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1. Peyton Manning
The fact that Manning is sitting atop these rankings is just remarkable after what he has gone through in the past two years. New team, multiple surgeries -- no problem. Every week, I review the film and see something else he has improved. At this stage of the season, he has mastered the system in Denver, and the players around him understand it as well. Last week's third-quarter touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas pretty much epitomizes the level Manning is at right now. He dropped back, read the blitz and released the ball when Thomas was on the goal line. It found Thomas's hands in the back of the end zone. Not only is Manning "back," but he is playing some of the best football of his career.
2 . Tom Brady
He's Old Man River. Brady just keeps rolling along. The changes the Pats have made to their scheme, the injuries they've had to deal with, the lack of a vertical receiving threat -- Brady has negotiated all of it and kept the Pats among 2012's title favorites. This is a more balanced offense, and Brady has benefited from that. "Monday Night Football" is going to be fun, as we'll get to see a couple of hot quarterbacks versus susceptible defenses.
3. Aaron Rodgers
Rodgers' skill set is still probably superior to any quarterback's. He can throw on run, throw with velocity and throw with accuracy, but his play has been uneven this season. The changes and injuries the Packers have endured at receiver may play a role, as the QB-WR chemistry just doesn't seem to be there. An inconsistent offensive line has hurt as well, requiring a lot of help from chip blocks and keeping tight ends in. The running game has been nonexistent, which puts even more pressure on Rodgers to perform. And he just hasn't been the MVP we saw last season. His talent is tremendous, but he drops because it takes just a little inconsistency for elite quarterbacks like Brady and Manning to pass you.
4. Matt Ryan
Ryan has been solid throughout the season. I know he'd want some throws back, but after 400-500 throws, you're definitely going to have a few bad ones. I didn't like what the Falcons did against the Saints, as they were unable to go deep much, but that was more of a factor of the offensive line not holding up. If you look at his body of work, he has clearly been a top-five guy all season long.
5. Ben Roethlisberger
His absence may have some thinking he should have slipped. I'd actually argue that it could have caused him to go higher in these rankings. After seeing the Steelers struggle without Big Ben, aside from a great comeback in Baltimore, we know exactly the kind of impact he has on this team. It is pivotal for the Steelers to keep Roethlisberger healthy. They need his arm, intelligence and ability to extend the play.
6. Matt Schaub
The Texans QB has made a nice little leap. It's been fueled by consistent play, and by winning despite a declining defense that has not been as good in the third quarter of the season. Schaub has brought his team back from behind a few times recently. That's one aspect I always worried about -- those critical times in games where he made mistakes. I'm not seeing that this season and think he has gotten over the hump. He has become much better at dealing with high-pressure, adverse situations.
7. Eli Manning
Look, if you're a top-10 QB, you're still a great quarterback. But inconsistency has plagued Eli lately. I thought he showed a weary arm around midseason, but after the bye, I saw his strength come back. Against the Redskins, I saw a new problem, though. He looked a little flustered. He seemed to have difficulty getting the offense into the right protections and identifying the open receiver. Maybe that's more of a credit to Jim Haslett and Washington's defense. This is "Eli time," though. As we've seen in the past, the fourth quarter of season is when he usually picks it up.
8. Drew Brees
This gradual decline has been pretty interesting. Brees started at No. 2 in my preseason rankings and dropped to No. 5, then No. 7 and now No. 8. The cause has been a surprising number of mistakes that are very uncommon for him. It looks as if he is pressing and trying to make every play. You just can't do that. Sometimes the defense wins on a down. Throw the ball away and move forward. Take a breath. Relax. Brees has not been declining in terms of ability; it's just that the results aren't there. Sure, he has faced a lot of pressure this season and shouldered a larger share of the team's leadership due to the coaching suspensions. But he's carried that load in the past, particularly with the NFLPA during the lockout. Maybe it's something of a cumulative effect dating back to the lockout. All those added responsibilities may be taking their toll.
9. Joe Flacco
Everyone has an opinion on Flacco. Is he good, is he bad, is he elite? For me, he's the same, steady guy every week. Sure, there have been some negative plays, but he also makes big plays for a 9-3 team. All the Ravens do is win under Flacco. If you want something to worry about, be concerned with the receivers' inability to win in man-to-man coverage. Defenses do a good job rerouting and jamming Baltimore's receivers, and when that happens, they struggle to provide Flacco with a clear window. But when they get free on iso routes on the outside, Flacco will destroy defenses. I doubt this will silence any of Flacco's detractors, but if they can take me through the Steelers tape and show me the Ravens receivers winning their matchups on a regular basis, I will applaud you. I'm pretty confident my hands won't need to leave my pockets, though.
10. Jay Cutler
Cutler is having a tremendous season. He seems to be trusting his receivers, particularly Brandon Marshall, and has the physical abilities to do everything a winning quarterback needs to do. But here's the catch: He is only as good as offensive line will allow him to be. He can throw from every platform, but he shouldn't need to. The line must protect him. He has taken far too many hits this season.
