The most important position in the world of professional football is quarterback, and it's really not even close. If you don't have a quarterback, you just can't win (unless you're the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, but that's a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence).
That's why teams will make outrageous trades for a quarterback, like the Washington Redskins did when they traded three first-round picks to select quarterback Robert Griffin III in the 2012 draft. Although the jury is still out on whether the RGIII trade was worth it for the Redskins, the point is that Washington felt RGIII was a talented enough player that he could make up for the other holes on the roster.
Look around the league. Quarterbacks are constantly overvalued. You don't see quarterbacks signing contracts for $7 to $8 million per year. It's all or nothing. You get overpaid or you walk.
Below, I analyze the 32 starting quarterbacks in the National Football League based on their long-term potential as a franchise building block. Talent matters the most, but so do age and current contract.
Peyton Manning, for example, is 38 years old. Nobody in their right mind would take him over a 25-year-old Russell Wilson if they were building a team. After all, when Manning is out of the NFL in three seasons, Wilson will be hitting his peak.
But would you take Blake Bortles, who has never played and is on his rookie contract, over Tony Romo, an aging veteran in the middle of a massive contract where he basically can't be cut? That's the tough decision.
For this fictional draft, the quarterback joins an average team with an average coach and an average supporting cast. As you'd expect, this helps some quarterbacks and hurts others. Nick Foles can't bring Chip Kelly with him, but Cam Newton has a much better supporting cast and better coaching.
For teams like Jacksonville and Oakland in a transitional phase at quarterback, I went with the more attractive of the two options. Obviously that was the younger player in each situation.
The QBs are as follows, from best to worst.
1. Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts
Andrew Luck is the clear-cut fifth-best quarterback in the National Football League, behind four all-time greats. Just 24 years old, Luck won't be a free agent until after the end of the 2015 season (although he'll likely be extended next offseason). Even with the outrageous contract he will undoubtedly earn, his talent, and the fact that he's not even close to his peak, make him arguably the most attractive long-term quarterback in the league. And it's not even close. Luck will win multiple MVP awards and multiple Super Bowl titles. Book it.
2. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
Statistically speaking, Aaron Rodgers is the most dominant quarterback in NFL history. He holds career records in touchdown-to-interception ratio and passer rating and he's played at a near-MVP level for each of the last five seasons. He's 30 years old and should have seven to ten more elite years left in his career. You could put Rodgers on the worst team in the league and he'd instantly make them a Super Bowl contender.
3. Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
Russell Wilson edges out Cam Newton for the third spot on this list because he's much more efficient as a passer. Yes, he's helped by a tremendous running game, but he's succeeded despite a subpar offensive line and an adequate receiving corps. He's just 25 and will only get better as he reaches his peak years.
4. Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers
A nearly unstoppable combination of passing and running when he's at his peak, Newton still hasn't reached his full potential. He could improve his consistency as a passer, but it's easy to conclude that the 24-year-old will be an MVP-caliber talent for the next decade.
5. Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
By this point, you probably know what you're going to get with Matt Ryan. Don't expect him to ever win an MVP or singlehandedly lead a team to a Super Bowl. But expect him to throw for more than 4000 yards and 25 touchdowns each year, which will give any team he plays for a legitimate chance to reach the postseason.
6. Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers
Colin Kaepernick was a much more attractive long-term option before he signed his big contract extension, but at 26 years old and with just one full season under his belt, he hasn't come close to reaching his best performances yet. He's too inconsistent for my liking, and I wonder how much he could succeed without quarterback guru Jim Harbaugh. But his insane running ability makes up for an adequate throwing arm. You're never out of a game with Kaepernick behind center.
7. Nick Foles, Philadelphia Eagles
Give Nick Foles an offensive genius like Chip Kelly and he'd be my third option at quarterback behind Luck and Rodgers. But on an average team with average coaching, it's fair to wonder how much of a decline we'd see in Foles' play. He's 25 and still hasn't played a full season. He needs to prove that he wasn't just a one-year wonder, although his contract—he's still on his rookie deal—makes him an attractive choice.
8. Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins
So who is the real Robert Griffin III? Is he the Offensive Rookie of the Year from 2012 or the hobbled sophomore from 2013? I think we're all expecting RGIII to look more like the explosive playmaker from 2012. He's still very young and on his rookie deal. If he stays healthy, he could play another decade.
9. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
Drew Brees at 35, Tom Brady at 36 (37 by the start of the season) or Peyton Manning at 38? I picked the younger of the three players. Brees likely has four or five more elite seasons left in his career. All he does every year is throw for 5000 yards and 40 touchdowns. That's enough to make even the worst team in the league an instant playoff contender. An average team would be a Super Bowl contender.
10. Tom Brady, New England Patriots
There's talk that Tom Brady could be declining. I'd still take him over 22 other starting quarterbacks in the league, even if it's just for three or four more seasons. The statistics are down for Brady, but he's still leading the Patriots to a lot of points and just as many wins.
11. Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos
Peyton Manning, at age 38, is the 11th-best quarterback option in the league. That's how dominant the five-time MVP is even as he reaches the tail end of his career. Realistic options are for two more years with Manning. Three would be considered a bonus. But any year he plays is an opportunity for that team to compete for a Super Bowl.
12. Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers
If Philip Rivers was a few years younger, he'd be one of the top quarterbacks I'd want in the league. He's extremely underrated and he showed at age 32 that he's still one of the top passers in the game. He's never missed a game and, even though he hasn't had much success in the postseason before, he's rarely the reason why his team loses.
13. Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins
I'm a believer in Ryan Tannehill. On an average team (especially with an average offensive line), he'd make some noise. He's played just two seasons and can be bought relatively cheap. A big 2014 season would earn him a fairly sizable contract extension.
