Tom Brady is out for the season with a knee injury, and Peyton Manning is not himself after missing the entire preseason with a knee problem of his own. So with the NFL's top two quarterbacks on the mend, which young signal-callers are poised to step into the void and take their games to the next level?
Scouts Inc.'s pro scouts debated that topic. They considered possibilities such as Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, Cleveland's Derek Anderson and Buffalo's Trent Edwards. But the finalists had stronger résumés.
Our experts whittled the list down to five names: Denver's Jay Cutler, New York's Eli Manning, San Diego's Philip Rivers, Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger and Dallas' Tony Romo. From there, they sat down at the Scouts Inc. roundtable and took a vote on the best quarterback in that group.
Manning and Roethlisberger won points with their Super Bowl rings, Cutler and Romo were lauded for their physical skills and Rivers got credit for playing in last season's AFC Championship Game with a torn ACL. All have been impressive through the first two weeks of this season. Each scout ranked the list from 1 to 5 -- with five points awarded for a first-place vote, four for second, three for third, two for fourth and one for fifth -- and in the end, Big Ben's combination of size, arm strength, leadership skills and other intangibles gave him the slight edge over Eli Manning.
Here's how each scout voted and the final tally for each young quarterback, followed by the discussion that surrounded the vote:
What is the most important factor when evaluating NFL quarterbacks?
Jeremy Green: It's something I like to call FBI: football intelligence. Physical tools are great, but the list of physically gifted first-round quarterbacks who have busted is almost endless. Too many quarterbacks are overloaded early, take too many hits or never are able to catch up to the speed of the game. The perfect NFL quarterback is made up of so many attributes, but check back in the history books at the teams that reached or won the big game. What you'll find are a slew of quarterbacks leading the way who weren't necessarily the most gifted, but who had the great football instincts to manage a team.
Gary Horton: The ability to read defenses and process information is the critical factor for success at this position in the NFL. Most guys have physical tools, including arm strength -- but the best quarterbacks have the ability to make the game slow down and make good decisions. This is a game of matchups and the ability to read the defense before the snap and recognize the best matchup, which could be the third or fourth option, is a big key to success at the quarterback position.
Keith Kidd: There's a laundry list of factors that scouts and coaches consider when evaluating quarterbacks at the pro level. Does he fit the system? Should the scheme be built around him? Which coaches has he played for and in what system does he currently play? But let's face it: At the end of the day, quarterbacks are judged on wins and production. In the NFL, it's the most demanding position by far. A quarterback has to be mentally tough, extremely smart, a leader by example and the hardest-working player on his team. Even with significant personnel input from the coaching staff and equal competition at the position, there's a lot of luck involved in picking the right guy. Make a mistake at the position, especially early in the draft, and it can set a franchise back for years.
Full Scouts Inc. Reports
Click below to read the full scouting reports on all five quarterbacks.
Doug Kretz: The ability to learn an offense and read coverages is most important. Many physically talented quarterbacks have failed in the NFL because they couldn't handle the mental aspect of the game. If a quarterback can't learn an entire playbook, the coaches have to reduce the game plan to help eliminate mistakes, which makes it easier on defenses. Quarterbacks also must be able to recognize the coverage pre-snap and realize when the secondary is disguising its coverage.
Ken Moll: There are a bunch of factors when evaluating a quarterback, but for me accuracy has to be No. 1. Accuracy has lots to do with vision, patience, mechanics, arm strength and instincts. Weight transfer and the release point are often what affect accuracy. This part of quarterback play is often underestimated, and making targets adjust is very disruptive to the whole passing game. To me, a great signal-caller can throw the ball accurately when he has to improvise, because plays often break down in the NFL.
Tag Ribary: Accuracy is the most important factor. The ability to remain accurate regardless of the situation supercedes all the other factors such as arm strength, athletic ability etc. Every quarterback has a bad game now and then, but in the end accuracy leads to consistency, and accuracy is not a trait that can be easily developed.
Matt Williamson: There isn't just one, of course, but I'd say accuracy. It amazes me that some of the college kids with phenomenal blends of size, strength and athleticism get drafted so high when, quite simply, they can't put the ball where it needs to be. If a quarterback lacks at least adequate arm strength, or can't decipher coverages, or processes information too slowly, then all the accuracy in the world doesn't matter. But if my quarterback can have only one great asset, I want the guy who can put the ball exactly where his receiver wants it. Bill Walsh was a proponent of throwing the ball softly to ensure that it hits its intended target and is very catchable. Though he has the benefit of the best supporting cast and protection among this group, Romo is the most accurate passer of the bunch. He consistently puts the ball right on the money.
Which of these QBs would you want running your team right now?
