NFL: Ranking the 32 Starting Quarterbacks on Long-Term Job Security
No quarterback is truly ever safe from losing his job. The NFL is a win-now league and a rough season or two can put a quarterback from being a franchise player to one on the hot seat.
That being said, it’s safe to say Aaron Rodgers doesn’t have to be looking over his shoulder heading into 2013. He just signed a lucrative contract extension that makes him the highest-paid player in league history. And he’s well on his way to being one of the most productive quarterbacks pro football has ever seen. That makes him an obvious No. 1 on the list.
After that though, the spots aren’t as clearly defined. Fewer than half of the NFL’s starting quarterbacks were the starters for their respective teams three years ago. The turnover rate is fairly high, and quite a few need to be careful or they will be out of a job in 2014. Quarterbacks are ranked based on their performance, age, contract situation and the quality of their backup.
32. Mark Sanchez, New York Jets
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It has not yet been announced that Geno Smith is the starter, which puts Mark Sanchez on this list. And given Sanchez’s performance recently, he’s at a good spot at the quarterback most likely to lose his job.
The New York Jets’ quarterback depth chart is crowded, although the release of Tim Tebow and David Garrard retiring make it easier to see. The job will likely go to Smith, seeing as it’s the growing trend of NFL teams to go with rookies picked in the upper rounds.
Smith was a second-round pick, although he’s a player many expected to go in the top 10 overall picks. He was a Heisman Trophy candidate for most of 2012, but the best thing about him is that he’s not Sanchez. Sanchez has regressed following a solid start to his career (four road playoff wins in two years).
In his final four games last year, Sanchez threw one touchdown to eight interceptions. He led the Jets to 43 total points. The Jets are on the hook for over $17 million if they release Sanchez now, but at this point, why not?
31. Matt Flynn, Oakland Raiders
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Matt Flynn has seen this before.
A team trades for him and drafts a quarterback (named Wilson) in the middle rounds for competition. Last year, Flynn lost his spot to Russell Wilson, who was one of the more pleasant surprises the NFL has seen this decade. This year, that new draft pick was Tyler Wilson, who could beat out Flynn in training camp.
Flynn will enter the offseason as the 'presumed starter', according to Oakland Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie. But the Raiders traded just a fifth-round pick in 2013 and a conditional pick in ’14 for Flynn. That’s not enough that it locks Flynn in.
Flynn has no proven track record, other than two good games with the Green Bay Packers. Flynn inherits a Raiders team without a lot of talent. His main receiving targets are Denarius Moore and Rod Streater, while oft-injured Darren McFadden is his primary halfback.
Couple that with Flynn’s notoriously weak arm and the fact that Wilson has looked really good in organized team activities. Flynn could be replaced soon. Like before the season starts.
30. Blaine Gabbert, Jacksonville Jaguars
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The Jacksonville Jaguars were wise not to draft a quarterback in the 2013 NFL draft. There was no clear-cut franchise signal-caller worth taking, and the team needed to upgrade the rest of the roster first.
That being said, Blaine Gabbert doesn’t appear to have a promising future. It was a stretch for the Jaguars to take him 10th overall in ’11, and he hasn’t done much to reward them so far. Gabbert has too often appeared skittish in the pocket, and his 5.98 yards per attempt last season ranked dead-last among qualifying quarterbacks.
Chad Henne isn’t a young prospect by any stretch, but he could still steal the starting spot from Gabbert.
29. Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles
Michael Vick is the only starting quarterback in the NFL that pretty much knows he won’t be back on his team in 2014.
Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker and even Matt Flynn can play well next year and the next year and subsequently earn contract extensions. Even if Vick plays well in ‘13, it’s on a one-year deal in his age-33 season. He’s not the future.
Either Nick Foles or Matt Barkley (or someone else) is the quarterback of the future for Chip Kelly’s offense. Vick would have been an ideal fit—10 years ago. Vick will undoubtedly take the snaps to start, but once he gets injured, he’ll be giving away his snaps to a younger signal-caller with a chance to prove he’s the team’s future.
For Vick, the ideal scenario is that he plays well enough in 2013 that another team thinks he’s worth a starting spot in 2014.
28. E.J. Manuel, Buffalo Bills
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It’s logical to assume E.J. Manuel will win the starting spot in Buffalo.
Kevin Kolb hasn’t proven he can be a long-term answer for any team yet, and Manuel was a first-round pick. Five of the last six first-round quarterbacks have started Week 1, with Tennessee’s Jake Locker (2011) as the only exception.
