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NFL: The Many Tiers Of Quarterback, Who’s Elite, Who’s Not and Everyone In-Between

Aaron Rodgers
(Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images North America)

If there is one term that gets thrown around a lot in today’s sports jargon is the word “elite”. Especially when talking about NFL quarterbacks. According to Dictionary.com, elite is defined as, “( used with a plural verb ) persons of the highest class: Only the elite were there.” 

Based on that summarization, one assumes that a select few NFL quarterbacks are truly worthy of being described as “elite”.  Too often, the word is thrown around to describe someone who may have one great game or a couple, yet isn’t consistent enough to even get considered worthy of earning that distinction. The purpose of this article is to once and for all put an end to who is élite, who is not and who are average quarterbacks, by sorting all 32 NFL quarterbacks into the various categories below of Elite, Great, Good, Average, Game Manager, Mediocre, Backup/Clipboard Holder and this writer’s personal favorite, TV Analyst/Booth Personality. Each quarterback will be placed in a particular group with a designation of why they are either élite or not.

Without further ado, here are my rankings of which quarterbacks are elite and which are not : Elite : The best of the best, these quarterbacks have defined their careers and will leave behind a legacy of unquestioned greatness.    

  • Tom Brady (New England Patriots) : The undisputed best quarterback of our time. While counterpart and perennial foil, Peyton Manning, may have surpassed him in terms of single-season touchdowns (55) and MVP awards (5), Brady has more rings (3) to Manning’s (1). Despite losing Wes Welker in free agency, Aaron Hernandez to prison, Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola to injury, Brady cemented his greatness in guiding the Patriots to the 2013 AFC Championship game with unproven wideouts such as Aaron DobsonKenbrell Thompkins and Julian Edelman. Not getting any younger, Brady has a new target in Brandon LaFell to help him win his fourth Super Bowl. The question is, will it be enough?
  • Peyton Manning (Denver Broncos) : The quarterback who can never quite win the big game in the post-season, Manning is the NFL’s version of New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony in the fact that he puts up huge numbers in the regular season, but usually comes up short when it matters most. While the five-time NFL MVP has a Super Bowl ring and many passing records to his name, Manning’s post-season résumé includes a 12-11 record and perhaps the most embarrassing loss in Super Bowl history against the Seattle Seahawks.
  • Drew Brees (New Orleans Saints) :  The first quarterback to pass for over 5,000 yards since Dan Marino in 1984, the eight-time Pro Bowl quarterback and Super Bowl XLIV MVP has surpassed 5,000 yards four times(2008, 2011,2012 and 2013) and became the fastest QB ever to reach 50,000 yards(51,081) in NFL history.
  • Aaron Rodgers (Green Bay Packers) : A 2011 NFL MVP and Super Bowl champion, Rodgers is the modern-day template of today’s quarterback in being smart, accurate and mobile. Master of the back-shoulder throw and changing plays at the line, Rodgers accuracy and smarts are what separates him above other quarterbacks.

Great : These quarterbacks either have Super Bowls to their name and put up great regular-season numbers, but have not quite made that proverbial jump into elite status.

  • Ben Roethlisberger (Pittsburgh Steelers) : A two-time Super Bowl champion, Big Ben is defined by his rugged toughness, penchant for playing thru various injuries, extending broken plays and coming thru in the clutch, Roethlisberger is a sure-fire Hall-of-Famer, but not quite “elite” due to already having a strong defense, solid running game and veterans surrounding him.
  • Philip Rivers (San Diego Chargers) : one of the most prolific passers in the NFL today, the former North Carolina State standout replaced Drew Brees in San Diego and has led them to one AFC title game in his nine-plus years as starting quarterback. A five-time Pro Bowler and former NFL touchdown passing leader in 2008, Rivers bounced back from a down 2012 to win the 2013 NFL Comeback Player of The Year.
  • Tony Romo (Dallas Cowboys) : For all of his late-season failures and off-the-field actions–Romo, like Rivers–is one of the most prolific passers in the NFL today. The former undrafted quarterback out of Eastern Illinois led the NFC in passing touchdowns in 2007(33) and passing yards in 2009(4,483), thanks to a potent offense that contains DeMarco MurrayJason Witten and Dez Bryant, Romo has the chance to become one of the elite-level QB’s of our time.

