NFL execs weigh in: Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck rule QB roost

NFL Media's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics in his robust Inside the NFL Notebook, including (click on each link to go directly to the topic):

» The real root of RGIII's downfall.
» Two intriguing college prospects to scout on Saturday.
» Why Peyton Manning's stock is rapidly declining.
And much more, beginning with a fascinating exercise on the NFL's most critical position. ...

Tom Clements can't come up with one play to define Aaron Rodgers, but he can think of two.

Both came during the fourth quarter of the Green Bay Packers' 31-25 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV. The first one didn't necessarily look, to the naked eye, like a great quarterback play. Its brilliance was in the abstract.

"We were at midfield, and we had a pass called, and Pittsburgh brought a secondary blitz," Clements explained. "We'd studied it, and he made the adjustment quickly, hit Jordy (Nelson) on a crossing route, Jordy has room and gets inside the 5, and we score."

That converted a third-and-10, picked up 38 yards, helped push the Packer lead to 28-17, and stemmed the tide of a furious Steeler rally.

The other play, which came on the Packers' next drive and on another third-and-10, is the one everyone remembers: The bullet Rodgers shot past the fingertips of Ike Taylor and into the waiting arms of Greg Jennings to convert another 31 yards and set up a field goal to create the last piece of separation Green Bay needed.

"Probably the best throw I've ever seen a quarterback make," Clements said. "And we needed it."

On the first throw, Rodgers gamed the Steelers with his mental capacity. On the second, he shredded them with his physical ability.

And he's even better now than he was then.

Which is why, when you ask those who know -- those who are paid to know -- there's an overwhelming consensus on who is the best player at the game's most important position.

* * * **

At the end of August, I posed this question to a large number of NFL decision makers:

Who will be the top five quarterbacks in football at the end of this season?

The purpose was to get a gauge on where the position is going this fall. I asked that they not base their answers on past history, or where the players will be in 2018 or '19. I set the number at five, because I think the word "elite" gets thrown around too liberally, and I wanted to reward those who truly are. And I limited the panel to general managers, vice presidents, directors of player personnel and pro scouting directors -- in other words, guys who need to know the players in question to do their jobs properly.

Rodgers was the runaway winner. The Packers quarterback was first on 18 of 28 ballots, ranked top-three on all but three of them and was the only player to appear on everyone's list. Fourteen players received votes. Here's the rundown:

1)Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers: 122 points (18 first-place votes)
2)Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts: 93 points (7 first-place votes)
3)Tom Brady, New England Patriots: 78 points (2 first-place votes)
4)Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers: 42 points (1 first-place vote)
5)Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys: 18 points
6)Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos: 16 points
7)Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints: 13 points
8)Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers: 10 points
T-9)Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons: 8 points
T-9)Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks: 8 points
11)Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions: 5 points
12)Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens: 4 points
13)Teddy Bridgewater, Minnesota Vikings: 2 points
14)Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals: 1 point

After tallying up the results, I circled back to get reasoning on the four quarterbacks who received first-place votes from rival execs who ranked them No. 1.

NFC exec on Rodgers: "The thing about him that I see is he's extremely accurate -- and I mean, extremely accurate -- and he's mobile, can make every throw and he's extremely smart. He takes time, surveys the defense before the snap, he knows where he's going and he makes very fast decisions accurately. ... Also, he's got very good competitiveness. ... He's by himself. He's so smart, so accurate, so competitive, such a fast decision maker, and I know it's generic to say a lot of this, but he really is a 10 out of 10 in a lot of categories."

AFC exec on Luck: "He's the prototypical NFL pocket-passing quarterback who adds the physical skill you ideally want with the mental ability and intelligence it takes to play at a high level. He has the ability to make every throw, and he can extend plays with his feet. And his personality, too -- he's selfless and that's required to be a good leader. And when you observe him in football situations, he looks like a competitor, he appears to be a guy that loves the game. ... He elevates the personnel around him, makes them better, from the line on down. ... You see this with Brady, too -- he throws it 30 times, six or seven dudes are gonna get the ball."

