Tiering It Up: Which Quarterbacks Have Been Elite This Season?

In a wild season at the quarterback position, which players have risen to the top as top options so far?

One of my guilty pleasures is Pixar's animated film The Incredibles. If you haven't seen it, the movie starts off by following a family of superheroes as they try to fit into normal society. When the son complains about having to hide his powers, saying it's what makes them special, Helen, the matriarch of the family, tells him that "everyone's special." The son, Dash, responds by muttering under his breath, "Which is another way of saying no one is."

I bring this up because this is exactly what the NFL season feels like when it comes to the quarterback position. As our Editor-In-Chief JJ Zachariason noted earlier this season, it's been a weird year for quarterbacks. And after Week 7, things haven't really changed. It seems as if every week a new (and oftentimes unexpected) name finds its way to the top of the quarterback leaderboard.

In Week 1,   Marcus Mariota tossed four passing touchdowns in his rookie debut to finish as the third best quarterback in standard-scoring leagues. In Week 5, Josh McCown found himself as that week's best quarterback after a career day against the Ravens leaky secondary. And in Week 6, the Lions offense briefly flashed signs of life to help Matthew Stafford put up 400-plus yards and 4 touchdowns to claim the top spot on the list.

It seems as if everyone has put up at least one "elite" game. Which begs the question, under these conditions, with seemingly everyone putting up amazing numbers, can anyone truly be considered "elite"?

Best Quarterbacks By Fantasy Points Per Game

Let's start by taking a look at the current leaders at quarterback based on fantasy points per game:

Name GP FPPG Name GP 20+ Pt Gms
T. Brady 6 26.3 T. Brady 6 6
A. Dalton 6 23.3 A. Dalton 6 4
A. Rodgers 6 22.0 P. Rivers 7 4
P. Rivers 7 21.5 A. Rodgers 6 3
C. Newton 6 20.8 T. Taylor 5 3
T. Taylor 5 20.5 B. Bortles 7 3
C. Palmer 7 19.4 D. Carr 6 3
A. Luck 5 19.3 J. Flacco 7 3
B. Hoyer 5 18.9 C. Kaepernick 7 3
B. Bortles 7 18.9 Tie (12 QBs) N/A 2
R. Tannehill 6 17.9

R. Fitzpatrick 6 17.6

Surprise, surprise. Look who we have at the top of the list -- none other than Patriots quarterback Tom Brady

Brady has been off to an absolutely hot start this year, with six straight 20-plus point performances, including one this week against the New York Jets. Impressive considering that, before this week, the Jets were the fourth most efficient defense against the pass according to our schedule-adjusted defensive metrics. Joining him near the top of the list are Andy Dalton, Philip Rivers, and Aaron Rodgers.

A quick look further down shows our first surprise of the year with Tyrod Taylor ranking ahead of Andrew Luck. While Taylor averages just one more point per game than Luck, it's important to remember that Luck was considered the top quarterback in drafts this year, while Taylor was going undrafted in most leagues. This is just one more argument against spending your early-round picks on the quarterback position.

While this is a good start to begin to tease apart which quarterbacks belong in the top-tier of the position, there are some pitfalls with judging players on fantasy football averages alone. One pitfall -- especially when small sample sizes are involved -- is that one amazing week can disproportionately boost an otherwise mediocre player's numbers. For example, Ryan Tannehill ranks as the 12th best quarterback by fantasy points per game despite having just two 20-plus point performances.

So how else can we judge this year's crop of quarterbacks?

Best Quarterbacks By Top-12 Performances

Another way to assess player performance is by counting how many times they've performed as a top-12 or top-6 quarterback on the year. This is because, in a 12-team league, a top-12 performance equates to a "starter" caliber player whereas a top-6 performance means a high likelihood of being the better quarterback of any given head-to-head matchup.

Well, through the first seven weeks of the season, 32 different quarterbacks have tallied at least one QB1-quality performance. Even crazier than this is the fact that 27 have put up top-six performances. That right there is music to quarterback streamers ears.

Yet, a few familiar (and some unfamiliar) names have consistently found their way to multiple top-12 finishes this season:

Name GP Avg Rk Name GP Top-12 Name GP Top-6
T. Brady 6 4.0 T. Brady 6 6 T. Brady 6 5
A. Dalton 6 7.3 A. Dalton 6 6 P. Rivers 7 3
T. Taylor 5 9.8 P. Rivers 7 5 A. Dalton 6 2
C. Newton 6 10.2 C. Newton 6 4 C. Newton 5 2
P. Rivers 7 10.8 B. Bortles 7 4 B. Bortles 6 2
A. Rodgers 6 10.8 E. Manning 7 4 T. Taylor 6 2
B. Bortles 7 11.5 T. Taylor 5 3 J. McCown 7 2
C. Palmer 7 12.5 B. Hoyer 5 3 D. Carr 6 2
R. Wilson 7 13.2 J. McCown 6 3 A. Rodgers 5 2
B. Hoyer 5 13.3 D. Brees 6 3 A. Luck 6 2
J. McCown 6 13.8 M. Ryan 7 3 K. Cousins 7 2
D. Brees 6 14.0 J. Flacco 7 3 E. Manning 7 1

Brady finds himself as one of only two players to finish each week as a top-12 quarterback. While this shouldn't be a surprise to anyone, the fact that the other quarterback joining him on this list is Dalton might be. One thing Brady has on Dalton, though, is the sole distinction of also having six top-six quarterback performances, which is two more than the next best player in this category, Philip Rivers.

