Top 28 Over 28: Quarterbacks
Who are the best quarterbacks in the NFL? That question has come up for decades, going back to the debates between the talent of Dan Marino and the success of Joe Montana.
How would you go about proving the worth of a signal-caller in 2016? Would you look at stats such as passer rating, his record in the playoffs or the number of awards, Pro Bowls and All-Pros he has on his resume?
In Bleacher Report's 28 Over 28 series, we'll break down and rank players who are at least 28 years old, which covers the majority of non-rookie-contract players league-wide. To do so, we created grading criteria that reflect how NFL defenses value and respect quarterbacks on the field.
The most important part of a quarterback's game is his ability to throw into the intermediate range—the zone between the linebackers and safeties—as those passes are crucial to convert third downs when drives go off script, which is why that trait is worth 30 points in the 100-point scale. A quarterback's deep ball, which keeps the back end of the defense honest, is the second-most important trait a passer can have, which is why it's worth 25 points.
The remaining 45 points are split between mobility (20 points), short passing ability (15 points) and arm talent (10 points.) Mobility is important, as dual-threat passers can change the six-man box looks that defenses throw out, plus they can extend plays when protection breaks down.
Short passing ability is the bread and butter of NFL quarterbacking. Those passes aren't of high difficulty, but they are mandatory to be a 16-game starter in the league, and passing in the red zone, in constricted space, has never been more important than it will be in 2016. Lastly, arm strength may seem like a flashy trait, but it's vital when taking into account the timing of passes.
This 100-point scale will lead to some draws, but any approach to grading this many athletes will always have its flaws. Join us as we break down the top 28 veteran passers in the NFL.
28. Colt McCoy, Washington Redskins (29 Years Old)
Age: 30 (in September)
Colt McCoy isn't able to maximize his full talent on intermediate passes. When throwing up the pipe against Cover 3 defenses, he still leads his targets too far, causing unnecessary incompletions.
He ultimately leaves too many plays on the field to be considered efficient in this area.
During his two years with the Washington Redskins, McCoy has completed 98 of 139 passes. One major reason for his sky-high completion percentage is the number of passes he throws underneath the zone drops of linebackers.
The Redskins often rely on a dink-and-dunk passing game, which is why starter Kirk Cousins led the league with a 69.8 completion percentage in 2015. The difference between the two quarterbacks is that McCoy can't drop a deep ball into a bucket.
Scan-and-shoot passes are no problem for McCoy, but throwing over the heads of cornerbacks can lead to some issues.
The easiest way to explain McCoy's athletic ability would be to call him a college scrambler. On the relative scale of NFL athletes, he's nothing to write home about, but he can make some moves that will extend plays.
Getting him on rollouts isn't an issue, and he's even run some inside zone option with Washington. In two years with the team, he has 19 carries for 63 yards and a touchdown.
This is where McCoy earns his keep, but he's far from perfect. He lacks the arm strength to make passes in tight windows, and his balls can be off-tempo, making it difficult for receivers in tight coverage to come away with a reception.
If he starts to see a rush, his scrambling instincts can kick in too soon. He far too often drops his eyes from looking downfield to stare at front-seven defenders like a running back.
McCoy wasn't known as a big-armed prospect coming out of the University of Texas, which is likely what kept him out of the first two rounds of the draft despite him posting back-to-back All-American seasons. That trait is difficult to change, and it has been the divider between McCoy being a starter and a backup throughout his career.
You may remember McCoy as a young Longhorn, but those days are long gone. After starting 21 games in his first two NFL seasons, McCoy played for three franchises between the 2012 and 2014 campaigns.
After he started four games with the Redskins in 2014, some people speculated he would take the starting job from Robert Griffin III and Cousins, the two younger quarterbacks with the franchise at the time. In 2015, McCoy played in only two games, throwing just 11 passes.
With Cousins winning the starting job, the writing was on the wall: McCoy is a slightly above-average career backup. He accepted that fate by signing a three-year, $9 million contract with the team this offseason.
27. Shaun Hill, Minnesota Vikings (36 Years Old)
Shaun Hill has what's known as a "popgun arm." In windows between 15 and 25 yards, this is apparent by how much air is under the ball when he throws it.
His trigger isn't decisive, either. Too often, Hill will double-clutch, leading to lost momentum through his throwing motion or an awkward release.
With a quarterback like Hill, the only time you want to go deep on a defense is to keep it honest. He's never going to be a surgeon cutting deep against Cover 2 defenses.
What he can do, though, is toss a deep ball down the sideline in man or Cover 3, essentially creating a 50-50 ball toward a potential mismatch. If he can win 40 percent of those battles and get a pass interference call about 10 percent of the time, consider that a win.
Hill will get hunted down from behind by a 300-pound defensive tackle. For whatever reason, he loves to scramble, but he's not efficient with the ball in his hand.
In his 14 years in the NFL, Hill has averaged more than 1.2 yards per carry just three times, and he has been sacked for 526 yards.
Hill has one of the oddest releases in the NFL, a side-arm swipe that looks more like a frustrated teen throwing a controller across a room after a loss in Madden than an NFL quarterback throwing a football. Between that and his tendency to lean when passing, he's one of the more aesthetically displeasing passers in the league.
If Hill cleaned up those factors, he'd likely have a career completion percentage higher than 62. If he didn't save himself so much on passes, trading incompletions for a clean jersey, that number would also rise.
Sticking around the league as a 36-year-old backup is a major accomplishment for someone who has only 34 career starts to his name, though, so he must be doing something right.
Hill has a better arm than a lot of backup quarterbacks in the league, which is a positive considering how often he "arms" passes. He's no Ryan Mallett in terms of arm strength, which is both good and bad, but it's a trait that pops off film considering the other men on this list.
In a lot of ways, Hill is like a bizarro Philip Rivers. He's a cerebral short-yardage passer who can't run and has a motion that would have college recruiters crossing his name off their lists.
The difference between Rivers and Hill is that the latter never threw a pass on his rookie contract and has played with four teams in his career; in 2015, he changed his jersey for the third time in three years. On the other hand, Rivers was able to get a graduate degree in a system like Peyton Manning or Tom Brady.
Hill plays like the answer to the "What does Rivers look like if Drew Brees stays in San Diego?" question as the high-value backup who couldn't get a starting job on his rookie deal. After Hill returned to Minnesota for his second stint with the team, the Vikings have somewhat of a high-variance passer, but they shouldn't have qualms about their backup.
26. Chad Henne, Jacksonville Jaguars (31 Years Old)
A surprising number of Chad Henne's passes end up falling short when he's throwing in the intermediate level. The last thing you want to do is have a ball die in the dirt before a receiver can make a play on it.
Arm strength doesn't seem to be an issue for Henne, which makes the cause of the problem puzzling.
Henne may not throw a ball on a rope for 40 yards, but he can complete quality deep passes, even if his consistency is erratic. He may hang too much air under balls at times, but he can throw over cornerbacks deep down the sideline, which is always going to be an NFL trait. Between 2012 and 2013, he had 67 completions of 20 or more yards.
In eight NFL seasons, Henne has never had a year where he finished with negative rushing yards, which is impressive for a quarterback. He's never going to shake one-on-one defenders, but he does enough to buy time and take off against man coverage.
One of the better traits that Henne displays is his ability to read full-field concepts underneath. This can be both good and bad, with the negative being that the ball doesn't come out fast enough, leading to him taking unnecessary hits.
