Even as the NFL grows increasingly sophisticated in its approach to science and analytics, it remains extremely difficult to win without a star quarterback. We have seen flashes, but for instance, the Jared Goff center could not hold for the Rams in 2019. Quarterback remains without peer when it comes to positional importance in sports.
Although a rankings list, this exercise is more meant to take stock of where all 32 teams currently find themselves under center. The Chiefs have both the best quarterback and quarterback situation, but we know that is not mutually exclusive. Everything is taken into account as we evaluate the league-wide landscape. Age, track record, future projection, injury history, retirement rumblings, etc. Tom Brady and Drew Brees are year-to-year propositions. Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson are not.
1. Chiefs, Patrick Mahomes
The highest-paid athlete in American history, Patrick Mahomes is the continent’s most electrifying player. Still only 24 years old, Mahomes already has both an MVP and Super Bowl MVP to his name, as well as a 50-touchdown, 5,000-yard campaign. The AFC’s road to the Super Bowl goes through Kansas City until further notice.
2. Seahawks, Russell Wilson
If only Russell Wilson’s pass attempts were as unlimited as his big dad energy. The owner of the ninth highest touchdown percentage in NFL history — and highest amongst active players — Wilson has 66 passing scores to just 12 picks over the past two years. That spikes to 100:23 if you include 2017, with Wilson boasting a 6.7 touchdown percentage over his past 48 starts. Amongst quarterbacks to make at least 33 appearances in that timespan — i.e. players who have been starting since 2017 — no one else is even above 6.0. Of course, Wilson has attempted fewer passes than Jared Goff and Derek Carr in the process, and is just 15th in total attempts over the past two years. That is no way to use such a dangerous player. Misuse or not, Wilson is still only 31 and has never missed a start. He will continue to bail out the Seahawks and hide their every flaw for years to come.
3. Ravens, Lamar Jackson
23 and MVP. The man Bill Polian wanted to play wide receiver is now the youngest most valuable player in NFL history. 47-of-50 All-Pro voters — not including bitter Polian — agreed, rewarding Lamar Jackson for one of the greatest individual efforts the league has ever seen. L-Jax broke Michael Vick’s single-season quarterback rushing record by 167, doing so in 15 games. Since Vick is the player Jackson will always be compared to, it’s also worth noting that his 36 passing scores were 15 more than Vick ever managed. The “running quarterback” led the NFL in touchdown percentage (9.0) while completing 66.1 percent of his throws. Dual-threat quarterbacks will always be haunted by the same question — can they stay healthy? Including the playoffs, the answer through 24 games for Jackson has been “yes.” The Ravens have solved the toughest question in sports — who is your quarterback? — with one of its most dynamic athletes.
4. Texans, Deshaun Watson
“#QBWinz,” etc. etc. Deshaun Watson is only 24 years old and the Texans have won 24 of his 37 career starts. Watson is a special player, efficient in the style of the day — 66.8 career completion percentage — without sacrificing big-play ability. That includes his legs in addition to his arm. Watson’s 1,233 yards rushing are fourth amongst quarterbacks since he came onto the scene. His 14 rushing scores are tied for 14th amongst all players since 2017. Not bad considering he missed nine games as a rookie. A glove fit for this era of football, Watson is a Wilson-ian building block for a franchise that often struggles to get the little things right. Watson provides a huge margin for error for a general manager who is going to need it.
5. Cowboys, Dak Prescott
The fact that Dak Prescott is every sports shouter’s favorite topic can distract from the fact that he’s pretty damn good at football. Efficient, explosive and durable, Prescott has led the Cowboys to victory in 63 percent of his career starts. One of the “knocks against him” is that he’s simply cashing in talented supporting casts. Do you know how many quarterbacks fail to do that? No signal caller will succeed without the right players around them. The fact that Dak knows what to do with them is a positive, not a “gotcha.” The Cowboys haven’t quite known what to do with Dak, going down a Cousins-ian road with his contract. That makes for a ludicrously expensive proposition, but Prescott is worth it in a league where coaches still can’t figure out how to win without a blue chip signal caller. The Cowboys have come close to setting up Super Bowl pins. If they keep supplying them, Prescott will eventually knock them down.
