Time for a hypothetical you’ve surely heard a thousand times. You have the number-one pick in an NFL fantasy draft. You’re certainly going to select a quarterback. But which one? Which quarterback would you want to build your team around? Sometimes the hypothetical is open-ended: every player in the history of the league is available to you at their 22-year-old form. That’s a pretty fun one. Or maybe it’s a closed question: your only choices are 22-year-old Aaron Rodgers and 22-year-old Tom Brady. The person presenting that hypothetical is probably trying to prove a point. A bit less fun.
Let’s meet in the middle. Imagine that right now, during the 2021 NFL offseason, a fantasy draft is announced. The draft pool will consist of every player currently signed to a team. Every player will receive an equal value contract of length four years with the obvious possibility of extending the deal in the future. So, current contracts are irrelevant. But their age isn’t. This ranking is not meant to rank each quarterback based on their performance in 2020. It’s not meant to be a projection of their performance in 2021. It’s simply a ranking of their current value as a player disregarding contracts. Does it mean anything? Not really. But hypotheticals can be fun, so let’s try it.
Quick recap of the rules:
Also, each player’s age is in parentheses. Got it? Let’s begin.
40. Joe Flacco (36.3)
39. Ben Roethlisberger (39.2)
38. Ryan Fitzpatrick (38.4)
37. Taysom Hill (30.7)
36. Taylor Heinicke (28.1)
The bottom of the barrel. Well, an arbitrary selected barrel. I could’ve extended this to fifty players by including the Dwayne Haskinses and Kendall Hintons of the world. This hypothetical could also be framed as including every currently living human being which really wouldn’t shake up this top-40 list very much, but it’d bump up these guys to the 100th percentile in a pool of eight billion people. Depends on the barrel, I guess.
Three quarterbacks in the twilight of their career round up the bottom three in this barrel. Fitzpatrick has actually played some great football recently, but there’s still zero long-term upside and not that much in the short-term. Who knows how much time he has left? That question is also relevant to Roethlisberger and Flacco who have simply not been impressive at all over the past two seasons. Nowhere to go but down.
If Taysom was 24-years-old, I’d actually be somewhat hopeful. He’s incredibly athletic and I honestly think he’s shown flashes in the limited time he’s gotten at quarterback for the Saints. But he’s not 24-years-old. He’s on the wrong side of 30, has very minimal meaningful experience at the position, and a pretty frightening injury history. Putting him at #37 was arguably generous.
The attention Taylor Heinicke got for his playoff performance was completely warranted. I mean, most people never heard of him and he came out and looked good against a very good Buccaneers defense. But that’s basically all he’s shown in his short career. At least he’s actually a quarterback, though.
35. Nick Foles (32.3)
34. Andy Dalton (33.5)
33. Cam Newton (32.0)
32. Mason Rudolph (25.8)
31. Marcus Mariota (28.5)
I hope the Bears are able to properly address the quarterback position in the NFL Draft tomorrow because man, neither Dalton nor Foles are exactly inspiring at this point in their careers. Both of them together is just sad. Sad enough for me to take Cam Newton over them, despite him having gone through more than a career’s worth of injuries clearly impacting his throwing motion and scrambling ability.
Mason Rudolph has gotten a solid amount of playtime in his first two years as a pro whenever Roethlisberger has been injured. And while he hasn’t looked great, he hasn’t exactly looked terrible either. He’ll be a 26-year-old at the start of the season, so hopefully he’ll be able to progress even further.
Mariota’s five year stretch with the Titans was disappointing, to say the least. But he was drafted with the second overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft for a reason. And he looked pretty good in his one game played in 2020 against the Chargers. Yeah, not a lot to go on here, but I’d confidently take him over everyone below him on this list.
30. Jacoby Brissett (28.4)
29. Drew Lock (24.5)
28. Mitch Trubisky (26.7)
27. Daniel Jones (23.9)
26. Sam Darnold (23.9)
Jacoby Brissett has carved out a solid start to his career for a third round guy. He posted the 20th best ANY/A in the NFL in 2019, his last full season as a starter. Not great, but certainly not the worst.