The patient passer has few flaws, but if he can throw it before seeing a target running open and limit his tipped passes at the line of scrimmage, he can still be a stopgap game manager in the NFL.
When you think of heartland passers who stand at 6'3" and 220 pounds, the cliche that comes to mind is some cannon-wielding quarterback. Henne, a Pennsylvania product via the University of Michigan, has just an average arm for a backup NFL passer.
This offseason, Henne signed a two-year contract worth $8 million with the Jacksonville Jaguars. At that price, he's the 34th-highest paid quarterback in the NFL in terms of per-year dollars.
That's about right where he should be paid. In 2018, the next time he's a free agent, he may get another opportunity to be a transition quarterback, earning a paycheck to start the first few games of a season before a younger, higher-upside passer takes over his role.
If Henne can tighten up his short passing ability, he can still post an 80-point passer rating season for a couple of years. He does enough with the deep ball to keep defenses honest.
25. Brian Hoyer, Chicago Bears (30 Years Old)
Brian Hoyer is no expert at throwing underneath safeties, but he can survive in that area. When given the opportunity on inside leverage plays, like when the tight end is running up the seam with a safety on the outside of him, Hoyer does a solid job of getting the ball to his pass-catchers.
He may not be a tight-window thrower, but with play action, Hoyer can start in the NFL without the intermediate range holding him back.
Hoyer isn't going to throw perfect deep strikes, as his balls tend to have more air under them than you'd typically ask of a starting quarterback, but they spin with solid accuracy. If nothing else, he's going to give his receivers a chance to win a well-timed jump ball. In Houston, DeAndre Hopkins was his favorite deep target for a reason.
He's not close to a dual threat, but Hoyer can survive with his legs. He can buy time, but he lacks the speed to turn the angle on just about any NFL defender.
For teams in need of a game manager, Hoyer provides some upside as a fringe starter. He's accurate underneath, especially on crossing patterns that need both patience and ball placement to complete against man coverage.
He's a true "take what the defense gives you" passer. For teams in a transitional period or that lack the big money to spend on top talent at other positions, he's all you can ask for from a cheap borderline starter.
If Hoyer's arm were better, there would be hope he could develop into more than a West Coast-style passer who needs the assistance of play action for attempts of more than eight or so yards.
After going undrafted in 2009, Hoyer is now on his sixth NFL team. In four years with the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals, he made just one start, but the Browns gave him the opportunity to be "the guy" in Cleveland, where he's from.
Leaving town after 16 starts in two years with 17 touchdowns and 16 interceptions, Hoyer signed with the Houston Texans and head coach Bill O'Brien, who also had a background with the quarterback and the Patriots, in 2015. In his one year there, Hoyer posted his best single-season passer rating (91.4) and completion percentage (60.7) since leaving New England.
In 2015, the Chicago Bears struggled with inexperienced sixth-round pick David Fales and self-hazard Jimmy Clausen backing up Jay Cutler in the Windy City. In Hoyer, head coach John Fox at least has a game manager who has the upside to be consistently average.
24. Josh McCown, Cleveland Browns (37 Years Old)
In the intermediate level, opponents don't have to worry about Josh McCown hitting a skinny post between two defenders. If he's going to complete a high number of passes in this range, they're usually going to come on routes that break toward the passer.
He's very much a "see it, throw it" quarterback rather than someone who anticipates passes well before a target breaks.
McCown is a fairly accurate passer on all levels, which helps him minimize risk in the deeper portion of the field. Last year, he threw only four interceptions off of 292 passes, and in 2013, he threw one interception in 224 passing attempts.
That is a direct reflection of his long ball, even if his arm strength does limit which routes his pass-catchers can run.
McCown has the ability to escape from the tackle box, but if you ask him to do much more than cross the line of scrimmage and dive, you're going to be disappointed. He doesn't score poorly here; he's just not a dual threat.
He needs to sort out some technical issues, like his frequent one-arm motion, but 37 years old, he's unlikely to change at this point in his career. As a short-yardage passer, McCown makes full-field reads and rarely misses the open man.
McCown has the arm of a game manager, which thankfully is his role in the NFL. He's never going to thrive on 3rd-and-long situations with the zip of the ball.
In 2013, McCown re-emerged with the Chicago Bears after four quiet seasons. Some thought he could have staved off Jay Cutler for the starting job, but in his following two seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Cleveland Browns, his squads went a combined 5-27.
You can do much worse than McCown as far as starting quarterbacks go, considering he can put a ball over a cornerback's head, but he's still more of a transitional passer at his age. In Cleveland, he'll battle with Robert Griffin III and rookie Cody Kessler for playing time, which should be expected of someone of his talent.
23. Mark Sanchez, Denver Broncos (29 Years Old)
Mark Sanchez's biggest issue with his intermediate ball isn't that he can't get the ball within his target's catching radius; it's that he doesn't put the ball into a location that would be conducive for yards after the catch.
If he works on his ball placement, he could improve in this area, where his arm strength is more than fine to throw a strike or two per game.
One of the reoccurring themes with Sanchez's passes of over 10 yards is that he can throw high. In the intermediate range, that can mean missed yards-after-the-catch potential, but on the long ball, that could mean an incompletion or interception.
If he can settle down and throw a steadier ball, he would be a starting-caliber passer.
In Chip Kelly's system, Sanchez's hidden speed was exposed. The former USC passer isn't just a typical dropback West Coast offense quarterback, as he proved during his time with the Philadelphia Eagles.
It's also easy to forget that Sanchez posted 100-yard seasons on the ground during each of his first three years as a New York Jet, including 12 rushing touchdowns. He's the definition of "sneaky athletic."
Sanchez can work on certain things, such as his slow trigger on triangle passing concepts and the three-man snag, but he holds his own. In terms of how fast he can get the ball out of his hand when he needs to, he has a quality, though not elite, trigger.
If you're looking for a baseline of an arm that can lead to a quarterback "getting hot," the passers to point are Sanchez and Eli Manning. It can come and go at times, but he displays his upside on a couple of passes per game.
Some narratives have taken the NFL by storm. One of them is the concept of "bad Eli Manning."
Manning is one of the more volatile quarterbacks in the NFL, someone who may throw an interception or a deep dagger into the heart of a defense on any given play. That same type of potential is present in Sanchez's film.
Think of Sanchez as Manning, but if Manning toes the line on "bad Eli" half the time, Sanchez straddles it about two-thirds of the time. The Denver Broncos have a passer who can post a hot streak, but he's far from a safe player.
22. Sam Bradford, Philadelphia Eagles (28 Years Old)
Sam Bradford plays with a baseline ability between 10 and 25 yards. Despite sailing some balls, he can hit a pass in open space.
If allowed to use play action to freeze underneath zone defenders, he can look great. Demanding a consistent ground game is essential for any team that is looking to start Bradford in the future.
Bradford's biggest flaw to this point in his career is his ability to test defenses deep. He's a good short thrower, but if the line of scrimmage begins to get crowded, he's not able to throw higher-percentage balls in that range. Furthermore, his missing deep throws leads defenses to field the same formations over and over.
Other than straight concepts such as four verticals and switch verticals, Bradford can't complete much downfield. He doesn't seem to have an edge throwing outside or inside breaking routes when timing and arm strength are crucial.
When Chip Kelly came into the NFL, many assumed he would go after dual-threat quarterbacks. After he rolled out Nick Foles and Bradford, though, it's clear that Kelly's strategy didn't demand much from the legs of his passers.
