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Who Are the NFL's Top QBs Entering 2014 Season?

Ty SchalterNFL National Lead WriterAugust 31, 2014

Who Are the NFL's Top QBs Entering 2014 Season?

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    It's easy to understand why NFL fans haven't felt wind pick up, or heard the rustling of leaves in the trees. They've been transfixed by incredible quarterback play during the biggest passing explosion in NFL history.

    The grand old signal-callers of the NFL are still at the top of their game, and young phenoms are coming into their own. We're being spoiled with historic levels of efficiency, effectiveness and scoring.

    Any football fan who's been alive and paying attention over the past couple of decades knows who the greatest quarterbacks of this generation are. Any football fan who paid attention last season knows who the top producers were.

    Seasons change, though, and the future Hall of Famers are, whether we want to admit it or not, entering the winter of their careers.

    We know what's happened in the past, and we can guess who the quarterbacks of the future might be, but who are the quarterbacks of the now? Heading into 2014, who are the top five quarterbacks of the NFL?

No. 5: Andrew Luck

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    The Resume

    No. 1 overall pick in 2012, two Pro Bowl nominations in two seasons. 22-10 career record as a starter, 1-2 in playoffs.

     

    The Stats

    A pass completion rate of 57.0 percent, 3.8 percent touchdown rate, 2.3 percent interception rate, 5.85 adjusted net yards per attempt and 5.7 percent sack rate.

    Average of 3.9 attempts per game, 5.1 average yards per carry, 0.28 average rushing touchdowns per game.

     

    The Scouting Report

    Luck is the prototype for the modern NFL quarterback. A strong, fluid athlete blessed with a 6'3", 235-pound frame, he cut a 4.67 40-yard dash time at the combine, per NFL.com, and he was a top performer in nearly all the explosion drills.

    Blessed with high on- and off-field IQ, his polished mechanics and quick release give him the perfect skill set for unlocking today's hybrid defenses.

    During his rookie season, former Bleacher Report NFL Draft Lead Writer Sigmund Bloom praised Luck's instincts and improvisation even above his exceptional pocket skills:

    As the previous play illustrated, Luck's smarts under pressure are trumping his once-every-10 years ability to read and run a pro-style offense before he could even legally buy a beer. His ability to keep plays alive and effectively find and connect with receivers outside of the play design has been more important than his ability to manipulate and read a defense. 

     

    The Case For

    Luck, as a rookie, was given the entirety of then-offensive coordinator Bruce Arians' complicated pro-style playbook and executed it at a high level, turning the Colts from an NFL-worst 2-14 to 11 wins and a playoff berth.

    As a sophomore, he reunited with college offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton—but Hamilton installed a "No Coast Offense," per Paul Kuharsky of ESPN.com, a blend of traditional Bill Walsh principles, the offense Hamilton ran at Stanford and elements of the Peyton Manning/Tom Moore offense.

    Veteran Matt Hasselbeck told Kuharsky his head was "swimming" trying to learn Hamilton's new offense, but Luck handled it well. Despite strange game-planning and play-calling from Hamilton, not to mention injuries to receiver Reggie Wayne and tight end Dwayne Allen, Luck still took his game up another level. 

    He improved his completion percentage from 54.1 percent to 60.2 percent, improved his touchdown rate from 3.7 percent to 4.0 percent and cut his interception rate nearly in half: from 2.9 percent to 1.6 percent.

    Compare this to the struggles of fellow 2012 rookie phenom Robert Griffin III, who slumped severely in his sophomore season after being asked to handle a full NFL playbook.

     

    The Case Against

    Luck is entering just his third season in the NFL, and to date hasn't been able to elevate his game in the playoffs. In fact, it's been the opposite: In three postseason games, he's thrown just six touchdowns against eight interceptions and has a career passer efficiency rating of 70.0.

    While very good for his age, experience and circumstances, his rate stats don't yet stand with the very best.

    At No. 5, Luck is the best of a rich crop of second-tier quarterbacks. Hairs could be split between him and many of the Honorable Mention candidates. But his ideal skill set, outstanding transition to the NFL and successful growth and development despite adverse circumstances put him on this list—and make him a favorite to be No. 1 someday soon.

No. 4: Tom Brady

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    The Resume

    Nine Pro Bowl and two first-team All-Pro nominations. Two AP NFL MVP awards in 14 seasons. Three Super Bowl championships in five appearances and two Super Bowl MVP awards. Two-time AP NFL Offensive Player of the Year. NFL 2000s All-Decade Team. 148-43 career record as starter, 18-7 in playoffs.

     

    The Stats

    Pass completion rate of 63.4 percent, 5.5 percent touchdown rate, 2.0 percent interception rate, 6.95 net adjusted yards per attempt and 5.0 percent sack rate.

    Averages 2.25 rushes per game, 1.8 average yards per carry 0.08 average rushing touchdowns per game.