Good : While not elite and great as the other aforementioned QB’s, these signal callers are on the cusp of being considered “great—but not quite elite” but are better than average and could be a cornerstone-franchise type of quarterback in their own right.

  • Eli Manning (New York Giants): Despite having more Super Bowl rings and MVP’s than his older brother, Peyton, many consider Eli to be the beneficiary of either dumb luck, a great defense or having the likes of Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks to bail him out of tough spots. While the younger Manning has a case for being considered elite in besting Tom Brady twice in the Super Bowl, his inconsistencies and tendency to throw interceptions prevent him from ever being considered “elite”.
  • Joe Flacco (Baltimore Ravens): Like Eli, Flacco has also bested Brady in the post-season and a Super Bowl MVP to his credit, Flacco—like Eli–is the beneficiary of having one of the all-time great defenses and going on one of the most remarkable post-season runs en route to earning his Super Bowl ring. Now at the leader of the Ravens offense, Flacco now has the chance to make his case for greatness.
  • Matt Ryan (Atlanta Falcons): A franchise-type of quarterback on the verge of being considered one of the top at his position, the former top overall pick out of Boston College—like Romo—is more known more for his post-season failings than his regular-season success. Fresh from inking a five-year, $103 million extension and a bright future ahead of him, Ryan has the weapons and skill to one day be called an elite quarterback.
  • Jay Cutler (Chicago Bears): A shaky history of injury, on-field maturity, toughness and lack of leadership are what alienates many fans when discussing Jay Cutler. While blessed with a strong arm, a ton of moxie and a passion to win, Cutler often crumbles under pressure and makes questionable decisions in crunch time. While having Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall to throw downfield to and Matt Forte to hand the ball off too, many in the Windy City often wait for the other shoe to drop when it comes to the former Vanderbilt standout down the stretch.
  • Andrew Luck (Indianapolis Colts):  The former top overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Luck has already established himself as the best young quarterback in the league today. About to go into his third year out of Stanford, Luck has all the tools, skill and ability to become an elite-level quarterback in the next three to five years.
  • Matthew Stafford (Detroit Lions): Thanks to having the luxury of throwing to Calvin Johnson, Stafford would be considered a top-tier quarterback, but not quite elite, due injuries, lack of leadership and a one-dimensional offense. While Stafford is one of four quarterbacks to break the 5,000-yard plateau(Brady, Manning and Brees), Despite the addition of Reggie Bush and newly-signed wide out Golden Tate, Stafford still lacks a consistent running game and a quality target other than Megatron to bail him out of tough spots.

Game Manager: Slightly about Average, a game manager may not be the fleetest of foot, have the strongest of arms or put up big numbers, but are good enough to run a team efficiently when called upon. If a game manager is a starting quarterback, they usually have elite playmakers on offense to help mask their inadequate weaknesses on offense.