Bradford can buy time, and he's not immobile, but his 39 rushing yards last year don't make him a threat on the ground.
Bradford's lack of arm strength hurt him in the Kelly system he played in during the 2015 season. If his trigger and arm could have gotten some quick slants out faster, he would have eliminated most of the underneath passes he left on the field.
His ball placement is less than ideal, but his mental registry is fine. He will find an open target, even if a less-than-perfect pass in terms of location and timing is sent that way.
His arm talent hovers between that of a low-end starter and a backup. If he were better in this area, which historically is nearly impossible, it would solve a lot of his problems.
If not for the velocity of passes on underneath routes and his overall deep ball, he could be a true starting quarterback in the NFL.
Bradford is in a sort of purgatory. He won the starting job in 2016, staying atop Chase Daniel and Carson Wentz, but Wentz, the second overall pick in this past draft, is going to take that job from him at some point.
He's in a similar spot to Drew Brees after the San Diego Chargers acquired Philip Rivers in 2004, but Philadelphia was already supposed to be Bradford's New Orleans, where Brees was able to rejuvenate his career. Bradford is under contract with the Eagles until 2018, when he might get another shot to prove himself as a 30-year-old.
As a fringe starting-caliber player, timing is everything, and Bradford is on the hook for two seasons of this odd limbo.
21. Derek Anderson, Carolina Panthers (33 Years Old)
Derek Anderson is one of the more surprising backup quarterbacks in the NFL. After starting two games in 2014, he posted a 105.2 passer rating, which led some to believe he might get another shot to be a transitional quarterback.
What might be holding him back from that type of gig, though, is his intermediate ability. His ball placement isn't always on point, and his trigger is not quick by NFL standards. Refinement in this area is a must if he's going to be a 16-game starter late in his career.
Anderson at times throws high on deep passes, but considering who his targets are in Carolina, there's no shame in a quarterback attacking high. With Kelvin Benjamin, a 6'5" pass-catcher, serving as the team's No. 1 wideout in 2014, you would rather place a ball too high, where he can make a play with his impressive catching radius, than too low.
That flaw can be rationalized by personnel. A positive about Anderson's deep game is that he's not overaggressive. When his targets don't have a step on cornerbacks, he'll throw the ball away instead of force a low-percentage pass that could easily come down as an interception.
The former Oregon State passer's 6'6" length shows up when he's running the ball. Oddly enough, his long strides actually make him an above-average ball-carrier for the position when he's in the open field.
With that said, he's not a great mover in the pocket, but he's also not a liability on rollouts. In the end, he's a net neutral passer in terms of mobility.
The Panthers offense is a great match for Anderson. As a misdirection passer in a run-heavy scheme, he's able to throw into more open lanes just past linebacker zones than most quarterbacks.
It's a pro-style offense that asks for full-field reads, and Anderson performs well when scanning defenses sideline to sideline. The only issue he has underneath is being too conservative, as he'll pass over receivers who are "NFL open."
Anderson has an above-average arm for a backup quarterback, but he doesn't have zip that will wow viewers or defensive coordinators. The fact he's not throwing slow, soft balls is a positive for the role he fills, though.
With Anderson under contract for two more seasons, the Carolina Panthers have a high-end backup passer behind Cam Newton, the 2015 MVP. In 2018, Anderson may be too old to be a reliable starting quarterback, but if he's given the opportunity to be a backup quarterback to an injury-prone starter, it may be the best chance to see him on the field long-term.
20. Drew Stanton, Arizona Cardinals (32 Years Old)
A vertical passer in perhaps the NFL's most vertical offense, Drew Stanton makes good reads in the intermediate area. It's the scheme he was built to play in, and given his experience under Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians, it shows on the field.
One of his better traits is being able to diagnose a blitz early. It's rare to see him hit a target before the pickup defender on blitzes can get to a pass-catcher.
As far as backup passers go, there may not be a better deep-ball thrower in the NFL than Stanton. In Arians' spread-ish system, he gets as many reps to do so as one can ask for.
If a vertical team is looking for a transition quarterback in 2018 when Stanton's contract comes off the Cardinals' books, he'll likely get the first call.
Stanton is not great in this area. Even when he's dropping back to pass, it's easy to tell he has slow feet. He can step up into the pocket with ease, but other than that, an offensive coordinator shouldn't ask much from Stanton on the ground.
While he's a solid passer on long balls, Stanton's flaw is his inconsistency in the short game. Rolling safeties cause issues for the stationary passer.
Another issue he seems to have is misfiring on comprised passes. If he doesn't set his slow-ish feet against a blitz, his arm alone can't get the job done at the rate of an NFL starter.
He doesn't have a cannon, but he has just enough of an arm to be considered a vertical passer. Stanton isn't going to be knocked for a weakening arm anytime soon, even at his age.
There may not be a better backup quarterback in the league in terms of the offense he works in than Stanton. The Cardinals are able to maximize his positives and mask his negatives when he's on the field without installing a new playbook.
With Carson Palmer's injury history in mind, it was important for the team to retain Anderson, which they did this offseason with a two-year, $6.5 million deal. He's slated to stick in the desert until the 2018 free-agency cycle.
19: Ryan Fitzpatrick, New York Jets (33 Years Old)
In the intermediate range, most of Ryan Fitzpatrick's quality passes come from chemistry, not raw talent. He's on the same page with Jets wideout Brandon Marshall on back-shoulder fades, which is his best pass into this area of the field.
At the same time, though, Fitzpatrick also makes a lot of dangerous passes, which explains why he was fifth in the league in interceptions (15) in the NFL in 2015.
Most of Fitzpatrick's deep passes fall short because of footwork issues. He doesn't get his feet set, like Aaron Rodgers can get away with, but not having the same wrist velocity and release as Rodgers is the big difference between the two.
You wouldn't think of a bearded Harvard graduate as a potential mobile quarterback, but Fitzpatrick's legs are underrated. He's a stumbling runner in space, but he can move off his mark in the pocket to buy some time for himself. Last year, he rang up 270 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
Fitzpatrick doesn't have the tightest motion in the league, and his ball placement isn't consistent enough for him to dominate the short portion of the field. If he can develop more consistency, he'd do himself a lot of favors in terms of how defenses scheme against him.
He has a slightly above-average arm for an NFL quarterback, but his velocity comes and goes as it pleases. You won't often see him throw the ball to his fullest potential until he's in a compromised position, and even then he puts a lot of stress on his shoulder.
After a drama-filled episode this offseason, the New York Jets finally re-signed Fitzpatrick in late July. While he shouldn't be handed a starting quarterback job uncontested, he does have enough potential to get hot for stretches.
After bouncing around four teams in four years, Fitzpatrick seems to have found a good landing spot in New York. With the way he plays, he should be a career journeyman or transitional quarterback for the rest of his career. If he doesn't make the most of his 2016 season, this could be the last year he starts in the NFL.
18. Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers (28 Years Old)
Colin Kaepernick, a fallen star, is about as close to a fringe starter as you're going to get in the NFL. One reason for his regression is his inability to take advantage of the nuanced intermediate range.
A chaotic scrambler, he's not able to take what the defense gives him late in structure, which is why defenses seemingly love to get him on the move. When his feet are set and he's loaded up, he can throw to a spot, but he's underdeveloped in this area of the game.
Kaepernick has a strong arm, but he's not a good deep-ball thrower, despite the temptation to correlate the two as the same trait. He frequently lofts balls, which gives defenses an opportunity to make a play. His long passing motion hurts him, as he's not able to stick through a blitz and throw a last-second ball into a window.