As an early second rounder, Drew Lock has had higher expectations than Brissett but hasn’t impressed. He posted a 5.31 ANY/A through 13 games in 2020, the seventh-worst mark in the league and hasn’t sparked any sort of reason for optimism in his play. Definitely not enough to put him ahead of similarly underperforming high first round picks like Trubisky, Jones, and Darnold who at least have higher ceilings. I think the latter two are capable of making a leap in their 24-year-old season. Trubisky isn’t quite as young as the others but he has definitely shown more flashes than them. I think the most likely outcome is that one of these guys is able to become a good starter and it’s hard to pick which one that’ll be, especially considering how poor the talent and coaching was around a guy like Darnold.
25. Carson Wentz (28.3)
24. Gardner Minshew (25.0)
23. Matt Ryan (36.0)
22. Teddy Bridgewater (28.5)
21. Tom Brady (43.8)
You know those underperforming young guys in the last group of players? Specifically Sam Darnold, Daniel Jones, and Mitch Trubisky? Well, Wentz was worse than any of them in 2020. Significantly so. His ANY/A was the worst in the NFL, as was his EPA+CPOE composite. It’s fair to say that he was the worst quarterback in the NFL. And he’s older than everyone in that group of players as well. So, why’s he ahead of them? Simple: Wentz was better than them from 2017 to 2019, especially in 2017 when he had an MVP level season. But it’s extremely concerning that he has performed worse every year since then. People blame coaching, the offensive line, his weapons, etc, but Wentz just sucked in 2020. Like, he was awful. I’m not sure how that happens to a young quarterback so quickly after they were an MVP caliber player, but he’s clearly got it in him. Worth a flier.
Minshew has had an amazing career start for a sixth round pick. Over his first two seasons, he’s performed quite well given the expectations. I think his ceiling is lower than the five players he’s ranked above, but hey, ceilings are pretty overrated. How many first round quarterbacks come close to their supposed potential as a player? Not many. It certainly matters, or else Minshew would be even higher, but his draft position and playstyle aren’t enough for me to write him off.
Teddy’s a weird quarterback to rank. He’s the most average player I’ve ever seen. I adamantly believe he’s not a franchise quarterback, nor will he ever be. His ceiling is his floor. But he’s not bad. And his game should age well. At the end of the day, I don’t think he’ll ever really be contributing much to a contender team. But his floor is definitely higher than the guys behind him.
And then there’s Tom Brady. He might’ve been the hardest player to rank in this list. He’s one of the greatest quarterbacks to play the game and his career boasts arguably the most impressive longevity in the history of American pro sports. But he’s going to be 44-years-old during the 2021 regular season. Yeah. Forty-four. Surely he’s gonna fall off that cliff at some point? Right? Realistically, I’ll go on record saying he has a maximum of two years left to play at a high level. I’d take two years of contending over the guys below him who have a great shot at giving you none.
I put Ryan right behind Brady because although he should have more time left, Brady will likely be a good bit better in his two years left than Ryan will in his four. Arbitrary numbers, I know, but I think they’re fair estimates. And possibly even generous to Ryan. Will he be a solid quarterback at 40? History isn’t on his side. Brady’s the exception, not the rule.
20. Tua Tagovailoa (23.2)
19. Jalen Hurts (22.7)
18. Jimmy Garoppolo (29.5)
17. Jared Goff (26.6)
16. Jameis Winston (27.7)
What were considered Tua’s strengths coming out of college? It wasn’t his arm talent. The hope (or expectation, really) was that Tua’s other skills (ability to read a defense, smart decision-making) would be enough for him to be a good quarterback at the next level. It has not. It’s only been his rookie season, but this guy was hailed as the most pro-ready quarterback. That was his appeal. People recognized that his ceiling wasn’t the highest but he was supposed to come into the league better than he did. He was not good. People blame the talent, but Fitzpatrick was far better with the same personnel. Of course, Tagovailoa’s only 23-year-old and quarterbacks typically take a leap in their second season. I won’t entirely write him off yet. But I’m not optimistic.
Garoppolo and Goff were both “decent but not great” quarterbacks who helped1 to lead their team to Super Bowl appearances. They are both certainly good enough to be starting quarterbacks and they both have room for improvement. I’d say Garoppolo is clearly better right now but Goff may have more potential. Granted, a lot of Goff’s shortcomings stem from his struggle to read defenses and make good decisions with the ball, both skills that are not easy to develop.
Winston’s got all of the talent in the world. He showed that with Florida State and the Buccaneers. Then again, he also showed a lot of bad. No team in the modern era can endure their quarterback throwing thirty picks in a season. I don’t care how many passing yards or touchdowns they have. However, I think Winston has the potential to be far more efficient. The Buccaneer’s offense was not at all friendly to a quarterback with suspect decision-making like Winston. In fact, Arians’ scheme was probably one of the worst Winston could’ve played under. I’d bet on a career resurgence from him.
