2015 was another year of the quarterback, but it came with some surprises. Aaron Rodgers struggled out of the gate, Carson Palmer played like a superstar, Derek Carr and Blake Bortles showed an enormous amount of potential, and Cam Newton had one of the best seasons the league has ever seen.
Will more surprises be in store next season? I rank the top 10 QB’s entering 2016.
1: Aaron Rodgers
Rodgers struggled last season to produce the gaudy numbers we’ve come accustomed to seeing from the former MVP. He threw for less than 4,000 yards and had the lowest completion percentage in his career as a starter. So why is he first on this list?
Two words: Jordy Nelson.
Rodgers is a timing quarterback. He is the king of throwing the breaking route before his receiver breaks. He develops trust with his guys to break off routes and find the open space. That timing and communication is what has put him on pace to be one of the best ever. He didn’t have that trust last year with Randall Cobb, Ty Montgomery, or Davante Adams. The only receiver he trusted was 32 year old James Jones, who finished 2015 with the most yards and second most touchdowns of his career.
Next year Aaron will have the 6’3” target monster that is Jordy Nelson back on the field, two years removed from a 98 catch, 1,500 yard, 13 touchdown season. If Nelson can stay healthy, Rodgers is going to throw to him every chance he gets. In addition, Rodgers has now had a full year and offseason to develop timing and trust with Cobb, Montgomery, Adams, and the emerging Richard Rodgers at TE.
I expect Aaron Rodgers to bounce back in a big way.
2: Tom Brady
I put Tom Brady second on my list for two reasons. First, he has to serve his four game suspension for Deflategate after the court’s decision this offseason. Beyond the four games, it may take him a game or two to shake the rust and get back to playing at the highest level. Second, Brady will be 39 years old by the time the season starts.
If there ever was an athlete whom age didn’t seem to effect, it’s Tom Brady, but the laws of the universe point to his body starting to slow down.
He will still be an elite Quarterback, but I expect him to start incrementally losing some zip on the tight routes.
All that being said, the 38 year old couldn’t ask for a better receiving corps heading into 2016. Julian Edelman and Dion Lewis should be back healthy, and the Pats added an additional tight end in Martellus Bennett.
All these weapons are going to be hell for defenses, who won’t be able to put all their focus on shutting down Gronk. Even with all the double teams and deep help last season, Gronk still racked up 1,110 yard and 11 touchdowns last year in 15 games. I expect him to be even better in 2016.
3: Cam Newton
Cam entered superstardom last season and he did it the right way. When Michael Vick was in his prime in Atlanta, he was incredible to watch, but he made a ton of plays that hurt his team. He scrambled when scrambling wasn’t necessary, and lost a lot of yardage trying to make something out of nothing. Cam takes the athleticism and play making ability that Vick had and turns it into wins. His agility and power as a runner and his development as a passer makes him one of the best weapons the league has seen.
Cam has thrown fewer interceptions each year he’s been in the league, and in 2015 he threw for the second most touchdowns amongst QB’s. Let’s not forget Ted Ginn was Carolina’s WR1 last season. In 2016, 6’5” emerging stud Kelvin Benjamin will be back on the field, and 6’4” Devin Funchess has really developed as a pass catcher. Greg Olsen is still one of the best three TE’s in football.
Cam will have a bevy of explosive weapons to throw the ball to in 2016. Don’t be surprised if he competes for another MVP award.
4: Carson Palmer
Carson Palmer was one of the league’s biggest stories last year. After struggling during his tenure in Oakland, throwing 22 interceptions in 2013, and going down with that major ACL injury in 2014, many had written Palmer off.
He proved them wrong in 2015, throwing for 4,600 yard and 35 touchdowns. Palmer even got MVP considerations after leading the Cardinals to a 13-3 record.
Palmer enters 2016 with arguably the best offensive weapons in the NFL. Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown, and Michael Floyd stack up against any WR corps in the league, combining for an astounding 3,067 yards last season.
But wait, there’s more!
David Johnson emerged on the scene as a rookie in 2015, dominating when Chris Johnson went down with injury. Johnson racked up 457 yards and 4 touchdowns through the air on just 36 receptions. Expect him to dominate the field next year, giving Palmer yet another weapon to throw the ball to.
5: Russell Wilson
Russ quietly had his best year as a pro last season, throwing for 4,000 yard and 34 touchdowns while completing 68 percent of his passes. He also ran for 550 yards, although he was only able to find the end zone once.
Wilson did more with less than any other QB in the league after accounting for the fact that Jimmy Graham didn’t pan out. Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse, and Tyler Lockett made up an unspectacular receiving corps. Wilson had to make things happen on offense, and make things happen he did.
The retirement of Marshawn Lynch will put even more pressure on Wilson, but Thomas Rawls (5.6 yds/carry last year) looks primed to fill Lynch’s enormous shoes. It is yet to be seen whether Rawls will develop into an effective pass catcher out of the backfield, as he only caught 9 passes on 11 targets last season.