A true dual-threat passer can change the numbers in the tackle box, and Kaepernick does that at the professional level. He has the speed of an NFL safety, long-striding in space for big gains on the ground.
He's not the type of quarterback who can make a defender miss, but he can run by front-seven defenders in a straight line.
Kaepernick's passing motion leads to missed plays and sacks. Everything needs to come quicker for passers with odd releases, and the former Nevada quarterback isn't Philip Rivers mentally.
The combo of his motion and "see it, throw it" style of quarterbacking is what's holding him back from his once-Super Bowl-caliber potential. Once that was exposed, teams were able to develop defensive game plans to take advantage of his flaws, which he hasn't formulated a counterpunch for.
Rolling to the right, he's able to throw on the move to targets with a clear leverage advantage, but other than that, his inconsistencies in this area are clear.
Despite the fact he has to load up on passes, Kaepernick has one of the strongest arms in the NFL. Throwing against little to no pressure, he can wow with his velocity. His pitching background is apparent.
Kaepernick is at a pivotal point in his career, as the fate of his long-term status with the San Francisco 49ers is still undecided. It should be noted that Fox Sports' Jay Glazer believes Kaepernick might not even make the team's 53-man roster.
If he can tighten up his mechanics and his train of thought against early blitzing defenses, he can return to being a franchise quarterback. If he performs like he did in 2015, though, such as his 9-of-19 outing with four interceptions against the Arizona Cardinals, he may find himself on the open market sooner than later.
17. Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs (32 Years Old)
Alex Smith isn't known for his ability to throw past the sticks, and he's become the NFL's cliche of a game manager. When asked to throw farther than the zone linebackers drop into, balls are late because he visibly hesitates, not due to his mechanics.
On clear shots, either on crossers or deep curls, he's able to make consistent completions. On plays that ask for starting-caliber arm strength and timing, however, he often falls short.
Quietly, a lot of Smith's issues stem from his inconsistent shoulder alignment. He too often doesn't close his shoulder enough, which means he has to "arm" deep passes.
That and his less-than-stellar arm are not a good combination. He plays in a system designed to take advantage of short routes for a reason: He's clearly better there.
Even at his age, Smith has the wheels to run the ball, which is why Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid calls in inside zone option plays for the quarterback against a six-man box. He can move around in the pocket too, but he's not an elusive runner.
He can run in space and wiggle some in structure, but he won't break the ankles of an NFL defender worth his keep.
Smith is a true West Coast offense-style quarterback. Because of that, he's often hit with the Captain Checkdown label.
He's efficient low on defense, hitting slants, understanding triangle passing concepts and making pre-snap reads that get the ball out of his hands quickly. So long as an offense doesn't go off pace, leading to 3rd-and-long, Smith won't hinder a scoring drive.
Arm strength is a multilevel question in the NFL. There are players who don't have the arm to complete high-difficulty deep passes, and then there are players who don't have the arm to throw safe passes.
Smith can be a safe starter, but he's never going to scare a defense with his peak potential.
Kansas City has its starting quarterback, but he's still not talented enough to win on his own. Smith can manage a game, keeping his offense going at the level of the rushing attack, but he can't do much more than that.
For some teams, that's enough. If Smith were on the open market, it wouldn't be surprising to see him earn $20 million per year. With a solid running game and defense in Kansas City, he does just enough to keep the team in the playoff hunt, which keep the paychecks for the front office and coaching staff coming in.
16. Kirk Cousins, Washington Redskins (28 Years Old)
Kirk Cousins is on the threshold of being the quarterback of the future for the Washington Redskins, but he could still use some work in the intermediate range. He shows flashes off play action and crossing patterns, but he's more of a "see it, throw it" passer in man coverage than someone who can take advantage of small windows in zone coverage.
He does enough to make you believe he can improve in this area, but he's not going to be the type of quarterback to take over a game for 60 minutes until he brushes up in the middle of the field, despite his NFL-leading 69.8 percent completion rate last reason.
His arm strength isn't great for throwing down the pipe or in the center hole against Cover 2, but Cousins has some traits that allow him to survive as a vertical thrower. He has a lot of receivers who can win one-on-one matchups when running vertical, and he has a well-calibrated ball when throwing over cornerbacks, even if it does tend to hang a bit.
Play action and personnel are important for him, but an offense can survive with him throwing deep passes so long as the defense isn't primarily focused on stopping it.
Cousins isn't immobile, but he's not going to win in a race against front-seven defenders. He's solid on rollout opportunities, but designed options and scramble drills aren't where he thrives.
For the most part, Cousins is fine in this area, but he can throw to the wrong leverage on slants and needs to work on ball placement. His anticipation can also use work on rubbing crossing patterns, where he could throw it before his man is physically open.
His arm is starting-caliber minimum. Cousins isn't going to make wow plays, but he's not going to float balls into the curl-flat zone either. Like many of his attributes, he's simply average.
Right now, Cousins is a safe quarterback. He had many interceptions dropped, and he may regress like Nick Foles and Michael Vick did in Philadelphia, but he's not a poor option to go into the season with as a starter.
Despite some flaws, he's still talented enough to test the entire field with his offensive weapons. It might be difficult to keep the pass-catching unit stacked if he signs a long-term deal with the Redskins, but Washington will treat 2016 like a test season for the franchise-tagged quarterback.
15. Chase Daniel, Philadelphia Eagles (29 Years Old)
With only 77 passing attempts in his NFL career, it's hard to make sweeping statements about Chase Daniel's NFL prospects, but what he did in Kansas City with the Chiefs was enough for his former offensive coordinator Doug Pederson to hand him a three-year, $21 million contract with the Philadelphia Eagles.
His play against the San Diego Chargers comes to mind as the moment when he showed his talent on film. One of the major reasons why Daniel ranks above Philadelphia's Sam Bradford and Kansas City's Alex Smith here is his ability to attack the middle portions of the field.
In constricted space, the limited film showed he was able to hit tight windows, a trait that is rarely seen from a No. 2 quarterback.
When Daniel came in for Smith, Kansas City wasn't afraid to go with the long ball, which is significant considering the narrative of Smith being a conservative passer. In the majority of NFL offenses, Daniel would be a better fit thanks to his ability to attack on multiple levels of the field compared to Smith, who only excels in the short game.
Like Smith, Daniel can run the option at the NFL level. No one will mistake him for Michael Vick in his prime, but he's enough of a running threat to worry defenses who play a six-man box against one-back offensive looks.
He's a bit of a college scrambler as well. When he needs to, he can break out of the tackle box to regroup the play.
He may not be the short passer that Smith is on slants and quick routes, but he's nearly flawless when running triangle concepts, a staple in any West Coast offense. So long as the Philadelphia Eagles are able to build their offense around vertical and horizontal stretches, either out of trips formations or with help from a running back out of the backfield, Daniel should thrive, if he ever sees the field.
From the perspective of arm strength, Daniel is average for an NFL starter. He's about on par with Smith, which may be one reason why he never surpassed the former No. 1 pick on the depth chart.
Maybe it was Smith's contract or front office politics that kept Daniel from competing in a battle for the starting position while he was with the Chiefs, but in limited film, he was the better quarterback on that roster. Unless he was a completely different player in practice, one who didn't look nearly as strong as when the bullets were live, he should have contended for the top job in Kansas City.