Tied with Cam Newton and Eli Manning for the fourth most top-12 quarterback finishes is second-year quarterback Blake Bortles. This is quite an improvement over his rookie season in which he was by far the most inconsistent quarterback with at least 200 drop backs last year.

Other surprises on this list include Buffalo's Tyrod Taylor with three top-12 (and two top-6) performances in just five games, and perhaps most impressively -- despite starting in just three games this year -- Texans quarterback Brian Hoyer, who has managed three top-12 finishes.

I told you it was a weird season.

So which of these players are likely to keep up these top-12 performances?

Best Performances by Net Expected Points

To answer the above question, let's take a look at the most consistent quarterbacks in the league according to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metrics.

Name Passing Nep Per Drop Back
Andy Dalton 0.434350929
Carson Palmer 0.339795243
Tom Brady 0.326938772
Aaron Rodgers 0.271794396
Matt Ryan 0.233251502
Philip Rivers 0.19863965
Derek Carr 0.185132697
Brian Hoyer 0.172867696
Tyrod Taylor 0.172002122
Jay Cutler 0.164481176
Eli Manning 0.144897487
Kirk Cousins 0.125999474

For those unfamiliar, NEP is our in-house metric that measures a player's contributions to a team's chances of scoring above or below expectation. A positive NEP means a player improved his team's scoring opportunity and, as you might expect, a negative score means the opposite. For quarterbacks, this stat is a good way to measure quarterback efficiency and a signal caller's ability to drive the ball down the field and move the chains.

So, in other words, the players at the top of this list have added more points to their teams score on a per-drop back basis than any other player in the league.

Once again, in the top three we find Dalton and Brady. This makes sense since it's tough to put up consistent top-12 performances without racking up first downs and putting points on the board through the air. What should be noted, though, is Dalton's impressive 0.43 NEP per drop back, which not only leads the league so far, but is also more than 0.10 points ahead of Brady. To put this number into perspective, last season the leader in this metric was Rodgers with a mark of 0.34. 

Sandwiched right in between those Dalton and Brady is Palmer, who has had a resurgent year thanks in large part to the revival of Larry Fitzgerald and emergence of young, talented wideouts John Brown and Michael Floyd.

Rivers rounds out the top six, showing that even with his high volume in the passing game (he leads the league with 330 pass attempts through Week 7) and lack of a running game in San Diego, he still possesses the efficiency of an elite quarterback.

Below him are a few names found on our above lists, including Hoyer, Cousins, and Taylor, suggesting these players are making efficient decisions with their throws and may be the real deal this year. Taylor's appearance on this list is especially notable given the fact that many believed most of his fantasy value would be derived from his ability to scramble and run with the football, but through the early part of the season, he's showing the NFL that he can get the job done with his arm as well.

Ranking the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

First, let's start with the cream of the crop. Brady, Dalton, Rivers, and Palmer find themselves at or near the top of the list not only in terms of fantasy points per game, but also in terms of top-12 performances and our NEP metric. With all the numbers pointing in the right direction for these four, they're the quarterbacks who can be considered the elite options so far this season.

Just below them are a number of surprises knocking on the door of the elite tier that none of us saw coming. This includes Taylor and Bortles, who have had impressive seasons so far and have gone from speculative waiver wire adds to nearly every-week starters.

On the flip side, there are also a number of once-elite quarterbacks who have failed to live up to expectations. Drew Brees has been consistent for the most part, but otherwise mediocre. He has fewer fantasy points per game than Fitzpatrick and McCown, and owns just one elite, top-six performance on the season.

After a slow start and a mysterious shoulder ailment, Luck seems to be getting back on track with back-to-back 300-yard, 3-touchdown performances. Still, you expect more consistency out of someone many were drafting as the first quarterback of the board this year.

Speaking of disappointments, my how far Peyton Manning has fallen. He's finished in the top-12 at the position just once all year (he was the 11th best quarterback in Week 3) and he owns the third worst Passing NEP per drop back among all quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts this year, just ahead of Ryan Mallett and Nick Foles.

And, finally, in a year where everyone seems to have at least one quality start under their belt, there's one every-week starter that has still failed to put up a top-12 performance: Teddy Bridgewater. Perhaps the emergence of Stefon Diggs will help him hit that achievement sometime this season but with a Passing NEP per drop back that has him as the fourth worst quarterback in this category (just ahead of the aforementioned Peyton Manning), I won't be holding my breath for that one to happen anytime soon.

This season the line between the elite, the streamers, and the waiver wire fodder at the quarterback position has blurred to the point where names like Taylor and Cousins find themselves on the same list as Rodgers, and where late-round quarterbacks Dalton, Palmer, and Rivers are challenging Brady for the number-one overall quarterback ranking.

If 2011 was the "Year of the Quarterback," then 2015 is the "Year of the Quarterback Streamer."