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The offseason's biggest story has had an immediate ripple effect on the ranking of quarterbacks. Ben Roethlisberger's(notes) six-game suspension (which could be reduced to four) to open the 2010 season and the subsequent uncertainty it creates have dropped Pittsburgh from having a top-four quarterback situations to No. 7.
Of course, some people might blink at the idea that Roethlisberger and the Steelers would be ranked in the top four. While his style of play is unorthodox (he holds the ball way too long by modern standards and takes a lot of hits), he gets amazing results. Roethlisberger's career average of 8.0 yards per attempt ties his fifth all time with Steve Young.
However, his behavior could put the Steelers in a precarious situation for the entire season as they decide on a replacement starter between Byron Leftwich(notes), Dennis Dixon(notes) and Charlie Batch(notes).
"If it ends up being four games like we all expect, the Steelers will probably be OK," an AFC executive said last week. "They should split the first four, then they get a bye week to get [Roethlisberger] ready for Cleveland and Miami. They could be 4-2 after six games and really be in pretty good shape.
"But if it's six games, it's totally different. No bye week and his first three games back are [at] New Orleans, [at] Cincinnati and then New England. Have fun playing that schedule after sitting out almost half the season and then not having your best receiver."
The executive was referring to the loss of wide receiver Santonio Holmes(notes), who was traded to the Jets right before being suspended by the NFL for four games for violation of the substance abuse policy.
Ultimately, just as with any team (check the rankings for Washington and Philadelphia after their offseason maneuvers), the presence of an accomplished starter is everything.
1. New Orleans Saints: After being behind Peyton Manning(notes) and Tom Brady(notes), Drew Brees(notes) vaulted to the top of the list after his outstanding past three seasons culminated in a true MVP performance in Super Bowl XLIV. Between toughness, intelligence, preparation and the overall ability to throw (accuracy and arm strength), Brees is at the top of his game and the top of the league.
2. Indianapolis Colts: One very bad pass play in the Super Bowl cost Manning a chance to be at the top of this list. If this were on overall achievement, Manning would rank ahead of Brees, but this ranking is a snapshot of what's happening at this moment. Manning is the essence of what the Colts do in every way. That said, if he doesn't get another Super Bowl victory, expect the critics to have a field day with him.
3. New England Patriots: After two years of dealing with injuries, you have to wonder if Tom Brady is starting to fall apart. Brady is incredibly tough, right there with the likes of Brett Favre(notes) and Phil Simms. He's also amazingly accurate. But there's normally a cost with taking so much punishment and maybe the pounding from early in his career (104 sacks in first three years as starter) is starting to catch up with him. Hopefully this is wrong and he has three or four great years left.
4. San Diego Chargers: Philip Rivers(notes) is football's version of David Cone. He's unconventional, throwing the ball from five different angles. He's smart and sly, becoming one of the best deep throwers in the league even though his arm isn't that strong. Hopefully, he's not just the second coming of Dan Fouts, and the Chargers will actually win something during his tenure.
5. Green Bay Packers: Aaron Rodgers(notes) has silenced all the fans in Packerland who thought the team was idiotic for cutting ties with Brett Favre. Yeah, Favre is still good, but Rodgers has become just as good, if not better in some ways. His combined passer rating in two years as starter is 97.2 and his TD-to-interception comparison was a stunning 30-to-7 last season. The only real criticism is that he holds the ball a little too long sometimes. That's pretty minor and easily correctable.
6. Minnesota Vikings: Speaking of Favre, the Vikings still have all of their bets down on him coming back. Yeah, this ankle surgery thing is hanging out there and creates doubt. But Favre is a pretty good bet to return once the Vikings break from two-a-day practices this summer. He's coming off the best statistical season of his career, which is an amazing thing to say.
7. Pittsburgh Steelers: OK, let's get this out of the way: Roethlisberger is a mess off the field and that's the reason the Steelers aren't ranked No. 4 overall, if not higher. His suspension means Byron Leftwich is the likely starter to open the season. Further, Roethlisberger has tarnished the incredible legacy he was in the midst of building. Yeah, he's unconventional and people like me have taken a long time to warm to how he plays, but he's a truly stunning player when you really look at the results, which include some dazzling playoff numbers.
8. Washington Redskins: If Donovan McNabb(notes) was still in Philadelphia, the Eagles would probably be No. 6 or No. 7. But trading McNabb automatically weakened the Eagles (at least until Kevin Kolb(notes) proves he can play) and was an amazing boost for the Redskins. Yeah, a lot of fans don't like McNabb, but history will show that he's one of the game's most underappreciated players.
9. New York Giants: Eli "The Enigma" Manning is coming off the best statistical season of his career, including a 93.1 rating (that's nearly 14 points higher than his career rating). Yet there are still plenty of people who will tell you that few players have done less with more than Manning. Last season, the Giants were 2-6 against playoff teams and Manning had a rating of 71 or lower in four of those games. Throw in awful performances in losses at Denver and Carolina and you have a confounding picture of Manning's potential vs. reality.
Romo was beat up by the Vikes one week after his first career playoff victory.
(Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
10. Dallas Cowboys: In four years as a starter, Tony Romo(notes) has never had a season rating of less than 91 and has a career TD-to-interception ratio of nearly 2-to-1 (107 TDs, 55 interceptions). Yet many Cowboys fans view him as the second coming of Danny White, who flopped as the starter after Roger Staubach retired. A big part of the problem is that it just doesn't seem as if Romo takes the game seriously enough. Maybe his recent decision to put football before golf speaks to a change in perspective
11. Cincinnati Bengals: There was a time that Carson Palmer(notes) threw the ball like a Greek god and put up numbers to match. Age, injury and changes to the receiving corps have altered the view of Palmer, who now appears to be at something of a crossroads in his career. It's worth wondering whether Palmer, 30, will ever really deliver on his promise or whether his career will get swallowed up by the swirling vortex of suckage that is the Bengals organization.
12. Houston Texans: Matt Schaub(notes) finally stayed healthy for a whole season and delivered some stunning numbers. He threw for 4,770 yards and 29 TDs. He also did that without tight end Owen Daniels(notes) for half the season and without much of a running game. Now, he'll hopefully have the receiving corps healthy and a running game, but he'll have to do it without offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.
13. Baltimore Ravens: For those who doubted then-rookie Joe Flacco(notes) two years ago (yeah, yeah, that would include me), he has done a fabulous job as the starter. Now that he has a deep and diverse receiving corps (hello, Anquan Boldin(notes)), there's a chance that the defensive-minded Ravens might actually become an offensive team. Hey, Ray Lewis(notes) can't play forever, even if he thinks he can.
14. Tennessee Titans: People make a lot out of the fact that Vince Young(notes) guided the Titans to an 8-2 record once he returned to the lineup. Throw in the fact that he had a career-best 82.8 rating and there's ample reason for promise. But also acknowledge that the Titans were 1-2 in that stretch against playoff teams (the one win was a stunning game-ending driving against Arizona) and that Young is still hardly a precision passer. Yeah, Young still has promise, but he also has plenty of questions.
15. Atlanta Falcons: Matt Ryan(notes) regressed from a statistical standpoint last season (going from 7.9 to 6.5 yards per attempt is a huge drop), but he also showed some toughness by playing through injury and not complaining. A healthy Michael Turner(notes) at running back is also crucial for the Falcons, but the bottom line is that Ryan needs to get back on the track he was on as a rookie.
16. Chicago Bears: Like his friend Favre, Jay Cutler(notes) has this tendency to throw passes up for grabs way too often for someone of his talent. His career 81-to-63 TD-to-interception comparison is borderline awful for this era. The fact that the Bears don't have a lot of great receivers didn't help matters last season (27 TDs, 26 INTs), but much of it also belongs on Cutler's shoulders for being so sloppy with the ball.
17. Philadelphia Eagles: Yeah, yeah. "Insiders" like to talk about how Kevin Kolb is the next big thing and that the Eagles were smart to get rid of McNabb. Maybe, but all I know is that McNabb can play. As for Kolb, he has had three games with significant playing time. He got hammered in relief against Baltimore in 2008 and New Orleans in '09 during his first career start. He looked great against Kansas City in his second start, but that's the Chiefs. It's going to be awhile before the jury returns a verdict.
18. Seattle Seahawks: Sadly, the days of Matt Hasselbeck(notes) will fade into the late-setting Northwest sun and end up being remembered in obscure areas of the nation like the San Juan Islands, Skagit County and Forks. You can hear it now: "Oh that Hasselbeck, he sure could throw the ball around, you know. Remember that time he got us to the Super Bowl and that Jerramy Stevens(notes) kid dropped 18 passes against the Steelers." Oh, what could have been if fate had shined on the Seahawks. Pretty soon it's going to be the Charlie Whitehurst(notes) show.
19. Jacksonville Jaguars: In the past two years, the Jaguars have gone through receivers the way I go through a pint of Ben & Jerry's. Torry Holt(notes), Jerry Porter(notes), Matt Jones(notes) and Reggie Williams(notes) have all come and gone. Not that Porter, Jones and Williams didn't deserve to go, but that carousel has exposed the limitations of quarterback David Garrard(notes). Garrard is a perfectly mediocre quarterback who needs a good running game and good receivers. Without help, his lack of accuracy and inability to make a crucial play at a crucial time becomes obvious.
20. San Francisco 49ers: Alex Smith had been given up for dead in the Bay Area, most people believing he would be gone before fellow former No. 1 overall pick JaMarcus Russell(notes) was ousted from Oakland. But Smith managed to revive his career a bit last season with a career-high 81.5 rating and 18 TDs in 11 games. He still only managed 6.3 yards per attempt and had 12 interceptions, so this was hardly a breakthrough. But after four offensive coordinators and four offensive systems in four years, Smith at least earned another year to show something.
