These are mid-season 2012 rankings meant to reflect where the quarterback is right now. They are the result of deep analysis of the PFF signature stats and my eyeball evaluations. I’ve seen every game played this season.
1. Aaron Rodgers – The only elite player at the position smack dab in the middle of his prime. Rodgers is creating a resume that will one day enshrine him as the greatest quarterback in NFL history.
2. Robert Griffin III – Some may object to this ranking based on sample size, record, and the inevitable mistakes that will come from a lack of experience, but there’s no doubt in my mind that RG3 is already the second best quarterback in the game. It doesn’t matter what advanced metrics you look at, Griffin is delivering incredible per play value. If you opt for traditional stats, his 8.47 yards per attempt and 70.4% completion percentage lead the league. Even without his running ability, Griffin would already be a top five quarterback.
3. Matt Schaub – Schaub is a very similar quarterback to players like Tom Brady and Matt Ryan, but doesn’t receive similar credit. He ranks No. 1 in the NFL in expected points added per play (EPA/P) and is doing it without a secondary receiver to complement Andre Johnson. The Houston offense ranks second in points per game despite an anemic performance from the much lauded running game.
4. Tom Brady – Brady leads the NFL’s top scoring offense but chinks are starting to emerge in his game. He’s allowing more pressure, and it’s starting to bother his accuracy. His inability to challenge defenses deep has become more blatantly obvious as he struggles to complete anything to Brandon Lloyd. We’re nearing the point where his arm talent drops below the level that will support his incredible feel for the game.
5. Drew Brees – Brees is on the downward slope and has benefited from a very easy schedule in posting his usual gaudy numbers. The author of some brutal throws this season, it would still be a mistake to underestimate just how bad this team would be without him (think: the 2011 Colts without Peyton Manning). More than any other quarterback, his ability to run the Saints offense makes his receivers. Marques Colston and Lance Moore would only be borderline NFL starters with most teams.
6. Tony Romo – The way the Cowboys are wasting Romo’s peak is truly sad. If we were to make a list of the worst offensive coaching staffs, Dallas would rank No. 1 on the list. Romo’s numbers have tailed off a little this season, but he’s dealing with possibly the NFL’s most overrated receiving corps in Dez Bryant and Miles Austin. The numbers show that Romo is one of the league’s best at handling pressure, and he’s second in the NFL in air yards per pass.
7. Eli Manning – The younger Manning has an incredible stat line. He leads the NFL in both lowest sack percentage and highest number of air yards per pass. That’s a startling combination because those results would seem to embody a philosophical contradiction (or superstardom). Manning is still slightly less consistent than his more heralded brother, but he’s morphed into a stronger armed version of the great one.
8. Peyton Manning – The GOAT’s numbers are artificially inflated by playing an easy schedule and having two of the NFL’s best young receivers at his disposal. On the other hand, Peyton has rallied impressively from the embarrassing first quarter against Atlanta. His yards per attempt, accuracy percentage, and ability to negate pressure are nearly in line with his peak seasons.
9. Andrew Luck – Luck has had his struggles as a rookie, but anyone who’s watched his tape can tell you he’s met expectations and more. Despite playing behind a bottom five offensive line, Luck has been sacked on a lower percentage of his drop backs than Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. After five straight years of declining efficiency with Manning at the helm – and a sixth truly disastrous season with Curtis Painter and company – Reggie Wayne is having one of his best seasons at age 33. Luck should slot in behind Rodgers and RG3 as early as 2013.
10. Matthew Stafford – Stafford has unquestionably taken a step back after 2011 saw him become one of only four quarterbacks to ever throw for 5000 yards in a season. While Brees and Brady did it at 29 or older, Stafford joins Dan Marino in managing the feat at 23. Stafford often receives little credit for these accomplishments due to the presence of Calvin Johnson and the relatively low yards per attempt he posted on the way. All of which is foolish. Perhaps only RG3 is a bigger arm talent than Stafford. It’s due to his arm as much as Megatron’s speed that defenses often play two safeties 20 yards off the ball. Despite mechanics that are all over the place at times, Stafford’s accuracy in all situations is well above average. Plus, he already negates pressure nearly as well as quarterbacks a decade his senior. His 2012 numbers have not been helped by facing possibly the most difficult schedule of opposing pass defenses of any quarterback in the NFL.
