Quarterbacks have always had the lion's share of attention in the NFL. Now that the passing game dominates the league, signal callers get even more of the spotlight because so much more of a team's success rests on their shoulders.
These rankings lean heavily on the team's starter, especially at the top of the list. As you go further down through the order, the backup situation weighs a little heavier because the starter has issues of his own. There are also those very few teams, the exception to the rule, that do well with a middling quarterback by building up the team around him.
This list is subjective, and I expect a heated debate in the comments.
Aaron Rodgers threw just six interceptions last year to go with 45 touchdown passes. Just age 28, Rodgers should put up even better numbers in ensuing years. The backup situation here is a little concerning with Graham Harrel, but the drop off from Rodgers to anyone would be noticed.
Drew Brees got a $100 million and is worth every penny of it. Mr. Popular is one of those rare quarterbacks that can make the most average player around him look elite. He has a career completion rate of 65.9 percent. We don't have enough space to list all the records he broke last year.
Only Peyton Manning has more career touchdown passes among active quarterbacks than Patriots QB Tom Brady. I know we are not supposed to put too much emphasis on the number of championships a quarterback has won, but I cannot imagine New England winning three Super Bowls and appearing in two more without Brady at the helm. With Brady now age 34, you do wonder how much longer he can play at this level.
Remember how much flak Eli Manning took this time last year for a remark about being one of the best in the game? He won a Super Bowl since then and set a new career high with 4,933 passing yards. The other Manning really should be considered the main Manning at this point.
Philip Rivers is still the best quarterback in the AFC West, at least until you-know-who reassures the world about his health. Rivers has injury concerns of his know ... or does he? A terrible, no good 20-interception season left everyone wondering if he was dealing with an injury of some kind. However, he showed signs of his old self down the stretch, throwing just three interceptions in his last six starts and 12 touchdowns.
A trickle of various maladies and an offensive line that allowed him to be sacked more an average of more than 43 times in the last six years has prevented Ben Roethlisberger from putting up the kind of gaudy numbers of his contemporaries. Of course, Mike Wallace is sitting at home as I type this, nowhere near training camp.
A year ago, Matthew Stafford left many many wondering he could finally live up to his potential. Injuries derailed his first two seasons. He finished the season with 5,038 passing yards, 41 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. Most impressive of all he started all 16 games. Can he take the next step and be the kind of quarterback that can carry his team when everything else falls apart around him?
The media's bizarre relationship with Tony Romo makes it easy to forget that he is also a pretty good quarterback. He threw 31 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions in 16 starts last season. If only he could have stepped in at cornerback for the Cowboys last year. Dallas made a great move to grab Kyle Orton as a backup.
Michael Vick is going to be more cautious with himself this year. He says the same thing every year. No backup quarterback in the league has a better chance of playing than one does in Philadelphia. Vick's talent is undeniable, but the Eagles' have to hope that their faith in Mike Kafka is justified. Nick Foles is someone to watch in camp and the preseason.
10. Denver Broncos
Peyton Manning already earned his place in the Hall of Fame. The new chapter in his storied career could be vastly different than the last. He turned 36 in March, and missed all of last season with a series of tricky neck surgeries.
Cam Newton established a new ceiling for rookie quarterbacks. Dare I say he even entertained us? Experience should only benefit him this year. His 14 rushing touchdowns get all the attention, but Newton had the pocket presence of a veteran. Carolina added Mike Tolbert to take some of Newton's running off his list, setting him up to do even more passing this year. He could be the biggest riser on this list when it's all said and done.
12. Atlanta Falcons
Matt Ryan got one step closer to joining the game's elite quarterbacks last season, setting new highs in yards (4,177) and touchdowns (29). Dirk Koetter, the new offensive coordinator, promises to make more use of Ryan's talents in 2012. You have to think they could do better than Chris Redman as a backup.
13. Chicago Bears
Jay Cutler is a victim of circumstance. In 2008, his third season, he started to put it all together throwing for 4,526 yards and 25 touchdowns. Then the Broncos hired Josh McDaniels who sent him off to Chicago. His receiving help has improved in Chicago this year, but he will still be asked to play behind the same offensive line that struggles with protection. Bringing in competent game manager Jason Campbell was a smart move by the Bears.
14. Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens let Joe Flacco do a little more throwing last season. His 542 attempts were the most of his career, but a mediocre 57.6 completion percentage was a new low. Flacco is on the verge of a well-deserved contract extension, and he has yet to miss a game in his four-year career. With the Ravens inching toward expanding their passing game, the onus is on Flacco to establish himself this season.
15. Houston Texans
Houston did pretty well without Matt Schaub last season behind surprising rookie T.J. Yates. Nevertheless, you wonder if the outcome of their season might have been different with their regular starter. Schaub's foot is healthy to start training camp, but his health is an ongoing concern. 4,000-yard seasons are common when he does start all 16 games. With free agency looming in 2013, Schaub could be in for a big pay day with a full season in 2012. Is Yates capable of being a full-time starter if Schaub bolts?
16. Tennessee Titans
I do not understand why the Titans are so reticent to start Jake Locker. Even in limited work last season he showed fans his big arm. Locker will duke it out with steady veteran Matt Hasselbeck in camp. Even if the second-year passer does not win the job for Week 1, he should be starting by season's end.
Rookie quarterbacks exceeded expectations in 2011. Second-round pick Andy Dalton threw for 3,398 yards and 20 touchdowns, thanks in part to his pairing with A.J. Green, who was sensational as a rookie. Dalton's completion percentages slipped late in the season, and he lacks a power arm. The addition of Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones in the draft will give him a pair of steady receivers to work with in the short and intermediate range. Bruce Gradkowski is a capable backup should Dalton suffer an injury.