Jeremy Green: For me, it came down to Roethlisberger or Manning. Why? Both have Super Bowl rings. I rank Roethlisberger first, though, because I believe the Steelers win because of him, while the Giants too often win despite Manning. Eli doesn't have Big Ben's proven track record over the long haul. I love the command Roethlisberger has over his offense. He's a leader on the field and a respected voice in the locker room. He's smart, mobile enough, has great size and a solid arm and shows excellent creativity and the ability to make all the throws. Total package. Roethlisberger is a winner whom any team could build around.
Gary Horton: I want Manning because he is the unquestioned leader of a good team in a pressure-cooker market. He has a calm demeanor that permeates to his teammates and he can follow a bad play with several good ones. His footwork is excellent and he can make every play necessary. Plus he has developed into a good decision-maker who, like his brother Peyton, can make good pre-snap adjustments. There doesn't seem to be a situation that is ever too big for him.
Keith Kidd: Without a doubt, it's Brady. But I can't have him, so I'll go with Manning over Cutler. Manning was simply amazing in the postseason, outplaying Jeff Garcia, Romo, Brett Favre and finally, in the Super Bowl, Brady. Manning is playing with a tremendous amount of confidence, and he's in the toughest market of any player on this list. I'm impressed by his arm strength and maneuverability in the pocket, but what I love most is his laid-back demeanor. He doesn't allow a bad play to affect his overall performance. When he's in rhythm with the offense, Manning is a big-time quarterback who puts a lot of pressure on opposing defenses.
Doug Kretz: I would want Roethlisberger because he finds a way to orchestrate a drive to win the game when it's needed. Plus, his determination translates to his teammates, and he wills them to win. All these quarterbacks have physical skills, but Roethlisberger does the best job of leading his team to victory.
Ken Moll: Big Ben is the guy I would want running the show. He is a big, strong quarterback who can make all the throws and takes care of the ball. He usually performs well in big games and rarely loses a contest for the Steelers. Roethlisberger is very accurate and is having an excellent season thus far with a QB rating of 136.3. For a big man, Roethlisberger can move or elude in the pocket and is tough to bring down, which enables him to improvise downfield. He has great vision and poise in the pocket, which allows him to be an excellent decision-maker. Most importantly, he has the best proven record over his five-year career compared to the rest of the group.
Tag Ribary: Manning is the guy I want from this list because he has made unbelievable progress. He can manipulate safeties and linebackers with his eyes. He is accurate and releases the ball with confidence. Plus, Manning has a strong arm with an efficient throwing motion. My quarterback needs to be smart, able to read coverage quickly and have some mobility in the pocket to avoid the rush. Manning can do all of these things effectively, and he now has a proven track record of playing well in the biggest of games -- which most of the players on this list have yet to prove. He may not be the best in each of these individual categories, but right now he is good enough in all of them.
Matt Williamson: Roethlisberger, and by a substantial margin. The other four are excellent young quarterbacks, but when comparing each player's overall body of work, none comes close to Roethlisberger's. He is the only one who has not only achieved, but sustained, excellence. And he continues to get better as Steelers coach Mike Tomlin puts more responsibility on his shoulders. He takes too many sacks -- and probably always will -- but by holding on to the ball Roethlisberger also converts downfield plays with astonishing frequency. At worst he ranks second, behind Cutler, in terms of physical abilities. In terms of playmaking skills, he's tops. Most impressive is Big Ben's winning percentage -- and his Super Bowl ring. More could be on the way.
Which has the single most impressive skill/strength?
Jeremy Green: Wow, this is hard. I love Big Ben's strength, Manning's ability to shake off adversity, Romo's improvisational skills and Rivers' gritty temperament. But above all, Cutler's quick release stands out. The guy just throws darts. I didn't notice it as much on last year's mediocre Broncos club, but after watching all five passers early this season, I can't get over the way Cutler zings it. He can make all the throws with excellent arm velocity. This sums it up best: He can fit passes into tight windows better than anyone on this list, and that's a must when facing the speed of today's NFL defenses.
Gary Horton: I love Manning's ballhandling skills. His mechanics are starting to look a lot like his big brother's. A lot of his big passing plays come off play-action, and he does a nice job of showing the defense the ball and then taking it back and hiding it, which freezes the defender and creates confusion. And because the fake is so good, a lot of times the defender bites on it and then cannot recover. Manning also pump-fakes after most play-action fakes, which gives the defender even more to worry about.
Keith Kidd: Cutler. He's one of the most impressive young quarterbacks to enter the league in a long time. Aside from WR Brandon Marshall, who were the proven playmakers in Denver's offense headed into the season? The uncertainty hasn't fazed Cutler, who already is making stars of his supporting cast. He is extremely smart and sees the whole field, and he has the arm strength and accuracy to make all the throws. Now in his third year, Cutler has reached a level at which he can execute anything in Mike Shanahan's playbook and lift a team onto his shoulders. The Broncos have found their franchise quarterback.