  • Alex Smith (Kansas City Chiefs) : Perhaps the archetype of the modern-day “game manager” quarterback, the former 2005 NFL Draft top overall pick out of Utah, flourished in Kansas City under new head coach Andy Reid’s West Coast Offense(WCO) in helping lead the Chiefs to a surprising 10-0 start. Thanks to a ferocious pass-rush and talented playmakers in Dwayne Bowe and Jammal Charles masking his otherwise average NFL arm and lack of big-play ability, Smith will always be considered the ultimate NFL game manager
  • Russell Wilson (Seattle Seahawks) : Smart, accurate and mobile, the former third-round pick out of Wisconsin helped lead the underdog Seahawks to an improbable rout of the heavily-favored Broncos, 43-8 in Super Bowl XLVIII, like Smith, Wilson has a ferocious pass-rush, stellar secondary and a dominant running back in Marshawn Lynch to help take the load off of his shoulders. Now with top target, Golden Tate a Lion, Wilson will have to step his game up, if he is going to be considered one of the best.
  • Andy Dalton (Cincinnati Bengals) : Despite setting career highs in touchdowns(33) and passing yards(4,293), the man known as “The Red Rifle” threw a career-worst 20 interceptions. For all the offensive talent surrounding him in the Queen City in the form of A.J. GreenMarvin JonesTyler Eifert and BenJarvis Green-Ellis, Dalton has shown a tendency to self-destruct down the stretch—most notably in the post-season. If Dalton is to take the next step in his development—and be considered in many NFL circles a legit franchise-type of QB—he must first find a way to get things done and show that he can carry a team offensively for once.

Average: As the name implies, these quarterbacks are neither good or great, yet talented enough to be a potential franchise-type of quarterback, and eventually elite. The one caveat to each of these quarterbacks is that they, A.) play in a gimmick-like offense tailor-made for them. Thus, not showing that they can win on their own. B.) Are either athletically talented, but not fully mature enough to take his team to the next level. C.) A once highly-touted player, now beset by injury and on the downside of a once-promising career. While these players are good enough to win games, they are not “great” nor elite by any standards.

  • Nick Foles (Philadelphia Eagles): How does a former second-round bench-warmer out of Arizona, who throws 27 interceptions and only two interceptions end up being called average?  Simple, it’s called “The Chip Kelly System”. Make no mistake, what Foles did in 13 games for the Eagles in 2013-14 is nothing short of jaw-dropping, but in Kelly’s high-octane nouveau offense that featured LeSean McCoyRiley Cooper and ex-Eagle DeSean Jackson, Foles is nothing more than a plug-in quarterback surrounded by elite playmakers to hide behind. With Jackson now down the road in our nation’s capital and the arrival of Darren Sproles, Foles will not be able to sneak up on teams this coming season, nor Jackson to throw downfield too, which will make his success very hard to replicate.
