It’s been a while since I’ve ranked NFL quarterbacks.
I used to break them up into three categories: the elites, the Chad Penningtons and the others. I would have 12 to 13 elites, those who were good enough to make their teams playoff contenders each season. The Penningtons were those who could get you to the postseason but probably couldn’t beat out an elite quarterback in a playoff game. The others were the others.
My mission this year is to rank the top 10. I went back in the stats to around 2012 because that was Russell Wilson’s first season. I’ve had the Seahawks’ quarterback in the top group for a couple of years. A top quarterback has the ability to throw for 4,000 yards a season, lead fourth-quarter comebacks and run an offense that can score between 24 and 30 points a game.
Here’s my top 10:
1. Tom Brady, New England. For a couple years, I had Aaron Rodgers ahead of Brady as No. 1 in the league, but Brady, the best quarterback to ever play the game, reclaimed the top spot by winning two of the past three Super Bowls. Since 2012, Brady has won more starts than any other quarterback, going 59-17, and is almost unbeatable in Foxborough.
2. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay. Rodgers had a little bit of a slump from the middle of the 2015 season through the first half of 2016, but now he’s back at the top of his game. Rodgers has taken the Packers to the playoffs in each of the past eight seasons. He’s now considered to be among the 10 best quarterbacks in NFL history.
3. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh. Big Ben hinted earlier this offseason that he was thinking about retiring, but you know he wasn’t. His mission is to get back to the Super Bowl, but some guy named Brady has been getting in the way of that. Getting wide receiver Martavis Bryant back from suspension could give Roethlisberger and the Steelers’ offense a shot at scoring 30 points a game. Pittsburgh averaged 26.4 and 25.6 points per game the last two seasons and 29.6 in 2014.
4. Matt Ryan, Atlanta. A year ago, I had Cam Newton jump Wilson because he was the league’s MVP on a Super Bowl team that went 15-1 during the regular season. Ryan was the 2016 MVP, so he makes this year’s jump. The Falcons averaged 33.8 points a game last year, and Ryan is playing the best football of his career.
5. Russell Wilson, Seattle. Some critics might have dropped Wilson a spot or two, but I don’t. Since his rookie season in 2012, Wilson’s 56-23-1 record is the second-best in football. He’s completed 64.71 percent of his passes and has a touchdown to interception ratio of 127/45. Sure, he’s helped by a great defense, but Wilson showed so much by playing the first half of 2016 with a high-ankle sprain and an MCL sprain, not missing a game in a season in which the Seahawks went to the divisional round of the playoffs.
6. Drew Brees, New Orleans. Brees can’t be blamed for three consecutive 7-9 seasons. That blame goes to the Saints’ defense. Since 2012, Brees has thrown for more yards (25,369) and more touchdowns (184) than any other quarterback in the NFL.
7. Andrew Luck, Indianapolis. Luck was moving to my top five during his first three years, seasons in which he was 33-15. The Colts’ roster got worse, particularly on defense and along the offensive line. Luck took a beating, but he bounced back from an injury-shortened 2015 season by throwing for 4,240 yards and 31 touchdowns in 2016. Expect him to rise this year.
8. Cam Newton, Carolina. It’s not as if the NFL figured him out, but defenses made him change his game. Newton loved to use his big body and mobility to run and he didn’t shy away from contact. But he got his hard so many times that the Panthers have decided to reduce his number of carries. He hasn’t been able to do much throwing coming off shoulder surgery and that hurts because he can get into bad mechanical habits. If he doesn’t bounce back this year, he will in 2018.
9. Matthew Stafford, Detroit. Stafford is expected to top Derek Carr as the league’s highest paid quarterback. He’s entering the final year of his deal, so if he doesn’t get extended then he’ll be scheduled to hit free agency at the prime age of 30. The Lions can’t afford to lose him. Since 2011, he’s averaged 4,584 passing yards and 28 touchdown a season. If Lions could win a playoff game, his ranking will jump.
10. Derek Carr, Oakland. It took Wilson and Newton about three years to crack to top 10 and eventually the top six. Carr has made his move into the top 10 this season. He’s thrown for barely under 4,000 yards in each of the past two seasons. With a new contract averaging $25 million a year and an offense that’s loaded, Carr will jump higher in the rankings this season.
Quarterbacks on the fringe: Philip River, Los Angeles Chargers; Eli Manning, New York Giants; Carson Palmer, Arizona; Kirk Cousins, Washington; Joe Flacco, Baltimore.
Quarterbacks on the rise: Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay; Marcus Mariota, Tennessee; Ryan Tannehill, Miami.
Want more John Clayton? Listen on-demand to his weekday and Saturday shows as well as his “Cold Hard Facts” and “Clayton’s Morning Drive” segments on 710 ESPN Seattle. Also, check out his all-new “Schooled” podcast and look for his columns twice a week on 710Sports.com.