     

    The Scouting Report

    Tom Brady is the ultimate underdog, the best example of the NFL's scouting machine failing to pluck a future Hall of Famer out of the chaff. Coming out of college, his unimpressive measurables and famously schlubby physique, per SI.com, didn't stop him from coming off the bench early in his sophomore season and leading the Patriots to an improbable Super Bowl championship.

    Brady's arm strength and athleticism have improved greatly during his time in the NFL, but he'll never have a prototypical frame or cannon arm. Still, his field vision, decision-making, accuracy and especially pocket management are second to none.

    At times in 2013, Brady's age appeared to be getting to him, with his legendary in-pocket mobility a little less sparkling than usual, and his sideline throws losing zip and accuracy. This will be something to watch in 2014. 

     

    The Case For

    The case for is very simple: Brady's one of the best there's ever been. Even in an unmistakable down year, with his weapons getting injured in waves, Brady and the Patriots were still the NFL's third-best scoring offense in 2013, per Pro-Football-Reference.com, averaging an impressive 27.8 points per game.

     

    The Case Against

    Sam Monson of ProFootballFocus.com, writing for ESPN Insider (subscription required), tried to make a conclusive statistical case that Brady doesn't belong in the top five anymore.

    In 2013, his completion percentage (60.5 percent) and adjusted net yards per attempt (6.13) were his worst since 2003, and his touchdown rate (4.0 percent) was the lowest of his career. There's a very real chance that his 37 years are finally catching up to him.

    Yet when compiling this list, it's all but impossible to find five quarterbacks who are clearly better than Brady, even at his worst.

No. 3: Drew Brees

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    The Resume

    Eight Pro Bowl and one first-team All-Pro nominations in 13 seasons. One Super Bowl championship in one appearance and one Super Bowl MVP. Two-time AP Offensive Player of the Year. 110-75 record as starter, 6-5 in playoffs.

     

    The Stats

    Completion rate of 65.9 percent, 5.3 percent touchdown rate, 2.6 percent interception rate, 6.85 adjusted net yards per attempt and 3.8 percent sack rate. 

    Averages 3.44 rushes per game, 1.9 average yards per carry and 0.06 average rushing touchdowns per game.

     

    The Scouting Report

    Brees famously lacks ideal size for an NFL quarterback. At 6'0", 209 pounds, he doesn't have the kind of body that elite NFL quarterbacks usually possess. Like major league baseball pitcher Tim Lincecum, Brees has to make up for his lack of natural power with perfect mechanics.

    He has exceptional footwork, throws from a very strong base, transfers his weight beautifully and rotates his torso to get enormous torque out of his not-so-enormous body.

    Brees is an ideal trigger man for head coach Sean Payton's offense. He makes good decisions quickly, moving through Payton's many-receiver progressions to find the open man. He places the ball excellently, letting his receivers turn upfield and get yards after the catch.

    Brees is both aggressive and efficient, but he has a tendency to be a little more loose with the football than other elite quarterbacks. When he's having an especially rough outing, he'll throw more picks than the other quarterbacks on this list. When he's on, though, he's lights-out.

     

    The Case For

    Brees is one of the most prolific passers of his generation. He still owns the record for most consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass, per Simon Samano of USA Today, with 54. He also owned the NFL's single-season passing yardage record—until last season's record-shattering campaign by Peyton Manning.

    In the seven seasons Brees has worked with Payton, he has led the Saints to the playoffs while making the Pro Bowl five times. 

     

    The Case Against

    It's hard to come up with a strong case against Brees being in the top five. Perhaps he needs to cut down on the interceptions a little bit, and another deep playoff run would bolster his legacy. There's no way to come up with five quarterbacks currently playing better football, though.

No. 2: Aaron Rodgers

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    Mike Roemer/Associated Press

    The Resume

    Three Pro Bowl and one first-team All-Pro nominations in nine seasons. One-time AP NFL MVP. One Super Bowl championship in one appearance, one Super Bowl MVP award. 58-29 career record as starter, 6-4 in playoffs.

     

    The Stats

    Completion rate of 65.8 percent, 6.4 percent touchdown rate, 1.8 percent interception rate, 7.59 net adjusted yards per attempt and 7.3 percent sack rate.

    Averages 3.54 rushes per game, 4.7 average yards per carry and 0.19 average rushing touchdowns per game.

     

    The Scouting Report

    For a while, it looked as though Rodgers' career would be defined by his draft-day fall.

    From being perceived as 1A in a weak quarterback class to Alex Smith's 1B, to Smith going No. 1 overall while Rodgers languished for 23 more picks, to waiting three years behind Brett Favre for his turn to play, to struggling to a 6-10 start in his first season as starter, it looked like the California kid was going to go down in history as yet another Jeff Tedford bust.

    Then he won the Packers another Lombardi trophy, was named the most valuable player and first-team All-Pro quarterback by The Associated Press and has put up scary-good statistics ever since.

