Quarterback Tiers
By Sigmund Bloom and Jene Bramel
June 22nd, 2010

Whether you do a full set of projections to compare players or put your rank lists together by gut feel, every cheat sheet can be broken out into tiers. The process is simple and it rewards are many. Breaking your rankings into tiers forces you to crystallize your opinions on players. It naturally lends itself to helping you make good strategic decisions during your draft. The process helps you stay on the right side of runs, shows you which positions can be sloughed a round longer than you thought or need to be targeted early. Perhaps most importantly, a quick tiering and a few mock drafts leave you prepared for every contingency during your draft and will keep you from scrambling when you're on the clock in those all-important middle rounds.

This series will walk you through our tiering process position by position this summer, including IDPs, and offer our strategic insights along the way. We'll have thoughts on whether you should go with a top quarterback or QBBC, whether you should target a top TE over your RB3 or WR3, whether you should prioritize DL over LB again this year and whether there are any defensive backs worth drafting early.

We'll start with the quarterback position and a key strategic decision that must be made each year: Lock down a gold standard option early or look for a committee in the later rounds.

Sigmund Bloom

Gold Standard - Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees

These are the QBs that will go by the end of the second round in just about every league, and they will crack the first in some drafts. They have finished as the top two QBs for two years running and they are likely to do it again this year. The argument in favor of Brees is mostly weather-based (two of Rodgers three worst games came in cold December outdoors games), and the argument in favor of Rodgers should revolve around his penchant for pulling the ball down and running in the red zone. QB is unusually deep this year and chock full of upside, so you shouldn't end up with one of these two unless they fall past the 15th-20th pick, even in six point per pass TD leagues.

Proven Quality - Peyton Manning, Tony Romo, Philip Rivers, Matt Schaub, Tom Brady

All of these QBs have established themselves as strong plays for multiple years now, and it's not a stretch to imagine any of them being a top five QB this year. You can set your watch by Peyton and Romo just gained Dez Bryant. Those two are the most likely to finish in the top five and possibly be in the mix for the top two. Rivers has always been good, but just isn't that explosive in the box score, plus Gates is gimpy and the Vincent Jackson situation could get ugly. Schaub seems like he hit his ceiling last year, and the Texans are trying to get more balanced on offense. Brady might be missing Welker for a bit and that made him look very mortal vs. Baltimore in the playoffs. Those dings keep that trio below Manning/Romo, but Brady joins them if Welker is somehow ready for week 1. One of the better strategies at QB this year is trying to grab the QB6 or QB7, whomever it is, and let your league decide for you. If you're picking late in the first, you may even be able to land one of this tier with your early 4th if Rodgers and Brees go late first/early second to teams that pick between your picks. A mid-third should get you one of this tier.

QBBC Components - Eli Manning, Jay Cutler, Kevin Kolb, Matt Ryan, Donovan McNabb, Carson Palmer

If you are frozen out of the top seven or you wait on QB by design, the prospects of this tier have to get you excited and give you an incentive to hammer RB and WR with your early picks. Any of this group could "make the leap" back into the elite top 5-7 this year. Eli leads the group because he is showing signs of gelling with his young weapons, and he looked as good as ever last year on a bum wheel. Cutler is second because of Martz, and not first because of his inconsistency, but he has the highest ceiling of the tier. Kolb's ceiling is arguably as high as Cutler, but his bust risk is the highest of the group by far - Aaron Rodgers debuted as QB2 under similar circumstances. Ryan progressed more than most of us noticed last year, and he gets Harry Douglas back. He is a good "high floor" member of this tier. McNabb could be just fine without Andy Reid because he is piloting a Mike Shanahan offense, but his injury risk looms and this could also be the beginning of the slow decline. Palmer is last in the tier, but I want to put him higher. He was on a low-end QB1 pace last year and his weapons have improved, plus he has a QB1 finish under his belt (2005). Snagging two of these QBs in the 7th-9th round is my preferred QB strategy this year.