NFC exec on Brady: "I think he's coming back with a chip on his shoulder, like he did after they lost a couple games early last year. He's such a competitor -- no one like him -- and he's got the proven track record. And I think what I'd based it on is, of all these guys, I sure don't want to be playing against him. ... (He's older, but) he never had a rocket arm anyway. His anticipation, his accuracy has never dropped off, even when there's not a lot of talent around him. ... Going by what I've seen the last 15, 16 years, I don't think he'll lose that all at once."

AFC exec on Roethlisberger: "(Martavis) Bryant is down -- that's a loss. And not having (Le'Veon) Bell hurts. But when they're back, they're gonna be extremely hard to defend. ... They're gonna throw the hell out of the ball. The only issue is him getting hurt -- he takes a pounding. I just think he's poised for a big year, that he's part of a modern-day 'Triplets' with (Antonio) Brown and Bell, and now with Bryant when he comes back. ... The other thing, too, and this becomes a factor with quarterbacks, their defense isn't very good. They'll give up points, and because of that, they're gonna throw it even more."

* * * **

At the end of this process, one of the shot-callers who voted called me back. He'd voted for Luck, but was hedging after watching an off-balance throw Rodgers made to Nelson in the preseason.

He ended up sticking with Luck. But it wasn't easy to go against the other No. 12, in large part because there's almost nothing the Packers quarterback doesn't do well. Just ask his play caller.

"He can do everything," Clements said. "He has great arm talent, great accuracy, and the thing that gives him an advantage is his movement in the pocket, his ability to extend plays. And beyond that, he's so intelligent. He understands the system, has great recall, always makes the quick decision to get us into what's appropriate. ... He's the complete package."

The last game Clements coached in before that started to become apparent to everyone was the 2008 Pro Bowl. The current assistant head coach in Green Bay said it stuck out to the Packers staff there that, as they went through practices, their backup back home had all the ability the quarterbacks invited to Hawaii did.

In the time since, he's proven to have all anyone would ever want at the position.

Four downs

1) Where the wheels came off the bus for RGIII. Many folks look at Robert Griffin III's ACL tear in January of 2013 as the turning point for his career with the Washington Redskins. Those who were there actually believe the wheels started spinning off three weeks earlier. Subbing for an injured Griffin, Kirk Cousins threw for 329 yards and two touchdowns against Cleveland in December 2012, with Mike and Kyle Shanahan rearranging the offense from the Baylor-styled attack they'd built for RGIII into their more traditional scheme. Coaches there then remember Griffin's camp making noise after Cousins' breakout performance that RGIII wanted to be deployed more like Cousins was -- and less as a read-option quarterback. The staff explained to Griffin and Co. that he wasn't near the point he needed to be to play the position that way. Word got back to owner Daniel Snyder. Shanahan explained to Snyder that making Griffin a pro-style passer would be a four-to-five-year process. And after all that, Griffin blew out his knee, had a rough 2013 season to follow, and Shanahan was fired. Snyder stuck by his young quarterback after that, but over time, got the same assessment Shanahan initially gave him from others, like Jay Gruden and Scot McCloughan, and it became harder and harder to fight the idea that Griffin was just an incredibly raw prospect. Exacerbating the problem: The fact that, despite RGIII's stated desire to become a better pocket passer (Gruden's harped several times to me how much Griffin needs "reps"), the progress just hasn't come. In fact, to some degree, Griffin actually has regressed as a pocket quarterback. The Redskins are trying to figure out what happened now. Colt McCoy will be the No. 2 quarterback this week. The plan, from there, is to let Griffin try and earn his way back up the depth chart.

2) Ravens' edge. Baltimore's been a popular pick to get back to the Super Bowl, and the best reason why that's a valid thought is right around the ball, on both lines of scrimmage. Internally, Baltimore is ecstatic about its offensive line, which returns intact from the year prior for the first time -- and this is hard to believe, for such a stable organization -- in franchise history. And though they have a new coordinator, players have noted there's plenty of carryover going from one zone-run scheme (under Gary Kubiak in 2014) to another (under Marc Trestman this year). Baltimore won't benefit from the same continuity on the defensive line, not with foundation piece Haloti Ngata out the door. But the expectation is that both Brandon Williams and Timmy Jernigan will take another step forward, and the brass was impressed with the work of rookie Carl Davis over the summer, leading to cautious optimism the Ravens could be better there than they were last year. So with all of that in place, the good-or-great pendulum in Baltimore is likely to swing on the offensive skill positions. In that regard, keep an eye on rookie tight end Maxx Williams.