Now that Daniel is with the Eagles, the narrative seems to be that Bradford is going to be the starter in the beginning of 2016, with the job slowly transitioning to 2016 second overall pick Carson Wentz.
14. Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens (31 Years Old)
Joe Flacco is one of the highest-variance quarterbacks in the NFL, which shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. He had a Super Bowl run when he took over the playoffs in 2012, but he's also not widely considered a top-10 passer.
One reason for this is his reliance on the deep ball. He doesn't often target the middle of the field, though his ball does have some solid zip when he does.
The occasionally overaggressive player looks deep first before dropping his eyes to the lower portion of the field, and given the status of his offensive line over the past couple of seasons, he hasn't had much time to allow second options to develop. Because of this, he can stare at a deep route and then immediately go to a checkdown rather than quickly work through a multilevel progression.
Again, he's a high-variance passer, but his deep ball can look like one of the best in the league when he's on. There's no doubt that defenses are scared and respect his ability to throw a ball into any corner of the field.
When he sees a one-on-one matchup on the outside, even if he can only throw a jump ball to a receiver with even hips with his defender, he'll attack deep. He's a vertical passer, although his team doesn't rely on spread formations like in Arizona.
As an athlete, Flacco is underrated. When you think of a 6'6" vertical passer playing for a cold-weather franchise, you automatically picture a statuesque quarterback, but Flacco isn't that.
His mobility is better than most give him credit for, even if he's not a dual threat. No one who is paying attention would claim that he has rocks in his shoes.
Flacco is often more of a checkdown passer in zones underneath linebackers' drops rather than a West Coast offense-style quarterback who wants to chip away at a defense slowly. Because he isn't nuanced in this level of the field, it can be dangerous to count on him consistently.
His release isn't great to begin with, but he's really mailed in his footwork and shoulder work in recent years. Without a closed shoulder, it's hard to get a full body into a throw, and Flacco sometimes doesn't seem to care about his throwing motion, much like Jay Cutler.
It's almost a demand for vertical passers to have special arm talents, and Flacco doesn't break that stereotype. He has one of the strongest arms in the league, which is why the Ravens locked him up through the 2021 season. He's slated to make over $150 million over the course of his current deal with Baltimore.
Did Flacco get the Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl? Yes. That does not give him a pass for his entire career, though.
On paper, he is declining. On paper, he has few receiving talents to throw to. On paper, the Ravens can't afford another sub-.500 record.
Flacco has to play up to his contract for Baltimore to win games now, as this is a league built on contract value, and he hasn't been able to execute on that level since his Super Bowl run. If he doesn't turn that ship around soon, the Ravens will find themselves in quarterback purgatory, which typically means franchise purgatory.
13. Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons (31 Years Old)
Matt Ryan can be a solid intermediate passer for stretches, but he has a lot of close calls that go both ways. On plays that demand more arm strength, like out routes to the field side, he often has spotty ball placement.
On inside breaking routes, he's usually consistent, which is a bright spot in the area.
Oddly enough, Ryan is best on deep drops when throwing deep. He doesn't have the biggest arm on Earth, but when he's able to go through a clean drop, step up and motion, he can be deadly accurate with timing routes such as the corner and post.
Having Julio Jones as his No. 1 target helps him out, but he excels at timing a late-breaking ball when he's given a clean pocket.
He's a surprising athlete, but he's nothing to write home about. You'd be surprised by his scrambling ability since he's usually thought of as a pocket passer, but he can shake himself away from close calls.
His best trait is as an underneath passer, and a lot of that has to do with his quick trigger. His arm strength is good enough to make fast throws based off pre-snap reads that not all passers are able to execute.
This is his bread-and-butter area.
It comes and goes at times, but Ryan has a slightly above-average arm for an NFL quarterback. He's not someone you'd call strong-armed, but to label him as average would be a disservice to his talent.
Ryan is going to be as good as the deep weapons he's throwing to and the offensive line that protects him, but he's a player you can build a championship roster around. He's a low-variance passer compared to the other quarterbacks on the same level as him, and his fluctuation has more to do with personnel not meshing than him failing or making a mistake with a ball.
He can't make a Super Bowl run by himself, but he does show the ability to throw the deep ball and play efficiently underneath, both of which are franchise-passer traits.
12. Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions (28 Years Old)
Even in the intermediate range, a lot of the passes Matthew Stafford threw were jump balls to Calvin Johnson, his star receiver who retired this offseason. Without knowing how Stafford will react sans Johnson, there are some unanswered questions revolving around the quarterback.
In Week 3 of the preseason, the warm-up to the regular season, Stafford posted a 51.9 passer rating. Until we see a large sample of what that stripped-down Lions offense looks like, it's hard to hang your hat on him even treading water.
Some of the causes of his intermediate flaws are clear, though. Other than the issues with his feet, the fact he doesn't stand tall—he frequently leans—is why his ball placement can be inaccurate.
He has the arm to be one of the best deep-ball throwers in the NFL, but his consistency isn't quite there yet. It seems like he's comfortable with getting the ball in the general area of his receivers, asking them to make a play, rather than putting the ball in a bucket for them.
Once Stafford stops throwing deep balls—and the absence of Johnson may force that upon him—he'll finally develop the deep touch he needs to move into a higher tier of signal-callers.
Stafford is a backyard scrambler with the legs of Brett Favre. He's not going to run much option in the NFL, but he can move around.
He's more of a scrambler and time-buyer than a dual threat, but he can jump around the pocket with ease. Staying disciplined with his eye level while moving is a goal he should strive for.
His base is very thin for an NFL passer, as he rarely has his feet in position to get his full body under throws. He often arms balls with his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage, too.
Stafford is a decent underneath thrower, but he's more of an upside deep thrower than a surgeon who slashes a defense with a million small cuts. Asking him to be a disciplined passer isn't how you maximize his talent.
The former Georgia Bulldog has one of the strongest arms in the league, which is why he was a super recruit coming out of high school in Texas and why the Detroit Lions drafted him first overall coming out of the Southeastern Conference. He is not limited physically in any way.
As a high-variance player, Stafford is on the fringe of being able to make a title run as a passer. After playing his entire career with Johnson, though, he'll now sink or swim in 2016 without his star wideout.
A young 28 years old, there's still room for Stafford to grow, and there's reason to expect it to happen over the next two to three years. If he's able to piece together a more efficient game without losing his aggressive style of play, the light just may turn on in Detroit.
11. Eli Manning, New York Giants (35 Years Old)
For as much flack as Eli Manning gets for being a streaky passer, he can make difficult intermediate passes look easy when he's at his peak. His motion could be faster, and some issues arise from that flaw, but he's more than manageable in the mid-range.
Even when throwing to the far side of the field, he can put it on the sideline. He doesn't need to wholly revamp his game; he just needs to be consistent, which is hard when he has had a rotation of less-than-stellar receivers to throw to in recent years.
Manning isn't limited when throwing deep. With his arm strength, he can make every throw on the field; it's just the question of whether he will make that throw on a given down.
He can heave a ball over the head of a cornerback, but his calibration issues make that pass less than ideal. In a pinch, he could get hot, but you don't want to build a 16-game season around his vertical ability.
If you can move Manning off his spot, you've done your job defensively. Manning can throw a bit on the move, but it doesn't always look pretty, and mobility is not a positive for him.
Though Manning is hot and cold underneath and does miss some short passes, but in his route option-style offense, he also makes passes that other quarterbacks wouldn't have the opportunity to on the fly. With the addition of Sterling Shepard, a consistent route-runner, to pair with Odell Beckham Jr., Manning should only get more efficient with a pair of legitimate starting-caliber receivers.