  • Colin Kaepernick (San Francisco 49ers): After being a questionable pass interference non-call from winning a Super Bowl and a Richard Sherman pass deflection away from another in the NFC Championship Game, Colin Kaepernick is blessed with a rare and unique combination of scary athleticism and untapped athleticism.  If there is one area that separates Kaepernick from his nemesis from the Great Pacific Northwest in Wilson, is that he lacks accuracy and composure in crunch time. Kaepernick has shown a tendency to make bad throws at the wrong time, costing the Niners potential wins. After exploding onto the scene in 2012-13 in replacing Alex Smith and leading the Niners to their sixth Super Bowl, Kaepernick’s numbers dropped in completion percentage in 2013-14 (62.4 to 58.4) and QB rating (98.3 to 91.6) over a full 16-same season. Whether or not, it’s due to teams getting the chance to study game tape on him or not, Kaep needs to work on improving his accuracy and becoming a better passer, if he ever hopes to be considered one of the best in the game today.
  • Cam Newton (Carolina Panthers): The former 2010 Heisman Trophy winner out of Auburn and 2011 NFL AP Offensive Rookie Of The Year, Newton began to show flashes of brilliance in 2013-14. Despite posting the lowest career numbers in rushing yards(585) and passing yards(3,379), the former top overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft had career highs in completion percentage(61.7%), passing touchdowns(24) and QB rating (88.8). Showing a lesser tendency to run, Newton took steps in the right direction of developing into a true NFL pocket passer. The loss of targets in Steve Smith going to Baltimore and Brandon LaFell to New England may hurt him in 2014-15.
  • Robert Griffin III (Washington Redskins): Fresh off an ACL injury, the 2011 Heisman Trophy Winner out of Baylor took a lateral step towards mediocrity in 2013. Despite passing for 3,203 yards and rushing for 489 yards on the ground, RG3 would see his completion percentage drop from 65.6 to 60.1, touchdowns go down from 20 to 16, including zero rushing and his QB rating drop from 102.4 to 82.2. The addition of new target DeSean Jackson opposite Pierre Garcon, could help vaunt the dangerous dual-threat star into upper-echelon status in 2014-15.
  • Carson Palmer (Arizona Cardinals): After a brief stint in Oakland, the former 2002 Heisman Trophy winner out of USC and former top overall pick by the Cincinnati Bengals, got a new lease on life in rookie head coach Bruce Arians. Setting career highs in passing yards (4,274), Palmer also set career highs in interceptions (22). While no longer the former Pro Bowler he once was, Palmer gives the Cardinals a chance to compete in the top-heavy NFC West.
  • Ryan Tannehill (Miami Dolphins): The second-year pro out of Texas A&M showing signs of developing into a quality NFL quarterback. Thanks to posting career bests in completions (355), attempts (588), completion percentage (60.4), passing yards (3,913) and touchdowns (24), the Dolphins may have finally found their future franchise quarterback and successor to Marino down in South Beach. Going into his third year, the prospect of throwing to targets such as Mike WallaceBrandon Gibson and Brian Hartline, Tannehill could be poised to have a breakout year in 2014-15.
  • Mike Glennon (Tampa Bay Buccaneers): A former second-round pick out of North Carolina State, Mike Glennon overcame a shaky start and a banged up receiver corps to produce for Tampa Bay. At 6’6 and 225 pounds, the former Wolfpack standout came into the league projected to be the next Joe Flacco, thanks to his big arm. In 13 games, he completed close to sixty percent of his passes(59.4) for 2,608 yards, 19 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Now without one of his top targets in Mike Williams gone and newly-signed veteran Josh McKown brought in to challenge him, Glennon will have to take things to the next level.

