Brees, Rivers on cusp of breakthrough

Tom Brady, left, is on par with Peyton Manning in recognizing and accounting for last-second defensive adjustments, Trent Dilfer writes. AP Photo/ Charles Krupa

Forget fantasy football for a minute and let's deal with a little reality.

Never in the history of the NFL has the league asked more from its quarterbacks. The demands have grown exponentially even in the past 10 years. The responsibilities quarterbacks must handle today -- protection adjustments, run-game decisions, audible packages and solving defenses that evolve each week -- deserve another level of analysis.

This project has been in the works for a while, fueled by frustration over pundits' repeated failures to acknowledge and appreciate the most difficult position in sports. After studying quarterbacks throughout my career and spending the past year evaluating the position daily, I believe a strong argument can be made that quarterback play today is as good as ever -- and possibly even better.

It's frankly impossible to rank quarterbacks definitively. It's not how good they are so much as how well they are playing and the situation they are in. Their talent, game-day abilities, the offensive systems they run, the personnel around them, the experiences they've had to this point in their careers -- they all come into play.

Rather than labeling quarterbacks, I've created categories to reflect where each of them stands at this point in his career, subject to change. Anyone can criticize. I've set out to appreciate the position through a level of analysis that simply isn't available without a full understanding for what these players experience and how the game has changed.

I brought up fantasy football in the beginning because the fantasy mindset has skewed perceptions, encouraging us to view quarterbacks through a statistical lens. We have lost perspective as a result. I purposely did not consult a single statistic in formulating the analysis that follows. My playoff notes, end-of-season notes and firsthand knowledge were my guide.

No one asked me to put together a list ranking these 49 quarterbacks. The subject is my passion, the motivation simple. If you can take a five-step drop, keep your eyes downfield and deliver the ball while a 300-pound beast is bearing down on you in a big game, you deserve commendation and appreciation for what you do. There isn't a bad player on my list, regardless of category!


Quarterbacks demonstrating total mastery of the position with no holes in their game and a Super Bowl victory to back it up. Future Hall of Famers.

1. Peyton Manning, Indianapolis

Analysis: Ultimate coach on the field … processes and executes more information at a high level than anybody who has ever played the game … never has an offense functioned around one individual more than it has Manning … unbelievable durability, second only to Brett Favre … unrivaled combination of durability and dependability.

2. Tom Brady, New England

Analysis: Best pocket instincts in the league … unwaveringly disciplined in his approach and execution (film study, weight room, how he plays, etc.) … uses tricks of trade very well to manipulate defenses (through snap counts, eye placement, pump fakes) … on par with Manning in recognizing and accounting for last-second defensive adjustments.


Quarterbacks with no holes in their games who have demonstrated an ability to carry their teams. They are a championship ring away from joining Manning and Brady among the elite. There's no game plan these guys can't beat.

1. Drew Brees, New Orleans

Analysis: Master dissector of defenses … as good off rhythm as on rhythm … inspirational, fiery leader who demands excellence from those around him.

2. Philip Rivers, San Diego

Analysis: Demonstrative, animated, tough, outspoken, fiery and hypercompetitive … consistently makes the most difficult throws in the NFL and it's not even close … one of very few quarterbacks who could flourish in Chargers-style system favoring throws 15-25 yards downfield (as opposed to slants, checkdowns and soft-spot zone plays) … remarkable efficiency considering how many high-risk throws he must make in game.


Quarterbacks who have overcome small holes in their games to produce in a big way and enjoy big-game success. These are consistent prime-time performers, with very little separating them from Superstar status.

1. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh

Analysis: Best improvisational quarterback in the league … has vastly improved as rhythm and timing passer … growing in his understanding of defenses and use of hot throws … growing in the discipline of the position (handling pressure, mastering how defenses are trying to attack).

2. Donovan McNabb, Philadelphia

Analysis: Huge production for an extended period of time … offense built around him … ability to extend the play makes him very hard to defend … no such thing as a dead play with McNabb … can beat the perfect defensive call because of his experience combined with strength and athleticism … sometimes inconsistent with his accuracy.