11. Ben Roethlisberger – Long maligned for cerebral weakness both cognitive and emotional, Roethlisberger seems to have crossed a crucial threshold in those areas. A gigantic man with a huge arm and uncanny accuracy, Roethlisberger makes Mike Wallace and Antonio Bryant look better than they are.
12. Cam Newton – After a magical rookie season, the NFL has adjusted to Newton but he has the physical tools to get past this hurdle. Still impressive in yards per attempt and deep accuracy, Newton must learn to handle pressure and succeed with the underneath throws. His rushing ability adds a unique element, but it will not have the same impact as RG3’s unless he develops as a passer.
13. Ryan Tannehill – While Griffin and Luck have been better than anticipated, they were expected to be so good so fast that their rookie seasons still fall into the ‘taken for granted’ category. The same cannot be said for Tannehill. Widely seen as a reach, Tannehill comes in near the top of PFF’s deep accuracy and accuracy under pressure metrics. That’s despite already having faced the impressive secondaries of Houston, New York (A), Arizona, and St. Louis. He’s made Brian Hartline into a No. 1 WR. If the draft were to be held again, Tannehill would go No. 3 overall and multiple teams would be trying to trade up to get him.
14. Jake Locker – The report on Locker emphasizes scattershot accuracy, but the 2012 numbers tell a very different story. After a small sample size rookie season that saw him average 8.2 yards per attempt and throw four touchdowns to zero interceptions, Locker has taken a step forward this year. His 63% completion percentage dramatically understates his accuracy. A league-high 11% of his attempts this season have been dropped. In an admittedly small sample, he leads the NFL in deep accuracy and is second in sack percentage. His ability to challenge a defense deep and then use his rushing ability to gain first downs in the vacated zones is reminiscent of Aaron Rodgers (and Locker has significantly more speed).
15. Matt Ryan – I’m a Ryan skeptic. The strongest arguments in his favor are the traditional ones: winning percentage, completion percentage, passer rating. The counterarguments are simple. Despite possessing the NFL’s best receiving corps and facing the NFL’s easiest schedule – playing in the NFC South and facing the AFC West as your interconference opponents is like playing in a relegation league compared to what the rest of the NFC is dealing with – Ryan ranks only 11th in yards per attempt. Because of below average arm strength, he struggles to throw deep and to throw in the face of pressure. Both of those weaknesses show up repeatedly on film and in the advanced numbers. For those who believe Ryan will develop into a Tom Brady level QB despite his physical liabilities, there is some evidence to support that idea. He’s actually taken a big step forward this year in terms of completion percentage under pressure.
16. Andy Dalton – Dalton is Matt Ryan 2.0. He fits an almost identical profile: a winner with limited arm strength that manifests itself under pressure and when attempting to throw long. Dalton turns an incredibly high percentage of the pressure against him into sacks, which may speak to a lack of confidence in his arm to get him out of trouble. You only have to look to a player like Matt Cassel to see how that can become a debilitating weakness.
17. Jay Cutler – Although Cutler ranks 30th in Advanced NFL Stats’ success rate measure, he ranks 13th in EPA/P. That’s a very simple illustration of the value of a big arm. Cutler is woefully inaccurate by any measure, and his decision-making is often questionable, but even with Brandon Marshall the Bears field one of the NFL’s least talented offenses. Put them in the wicked NFC North, and you can suddenly understand how their season self-destructed when Cutler went down last year.
18. Alex Smith – Smith is the epitome of underrated. PFF’s various numbers had him as a Top 5 quarterback a season ago, and, while that’s probably an exaggeration, his accuracy numbers are very good across the board. In addition to being more accurate, Smith has a much bigger arm than he’s commonly given credit for. He’s also younger than Brandon Weeden.
19. Brandon Weeden – Drafting a 28-year-old quarterback in the first round was beyond ridiculous, but he’s not a bad trade target for a contender when Cleveland inevitably goes with Barkley, Smith, or Wilson in next year’s lottery (and starts their rebuild around someone who’s actually young enough to build around). After a debacle in his NFL debut, Weeden has played quite well since, averaging at least 8 yards per attempt in three of his subsequent six starts. He’s shown a very big arm and better pocket presence than his scouting report indicated.
