Top 10 NFL quarterbacks of the past decade
With 10 years of graded seasons now in the PFF database, Matt Claassen takes a look at the decade's best QBs.
Top 10 NFL quarterbacks of the past decade
With 10 seasons of graded NFL games now in the Pro Football Focus database, it’s time to take a look at the best quarterbacks over the past decade — a ranking that’s sure to stir up some debate. We’ve identified the All-Decade team and the best player from every NFL team over the past 10 years; here we dial in solely on the signal-caller, with some of our senior analysts getting together to rank the top 10 quarterbacks from 2006-2015.
Keep in mind that this ranking only takes into account the past 10 seasons, and therefore, some players will not have had their full careers graded, while others may not have been in the league a full 10 years. This is strictly an analysis of the past 10 NFL seasons.
1. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
Packer fans didn’t know what the future held when Aaron Rodgers was selected in the 2006 draft, or when Brett Favre retired and Rodgers took over in 2008. It obviously couldn’t have worked out any better for the team. In his first season as a starter, Rodgers finished the year as the second-highest graded quarterback in the league. A few years later in 2011, he recorded the best season grade we’ve ever seen from a quarterback, setting a new benchmark for just how well a pro QB can perform. Rodgers is the only quarterback over the past 10 years to lead the league in adjusted completion percentage (which accounts for drops, throwaways, spikes, etc.) on multiple occasions, and ranked in the top-10 in seven of his eight years as a starter. Even though he’s coming off visibly his worst season as a pro, he still finished with the eighth-highest overall grade in 2015, the only season in which he has graded outside the top three quarterbacks in this regard. Rodgers has the highest average overall grade out of the group, at 92.5, and led the league in overall grade three times. When his play has mattered most, Rodgers has stepped up to the challenge. His 94.2 overall grade in the 2010 Super Bowl is the highest game grade among quarterbacks in the last 10 Super Bowls, and he easily owns the highest average grade in playoff games.
Best season: 2011, 98.6 overall grade
2. Peyton Manning, Indianapolis Colts/Denver Broncos
Peyton Manning is at a bit of a disadvantage in terms of PFF grading, as we graded the tail end of his career; by comparison, Aaron Rodgers has been in his prime the past eight seasons. With that in mind, there is certainly a case for Manning to be in the top spot. When healthy — and earlier on in his career — Manning was the best quarterback in the league. Over the 2006-2010 seasons, he was the top-graded quarterback for three consecutive years, and had just five below-average games in the four years. He was also one of the league’s more accurate quarterbacks, leading the NFL in adjusted completion percentage when under pressure during the Colts’ 2006 Super Bowl season. No one knew what exactly to expect from Manning post-injury when he joined the Broncos, but he came back and performed at a similarly-high level. He proved that, if he had any lingering issues from the neck injury, particularly arm strength, most of the time he could mitigate it fairly well with the things he was always the best at — deciphering pre- and post-snap reads, and decision-making. His 78.0 and 77.3 percent adjusted completion percentages in 2012 and 2013, respectively, were the two highest marks of the 10-year span. Manning finished as the top-graded quarterback once again in those two seasons, making it a total of five times in 10 years. His performance dwindled in his last season and a half, though, and despite going out on top as a Super Bowl champion once again, he was one of the lowest-graded NFL quarterbacks in 2015, and had the second-lowest adjusted completion percentage in the league, at 66.8 percent.
Best season: 2007, 95.5 overall grade
3. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
It seems like some believe that Drew Brees hasn’t been among the best quarterbacks in recent seasons due to the team’s lack of overall success, but that actually hasn’t been the case. In fact, outside of Aaron Rodgers, there isn’t a quarterback who has been more consistent year-to-year than Brees over the decade. Brees never managed to claim the top grade of a given season over the decade, as he finished second to Rodgers or Peyton Manning on three occasions. However, he also never finished lower than eighth, and his worst season (an 86.9 overall grade in 2010) is still better than at least four seasons of each player below him on this list that played at least eight seasons. Brees’ hallmark during his career has been his accuracy. He finished among the top 10 quarterbacks in adjusted completion percentage in nine of the past 10 seasons, and among the top three on six occasions, twice as many times as any other quarterback.
Best season: 2011, 96.6 overall grade
4. Tom Brady, New England Patriots
As much as having the No. 4 next to Tom Brady’s name may make it seem otherwise, this list is much closer at the top than it is further down. When Brady is at his best, he is as good as any quarterback in the league, and that even applies now at age 39. He is coming off his highest-graded season of the past 10 years, even slightly better than his record-setting 2007 season. Brady led the league with 16 TDs under pressure in 2015, and made the lowest percentage of turnover-worthy plays. He’s never had a bad season; however, there have been a couple of years when there were simply a handful of NFL quarterbacks that performed better, particularly in 2009 and 2013 when he was on the edge of the top 10 highest-graded quarterbacks.