3. Eli Manning, New York Giants

Analysis: Proven winner who has become a great big-game quarterback … cerebral player … has huge responsibilities at the line of scrimmage, allowing the Giants to be very multiple on offense, paying huge dividends in the run game (almost every run they have is some sort of box-count run or is conditional on safety alignment or defensive spacing, with Manning getting the Giants into better running plays) … still shows inconsistency as a passer.

4. Kurt Warner, Arizona

Analysis: Unbelievable production across multiple systems … anticipates his throws in the passing game better than anybody … has resurrected two teams … has struggled with ball security in the pocket, though not so much last season, and can be too aggressive at times.

5. Matt Hasselbeck, Seattle

Analysis: One of the best at manipulating the pocket … as good as anybody at controlling the middle of field in the passing game, showing very good accuracy and timing between the numbers … shows creativity … has shown he can handle as much as anyone at the line of scrimmage … durability issues could be a concern.


Quarterbacks with immense talent and potential who haven't won anything of significance yet. Playoff success will launch them into a higher category.

1. Tony Romo, Dallas

Analysis: Quickest release in the NFL … unparalleled ability to throw from multiple foot platforms, both intermediately and down the field … as artistic as any quarterback in the league, instinctively using all available resources (eye placement, shoulder nods, pump fakes, arm angles, you name it) … can make something out of nothing on a consistent basis … sometimes careless with the football, both in the pocket and through the air … limited big-game success.

2. Carson Palmer, Cincinnati

Analysis: As good a pure passer as there is in the league … immense arm talent … great mastery of his offensive system … needs to stay healthy … can be a little too aggressive in pumping the ball down the field.

3. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay

Analysis: Great arm talent … spins the tightest spiral in the league … makes every throw look easy … on his way to having complete mastery of his offense … inconsistent to this point in his career in two-minute and end-of-game situations

4. Matt Ryan, Atlanta

Analysis: Most dynamic passer as a rookie since Dan Marino … phenomenal instincts for the position … strong leader … the only negative is that he hasn't played enough.

5. Jay Cutler, Chicago

Analysis: Great physical attributes … phenomenal playmaker … has shown lack of discipline in critical situations and must show more maturity on and off the field.

6. Joe Flacco, Baltimore

Analysis: Enjoyed playoff success as a rookie and is therefore an exception to the rule in this category, but defies categorization elsewhere … phenomenal poise under fire … shows the ability to make every throw … has not had to carry his team with his arm like the other players in this category.

GTOs (Glad They're Ours)

Quarterbacks who are solid, proven winners, but not flashy. Some have limited abilities, are long in the tooth or look awkward at times, but they can flat-out play the position.

1. Brett Favre, Minnesota

Analysis: Has mastered every trick of the trade … still has upper-echelon arm talent though he is pushing 40 … aura brings great energy and enthusiasm to any team … lack of offseason training will test aging legs, putting additional pressure on arm over course of full season.

2. Jake Delhomme, Carolina

Analysis: Enjoyed significant big-game success before that aberration against the Cardinals last postseason … dynamic leader who gets the most from his own abilities and from those around him … can be streaky as a passer.

3. Kerry Collins, Tennessee

Analysis: Hungry for a championship … great perimeter thrower … struggles when the rhythm and timing of the play is taken away from him.

4. Chad Pennington, Miami

Analysis: Proven winner who makes every team he's on better immediately … expert at dissecting and exposing weaknesses in the defense … limited physical skills.

5. David Garrard, Jacksonville

Analysis: Very talented quarterback with very good throwing and running skills … great strength in the pocket … victimized by poor personnel around him … has tried to do too much at times, including last season, when he tried to do things a quarterback cannot do with an average supporting cast

GPIs (Gotta Prove It)

Quarterbacks with very good potential who are more dependent than others on their offensive systems and surrounding personnel. They need to capitalize on the opportunities in front of them. This group is still figuring out what high-performance quarterbacking in the NFL is all about.

