as career trends.
Needless to say, after the video above -- in which I present my top 10 -- went live, my innocently conceived take became a target for fastballs to the head and flying crabcakes. Whether it was a certain guy in Baltimore who didn't land on the list or a soon-to-be $100 million man who likes baseball a lot not being high enough in the batting order, there were plenty of complaints -- logical and illogical -- to process.
This was probably most representative of the Twitter feedback (and we'll answer this question below):
Without further ado, consider the following a vetted-out conversation (or explanation ... or retort ... or, hell I don't know) about the 10 best quarterbacks heading into 2015. As always, feel free to share your take ... it's a fun conversation to have. Hit us up @HarrisonNFL.
This was easy pickins' -- made easier still by the fact that Aaron Rodgers doesn't throw any easy picks. His accuracy, even more than his viable arm strength and mobility (and ability to play well when he doesn't have it; think of his performance against the Cowboys in last season's playoffs), cements his place atop this list. Oh, and he also won the 2014 MVP award. One of the most impressive facets of Rodgers' game is the way he corrected what used to be a weakness: taking sacks. Last season, Rodgers only ate it 28 times, after suffering 72 sacks in his previous 25 games. Sure, his offensive line might have been better, but he was also better, apparently having learned the wisdom of living to play another down after holding the ball too long got him injured in 2013. If we are going to dive into stats, look no further than his interception-to-touchdown ratio of 28:0 at home last season, including the playoff win over Dallas. To quote an Old Milwaukee beer commercial ... "it doesn't get any better than this."
Let's hope all that Deflategate crap doesn't inspire mass misevaluation of the kind of player Brady's been. Forget the four Super Bowl wins for a moment. Forget the fact he's led the Patriots to the playoffs in 12 of his 13 seasons as a starter. Forget the MVP awards. What sticks out most is his ability to lift the play of those around him. If you'd been able to convince someone two years ago that New England would win the Super Bowl with Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Brandon LaFell at wide receiver, that person might have also believed text messages containing the phrase "dorito dink" would one day become quite famous. Most impressive to these eyes is what Brady was able to do from Week 6 on last season when it counted -- in the fourth quarter. Starting with that week's 37-22 win over the Bills and stretching through Super Bowl XLIX, Brady threw 10 touchdowns, one interception and compiled an insane 127.0 passer rating during pro football's most important stanza. Oh, and after those balls were re-inflated in the AFC Championship Game, he went 12 for 14 with two scores. OK.
Roethlisberger has earned this spot. He's won two Super Bowls. He and Tony Romo are probably the best streetball players in the league when it comes to pocket mobility. He owns virtually every Steelers passing record. And, to top it all off, Roethlisberger was brilliant for most of 2014, facilitating the development of young receivers Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton while getting rising running back Le'Veon Bell even more involved in the passing game. Roethlisberger's performance in a shootout with Andrew Luck wasn't just great, it was Joe Montana in Tecmo Super Bowl great: 40 of 49 for 522 yards and six touchdowns.
Brees was easily the toughest quarterback to place on this list. Some -- swayed by the tidal wave of love for Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson and other, younger quarterbacks -- might say he's too high here. But even in a down 2014, Brees was -- and is -- every bit as good as those players, except he's already won the Super Bowl and been consistently great, while not yet experiencing a physical decline of the sort many speculate has begun to hamper Peyton Manning. What is amazing about Brees is that fans seem to think he stunk last year, simply because the Saints only won seven games. Truth is, Brees not only led the NFL in passing yards (4,952), but he posted a hearty passer rating of 97.0. Also consider the unreliability (to put it mildly) of his defense and receiving corps. The once-fantastic Marques Colston has been awfully inconsistent recently. Brandin Cooks has potential, but he has just one partial season of experience to his name. And as talented and popular as recently traded-away tight end Jimmy Graham is, if he was truly a consistent player, he would have never been dealt for a center and a draft pick.
As difficult as it was to place Brees and Andrew Luck, putting Tony Romo at the tail end of the top five feels right. Yes, I know scores of fans still feel he sucks. Never mind that none of his haters cite any data, except for his lack of a Super Bowl appearance -- which says more about the teams he's been on, and is only marginally indicative of quarterback play. Guarantee you that 90 percent of the people who love the NFL have no idea this guy had the league's best passer rating (113.2) in 2014. Or they erroneously attribute Romo's success to departed running back DeMarco Murray. This just in: Way back, long ago, in the days of Mordor (or just two years ago), when Murray had a reputation for getting hurt and the Dallas defense was possibly the worst in the history of the NFL, Romo threw 31 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions. He also did that in 2011 -- yet, people still refer to him as a turnover machine. Or they insist he stinks in the clutch, despite the fact he has more fourth-quarter game-winning drives in the regular season (16) than any QB since 2011. Hmmm.