Manuel is best seen as a long-term project though. He has tremendous size (6’5”, 241 pounds) but his skills are raw, and he would benefit from a year on the bench. The Bills will likely follow the trend of the NFL in recent years, which is starting their rookie quarterback initially.
But Manuel will likely struggle, and the team may opt to temporarily bench him if he doesn’t play well early.
27. Jake Locker, Tennessee Titans
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The Tennessee Titans haven’t seen many positive things from Jake Locker during his two NFL seasons. The biggest knock on Locker coming out of college was accuracy, as he completed just 55.4 percent of his passes as a senior.
That trend has followed Locker into the National Football League, and his 56.4 completion rate in 2012 was fifth-worst among qualifying quarterbacks. In four of his 10 starts, Locker failed to top 50 percent on his pass attempts.
The Titans signed Ryan Fitzpatrick to be their backup, so if Locker gets benched, it won’t be because there’s a quarterback of the future waiting. It will simply be because Fitzpatrick is better.
26. Brandon Weeden, Cleveland Browns
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The Cleveland Browns had to know what they were getting into when they took 28-year-old Brandon Weeden in the first round of the 2012 NFL draft. Weeden has potential to be a special quarterback, but he’s going to be 30 early in his second season. That doesn’t leave much room for development.
The Browns did trade Colt McCoy to the San Francisco 49ers. Their backups are Jason Campbell and Thaddeus Lewis, which should make it apparent Weeden is the man in Cleveland. But new head coach Rob Chudzinski feels differently.
In an interview with 92.3 The Fan’s Bull and Fox, Chudzinski said it’s too early to commit to Weeden. That says it all about his confidence in Weeden. While it doesn’t seem likely Chudzinski opts for Campbell or Lewis, it doesn’t seem like he’s too thrilled about Weeden, either.
25. Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals
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New Arizona Cardinals head coach seems to be ecstatic about having acquired Carson Palmer. In fact, he gushed about all four of the team’s quarterbacks.
Realistically, Palmer is merely a stopgap for the Cardinals. He’s entering his 11th NFL season, and he hasn’t been the same player since his brutal injury against the Pittsburgh Steelers back in the ’05 AFC Wild Card matchup.
Palmer’s numbers last year with a poor supporting cast were solid. Playing in Oakland, he threw for over 4,000 yards while completing 61 percent of his passes. That’s pretty impressive, although he’s 33 years old and the clock is ticking.
Arians may want to see if he has anything in Drew Stanton or Ryan Lindley at some point during the season.
24. Christian Ponder, Minnesota Vikings
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This coming season will be a big year for Christian Ponder's future. During his first two NFL campaigns, he’s shown glimpses he can be a franchise player. And he’s struggled mightily in key opportunities.
Last year, head coach Leslie Frazier alluded to the fact that he was considering benching Ponder. That never happened, and Ponder stepped up his play down the stretch. He didn’t throw any interceptions in the final three contests, all Minnesota Vikings wins. And he was especially sharp in the must-win season finale, tossing three touchdowns with a 94.6 QBR.
Joe Webb showed in the playoff game that he can never be a starter in this league. But if the Vikings are hovering near .500 late in the season, Frazier may opt for veteran Matt Cassel to manage the games over a struggling Ponder.
23. Josh Freeman, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
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No quarterback in the NFL has had as much of a roller-coaster ride as Josh Freeman. He was an MVP candidate in 2010 (25 touchdowns, six interceptions) and bench-worthy in 2011 (22 interceptions, 4-11 as starter).
He followed that up with a ridiculously inconsistent season in 2012, starting the year with 25 touchdowns to eight picks before fading quickly down the stretch (consecutive four-interception games).
New head coach Greg Schiano does not seem to be a fan of Freeman's play. Last year, he said he would have an open competition at the quarterback position heading into ’13. He’s since softened his stance, saying recently he is committed to Freeman.
But the facts seem to suggest otherwise. Freeman is entering his contract year, and there’s been no mention of a long-term extension. The Buccaneers also drafted Mike Glennon in the third round of this past year’s draft, which may be Schiano grabbing Freeman’s replacement awhile. Or it could just be a long-term developmental project, as Freeman has been.
22. Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs
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There’s no logical candidate to replace Alex Smith in Kansas City. Chase Daniel is a career backup thus far with little upside, Ricky Stanzi is more of a third-stringer, and Tyler Bray was signed as an undrafted free agent.
But Smith gets a spot here because he’s just not nearly as good as the players ahead of him.
The Chiefs did trade a high second-round pick for him, which should bode well for Andy Reid’s confidence in Smith. And the roster has been upgraded enough that Smith should be able to succeed and even lead the Chiefs to a possible playoff spot in 2013.
