They're the young guns of the NFL, potentially the next generation of great quarterbacks. And in an informal survey of some of the league's general managers and coaches, opinions varied on these quarterbacks, whom their respective franchises have pinned their futures to, and so far -- except for Detroit -- have reaped rewards. (Rookies Sam Bradford and Colt McCoy were not brought into the conversation because their bodies of work are more limited than the other five.)
The most positive reviews were for Ryan, Atlanta's No. 3 overall draft pick in 2008. Although he's not viewed as the best athlete or to have the biggest arm, he can make all the throws, he's unflappable, and he's got the leadership qualities that set him apart.
"He has the most college snaps at a major level of competition. He doesn't have the best physical talent of the group, but he has good physical tools for the position," said an NFC GM. "What's most attractive is his mental makeup. Not a lot of peaks and valleys. He stays level and gives you a good chance to win every week. It's great going to the stadium knowing that your quarterback will give you a good chance to win every week."
Added an AFC defensive coordinator: "Ryan is efficient, and I think (he) and Flacco, to a large degree, are the same guy. They're not asked to do much outside of their offense, and they do a good job running them. Ryan's leadership sets him apart."
Another general manager said Ryan has the edge over the other players at this point because of his "experience and history, so far."
Ryan's career record as a starter is 26-12, including a 17-1 mark at home that he will put on the line Thursday night when he faces Flacco's Baltimore Ravens. He's 0-1 in the postseason; Sanchez (2-1) and Flacco (3-2) have him in that regard. Stafford and Freeman haven't been to the playoffs.
None of the five quarterbacks have overwhelming statistics, mostly because they have been asked to be game managers more than game savers.
Flacco, "has taken the next step," says an AFC defensive coach said. "He looks like an NFL quarterback. I don't ever think he's going to be a gunslinger, but a lot of that is the system."
Like Ryan, Flacco has started from Day 1 since being drafted 18th overall in 2008. Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron admitted that his young quarterback is hardly a finished product.
"The first thing you have to teach him is to win," Cameron said. "Our philosophy is about letters (Ws and Ls), not numbers. He is developing while winning, and that happens a lot less than the other way around with young quarterbacks. He is just scratching the surface."
"Flacco has the physical traits, but he has to have things in place, i.e. running game, good defense," an NFC GM said. "He must take a step this year."
Not surprisingly, last year's first-round picks -- Stafford (first overall by the Lions) and Freeman (17th overall by the Bucs) -- were viewed as players who could eventually emerge as the cream of this young crop.
"Freeman has the most to offer from a pure talent standpoint and is showing he has the intangibles you look for as well," a general manager said. "(He) could be the best in a year or two."
Said a defensive coordinator of Stafford: "He seems to be the right guy. Of all those guys, he's got the biggest upside. He could be that bell cow at quarterback. You could put the game in his hands and he could make all the plays you need to make. I'm not sure any of the others could do that. The question with him is his health. When he plays, you can see how good he is."
Stafford has been plagued by shoulder injuries and on Sunday he suffered another separation of his throwing shoulder that likely will shelve him for the remainder of 2010.
No player drew more different opinions than Sanchez, who helped take the Jets to the AFC Championship Game as a rookie but has been inconsistent to date.
"I'm not sold on him," the AFC defensive coordinator said. "He's got the tools. I'm just not sure he's got the personality to be a leader on that team."
Sanchez was compared to Flacco in that he functions well in a system where the running game and other parts don't require him to be a playmaker.
"Same as Flacco but less arm talent," a GM said. "Ryan and Freeman have it all. Sanchez has a chance to be in their company."