3) O'Brien's quarterback savvy. I thought this line from new Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (to ESPN's Rich Cimini) was fascinating, given what we've all seen from Texans coach Bill O'Brien on HBO's "Hard Knocks": "I probably learned more about football last year than I had the rest of my career in a single season in terms of being able to see the game from a different angle." The 32-year-old explained that, in 2014, he learned to play within himself better, rather than trying to win the game by himself. And while hearing that is certainly good news for the Jets, it might be better news for the Texans as they move forward with O'Brien and offensive coordinator George Godsey. What people in the building see from those two is an ability to view the game through the quarterback's eyes, prepare a passer for every circumstance and guide improvement in understanding situational football better. Indeed, Fitzpatrick posted the best quarterback rating (95.3) and TD-to-INT ratio (17:8) of his career in his single season in Houston. And just the same, there's a reason why Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett -- quarterbacks who've played for O'Brien before -- chose to sign deals with the Texans in March. So, no, the Texans might not have the answer at quarterback yet, but every indication so far is they have a good understanding of what they're looking for and, thus, a roadmap to get there.

4) The Brady impact. I said this during our coverage of the Tom Brady verdict: The fact that this went as far as it did does a service to other players. Again, if Brady had initially won his appeal, that would have been about his innocence -- and his case would've been singular. Since it went to federal court, it became about the process, and that's where it became about all players. And that's a big reason why, as I see it, that when I asked players at camps where they all stood on this, 100 percent of them supported Brady -- even those who were convinced he was guilty. They knew it'd be good for all of them. "We always start with protecting and enforcing the CBA," Bengals tackle and NFLPA president Eric Winston said, via text. "The Berman decision is a win for all players because it does those stated things and makes it harder for the NFL to violate the CBA next time." Seahawks star corner Richard Sherman added, again via text, "It's substantial enough (of a win) to get the owners openly talking about changing the discipline system." Roger Goodell, too. The commissioner went on record on ESPN radio floating an idea that a number of owners have bandied about in the past: establishing a discipline officer or panel, with a designee to hear appeals. Expect that one to gain steam in the coming months. When asked about the impact of the Brady win, the NFL declined comment.

Three checkdowns

1)Sam Bradford looked fantastic in the Philadelphia Eagles' third preseason game -- showing the kind of natural passing ability that made him the first pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. But it'll take a few more hits before we know where he truly stands coming off consecutive ACL surgeries. One of the main problems the Rams had with him at the end was his eye level -- after all his injuries in St. Louis, he had a tendency to stare down the rush. It's worth monitoring whether the problem resurfaces early in the season.

2) Expectations are high for the Lions' young players, and internally, the brass is attributing lessons learned from the 2011 draft. Detroit had always been willing to take risks, but that April, the Lions pushed it to the limit, drafting Nick Fairley, Titus Young and Mikel Leshoure with their first three picks. All three of those guys are gone, and their class' legacy is the franchise's new emphasis on intelligence and health in its picks, something Detroit believes will pay off now.

3)Eli Manningjust became the ninth member of the $20 million club, and chances are, he'll have to earn his money in 2015. The Giants' offensive line issues and defensive deficiencies (especially with Jason Pierre-Paul out) could put added pressure on Manning and the passing game to carry a lot of Sundays. In the past, putting that kind of burden on the quarterback has been tough for the Giants.