Looking into the future though, the 29-year-old Smith isn’t in the elite class of signal-callers. And as Reid has learned recently with the Philadelphia Eagles, it’s difficult to win without a top-flight quarterback.
21. Matt Schaub, Houston Texans
Matt Schaub took a lot of criticism down the stretch, and deservedly so. In the final six games (playoffs included), he threw just three touchdowns to five interceptions, and the Houston Texans went 2-4.
Schaub is 31 years old but the Texans do have him locked up through the 2016 season at a five-year, $66.1 million deal. He won’t likely play that out, although Schaub should take comfort in knowing he can’t be released anytime soon. Per Spotrac, the Texans would be docked $21 million if they released Schaub now.
It seems likely the team drafts a quarterback in the middle to upper rounds sometime soon as a future replacement for Schaub. That should make Schaub safe for at least two more seasons.
20. Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams
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The St. Louis Rams are in a difficult position with Sam Bradford if he doesn’t show improvement in 2013.
The excuses are there. His supporting cast has been subpar, he hasn’t had a true No. 1 wide receiver and the offensive line hasn’t protected him as it should have.
But Bradford hasn’t lived up to his potential after being the first overall pick. Among the 23 quarterbacks with 1,000 pass attempts since 2010, Bradford ranks 22nd in completion percentage (58.3) and passer rating (77.3). He’s dead-last in yards per attempt (6.26) and he’s just 15-26-1 as a starter.
The Rams added playmaker Tavon Austin in the draft, along with his teammate, possession receiver Stedman Bailey. Factor in Chris Givens, Brian Quick, Jared Cook and Lance Kendricks, and Bradford could have a slew of weapons for his usage.
St. Louis can’t release Bradford until after the ’13 season without facing a huge cap penalty. That’s why this year is so crucial for Bradford proving he’s the franchise quarterback for the Rams. And fortunately for Bradford, there’s no backup on the team worth a look.
19. Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins
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Ryan Tannehill had a solid first season with the Miami Dolphins, starting all 16 games. His numbers weren’t stellar, as he completed just 58.3 percent of his passes for 12 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
But he was much better down the stretch.
Tannehill threw just seven picks in his final 12 games and remarkably, just one in his final five. There’s no logical reason to assume Tannehill will be benched at any point, but he gets a spot here because he’s still young and establishing himself at the NFL level.
18. Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers
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Rivers has seen his yards per attempt drop from 8.7 in 2010 to 7.9 in 2011 to 6.8 last year. He’s taken a beating lately, getting sacked 49 times for a league-worst 311 yards in 2012.
He’s probably not going to lose his starting job to Charlie Whitehurst, but Rivers doesn’t seem to have too many years left with the San Diego Chargers.
17. Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears
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Jay Cutler is a free agent after the season, and the Chicago Bears have not yet re-signed him.
They could be trying to do the Joe Flacco deal, which led the Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl championship from a quarterback playing for a massive contract.
Cutler has the arm strength to be a franchise quarterback, and the Bears would be foolish to let him walk. He’s put up shaky numbers at times, like 26 interceptions in 2009. He’s taken a beating behind the Bears’ offensive line, and his completion percentage has hovered around the 58 percent mark the last two seasons.
That pretty much puts him in the middle of the pack. Once he gets a contract extension, he will move closer to the 10th spot.
16. Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos
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Peyton Manning has been arguably the greatest quarterback ever to play the game, and he’s still dominating. Last year, Manning rebounded from a career-threatening neck injury to nearly win the MVP award. He threw for 4,659 yards and 37 touchdowns, led the league in both completion percentage and QBR, and took the Denver Broncos to a 13-3 record.
So why is he not ranked higher on the list?
First of all, he’s already 37 years old and he’s entering his 16th NFL season.
He’s on just the second year of a five-year, $96 million deal. He receives $42 million guaranteed if he passes a 2013 physical, but if he suffers a neck injury in 2013, it voids his guaranteed money in 2014. It’s complicated, but what it amounts to is that Manning can likely be released at the end of ’14 with no dead money to the Broncos.
They certainly wouldn’t do that now while Manning is still at the top of his game.
But at a cap price of about $18-20 million per year, the Broncos may look to part ways with Manning at the first sign of declining play. After all, they did spend a second-round pick on Brock Osweiler in 2012, and Osweiler may be being groomed to one day be Manning’s replacement.
15. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers
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The only reason Ben Roethlisberger isn’t higher on this list is because of the pounding he’s taken as of late. Roethlisberger has started all 16 games in a season just once in nine years. He’s missed nine contests since 2009.
