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Ranking the Quarterbacks in the NFC

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I think it’s pretty established, given that Brady, Manning, Rivers et al are in the AFC that the NFC, as a whole, suffers from inferior quarterbacking.  It’s probably accurate to draw that conclusion.  Though the worst quarterbacking in the NFL resides in places like Cleveland, Kansas City, and potentially Buffalo this year — all AFC cities — the NFC has two passers who aren’t fatally flawed, and a bunch of question marks after that.

So what should Liveball do with those questions?  Well, what else?  Ignore the questions and rank the quarterbacks in the conference in an attempt to sort out some of the preseason questions in a conference that lacks a preseason favorite.  The following is how I did exactly that, counting down as not to run the suspense for those who are too lazy to scroll down and back up, but not lazy enough to just jump to the ending.  After all, it’s not the top end of this list that’s the interesting part, let me tell you that.

16.  Matt Moore/Jimmy Clausen, Carolina

I’d like to suggest that Clausen will have this job sooner rather than later, but with Carolina’s top end defense still a reality, and that running game, the Panthers figure to be in the hunt for the playoffs with Moore too.  That’s going to delay the inevitable handoff of the offense to Clausen, and also prevent the Panthers from winning the games down the stretch to actually pull off the improbable and make the postseason.

Clausen, though, is not much more than a game manager at the professional level, though he’s studious enough to be very successful in that role, sometime after the 2010 season.

15. Alex Smith/David Carr/Nate Davis, San Francisco

A more mature Smith will find himself in the same general situation as the Panthers in that his team has a run defense and a running game that is playoff ready, but the quarterback play can’t really keep everything together en route to the NFC West title.  The 49ers figure to be within a game or two of the division at the end, and should avoid double digit losses for the third consecutive year, and Smith should be adequate as a veteran passer who has survived the test of time in San Francisco, but he’s not a particularly adept passer and can’t really get the ball outside the numbers with any consistently.  Carr is better on those outside throws, but rumor has it that he’s still in Houston, holding onto the football, four years later.

14. Matt Hasselbeck/Charlie Whitehurt, Seattle

For the sake of Hawks fans, it’s probably best that Whitehurst set the league on fire in the preseason, because Hasselbeck is a declining player at this point who hasn’t played at an acceptable level since 2009, and is in an offense where he’s never had any semblance of success: not the west coast.  Playing Hasselbeck would end pretty predictably when the only real question is whether he can survive replacement level long enough to hold off Whitehurst.  The Clemson product’s presence got the Hawks all the way up to no. 14 on the NFC quarterback rankings, as his upside is more than just an error in scouting, but if he doesn’t outright win the job from Hasselbeck, this is going to be a mess of a QB situation that can only be settled by drafting someone high next year.

13. Matthew Stafford, Detroit

For the Lions, the only real question left with the offense is Stafford.  They’ve fixed running back and tight end in the last two drafts.  They return the NFCs most effective veteran left tackle in Jeff Backus for one more season, the lone Millen extension that actually worked out.  They have a quality offensive line with Rob Sims stepping in at left guard, leaving only the Jon Jansen/Gosder Cherilus RT battle as the trouble spot on the offense, besides Stafford.  Stafford himself made considerable strides from the beginning of the season through Thanksgiving, as he came up very big in both of the Lions’ wins, and small in most of their losses.  He missed the final three games with an injury, so we don’t know how real his improvement was, so he’s ranked down here.  If Stafford doesn’t progress, Calvin Johnson, Nate Burleson, Jahvid Best, and Brandon Pettigrew aren’t going to make NFL headlines this year.  If Stafford pulls the right strings, then yeah, this offense is going to light up a lot of teams en route to a surprise…division title?  It’s all on the young Texan’s shoulders.

12. Sam Bradford, St. Louis

Bradford, unimpeded by a quality veteran ahead of himself on the depth chart, and with the benefit of a young, talented OL, will spend the first half of the season learning to face NFL defenses and pick through a deep class of young, unproven receivers, looking for anyone that can play.  He’ll probably find something in third year player Donnie Avery, but unless Avery emerges as the St. Louis version Roddy White, there won’t be a great show on the turf in St. Louis this season.  Perhaps in the future, but Bradford’s health is always going to be the great enemy of his development.  He’ll pick up things quickly and learn to torch opposing defenses before this year is out, but what he’ll eventually turn into is anyones guess.

