Who’s Next?

We as football fans have been fortunate to live during a time where we can watch and marvel at the careers of the game’s best passers; guys like Joe Montana, Dan Marino, John Elway, Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady.  Not that either of the last two guys in that group list are on a farewell tour, but it’s never too early to look to the future.  Which current passer (or passers) will be the next torchbearer for the NFL?  Let’s take a look at 20 NFL passers currently age 30 or younger, and see if we can come up with the game’s next great from this group.

Right off the bat I think we can eliminate a few guys.  They may be fine starting QBs (or not), but “elite” is not a word that will be associated with these passers at the conclusion of their careers:  Vince Young (27), Matt Leinart (27), Jason Campbell (28), Matt Cassel (28), Matt Moore (25), and Kyle Orton (27).  Young and Leinart were part of the same draft class, and while Young had a nice turnaround in ’09, neither has come close to fulfilling their lofty draft projections.  Campbell struggled to keep his head above water in Washington through changing systems, shoddy offensive personnel, and inconsistent play on his part.  Cassel has yet to prove that he’s not simply a product of the Patriot machine, Moore will likely never sniff a Pro Bowl, and Orton sports a nice beard.

Until this next set of guys makes either a Pro Bowl or a serious playoff run, they’re out of the discussion:  Matthew Stafford (22), Chad Henne (24), Sam Bradford (22), and Josh Freeman (22).  No one from this list stands out as being on the verge of taking over the league.  Check back with me in 5 years on Stafford and Bradford.

This leaves us with 10 candidates for greatness, and here’s my countdown:

10) Mark Sanchez (23)

The rookie passer from USC had a fine first season, “leading” the Jets to the AFC title game.  It was quite the accomplishment for Sanchez, but it’s no secret that a dominating running game and top-notch defense are the main reasons the Jets were relevant in January.  Sanchez lacks the big arm to take over contests on a consistent basis, but as he showed last year, he can move the offense and not lose games for his team.  That should lead to plenty of professional success for his team, but I don’t see Sanchez ever joining the ranks of the passing elite.

9) Jay Cutler (27) – Pro Bowl (1)

I’m still a fan of Cutler’s game, but John Elway he is not.  Being a great player requires a combination of various factors, and he’s missing a few in Chicago (mental game, offensive system, supporting offensive cast).  Cutler will be lucky to reach a Super Bowl, much less become great, in his current surroundings.

8 ) Eli Manning (29) – Super Bowl winner (1), Super Bowl MVP (1), Pro Bowl (1)

Eli has led the Giants to 4 playoff appearances, a Super Bowl, and a 50-37 record in his 5+ years as a starter.  Not too shabby, if your last name wasn’t Manning.  Through no fault of his own, Eli has been compared to his older brother since the first time he picked up a football.  Heck, Eli’s the third best QB in his family.  Stats certainly aren’t everything, but I think his passer rating is a big checkmark in his “con” column.  Of all active passers with at least 1,500 attempts, Eli ranks 21st, behind such notables as Jake Delhomme, Byron Leftwich, Mark Brunell, Jeff Garcia, and David Garrard.  Eli’s good (and probably better than he gets credit for), but he’s not and likely won’t ever be considered elite.

7) Joe Flacco (25)

With two years under his belt, Flacco owns a 20-12 record as a starter.  That’s better than the first two full seasons as a starter put up by Peyton Manning (16-16), Brett Favre (17-12), and Terry Bradshaw (16-11).  His size, arm, intelligence, toughness, and composure should have him among the game’s best throughout his career, but he’ll need to be more consistent in the way he runs the offense if he wants to move up this list.  He’s a step or two behind too often and, while I like his mental makeup, he’s yet to take over his offense.  A once-dominant defense used to carry this team, but the balance has shifted a bit more towards a more than adequate offense.  Ray Rice establishing himself as one of football’s best players last season certainly helps Flacco’s chances of success, as does acquiring Anquan Boldin to beef up a weak group of receivers and drafting Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta to replace an aging Todd Heap at TE.  I expect more responsibility to be thrust upon his shoulders this season and for him to respond strongly.

6) Matt Schaub (28) – Pro Bowl (1), Pro Bowl MVP (1)

Biased much?  Of course.  Having the best receiver in football (IMO) on the receiving end of his passes is certainly a factor in Schaub’s success, but as he showed in ’09, when he’s healthy, there aren’t many guys in the game who can sling it around like he does.  He’ll never be confused for having the game’s strongest arm, but he’s certainly one of its more accurate passers.  Yes, there’s more to being a great QB than completing passes, and Schaub has it between the ears.  He just needs to be a better finisher.  Adding Ben Tate and getting a bounce back from Steve Slaton will help.  Houston also has an improving defense which should allow Schaub to decide the outcome of more contests going forward.  I’m a big believer in his talents, and even at the old age of 28, I don’t think it’s too late for him or the Texans to get on a run that catapults him up this list of potent passers.

5) Tony Romo (30) – Pro Bowl (3)

The smiling slinger has done a fine job running the vertical passing game in Dallas; ranking 3rd and 4th all-time in career passer rating and yards per attempt.  He’s been one of the better passers in the league during his time in Dallas, but Romo is entering only his 5th season as a starter at the age of 30.  Jerry Jones will continue to equip him with weapons (stealing Dez Bryant won’t hurt), but does Romo have multiple Super Bowl victories ahead of him at this point?  As much as I’d like to give extra points (and trade places with him as well) for his relations with the beautiful Carrie Underwood, that doesn’t factor in the equation in this discussion.