Do not be surprised if the Giants are one of the teams that elects to go for two more often this season, as they should be one of the more efficient teams in constricted space with the trio of Manning, Beckham and Shepard.
Manning has up-and-down arm strength. If he knows pre-snap his first read is one that will be a throw between safeties or a cornerback and safety, he seems to do a better job mechanically to generate more zip on the ball.
On more casual passes, though, you don't see the same type of arm strength.
Manning is currently one of the most high-variance passers in the NFL. He earned two Super Bowl rings off hot streaks, but the question of if he can look like that over a 16-game season still lingers.
In 2015, he posted his highest passer rating while throwing more touchdowns than he ever had in a single year. He also threw his lowest interception percentage since 2008 while completing his highest number of passes of 40 yards or more since 2011, when the team upset the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI.
Quietly, Manning has some momentum building, and if the reloaded Giants can piece a quality team together, do not count out a late-career resurgence from the two-time Super Bowl MVP.
10. Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals (28 Years Old)
Over the past few years, Andy Dalton has transitioned from a game manager to a legitimate quarterback, and one reason for that is his improved ability to attack the mid-ranges of a defense. There's no question Dalton's jump from 33 passes of 20 or more yards in 16 games in 2014 looks different juxtaposed on film than his 51 passes of 20 or more yards in 13 games in 2015.
If he's throwing into space, he can hit a timing route. While it may take some time for him to get a ball off on non-packaged plays or on crossing-type patterns, he can still threaten the area, and that's enough to keep defenses honest.
The only major issue he has here is getting balls knocked down at the line of scrimmage when he's throwing to the center of the field.
Like his intermediate skill, Dalton is "good enough" to keep defenses honest. Sure, he might not have a great long ball, but he puts in the effort to get better every year, and the assistance of receiver A.J. Green, who has strung together five straight 1,000-yard seasons despite missing three games in 2014, helps him out.
Against six-man boxes, the Cincinnati Bengals were not afraid to let Dalton run the ball on inside zone-option plays. To combo off that, they also toyed with the idea of using packaged plays against seven-man boxes where they put a "conflict defender" in a bind, forcing him to choose if he was going to play the run on Dalton or take a tight end on a quick pop.
Dalton's running ability allows the Bengals to spread out defenses and make them hesitate. For a quick-strike offense, that can't be stressed enough. On the move, he's a solid passer as well, as he's rarely fazed when rolling from the left side.
When throwing to the wide side of the field, he can miss quick strikes low. Other than that and his sometimes spotty ball placement on slants, he has no major issues when throwing short.
His fast release helps him here, and it's one reason why the Bengals are able to field one of the better- packaged, quick offenses in the NFL.
Dalton's true liability is his arm strength. He has enough to be an NFL starter, but his peak is going to be as a Philip Rivers or perhaps Tom Brady type of passer.
For teams that run vertical offenses, he's never going to be a perfect fit, as he won't be worth the money he'd get elsewhere on the open market.
Cincinnati is now a title contender in the NFL. Without the development of Dalton, who is ranked as the third-highest non-first-round quarterback here, that's impossible.
As we saw when AJ McCarron started in the playoffs, resulting in a loss that featured a 56.1 percent completion rate and a 68.3 passer rating, the Bengals need Dalton just as much as he needs them. There are better quarterbacks on this list, but as far as a landing spot is concerned, Dalton couldn't ask for better personnel or a better scheme to be matched with than he has in Cincinnati.
9. Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins (28 Years Old)
On intermediate passes, Ryan Tannehill's arm can be an issue due to timing, especially when he's staring down the barrel of a gun on a blitz. If his receivers win inside leverage early on, he's typically fine throwing into this area, but few yards-after-the-catch opportunities are made based solely off Tannehill's ball placement.
That can explain why only four passers—Philip Rivers, Eli Manning, Matt Ryan and Matthew Stafford—threw fewer passes of 20 or more yards on equal or more attempts than Tannehill in 2015.
Tannehill was tied for the fourth-most completed passes of 40 or more yards in 2015 with 13, but he's not what you'd typically think of as a vertical passer. He does display some flashes, and there's hope of him refining his long ball, but his inconsistencies make the Miami Dolphins wary of building their offense around a deep-attack game plan.
If he were in Pittsburgh or Arizona, he wouldn't be nearly as nice of a fit as he has been in Miami.
With his receiver background at Texas A&M, it shouldn't be a surprise that Tannehill looks nice with the ball in his hand. He can break plays on designated runs, and his 901 rushing yards in his career, to go along with five touchdowns on the ground, qualify him as a dual threat.
If he can process defenses faster, he can be a Philip Rivers-like passer on underneath passes. He has one of the better triggers in the NFL, but he misses open targets at times when he locks onto a read.
If he learns how to go through more efficient progressions quicker, he could live and die off of short passes alone.
Tannehill is right in the middle area for starting quarterbacks in terms of arm strength. He's not going to wow you with passes, but he's not a liability and won't loft deep balls.
The highest-ranked passer on this list under the age of 30, Tannehill still has a lot of potential to grow, and with a new coaching staff led by former Denver Broncos and Chicago Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase, he could conceivably have a breakout campaign in 2016.
A much more aggressive passer in 2015, Tannehill has shown great strides to be more than a game manager, posting career highs in yards per attempt, passes of 20 yards or more and passes of 40 yards of more. If he can keep that momentum going, he could eventually be considered a top-five quarterback at some point in his career, as signal-callers such as Tom Brady, Carson Palmer, Tony Romo and Drew Brees may be out of the league when Tannehill enters his early 30s.
8. Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears (33 Years Old)
Other than the fact Jay Cutler takes some extra time to load up when throwing in the intermediate range, he's fairly solid in the middle portion of the field when given pass protection that holds up through his throw. His ability to throw a compromised ball is in question, but that's not an intermediate-specific issue.
Cutler's biggest concern when throwing deep is that he seems to be fine throwing aggressive balls and banking on his receivers to make a play. Given his history with 6'4" Brandon Marshall and 6'3" Alshon Jeffery, it makes sense as to why he has been conditioned to think this is an acceptable approach.
Between that and his almost no-effort approach to footwork, he's still very underdeveloped for a 33-year-old passer with nine full-time starting seasons under his belt. His Uncle Rico-like release is also not ideal.
You wouldn't think of Cutler as a dual-threat quarterback, but he's cracked 170 rushing yards in each of the seven seasons in which he's started 15 or more games, posting nine career rushing touchdowns. He's certainly mobile, and the Chicago Bears do run the inside zone-option with him.
The issue with Cutler is always going to be mechanics. No one in the league "arms" balls more than he does.
It's not a rarity for the former Vanderbilt quarterback to be squared up with the line of scrimmage when flinging the ball, which high school coaches wouldn't even allow their signal-callers get away with. Luckily, Cutler can get the ball off on multiple platforms even if his release is too long at times.
If Cutler didn't have one of the better arms in the NFL, he wouldn't be able to complete half of the passes he attempts. He lives and dies off of his arm strength, bypassing traditional mechanics because he generates enough velocity with his arm alone.
Cutler managed to do all of this while staying aggressive, posting 10 passes of over 40 yards, the best mark of his career, and 53 passes of over 20 yards, his best total since his first season with the Bears.
He's becoming more consistent, and his talent is higher right now than some recent Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks. If he can brush up his mechanics, even this late in his career, the narrative on Cutler could change completely.
7. Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers (34 Years Old)
Philip Rivers is as close to prime Peyton Manning or Tom Brady as anyone else in the league at the line of scrimmage. His quick elimination process allows him to narrow down open receivers quickly, which is why he so often can throw intermediate crossing patters before a window closes.
He can have pinpoint accuracy at times, though his tendency to double-clutch does lead to him leaving some plays on the field.
If you need to go deep with Rivers, you're probably in a bad situation. Despite throwing more balls than anyone in the league in 2015, he finished in a four-way tie for ninth in passes of 20 yards or more and a four-way tie for 19th in passes of 40 yards or more.
His arm strength isn't great, which is reflected on long throws. It's why the San Diego Chargers' passing game typically relies on tight ends, pass-catchers out of the backfield and timing routes from his wideouts.
He's a passer who needs to try to stay on schedule on early downs for a manageable third down.
Like Brady and Manning, pocket passers who do a lot of pre-snap work at the line of scrimmage, Rivers also has feet of stone. If you can get him to double-clutch or move off of his spot, especially in an offense that often only has five men in pass protection, he rarely is able to escape pressure.
Mentally, Rivers is one of the fastest in the league through his progressions. On plays such as three-man snag concepts, he's quick to diagnose zone coverage and find the open man with an inch of leverage like it's the easiest thing in the world.
This is Rivers' bread and butter, and as someone who's never had elite arm strength, his "old man" game should age well for years.
Rivers doesn't have a strong arm, but he makes the most out of it. While passes of over 25 yards are never going to be his forte, he's one of the better passers over the last decade or so when considering his physical limitations.
Though Eli Manning might get into the Hall of Fame off of the strength of two Super Bowl runs, it's hard not to think Rivers, behind Ben Roethlisberger, wasn't the second-best quarterback in the 2004 NFL draft. With five Pro Bowls and a Comeback Player of the Year Award under his belt, all after supplanting Drew Brees as San Diego's quarterback of the future, he's had one of the strongest careers at the position since 2006.
As a 34-year-old, he's still able to break down teams with a thousand paper cuts, and he's showing no signs of slowing down.
6. Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys (36 Years Old)
When he was on the field in 2015, Tony Romo still proved to be a force when the Cowboys rolled to a 2-0 start in September. He threw for over 350 yards along with three touchdowns in the Cowboys' season opener. While his arm strength may be tapping off a bit—and some of that could be due to injury recovery—Romo is still in his prime in terms of accuracy.
That shows up when he's throwing behind linebackers in their zone drops. He's still an every-down quarterback who can move the chains when he needs eight or more yards in a given shot.
He's not the most prolific quarterback with his long ball, but his ability to place passes into tight windows is still a bonus for the Dallas Cowboys' offense. Especially on plays up the seams, he has no issue with throwing into constricted space.
Romo has never been a dual-threat passer, but he looked much different this preseason than when juxtaposed to his early career self. Before, he was a player who could at least move around a bit in the pocket, while he now almost hobbles and struggles to get to the line of scrimmage when taking off to run.
For a player with his style of play, you'd be surprised that his trigger isn't in the top tier, but it's still more than passable. His accuracy, like all areas of the field, is a positive when he's throwing man-beats just past the line of scrimmage.
Romo has good, not great arm talent. Other than on very deep balls, this shouldn't hinder his ability moving forward.
He's not a textbook vertical passer, but at the same, you don't need to stay on schedule for the passer to be a non-liability on third downs.
At this point in his career, after missing 12 games in 2015, Romo needs to stay healthy to prove his worth on the field, but he's clearly one of the more talented passers in the league. However, after another injury (broken bone in back) in the preseason, he'll be out for six to 10 weeks.
This may be a little high to rank the former FCS passer, but until his accuracy or arm strength drop a rung, he's a top-10 quarterback in the league.
Rookie quarterback Dak Prescott will be the starter. Will Romo have his job waiting for him when he's cleared to play?
5. Tom Brady, New England Patriots (39 Years Old)
A true pocket passer, Tom Brady's ability to drive the ball downfield is predicated on his receivers and his offensive line. If his slot targets or tight ends can gain inside leverage or if his outside receivers run deep curls, and his line holds up, he can throw into the intermediate range.
He has zip and touch on passes in this range, but as someone who will get sacked if caught with his eyes downfield against pressure, there's not much room for error for Brady. In a perfect world, he can be one of the best in the league when targeting this area.
You will often hear that Brady hasn't been the same deep-ball quarterback since Randy Moss left New England, and while that's true, it has been overstated. Last year, he finished seventh in the league in passes of 40 or more yards and fifth in the league in passes of 20 or more yards.
When he needs to, Brady can still make deep completions, but without a Moss-like deep threat, it's not what the New England Patriots' offense is built around. Their go-to option right now is a tight end, and they seem to prefer throwing short efficient routes rather than tossing balls deep.
Brady runs like he has rocks in his shoes. One of the reasons for his rather infamous draft slide was his athletic ability, which was correctly diagnosed as poor. The valuation of that trait was just overemphasized.
Other than on quarterback sneaks, Brady's legs are a liability. He is your stereotypical statuesque quarterback.
Brady is going to scan and shoot. He has been trained to eliminate potential targets quickly, which allows him to go through fast progressions, and he rarely throws a ball that defenders can make a play on.
When you discuss a transitioning NFL offense and how the use of slot receivers, tight ends and backfield pass-catchers matter so much, it's hard not to believe that this was a direct reflection of what the Brady-led Patriots have been able to accomplish over his career. While the other names change, Brady consistently makes the right decisions, using a West Coast-style offense to pick apart defenses in the air like a ground game historically would have.
One reason New England doesn't go deep more often is that Brady's arm isn't top-of-the-line at this point. He's not a limited passer, at least from a risk-management perspective, but there are passes that are harder for him to make than, say, a Carson Palmer or Ben Roethlisberger.
He doesn't loft balls that turn into interceptions, but if he's going long, his timing needs to be perfect.
Fifth on this list might seem low for a quarterback who has a case to be considered the best of all time, but age and the strength of the position at the top of the league are the only reasons for him slipping to this slot. Brady is still a franchise quarterback, and the Patriots allow him to play like one.
He's not going to be breaking touchdown records in 2016, especially since he'll start the season with a four-game Deflategate suspension, but he can still lead a team to a Super Bowl. Brady will find your defense's weakness and exploit it until you adjust, just for him to move on to his next victim.
4. Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals (36 Years Old)
When forced to throw into a window, as opposed to throwing over defenders, Carson Palmer has somewhat up-and-down ball placement. For a vertical quarterback, you'd be surprised by the velocity with which he throws some intermediate passes.
If not for balls hanging too high or being sent over his target, he'd be much better in this range. As of now, he's clearly best when the worst outcome of the route he throws is him overshooting his target for an incompletion.
There may not be a better deep-ball thrower in the NFL than Palmer. Man coverage, up the seams or down the sideline is blood in the water to him.
Arizona's offense is built around Palmer attacking deep, and he proved his worth by leading the league in yards per attempt and finishing third for passes of 20 yards or more and 40 yards or more during the 2015 season.
With his legs, Palmer is able to find spots in the pocket, but you shouldn't ask him to do more than that. He's a lot like Ben Roethlisberger in terms of pocket movement, but he doesn't have the same ability to shrug off a defensive lineman to escape a sack.