Best season: 2015, 94.3 overall grade
5. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers
Even though the Steelers had more success early on Ben Roethlisberger’s career, he has actually improved as the seasons have passed. His three lowest-graded seasons of the decade were the first three years of the PFF era (2006-2008), which interestingly enough included the team’s most successful season, ending in a Super Bowl win; that season (2008), he recorded the 16th-best overall grade among NFL QBs. Since then, he’s graded among the top 10 quarterbacks five of the last seven years, and is currently at the top of his game. Last year, he was more productive than a good portion of the quarterbacks in the league, despite missing a few games. Roethlisberger also led the league in 2015 with the highest percentage of “big-time throws,” or throws with a +1 or higher grade on our -2 to +2 single-play grading scale.
Best season: 2015, 93.5 overall grade
6. Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers
Philip Rivers’ season performances over his career have an interesting trajectory. Over the past seven years, he has finished with one of the top-two overall grades on three occasions, and has been a top-10 quarterback in eight of the 10 seasons. Yet his two seasons outside the top 10 in overall grade were all the way down at 17th (2015) and 25th (2012), something that we never saw from Rodgers, Brees, and Brady ahead of him. From 2008–2010, Rivers had just two below-average games, compared to 36 games with above-average performances. He has handled pressure better than many quarterbacks, with the most (five) seasons ranking in the top 10 in adjusted completion percentage when under pressure.
Best season: 2009, 92.6 overall grade
7. Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
Wilson is by far the youngest player to make our top 10, and the only one to have fewer than eight seasons as a starter under his belt. He has been knocked in the past for his early role in the offense, and while he may have been asked to do a little less than other quarterbacks, he certainly wasn’t just a “game manager.” Over 60 percent of Wilson’s passing yards in 2012 came through the air before the catch, the sixth-highest percentage in the league. He excelled at what he was asked to do, and as a rookie, his 95.0 overall grade was tied for the league-lead with Peyton Manning. Over his 38 games in his first two seasons, he had just four below-average performances. Even in what would be considered his “worst” season in 2014, he still had the eighth-best overall grade, and only one of the players ahead of him did not make this All-Decade ranking. Wilson’s mobility undoubtedly gives him an added dimension that most other quarterback don’t possess, backed up by his league-leading run grades for quarterbacks in his first three seasons (before being surpassed by Panthers QB Cam Newton last year). Still, that shouldn’t — and doesn’t — diminish what he can do as a passer. Wilson has ranked in the top 10 in three of his four pro seasons in both overall adjusted completion percentage and when under pressure. In summary, Wilson’s average overall grade of 90.9 ranked behind only Aaron Rodgers’ mark, albeit over a shorter time period than the other nine QBs to make this list.
Best season: 2012, 95.0 overall grades
8. Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
Eight years into his career, former first-round pick Matt Ryan still may not have taken that jump into the ambiguous “elite” category, but he has solidified himself as a top-10 quarterback at this point. In fact, Ryan has ranked among the top 10 QBs in overall grade six of his eight seasons, and in the top five three out of four years (from 2011–2014). Even though his grades have fallen slightly the last couple of years from his best season (2012), he is still improving in certain areas. Over the past two years, he has risen to first and fourth in deep-passing accuracy (targets 20-plus yards downfield), along with ranking among the top-five QBs in two of the past three years in adjusted completion percentage when under pressure. With players like Manning, Brady, and, to an extent, Roethlisberger, hitting their peaks later in their careers, Ryan’s best may still be yet to come.
Best season: 2012, 92.5 overall grade
9. Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys
There’s no question that Romo’s career has been adversely affected by multiple injuries over the years. Romo has failed to play a minimum of 900 snaps in four of 10 seasons, and even when on the field, there have been many times where he’s still clearly not 100 percent healthy. Romo has proven to be a very good quarterback who is capable of being the deciding factor in a game — when healthy and on the field. While he is prone to the occasional bad outing once or twice per year, he has generally been consistent season-to-season (again, when healthy), having the ninth-highest average overall grade, at 82.2, over his six healthy seasons.
Best season: 2014, 86.8 overall grade
10. Eli Manning, New York Giants
Eli Manning is possibly the biggest wildcard of this group. He had a couple of excellent seasons where he ranked among the top 10 quarterbacks, one or two that were fairly poor, with a lot of good-but-not-great performances in between. Unsurprisingly, the 2011 season was his best, and his playoff run that year is probably the top we’ve seen. Out of 170 regular and postseason games over 10 years, his second-, third-, and fourth-highest graded games came during the 2011 postseason, with the Super Bowl win over the Patriots still being his second-highest graded game. He hasn’t shown that level of play consistently, though, with just four seasons earning an 80.0 overall grade or higher, which prevents him from being elevated on this list. Notably, he is the only quarterback in this ranking to not have a single season among the top 10 quarterbacks in adjusted completion percentage, while every other player had at least three.
Best season: 2011, 90.9 overall grade