Mediocre : Below average, but not terrible, these quarterbacks have the talent to be decent starters or potentially good starters, but have often been held back by either injury, tough luck or lack of talent.

  • Brian Hoyer (Cleveland Browns): Three starts does not make one the next great quarterback—unless it’s in QB-deprived Cleveland of course.  Hoyer, a local standout from suburban North Olmsted and nationally-ranked powerhouse Cleveland St. Ignatius, may prove that you can go home again.  While Hoyer is not the first Browns fan to be under center for his beloved brown and orange—as civic icon Bernie Kosar was reared in Boardman, 45 minutes outside of Youngstown and Brady Quinn form the Columbus suburb of Dublin—Hoyer is the first true Cleveland-proper native to start for the Browns in history. In his three starts he provided an instant spark in engineering wins over MinnesotaCincinnati before suffering a ACL injury against Buffalo. While completing close to sixty percent of his passes (59.4) for 615 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions, his lack of a full body of work and talent—with the exception of Pro Bowl playmakers Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron—make the former Tom Brady understudy nothing more than a glorified stop-gap until Cleveland finally identifies it’s franchise quarterback.
  • Sam Bradford (St. Louis Rams): Injury-prone, underachieving and a former top overall pick in 2010, Sam Bradford is the ultimate definition of “star-crossed under-achiever” if there ever was one. Since coming into the league, the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner out of Oklahoma has played 49 out of a possible 64 games. While he had Stephen Jackson to help take some of the load off of his shoulders, Bradford has never panned out in the City of Archs due to a lack of playmakers around him. While Tavon Austin and Brian Givens are a start, Bradford needs more weapons—and the NFL equivalent of the Berlin Wall for an offensive line—if he is to ever live up to his true potential.
  • Chad Henne (Jacksonville Jaguars): After taking over for the former first-round bust, Blaine GabbertChad Henne stepped up for the Jaguars. Setting career highs in attempts(503) and completions (303) the former Michigan product displayed that he could be the quarterback of the present, until the Jaguars find their future in the draft.
  • Matt Schaub (Oakland Raiders): Once considered one of the premier passers in the NFL, Matt Schaub had a rocky and tumultuous 2013 to say the least. the one-time starter for the Texans set an NFL record in throwing  nine interceptions in five games—including four of them being returned for a touchdown. Now in Oakland, Schaub is expected to fill in until Oakland takes finds it’s future franchise quarterback.
  • Jake Locker (Tennessee Titans): A former top-ten pick out of Washington, Jake Locker has failed to live up to expectations for the Titans. Whether or not he is the answer in Nashville remains to be seen, but his once-promising career could be in jeopardy.
  • Geno Smith (New York Jets): A former second-round pick out of West Virginia, Smith started off slowly due to tweaking his ankle before finishing strong and showing flashes of promise for the Jets in his rookie year. Completing 55.8 percent of his passes for 3,048 yards, 12 touchdowns and 21 interceptions, Smith is still a little raw in learning the nuances of the NFL game, thanks to the acquisition of new target Eric Decker to throw to and former Philadelphia Eagles starter Michael Vick pushing him, Smith could take the next step in his development as a NFL starting quarterback.
  • E.J. Manuel (Buffalo Bills): Drafted 16th overall out of Florida State in 2013, E.J. Manuel went thru some growing pains as a rookie, thanks to injuries and lack of weapons in Buffalo. Physically gifted at 6’4 and 237 pounds, Manuel struggled thru knee injuries, reading thru progressions, making inaccurate throws, checking down and taking too many risky scrambles outside of the pocket.  Manuel finished the year in throwing for 1,972 yards, 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Now with newly-added Mike Williams to throw too, Manuel could gain some confidence and take the next step forward in 2014.
  • Christian Ponder (Minnesota Vikings): Flirting with first-round bust status, Christian Ponder is both a mediocre quarterback with various shortcomings and a talent with untapped upside. One would think that a quarterback that has this generation’s version of Jim Brown in Adrian Peterson to hand the ball off too, a Super Bowl champion wideout in Greg Jennings to throw to and one of the up-and-coming tight ends in Kyle Randolph as a safety blanket would have no problem staying on the field right? Beset by various injuries and Matt Cassell, Ponder has made Vikings fans wonder for some time now. With the draft coming up in May, Ponder could very well be either on his way out or relegated to clipboard holder for the foreseeable future.

Clipboard Holders: This one is rather obvious, as it alludes to quarterbacks who were once promising first-round talent or veterans who failed to solidify themselves as established starters, These quarterbacks are good in a pinch and could win a team a game or two, but can never be counted on as nothing more than a quick fix.

  • Mark Sanchez (Philadelphia Eagles), Derek Anderson (Carolina Panthers) Matt Cassel (Minnesota Vikings), Kirk Cousins (Washington Redskins), Josh McCown (Tampa Bay Buccaneers), Case Kennum (Houston Texans), Matt Hasselbeck (Indianapolis Colts), Terrelle Pryor (Oakland Raiders), Matt Flynn (Green Bay Packers), Ryan Mallett (New England Patriots), Colt McCoy (Washington Redskins), Brandon Weeden (Dallas Cowboys)

TV Analyst/Booth Personality : Not an insult, by any means, these quarterbacks were once promising first round picks and seen as franchise-type of players to build around, However due to either injuries bad luck, or the football gods simply saying that this is not for them, these players could still be of service either as a practice squad player, emergency quarterback, or in an analyst for a network.

  • Brady QuinnTim Tebow.

Robert D. Cobb Is the CEO/Founder/Senior Editor-In-Chief of the InscriberMag : Digital Magazine and a member of the PFWA(Pro Football Writers Association), please follow him on Twitter at @RC_TheInscriberMag

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Robert D. Cobb
Founder, Publisher and CEO of INSCMagazine. Works have appeared and featured in places such as Forbes, Huffington Post, ESPN and NBC Sports to name a few. Follow me on Twitter at @RobCobb_INSC, email me at robert.cobb@theinscribermag.com

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