11. Tony Romo
I'll be blunt. I love Romo. People need to get off his back. The Dallas Cowboys may not win a game without him at quarterback. The Dallas offensive line is average at best. Romo is able to makes plays because he can move around so well. His receivers really lack discipline with their route running. When he is able to connect for a big play with Dez Bryant, it's usually because Romo has bought time with his movement, which has allowed Bryant to uncover in the secondary.
12. Josh Freeman
The young Buc continues to have a very solid season, and I like how he has rebounded from a down year in 2011. He is taking advantage of a good running game and a balanced offense, which allows him to make plays downfield against defenses conscious of the run. He is a great fit for what the Bucs want to do. They want to run, establish the threat of play-action and take some shots downfield. Freeman can deliver big dividends with that formula.
13. Philip Rivers
The slide continues. Rivers has dropped to No. 13 from No. 7 in the preseason. I can't say much beyond the fact that he is just not playing well. Maybe you can argue the receivers have declined without Vincent Jackson and they haven't gotten good left tackle play, but it's the bad decisions and bad throws that have doomed Rivers. With his experience, you can't make excuses for that.
14. Matthew Stafford
Stafford is an incredible physical talent who drives me crazy. You can see so much potential, but until he corrects some flawed fundamentals, there will always be too much inconsistency. For all the great plays, I'll also see sloppy footwork and regular changes in his arm slot change, resulting in sloppy throws. Even with a dynamic receiving corps, Stafford will always be a middle-of-the-pack quarterback until he corrects his mechanics.
15. Andrew Luck
I could never have foreseen what Luck, RG3 and Russell Wilson have done this season, particularly in terms of the steadiness of their success. Luck is making plays late in games, most recently against Detroit last week. He has shown one of my favorite traits in a young quarterback -- composure after making mistakes. He had 3 interceptions against the Lions, but he showed that great amnesia by staying in the moment and moving on. He needs to cut down on the INTs, though. To date, Luck has nine first-down interceptions, the most in the league. First down needs to be your best down as a quarterback. Defenses are often playing a base scheme, which should be predictable more often than not. Still, I'm blown away by what he has done so far.
16. Robert Griffin III
We now see why Mike Shanahan was so upset after losing to Carolina. It wasn't because he was packing it in; it's because he saw how good this team could be with Griffin. Look at where the Redskins would be with one more win. I have to applaud what the Skins' offensive coaches have done with Griffin, showing how the spread option and pistol formations can work in the NFL. They've stuck with them, even when they weren't always successful, and RG3 has executed everything well. Contrary to perception, they don't go overboard on options. In the Monday night game against the Giants, the Redskins called only six option plays. But they're often the memorable ones because they yield big chunks of yardage. Combined with the Shanahan running game, the play-action passing game is lethal because of the respect Washington commands running the football. One final note: The maturity I've seen from Griffin, Luck and Wilson is just uncommon. The way they handle the media and their teammates has shown class and character. The way they carry themselves is a testament to their families, colleges and coaches.
17. Andy Dalton
I believe Dalton can go higher than this. When I watch him on TV, I see the great plays he makes and the decent numbers he puts up. But when I watch him on film, I always find a number of scoring plays he left on the field. Hey, the Bengals win and his stats are good, but when I see what might have been -- it leaves me wanting more. When he starts making those plays, he'll rise considerably and the Bengals will be even better than they already are.
18. Cam Newton
Newton has settled down a bit, which is good, because I worried about him early on this season. I thought he was playing fast and frenetic, making too many inaccurate throws. But the past few weeks he has been playing more like we expected from the quarterback who made such a splash as a rookie. In the past four games, I've seen more maturity and more accuracy on the game film. His current standing in these rankings is about where we'd expect to find a quarterback in the second half of his second year.
19. Russell Wilson
Jumping up five spots, Wilson is the biggest riser on the list, continuing his rapid climb. In my first quarter rankings, he sat at No. 31, then made a nice leap to 24 and now 19. He has jumped up 12 spots in his rookie season and deservedly so. We're now seeing him win games for the Seahawks, not just manage the game and avoid making mistakes. He has earned the trust of his coaching staff to play a key role with the game on the line. He was phenomenal against the Bears. The Seahawks got him outside against the pocket, which helped neutralize a Bears defense that likes to slant and stunt with their linemen. And again, I'm seeing a level of class and character uncommon for most quarterbacks, much less a rookie.
20. Colin Kaepernick
I see a big upside with Kaepernick. With him under center for San Francisco, the Niners have a vertical game they just didn't have with Smith. Now it's just a matter of getting experience. We saw some mistakes in St. Louis -- and like Jim Harbaugh, I didn't like the play call to run an option that close to the goal line. But Kaepernick's mobility and ability to extend the play will be a big part of the Niners' offense in the fourth quarter of this season.