The Pittsburgh Steelers do have Roethlisberger inked to a massive contract that extends through the 2015 season.
The only problem may be if Roethlisberger shows signs of breaking down. He’s been sacked 344 times since entering the league. That’s significantly more than Peyton Manning (252) or Tom Brady (301), each of whom has played significantly more years. In fact, Roethlisberger has been sacked more times than any other active QB.
The Steelers may look to draft a replacement for Big Ben soon, considering he is 31 years old already. That’s what puts Roethlisberger in the middle of the quarterbacks in terms of job security for the future.
14. Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals
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In two seasons in the league, Andy Dalton has made the Pro Bowl twice and led the Cincinnati Bengals to the playoffs twice. That suggests he’s an elite quarterback; however, it's pretty clear watching him that he's not quite in that tier.
Dalton saw a spike in his interception rate in 2012, and he was sacked significantly more times. He’s also played extremely poorly in both playoff games, failing to throw a single touchdown pass.
That’s not at all to suggest he is playing for his job. But what it does do is keep him under the elite class of quarterbacks on this list.
13. Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers
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Cam Newton’s numbers in just two NFL seasons are pretty eye-popping. He’s averaged nearly 4,000 passing yards and 36 total touchdowns since breaking into the league. Newton is as good of a dual-threat quarterback as this league has ever seen, and he’s managed to play 32 of 32 games without injury.
What Newton does need to do is start turning his numbers into more team wins. He’s just 6-13 in his career in games decided by one score or less. Some of those losses fall directly on Newton, who has displayed a high propensity for turnovers at times.
Newton’s four-year rookie deal carries through the 2014 campaign, which means he has two more seasons with the Carolina Panthers. It’s highly unlikely he doesn’t receive a long-term contract extension with the team, unless he struggles with injuries or fumbles. That puts him in the middle of the pack for now.
12. Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
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Russell Wilson had a remarkable rookie season, made even more impressive by the fact that he was just a third-round draft pick of the Seattle Seahawks. It was expected Pete Carroll would go with Matt Flynn as his starter, but Wilson stole the job in training camp.
Wilson led the Seahawks to a playoff berth, throwing 26 touchdowns to just 10 interceptions, while compiling a 100.0 passer rating. He was even named NFL.com’s Rookie of the Year.
There’s no reason to assume Wilson’s year was a fluke.
He got better as the season went on, and he’s a student of the game who should only get better. However, Wilson falls behind 12 quarterbacks because he has had limited success thus far and he has not received a contract extension as of now.
11. Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions
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It may be surprising to realize it, but Matthew Stafford has only really had one good year in the league. He struggled with injuries for most of his first two seasons before a breakout 2011 (over 5,000 passing yards and 41 touchdowns).
Stafford regressed in 2012, seeing a major drop in all his key numbers. He threw fewer than one-half as many touchdown passes (on a record 727 pass attempts), and went just 4-12 as a starter.
Stafford is signed for three more years and there’s no reason to believe he won’t get a contract extension. He has ridiculous arm strength and the potential to be a perennial Pro Bowler. Once he shows a little more consistency and gets a long-term deal, he enters the top tier.
10. Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers
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The progression Colin Kaepernick showed last year was sensational to watch. Kaepernick went from being almost a no one to a Super Bowl starter.
He has a cannon of an arm and tremendous speed that makes him a threat to pass and run. Kaepernick is in a system to succeed with a coach (Jim Harbaugh) who has a proven track record with quarterbacks.
Once Kaepernick duplicates his success in 2013 and gets a contract extension, he will enter the top five.
9. Eli Manning, New York Giants
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What keeps Eli Manning from ranking higher on this list are several factors.
He’s been inconsistent over his career, at one point tossing 25 interceptions in a season. He’s 32 years old and the New York Giants may or may not have drafted his long-term replacement in Ryan Nassib, a second or third-round talent who fell to Round 4.
But Manning is signed for three more years, and the Giants won’t hesitate to give him another extension if he’s still performing. Manning’s two Super Bowl rings are a testament to his clutch play, and he’s played in 128 consecutive games since 2005. He could still be excelling in five or six years.
8. Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys
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The Dallas Cowboys are apparently committed to Tony Romo, as they just signed the 33-year-old to a long-term contract extension. Romo’s deal includes $55 million guaranteed, and the Cowboys can’t release him without penalty for five more seasons.
