The news continues to be positive on the labor front, so I’m going to remain optimistic and continue to work on the ever-important positional rankings that every owner needs to prepare for their drafts.
Here’s my top 15 QB’s with a quick plus and minus note. I’m also breaking them into tiers or levels; I recommend all fantasy players use tiers when they compile their own rankings.
Tier One: The Elite of the Elite
These three quarterbacks have the most upside, the best weapons, and barring injury can and will be on many championship teams in ’11. Select one of these three and you can shoot for a high upside backup like Sam Bradford, Matthew Stafford, or Tim Tebow.
1. Aaron Rodgers (Bye 8)– Super Bowl MVP. Check. Passing and rushing ability. Check. Excellent skill players. Check.
The non-fraud A-Rod has tallied 32 total TD’s or more each of the past three seasons and averaged over 4,000 yards passing as well. A threat to run and pass; Rodgers’ weapons are intact and he’s poised for another number one finish.
(+) Consistent, tough, and has a nice blend of young stars and seasoned veterans around him.
(-) Odds would seem to be against him finishing atop the QB scoring leaders again, but he’s too talented to keep out of the top-three.
2. Philip Rivers (Bye 6)- Perhaps what’s most impressive about Philip Rivers’ 2010 stat line of 4,710 passing yards and 34 TD passes is he did it with a rag-tag receiving crew for at least half the season. Rivers will be looking for his fourth straight year of more than 4,000 yards passing, and he’s seen his pass attempts rise each of the past three years. A healthy Antonio Gates and happy Vincent Jackson could bump him to number one.
(+) Rivers is durable and has a true gunslinger’s mentality. He has arguably the best tight end ever at his disposal and a legitimate deep threat as well.
(-) If Ryan Mathews emerges (a big if), Rivers may see the San Diego offense become a bit more balanced and his passing attempts may drop.
3. Michael Vick (Bye 7) – Vick only started 12 games last year, but still totaled 30 total TD’s with nearly 700 yards rushing to compliment his 3,000 + passing yards. Nobody, and I mean nobody, has the agility and skill-set Vick possesses in the pocket and open field. Combine all of that with the deep prowess of Desean Jackson and the steady hands of Jeremy Maclin, not to mention Lesean McCoy to keep D’s honest, and Vick’s potential is limitless in Philly.
(+) Preparing for the season as the unquestioned starter in Andy Reid’s passer-friendly offense will give Vick more reps and confidence in 2011.
(-) There are some who believe defenses started to “figure out” Vick at the end of last season – not to mention expecting him to stay upright for all 16 games is a stretch.
Tier Two: Rock-Steady and Championship Caliber
These four guys have proven themselves as top quarterbacks; however, I don’t see them having the same upside this season as I do for the Tier one QB’s. With that being said, I’m not going to be upset if any of these guys is my QB this fall.
4. Drew Brees (Bye 11) – Drew loves New Orleans. In his five years under center in the Big Easy, he’s failed to surpass 4,400 passing yards only once (he had a mere 4,388 in 2009). His average completion percentage the last three years is a hair under 68 percent, and he’s tallied 34, 34, and 33 TD passes as well. Sure he doubled his interception total last year from ’09, but part of that can be blamed on his balky knee. In this offense and division, Brees is as surefire a top five QB as there is out there.
(+) Consistency and a coach who’s willingness to throw the ball are unquestioned.
(-) The move to draft Ingram may indicate a move back toward more rushing attempts; likewise, Marques Colston’s second career microfracture surgery is alarming.
5. Tony Romo (Bye 5) – I realize putting Jessica Simpson’s ex this high is going to shock and anger some – so be it. I think there is a bit of a perfect fantasy storm brewing in Big D this year.
First, Jason Garrett is running the show from the get-go. Second, Romo will be looking to return in top form from his injury-shortened 2010 campaign. Next, the pressure’s off the Cowboys this year – the hopes of hosting a Super Bowl have come and gone and they can play with less pressure.
Finally, and most importantly, I love the talent around him: Dez Bryant will emerge this year as a legit top 15 WR, Miles Austin is already there, Jason Witten is as reliable and sticky-fingered as Elmer’s glue, and the lack of a true workhorse in the backfield leaves this pass-happy coach with few alternatives. Don’t forget Romo accumulated over 80 passing TD’s from 2007-2009.
(+) As I mentioned, maybe no other QB has a cast of elite playmakers like Romo.
(-) Romo’s penchant for making questionable throws in big spots may ultimately keep him from ever being a top five fantasy QB.
6. Tom Brady (Bye 6) – Don’t get me wrong, I think Tom Brady is arguably the best QB in the NFL; however, this is the fantasy realm where stats must reflect the talent and leadership a QB possesses. 2010’s MVP had an outstanding campaign tossing a league-high 36 TD’s and compiling 3,900 yards through the air, but I don’t see similar stats in 2011. Outside of his 50 TD season in 2007, Brady had never hit 30 before last year; likewise, the cast of characters he’s throwing to isn’t causing any defensive backs to lose sleep.
