Ranking 32 NFL QBs by tier

You know you're onto something interesting when an NFL head coach requests a few additional moments with your laptop.

"Let me see that one more time," one coach said, leaning forward in his chair.

I asked 26 league insiders to grade every projected starting quarterback on a 1-5 scale, with "one" reserved for the best and "five" for the worst. Eight general managers, two former GMs, four pro personnel evaluators, seven coordinators, two head coaches, two position coaches and a top executive participated, attacking the project with gusto almost across the board.

The result of the polling is a composite ranking of all 32 NFL starting quarterbacks, and an understanding of how some of the league's most important evaluators separate the best from the rest at the position. With their input, we were able to compile an average rating of each QB, to rank them in a 1-32 pecking order, and to divide the starters into general tiers. I've passed along insights from voters when applicable.

Five QBs cracked Tier 1, including one surprise. Ten other QBs fell into Tier 2 and nine landed in Tier 3. The remaining eight starters fell into Tier 4. Five of them received nearly as many Tier 5 votes, but not enough to drop any of them into that bottom level.

"That is a pretty good consensus of where we are at in the league," one of the GMs said upon surveying the overall results.

The head coach referenced earlier has finished staring at the results. Now, it's your turn.

Tier 1 (5)

T-1. Tom Brady, New England Patriots (1.04 average rating)

I was deep into this project when ESPN Insider published Sam Monson's piece highlighting Brady's diminished production while under pressure. Monson questioned Brady's status as one of the top five QBs. Still, none of the people I spoke with thought Brady had slipped to a significant degree. Twenty-five of the 26 voters put him in the first tier. The lone exception, a pro personnel evaluator, saved his only Tier 1 vote for Peyton Manning. He was an unusually tough grader at the top, focused more intently than others on the 2013 season, when Manning performed at a historic level.

"Brady did a lot of good things with limited resources, but I saw holes when they put the onus on him to carry it all, as you saw when Denver beat him," this evaluator said. "Brady has to have more of a running game at this stage. He cannot line up with five wides and win it as consistently as before. I still think Brady is a top-five quarterback, but I would not say he is the best right now."

That was a minority opinion. A veteran offensive assistant who listed Manning, Rodgers, Brady, Brees and Luck as his Tier 1 QBs said the first three were pretty much interchangeable.

"Brady might be the best because he does it with the least every year, just about," this offensive assistant said. "To me, there is no falloff with that guy. If he played with what Rodgers and Peyton and Brees have played with, it would not even be close. He has not had an outside guy since Randy Moss. These other guys have outside guys coming out of their ears, especially Peyton and Rodgers. It is such a difference when you have outside guys that can stretch, like Manning had in Indy. Then he'd kill you with the inside guys. Brady doesn't have half the skill players that Manning has. The thing that is scary is that sneakily, the Patriots were pretty good last year anyway."

From 2006 through 2012, Brady trailed only Manning in Total QBR at 74.8. That figure fell off to 48.6 through eight games last season as the Patriots lost nearly all their top weapons, but it was back to 73.1 over the final eight games, fourth-best in the league over that span.

T-1. Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos (1.04 average rating)

Not much explanation required here. All Manning did last season was set an NFL record with 55 touchdown passes.

One of the evaluators with a background in pro personnel nearly gave Manning a Tier 2 grade on our first run through the ballot. Then, he started laughing.

"As soon as I said two, I was like, 'Really?' " the evaluator said. "Arm strength is such an issue at this point and the smart teams are going to neutralize him easier than others, but he is a one."

Manning received his only Tier 2 grade from a GM concerned that the QB's age had hampered his ability to avoid the rush. Brady, Brees and Rodgers were the only Tier 1 QBs on this GM's ballot. Exceptions such as these could say more about the voting process than the players. "It's an incredible accomplishment if you can get everyone in the building on the same scale," another GM said.

T-1. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers (1.04 average rating)

If Rodgers gives up anything to Brady and Manning before the snap -- which is debatable -- his athletic ability seems to make up for it.

"You can't fool him," a defensive coordinator said. "We watched some cutups on him and he was ridiculous. He sees everything. They'd have a blitz on and he'd throw it and he knows what the blitz is. I don't know how he knows it. He throws into this tight window that nobody would throw into. Brees is the same way."

A veteran cornerback I talked to this offseason put it this way: "He is very cerebral. I don't think he is quite like a Peyton Manning, but he can read defenses and all that stuff, and when stuff breaks down, he is mobile enough to get out of the pocket and run. That is what made him so good, especially a couple years ago. He is still playing well. He just got hurt last year."

T-1. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints (1.04 average rating)

Brees' credentials need no explanation. Still, most placed him just behind Brady and Manning within the top tier.

One evaluator said he thought Brees wasn't as good outdoors. But Brady wasn't any better statistically in outdoor road games last season. Among Tier 1 QBs, only Manning (83.0 QBR) and Luck (59.1) were particularly good in outdoor road games.

"The best guys bring everyone else's level up and the guys around them can change and they still play at a high level," an offensive coordinator said. "You saw that comment by Brees talking about Jimmy Graham and he was saying, 'Well, Jimmy is really good, but I've been here for eight years and Jimmy was not here for four of those years and we still had the big numbers.' With these Tier 1 guys, they're productive almost regardless."

One evaluator questioned whether Brees could hang with the other Tier 1 players when his team fell behind by 21 or 28 points. Since 2010, counting the playoffs, Brady is 2-1 and Manning is 1-3 when their teams fall behind by 21-28 points. Their QBR scores were exceptional in those situations (90.9 for Brady and 88.3 for Manning). Rodgers went 0-2 in those games, but played respectably (64.6 QBR). Brees, meanwhile, had an 0-5 record in these games and a 52.6 QBR.

5. Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts (1.50 average rating)

Luck doesn't have the track record of the other Tier 1 QBs, and there was a clear gap in the voting between him and the top four. But people in the league love him almost unconditionally, and 14 of the 26 voters insisted upon putting him in the top tier (each of the top four received 25 of 26 Tier 1 votes).

The evaluators think Luck has carried a subpar roster to a 22-10 record without much help. They see no limitations. They have zero doubt about his long-term stardom and felt strongly enough to give him 14 first-tier votes even while acknowledging he's below the Big Four at this early stage. Every other QB fell into the tier in which he received the most votes, and So shall Luck, even if his Tier 1 designation feels a bit premature.

"I'm not going to downgrade him because it's only his second year," a defensive coordinator said after placing Luck in the first tier. "He can put it on his back as a younger player, where some of these other guys had good help running the ball like Ben (Roethlisberger) or Matt (Ryan) or Russell (Wilson) or Joe (Flacco). They have had people you could hand it to. They say you can win with a young QB when you have a top-10 defense and a top-10 running game. Luck hasn't had either."

The Colts have gone 22-10 with Luck, while ranking 28th in defensive EPA and 24th in both rushing yards and rushing attempts by running backs. Luck ranks fourth in drop-backs over that span, trailing only Matthew Stafford, Brees and Ryan.

Still, there isn't much of an individual statistical argument for Luck's inclusion in Tier 1. His completion percentage (57.0) and passer rating (81.5) lag. His QBR score (63. ranks eighth and reflects significant value added through rushing. "Luck turns the ball over too much," one GM said in explaining why he left Luck in the second tier for now. A head coach called Luck "a two becoming a one" -- a comment consistent with the thinking of everyone who placed Luck in the second tier.