Upside Gambles - Matthew Stafford, Vince Young, Ben Roethlisberger, Brett Favre, Joe Flacco, Chad Henne

This group is suitable as a backup to a Gold Standard or Proven Quality QB, an upside play to pair with a steady member of the QBBC Components, like Eli, Ryan, or Palmer, or even as a third QBBC member in leagues with 20+ roster spots or 6 pts per pass TD. Stafford has the highest ceiling of anyone in the group, but we almost universally overrate QBs entering their second season. Young is a great pick in 4 pt per pass TD or pt per 25 passing yard leagues. Roethlisberger will be a terrific value as long as your starter's bye is week 8 or later, and Favre is a great value (but with great risk) while his status for 2010 is up in the air. He'll move to the QBBC Component tier, if not the very bottom of the Proven Quality tier once he is confirmed to return for this season. Flacco and Henne both have their backers, especially Flacco with the addition of Anquan Boldin to the Ravens, so you'll probably have to reach a round or two early to assure their presence on your roster. Any of this group is still worthy to back up one of the top seven QBs because they can be sell high players to QB poor teams when they get hot.

Upside Gambles with Longer Odds - Josh Freeman, Mark Sanchez, Matt Cassel, Jason Campbell

This group has the upside to be solid backups, but the chance that any of them becomes a solid starting option is very long. Josh Freeman has the added bonus of running ability, but he is surrounded by unproven options in the passing game. Mark Sanchez will make a step forward this year, but he is still piloting a run-first team. Matt Cassel should be more comfortable this year and he might have the highest ceiling of the group, but he could also see his job in jeopardy if he starts slow. Campbell has been a better fantasy performer than the fantasy community thinks during his time with Washington, but Oakland's passing game is limited by inexperienced and unimaginative game-planning. This group is a fine set of backups for studs like Rodgers, Brees, Peyton, and Romo, but if you don't have a rock solid starter, they shouldn't be taking up room on your roster.

Bye Week/Injury Filler Material - David Garrard, Alex Smith, Kyle Orton, Matt Leinart, Matt Hasselbeck

Now you're scraping the bottom of the barrel. While any of these signal callers could be a top 10 play in any given week, it's a much safer bet that they'll be in the middle to bottom of QB scoring, and most importantly, none are guaranteed to hold their jobs for the entire season (or long enough to cover your starters bye) and none play in the kind of potent offense that could allow them to greatly exceed expectations. Garrard has running ability and a decent track record, but he was so bad on the road last year that it is hard to trust him in your lineup. Smith had some shining moments when the 49ers were down big in the second half, but the team clearly only wants him to be a caretaker/game manager this year even though he is surrounded by great talent in the passing game. Orton has lost Brandon Marshall, and while he's the safest of this group, he's also the least exciting. Leinart has Larry Fitzgerald and he plays in a weak division, but even his mom is realistic enough to see that the Cards will keep him on a short leash. Hasselbeck is the best bet of the group to actually be a solid fantasy QB, but he is also the best bet to get replaced after his team falls out of playoff contention, which could be much earlier than Seahawks fans are used to.

Jene Bramel

I think nearly everyone agrees that Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees are the class of the quarterback group this year, but I think Peyton Manning and Tony Romo are right on their heels. My Gold Standard Tier would include all four players. All four players have 4500 yard, 30+ touchdown potential. All four have plenty of talented weapons, including running backs and tight ends to keep the stronger defenses from locking them up.

1 Aaron Rodgers
2. Drew Brees
3. Peyton Manning
4. Tony Romo

Romo's ADP right now is well behind that of the other three and currently QB7 across many sources according to Clayton Gray's June 16th ADP compilation. He represents tremendous value if you can get him there.

My next tier is a little deeper, too. I'd call them Every Week Upside With A Possible Fatal Flaw. They are players with the talent and upside to crack the top tier, but one yellow light issue that demands a little caution.

