Ranking the quarterbacks, team by team


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Jan 22, 2006
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Ranking the quarterbacks, team by team
Aaron Schatz / FootballOutsiders.com
Posted: 18 hours ago

Nothing stirs up debate like a good set of rankings, and ranking all 32 NFL teams unit-by-unit is an annual FOXSports.com tradition. This year, the debate comes with a little twist, as our rankings are grounded not in the conventional wisdom but in the advanced statistics of Football Outsiders.

Any discussion of an NFL team usually starts with the quarterback, and our rankings are no exception. Rating quarterbacks as a unit means taking into account more than just the first-stringer on each team. However, quarterback is very different from other positions, because the bench players only see action if the starter is injured. So a lack of depth at quarterback is less of an issue than it is at other positions. (We're looking at you, Patriots.)

Since we'll be rating each unit as it exists in 2006, we're taking into account performance over the last couple of years, but we're also considering age and injuries. All those teams whose starting quarterbacks are still iffy for the start of the 2006 season get penalized, as do teams whose quarterbacks are currently healthy but have a bad injury record. It's better for your backup to be a first-round rookie with potential than a mediocre journeyman, but Tennessee doesn't get to rank higher because Vince Young might be the best quarterback in football five years from now. Our judgment of inexperienced quarterbacks is guided in part by our new rookie quarterback projection system, the subject of a long essay in our upcoming book Pro Football Prospectus 2006. You can read an introduction to the system here.

You'll see a lot of stats you recognize here, and one you may not: DPAR, or Defense-adjusted Points Above Replacement. DPAR takes every single play during the season and compares it to the league average based on situation and opponent, rewarding players for strong performance on third down and in the red zone and giving them less credit for meaningless gains like a six-yard scramble on third-and-12. For those interested, you can find all the 2005 DPAR numbers for quarterbacks on this page.

Without further ado, here's a list of the NFL's quarterback units from best to worst.

1. Indianapolis
If you have been reading Football Outsiders over the past couple years, you know that there is no topic in football that we despise more than the never-ending, always irrational debate over who is the best quarterback in the NFL, Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. But since we're rating units here rather than players, we get to avoid that argument. If we assume that Brady and Manning are equivalent, then Indianapolis must rank as the top quarterback unit in the league thanks to Jim Sorgi.
Wait a minute ... Jim Sorgi? Sixth-round afterthought out of Wisconsin Jim Sorgi? He's the guy who shows up when the Colts have already clinched their playoff spot, and nobody even knows if his name is pronounced with a soft "g" or a hard "g." What gives?

Sorgi's numbers in limited playing time over the past two years are excellent: he's completed 66 percent of his passes with 10.3 yards per completion, five touchdowns, and just one interception. The typical response would be to discount Sorgi's numbers, because he's taking advantage of the powerful offensive weapons that surround him in the Indianapolis offense. Which is true, if by "powerful offensive weapon" you mean "fifth-string wideout Aaron Moorehead." Sorgi's numbers are far better than any of the backups who have played in similar situations for the league's other powerful offenses, including Seneca Wallace, Matt Cassel, Charlie Batch, and even Jon Kitna.

2. New England
Tom Brady has already secured his spot in the Hall of Fame, but if he's injured, the Patriots are in serious trouble. Matt Cassel hasn't started a game since high school, and until the Patriots sign a veteran of some sort, their third-string quarterback is undrafted rookie Corey Bramlett.
3. Seattle

Last year, the quarterback hierarchy in the NFL seemed clear. On top, you had Brady and Manning, with Carson Palmer close behind. The second tier featured Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees, and Matt Hasselbeck. Donovan McNabb and Daunte Culpepper were also worthy of consideration, if we assume that neither was fully responsible for his 2005 struggles.
Going into 2006, there's something obvious that separates Hasselbeck from every other quarterback in the NFL's second tier: he's the only one who has not had a significant injury in the past 12 months. That's enough to put Seattle ahead of the rest of the NFL behind the Colts and Patriots in our rankings. Behind Hasselbeck, there are depth problems: 2005 third-rounder David Greene has not been impressive in practice, and Seneca Wallace was more impressive in one postseason snap as a receiver than he was in his entire Week 17 cameo as a quarterback while Hasselbeck rested for the playoffs.

4. Pittsburgh
This is where it starts to get tricky because of all the injured quarterbacks. If you believe the media reports, Roethlisberger, Palmer, Culpepper, and Brees are all ahead of schedule. As Ron Borges of the Boston Globe pointed out, a year ago Chad Pennington was allegedly ahead of schedule, and that didn't turn out so hot.
Nonetheless, Roethlisberger is in better shape than Palmer, Brees, or Culpepper. Each one could miss the start of the season, and each one could have a setback that delays his return. But any quarterback would prefer to rehab his face and his diet rather than his knee or his shoulder. Once he can play, Roethlisberger will return to full strength quickly, and he's one of the best quarterbacks in the game whether you judge by rings or by stats. Big Ben is the only quarterback since 1978 with two seasons in the top 10 for net yards per pass attempt, and of course they happen to be the only two seasons he's played. If the injured quarterbacks all miss the start of the season, Charlie Batch has a better track record than Joey Harrington or Anthony Wright, and Omar Jacobs is a promising third-string prospect, although he really needed another year of college seasoning.