I recognize Brady’s willingness to spread the love to his many viable weapons is perhaps his greatest asset, but don’t forget his coach will seek and exploit mismatches in all phases of the game making Brady’s stats less predictable. Am I taking him as my QB? Yes – of course. Am I reaching for him before the early portions of round three? I don’t think so.
(+) Brady is accurate, calm, and has Wes Welker fully healthy.
(-) Tom Terrific had foot surgery this offseason, and his playmakers are good but not great.
7. Peyton Manning (Bye 11) – Mr. Consistent has question marks this season. First, how might the neck surgery he endured in late May affect his training and preparation? Secondly, will an aging Reggie Wayne (33 years old) continue to be an elite receiver? Will Dallas Clark reemerge from his broken wrist? What can be expected from Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon?
Again, I doubt any fantasy owner is going to be upset if Peyton is their starting QB come Week 1; however, if ever there was a year to question simply putting him in the top three, it is 2011. I’m not afraid to have Peyton as my QB1, but I’m not taking him when the top six are still on the board.
(+) As consistent as they come: 11 of the past 12 seasons he’s thrown for 4,000 + yards and 25 + TD’s. You can’t beat that.
(-) Questions abound in Indy regarding his WR corps, the running game, and his neck surgery.
Tier Three: Potential Stars, Potential Questions
8. Matt Ryan (Bye 8) – Matty Ice has been pegged for fantasy superstardom this season and with good reason. His play and subsequent fantasy worth have both steadily increased each of his three seasons in the league.
With nearly 600 pass attempts in 2010, Ryan saw his Falcon offense move away from a run-focused attack and into an aerial show. Roddy White has cemented his status as a top three wide receiver, Tony Gonzalez has a bit left in the tank, but the additions of Julio Jones and Jacquizz Rodgers have left no doubt that this is now Ryan’s team. I have no doubts he will finally crack the 4,000 yard mark and 30 TD passes should follow. Did I mention Ryan’s 12 indoor games, where he has excelled in 2010?
(+) Ryan only had one game last year without a TD pass – and he’s poised and armed to become a legit top five QB.
(-) Ryan’s completion percentage (62.5) and yards per attempt (6.5) were pedestrian in 2010.
9. Ben Roethlisberger (Bye 11) – There’s no reason to rehash the circumstances leading to Big Ben’s four-game absence to start last year; however, there are plenty of reasons to examine his stats in the remaining 12 games. Seventeen TD passes, 3,200 passing yards, and another pair of scores on the ground are beyond solid.
Let’s not forget 2009’s numbers, when he easily surpassed 4,200 yards in the air and 28 total TD’s. Granted, Pittsburgh is typically run-oriented, but Hines Ward and Heath Miller are solid veterans – not to mention Mike Wallace is a phenom waiting to totally erupt. Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown bring new energy to the O.
(+) A soft 2011 schedule with the AFC South and NFC West on the slate, as well as a mammoth Super Bowl losing QB-sized chip on his shoulder.
(-) Let’s face it - Big Ben’s not throwing the ball as much as other QB’s (500 pass attempts or so), and you can’t ignore the legitimate skills of RB Rashard Mendenhall – especially in the red zone.
10. Matt Schaub (Bye 11) – You know you’ve arrived as a fantasy-worthy QB when many owners are “disappointed” in a mere 4,370 passing yards and 24 TD’s. Such was the case for Schaub in 2010. His season was a mixed bag, as he threw for one or zero TD’s in a whopping eight of 16 games.
However, Arian Foster’s emergence and Owen Daniels’ knee injury certainly contributed to his relative inconsistency. Foster’s play is somewhat of a catch-22 for Schaub; it opens up the passing game and play-action, but can lead to fewer attempts and/or TD’s. I still believe he’s safely a top-ten QB with upside and he’s coming off his second straight season starting all 16 games, so his injuries woes of the past appear to be behind him.
(+) Daniels returns, as does one of the leagues worst secondaries, ensuring the Texans aren’t going to be grinding it out every game.
(-) Foster’s the real deal and surely Kubiak and company will realize in eight of the Texans’ ten losses last year Schaub threw for over 240 yard, meaning more Foster might be the key to victory.
11. Josh Freeman (Bye 8) – Perhaps the only QB rivaling Matt Ryan’s post for breakout QB of 2011 is Freeman. A ridiculous 25-6 TD:Int ratio will do that for you, as will calmly and coolly leading a talented, young set of skill players with ease. Freeman’s size, speed, and presence coupled with some rising stars on offense have many fantasy owners thinking when he’s a top-five QB and not if.