14. Mike Glennon, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
I have no idea why the Buccaneers don't want to give Mike Glennon a chance as their long-term starter. Easily the best rookie quarterback in the league in 2013, Glennon could be one of a number of recent mid-round quarterbacks to prove his value as a franchise option.
15. Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions
Matthew Stafford is still young, at just 26 years old. But he's also way overpaid. His contract pays him about $19 million per year through 2017. The big question is whether the former No. 1 overall pick can return to the near-elite form that saw him throw for more than 5000 yards and 40 touchdowns in 2011. If not, any team with him at quarterback is overpaying for an underachiever.
16. Teddy Bridgewater, Minnesota Vikings
I'm a big Teddy Bridgewater fan, and putting a quarterback who has never played before in the upper portion of the starters is high praise. At the very least, you get cheap quarterback play for four seasons, but I expect the first-round pick to earn a contract extension before the end of his rookie deal.
17. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers
Given Ben Roethlisberger's age, style of play and injury history, I don't expect him to play more than four or five more seasons. But he's still one of the better quarterbacks in the game. He's won two Super Bowls and played in a third. He'd make an average team a likely playoff contender and a possible Super Bowl sleeper.
18. Johnny Manziel, Cleveland Browns
One of the most dominant college quarterbacks in history, the obvious question is whether Manziel's style of play can successfully translate to the National Football League. I don't think he'll be the next Tim Tebow, but I also don't expect him to be the next Steve Young or even Donovan McNabb. That's why I have him in the middle of the pack.
19. Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears
Jay Cutler's contract suggests that he won't be cut until after the 2015 season at the earliest. By that point, he'll be 31 years old. I don't see Cutler as the type of player who can succeed into his late 30s either. He's a chronic underachiever who seems to be injured almost every year. No thanks.
20. Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals
It's hard to deny that Andy Dalton is the weak link holding the Cincinnati Bengals back from potential greatness. He's been much better than most have realized in the regular season, but it's his dreadful postseason play that has to be a major cause for concern to the rest of the football world. Dalton has one more season before he hits free agency, where a big decision will be made on whether to extend him long-term.
21. Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs
Alex Smith is attempting to become one of the highest-paid quarterbacks in the game. I think any team would be foolish to give Smith top-tier money. He's revived his career after struggling for his first six years, but he's now 30 years old. On an average team, he'd produce average results. That's not enough for me.
22. Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens
Four fluke—yes, fluke—games during the 2012 postseason earned Joe Flacco the largest contract in the history of the National Football League. He followed up his record-setting deal with easily the worst year of his career in 2013. I'm willing to throw out the bad year and acknowledge him as an average quarterback who is never injured but is drastically overpaid. His insane contract drops him a few spots on this list.
23. Blake Bortles, Jacksonville Jaguars
Where do you put Blake Bortles on this list? He's never played a down in the NFL. But he does have four years of cheap play before he hits free agency. That's enough time to find out if he can be the guy for any NFL team.
24. Geno Smith, New York Jets
I'm a bigger fan of Geno Smith than most. The improvement he showed during the second half of the season, especially at the end of the year, is enough for me to think that he has a future as a starter in the NFL.
25. EJ Manuel, Buffalo Bills
It was a mediocre rookie season at best for EJ Manuel. Perhaps he can make the leap in year two, like Nick Foles did in Philadelphia, but right now the big question is whether Manuel can stay healthy. His stock was probably higher before he played a down in the NFL than it is right now.
26. Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders
I don't expect Derek Carr to be a successful quarterback in the NFL, but even if he is, you've got to have him in the mid-20s in these rankings. Carr was a solid but not great prospect. I don't think he'll make it out of his rookie deal as a starter.
27. Eli Manning, New York Giants
I don't think Eli Manning's 2013 season was a fluke by any means. How could it be? It was the third time he led the NFL in interceptions. He's really not a good regular-season quarterback and he's shown that year after year. He's escaped a lot of criticism for all his interceptions because he's led the Giants on two last-minute game-winning drives in the Super Bowl, but at 33 years old, I don't see any of his magic returning. His contract makes him a free agent after the 2015 season, at which point I'd be very hesitant to sign him to another deal. I'd almost rather go with a rookie at this point.
28. Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals
34 years old and past his prime, the saving grace for Carson Palmer in these rankings is his relatively cheap contract. You could cut him after the 2014 season with just a $2 million cap hit. Essentially, you'd use Palmer as a one-year veteran stopgap before starting over with another quarterback. And that's probably what the Cardinals plan to do.
29. Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys
Tony Romo is a 34-year-old quarterback coming off back surgery, and his contract virtually guarantees him at least three more years as a starter. That's about as bad as it gets. The only thing stopping Romo from falling lower on this list? He's still a pretty good quarterback. He could take a team into the postseason. Just don't expect anything close to a Super Bowl title.
30. Jake Locker, Tennessee Titans
I'm not a Jake Locker fan. Not at all. He can't stay healthy and he hasn't proven himself to be effective when he is healthy. He's about to enter free agency, so any team choosing him as their quarterback would likely need to commit or let him walk after the 2014 season. Picking him as your quarterback is like choosing a one-year stopgap, and a pretty weak one at that.
31. Tom Savage, Houston Texans
Tom Savage is a better option than Ryan Fitzpatrick or Case Keenum, but he's a fourth-round pick who won't get an opportunity to play for quarterback guru Bill O'Brien. He's the kind of player you'd want as your backup, not your starter.
32. Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams
Sam Bradford might have the worst contract in the National Football League. He's a bottom-10 starting quarterback who is one of the highest-paid players in the sport despite just one solid year in four seasons of play. I'd rather use a one-year veteran stopgap and draft a quarterback early next season than play and pay Bradford.