For the second consecutive year I'm taking a stab at ranking each team's trigger man starter going into the season. I was proud of my compilation last year looking back as so many of my assertions and predictions turned out to be true. There are a number of changes this year, with many quarterbacks moving down and some moving up. Matt Stafford doesn't belong in the top 4, that's for sure. Here's how I rank them:
1. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers: I know this will bother some Saints fans but I'm sticking with him as the league's best for the second consecutive year. He has no running game and yet still no one can stop him. To echo what I said last year he's the complete package of speed, arm strength, smarts, accuracy and leadership.
2. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints: The 49ers and second Falcons game last year had me considering a drop and there's no question last year was a down year. But think about the standard you've set when 5,177 yards and 43 touchdowns (96.3 rating) is considered "down". How ridiculous is that? If anyone under 30 had that type of season people would be talking MVP. It's not his fault he was paired with the worst defense in NFL history. With Sean Payton back he'll only be better.
3. Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos: I'm sorry I ever doubted you, Peyton. Clearly he's back from his injury and picked up right where he left off, and he's on a really good team to boot. He's a Super Bowl contender and he continues to build on an already supreme legacy as one of the best ever. I was worried I had him to high at 6 coming off that injury last year, turns out I was wrong.
4. Tom Brady, New England Patriots: I'll remind everyone again that this isn't about past accomplishments, but who are the top 32 quarterbacks RIGHT NOW. In my opinion Brady is still elite, but has dropped to number four. He had a great season again last year but his footwork in the pocket isn't quite as good as the top 3 and with Wes Welker gone and Rob Gronkowski's health majorly in question this could be a rougher 2013.
5. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers struggled last year mostly because their defense just isn't what it used to be. That didn't stop big Ben from actually having a very good and efficient 2012. He's playing at a high level, and the two time Super Bowl champion is still in his prime. He's arguably the toughest player at the position right now. He's up from #8 last year.
6. Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons: It pains me to put him this high but there's no denying the way he's been performing lately. Still, he's got a penchant for settling on safe throws and he benefits from having the kind of playmakers around him that most quarterbacks don't have the luxury of. He still struggles to come up huge in the clutch. He's up from #11 last year.
7. Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens: I have a feeling I'm really going to regret putting him up this high and he's going to make me look stupid this season. But, based on how he played throughout the playoffs last season he deserves this spot. What an unbelievable run. This jumps him up from #10 last year, which I thought might be high at the time.
8. Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins: When healthy, he's already this good. He showed it last year as early as week 1 when he made the Saints look just stupid. Health is the big question mark though as he's coming off a major knee injury. He's going to have to play smarter because I question his ability to be durable in this league. Almost more concerning that wrecking his knee is that he's already having concussion issues.
9. Eli Manning, New York Giants. He has two Super Bowl victories and he's shown in the past he can get very hot at the perfect time like Flacco did last year. But Eli is just incredibly up and down, and last year largely qualified as a down, especially late in the season where he fell apart. He's down from #5.
10. Matt Stafford, Detroit Lions: I should never have put him at 4 last year but got seduced by his monster statistical season in 2012. Stafford is still very good, but he's become a little bit too much of a one trick pony locking in Megatron. He needs to add variety to his game if he wants to play more efficiently. The addition of Reggie Bush should help that.
11. Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers: He was a bigger shock than RGIII in terms of how he took the league by storm. It was impressive how comfortable he was early performing as a starter. He's a tough player to stop and I expect him to improve in year two with an incredibly strong supporting cast around him.
12. Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals: This kid continues to impress me. After a good rookie season he improved significantly in year two. At this pace he'll be top 10 by year three. Make no mistake, Andy Dalton is the real deal. He's up from 16 last year.
13. Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys: Most people love to label Romo as awful, and his contract is absurd, but I actually believe he's better than most people think. He is still a good playmaker with efficient numbers. He does has a bad habit of choking in big games, but I'd prefer him over many as my quarterback. 13 is exactly where he was last year.
14. Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks: There is no denying he had a very good rookie season. But I think there's nowhere to go but down for Wilson. He was fortunate to get protected by an elite defense and elite running game in 2012. I believe the Seahawks will give him more opportunity in 2013 and he will make more mistakes because of it. I'm not 100% sold on this kid yet, especially because of how horrible he was the first half of last season.
15. Matt Schaub, Houston Texans: He's a guy I could see bouncing back and moving back up quickly, but I dropped Schaub from #9 this year. At some point he actually needs to come up big. He's even more Matt Ryan than Matt Ryan in some ways. Great stats, but can't put it together in the big ones. The Texans are so close to becoming elite and I'm starting to wonder if Schaub is the one holding them back?
16. Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers: The offensive line play isn't helping but he's on the downward trend of his career in my opinion. Down from #7 I'm no longer a believer in him. He can still win games and make plays, no doubt about it, but the Chargers should start looking for a replacement in the next couple of years I think.
17. Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers: After the season was pretty much over half way through and Newton was really dropping to borderline incompetent, he really turned things around in a bunch of meaningless games to quietly put together a decent season. But will we get the second half of the season Cam Newton in 2013 or a player that continues to lack consistency? His talent is superior, no question about it, but I think his head and attitude is the main thing holding him back. He's too arrogant when he's good, which turns off teammates, and he's too down when he's bad, pouting like a spoiled kid. The main thing he needs to work on is between the ears, because the talent is there. I brought him up from 18 based on how well he played down the stretch, but I want to stress again that I won't be sold until he starts to play like that when the games really matter.
18. Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs: Smith is on the second half of the list but he's still a guy that can play efficiently and win some guys. Ultimately he did lose his starting job for a reason, though, and that's his limitations with arm strength. I have a bad feeling that without Harbaugh helping him he could unravel pretty quickly.
19. Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts: Everyone is quick to talk about how good Luck is, but let's not forget his 76.5 QB rating last year. Let's face it, he was often mediocre. He made a lot of plays, but he didn't play efficiently and made a lot of mistakes too. Still, it was a decent rookie season. I moved him up from 23 but he's still got a lot of improvement to make. Frankly, I expected a better year from him.
20. Jay Culter, Chicago Bears: One of the most overrated players in the entire league. He's never had a QB rating of 90 or better, and yet we continue to talk about him like he's elite. Why? At some point he has to start producing. He's down from #12 because ultimately I just think he lacks the maturity to be successful with any sort of consistency. His arm strength is as good as it gets, but the same thing could be said of JaMarcus Russell. Point being, that means nothing. While I'm not a fan of Cutler's, when he gets hot it's not fun playing against him because he will make you look stupid. When he's cold, there's almost no other quarterback in the league I'd rather face.
21. Josh Freeman, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Year two where he busted out onto the scene seems like more and more of an aberration. What I struggle with the most about last year is how he could have struggled so much when Doug Martin was so good. Freeman had the luxury of a superior running game and yet he still couldn't put it together. He was 22 last year.
22. Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams: I have always liked Bradford and obviously the Rams are being patient with him but at some point it's time to just move on. He continues to be "just ok".
23. Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins: This is the part of the list where we go from mediocre to bad, in my opinion. There's a lot of buzz surrounding the youngster but he'll have to play a lot better than his rookie season which overall was not very good.
24. Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles: Last year was just an awful performance beyond words for Vick. Having such a bad offensive line isn't his fault, but he's also struggling to stay healthy. I think he's done.
25. Jake Locker or Ryan Fitzpatrick, Tennessee Titans: In Locker's first year as a starter he really struggled badly. The Titans were smart to sign Fitzpatrick because I believe he will see the field a good bit this season. Locker has yet to prove he can be starter quality.
26. Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals: After an absolutely miserable 2011, I think Palmer bounced back to play a little bit better in 2012. He still wasn't good, though, and now that he's in Arizona I'll be surprised if he's still standing upright after 6 games. I could see this possibly being his last season.
27. Matt Flynn, Oakland Raiders: While Russell Wilson turned out to be good last year, he wasn't good at all to start the year, and yet Flynn never saw the field. The fact that he was beat out by a 5'10" rookie is not a good sign. He was a hot prospect last year but that stop in Seattle has to be concerning as to his potential and abilities. Putting him on the Raiders will just make his chances at success even lower in my opinion. We'll see though, the LSU star is finally getting his chance.
28. Christian Ponder, Minnesota Vikings: He showed minimal signs of life last year, but that's throwing on 8 man boxes the entire season. Brees would have a better rating than 81.2 with a 1 man box. Ponder did improve, though, so he's up from 29. We'll see if he can make a bigger leap in 2013.
29. Mark Sanchez or Geno Smith, New York Jets: The entire team is a mess, and Sanchez' confidence is forever broken. Even if Sanchez starts, he's been given zero vote of confidence which means he'll be looking over his shoulder the entire time and it'll be a similar situation to Tebow last year. Eventually Geno Smith will play, won't do that well because this organization is dysfuntional (and because he's not all that), and the fans will turn on him too.
30. Kevin Kolb or E.J. Manuel, Buffalo Bills: Ugh. Why did they get rid of Ryan Fitzpatrick again?
31. Branden Weeden or Jason Campbell, Cleveland Browns: Is there any doubt in anyone's mind that Weeden will be benched soon? He was terrible last year. It doesn't matter, though, because Campbell is done at this point in his career too.
32. Blaine Gabbert or Chad Henne, Jacksonville Jaguars: Staying at #32 for the second consecutive year and keeping your job is pretty impressive, I'll give him that. Gabbert couldn't be worse.