5. Denver
While he struggled in the AFC Championship game against Pittsburgh, Jake Plummer's huge year was not a fluke. Over the past three seasons, Plummer has ranked eighth, 11th, and sixth in Football Outsiders' advanced DPAR ratings. Obviously, a big difference between Plummer in Arizona and Plummer in Denver is the talent that surrounds him, but it isn't like Denver is the only team at the top of these rankings with a strong offensive line and a good running game. Denver gets moved up a couple spots because they happen to have a highly-regarded first-round pick learning behind Plummer, although anyone who thinks Jay Cutler should start ahead of Plummer in 2006 is delusional. Third-stringer Bradlee Van Pelt is not Alex Van Pelt.

6. Cincinnati
If Carson Palmer had not injured his knee, Cincinnati would rank third. But despite the rosy reports from the Queen City, it's hard to believe that Palmer can recover from a torn ACL in just nine months and be in the starting lineup, at full strength, ready to take on Kansas City on September 10. Anthony Wright is not a good quarterback, and Doug Johnson is even worse. Assuming that Palmer can be back to last year's level by halfway through this season, this seems like the right place to rank the Bengals.

7. Kansas City
Like Ken Anderson 30 years ago, or Jake Plummer today, Trent Green is often discredited by NFL fans who believe his outstanding performance is due to his offensive system or the talent surrounding him rather than his own abilities. But over the past four seasons, these are Green's ranks in our advanced DPAR stats: sixth, second, fifth, fourth. Tony Gonzalez and Larry Johnson and Willie Roaf are great players, but some of that has to be Green's doing. He's also an absurdly good scrambler who rarely runs with the ball without getting a first down. That being said, Green is on the downside of his career. If he gets injured, the Chiefs will have to play 2006 third-round pick Brodie Croyle before he is ready.

8. Philadelphia
For years, it was hard to tell if Donovan McNabb's numbers were unimpressive because he was overrated, or because he just needed better receivers. If you liked that argument, get ready to hear it again this year. The good news for the Eagles is that McNabb's sports hernia doesn't have long-term effects; unlike a torn rotator cuff or ACL, the player is basically healthy once the surgery is done. Jeff Garcia is okay as a backup, but at this point in his career he's just another replacement-level veteran. Koy Detmer likes to hold things.

Continued next post
9. Jacksonville
Byron Leftwich has gotten better each year, going from 23rd to 17th to 13th in our DPAR rankings. His advanced stats look better than his standard numbers because he was insanely good on third downs last year. Normally, that's the kind of thing that doesn't last ... except Leftwich was also one of the league's top quarterbacks on third downs in 2004. Meanwhile, every year or two, someone else gets to hold the title of "best backup quarterback in football," and now it's David Garrard's turn. Is this the best 1-2 punch in the league? Even if it is, it won't look like it in 2006, because Jimmy Smith's retirement leaves no go-to receiver and the running game continues to decline as Fred Taylor ages.

10/11. New Orleans and Miami
It's really hard to tell which of these two teams is better off because there are so many questions. Which is worse, the possible long-term shoulder damage from Brees's torn rotator cuff or the likelihood that Culpepper's ACL injury has robbed him of his mobility? Which of these two guys is coming back first, and at what strength? Who is the real Daunte Culpepper — the guy from 2004 who had one of the best quarterback seasons in history, the guy from 2005 who looked horrible, or some guy halfway in between? Is the disappointing Joey Harrington a better or worse backup than run-of-the-mill veteran Jamie Martin? Will Adrian McPherson ever actually play, and do the Saints pay him through direct deposit?
12. Baltimore

For so long, the Ravens had a great defense and running game with no passing attack whatsoever. Now, with Steve McNair throwing to Derrick Mason and Todd Heap, the passing attack is probably the best part of the team. McNair somehow ranked ninth in DPAR last year in Tennessee even though he was throwing to a gimpy Drew Bennett, three tight ends, and a gaggle of fourth receivers. But he's still old and brittle, and will doubtlessly miss some games, which is why Baltimore isn't ranked higher. It's hard to know what to think about the demoted Kyle Boller — our KUBIAK fantasy projection system seems to think he was ready for a breakout season after his improvement in the second half, but Boller's poor mechanics have always defied our projections.