18. Oakland Raiders
You can argue about the price Oakland paid to get Carson Palmer last season, but his presence will at least keep the Raiders competitive this year. That matters for hungry Raiders fans whose team has not had a winning season since 2002. Palmer looked rusty at times last year, but finished strong. New offensive coordinator Greg Knapp looks like a great match for the veteran quarterback. Will fallen from grace Matt Leinert benefit from playing behind his fellow USC signal caller?
Josh Freeman cruised through the 2010 season, throwing 25 touchdowns and just 6 interceptions, setting up big expectations for his third year. Tampa Bay collapsed under the weight of those expectations, but there were positive signs from Freeman, who still managed to throw for 3,592 yards and complete nearly 63 percent of his passes. The 22 interception stood in stark contrast to he prior season. Tampa Bay loaded up on talent this year, which should help Freeman get back to the pace he set in his second season.
The Colts have a new quarterback, perhaps you heard of him recently. Andrew Luck was the most touted quarterback prospect in years, until Robert Griffin III burst on the scene. The sky really is the limit for Luck, who has the acumen to match his arm. If his offensive line can keep him upright, he could put together a nice rookie season.
Related: Andrew Luck Interview
Is there anybody, Washington fans or otherwise, that isn't at least a little excited to see what RGIII can bring to the NFL? He has the arm and ability to be a fine pocket passer. His skills working on the move are nearly unmatched in the NFL. There is no question that RGIII will be a difference maker right away for Washington. The only thing left to wonder is just how much of one he can be as a rookie.
Related: Robert Griffin III Interview
Give Alex Smith the prize for resiliency. The former top pick's career was all but written off before being revived in Jim Harbaugh's conservative offense. A career-best 3,150 yards, 17 touchdowns and just 5 interceptions earned him a modest three-year extension this spring. Can he be more than a competent starter? Harbaugh brought in Josh Johnson, a player he coached in college, to backup Smith. It is fair to wonder if Colin Kaepernick can be developed.
23. Buffalo Bills
Like Smith, Ryan Fitzpatrick is a solid option for getting by, even though the Bills gave him a contract that will help him do more than merely get by. His arm leaves something to be desired, but that can be managed. He sent up a red flag with 14 interceptions in the second half of the season. Vince Young might have landed in the best situation as a backup on Chan Gailey's team.
24. Seattle Seahawks
Tarvaris Jackson deserves more credit than he got for a solid season, especially with Sidney Rice missing much of the year. Still, 14 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in 15 games last year was not enough to solidify his presence on the depth chart. He and newly acquired Matt Flynn will battle it out for the starting job in camp. Flynn, the front runner, has just two career starts behind Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay.
The Chiefs have so much talent on offense. They also have Matt Cassel, who has never completed more than 60 percent of his passes since coming to Kansas City in 2009. The Chiefs will use a run-heavy attack to take advantage of natural talents like Jamaal Charles and hide Cassel's limitations. Getting tight end Tony Moeaki back will help the quarterback too. The backup situation is shaky with Brady Quinn and Rick Stanzi.
26. St. Louis Rams
Sam Bradford dinked and dunked his way to the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award in 2010. Things regressed a little bit in 2011 as injuries to himself and his teammates torpedoed what was supposed to be a big year for the Oklahoma product. Bradford still has the talent, and the Rams are counting on a fundamentals-first approach from new OC Brian Schottenheimer to get him back on track. The team brought back Kellen Clemens to backup Bradford, and he at least has a familiarity with Schottenheimer.
27. Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins drafted a quarterback in the first round this year, but Ryan Tannehill enters camp as the third stringer behind David Garrard and Matt Moore. Garrard, who missed last season, brings a veteran presence and looks like the starter. Moore thew for 2,497 yards, 16 touchdowns and nine interceptions last season. He will get a chance to establish himself this season, with Tannehill waiting in the wings.
Related: Ryan Tannehill Interview
28. New York Jets
Mark Sanchez has never garnered many fans, unlike Tim Tebow, who people either love or hate. Jets fans may end up hating both players with the team reportedly considering a quarterback committee approach. Both players have their limitations, and it's a sure bet the team will be looking for a new passer next spring. If things go horribly awry they could be looking for even more help.
Related: Mark Sanchez Interview
29. Cleveland Browns
Colt McCoy is all but gone. In is Brandon Weeden, a 28-year-old rookie, is seen as the future, the near term future anyway. His age might help him with the transition, at least that's what the Browns are counting on, but the jump from a Big 12 spread offense to the NFL, including six games against the tough defenses in his own division, could still make for the usual rookie adjustments.
Related: Brandon Weeden Interview
The Vikings finally pulled the plug on Donovan McNabb last season and sent rookie Christian Ponder into action. He completed just 54.2 percent of his throws for 1,853 yards, 13 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He has more protection from his line this season with Matt Kalil, but still faces an uphill climb to silence critics who thought he was drafted too high. Dual threat backup Joe Webb could push Ponder if he fails to put things together.
I doubt nine games, nine touchdowns, eight interceptions and 1,955 yards is what Arizona had in mind when they trade for Kevin Kolb last year. Given their serious interest in Peyton Manning this year, you can bet that the Cardinals are lukewarm on their quarterback situation. Complicating the situation with Kolb is the fact that he sustained a serious concussion late in the season. John Skelton is competing with him for the starting job, though Kolb is the favorite.
Blaine Gabbert got a rough introduction to life in the NFL, picking up more than his fair share of critics. Jaguars fans can take heart in the fact that Matthew Stafford struggled mightily in his rookie season too. His 50 percent completion rate is a little troubling, but 11 interceptions is nothing out of the ordinary for a rookie. What bothers people the most about Gabbert is the tentativeness he showed in the pocket. Chad Henne's ceiling is as a backup.