Doug Kretz: Cutler has incredible arm strength and accuracy when he has time to set his feet and step into his throws. He hits tight windows like no other quarterback when he is focused and screwed into the game. As he matures and learns to trust Shanahan's system more, he could easily end up being the top quarterback on this list.
Ken Moll: Cutler is the most gifted quarterback of this young group. He has an excellent combination of arm strength and accuracy. I don't have him higher in my rankings due to his minimal body of work in the league, but clearly he has outstanding talent, and it has shown in the early part of the season. When Cutler has time to set his feet and scan the field, he is the best of this bunch at getting the ball to his target.
Tag Ribary: When I watch Cutler throw the ball I am constantly amazed by his arm strength. The amount of zip he is able to put on the ball when throwing across the hash, on the move or when squeezing the ball into a window that is closing is uncanny. This gives defenders very little time to react once he makes a decision.
Matt Williamson: Arm strength may be the most overrated factor in quarterback evaluation, so I'm about to contradict myself a bit. But the revolutions Cutler puts on his fastball makes the jaw drop. Roethlisberger's overall strength has to be considered as well; he shrugs off 300-pound defensive linemen with relative ease. Both Cutler and Big Ben can throw strikes with excellent velocity, even when their feet aren't set. But the way Cutler slings it gives him a huge advantage because of the array of throws he's capable of. Shanahan has no play-calling limitations with Cutler behind center, and every defense he faces must defend the entire field. I want to see more, but Cutler has a very high ceiling.
Which has the most glaring weakness?
Jeremy Green: It would be easy to say Rivers' arm strength, but that arm did pass the Chargers into the AFC Championship Game. I won't make any fans in Dallas by saying this, but I'm going with Romo's inability to step up in the playoffs. Two years ago he fumbled the hold on a kick in Seattle. Last season, it was a fourth-quarter meltdown in which he spent more time yelling at officials and wasting time on the clock than running the offense. Romo is going to be special, and eventually could rank No. 1 on this list. But for now I have concerns about his temperament. His lack of maturity in the postseason has to change for the Cowboys to fulfill expectations in 2008.
Gary Horton: As much as you love the big-play ability of Romo, you also have to be aware of his tendency to turn the ball over due to his sloppy mechanics and poor decision-making at inopportune times. He is a Favre-like gunslinger, but he is prone to fumbles and he will force the ball into windows that close. Luckily for Romo, he has great skills and enough playmakers around him that he can usually overcome these mistakes with explosive positive plays -- but he cannot afford another big miscue come playoff time.
Keith Kidd: Tough question. This is a very impressive group, and no one takes this category in a landslide. But if I have to pick one, I'll say Romo. He's playing with the best supporting cast of any quarterback in this group, and until he can bag that first playoff win, I won't be fully convinced. On film, he just doesn't seem very mechanically sound. I know Cutler has yet to win in the playoffs, too. But based on their respective abilities, the comparison isn't even close.
Doug Kretz: Rivers has a couple of issues that are still holding him back, but they can be worked with. He has an unorthodox release and has a tendency to throw the ball when he's off-balance, which causes erratic throws. Long-time quarterbacks coach Ken Myers once told me when we were in Seattle that he won't change a quarterback from the waist up, but he will work with his footwork. If Rivers can learn to stay balanced and square up more often, his delivery would become more consistent.
Ken Moll: I believe Manning is a good football player, but he clearly has weaknesses with his accuracy and ability to improvise -- except for last year's Super Bowl play that will go down in infamy. He can slide and deliver the ball, but often is not very accurate. I'm not sure if he is trying to do too much or simply lacks great vision while improvising, but he has the worst completion percentage (54.9) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (80-65) of this group. He has improved in this phase of his game, but clearly over his career he has a glaring problem in this area.
Tag Ribary: I have some concerns about Rivers' mobility. Even before the knee injury, I wondered how long he could escape the rush or create with his legs if he had to. He does a good job making subtle adjustments in the pocket to buy some time, but once he is outside or forced to tuck the ball and run, I've thought he was susceptible.
Matt Williamson: It hasn't shown up much after just two games, but Cutler's decision-making was questionable last season. Manning's penchant for interceptions and Rivers' reactions to phantom pressure deserve mention, but Cutler's judgment has been too suspect not to choose. I love his confidence and brashness, but he threw some passes last year that no one had any business letting go. Again, we haven't seen much of it this season, but Cutler definitely has some Favre in him. The comparisons may not be entirely fair for either player, but they hold water. In this case, though, it's as much a criticism as it is a compliment.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.