I do like him as well and envision several seasons of top-five play ahead for him; however, I don’t think 2011 will be the first. The schedule toughens, defenses will adjust to Freeman and his weapons, and I’m banking on a slight regression before a true breakout campaign in 2012. If you’re talking keeper leagues – grab him and enjoy the ride, but just don’t expect it all this year.
(+) After tallying a fluky zero TD’s on the ground, Freeman will rush in at least four or five this year. He also has some legitimate play makers to throw the ball to.
(-) The schedule stiffens a bit and questions about a number two receiver, Kellen Winslow’s knees, LeGarrette Blount’s staying power, and more abound.
12. Matthew Stafford (Bye 9) – Based on talent and weapons alone, Stafford should be knocking on the door of top-five potential. Based on his four serious shoulder injuries in two years, as well as his second straight offseason with a shoulder surgery, he should be about eight-ten spots lower. Call it optimism, blind faith, or stupidity, but I think he’s closer to the top.
First, he’s got the most athletically gifted receiver in the game in Calvin Johnson. He has a duo of catch-first tight ends in Tony Scheffler and Brandon Pettigrew. Nate Burleson is a solid, not spectacular veteran presence, while Jahvid Best and rookie receiver Titus Young offer explosiveness on every play.
The weapons are intact, the team is on the rise, and he’s got a proven offensive coordinator – now he just needs to stay healthy for 80 percent of his starts and he’ll be a starting fantasy option weekly. Unfortunately, the reality is he’s probably as likely to miss significant time as he is to truly breakout in 2011.
(+) With his weapons, Stafford only needs to stay healthy and 4,000 yards and 25 TD’s should be well within reach.
(-) An average offensive line hasn’t been upgraded much. There’s no reason to think his shoulder woes are completely in the past.
Tier Four: Steady & Emerging
13. Sam Bradford (Bye 5) – Not every rookie QB has posted numbers as impressive as Bradford in 2010: 60 percent completion rate, 3,500 + yards, and nearly 20 TD passes. Of course, he did all while losing two of his best receiving options (Donnie Avery & Mark Clayton) to serious injuries for significant time. He’ll get both of them back this year as well as every quarterback’s dream coordinator in Josh McDaniels.
Sure the Rams could use a true playmaker at the WR position, but they do have talent in place, as well as reliable, pass-catching running back in Steven Jackson. Furthermore, it’s not a stretch to believe Bradford could throw more than any other QB this season, as he totaled 590 pass attempts last year without McDaniels aboard. Last year, he answered the critics and naysayers about his arm strength and potential to return from injury; this year I think he takes another step forward into the upper echelon of quarterbacks.
(+) McDaniels, McDaniels, and McDaniels – there’s no coincidence that Brady, Cassel, Orton, and more have churned out career statistical years when he’s running the show.
(-) The lockout hinders his chance to both learn the new offense and continue to build rapport with his receiving corps. Also, many second year players take a step back before they leap forward.
14. Eli Manning (Bye 7) – It was a true mixed bag for Eli in 2010. The good: 31 TD passes, over 4,000 yards for the second straight year, and 10 games with multiple TD passes. The bad: 25 interceptions and five fumbles lost and only three games without a single turnover. The ugly: Tom Coughlin’s face every time Eli gives him the deer in headlights look.
There’s a lot to like about Eli – from his talented receivers to his strong arm, but there’s also a reason he’s typically overlooked when discussing the top QB’s. In my opinion, he’s perfect to pair with any of the three QB’s ranked immediately ahead of him on this list (Freeman, Stafford, Bradford) because if you miss with any of them, you’ll at least have a legit starter in Eli.
(+) Hakeem Nicks is the real deal and Mario Manningham filled in more than nicely for Steve Smith.
(-) Thirty turnovers is unacceptable, and opposing defenses know he’ll make mistakes when pressured.
15. Joe Flacco (Bye 5) – Joe Flacco will rank higher on many lists in 2011, but I’m not totally sold on the former Fighting Blue Hen. I know he’s in rarefied air with over 10,000 passing yards in his first three seasons, and I know he’s calmly engineered his team to the playoffs, but he doesn’t pass the eyeball test for me.
His receiving corps is less than spectacular with an ancient Derrick Mason, an over-hyped Anquan Boldin, an oft-injured Todd Heap, as well as a few other misfits and outcasts. Ray Rice is the best offensive player, but Baltimore seems like a team unsure of its identity and unsure of its offensive bread and butter. Flacco is solid and will continue to improve, but I think he needs to become the focal point of the offense and have an infusion of talent to truly emerge.
(+) There’s no arguing with his passing yards and steady 25 TD passes from 2010.
(-) He lacks true playmakers on the outside and plays on a fairly conservative offense.