1. Matt Schaub, Houston

Analysis: Looks the part … throws a beautiful ball … growing in his understanding of offensive football and defensive recognition … needs to stay in the lineup.

2. Trent Edwards, Buffalo

Analysis: Smart, athletic and a nice thrower of the football … still growing into his role … must show more consistent downfield velocity and accuracy.

3. Jason Campbell, Washington

Analysis: Very good arm talent … hard worker who has embraced the cerebral part of game … still must demonstrate consistency in production.

4. Kyle Orton, Denver

Analysis: Won as a young player (21-12 starting record) … strong arm … personality and work ethic endear him to teammates … has not shown a consistent ability to change trajectory and ball speed on various throws

5. Matt Cassel, Kansas City

Analysis: Amazing story and accelerated growth with limited playing time … very good arm … struggles with pocket presence and getting through his progressions because of limited experience.

6. Derek Anderson, Cleveland

Analysis: Tremendous size and arm skills … plays at a high level when he is free and loose … outstanding production in 2007 … can perform when given a vote of confidence, but not when tentative.


Five guys with great upside who have not yet had the opportunity to showcase their abilities. These are potential stars and superstars of tomorrow. Withholding further analysis until we see more of these guys.

1. Mark Sanchez, New York Jets

2. Matthew Stafford, Detroit

3. Josh Freeman, Tampa Bay

4. Chad Henne, Miami

5. Brady Quinn, Cleveland


Quarterbacks who must win consistently to keep their jobs. They have been labeled negatively, told of their limitations, disrespected and underappreciated. Nobody is going to make excuses for them. Winning games is their only chance -- and even that might not be enough. Most can remain an asset to their teams even if not starting.

1. Marc Bulger, St. Louis

Analysis: When everything is right around him, can still spin it as well as most … very good anticipation … was productive with a strong supporting cast … has taken a pounding, and at what price?

2. Shaun Hill, San Francisco

Analysis: Strong leader … makes up for average arm with quick release … better athlete than given credit for … hard to appreciate because he doesn't look the part.

3. Daunte Culpepper, Detroit

Analysis: Hugely productive in early years … motivated to regain past form … has become a wiser quarterback … has sometimes held the ball too long in an effort to make things happen … needs to more consistently get to his third and fourth options.

4. Byron Leftwich, Tampa Bay

Analysis: Can still pump the ball down the field … solid production … needs to play quicker with his feet and arm.


Quarterbacks who need more experience before we can form an opinion. Let's see where they stand after about 30 starts. It just takes time!

1. Alex Smith, San Francisco

Analysis: Very good physical traits … growing through early career adversity … needs to grow more comfortable in the pocket.

2. Matt Leinart, Arizona

Analysis: Accurate passer with good football sense and a feel for the game … work ethic no longer seems to be a concern … off-field persona has affected on-field perception.

3. Tarvaris Jackson, Minnesota

Analysis: Good combination of physical skills … showed significant improvement following last year's benching, an indication he has the competitiveness to succeed … balance and other mechanical flaws have caused him to be inconsistent with his accuracy.

4. JaMarcus Russell, Oakland

Analysis: Big arm, big body and big expectations, but does he have the big work ethic to go with them?


Quarterbacks who have been broken by the position and a variety of circumstances, some of their own creation and others beyond their control. Each has borne little fruit despite immense physical talents. Success remains a possibility, but the hills ahead of them are steep. Enough said.

1. Michael Vick, Philadelphia

2. David Carr, New York Giants

3. Kyle Boller, St. Louis

4. Chris Simms, Denver

5. Vince Young, Tennessee

6. Patrick Ramsey, Tennessee

7. Joey Harrington, New Orleans


Say whatever you want about these guys, but if it gets to December and your starter goes down, they can help you make a run. These are the best of the rest. End of story.

1. Jeff Garcia, Oakland

2. Jon Kitna, Dallas

3. Billy Volek, San Diego

Former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer is a football analyst for ESPN.