The NFL's Top 15 Quarterbacks of the 2011 Season

Eddie PryceCorrespondent IDecember 23, 2011

The NFL's Top 15 Quarterbacks of the 2011 Season

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    This season has been dubbed by many as “the year of the quarterback”.  There are many reasons as to why 2011 has been so unique with 4 quarterbacks in striking distance of Dan Marino’s 27 year old passing record and the chance of 3 QBs going over 40 TDs for the first time both in the same year.  This is an interesting year to evaluate the quarterback position.  


    Some blame the lockout because of the fact that defenses did not have enough time to jell in the off-season, but really it would make more sense that quarterbacks would be a step behind given the timing and chemistry needed between them and their receivers.  That has simply not been the case.  Even odder is that there are 3-5 quarterbacks out of an unheralded draft class that have had surprising success immediately at the most difficult position in the game in their first year.  Cam Newton set passing records in both of his first two games as a rookie (despite there being many questions about his ability to transition to the pro game and throw accurately), and Andy Dalton, coming from mid-major Texas Christian, stepped in as QB for a team that was expected to be terrible and led the Bengals to a lead in the rugged AFC north and momentarily a #1 seed into midseason.  Christian Ponder and Jake Locker have also had success in relief.


    So in the “year of the quarterback” how do you rank the top half of the starting quarterbacks in this league?  There have been a handful of QBs like Eli Manning, Jay Cutler and Alex Smith that have had better seasons than we are accustomed to seeing out of them and there have been some QBs like Philip Rivers, Michael Vick and Josh Freeman who have taken large steps back this year.  It is very hard to ignore the overall status of certain QBs in this evaluation, but I have mainly focused my determinations on what the quarterback has done this year alone.

    Here is how they stacked up.

15. Michael Vick, Eagles.

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    Last year, based on the 2010 season alone, Mike Vick had entered the elite and looked like he had turned the corner as a complete quarterback in this league, but for several reasons, he has not bounced back with a strong season in 2011.  The Eagles disappointing won-loss record reflects it.  Vick has thrown for 2,675 yards this year with 13 TDs and 13 Ints.  His passer rating is 80.6.  These numbers are pretty mediocre, even if you take into account that he has missed time with injuries.  Just by watching his performances this year, defenses have done a fairly good job of scheming against him and he seems to be really bothered by constant heat coming from aggressive pass rushes and the numerous hits he has endured trying to faithfully stay in the pocket.  I still think he is a top 10 quarterback more than likely, but you cannot make that judgment based on this year.

14. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Bills

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    Despite the fact that he started out the season on fire leading the Bills to a 3-0 start, Fitzpatrick, a newcomer in discussions of above average quarterbacks, has cooled off a little bit as the season has gone on.  Early in the year, he was one of the top rated passers in the league and looked like he was the early season Tim Tebow, that could lead his team back from any lead at any time.  Now as the Bills have lost 7 straight, it’s hard to fully appreciate Fitzpatrick as a star quarterback.  Nevertheless, he has made strides in the right direction this year with 3,329 yards, 22 TDs to balance out 19 INTs and an 80.8 rating.  He is one of the more exciting players in the league at the QB position so there is room for improvement.

13. Andy Dalton, Bengals

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    There were many that did not believe that Dalton could make an impact in this league early.  However, based on his destination in seemingly hopeless Cincinnati, he was given every opportunity to play.  He struggled a little bit early, but Dalton has really come on to lead this team to a surprisingly solid season this year.  At 8-6, the Bengals have already surpassed expectation and he has been the reason why the Bengals have won on multiple occasions.  Teamed with rookie sensation A.J Green, he has been able to form wonderful chemistry with the young star that should blossom into greatness in the future.  Dalton’s numbers are not striking but they are good enough to warrant some high praise given the expectations of his team coming in, and the fact that he has been so comfortable and successful as a rookie quarterback.  He has thrown for 3,012 yards with 18 TDs and 13 INTs, which is very impressive for a rookie.  His rating is 89.4.  I expect him to only get better.  I really liked his pedigree at TCU.

12. Philip Rivers, Chargers

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    This is hard because anyone who has watched football with honest eyes over the last 4 or 5 seasons knows that Rivers is an elite quarterback in this league.  He has done it with gaudy stats, he has been clutch, he has led teams deep into the playoffs, and he has toughed out pretty significant injuries with no complaint.  Whether you like him or not, he’s a guy that you normally do not want your team to go against.  Short of winning a championship, he’s clearly a winning quarterback. 