21. Oakland Raiders: Unlike the Eagles, the Raiders actually moved up in the rankings by getting rid of their quarterback, dumping the aforementioned Russell and trading for Jason Campbell(notes). Campbell is about as different from Russell as could be. A self-starter, son of a coach who works hard, Campbell gets the big picture. Like Alex Smith, Campbell has been held back by constant change in the offense. But he also refuses to take a lot of chances, which has led to a career average of only 6.6 yards per attempt.
22. Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins start a run of six teams with relatively young (if not rookie) quarterbacks who have a significant chance to improve. Chad Henne(notes) personifies the group with his strength and accuracy. No question, Henne can throw it. He just could use a bit more control on some of those rifle shots.
23. Detroit Lions: If you only look at Matt Stafford's numbers, he didn't have a particularly great rookie season. A 61.0 rating, 13 TD passes and 20 interceptions are nothing special. But when you adjust for the fact that he plays for the Lions, that tips the scales more in his favor. What Stafford did was show plenty of his moxie and toughness, valuable qualities for the quarterback of a team that is trying to change a culture of losing that's as deeply rooted in Detroit as breathing is for our species. With the addition of more weapons around Stafford, look for improvement across the board.
24. New York Jets: Line up the stats for Stafford and Mark Sanchez(notes) and you have pretty much the same guys as rookies last season. However, the impression was that Sanchez struggled a lot more because he was on a better team and actually got to the playoffs. Some of that is true. Ultimately, inexperience was a factor as Sanchez looked very much like a quarterback who had only 16 starts in college. When opponents figured him out, he wasn't able to adjust quickly. He did show gains in the playoffs, so there's lots of hope.
25. Kansas City Chiefs: Matt Cassel(notes) was all the rage last year when New England dealt him to the Chiefs. Then he did what any young quarterback would do on a bad team – he struggled. Cassel still has talent, but he's not the second coming of Tom Brady the way some people thought after his 2008 coming-out party. If the Chiefs can get him some weapons, he has a chance. If not, there will be public pressure to get somebody else.
26. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Josh Freeman(notes), the third quarterback selected in the first round of the 2009 draft, did pretty much the same thing as Stafford and Sanchez from a statistical standpoint. And really, if you lined these guys up for an eyeball test, Freeman is not that far behind them. More important, Freeman has great makeup. His dad Ron played pro football and Freeman gets the big picture. There are going to be struggles because of the lack of talent around him, but don't be surprised if five years from now Freeman is the best of the three.
27. St. Louis Rams: Technically, A.J. Feeley(notes) is going to be the starter from the beginning of the season. That means Feeley gets beat up for at least the first half of the season before Sam Bradford(notes) gets some spot duty. From a physical standpoint, Bradford has special ability. He can throw it and he's accurate. However, the Rams better be careful because he's coming off an injury-plagued season, he needs experience and there's not much on the roster to help him.
28. Arizona Cardinals: Coach Ken Whisenhunt and general manager Rod Graves were very fortunate to get contract extensions this offseason because this could be an ugly year now that Kurt Warner(notes) has retired. Matt Leinart(notes) takes over and he doesn't have a lot of believers inside the Cardinal headquarters. Leinart is, at best, even money to survive the season as the starter. Not that Derek Anderson(notes) is much better, but Leinart is considered way too soft.
29. Denver Broncos: What do you get when you combine Kyle Orton(notes), Brady Quinn(notes) and Tim Tebow(notes)? A backup, a flop and a prayer. Yeah, that's harsh, but let's face reality: Orton has always been exposed as a take-no-chances passer. Quinn didn't get a fair shake in Cleveland, but he didn't help himself, either. As for Tebow, it's hard to root or bet against him, but he was a reach in the first round when you consider how much work he has to do to make it in the NFL. Great kid, great work ethic, but first round? Oy.
30. Carolina Panthers: Matt Moore(notes) did some pretty impressive things in his first real opportunity to play. His 98.5 rating, 8 TD passes, two interceptions and especially his 7.6 yards per attempt over 138 passes are pretty good. Throw in the fact that he did most of that against playoff teams New England, New Orleans and Minnesota and it gets more interesting. That said, if Moore falters at all, second-round pick Jimmy Clausen(notes) is quickly going to be the flavor of the month in Charlotte.
31. Cleveland Browns: The Browns purged the roster of Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn early in the offseason and then got Jake Delhomme(notes) and drafted Colt McCoy(notes). In short, they got an older (albeit more accomplished) version of the wild-armed Anderson and a guy with far less physical presence than Quinn. McCoy is the future, but he's unlikely to play this season. And if McCoy doesn't put on at least 20 pounds, opposing defensive linemen are going to snap him like a chicken wing when he finally does play.
32. Buffalo Bills: Coach Chan Gailey is a clever man who has done a lot over the years with flawed quarterbacks. Be it Kordell Stewart or Jay Fiedler(notes), Gailey somehow made it work in the past. At least his quarterbacks are bright (Trent Edwards(notes) went to Stanford and backup Ryan Fitzpatrick(notes) is from Harvard). That said, Edwards regressed badly last year and a concussion didn't help. Fitzpatrick has the look of a JAG (Just A Guy). Maybe Brian Brohm(notes) has something to add, but that certainly wasn't the case when he was in Green Bay.