NFL Quarterback Debate: Who Fits The ‘Elite’ Label

Aaron Rodgers fantasy football
Aaron Rodgers fantasy football
Brace Hemmelgarn USA TODAY Sports

Over the past week we’ve discussed some of the ongoing debates as to which players are the best at their position — why LeSean McCoy is a better running back than Adrian Peterson, and why Richard Sherman is the NFL’s top cornerback.

One debate that is not so clear-cut is which quarterbacks fit the “elite” label. If you were given your choice of any NFL quarterback to start your team tomorrow, do you ride with Peyton Manning, who may only have two more years left on his tires, or Andrew Luck, the most promising young player of the bunch?

Let the debate begin.

Elite: Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees

Placing any one of these three players on a team instantly gives that team a chance to contend. All three are MVP candidates year in and year out, and there’s no disputing they give an identity to their respective teams.

If you took Manning away from the Broncos or Brees away from the Saints, would you still consider them favorites to win their conferences? They are the heart and soul of their teams, and they make good teams great and playoff contenders Super Bowl contenders. They’re indispensable.

Great: Tom Brady, Andrew Luck, Philip Rivers

I think there might be two surprises with the “Great” rank. Why isn’t Brady among the elite? And why is Rivers getting so much credit?

If you dissect Brady’s career, he was statistically great when his team needed him to be. But in years like 2013, he was unable to be that great player when the talent around him wasn’t up to par. That shouldn’t hinder an elite quarterback.

Rivers had a couple of down years, but under an innovative offensive mind in Mike McCoy, he resurrected his career last year. I’ve always believed Rivers has a great football mind and is excellent at making the right throw. He just needed a playbook to better suit his skill-set.

On The Cusp: Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton, Matthew Stafford, Jay Cutler, Matt Ryan, Colin Kaepernick, Tony Romo

It’s a diverse set of quarterbacks that fit this category. There are the RGIIIs, Newtons and Kaepernicks, the younger signal-callers with the potential to someday be the next wave of great or elite players. There are the Romos and Cutlers, who at times flash signs of being a superior talent, but there have always been setbacks or a “what if” attached to their game.

As rookies, both Griffin and Newton looked like they’d be great quarterbacks. Injuries set back RGIII, and Newton is in store for a major task with a new set of receivers. Kaepernick is going to see an increased role with the 49ers offense, so he’ll have a chance to state his case.

Stafford, Ryan and Cutler are all in a position to get better — it’s just a question of if and when they take the leap. All three have the potential to be great players, but need to prove it on a consistent basis.

The Super Bowl Hangover: Eli Manning, Joe Flacco, Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger

It’s practically a sin to discount a Super Bowl from the discussion when ranking quarterbacks. Manning and Big Ben have been fluttering between “elite” and “great” and “on the cusp” for years, depending on the particular subject and what criteria the rankings consider.

However, if these three quarterbacks were truly elite there would be no reason their teams have fallen out of contention at times. Manning’s Broncos won’t suddenly go from the Super Bowl to 8-8 the following season, but we’ve seen each one of these three teams regress following a championship.

Are all above-average quarterbacks, but they don’t possess elite skill-sets. They are above the “journeyman” category but aren’t great. They are chief in helping their team win, and at times they are the difference between a good team and a playoff team. But they are not the sole difference-maker.

Middle of the Pack: Andy Dalton, Nick Foles, Ryan Tannehill, Sam Bradford, Alex Smith

This is essentially the best of the middle class. Do you think Dalton is the reason the Bengals won the AFC North? Do you believe Foles can replicate his 2013 campaign? We remain unsure, but they have a track record of being good quarterbacks thus far for their teams.

Dalton is in line for a new deal, but the Bengals would be wise to see if he can thrive in a Hue Jackson offense that’ll give him ample opportunity to succeed. Foles had a terrific 2013 season, but he needs to prove he can do it again. Smith is also waiting on a new deal, but is the ultimate game-manager.

Bradford was off to a terrific start last season before injuries again derailed him, so we need to see if he’s able to stay healthy and pick up where he left off. Tannehill has improved each season; perhaps he’s ready to make another leap in 2014.

Too Soon For a Verdict: Geno Smith, Mike Glennon, EJ Manuel, Josh McCown

Smith and Manuel will have a chance to be better in their sophomore seasons. Smith was wildly inconsistent last year, but the Jets made an effort to improve the team around him to give him every chance to progress. Manuel battled injuries and was a non-factor for Buffalo as a rookie, but he has plenty of weapons to start his upward trajectory.

The Glennon-McCown dynamic is interesting. Glennon is the quarterback of the future, and last year he did impress despite the circumstances he was thrust into. McCown is coming off the best campaign in his 11-year career, but did so under offensive-minded Marc Trestman and arguably the best wide receiver tandem in the NFL. Do we believe McCown has turned a corner in his career? I’m not so sure. And because Glennon has talent but will be forced to the bench, he remains a “to be determined” sort of prospect.

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Sam Spiegelman
Sam Spiegelman is a native New Yorker covering sports in New Orleans. He likes Game of Thrones way too much. Tweet him @samspiegs.