    This year however, if you focus on his play in 2011 alone, he has not played up to his reputation.  At many points this year his play has been baffling.  Sometimes his San Diego offense is barren and cannot move the ball or score at all, and sometimes he has managed to throw timely picks that have cost his team on multiple occasions.  It’s strange to the eyes given how accurate and clutch he normally is, but that has been reality.  While he hasn’t been terrible by most quarterback’s standards, he has been sub par in comparison to past years with 4,015 yards, 23 TDs and 17 Ints.  His rating is 89.9.  He has actually surged of late with some great play that has once again positioned the Chargers for another improbable run.

11. Alex Smith, San Francisco

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    Let me make it clear, I am almost as appalled by my ranking of Alex Smith over guys like Vick and Rivers, but if you just evaluate based on this year alone it is justified.  Alex Smith has been more steady this year and done what is asked of him better.  At no point has wonder boy coach Jim Harbaugh asked Smith to put up huge numbers and carry this team that is well built around him, but instead, he has done a great job of “managing the game” for the 2nd seeded NFC West leading 49ers.  En route to engineering the 49ers to a surprising 11-3 record, Alex Smith has thrown for 2,752 yards and 16 TDs.  Most impressive is the fact that he has taken care of the ball and allowed the great defense and run game that he has around them to do what they do and only turned over the ball through the air 5 times this year.  He also has a very solid rating of 91.1.  This year has been his best by far, and Coach Harbaugh deserves a lot of credit for sticking with him.

10. Matthew Stafford, Lions.

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    Some forget that Stafford was a highly touted prospect out of Georgia back in 2007.  As much as people talk about Andrew Luck and other good-looking prospects of the recent past, you will not find another quarterback that had better pure arm talent than Matthew Stafford.  He has never been the most accurate or made the best decisions, even at Georgia, but his ability to throw the ball into tight spaces and down the field is certainly among the best in the league. 

    He has struggled with being healthy in the past, but this year, it has come together for him and he has been able to stay healthy throughout the year.  As a result, his Detroit Lion squad is 9-5 and guaranteed of their first .500 season since 2000.  His stats are bigger than his positioning on this list only because of the fact, that when he has been bad this year, he has been awful!  The Chicago Bears game comes to mind as he threw 4 Interceptions and could not seem to avoid throwing the ball to the other team.  He then threw 3 against Green Bay a couple weeks later.  He has thrown for 4,145 yards with 33 TDs and 14 INT.  His passer rating is 93.8.  There is no question he has had a lot to do with the Lions finally putting it together this year.



9. Jay Cutler, Bears

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    In the past, Jay Culter was the epitome of a gunslinger that relied on his arm strength and swagger to guide his decisions as a passer.  This year, for the second year in a row, the Bears decision makers, as a whole, found that the formula for success for Jay Cutler and the Bears was for him to play a safer and smarter game.  He resisted, Mike Martz resisted, but in the end, with the great defense that the Bears have and their explosive special teams, the Bears are at their best when Cutler plays with a harness. 


    This year, he seemed to master this new style of play under Mike Martz.  He may not have had the big 350 and 400 yard games that he has had in the past, but Cutler did a great job of managing the game and making accurate throws underneath and showing off his talent to make big throws down the field when needed to his average receiving corps. 


    Unfortunately, when he seemed to peak in a game against his rival Phil Rivers, he got hurt trying to atone for his lone mistake of his team’s trouncing of the Chargers.  As a result, the Bears magical season has completely come to a halt and they are being held hostage by their inept backup option Caleb Hanie.  In 10 games, Cutler threw for 2,319 yards with 13 TDs and 7 INTS.  His rating was 85.7, which is just slightly under the respectable rating he had last year.  For cutler to have almost doubled his INTs is very impressive given his propensity to take unnecessary and ill-advised passes.

8. Cam Newton, Panthers

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    If this list were based on overall ranking, it would be unfair to place Newton this high up after just one year.  However, based on this year alone, it has been astounding how well he has played in his first year as a pro, after playing only one year as a starter in college in a spread offense. 

    Many doubted his ability as a passer, and his ability to decipher pro defenses, but he has done more than an adequate job in his first year despite not having the typical length of offseason that a rookie normally has. 

    Despite all the doubts, and the fact that he joined a team that was completely impotent last year, especially through the air, Cam burst onto the scene in week 1 of the season and set rookie records for the amount of yards thrown for in both his first game and first two games.  He threw for 422 yards his first week against Arizona and 432 yards against the world champion Green Bay Packers. 

    After throwing a ton early in the season, the Panthers have started to rely less on his arm and brought his attempts down from the 40s to the 20s typically and defenses have started to adjust to him over time.    As a result, he has not been quite as dominant but he still has been impressive.  He has answered accuracy concerns completing just under 60% and has thrown for 3,722 yards with 17 TD and 16 INT.  Although his interceptions number is a little high, he still has more touchdowns than interceptions as a rookie and added 13 rushing touchdowns, which is an NFL record for any quarterback.  30 TDs combined through 14 games is not bad!  His rating is 82.3, but he has revived a franchise and woke up a sleeping giant in WR Steve Smith.