20. Russell Wilson – Wilson has lost a lot of momentum, partly because he’s being judged off the expectations he created during a dynamic preseason and not as a rookie third round quarterback. Despite that, Wilson has shown a big and accurate arm, a willingness to throw deep, and an ability to avoid pressure and use his running ability to pick up first downs. The Seahawks face a brutal schedule and aren’t doing him any favors with the run-heavy offense that frequently puts him into obvious passing situations. Wilson should be much higher than this a year from now.
21. Sam Bradford – It’s very difficult to evaluate Bradford because he has virtually no weapons, a beyond-gawd-awful offensive line, and an NFC West schedule. Still, he’s shown very little as a pro. Outside of Joe Flacco, you won’t see more bounced passes or attempts that sail 10 yards over a receiver’s head anywhere in the NFL (at least since Jake Delhomme retired). Perhaps his impressive arm strength and willingness to attack down the field will eventually overcome these limitations, but he’s got a long way to go to demonstrate he can lead an offense at this level.
22. Philip Rivers – The theory making the rounds is that Rivers is done. That might be true, although all you’ll really find in the advanced splits is a short term spike in interceptions on deep passes and a small uptick in sack percentage. It’s actually smaller, under-the-radar stuff that explains his sharp drop in yards per attempt from 8.7 (2010) to 7.9 (2011) to 7.1. Schedule strength certainly isn’t the answer. The Chargers may play the easiest schedule in the NFL.
23. Joe Flacco – The best thing you can say for the Ravens’ signal caller is that he has a big arm and is a winner. Okay, so two things. After a strong 2010 season, Flacco regressed significantly in 2011. Following an impressive 2012 preseason replete with up tempo elements, there was renewed enthusiasm for a Flacco breakout. Unfortunately, he just isn’t accurate. Flacco ranks 22nd in the NFL with a 59% completion percentage, and that overstates his true accuracy because the Ravens rank 1st in the NFL in drop rate at only 3.6%. Flacco can challenge down the field – only Russell Wilson throws deep on a higher percentage of his passes – but he’s woefully inaccurate in that area too (25th overall). Not to put too fine a point on it, but he’s also one of the most inaccurate passers under pressure and only mediocre in avoiding sacks. The Ravens should trade Flacco and draft his successor, but they obviously won’t do that as long as the team continues to win.
24. Michael Vick
25. Ryan Fitzpatrick – You can survive in the NFL with Tom Brady/Drew Brees arm strength. Fitzpatrick is what you get with the next level down. Held unfairly responsible for their meltdowns on defense, Fitzpatrick moves the ball well when he’s not committing turnovers. At least a tiny part of their success running the ball should go to the Amish Rifle for his ability to run the Pistol Spread. His 12.5% sack percentage playing behind a bad offensive line is also incredible. On the other hand, he can’t throw particularly far or accurately, two crucial aspects of being an NFL quarterback.
26. Josh Freeman – The Bucs quarterback is generating incredible momentum after strafing the Kansas City and New Orleans secondaries, but playing the Chiefs and Saints is a little like Alabama playing an FCS school. Freeman is essentially a little less polished version of Flacco. He has a big arm but no accuracy and no ability to handle the rush. More accurate than Flacco in challenging downfield, he’s simply not capable of handling the play-to-play responsibilities of an NFL quarterback. If you want to know why a quarterback with his raw numbers can be ranked so low, here it is: he ranks 31st in success rate against the 29th hardest schedule. Update: Freeman’s performance on the road against the Vikings was more impressive because of opponent matchup. It’s always possible he’s finally turning a corner, but even in this contest he only managed 53% completions.
28. Christian Ponder – Ponder averages only 6.57 yards per attempt and a paltry 2.95 true air yards per attempt (which is the Trent Edwards Zone to put that in context). He’s shown no ability or accuracy throwing down the field, although much of that may be on Bill Musgrave and Rick Spielman. The Vikings have no deep threats. Minnesota goes for long stretches without any sort of offensive efficiency despite the presence of Adrian Peterson, Percy Harvin, and a solid offensive line.
29. Kevin Kolb
30. Blaine Gabbert – While Gabbert’s yards per attempt number is almost impossibly low, his accuracy numbers are only slightly below average. He’s actually slightly above average in accuracy under pressure, which obviously goes against the scouting report, and he’s not bad throwing deep either. With a different franchise, he might actually have a chance.
31. Matt Cassel – My article on the Chiefs’ inability to replace Cassel in the offseason has been inaccurate in almost all respects.