Two college players to watch Saturday

1) Michigan State QB Connor Cook (vs. Oregon, 8 p.m. ET, ABC): Most clubs see next year's quarterback class as bursting with potential, with four guys out front now: Penn State's Christian Hackenberg, Ohio State's Cardale Jones, Cal's Jared Goff and Cook. On Saturday, the Spartans' fifth-year senior gets his first big test and big stage of the season, with MSU hosting Oregon. Last year, Cook showed some of his warts in Eugene, throwing two picks as State was held to three points in the second half after taking a 24-18 lead into the break. "He has excellent height, weight, he's athletic with good arm strength," one AFC college scouting director said. "But he struggles to read defenses and his football instincts are average. He has NFL starting ability, but he's not a franchise-type quarterback. And it's concerning he wasn't named a captain. Why? The team votes ..." Another AFC personnel exec was more positive, saying, "He has size and a great arm, a good brain, and plays in a pro-style offense." Add it up, and you see some of the disagreement that will likely continue on the top QB prospects through the fall. Which is why weeks like this one are important for guys like Cook.

2) Mississippi State CB Will Redmond (vs. LSU, 9:15 p.m. ET, ESPN): Redmond's case is a weird one -- he sat out his first college season and part of his second for accepting impermissible benefits, and has been part of a rotation since. But NFL evaluators see a world of talent in the senior as he settles into a much more prominent role. "He's a good athlete with length, speed and ball skills," a second AFC college scouting director said. "Good man-cover ability, too." And because he's unproven to this point, there's a wide range of where things could go for Redmond -- it's possible he sneaks into the bottom half of the first round, or slips deep into Day 3. "He's very athletic and highly competitive -- that stands out on tape," said an AFC area scout assigned to Mississippi State. "Because they've run a heavy rotation in the past, he hasn't been a full-time starter, he hasn't played a lot of football in general. ... He's tough and can cover man-to-man -- now we have to see if he can put it all together. Is he a guy that just has talent and traits, or is he that and just inexperienced with a lot of room to grow?" LSU always brings athletes, so this will be one of the first tapes the scouts pull on Redmond. Snaps where Tigers junior Travin Dural matches up with Redmond will be of particular interest to evaluators.

Extra point

One byproduct of the project I embarked on at the top of this notebook was seeing how Peyton Manning's stock has fallen in the eyes of NFL evaluators -- to the point where 19 of the 28 power brokers on my panel left Manning out of the top five completely, and only two voters placed him higher than fourth.

And it's not just the way last season ended, but how the preseason went this summer.

One rival AFC pro director who studied him the last few weeks said he looked "limited" and saw his arm strength as "significantly diminished." And he added, "They don't do as much from the shotgun (under Gary Kubiak) as they did in the past, and he lacks the mobility to take the majority of his snaps from underneath the center. They also do too much boot and move the pocket too much for (him)."

I had an NFC exec go back and look at all of Manning's snaps from August. Afterward, he said Manning looked "immobile" and "flinches under pocket pressure." That exec cited "a bad underthrow and off-target interception" and "inaccuracy on intermediate and deep passes." Another exec, this one from an AFC team, countered that by saying that "you're aware the zip and velocity isn't there, but he's a very, very cerebral quarterback. ... He plays within his limitations, he has a quick release and he has weapons."

In June, Kubiak explained to me, on the offense's fit, "I keep going back to being with (Joe) Flacco last year. Joe's very athletic, and I think we booted 26 or 27 times in 16 games. We're not out there booting all the time, but if people don't hold on the run, we're gonna boot, and Peyton has done it at practice. He actually gets mad at me when I give the boot reps to a younger quarterback, he looks at it like, 'Hey, what about me?' I think he's been very challenged. He's had to learn some new stuff, and that's good for everybody."

Between the scheme change, the breaks that Kubiak has afforded vets (read: less reps) and the run-game emphasis day-to-day over the last six months, it's been an offseason of transition for one of the sport's all-time greats. And in the midst of it all, he took a $4 million pay cut -- a pay cut that was negotiated, sources say, after Denver asked him to swallow a substantially bigger one, which didn't exactly make the situation any more comfortable.

The last time a team Manning quarterbacked failed to get to double-digit wins was in 2001, and 10 of the last 11 groups he piloted got to at least 12 victories. That's a high standard to uphold. Fair to say he'll need some help getting back there this time around -- something the Broncos actions over the last six months affirm on several fronts -- and Kubiak's pulling every lever he can to give it to him.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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