QB Index: Ranking the starters 1-32

The old guard at quarterback has to change eventually. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning's ridiculous late-career runs, with monster numbers deep into their 30s, have adjusted our expectations at quarterback.

Now when Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger sign new monster contracts at age 33, we don't consider that their decline phase could be coming soon. That's just the cost of doing business. Tony Romo is 35 and coming off one of his best seasons. Drew Brees is 36 years old and it's heresy in New Orleans to consider that he could be on the way down.

The quarterback crop will turn over eventually, but there's no particular reason to believe it will happen en masse this year. The position is aging better. The elder generation dominates the top 10 of my first 2015 edition of the Quarterback Index below, with Manning projected to take the biggest fall.

We've done this for a few years now, and will rank the quarterbacks each week based on how they are performing this year only. The year-end rankings from 2014 can be seen here and it's not any fun to simply re-run them. Our first ranking of the season, then, is based on answering a simple question: What quarterback would you want running your team in 2015?

Class of his own

It says a lot that Rodgers stands apart, even in this boffo era of quarterbacks. This was supposed to be the year when everything came together on the Packers' squad. The offensive line, running game and receiver group are better than any time in the Mike McCarthy era. Jordy Nelson's ACL tear puts a damper on things, but it doesn't change Rodgers' status as the alpha dog at the ultimate alpha dog position.

Top Shelf

If I didn't have an aversion to the "E" word, it could help describe this tier. Big Ben has the support and maturity to put up his best season. His mental game has caught up to his arm. ... Just when it looked like Brady's famed pocket presence was starting to erode, he notably improved his footwork and calm in the storm a season ago. It's going to be tough to top a two-touchdown, fourth-quarter Super Bowl performance against the game's best defense.

Luck's best is already at the level of Rodgers. He's just not quite as steady quarter-to-quarter. ... Matt Ryan was quietly outstanding last season in a difficult situation. He could take another step under offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Unlike most of the quarterbacks around him in the rankings, he's right in his prime.

The worst two seasons of Tony Romo's career came in 2012 and 2013. He bounced back hard last year, but his back is a real concern. ... Brees' arm looked strong in the preseason, which is a great sign. ... Rivers' protection led to a poor second half of 2014; we like the offense around him better overall now. ... Wilson's five interceptions in his last two postseason games were an anomaly. He's still ranked at the bottom of this tier because he's asked to do less than most of the franchise quarterbacks at this level.

It feels bizarre to rank Manning this low. It's a projection for the season ahead, and the signs are obvious. His arm did not look good in the preseason, and the adjustment to coordinator Gary Kubiak's offense could take time. It's amazing how much he can do with diminished throwing ability, but life as a supercharged Chad Pennington has limitations.

Next Level

The wide receivers and offensive system in Carolina will make it very difficult for Newton to remain this high in our year-end rankings. ... Flacco consistently looks better when you watch the ol' coaches film on Game Pass than he does in the box score. ... Stafford's erratic accuracy has become expected at this point. There is some optimism he can take a step forward this season, but we've heard that before. ... Tannehill gets better every year and is in a quarterback-friendly system. ... If Bradford stays healthy, he'll probably put up numbers so ridiculous that we have to rank him in the top 10.

Eli hasn't particularly shown signs of decline, but the reality is he hasn't been a top-10 quarterback for most of his career. ... Palmer looked outstanding in the preseason. He could have an excellent year if he's protected well. ... Bridgewater's last five games of 2014 were as steady and smooth as a seven-year veteran that gets Pro Bowl consideration. ... Kaepernick could make this ranking look silly by the end of the year with a resurgent season. Are we really sure already he's an inferior player to Wilson?

Stuck in the middle

Cutler's leadership has been openly questioned all offseason. He's not good enough to carry the Bears, but he's just part of the consistent organizational failing in Chicago. ... Smith impresses more every season with his toughness, but there is a ceiling on his offenses because of the lack of vertical throws. ... Dalton is a poor man's Smith. ... Bortles is a tough player to evaluate. His numbers were gruesome, but he showed a lot of the traits you look for in a top-level quarterback. ... The Rams are hoping that Foles doesn't turn into a pumpkin away from Chip Kelly.

The Rookies

It's impossible to say much about Winston and Mariota's place in the NFL quarterback group before a regular season game. Winston's preseason played to expectations. There were great moments, and there were disasters. He will be everything but boring. ... Mariota's quick, quiet competence has been reminiscent of the end of Bridgewater's rookie season.

Question marks

Carr's rookie tape just wasn't that impressive despite all the hype. Bortles showed more potential, and new Raiders offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave doesn't exactly have a great history of developing talent. ... Cousins is a little like a younger version of Ryan Fitzpatrick. He is going to be aggressive to a fault, showing almost too much confidence in his arm. ... Taylor found a perfect home in Buffalo. He's going to be asked to be a point guard, delivering short passes to a lot of talented satellite players in the Bills' offense. ... Josh McCown could perhaps be a serviceable starter in a perfect situation. Cleveland is not that situation, and 2013 stands out as a fluky season in McCown's career. ... Hoyer and Ryan Mallett both figure to start plenty for the Texans.

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