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NFL starting QB rankings, 1-10

Young guns have altered the QB landscape, but the old guard can still sling it with the best of them. ESPN Illustration

The quarterback class of 2012 and other young quarterbacks have changed things in the NFL.

Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III shocked the NFL by putting together playoff seasons and immediately putting their names among the better quarterbacks in football. Then Colin Kaepernick came off the bench and helped carry the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl.

These young guns might cause future adjustment in how I handle my annual look at the elite quarterbacks. Luck, Wilson, RG III, Kaepernick and Cam Newton are the new wave of quarterbacks who have elite abilities. They can run. They can make every throw. Each has the ability to carry his offense and get his team into playoff contention.

Some might call them elite now. I'm holding off for a year, but next year, I might not be able to keep them out of elite classification. If that's the case, I would have more than half of the league listed as elite quarterbacks, which might force me to consider altering the categories.

That might not be a bad idea. Change is in the air. To me, an elite quarterback is one who has the ability to complete at least 60 percent of his passes, post more than 20 points a game, potentially have 4,000-yard seasons and make fourth-quarter comebacks.

Even those numbers are changing, and some might change significantly this season. Now, quarterbacks can throw for 5,000 yards. Last season, 11 threw for more than 4,000. Eighteen quarterbacks who started at least six games last season completed better than 60 percent of their passes. Twenty threw at least 20 touchdown passes. Fourth-quarter comebacks were regular.

I went with a dozen elite quarterbacks this year. Last year, I almost dropped Joe Flacco, but I'm glad I didn't. He collected a Super Bowl ring and a $20.1 million a year contract. I considered dropping Philip Rivers this season, but I'll keep him on.

Michael Vick was the only elite quarterback I dropped. Though it seems severe to take him down to No. 24, look at the young quarterbacks who jumped ahead of him. Chip Kelly's offense could allow him to rise again.

Click here for No. 11 to No. 20 | Click here for No. 21 to No. 32

SportsNation: Rank 'em -- Starting QBs

THE ELITE

1. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers

Analysis: The highest-paid quarterback in the NFL at $22 million a year has to do more to keep the Packers atop the NFC North. Gone are Greg Jennings and Donald Driver, who helped him when he took over for Brett Favre. An improved running attack will make his job a little easier.

Arrow is pointing: up

2. Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos

Analysis: He's back. Four neck operations didn't slow down Manning, who took his fast-paced, no-huddle offense to the Mile High City and won 13 games. Many consider the Broncos the favorite to win the AFC's No. 1 seed, and much of that optimism is based on Manning. The damaged nerve in his neck has had an extra year to heal. He's gaining more velocity and depth to his throws. Adding Wes Welker in the slot will make him that much more dangerous.

Arrow is pointing: up

3. Tom Brady, New England Patriots

Analysis: I feel a little guilty putting Manning above Brady this year. Watching Brady in the preseason and practices has been a treat. He's on fire. The ball rarely hits the ground. The amazing part is Brady is throwing mostly to three rookie receivers and an undrafted tight end. But I picked Manning over Brady because I think the Broncos have a better chance of having home-field advantage, which would give Manning an edge over Brady in a playoff game.

Arrow is pointing: up

4. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints

Analysis: The return of Sean Payton should fix some of the offense's mistakes last year. Without Payton's play calling, Brees had 19 interceptions and the Saints got away from the run a little too much. Still, Brees threw for 5,177 yards and 43 touchdowns, incredible numbers. Payton's fine-tuning should produce more wins for the Saints and Brees.

Arrow is pointing: up

5. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers

Analysis: Despite a minor knee operation, Roethlisberger reported to training camp in incredible shape. But for the Steelers to get back to the playoffs, he is going to have to carry the team. He lost a deep threat with Mike Wallace's departure to Miami. Tight end Heath Miller is coming off a knee reconstruction, and the Steelers' best running back, Le'Veon Bell, has a foot injury.

Arrow is pointing: up

6. Eli Manning, New York Giants

Analysis: Eli missed the 4,000-yard mark for the first time in four years, but he missed by only 52 yards. That was understandable. Hakeem Nicks battled injuries all season, so Manning lost his No. 1 receiver. Nicks should do better this year, and so should Manning. Still, the Giants have to be worried about the offensive line, which is fighting age and injuries.

Arrow is pointing: up

7. Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons

Analysis: Ryan was one completion away from beating the San Francisco 49ers and going to the Super Bowl. He was rewarded with a $20.6 million a year contract and the return of tight end Tony Gonzalez. He finally got his first playoff win, which takes a lot of pressure off him. His offense is loaded with weapons, and this could be the Falcons' year to go to the Super Bowl.

Arrow is pointing: up

8. Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens

Analysis: Flacco gambled and won. Instead of taking less than $18 million a year on a contract extension, Flacco bet on himself and came up big. The Ravens won the Super Bowl and paid him $20.1 million a year. But Flacco has problems. He lost 50 percent of his touchdown targets -- Dennis Pitta and Anquan Boldin. He has a big question mark at the No. 2 receiver position. He faces a tough challenge.

Arrow is pointing: flat

9. Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys

Analysis: Once again, Romo is in a tough spot. He does more and more each year to carry the team, but no matter what he does, it hasn't made the Cowboys better than 8-8 the past two years. They haven't been to the playoffs since 2009. Over the past two years, he's completing more than 65 percent of his passes. Last year, he threw for 4,903 yards. Yet all critics want to do is bash Romo, particularly now that he's making $18 million a year.

Arrow is pointing: flat

10. Matt Schaub, Houston Texans

Analysis: The Texans are paying him $15.5 million a year, so they must think he's elite. Schaub may not be flashy, but he's good. And now that he's staying reasonably healthy, he is giving the Texans a shot at the playoffs every year. When he's right, he'll complete 64 to 69 percent of his passes. He has had three 4,000-plus-yard seasons in the past four years. He's doing something right.

Arrow is pointing: up


Click here for No. 11 to No. 20 | Click here for No. 21 to No. 32

SportsNation: Rank 'em -- Starting QBs