7. Tony Romo, Cowboys

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    Romo is having a great year in my opinion.  He gets a bad rap always because of his timely mistakes and key losses, but at the end of the day, Tony is one of the most talented quarterbacks in the league.  He can make all the throws, is athletic and he’s a pretty good leader.  However, he always finds ways to choke up games like he did in the N.Y Jets and Detroit Lions games early in the season that were well in hand. 

    What’s ironic about his history of badly timed mistakes is that he has always had high TD/Int ratios.  This year is no exception.  He has a quite impressive 29 TDs to go along with 9 INTs.  You really cannot ask for more out of your quarterback.  He has thrown for 3,895 yards this year and has a 102.6 rating.  Those are great statistics. 

    Tony Romo deserves more credit for what he has done this year, but as long as the Cowboys continue to hover around .500 and lose games on his behalf, he will continue to be penalized for turning over the ball late in big games.  A QB is supposed to protect the ball and make a positive difference in the end, not hand over the ball to the other team in the clutch.  In all fairness, Romo has had his share of great games in which he has led “Big D” to victory, but their have been too many occurrences in the other direction for them to be ignored.

6. Matt Schaub, Texans

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    The Houston Texans, finally in Peyton Manning’s absence, have staked claims on the AFC South for the first time in their history and are headed to the playoffs.  Schaub is a big part of that.  Similar to what the Bears have done with Cutler, the Texans despite Schaub’s talent and history of obese fantasy stats, they have chosen to rely on their All-Pro caliber running back Arian Foster and their newly minted #1 defense led by genius Wade Phillips heavily.  Unlike with Cutler, this adjustment was no reaction to his inability to take care of the ball. 

    This year after multiple 4,000-yard seasons, he had been scaled back a little bit.  This year he put up a more modest 2479 yards in 10 games with 15 TDs and 5 INTs.  His rating of 96.8 was certainly among the best among starting QBs (as it normally is).

     Unfortunately, while leading the Texans to the #1 record in the AFC, he got injured and is likely out for the season.  Luckily the Texans were better equipped with capable backups than the Bears were, so there is hope, but certainly, hopes of a deep playoff run have been limited significantly in his absence.  He played great this year and showed his versatility as a quarterback in terms of executing various styles of play.

5. Eli Manning, Giants

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    Over the years, despite the fact that I am a huge fan of his brother, I have been extremely hard on Eli due to his erratic and inconsistent play from game-to-game and year-to-year.  He is as talented a quarterback as anyone in the league, possibly more gifted than his brother in terms of athleticism and arm talent, but he has never been able to consistently play at a high level and come anywhere close to the level of play his brother has made standard for the Manning name in this league.  

    This season however, Eli has probably put together his best season yet.  In his championship season of 2007, he put together as good a string of games late in the season and into the playoffs as any quarterback has ever put together in one season.  This performance was coming off of relentless criticism of his leadership skills, demeanor and inconsistency.  This season Eli has had moments where he wasn’t great, but overall he has simply lit up the league statistically and these stats were not fluff. 

    Most impressive about these stats is that he has done it without a lot of the weapons that he is used to having.  He is working with a new TE in Jake Ballard, he lost his security blanket in Steve Smith, his running backs and receivers have been injured and inconsistent, and the defense has been limited by some of their injuries.  Despite that Eli has in arguably carried the Giants to where they are today in playoff contention with 4,362 yards and 25 TDs to go along with 15 INTs.  Eli has always had issues with turning over the ball but he has done pretty well avoiding that fate this year.  His rating is 91.7, which is very solid.

    I thought Eli was crazy when he declared himself elite earlier in the season, but based on his performance this year, and the sub par play by other formerly elite players, it’s fair to say that he has proven me wrong and entered the ranks of the elite this year.

4. Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers

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    There was a long time where people underrated Ben because his team did not rely on him to win directly, or because he did not post the type of numbers some of his peers have, but I think by now people realize that even though he plays the game differently, he’s as effective as a leader and winner as any other QB in the league.

    Ben will always hold the ball too long and make mistakes from time to time, but as long as he continues to win and extends plays by dusting off defensive lineman that are basically his size, Ben will continue to be an elite quarterback in my opinion.

    Whether you like him or his style or play or not, only one other person in this group can claim multiple Super Bowl rings and he is yet to be mentioned on this list.  The Steelers certainly have not won in spite of him and this year is no different. 