At this moment, I only see 4 legit candidates for passers who we’ll look back on in 20 years as having been truly great QBs.  Here they are:

4) Matt Ryan (25) – NFL Offensive ROY

He may have gone 15 picks higher and be getting the lion’s share of attention from the ’08 QB class, but Ryan trails Flacco in passing percentage, yards passing, and QB rating after two years as a pro.  Flacco also has 3 playoff victories compared to Ryan’s 0-1 postseason record.  That said, in his rookie year Ryan helped turn around a previously 4-12 franchise and guided them to a playoff berth.  In Ryan’s defense, he hasn’t had nearly as strong a supporting unit on the other side of the ball as has Flacco.  The Falcons have ranked 11th and 14th defensively over the last two seasons, while the Ravens have finished 3rd both years.  Projecting them forward, I believe that Ryan will prove to be the more innovative, more productive, and more decorated of the two passers.  He’s already the noticeably better game manager, and I think he has the higher upside as far as a “jump on my back, guys” type of QB.

3) Ben Roethlisberger (28) – NFL Offensive ROY, Super Bowl winner (2), Super Bowl MVP (2), Pro Bowl (1)

The guy has two Super Bowl wins and MVPs in six years as a pro.  That’s elite material.  If he knew how to behave himself off the football field, then Roethlisberger might rank #1 on this list.  I thought the motorcycle incident was enough of a kick in the rear, but he’s had two recent questionable (at best) episodes with the ladies.  Hello, McFly!  At this point, he’s slated to miss the first six games of the upcoming season, and any further transgressions will undoubtedly have him missing a considerable amount of time.  Can he keep his head on straight and conduct himself accordingly in society?  Maybe so, but I’m not counting on it.  He’s already had a few internal snipers, including what was basically a challenge of his manhood last year by Hines Ward, which might indicate that he’s on thinner ice than some might think.  It sounds odd to suggest that a two time Super Bowl winner needs to redeem himself, but Roethlisberger sure does.

2) Philip Rivers (28) – Pro Bowl (2)

In his four years as a starter, Rivers has posted a very impressive 46-18 record, including trips to the playoffs in each of those four seasons.  Unfortunately for Rivers and Chargers fans, he’s been unable to lead his team to a Super Bowl appearance.  Rivers is also 2nd all-time in career passer rating (95.8), one point behind Hall of Fame QB, Steve Young.  He’s really turned it on these last two seasons, throwing for a combined 62 TDs and 20 INTs during that span.  Rivers is by no means at a must-win stage of his career, but the whispers will start if he doesn’t produce more in the postseason.  The following are Rivers’ passer ratings in each of the Chargers’ last four season-ending contests: 55.5 (’06 Divisional loss vs. NE), 46.1 (’07 AFC title game loss @ NE), 105.4 (impressive in ’08 Divisional loss @ PIT), and 76.9 (’09 Divisional loss vs. NYJ).  He’s one of the game’s most accurate passers, does a great job of moving around and getting rid of the football, and is fiery as hell.  Adding a back like Ryan Mathews will only improve his game.  I do think Rivers will be known as a great QB when all is said and done, but I believe he’ll be consensus #2 to this next guy.

1) Aaron Rodgers (26) – Pro Bowl (1)

Rodgers owns a career 97.2 passer rating, and if he’s able to maintain his level of play for his next 364 passes, he’ll qualify as the all-time highest rated passer.  Rivers’ 43-24 QB-INT ratio in his first two years as a starter is impressive, but Rodgers was able to put up a remarkable 58-20 in his first 32 games.  Rodgers might have seemed like a waste of a first round pick sitting behind Brett Favre for those first few seasons, but the Packers certainly haven’t missed the silver fox on the field since he “retired”.  Even behind an atrocious offensive line in ’09 which aided in him being sacked a league-high 50 times, Rodgers was able to throw for 4,434 yards, 30 TDs, and a 103.2 passer rating, all good for 4th best in their respective categories.  He was unable to lead the Packers to a victory in his first playoff appearance, but it certainly wasn’t for a lack of effort on his part.  Rodgers threw 4 TDs, ran for another, completed 67% of his passes, and had an amazing 121.4 passer rating at Arizona.  There’s not much to not like about Aaron Rodgers.  He’s not as emotional on the field as Rivers, but he has a very calm, confident aura about him.  He keeps his head downfield at all times and is capable of beating teams with both his arms and legs.  No, he’s not going to outrun a lot of NFL defenders, but Rodgers has rushed for 9 TDs in his first two years as starter, best in the league among QBs during that span.  He’s two years younger than Rivers and is supported by an already impressive defense that keeps adding solid talent at key positions.  I look for Rodgers to continue his march towards history and gain at least one postseason win this upcoming season.  That won’t be enough to vault him into the discussion of the all-time greats, but I’m predicting that in 5 years time, Aaron Rodgers will be the consensus #1 QB in the NFL.  I love his future, and I believe that he’s the eventual torchbearer, not only for his position but for the league as a whole.

As I’ve mentioned before, I think these last two guys are the Tom Brady and Peyton Manning of this decade.  Of this group, they are the ones that I feel will go down as the greatest.  When we talk about the ‘10s or whatever this decade is called, Rodgers and Rivers will be the first names that come to mind.  I look forward to seeing them write their places in history, and hopefully that will lead to a few Super Bowl showdowns between these two promising passers.