13. Washington
Mark Brunell's big comeback was a lot of fun, but it's unlikely that he will have a season as good — or as healthy — in 2006. Brunell dropped from 6.0 net yards per pass with three interceptions (Weeks 1-9) to 5.7 net yards per pass with seven interceptions (Weeks 10-17). He also went from converting 46 percent of third-down passes (with an average of 7.6 yards to go) to converting only 33 percent of third-down passes (despite a lower average of 6.6 yards to go). The good news for Washington fans is that backup Jason Campbell does very well in our rookie quarterback projection system. You can predict the NFL performance of first- and second-round quarterbacks with astonishing accuracy using just two college stats: games started and completion percentage. No other recent high draft pick ranks above Campbell in both categories.

14. Arizona
In 2005, Kurt Warner had his best season since 2001, and in a world where Drew Bledsoe and Mark Brunell can lead teams to winning records, it's not that unreasonable to think that Warner has a 9-7 season left in him — especially with Edge on board to take some of the heat off. Even better, the drafting of Matt Leinart shows that the Cardinals realize that Warner is a short-term solution, not a long-term one. Our rookie quarterback projection system says Leinart is as close to a sure thing as you will find in the draft. He may have a lower ceiling than Cutler or Vince Young, but he's also much less likely to be a bust. All that talk about Leinart being "too Hollywood" for the NFL is just a bunch of hot air until he shows that he can't get it done in the desert the way he did at USC.

15. Carolina
Jake Delhomme is a good quarterback, but not a great one. He has streaky accuracy, he moves well in the pocket and does a good job of avoiding hits, and he will look better now that Keyshawn Johnson has replaced that cardboard cutout at the No. 2 wideout spot. Chris Weinke is a mediocre backup, and third-stringer Stefan LeFors is an unknown.

16. Atlanta
When the Falcons missed the playoffs last year, the public's opinion of Michael Vick plunged faster than XFL television ratings. But while Vick has been a terrible passer for the last three seasons, that doesn't mean he lacks the talent to be a good passer in 2006 and beyond. It's really up to Vick — does he want to learn to be an NFL quarterback, or does he want to make excuses for why his play in real life doesn't match his video game stardom? It will be interesting to see what the Falcons do with Matt Schaub, who is highly regarded and a more polished passer than Vick. Schaub looked fabulous in his one start during 2005, but remember that last year's Patriots secondary wasn't exactly winning any awards.

17. St. Louis
Marc Bulger has been one of the NFC's better quarterbacks over the past few seasons, but nobody is quite sure what will become of him as the Rams transition from the Mike Martz offense to the Scott Linehan offense. Will he keep his interceptions low like 2004, or will they revert to the high level of 2003? He'll probably take fewer sacks, and perhaps that will keep him in the lineup and keep Gus Frerotte and Ryan Fitzpatrick on the bench. With the talent around him fading, our statistical projections say his fantasy value is going to plummet.

18. New York Giants
Giants fans think that Eli Manning is still going to turn into his brother. Perhaps they are right, and you don't want to judge a number one overall pick after just a year and a half, but so far Eli Manning hasn't been Peyton Manning. He's been Jay Schroeder. Manning was actually more accurate in the second half of the season (54 percent) than he was in the first half (52 percent), but he seemed to decline because all those bad passes that dropped harmlessly to the ground early in the season were suddenly finding the hands of opposing defensive backs. The backups are a bunch of replacement-level guys, and if the first-string defense ever faces the third-string offense in practice, Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora may accidentally kill Rob Johnson.

19. Green Bay
The hardest team to rank. Brett Favre is coming off the worst year of his career, but you also have to consider that his offensive line was horrible and his schedule was filled with good defenses: the Super Bowl champion Steelers, the ball-hawking Bengals, the Bears twice, the Bucs and Panthers, and so on. When the time comes for Favre to move on, Aaron Rodgers projects to be solid but unspectacular.

20. Tampa Bay
Chris Simms looked good as the starter last year, and improved as the year went along. Unfortunately, Simms has been injury prone in the past, and so have all his backups. Simms had shoulder issues in 2004. Jay Fiedler hurt his shoulder last year and might not even be ready for training camp. Luke McCown already blew out his knee. Tim Rattay broke himself in three places during the time it took you to read this sentence. It would surprise nobody if the Bucs had four guys on the injured list and undrafted rookie Bruce Gradkowski starting by Week 17.
21. Dallas

Drew Bledsoe is just an average quarterback at this point. Each additional year saps a little bit of his ability, with a greater chance that he'll miss games due to the aches and pains that come with age. Tony Romo is a big fat question mark, and Drew Henson is a cautionary tale about talented young athletes who can't commit to a single sport. Are you listening, Jeff Samardzija?