15. Matthew Stafford (33.2)
14. Baker Mayfield (26.1)
13. Aaron Rodgers (37.4)
12. Ryan Tannehill (32.8)
11. Kirk Cousins (32.7)
I find this to be an interesting group of players. First, we’ve got the three solid players in their early thirties. Stafford, Tannehill, and Cousins have been playing good football over the past two years. In fact, the latter two have played great football in 2019 and 2020. People credit a lot of Tannehill’s success to Derrick Henry even though he’s equally efficient without him on the field. He’s just a good quarterback. His ANY/A led the league in 2019 and came in at fourth in 2020. These numbers don’t tell the story — he’s not a top five guy. But he’s genuinely really good, and he should have plenty of time left in his career.
Statistically, Kirk’s a step behind. His ANY/A this season came in at tenth and it was the seventh best mark in the league in 2019. But I’d say that he is easily in a tougher spot. The Vikings’ pass protection is nonexistent. They’ve been near the bottom of the league in pass blocking grade in back-to-back seasons. We all saw just how much pass protection matters in the Super Bowl. The league’s best quarterback was reduced to a non threat. What Kirk has been doing with that lack of offensive line talent is extremely impressive. He should also have a lot of good football left in him, similar to Tannehill.
Stafford has been a very underrated quarterback for a while now and has carried an absolutely inept franchise in the Detroit Lions. He had a great season in 2019, but suffered a decent drop-off in 2020 as his ANY/A fell from fifth best in the league to 13th. That’s not bad, of course. And I’d certainly say the Rams are contenders with him at the helm of the offense. But I don’t think he’s played as well as Kirk or Tannehill over the past two years.
You might expect Baker to be a bit higher here. After all, he’s a former first overall draft pick who had quite a good season leading the Cleveland Browns to their first playoff appearance in years. I just don’t think Baker’s quite as good as the stats suggest. He had one of the best offensive supporting casts in the NFL and he wasn’t exactly carrying them. He was also awful in his sophomore year in 2019. I’m not terribly high on him.
Remember when I said Brady might’ve been the hardest player to rank? Well, I wasn’t lying. Aaron Rodger is up there too, though. We all know how good he is — he’s the reigning league MVP! We all know that Rodgers is one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game. However, he’s on the wrong side of thirty. His incredible 2020 season came after a multi-season mid-thirties drought full of underperforming from the former Super Bowl MVP.
How do we know Rodgers won’t go back to that in the future? Well, we don’t. But consider this: what sparked the late career resurgences in Peyton Manning and Drew Brees? An adjustment in playstyles. Their deep passing decreased and they relied more on passes that travel as far past the line of scrimmage.
Now let’s look at the case of Aaron Rodgers. In 2016, Rodgers’ pass traveled an average of 9.0 air yards per attempt. Skipping 2017 due to injury, his average pass attempt traveled 8.9 air yards in 2018. In 2019, this average dropped to 8.8 per attempt. Very consistent. And pretty high — he chucked it plenty. What about 2020? In Rodgers’ latest MVP season, his average pass traveled just 8.0 air yards. With that shift in pass distribution, Rodgers’ completion percentage over expectation jumped to a league best 6.8%.
What’s the point of all of this? Well, I think Rodgers is beginning to shift his playstyle just as Manning and Brees did before him. And I think this will give him at least two more years of great quarterback play. It could very well be longer. And given how good those two years will likely be, you could argue that he should be even higher in the ranking. Given the risk, though, I think his spot is fair.
10. Derek Carr (30.1)
9. Russell Wilson (32.4)
8. Dak Prescott (27.8)
7. Joe Burrow (24.4)
6. Kyler Murray (23.7)
Consider Carr and Wilson to be an extension of the Cousins, Tannehill, and Stafford group of good quarterbacks in their early thirties. Carr’s enjoyed consecutive impressive seasons with the Raiders, finishing ninth in ANY/A in both 2019 and 2020. His EPA+CPOE composite in 2019 and 2020 came in at sixth and ninth respectively. Yeah, he’s quietly been playing very well. And he just turned thirty — there’s plenty of time for him to improve and maintain a solid peak.
