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Payne's Perspective: Kevin Payne Rates the Top Quarterbacks

Kevin Payne

Kevin has worked for Rotowire just under a decade and has covered basketball, baseball and football. A glutton for punishment, he roots for his hometown Bills, Sabres and the New York Yankees. He hosts the RotoWire SiriusXM show every Wednesday and Friday and you can follow him on Twitter @KCPayne26.

After taking a look at the NFL’s top ten fantasy tight ends last week, I’m going to tackle the quarterbacks for this coming season. Here we go:

1. Aaron Rodgers, GB – To me, Rodgers is the safest fantasy pick of any quarterback. While he had 833 fewer passing yards last year than Drew Brees, Rodgers didn’t play in Week 17, which would have obviously helped his stats. You can count on 3-5 rushing touchdowns from Rodgers each season and there figures to be some divisional shootouts with the Bears and Lions on the horizon. Rodgers not only had the best YPA among quarterbacks (9.25), it was the best mark by .68 yard over Tom Brady, who was second in the league in that department.

2. Drew Brees, NO – There are a couple of minor red flags when it comes to Brees. The fallout from “Bounty Gate” could prove costly – namely the loss of head coach Sean Payton, who was heavily involved in the offense. Robert Meachem isn’t a star receiver, but his 620 receiving yards and six touchdowns will be in San Diego this season. While Brees probably won’t eclipse 5,400 passing yards this year, he has now surpassed the 5,000 yard mark twice in his career. Keep in mind that Brees still has Darren Sproles (710 receiving yards, seven TDs) to throw to out of the backfield, which is an easy way to pad his stats.

3. Tom Brady, NE – There isn’t much of a gap between Brady and the first two quarterbacks, especially taking into account the team’s addition of capable wideout Brandon Lloyd to complement slot machine Wes Welker and elite red zone option, Rob Gronkowski. Moreover, Josh McDaniels is back in the fold and say what you want about him as a head coach, he knows how to run an offense. Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen should be an improvement over BenJarvus Green-Ellis as far as being pass-catching backs and Danny Woodhead will remain a threat in that department as well.

4. Cam Newton, CAR – A year ago at this time, did you really think you’d see a ranking this high for Newton? Newton’s strong value comes from his rushing ability and penchant for finding the end zone. It’s easy to point and say that he probably won’t get another 14 rushing touchdowns, but there’s no reason to think that 10-12 aren’t possible. Wideout Steve Smith re-upped for another three years in the offseason and one would think the Panthers will draft a wide receiver or two this coming week. This ranking comes with the assumption that Newton takes another step forward in the passing game, which he certainly has the talent to do.

5. Matthew Stafford, DET – Those who drafted Stafford and took a chance on his durability were handsomely rewarded given the season he had in 2011. Stafford finished third in passing yards (5,038) and third in passing touchdowns (41). You can’t mention Stafford’s upside without mentioning that he has the best receiver in the league in Calvin Johnson to work with. Brandon Pettigrew offers another red zone option and with a seemingly always-injured backfield, the Lions should be throwing often once again this season. You can make an argument that Stafford should be higher on this list, but keep in mind he’s only played one full 16-game season.

6. Eli Manning, NYG – Eli’s 4,933 passing yards were good for fourth-best in the league last season, which should come as no surprise given the emergence of Victor Cruz. Not only was that a career-high for Manning, but the mark was over 900 yards better than his previous best. Manning will have arguably the league’s best tandem of wide receivers at his disposal in Cruz and Hakeem Nicks and there’s a decent chance they snag a pass-catching tight end in the draft. It’s also possible that the Giants will throw a little more near the goal line in 2012, with Brandon Jacobs now in a 49ers uniform.

7. Peyton Manning, DEN– It was tough to figure out which brother to list higher here and in the end it was the respective health of each one that gave Eli the higher ranking. That being said, before last year, Peyton had at least 4,500 passing yards and 33 touchdown passes in each of his previous two seasons. He’s got a nice duo of wide receivers on hand in Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker and a couple of decent tight ends to work with in Denver, as well; Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme. Manning will likely be the biggest high risk/reward player out of this positional group, but if he can stay healthy, he figures to provide excellent fantasy value, given his likely draft position.

8. Philip Rivers, SD – Critics of this ranking will be quick to point out his Rex Grossman-like 20 interceptions last season, but that was a career-high mark by five picks. The loss of Vincent Jackson hurts and he’s not the type of player who will be easily replaced. That said, Vincent Brown showed some upside as a rookie and both Malcom Floyd and Antonio Gates should be healthier this season. Ryan Mathews proved to be a capable pass-catching option out of the backfield and could be in line for more touches with Mike Tolbert leaving town.

9. Tony Romo, DAL – I’d love to see what Romo can do if everyone on the offense, including himself, can stay healthy. Miles Austin missed six games and wasn’t completely healthy for the other 10 last year, but his presumed return to form should help offset the loss of red zone favorite Laurent Robinson. Meanwhile, Jason Witten will be a lock for 900-1,000 receiving yards and it’s likely we haven’t seen the best out of Dez Bryant yet. Romo finished with a career-best 102.5 rating (fourth-best in the NFL) and his 10 picks were the least in this group other than Aaron Rodgers.

10. Michael Vick, PHI – At one point it made a lot of sense to rank Vick as high as the top three. However, it’s very hard at this point of his career to predict that he’ll play a full 16 games. Defenses have made better adjustments to his running ability and his rushing touchdowns dropped from nine in 2010 to just one last season. He still has a nice set of receivers to throw to and Andy Reid is fantastic when it comes to drawing up the X’s and O’s, so there is some upside, especially if Vick uses his wheels in close just a little more.

Notable Omissions:

Robert Griffin III, (R) – I really, really wanted to put Griffin on this list, given that he has the potential to have a Cam Newton-lite type of season. The problem here is I’m not sold on his receiving options aside from Fred Davis. Santana Moss is going to be 33 and showed some signs of decline, even when healthy last season. Pierre Garcon, though, could emerge as a deep threat for Griffin, which would help his cause. I also worry about Griffin’s ability to play a full season, given that he’s not nearly as big as Newton. I’d be willing to gamble on Griffin however, considering his upside, if I pass on taking a quarterback early. With his mobility, Griffin has more value than fellow rookie Andrew Luck, at least for this season.

Jay Cutler, CHI – I get the feeling that Cutler is going to fall through the cracks after his final 2011 stats weren’t that great due to his thumb injury. Provided he can stay out of trouble, Brandon Marshall gives the Bears and Cutler a legit No. 1 wide receiver and allows the team’s other receivers to work as second and third options, which is what they are. As I stated earlier, this should be one of the higher-scoring divisions, which bodes well for fantasy owners. Ignore Cutler’s stats from last year and realize that he could be in for the career season everyone has been waiting for.

Sam Bradford, STL – I still haven’t given up on Bradford, which is probably a case of me being stubborn. I still don’t think he’s had anyone special at wide receiver outside of Brandon Lloyd, but that could change drastically by this time next week. Drafting an elite wide receiver (think Justin Blackmon) coupled with a healthy season out of Danario Alexander could mean that Bradford takes the next step this coming season.

Josh Freeman, TB – It’s never a good sign when your team appears to quit during the season and you are the quarterback. Freeman did manage to throw for 3,592 yards in 2011, although those numbers came with a 16:22 TD:INT ratio. He’ll get Vincent Jackson to use as one of his weapons, while Mike Williams and Kellen Winslow give him two other solid receiving options. Freeman is more mobile than most quarterbacks and managed four rushing touchdowns last season. Look for him to bounce back given the weapons at his disposal and a fresh set of coaches to further his development.