11. Josh Freeman, Tampa Bay

The Bucs don’t have very much going for them, but they do have the quarterback who will lead them to a handful of victories in 2010.  They don’t have much of an OL, or a running game, and he’s throwing to young receivers such as Arrelious Benn, who even if they flash potential, are bound to make mistakes that will keep the Bucs in the 4-5 win range, but guys like Josh Freeman are the future of quarterbacking in the NFL.  Freeman has never failed to lead any team he has played on in starts in his life, and the 2009 Bucs were no exception.  He went 3-6 with Tampa last year.  Byron Leftwich and Josh Johnson combined to go 0-7.  I’d be surprised if he wasn’t a top 6 or 7 QB in the conference heading into year three with winning expectations in Tampa.  Tampa Bay has less talent on the roster than any other team in the NFL, but Freeman will turn this franchise around, given enough time.

10. Matt Leinart, Arizona

Jimmy Clausen’s potential looks something like this.  Leinart is going to depress the pure number of both touchdowns and turnovers in the Arizona offense from the Warner days, and will allow the Cardinals to rebuild themselves as the NFC West’s premier team behind a running game and a defense.  That’s why coordinator Bill Davis was brought in to replace Clancy Pendergast after the SB run in 2008, because this unit which features a top DL and two phenomenal safeties is a few quality LBs away from being a perennial posteason threat under Leinart, in a way that they could never have been under Warner.  Leinart is the trigger man in a bigger plan in Arizona.  It’s a better situation than before, when everything ran through Kurt Warner.

9. Kevin Kolb, Philadelphia

Kolb is the other NFC QB (besides Freeman) who should ascend to the game’s elite quickly.  Here’s the fun part: in 2007, when people were trying to find reasons to justify picking JaMarcus Russell highly and ahead of Notre Dame star Brady Quinn, the pre-draft discussion on Kolb was centered around trying to decide whether or not he or John (freakin’) Beck was worthy of a second round pick.  John.  Beck.  Kolb has the keys to the most powerful sports car the West Coast offense has ever mustered since the Rice/Young days in the mid-nineties, and should be a top five QB in the conference by next year.  And for as far back as Russell set QB evaluations in 2007, that weak  class now features two starting NFL QBs in Kolb and the undrafted Matt Moore, and probably a third in Quinn.  Kolb is the only one likely to withstand the test of time, but Quinn might become Denver’s QB of the future (it’s contingent on Tebow busting), and then the 2007 class can rival others as top classes of the decade, in spite of Russell.

8. Jay Cutler, Chicago

If Cutler is ever going to pay off for the Bears (and don’t forget that he threw a career high in TDs in 2009: 27), Mike Martz is the guy who will make it all work.  He’s certainly got the receivers to be successful, and while OL could (probably will) struggle again, ESPN’s Ron Jaworski when back and analyzed all 26 of Cutler’s 2009 INTs and found that the pass pressure was never a meaningful factor in any one of the throws.  That means what it sounds like, that Cutler and Cutlers communication with his receivers is responsible for the Bears’ offensive struggles in 2009, and he, with Martz’ help, can change the plight of the Bears.  I’ll put his odds at getting it turned around at 50-50, but there’s no reason to think we won’t know who Jay Cutler really is after this year.

7. Donovan McNabb, Washington

Factually, McNabb is nearing the end of his effectiveness as passer.  Players, especially guys who get beat as much as McNabb, don’t usually blow past age 33, guns blazing, with 90+ QB ratings.  I’m projecting about 85% of the total value the Redskins get from the McNabb trade to be contained within this 2010 season.  So yeah, Mike Shanahan, clock is ticking.  If McNabb can play more than 11 games this year, things should be pretty rosy in Washington all year, coming off that 4-12 disappointment in 2009.

6. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay

There’s still a large gulf between Rodgers and the top passers in the NFC.  It’s not based on his ability to deliver the ball under pressure, or push a 100.0 QB rating as a second year starter.  Rodgers still is learning the finer points of game management, and the depth and quality of the Packers receivers obscures a lot of Rodgers’ personal shortcomings.  Notice when a quarterback basically gets a free pass for the struggles of his offensive line, but gets credited in full with all the downfield plays his receivers make, he’s probably quite overrated.  There’s a significant correction in value waiting this year for Rodgers, who will struggle to lead the Packers back to the postseason after the defense pretty much put the Pack there last year.

5. Brett Favre/Tarvaris Jackson, Minnesota

I think we’ve reached the point at which the Vikings offense is fully matured — no longer in the developmental stage it was under Jackson in 2007 and 08 — and so it basically doesn’t matter who the Vikings have under center in 2010.  We saw the best of Brett Favre last year, but the Vikings avoided, fortunately, the Favre who plays right through crippling injuries and costs his team games in the process.  Jackson, at least, wouldn’t compromise the offense in such a measure, and he’s a strong breakout candidate if he has to play for an extended period of time.  With that said, I wouldn’t rank Jackson ahead of Kolb/Cutler/McNabb/Rodgers if he was going it alone this year, but truth be told, I’m also giving a 41 year old QB to be a lot of slack in these rankings to move him ahead of three former pro bowlers.  He earned this spot last year, but defenses aren’t going to be slow to punish Favre based on what he accomplished in 2009, and the results will be surprising to most, but predictable to those who have their pulse on this kind of thing.

4. Matt Ryan, Atlanta

So after a down year in 2009 — it happens to even the best once the OL and running game can’t protect them; Marino and Peyton both had to take their lumps — Matt Ryan is ready to be the present day embodiment of all that is right about NFL passing games.  One day, Matt Ryan will be the best quarterback in the NFL.  Sure, Peyton isn’t going to move over this year, or probably next year, and he’ll have some pretty spectacular showdowns with Drew Brees over the next five years, but at some point in the not-too-distant-future, Matt Ryan is going to have a contract from the Falcons that will make Michael Vick envious.  And Matt, I’m sorry for putting you behind Brian Brohm in my 2008 NFL Draft QB rankings.  Mea culpa.

3. Eli Manning, New York

Well, this is it.  Eli Manning has arrived at the prime of his career, with a young offense that is developing around him.  He’s had the benefit of developing behind one of the NFL’s best OLs the last three seasons, and we don’t know where he’d be in his development (or even which city he’d call home) without their help.  Now, as that line begins to spring leaks, it will be Manning’s command of the offense and of his receivers and the opponents defense that will pay back the debt to the Giants OL.  In 2009, Eli became the offense in New York.  They ran to it in 2007 and 2008, behind Brandon Jacobs and a good defense, and prior to that, it was always “Tiki Barber and the Giants.”  This year, it’s about Eli Manning, and Kevin Boss, Steve Smith, Hakeem Nicks, and the rest of the band.  Ultimately, there’s only one of those players making $97 million over the next eight years, and it’s not Boss.  It’s Manning.

2.  Tony Romo, Dallas

Romo is never going to be the best quarterback in the conference.  You probably weren’t aware that, on April 21st, Romo (1 playoff win, career) turned 30.  He’s not young, but on a team that has DeMarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff, Felix Jones, Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, and Jason Witten, Romo is still the best thing it has going for it, giving the Cowboys a chance to win every time he takes the field.  Romo is doing in the NFC what Jeff Garcia was doing a decade ago, playing that role to Troy Aikman’s Steve Young, and Roger Staubach’s Joe Montana.  He’s arguably doing it better.  He’s about five pro bowl seasons away from being considered for “best QB in Cowboys history,” but he’s not about to slow down in his early thirties.

1.  Drew Brees, New Orleans

The super bowl champion QB, and top passer in the NFC, was unwanted by every team in the NFC that wasn’t New Orleans when he was available to go anywhere in 2006.  Yeah, there was that career-threatening injury to his shoulder, but, uh, wow.  Any team in the conference could have moved and signed the guy who would have been the best player on their roster even now, five years after the fact.  15 teams didn’t, the Saints did, and for their relative value investment, they got the most accurate passer in NFL history, 3 pro bowls, 2-time AP all pro honors, and that trophy that I keep hearing about.  Not a bad return on a contract that was once viewed as a 1 year/$12 million desperation deal.

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