In the Arizona Cardinals' vertical offense, short passes are more likely to be checkdowns or hot reads than the start of Palmer's progression. He's fairly consistent in this portion of the field, with his only true issue being that he can double-clutch on some passes, sending a ball late or with less than his full body's potential in the throw.
If Palmer didn't have a cannon, the Cardinals would not trust him to run Bruce Arians' spread offense. Palmer can make any realistic pass you can draw up, in terms of arm strength.
One of the best moves in recent NFL history has been the Cardinals' trade for Palmer, who was down on his luck after begging for a trade out of Cincinnati and a stint gone wrong in Oakland. Matched up with Arians, the pairing is probably the best fit in terms of offensive scheme and a quarterback's positives and negatives.
Palmer is playing at a level that should keep him in contention for MVP, while Arizona was talented enough to be one game from the Super Bowl last season. Age and durability will be a factor for him over the next few seasons, but Palmer still plays like a star.
3. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints (37 Years Old)
Over the years, Drew Brees has been one of the better quick-seams throwers in the NFL. It's why his tight ends and "jumbo slot" receivers are so productive.
Brees is one of the best in this portion of the field, especially on "seams to win" concepts, where inside pass-catchers decide around the 15-yard mark whether they want to continue vertical or break inside based on leverage. Brees' chemistry with his targets allows him to throw those balls accurately and early.
Brees was bred to be a spread passer. He currently plays in a dome stadium, was groomed by spread innovators at Purdue and grew up slinging the ball around in Texas.
One flaw Brees has is his height (6'0"), which forces him at times to take deep drops to presumably see over offensive linemen. But because of that background, he's developed a well-calibrated deep ball, as you're not running seven-step drops to throw some triangle passing concept.
There's not a pass that he can't make, and the New Orleans Saints trust him to go deep from any position on the field. With his back up against the end zone, when most teams would just try to punch forward for better punting position, the Saints will still test teams deep.
As one of the most subtle pocket-movers in the NFL, Brees shouldn't be considered a liability due to his legs. He can take off against man coverage, but he's never going to be an option passer.
What helps Brees a lot in the short passing game is his quick, concise passing motion. If you want him to be a quick-strike quarterback, he can thrive.
At 6'0", he knows how to place a ball from multiple throwing platforms, and he does a very good job of finding a passing lane when stepping up to find a center field target. As far as his trigger goes, it might be the best in the league.
Point blank: You can't cheat with deep coverage against Brees' arm. He's too talented to ease up and add underneath zone or box defenders, and Sean Payton is ready to call a strike at any moment.
After leaving San Diego, Brees became one of the most important free-agent signings in NFL history when he joined the Saints, and his eight Pro Bowls and his Super Bowl XLIV MVP honors are just a reflection of that. For years, Brees became the quarterback to point to during the draft process when quarterbacks were considered too small, but over and over again, those sub-6'2" passers flopped.
Brees isn't the rule. He's the exception. He's a special talent.
As a spread passer who can take some of the deepest drops in the league, he has the potential to hang around the NFL for another half-decade. In 2015, he finished second in the league with 68 passes of 20 or more yards, one tally short of his 2011 career high during a 13-3 season.
Brees is showing no signs of slowing down, and if the Saints do decide to move on from him after this season, he'll find a landing spot and major contract with another NFL franchise quickly.
2. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers (34 Years Old)
In the intermediate area of the field, Ben Roethlisberger sends balls that hum with velocity. With an 8.4 yards-per-pass mark in 2015, it would be disingenuous to paint a picture in which Roethlisberger didn't attempt passes of 15 yards or more consistently.
Only three quarterbacks with more than 125 passing attempts—Kirk Cousins, Drew Brees and Russell Wilson—had a higher completion percentage than the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback in 2015.
The Steelers have always known what they've had in Roethlisberger as a deep passer, and it's why they've never shied away from allowing him to go vertical against defenses. Some of his passes last year to Antonio Brown, who finished second in the league in receptions of 20 or more yards and was tied for first in the league in receptions of 40 or more yards, were among the most impressive passes from any quarterback.
Do not mistake Roethlisberger, who has posted one rushing touchdown in the last five seasons, as a dual-threat quarterback. But in the pocket, he's one of the toughest quarterbacks to bring down when on the move. He can scramble some, and his listed weight of 240 pounds doesn't do him service for the defenders he's able to shake tackles off of.
Roethlisberger's strong arm allows him to make some high-velocity passes, even in constricted space. There's no surprise as to why the Steelers led the NFL in not only their success rate on two-point conversions, for teams with multiple attempts, but also the volume of two-point conversions attempted in 2015.
On plays like double-slants or two- and three-man snags, he can pelt a ball into his target's chest before the defense can properly react.
There isn't a play you can draw up in which Roethlisberger couldn't get it to a target. He has a fast trigger and a strong arm, and with that, anything is possible.
With four Pro Bowls and two Super Bowl victories on his resume, there may not be an active quarterback other than Tom Brady with an easier path to the Hall of Fame if his career ended today. With a completion percentage that has steadily risen over the past five seasons, you can only assume he's here to stay in the top five for the foreseeable future.
After being thrown into the starting lineup as a rookie in 2004, he's only had three 16-game seasons in 12 years, though. Health is currently Roethlisberger's biggest battle, not his ability.
1. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers (32 Years Old)
Aaron Rodgers can hit a dime on a sideline in the intermediate range while rolling the opposite direction. Crossers and drag routes are of no difficulty for him, and the majority of his passes come with yards-after-the-catch ability, as they're thrown to a target in stride, almost like he's on the basketball court.
As one of the better overall passers in the league, Rodgers thrives between eight and 20 yards.
Other than his hard-count deep shots, Rodgers' best attribute when throwing deep is on scrambling plays. No one in the league has the same chemistry he does with his targets on broken plays, which is how past-their-prime pass-catchers such as James Jones can make a late-career resurgence.
No ball is impossible for Rodgers to complete, as we learned when he threw three Hail Mary completions in 2015, including two in the same playoff game against the Arizona Cardinals. He also realizes the value of changing the velocity on balls, as he visibly takes some off of certain passes, making them more catchable.
Rodgers is a mobile quarterback, but he's not a running threat. He's a quarterback who can easily scramble without having his offensive coordinator sweat, but he's not the type of player to feed option run plays, especially considering his slight frame and injury history.
Against man coverage, he can take off and convert a first down, but you don't design plays to have Rodgers run. You design plays to have Rodgers pass.
Rodgers' quick trigger is his best trait in the short range. He can also get those quick balls off at multiple, creative platforms, making it hard on defenses to knock down balls at the line of scrimmage, even if they are anticipating a pass like a quick slant.
For the most part, he doesn't even need to get his feet right since his shoulders and arm can largely do all the work needed to throw any ball of eight yards or less.
A flick of Rodgers' wrist can do more damage than the majority of NFL starters when they unload a rocket, stepping through a pass with their full body's momentum. In a lot of ways, he has only been matched by the likes of Michael Vick in the category since he won the starting job in Green Bay.
The NFL career leader in passer rating and the only active two-time NFL MVP alongside Tom Brady, it should come as no surprise that Rodgers tops these rankings. Until his streak ended in 2015, he almost went three years without throwing an interception at home.
His stretch of dominance in the NFL is worthy of the Hall of Fame, even with only eight seasons under his belt. Barring some sort of massive regression, Rodgers' touchdown-to-interception ratio will likely smash any quarterback's in NFL history by the time that he eventually retires.