    As a prospect, Rodgers fell victim to the same rationale that cost Minnesota Vikings rookie Teddy Bridgewater: He was at least "pretty good" in every way a quarterback could be measured, but he wasn't amazing at anything. Just like Bridgewater was surpassed by the bigger, more raw, more athletic Blake Bortles, Rodgers was surpassed by Smith.

    Yet in three seasons on the bench, Rodgers developed into an incredibly gifted passer. Though he wasn't born with the natural cannon of a Jay Cutler or Matthew Stafford, he throws a football as well as anyone in the business—maybe better. He throws an incredibly tight spiral with very high RPMs, and he can zip any NFL throw into a crazy-tight window.

    Much like Favre, Rodgers has made a succession of fringe receiver talents into Pro Bowlers and at his best is all but unbeatable. After dramatically coming back from injury in the last game of the 2013 season to clinch the division, in Chicago, the San Francisco 49ers came to Lambeau and proved that as good as Rodgers is, he's not quite good enough to beat the best teams in the NFL by himself.

     

    The Case For

    Go and look at the rate stats again and compare them to the rest of this group. Rodgers is more efficient, more effective, more aggressive and yet more error-free than any of his peers. He is a purified Favre: aggressive without being reckless, instinctive without being brain dead, a little less schoolyard but a lot more consistent.

    His three years on the bench and injury-shortened 2013 mean his trophy cabinet isn't nearly as full as Brady's, but at a young-for-his-age 30 years old, he's got plenty of time to add notches to his gun. At this point in their careers he's nearly the passing equal of the No. 1 quarterback on this list but a much more gifted athlete overall.

     

    The Case Against

    As long as Rodgers is healthy, there's no case to be made that excludes him from the top five. In fact, were he to switch supporting casts with the top man on this list, there's every reason to believe he'd perform just as well.

    The only doubt, at this point, is his seeming inability to out-duel San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the playoffs. Were we to grant Rodgers Kaepernick's defense and vice versa, though, there's little doubt as to how that would turn out.

No. 1: Peyton Manning

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    The Resume

    Thirteen Pro Bowl and seven first-team All-Pro nominations in 16 seasons. Five-time AP NFL MVP. Two-time AP Offensive Player of the Year. One Super Bowl Championship in two appearances; one Super Bowl MVP. NFL 2000s All-Decade Team.

     

    The Stats

    Career completion rate of 65.5 percent, 5.8 percent touchdown rate, 2.6 percent interception rate, 7.24 adjusted net yards per attempt and 3.1 percent sack rate.

    Averages 1.67 rushes per game, 2.90 yards per carry and 0.08 average rushing touchdowns per game.

     

    The Scouting Report

    Peyton Manning is the ultimate pocket passer. When all is said and done, he'll be regarded as the best ever. He is football royalty, a student of the game, a notorious perfectionist and a proven franchise quarterback with a track record nearly two decades long.

    At 6'5", 230 pounds, Manning is an old-school quarterback. Nobody sees the field, reads defenses, makes decisions or delivers an accurate, timely ball better than he does.

    He is not a dangerous runner but can escape pressure if need be. He doesn't have a 70-yard cannon, especially not since the neck surgery that sidelined him for all of the 2011 season. Yet he still can put zip on intermediate-depth out routes.

    However limited he may or may not be, it was still good enough to rack up an NFL-record 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns through the air last season.

     

    The Case For

    Are you kidding? Peyton Manning's as good a quarterback as there's ever been, coming off the most prolific season anyone's ever had. He's a mortal lock for top-five status.

     

    The Case Against

    He probably shouldn't have had such a bad Super Bowl last February, from a legacy perspective. That said, there isn't one NFL quarterback ahead of him right now, let alone five.

Honorable Mention and Darkhorse Candidates

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    Mathew Sumner/Associated Press

    Honorable Mention

    Philip Rivers had a renaissance in 2013, a quietly excellent season after a long, slow decline. Head coach Mike McCoy has proven his ability to get great performances out of quarterbacks much less talented, and there's no reason to believe Rivers can't build on his performance in 2014.

    Historians can argue about where Tony Romo belongs in the pantheon of NFL quarterbacks, but there's no arguing about his production, supporting cast or defense. He'll get caught up in many shootouts this season and should throw for 4,000 yards and 35 touchdowns without breaking a sweat.

    Ben Roethlisberger belongs with his elite quarterback contemporaries, but his powerful frame and strong arm have looked significantly less powerful in recent seasons. Can he have a bounce-back year despite losing Emmanuel Sanders and Mike Wallace in back-to-back years?

    Of course, Russell Wilson has answered every question draft evaluators had about his height and frame. That said, the Super Bowl ring he owns is due slightly more to his defense and running game than his own derring-do. Wilson has a little bit of growth left to do in terms of on-field aggressiveness.

     

    Dark Horse Candidates

    Few quarterbacks have as much natural talent as Jay Cutler, Matthew Stafford or Colin Kaepernick, and all three have exceptional supporting casts. Under the right circumstances, any or all of the three could have monster seasons in 2014.

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