16) Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs
Top 100 ranking: No. 81
In the final game before Smith lost his grip on his status as Kansas City's Franchise Quarterback, the throws Smith didn't attempt stood out. Smith played it safe, failing to pull the trigger on a perfectly designed shot play that had Tyreek Hill streaking open. Later in the team's Divisional Round playoff loss to the Steelers, Smith's eyes saw the pass rush instead of a receiver open deep. Smith executes the Chiefs offense especially well in early scripted plays, but perhaps coach Andy Reid grew tired of Smith's limitations.
15) Kirk Cousins, Washington Redskins
Top 100 ranking: No. 70
A season in which Cousins took significant strides ended with a hard thud.
For three months, Cousins did his best to prove he's not just a system quarterback. The numbers and game tape showed dramatic improvement in his vertical passing and ability to handle pass-rush pressure. That could be why Washington officials have showered Cousins with love this offseason.
Or perhaps Cousins' erratic end to the season, which included just one passing touchdown in Washington's final two losses, gives the organization just enough pause to prevent them from making him the highest-paid quarterback in football, with Cousins receiving the franchise tag for the second straight season.
14) Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans
Top 100 ranking: No. 50
It was amazing that Mariota even survived a rookie season in which he was sacked 38 times in 12 games and was shelved early with a sprained MCL. In Year 2, the Titans protected their investment with an improved offensive line and running game. This season, general manager Jon Robinson put enough weapons on the field for Marcus to go Full Mariota for the first time.
There's still a lot to learn about the 23-year-old Mariota. His feel in the pocket and mid-range passing skills are reminiscent of Philip Rivers, if Rivers had the foot speed of Steve Young. Unless his recovery from a broken leg gets in the way, this ranking should be his floor in the quarterback pecking order.
13) Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Top 100 ranking: No. 57
Winston's hyper-aggressive nature will cost him some games and make him the subject of some sky is falling sports columns, because when things go south for him, he can start to look Delhommian. Winston misses too many routine throws, but he also routinely completes the improbable. He has the traits that are toughest to teach, especially with regard to his incredible pocket movement and anticipation.
Bucs coach Dirk Koetter put a lot on Winston's plate early to get him ready for a season like this, when he can sling the ball at will to a supporting cast that looks just right.
12) Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions
Top 100 ranking: No. 31
Streaky to the point of being unreliable early in his career, Stafford put together a 2016 season that was most notable for its lack of ups and downs. Stafford and coordinator Jim Bob Cooter have largely figured out how to harness Stafford's prodigious arm; now, his teammates just need to catch up. With Stafford still just 29 years old with 96 straight starts, it feels like he's just now entering his prime.
11) Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys
Top 100 ranking: No. 14
It wasn't Ezekiel Elliott who saw blitzes on third-and-long and anticipated throws into traffic before receivers broke on their routes. It wasn't the vaunted Cowboys offensive line that evaded the rush from Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier, then reset before delivering a perfect touchdown strike 50 yards down the field. The discussion about how great Prescott's situation was in 2016 largely ignored the juice needed to throw Dez Bryant open to the sideline from the opposite hash mark. Prescott matched NFL greats like Ben Roethlisbergerand AaronRodgers throw for throw in shootouts.
There are practically no historical comparisons to Prescott's rookie season, although Dan Marino's comes close. And while there is no limit to his long-term potential, this ranking reflects a desire to wait and see how Year 2 unfolds before assuming he's ahead of other quarterbacks, including future Hall of Famers, who succeed year after year. It's going to be a fun ride, Cowboys fans. Don't be in such a rush.
10) Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers
Top 100 ranking: No. 44
Here's how Newton's ranking in my year-end QB Indices shook out over the last four years: 16, 1, 14, 8. Carolina's win totals from the last four years: six, 15, seven, 12. Even the most ardent Cam believers (ahem) can admit the man is streaky. This is true in games, in seasons, even in fashion.
His supporting cast isn't always an asset. There were times last year when the Panthers played slowly and predictably, like an NBA offense still posting up big men while the rest of the league rained down threes around them.
9) Philip Rivers, Los Angeles Chargers
Top 100 ranking: No. 73
The Chargers are running out of chances to give their best player even one year in which his pass protection doesn't fall apart, or the running game doesn't collapse, or the injuries around him don't make it appear that the Football Gods are preemptively punishing the Spanos family for leaving San Diego.
The image of Rivers throwing under intense pressure has become such an intrinsic part of watching football that it's truly hard to imagine a scenario in which his organization doesn't let him down. (Pro Football Focus last ranked Rivers' pass protection as "above average" in 2007.) Rivers is not without faults, with his second-half swoons becoming a trend, but he still has the goods to deliver the late-career storybook season Tony Romo never got a chance to in Dallas.
8) Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders
Top 100 ranking: No. 11
Carr's ability to change speeds shouldn't be a surprise, given his status as a Wiffle ball master. Few quarterbacks combine the intuitive feel that Carr displays on his pretty touch passes with the radar-gun-breaking back-foot bullets Carr deploys when a cornerback is closing fast.
The fourth-year Raider is worth all that new money he'll be getting because he checks every conceivable box and can carry a franchise in transition. The Brett Favre comparisons never made sense to me, because Carr is so calculated in his decisions, only flashing his athleticism and ability to improvise when he really needs it.
7) Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
Top 100 ranking: No. 24
In the first half of Wilson's misunderstood 2016 season, he took an important step in any star quarterback's life: showing he can play pretty well even when he's not at his best.
It turned out that Wilson could still be effective from the pocket, even when defenses knew his scrambling ability was limited by injuries. Though he ran for just 7.9 yards per game in his first 10 games (that's about 30 yards less than his career per-game average entering 2016), Wilson threw for 2,714 yards with 11 touchdowns and two picks, and Seattle went 7-2-1. His deep ball should always remain sexy, and the improvisation was back by midseason, but Wilson showed he doesn't even need all of his tools all the time.
Seattle's transition to a pass-first offense had its share of bumps. Wilson will turn 29 years old in this, his sixth season. It still feels like there are more steps -- like an MVP-caliber year -- to come.
6) Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts
Top 100 ranking: No. 51
Coming off a lost 2015 campaign, Luck adjusted his game, cut down his mistakes and played efficiently through limitations caused by his injury. It was a mature, under-the-radar season that convinced me more than ever that true greatness awaits him, even if it has taken him longer than expected to get there.
5) Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
Top 100 ranking: Top 10
Ryan was one play away from being the first quarterback this century to win MVP and the Super Bowl in the same season, immortalized by That Throw and Catch to Julio Jones. One play away from going down in the record books with better postseason numbers than his bananas regular season. It's just hard to pick what that one play was, because there are so many to choose from.
Ryan's task this season is to shake off the knowledge of how close he was and show the Falcons offense can still rank among the game's best with former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan now coaching the 49ers. In four seasons of grading every quarterback start, 2016 was the first year in which Ryan finished better than ninth in my year-end rankings. To be considered at the level of Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers, Ryan still has to show he can perform at that level every season.
4) Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers
Top 100 ranking: No. 22
Last season wasn't Roethlisberger's best. The Steelers had missteps executing their passing game, which was dominated by quick hits, long bombs and little in between. Leaning on Le'Veon Bell down the stretch solved the problem, but how different would Big Ben's season have looked if not for all those near misses to Sammie Coates and Cobi Hamilton?
But then, as rocky seasons go, it wasn't so bad. Roethlisberger needed a touchdown to give his team a chance against the Cowboys with under two minutes left, and he delivered (before his defense blew it). He needed a touchdown to win the AFC North against the Ravens and a first down against the Chiefs to win their Divisional Round matchup, and he again delivered both times. The throws were all there. The weapons, with Martavis Bryantback for 2017, are better than ever. There's every reason to believe Roethlisberger will revert to his usual top-five status.
3) Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
Top 100 ranking: No. 16
The 38-year-old Brees has led the NFL in passing yards in five of the past six seasons. The articles about his diminishing arm strength started to appear around 2012, yet the numbers definitively show Brees is among the very best vertical passers every single season.
The Saints seem to ponder drafting Brees' replacement every year, but he's still going strong a decade removed from the Dolphinspassing on him because of his shoulder surgery. Brees must think about how life would be different in an organization that had any clue how to field a defense. Last season's Saints team was the third that Brees has led to a top-three finish in points scored without even managing a winning record. Brees can't stay this good forever, but he remains at the top of the game.
2) Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
Top 100 ranking: Top 10
The bar is so high that Rodgers can finish with 40 touchdowns and seven interceptions in the same season that inspired many What's wrong with Aaron Rodgers? articles. His relative ups and downs put him behind Brady for now, but Rodgers showed again down the stretch last season that his best is better than anyone else's.
1) Tom Brady, New England Patriots
Top 100 ranking: Top 10
There are times when Brady makes things look easy, and it usually starts before the snap. Like when he shifts a receiver to match up with James Harrison, then hits said receiver for a huge gain. Or when the world assumes he'll lead the Patriots to a touchdown to start the first overtime in Super Bowl history, and then he does it.
Brady didn't win the MVP in the season where he made his strongest case as the greatest ever, a 15-game blitz that tops any stretch of his career, capped with 104 points in the playoffs and a comeback that will live on as long as Super Bowls are played.