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6. Eagles, Carson Wentz
Even when Carson Wentz stays healthy, he doesn’t. After appearing in all 16 regular season games for the first time since his rookie year in 2016, Wentz was knocked out early in the Wild Card Round with a concussion. It was a disappointing end to an otherwise heroic campaign where Wentz helped rally the Eagles to a 4-0, division-stealing finish despite a biblical wave of injuries at wideout. All the way recovered from his 2017 torn ACL, Wentz looked like a finished product at quarterback. A safe, efficient passer who knows when to pick his spots deep. More big plays will follow if the Eagles ever get their down-field personnel sorted out. First-rounder Jalen Reagor is their latest attempt. Headed into his age-28 season, Wentz has a proven floor with a tantalizing ceiling. The Eagles are set at quarterback.
7. Cardinals, Kyler Murray
It wasn’t perfect, and it often hurt. Kyler Murray took a league-leading 48 sacks as a rookie. He also demonstrated an immediate ability to thread accuracy with down-field passing. 944 of Murray’s 3,722 yards came on targets of 20-plus yards — good for seventh in the league — but he still managed to complete 64.4 percent of his overall throws. On the ground, Murray’s 544 yards rushing were the sixth most ever for a rookie quarterback. The dual-threat was undaunted in both phases of the game despite horrific protection. With Murray’s line unlikely to be much better in 2020, he will need to improve his decision-making, but his first season was as his pre-draft profile advertised. Murray has the looks of a special talent under center. That has not been a common occurrence in Arizona.
8. Lions, Matthew Stafford
The Lions do not have a good defensive situation. They have an awful coaching situation. Do not let that shape your perception of their quarterback situation. Matthew Stafford was playing at an MVP level before breaking his back last season. The missed games were his first since 2010. It was an eventful decade for Stafford, who outgrew his early-career gambler reputation while becoming a 65 percent passer. Stafford has made 56 starts since 2016. Amongst the 12 quarterbacks with at least that many appearances in that timespan, only Carson Wentz, Russell Wilson and Tom Brady have thrown fewer picks. Stafford continued to protect the ball last season even as he forced the issue more as a deep passer. 19.2 percent of Stafford’s attempts were directed 20-plus yards down the field, 2.7 percent more than No. 2 Russell Wilson. Next Gen Stats charted Stafford as the league’s most “aggressive” quarterback, one who threw farther beyond the sticks than anyone else. Durable, consistent and re-discovering his big-play ability, 32-year-old Stafford has years of strong play remaining.
9. Falcons, Matt Ryan
Many quarterbacks are indestructible until they’re not. Matt Ryan hadn’t missed a game in 10 years until last season’s high-ankle sprain. He ended up sitting out just one week but was not the same upon his return. Ryan’s final eight games of the season were amongst the worst of his career, as the 35-year-old supplied only 11 scores while averaging 6.94 yards per attempt. Worst of all was how Ryan looked on film: His age. Ryan was Stonehenge waiting for the sun to set as he shuffled in the pocket following his injury. Protection was a problem, something that has long been the case. Only three teams have allowed more sacks over the past three years. Ryan badly needs improved health and play from his blockers. 35-plus quarterbacks producing for another half decade is no longer a rare occurrence, but Ryan’s 2019 is a reminder not to take it for granted.
10. Vikings, Kirk Cousins
Kirk Cousins is a little bit like the world’s most expensive refrigerator. Is there any real evidence that it is better than something half its price? No. Has it kept the beer cold and the vegetables crisp without breaking down? Yes. Maybe the Vikings should have gone cheaper. Maybe they should have gone smarter. They went Cousins, and he has responded by doing what he does. Cousins doesn’t miss games and he completes 70 percent of his passes. He makes big plays even as he leaves meat on the bone. He frequently dazzles while not infrequently confounding. He is better than league average. The Vikings are getting what they paid for, even if they paid too much. Cousins is a stable investment set to supply many more years of incremental but positive returns.