Romo’s numbers have been terrific as a starter. He’s topped 4,000 yards in each of his last three full campaigns, and his lifetime 95.6 passer rating is fifth-best ever. He does struggle with turnovers, having led the NFL with 19 interceptions in 2013. He’s also just 17-21 as a starter since 2010, with one career playoff win in seven seasons.
That contract suggests he’s in Dallas to stay, though. Kyle Orton is a fine backup, but the Cowboys won’t be benching Romo for Orton at any time soon.
7. Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins
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Robert Griffin III had a truly outstanding rookie season with the Washington Redskins. He threw 20 touchdowns to just five interceptions, led the NFL in interception percentage (1.3) and yards per attempt (8.1) and took the Redskins to a playoff berth.
RGIII suffered a devastating ACL injury late in the year, one that will take him all offseason to recover from. Griffin is a running quarterback, which means his career may be shorter than that of his draft contemporary, Andrew Luck.
But the Redskins still have a real find in Griffin, and he’ll have a long-term contract extension in a few years to prove it.
6. Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
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Matt Ryan finally got the playoff monkey off his back this past year, winning a thrilling game against the Seattle Seahawks.
He led the NFL in completion percentage (68.6), passed for 4,719 yards and 32 touchdowns and earned his second Pro Bowl invitation.
Ryan is one of the finest young quarterbacks in the league, and soon he will have a contract extension to prove it. His rookie deal expires after 2013, and he has yet to receive a long-term deal. Ryan said he’s not concerned, and it's likely he will get a $100 million deal around the start of training camp.
5. Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts
Andrew Luck is a keeper for sure, and the Indianapolis Colts saw great things from Luck as a rookie. He took a 2-14 team to an 11-5 record, setting an NFL record for a nine-win improvement from the previous year.
Luck led seven fourth-quarter comebacks and did this on a Colts team that forced him to throw the ball a rookie-record 627 times (shattering the previous record of 590). Luck was the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, and the ideal scenario is that he becomes a Colt for life.
Once he gets his long-term extension in a few years, he will move to the top of this list.
4. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
The top four quarterbacks on this list are all signed through at least the 2016 season. Drew Brees’ deal extends him for four more years, but he’s still fourth and behind Joe Flacco because Brees is significantly older.
Brees is 34 years old, but he’s missed just one game in the last eight seasons. He’s remarkably efficient, having averaged 4,716 passing yards and 35 touchdowns since joining the New Orleans Saints in 2006. Brees is a perennial MVP candidate, and what contributes to his impressive durability is his lightning-quick release. He’s been sacked an average of just 20 times per year since ’06.
There are no immediate plans for the Saints to replace Brees, and he will play as long as he’s able to and producing.
3. Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens
Over the last five seasons, Joe Flacco has been about a league-average quarterback. He’s never thrown for 4,000 yards, and his career 86.3 passer rating is less than half of a point higher than that of Shaun Hill or David Garrard.
Flacco picked a great time to go on a hot streak though. Down the stretch, he compiled four outstanding performances in the postseason, leading the Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl chamoionship. Flacco didn’t throw a single interception in four playoff games, earning himself a six-year $120.6 million contract that includes $52 million in guaranteed money.
Whether Flacco is an elite quarterback, he’s being paid like one. That’s enough to get him a third-place spot on this list.
2. Tom Brady, New England Patriots
Did Bill Belichick make Tom Brady or did Brady make Belichick? The answer is probably somewhere in between, but it’s doubtful Belichick wants to experience a different quarterback under center.
One season at a time, Brady is making a case for the greatest player in NFL history. He’s entering his 14th year in the league and hasn’t shown any glimpses of decline. Brady threw 34 touchdowns to just eight interceptions in 2012, posting 4,827 passing yards and a 98.7 passer rating. He’s a perennial MVP candidate and has made four straight Pro Bowls.
Brady has also been remarkably durable. Other than his knee injury in 2008, he’s played every game since he took over as starter in ’01. Brady is under team control for five more years, but he’s essentially signed for as many years as he wants if he continues to play as he has.
1. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
Pick your best quarterback in the league, Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady. Each has been remarkably successful, but Rodgers gets the top spot for obvious reasons: He’s 29 years old while Brady is 35.
Rodgers has an MVP trophy and a Super Bowl ring on his resume, and he’s led the NFL in passer rating two years running. Rodgers has averaged 34 touchdowns to just nine interceptions since taking over as the full-time starter for Brett Favre.
Rodgers’ recent contract makes him the richest player in NFL history. He’s under Green Bay Packers control through the 2019 season, during which he will earn a salary of close to $20 million annually. Rodgers has a chance to go down as one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game, and he will be the face of the Packers for many more years.