21. Carson Palmer
Palmer has been reasonably steady this season given the circumstances in Oakland. Yes, Oakland has a poor record, but hey, its defense is just not very good. Palmer has been a stabilizing force for the offense, is hurt because he is constantly throwing from behind and has put up good production in the process. There just isn't much around him.
22. Sam Bradford
In time, Bradford has a chance to move into second tier of quarterbacks. He has good ability to throw the ball, and the offense is getting better as season goes on. My knock on him is that he should be more consistent at this stage, which I have not seen from him yet.
23. Ryan Fitzpatrick
Fitzpatrick plays in a wide-open, gunslinging offense that tries to get the ball out quick, and the Bills have run ball better of late. But Fitzpatrick has gotten better as well, though his mechanics still bug me. He continues to need to focus on them if he wants to make a more significant jump. Too often I see him way off balance with his footwork, which leads to inconsistent throws. Overall, though, he has been much better the past few weeks.
24. Chad Henne
Henne has played well since he came on to replace Blaine Gabbert. The Jaguars' passing attack has opened up, and suddenly we've found Justin Blackmon from among the missing. Blackmon exploded onto the stat sheet now that he has a quarterback who can throw the ball downfield with accuracy. It's been a very small sample size, but Henne has been solid.
25. Christian Ponder
Disappointing. I really can't say it any differently. After the first quarter of the season, I thought he was really coming on, but the second quarter saw a big dip that he has not pulled out of. The troubling thing is that you can't say he is not surrounded with good talent. He has arguably the best running back in the NFL behind him. The Vikings should be dominating out of play-action, but they're not. Quarterbacks make bad decisions, but some are more inexcusable than others. Last week, the Vikings led the Packers 14-10 and were threatening to score again to start the second half. Instead, Ponder throws to a tightly covered Michael Jenkins and watches Morgan Burnett pick it off. It was a play that may have cost Minnesota the game, and potentially a playoff spot.
26. Ryan Tannehill
Tannehill has slipped a little, but I'm not really that concerned with him as a rookie. I think he'll be in the second tier next season, but right now he just doesn't have a go-to receiver to count on. Quarterbacks, especially young quarterbacks, need that security blanket, but the Dolphins don't have anyone he can depend on to get open or turn a jump ball into a catch. Give him a better receiver corps and his stock will rise.
27. Mark Sanchez
We are seeing some really poor decision-making from Sanchez, and it has almost cost him his job. There is no way he should be throwing some of the balls he threw last week. He is not a rookie. He has been in big moments before. He has completed passes to make plays and win games late. Heck, he played in Indy in the AFC Championship Game. Now he is almost regularly throwing into coverage. It's mind-boggling because I've seen him make those good plays in the past. As an outside observer, I think we're seeing how a deteriorating quarterback situation in New York is affecting him. The Jets have three quarterbacks in the picture now. Sanchez has not said anything to that effect -- to his credit -- but he is not playing good football and that's the best reason I can think of as to why.
28. Jake Locker
I'd like to see Locker improve his quick-twitch and footwork. He is not as accurate as I'd like, but he definitely has a big arm. He needs a good offseason where he can spend significant time with a coach who will imprint solid fundamentals on him. If he gains them, he has the physical skills to improve.
29. Brady Quinn
In the right situation, Quinn could be a good quarterback. He had a great game last week under trying circumstances. He just needs confidence in people around him and an organization that has confidence in him. In Kansas City, he has a good cast on offense. I think we'll see him grow and help the Chiefs win some games in the stretch run.
30. Brandon Weeden
Weeden is raw, but talented, and he is getting better. We've seen the arm strength, but he still demonstrates too many typical young quarterback flaws, such as staring receivers down. I do see him improving each week, though, and believe he is getting coached well, because I can see his mechanics and fundamentals improving. And soon, so will his overall game. It helps that the young Cleveland receivers have hung onto a few balls lately.
31. Nick Foles
I see some good upside here. Foles stands 6-foot-6, 240 pounds with a strong arm. We've seen he can be successful when the Eagles have a balanced attack. While he has lost DeSean Jackson, who can take the top off a defense, Bryce Brown is just shredding guys right now. Over the next four games, we'll find out what Foles it all about, and those games will likely determine his fate in Philly. If he doesn't play well, the Eagles will draft a quarterback and Foles' starting career could be over. He does have a few things working in his favor. According to the Eagles, he studies his butt off, and that's the type of hunger to improve you want in a young quarterback.
32. John Skelton
And the Cardinals' quarterback carousel continues to spin. We've now seen the Cards represented by three guys under center. That's not good. But hey, it's Skelton's team now. He has a strong arm, but somewhere along the line the synapses aren't connecting properly. What I see in Skelton is an inaccurate quarterback who flushes out of pocket too soon. If I'm him, when I have Larry Fitzgerald on my team, somehow, some way I've got to get him the football. Part of that is the offense's design, but if I'm the quarterback, I'm looking for Fitzgerald unless they triple cover him.