22. San Diego
The good news: Philip Rivers scores higher in our rookie projection system than any other recently drafted quarterback. He started a whopping 49 games at North Carolina State and his completion percentage of 72 percent as a senior is an ACC record. Many people question the choice of Rivers over Drew Brees, but many people questioned the decision to start Carson Palmer over Jon Kitna in Cincinnati and that turned out pretty well. The bad news: The rookie projection system predicts how good a quarterback will be over his career, not in his rookie season alone. And if Rivers falters or gets injured, the Chargers have no depth. A.J. Feeley has been awful since leaving Philadelphia, and 2006 third-rounder Charlie Whitehurst isn't going to be ready any time this year.

23. Houston
David Carr was terrible last year, but conventional wisdom says he's the victim of circumstance. But now that a new coaching staff is taking over in Houston, this is probably the last year he can use that excuse. Sage Rosenfels is nobody's idea of a starting quarterback, but he's also not the bum that most people think he is. He's a serviceable backup.

24. Detroit
Mike Martz may be able to do wonders with Jon Kitna, Josh McCown, or even 2005 fifth-rounder Dan Orlovsky. But it's far more likely that none of these quarterbacks has a ceiling higher than "average." Kitna, in particular, isn't a guy you want to build your franchise around — he is 34 years old, and he's not getting any better.

25. Cleveland
Charlie Frye definitely has promise, but last year he had plenty of rookie struggles and he still needs some growth time. Ken Dorsey is the Rodney Dangerfield of backup quarterbacks — most people think he's awful, but his rookie numbers in 2004 were virtually identical to Eli Manning's, only better. Derek Anderson is.

26. New York Jets
Once upon a time, Chad Pennington was one of the league's most promising young quarterbacks. He finished second in DPAR in 2002, behind only Rich Gannon. But after constant shoulder problems, it's hard to tell how well he can still play. Patrick Ramsey isn't going to lead a team to victory on his own, although he would probably do well as a Trent Dilfer-like game manager quarterback on a team built around defense and the running game. Don't be surprised if second-rounder Kellen Clemens is the starter by December, but while Clemens has plenty of promise and could end up as one of the best picks in the 2006 draft, he's not going to win many games as a rookie.

27. Chicago
At this point, the only thing we know about Rex Grossman is that he's better than Kyle Orton. Brian Griese was very good in Tampa Bay in 2004, and his 2003 struggles in Miami were in large part caused by the terrible offensive line in front of him. But he's also coming back from the same ACL injury that has us all wondering about Daunte Culpepper and Carson Palmer, and neither Griese or Grossman has a good track record for staying healthy. The Bears would prefer to leave Orton on the bench all season.

28. Tennessee
Billy Volek started half of 2004, completing 61 percent of his passes and throwing 18 touchdowns with just 10 interceptions. This makes it sound like he can replace Steve McNair with no problem, but if you look closer you'll see that Volek put up those stats against a phenomenally week schedule: the Chiefs, Colts, Vikings, and Raiders all had terrible defenses in 2004. In reality, Volek is just another backup quarterback, and when he struggles this year, there will be pressure to play Vince Young early. The Titans can't risk that Young will fall into the same trap as Vick, leaning on the fabulous athletic talent that won games in college rather than learning the fundamental mechanics and strategy that will win games in the NFL.

29. San Francisco
Our advanced stats go back nine years, and in those nine years no quarterback had a season worse than Alex Smith's 2005. That being said, he was the number one overall pick for a reason, and he didn't really have a lot of talent around him in San Francisco. He also was much younger than the average NFL rookie: the only other quarterbacks to play their rookie year at age 21 were Drew Bledsoe, Michael Vick, and Tommy Maddox. Trent Dilfer is quite experienced at being the backup with experience. Cody Pickett has a fun name to pronounce.

30. Oakland
Aaron Brooks is a mediocre quarterback who has long been overrated because he put up strong fantasy football numbers. He gains plenty of rushing yards, and always is among the league leaders in meaningless 12-yard passes on third-and-15. Now, instead of being a mediocre quarterback, he's a below-average quarterback on the decline, stuck on a team that keeps avoiding a much-needed rebuilding process. Backup Andrew Walter, a 2005 third-rounder, has some promise, but has yet to play in the regular season. At this point, it's clear third-stringer Marques Tuiasosopo is not an NFL quarterback.

31. Minnesota
Brad Johnson has been in the NFL for 15 years, and he's managed to stay healthy through all 16 games only three times. At age 38, is this going to be the fourth? When the inevitable injury comes, the Vikings are in trouble. Mike McMahon scrambles far too often and has no touch on his passes, and if people think Vince Young needs a lot of preparation before he's ready to play in the NFL, where does that leave Tavaris Jackson?

32. Buffalo
Just a total disaster area. J.P. Losman looked terrible last year, and according to the rookie projection system, no recent first-round pick is less likely to become a productive NFL starter. Backing up Brett Favre is much like being the Maytag repairman, so nobody knows what to expect from Craig Nall. Kelly Holcomb is the other option.

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