    After a slow start, Ben has rebounded to put up 3,856 yards, and throw 21 TDs and 14 INT.  These numbers are not quite as impressive as some others in the group, but they certainly do not force me to explain the intangibles of his game much further.  The fact that he’s among the league leaders in passing yards and his rating is actually pretty good despite his reckless and freelance style of play is impressive in itself.  Most importantly his football team is contention for the conference’s best record and he’s so important that he played this past week against San Francisco with a fairly significant ankle injury.

3. Tom Brady, Patriots

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    Some people eyes might be perked up to see this reverse in the order here, because Tom Brady is certainly the best quarterback of this generation if you exclude injured Peyton Manning, but based on this season alone, I think he fits in the 3rd place position.

    Tom has been spectacular this season as usual and simply been clinical in his orchestration of the high-powered New England offense this year.  Surely he is blessed with a lot of weapons, but you would be crazy to not assume that Brady is the biggest piece to that fabulous puzzle. 

    Once again, the Patriots are positioned to make another Super Bowl run this season, and a big reason for that is the fact that Brady is in position along with three other quarterbacks to break Dan Marino’s passing record.  He has thrown for 4,593 yards and 35 touchdowns to go along with 11 INTs.  Last year’s MVP has an astounding 106.7 rating and is in many ways the standard of how the quarterback position should be played.  This year may be one of his best ever, and he might not even finish 2nd in the MVP voting.  Go figure.

2. Drew Brees, Saints

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    Now that you have gotten over the fact that Brady, who many feel is the best quarterback in the game, is ranked 3rd, when you see Drew Brees’s name, I can only hope that most of you say “Oh ok, that sounds about right”.  Brees has almost quietly put on an exhibition in the “Big Easy” and on the road.  Drew Brees right now is close to breaking Dan Marino’s passing record, and it may not even take 16 games to do it.  He has been simply amazing in leading the Saints to an 11-3 record thus far. 

    Absolutely surgical in his performance this year, he has returned back to his fantasy football god status with gaudy passing numbers of 4,780 yards, 37 TDs and 11 INTs. His passer rating is a sparkling 109.1.  Seasons like this typically have MVP written all over it.  He is still in the running, but unfortunately he has chosen the same year as the #1 QB to set the league on fire.  His accuracy and precision in this offense has been a sight to see.  I doubt that Drew’s performance this year will ever be forgotten, especially if he ends up with the record, but it’s more than likely he will not be MVP.  Maybe he can top off this fabulous season with his 2nd Super Bowl ring. 

1. Aaron Rodgers, Packers

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    For all of the previously mentioned QBs and their top shelf performances to end up short of the #1 position has to make you wonder what in the world could be done to upstage what guys like Brady and Brees have done.  Aaron Rodgers has in some ways redefined what great quarterback play looks like.  He’s not the classic and tall statue looking pocket passer that Brady is, he’s not computerized quarterback machine that Peyton Manning is, and he’s not the well oiled little tough guy machine that Brees is but instead he’s a little bit of everyone.  Aaron Rodgers is pretty much a computer game version of what some sports geek wishes the quarterback position should be.  He has certainly shown signs of it over the years, but at times, it never completely clicked consistently like you knew it could given his talent.  He’s comfortable and proficient in the pocket, he’s athletic, he can throw on the run, he can process defenses, and he’s got the moxie and servitude to be a great leader.

    This season finally it has all come together.  Up until this past Sunday, there had not been a game in which Aaron had not thrown for less than 2 TDs in a game.  That is unbelievable.  Throughout the season, he has really just made it look all too easy and even caused some experts to start talking about him as one of the best QBs to ever play the game.  What a long way he has come since being the unfortunate successor to the great Brett Favre in Green Bay.

    Although he has fallen off pace a little bit in pursuit of league passing record, he still has passed for 4,360 yards.  However, what makes this season so special in addition to the 13-1 record he has led the Packers to, is the fact that he has thrown for 40 TDs and only given away the ball through the air 6 times.  That is mind-boggling.  Most good quarterbacks shoot to double their TD/INT ratio, and he has almost SEVEN times as many TDs as INT. 

    If that’s not enough for you, he has a 120.1 ratio.  Let that marinate.  That does not even make sense.  Great quarterbacks manage a couple games like that every year, but to put up that type of number is just ridiculous.  Only Peyton Manning in his MVP season of 2004 put up a higher rating of 121.1, and obviously that record is still in reach.  Even Brady’s magical 2007 season didn’t come close to this mark.  Aaron Rodgers has set the bar for quarterbacking this year and the way things look, there is no turning back.

Honorable Mentions

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    Matt Ryan, Tim Tebow, Joe Flacco