5. Matt Schaub
6. Philip Rivers
7. Tom Brady
8. Brett Favre
9. Jay Cutler

Schaub nearly makes the top tier for me, but there are too many question marks with the depth of his surrounding cast to fully trust him. The same issues could plague Rivers if Vincent Jackson holds out, Ryan Mathews starts slowly and Antonio Gates isn't able to recover as quickly as he has in the past. I'm very nervous about Brady's upside this year, and am particularly concerned that he may not be healthy all 16 games. Favre's ranking clearly reflects my opinion that he'll be starting opening weekend. I might be underrating Cutler, but I don't like the combination of a declining completion percentage, increasing INT//attempt ratio and yet-to-be-proven wide receivers in a downfield passing offense. If those issues don't concern you, Cutler arguably belongs in the top six this year. This is kind of a weird tier for me in that I'd much rather have Schaub or Rivers than Brady and I'm more likely to pay the later round price to get Cutler or Favre, but I think the bird's eye view of this tier feels right.

I think those nine quarterbacks are those most likely to play consistently well enough to avoid the need to use a second quarterback in committee. If you're planning to slough the QB position to load up on the RB/WR position or target a TE highly, the list of committee quarterbacks with upside is deep. Bloom separates this group into safer QBBC components and riskier options that likely have a wider range of possible finish. I don't disagree with the distinctions, but I see this group as one big tier.

10. Eli Manning
11. Kevin Kolb
12. Donovan McNabb
13. Joe Flacco
14. Matt Ryan
15. Matthew Stafford
16. Ben Roethlisberger
17. Alex Smith
18. Chad Henne
19. Carson Palmer

Bloom and I, despite our team allegiances, differ the most on Palmer. I've got him at the bottom of this tier for now for two reasons. I haven't fully bought into the argument that his arm tired or wasn't healthy at year's end. For the most part, when he was allowed to get into a rhythm, he was accurate. But the inaccuracy in the playoff game against New York has me questioning my assessment just a little. Secondly, although the team has added plenty of weapons, the offensive line is still built for the running game. Unless a slot WR and Gresham can open the middle, Palmer may still struggle to get enough clean attempts to find his rhythm. Despite all that, Palmer moves into the top half of this tier easily with a reassuring preseason.

I like Smith's upside better than Bloom. I think the offensive line gets better, the running game opens up things in the passing game and the two young talents of Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis put 3500 yards and 22+ touchdowns within reach.

The depth of the top three tiers (19 reasonable options to put up 300 yards and two scores in any given week) is the crux of the “2010 is the Year of the Committee” argument at this position. However, I think there's a strong argument that you should be looking at one of the top four quarterbacks this year if any of them drop outside of their current ADP. Tony Romo in particular looks like a good value right now. Those four players are projected to nearly five points per game more than the bulk of the committee quarterbacks. Even a lucky run with your committee probably doesn't make up much of that relative advantage. For now, getting a top quarterback cheaply doesn't seem to be likely by current ADP, but it's a contingency you should plan for in your mock draft preparation for your league this year.

20. Kyle Orton
21. Matt Cassel
22. Vince Young
23. Matt Leinart
24. Josh Freeman
25. David Garrard
26. Mark Sanchez
27. Jason Campbell
28. Sam Bradford
29. Matt Moore

There's a big drop from my third to fourth tier here. I'd strongly advocate looking to get two players from the above tiers before worrying over this group. I've got them ordered roughly by single game upside, in the order that I'd want them as the third wheel in a committee. If you've got an anchor QB and are looking for a deep backup QB3 who might make a leap, I'd be targeting Freeman or Sanchez. I'd like to put Leinart at the top of the list, but I don't think he's anything close to the second coming of Aaron Rodgers and I don't like his receiving options after Larry Fitzgerald.

In the end, I think the big decision this year will be whether to pay market price on a Gold Standard option or target a top TE or load up at WR3 (a tier I think is really shallow) and roll with a QBBC. If you think you can squeeze value from your leaguemates in rounds 6-10, I think I'd risk the gold standard. If you're not sure, the committee route is a strong alternate strategy.

As always, thanks for reading. Questions, comments and suggestions are always welcome to bloom@footballguys.com and bramel@footballguys.com.