6: Ben Roethlisberger
Big Ben was a stud when he was on the field in 2015. Playing in just 12 games, he almost eclipsed the 4,000 yard mark and had the fourth highest completion percentage in the league. His biggest downfall was interceptions, of which he threw 16.
Roethlisberger will be without his number 2 WR, Martavis Bryant, who will miss the 2016 season after violating the league’s substance-abuse policy.
That being said, Antonio Brown is still one of the league’s best weapons and he and Ben have some of the best chemistry of any QB-WR duo in the NFL. Markus Wheaton has also proved to be an effective weapon, ending 2015 with 750 yards and 5 touchdowns while being the Steelers third option at the WR position.
Le’Veon Bell and Deangelo Williams are both excellent pass catchers out of the backfield.
The Steelers also went out and signed Ladarius Green, who showed a ton of upside while filling in for Antonio Gates in San Diego last year.
Roethlisberger, if healthy, looks poised for another strong showing.
7: Drew Brees
The Saints got rid of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and promoted Dennis Allen. They drafted Sheldon Rankins, Vonn Bell, and David Onyemata. They signed James Lauranitis and Nick Fairley.
Their defense still stinks.
PJ Williams and Devin Breaux are going to have a hard time guarding the likes of Julio Jones, Kelvin Benjamin, and Mike Evans. This means the Saints are going to have to throw the ball again. A lot.
The good news for Drew Brees is he has some talented developing weapons. Brandon Cooks went over 1,000 yards and scored 9 touchdowns in his rookie campaign. Willie Snead was hit or miss, but proved that he can be productive over the course of a season.
The Saints also drafted Ohio State WR Michael Thomas at number 47. Thomas is athletic, tall, physical, and has good hands. Brees should be able develop him into a reliable number two.
The Saints brought in Coby Fleener to help fill the Jimmy Graham role at TE. Mark Ingram had a fantastic year catching the ball out of the backfield in 2015, and should be an effective check down when Brees gets in trouble.
I expect Brees to have another 4,500 yard, 30 plus touchdown year.
8: Kirk Cousins
Kirk Cousins was arguably the biggest surprise of the 2015 season. The Redskins promoted Cousins to the starting job over Robert Griffin, and he more than delivered.
Cousins went over 4,000 yards, threw 29 TD’s, and had the league’s highest completion percentage at 69.8.
Desean Jackson has only played a full season twice in his eight years, so it’s hard to envision him not missing some time, but 2015 was also the most time he’s missed (7 games). If Jackson can get closer to his career average of around 13 games per year, Cousins is going to be in good shape. Pierre Garcon and Jamison Crowder have both shown they can produce as WR 3’s.
The Redskins drafted TCU WR Josh Doctson in the first round. Doctson’s athleticism and ability to create separation could make him a number 2 right away. This receiving corps could develop into a decent group, but none of them are going to Cousin’s best option. So who is?
Next to Gronk, Jordan Reed was the best tight end in the league last year. Playing in 14 games, Reed managed to rack up 950 yards and 11 touchdowns. If Reed plays a full 16 game season, and that’s a huge if, he could compete with Gronk to be the best in the league. He’s that talented. Look for Cousins to build on last season with another strong year.
9: Philip Rivers
Keenan Allen can still be hit or miss, but he’s developed a relationship with Philip Rivers and his talent is undeniable. I expect to see an improved Allen coming back from injury in 2016. If healthy for the season, Allen will easily eclipse the 1,000 yard mark.
I really like the Chargers’ signing of Travis Benjamin in the offseason. Benjamin is still primarily a deep threat, but Philip Rivers likes to throw deep and does so well, so that connection should develop quickly. Benjamin was pretty effective last year with Josh McCown and Johnny Manziel throwing him the ball; I expect him to be much better with Rivers under center. Stevie Johnson has proven to be a reliable slot receiver for Rivers, averaging 50 yards per game in 2015.
Pair that receiving corps with Mr. Reliable in Antonio Gates, and Philip Rivers is in for another season as a top 10 QB.
10: Andy Dalton
Dalton had a solid year in 2015. He threw for 3,200 yards and 25 touchdowns despite missing three games. So why isn’t he higher on my list?
He lacks proven weapons.
AJ Green is going to be great, but beyond Green the Bengals receiving corps is pretty weak. They signed Brandon Lafell, who has talent, but who wasn’t able to capitalize on the injuries of Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola with the best QB in the league throwing him the football last season. Their remaining receivers are Brandon Tate and James Wright.
Defenses are going to be able to zone in on AJ Green all season.
Andy Dalton still makes the top 10 list because of the TE position. Tyler Eifert has proven to be arguably the best red zone weapon in all of football, racking up 13 TD’s in 13 games last season. The 25 year old Eifert will continue to develop and build chemistry with Dalton.
Honorable Mentions: Tony Romo, Blake Bortles
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