I used to hype up Russell Wilson as arguably the best quarterback in the league, but I’ve been disappointed by some of his performances. After a fantastic start to the 2020 season prompting early MVP narratives to form, Wilson absolutely tanked. He threw seven interceptions and lost three fumbles in a four game span. Yeah, ten turnovers. Not great. More than a four game span though, Wilson has simply never been able to play great football for a sustained period of time. There are excuses that can be made, like the Seahawks’ outdated offense really not providing much help. On the other hand, Wilson deserves plenty of blame too. His pass protection isn’t the best, but I’ve seen plenty of him causing sacks by holding onto the ball for far too long, a concerning problem for a 32-year-old. I’m also not super convinced that his playstyle will be able to age well. I’m still putting him into the top-10 because he’s certainly very good, but there are reasons I can’t justify putting him ahead of some of these young guys with great potential.
After a legendary rookie season in 2016, Dak Prescott wasn’t able to demonstrate flashes of the same level of play until 2019. He finished ninth in the league in EPA+CPOE after two down years. He looked to be on track for another good season in 2020 through Week Four before a gruesome ankle injury sidelined him for the rest of the year. One could argue that Prescott should be higher on this list if you are to believe that his past twenty-one games played are an indicator of his future play. However, there are some valid reasons for concern. For one, Dak has never been a consistent passer. He’s also not a true dual-threat like some of the guys ahead of him (and a devastating ankle injury may not help in that department).
And it’s not like he’s really been elite over the past two seasons. His EPA+CPOE since 2019 comes in at 11th in the league. He’s been trending up, but he’s most definitely not at that top tier. And of course, he had more offensive help in his rookie season with a stellar prime, Ezekiel Elliott, Cole Beasley and Dez Bryant all playing well. However, his potential is still fantastic and one could definitely argue to put him ahead of Burrow given that Dak could just now be entering his prime. Next season could be a great indicator.
After all, Burrow’s rookie season stats were not the best. That’s standard for rookie quarterbacks. But they were pretty good for his situation. In fact, perhaps better than expected despite being a first overall pick. Despite playing with swiss cheese for an offensive line, Burrow put up the 17th best EPA+CPOE in the NFL (right behind Herbert). Many fans feared that he would be a one-hit wonder, referencing his draft stock being essentially entirely based on his historic Heisman campaign with LSU in 2019. However, he certainly passed the eye test and I don’t think it’d be unreasonable to take him with the first overall pick again in a 2020 redraft.
Kyler Murray clearly took a leap in his sophomore season and showed flashes of future greatness. His passing ability developed and his scrambling is still absolutely elite. And he’s still one of the youngest quarterbacks in the league. He obviously has some clear flaws — his decision-making isn’t great and he locks onto reads. After finishing 12th in EPA+CPOE in 2020 as a 23-year-old, Murray has clearly demonstrated his low floor. His rushing ability is already game-changing, as he led all quarterbacks in passing yards (819) and came in second for passing touchdowns (11) and first downs (52). As his passing continues to progress, Murray should become one of the league’s most valuable players.
5. Justin Herbert (23.1)
Guess who the second youngest quarterback on this list is? Justin Herbert. Guess who just had an all-time great rookie season? Justin Herbert. Herbert surpassed all reasonable expectations and made his mark as one of the league’s top young quarterbacks to keep an eye on. He’s the clear quarterback of the future for the Los Angeles Chargers.
It’s a bit risky to put a rookie this high in the rankings. Remember the last notable time a quarterback had a fantastic rookie season? Dak Prescott in 2016. Unfortunately, Dak has not become just as great as some expected after his performance in his rookie year. The same could hold true for Herbert, especially considering Dak was even better in 2016 than Herbert in 2020. And Dak would probably have been just as high if this ranking took place in 2016 (and he’s just one spot down — he’s still quite a good player). But given everything Herbert dealt with, including shoddy pass protection and coaching, I’m quite confident in him.
4. Josh Allen (25.0)
Every young quarterback with a bad start to their career in the near future will draw references to Josh Allen.
“What about Josh Allen?” “Did you forget about Josh Allen?” “He could be the next Josh Allen!”
Allen entered the NFL Draft as a clear project. He had talent. A ton of it. His arm strength may be the best in the league. But he didn’t have a great college career — his 56% collegiate completion percentage was quite concerning. He was viewed as a clear boom-or-bust candidate.
