The question of "weapons" is, without exaggeration, the great sticking point to 50 percent of arguments about who the best NFL quarterback is.
Everyone has been in one of these debates, maybe even today. It's a fair one to have, too, because even people who view the NFL only from a fantasy prism can participate rationally. And so it begins: "Let's see Welker with Blaine Gabbert throwing passes!" "Stafford's great? He's got Calvin Freaking Johnson. I can throw a back-corner fade to Calvin Johnson! That's like throwing an entry pass to Dwight Howard!"
Plus, the stats to win such a debate are hard to find. Modern football metrics are, like any newer stats in every sport, designed to assign responsibility better. We listen on QBR because if Tony Romo scrambles for 6 yards on third-and-5 instead of throwing into coverage, passer rating doesn't acknowledge the play even exists, and we know it should because we watch football and we know Romo deserves credit. But if you try to find the perfect number so a list of the best WR/TE groups isn't just a list of "Guys catching passes from the best QBs," you'll get frustrated. I was. I tried stuff such as emailing guys who literally invent NFL metrics for a living asking for numbers reflecting, "Most passes caught while covered." Didn't work.
Because what's "covered"? The back-shoulder fade is designed to be thrown to a player who is, ostensibly, perfectly covered.
And what's "open"? If a tight end comes wide open down the seam because the QB locked his eyes on an out route and pulled the safety to the edge, do we really call the tight end a master of evasion? The answer is neither, or both. So, a few parameters.
These rankings are based on:
• Metrics that attempt to divine individual and group responsibility for pass-catchers, such as yards per route run, drop rate, DVOA, DYAR, catch rate, TDs as a percentage of catches (big plays plus go-to value in red zone) and even ones I'm making up such as first-down catches when 6-10 yards are needed for a first down (we need bulk yards and the guy still can't be covered).
• Opinions from evaluators within the NFL and those formerly of the NFL. Plus, some votes from colleagues with league experience.
• A few gut calls.
And remember: Wide receivers and tight ends only. Sorry, Darren Sproles. (You are awesome.)