Of all the responses generated by the above video, perhaps the most shocking were the comments I never received: Hardly anyone argued with Andrew Luck being sixth. Keeping Luck out of the top five was extremely difficult -- but while plenty criticized me for omitting Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco and Eli Manning, or for slotting Russell Wilson and Peyton Manning where they are, no one had a problem with Luck's ranking. Perhaps Colts fans realize being this high is quite an honor for a guy who's played just three years. Other fans, meanwhile, might have grown weary of the Luck-can-do-no-wrong narrative. Of all the QBs on this list, Luck has the potential to make the biggest jump in 2015. While he has been mostly phenomenal, a small concern lies in the way he finished last season. In five of his last seven starts stretching into the postseason, Luck failed to post a passer rating of 80 or better. He also hit 56 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and nine interceptions. Yes, Indy won a big playoff game against the Broncos, with Luck getting plenty of credit -- though anyone who watched that matchup knows the Colts' defense was mostly responsible. I think Luck's end-of-season performance was an aberration, but it's worth noting.
Debated whether to have Wilson or Peyton Manning here. But from the "going into 2015" vantage point, it's hard to put Wilson lower than seventh. He just keeps improving. His best quality is his intuitive ability to know when to stay in the pocket, when to chuck the ball into the stands and when to tuck tail and run. This is something fellow 2012 draftee Robert Griffin III -- along with more experienced quarterbacks -- still struggles with. The fact that Wilson led the NFL in rushing on third down last season is a testament to this trait. Here's another tidbit from the did-you-know department: Wilson is the only quarterback in NFL history to post a passer rating of 100 or better in each of his first two seasons. That said, despite what league observers say about his wide receivers, Wilson has the best supporting cast in pro football -- in the form of a defense that held opponents to 15 points per game in 2014. The Seahawks' D was the first in more than 40 years to allow the fewest points per game three years in a row.
Boy, it's difficult putting Peyton Manning eighth. Problem is, we have to trust that his body is going to hold up, and, well, that's the hold-up when it comes to placing him in the top five. Manning turned 39 this offseason, placing him squarely in the age range at which several of the NFL's past premier quarterbacks have hung 'em up, usually for health reasons, no less. Roger Staubach, who retired at 38, comes to mind. My colleague Kurt Warner, concerned about his long-term health in 2010, also decided to call it a career at 38. Manning's boss, John Elway, did the same in 1999, when he was a few months shy of the age Manning is now, claiming, "I can't do it physically anymore." Note that he specified physical limitations versus mental. That said, if Manning is healthy, and if the demise we saw over the last month and a half of the season was an aberration, then consider him woefully underrated.
Call it a crime putting Rivers ninth. He was the MVP of the NFL through the first six weeks of the season last year -- of course, they don't give out such awards (if they did, Darren McFadden might have one sitting around somewhere). Then everything fell apart for the Chargers. They played five guys at center -- five.Danny Woodhead went down. Ryan Mathews went down. Donald Brown went down. And Branden Oliver, a rookie out of Buffalo, became the GUY. As if that weren't enough, so many Chargers were playing hurt by the end of the year that Rivers was throwing passes (nine of them, to be exact) to a CFL reject with the season on the line in San Francisco. The greatness of Dontrelle Inman aside, Rivers called much of the offense at the line, like Manning in Denver, trying to singlehandedly push San Diego into the playoffs. His performance in the fourth quarter at Baltimore, with the Bolts fighting for a postseason berth, was sublime. My favorite stat: On third-and-a-mile (eight yards or more) last season, Rivers had a passer rating of over 110.
Competition was fierce at the 10-spot, coming down to Cam Newton, Matt Ryan, Eli Manning, Joe Flacco and Matthew Stafford. If we were talking overall careers, Manning would be the choice. Flacco presents an interesting argument, because he tends to light it up in nationally televised games. At the same time, there's no question he's been inconsistent since winning Super Bowl XLVII. Stafford's inaccuracy in key spots has driven Lions fans crazy. Newton's calling card has never included on-the-mark throws, but his overall game can be a nightmare for defenses. Ryan, meanwhile, has been the most consistent, and was ultimately the toughest to leave off.
So why Smith?
a) Free-agent signee Jeremy Maclin will provide Smith with arguably the best wideout he's ever had.
b) Trading for Ben Grubbs and drafting Mitch Morse in the second round should bolster the offensive line.
c) Running back Jamaal Charles and tight end Travis Kelce are still on the upswing in their respective careers, with Kelce having room to get scary good.
d) Smith has been underrated for far too long.
He's derisively labeled a game manager, but people seem to have forgotten what that word means. This just in: John Elway was more or less a game manager during the Broncos' Super Bowl runs of 1997 and '98. The same could be said of Phil Simms with the 1986 Giants. Sure, they were capable of making big plays downfield, but they no longer made the plays that turned wins into losses, instead leaning on the run game. Now, add in the fact that Smith is an incredibly effective runner when he chooses to take off (and he's much faster than most realize), and you have a solid quarterback. I just wish he would stretch those legs a bit more.