Boom. That was the right answer. After an awful rookie season and a way better but not great sophomore season, Allen put his name into the hat of elite quarterbacks with a monster 2020 season in which he led the Bills to a 13-3 record and an AFC Championship berth. Allen was extraordinary throughout the season, posting the third-best EPA+CPOE composite in the league and finishing second in MVP voting behind Aaron Rodgers.
When you watch Allen, his ability to get out of the pocket, drop dimes on the run, and deliver absolute darts across the field stands out. He showed his great passing ability in 2020, with the fifth most passing yards in the league and the fifth highest ANY/A. However, the most underrated part of his game is his rushing ability.
Allen has scored at least eight times on the ground in all three of his seasons in the league. He contributes an average of 36 yards per game with his legs, and his ability to buy time and escape the pocket adds countless more through the air.
And just like the other guys at the top of the list, Allen is super young. This might only be the smart for him.
3. Lamar Jackson (24.3)
After an uneventful rookie season, Lamar Jackson shocked the league with an all-time great sophomore leap. Jackson led the ravens to 13-2 record in his fifteen starts by boasting an 8.19 ANY/A, fourth best in the league, while adding a ridiculous 1206 yards with his legs. Jackson already led the league with 36 passing touchdowns and added another seven on the ground. He’s one of the most game-breaking scramblers we’ve ever seen. All things considered, his heroic efforts as a 22-year-old earned him unanimous Most Valuable Player honors.
The 2020 season wasn’t as nice to Lamar. He put up the 17th highest ANY/A in the league and the 13th best EPA+CPOE composite. Not a bad season by any means, but certainly a disappointing one. No one expected Jackson to sustain a nine percent passing touchdown rate, but his steep drop-off prompted concerns of a one-off performance.
So, what happened? Why has Jackson been such an inconsistent passer? There are a few problems. In games like the 2020 postseason loss to the Bills, Jackson clearly struggles under pressure. He also lacks a top pass-catcher. The acquisition of Stefon Diggs brought out the best in Allen and Lamar could similarly really use an upgrade in the receiving corps. And the passing offense is simply unimaginative and doesn’t help Lamar at all. This article from The Draft Network does a great job at diving into the problems in the Ravens’ passing offense. In short, I don’t think their struggles are a major fault of Jackson’s. I certainly believe that he has the talent to be a top-flight quarterback in this league.
2. Deshaun Watson (25.6)
Deshaun Watson’s stock has been high for years. His EPA+CPOE composite from 2017 to 2019, his first three seasons as a pro, was the eighth highest in the league. That’s incredible on its own. In 2020, he took it to the next level with his best year to date. His ANY/A was the third best in the league while his EPA+CPOE came in at fifth. What stands out is that Watson was doing this with by far the worst supporting cast he’s played with in either college or the NFL. I went into this topic in depth in a recent article but the summary is that when JJ Watt told Watson, “We wasted one of your years. I mean, we should have 11 wins,” he was telling the truth. Historically speaking, NFL teams with a quarterback who performed like Watson did in 2020 win eleven games on average. The 2020 Texans won 4. They were awful. No defense, no rushing offense, poor pass blocking. I’m not convinced they would’ve won a game if not for Watson.
1. Pat Mahomes (25.6)
Was there ever any doubt? Really, did you expect anyone else? Mahomes might be the most valuable 25-year-old in the history of football. Through his first three seasons as a pro, Mahomes has been the best quarterback in the league despite not hitting his 26th birthday yet. He has an MVP under his belt along with two Super Bowl appearances and one Super Bowl win. His earliest playoff exit is an AFC Championship loss in his first season as a starter in a game in which he didn’t touch the ball in overtime. Come on.
A big part of the reason that the three guys right behind Mahomes on this list hold their spot is because of one really great season. Lamar had the MVP year, Allen had his 2020 MVP runner-up season, and Watson proved to be a superstar by carrying a bottom of the barrel team in 2020 as well. Mahomes has dominated the league for all three years that he’s been a starter. The gap between him and the next most valuable quarterback is massive.
And he’s not just playing his role on a dominant team centered around different players. Wilson’s early career dominance was on a Seahawks team that was led by the Legion of Boom. Similarly, Brady was a game manager at the start of his career when the Patriots’ defense led the team to Super Bowl wins.
Not Mahomes. He is the reason that the Chiefs are contenders year in and year out. It’s like watching LeBron James or Michael Jordan in pads.