NFL1000: Doug Farrar's Week 1 QB Rankings
In the modern NFL, there is one absolute: If you have a good-to-great quarterback, you have a chance to compete through the regular season and into the playoffs. If you don't, it doesn't matter how great the rest of your roster is; you won't get very far.
In the NFL's old days, having a balanced offense meant that you balanced the run and the pass pretty much equally. Now, it means that you have the right kind of slot receiver to deal with the opponent's starting nickel cornerback, and that your route concepts work for base three- and four-receiver sets.
More than ever, the NFL is a quarterback league, and that's not going to change anytime soon. That's why, in Year 2 of the NFL1000 scouting project for Bleacher Report, we're going to have more specific and forensic analysis of quarterbacks through every week of the season, all the way to Super Bowl LII.
This year, we'll have weekly quarterback rankings from NFL1000 Lead Scout Doug Farrar and Quarterbacks Scout Mark Schofield. Doug will take all NFC quarterbacks, and Mark will take all AFC quarterbacks. They'll combine tape analysis and advanced metrics to give you a sense of which quarterbacks are trending up, which are trending down and which are better or worse than their reputations might imply.
To start this off, we have the rankings for all projected starting quarterbacks going into Week 1 of the 2017 NFL season. These rankings are based on past performance, offseason movement and player acquisition, and future projections. Starting next week, the focus will be far more on game-to-game performance.
Here are NFL1000's first weekly quarterback rankings.
32. Scott Tolzien, Indianapolis Colts
If NFL teams are going to egregiously mishandle the health situations of their starting quarterbacks, they’d better at least have a good second option when things go wrong. The Indianapolis Colts find themselves in such a situation, as Andrew Luck has been dealing with shoulder issues since the 2015 season and the team seemed almost clueless about his situation heading into the 2017 season. With Luck out at least Week 1, the team went with an emergency solution, trading receiver Phillip Dorsett to the Patriots for backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett.
Brissett won’t start against the Rams this Sunday, though—that dubious honor goes to Scott Tolzien, a journeyman who didn’t exactly blow anyone away this preseason. Going mostly with short no-risk throws, Tolzien went 10-of-14 for 70 yards against the Cowboys and 7-of-10 for 123 yards against the Steelers. Tolzien’s one “explosive play” was a intermediate slant to receiver Donte Moncrief that Moncrief turned into a 55-yard gain.
Other than that, the game plan for Tolzien will be as elementary as possible: keep the receivers in front of the defenders, make the reads easy, protect him in the pocket. Tolzien is a player with a backup skill set at best—limited mobility and no consistent deep arm—so don’t be surprised if Brissett starts sooner rather than later should Luck’s injury timetable get extended.
Why the Colts would trade a receiver for a backup quarterback who’s mobile and has a good deep arm when Colin Kaepernick is readily available is a question that can only be answered by the front office at this point.
31. Josh McCown, New York Jets
Bryce Petty, the third-year quarterback out of Baylor, has performed the best for the Jets during the preseason, completing 32 of 48 passes for 426 yards and three touchdowns against one interception. All three scoring plays came in the third preseason game against the New York Giants, largely considered the preseason "dress rehearsal." But Petty, as has been a constant in his career, suffered an injury—this time an MCL strain—that kept him out of the preseason finale.
The Christian Hackenberg Experiment seems to be coming to a slow and painful end. The second-year quarterback out of Penn State was viewed by many as a project when he entered the NFL, and the project seems a long way from completion.
So the job comes to veteran journeyman Josh McCown by default. The Jets are his 11th professional organization. Last year, McCown saw action in five games for the Browns, starting three, and completed 54.5 percent of his passes for 1,100 yards and six touchdowns with six interceptions.
On an offense limited in terms of weapons, and with McCown's injury history, optimism is not abundant for the Jets this season. In all likelihood, McCown is serving as a bridge to New York's next "quarterback of the future," be that Sam Darnold, Lamar Jackson or another incoming rookie.
30. Jared Goff, Los Angeles Rams
There are times when a quarterback is truly awful and it's entirely his fault. You can ask Ryan Leaf about that. More often, when a quarterback has a season ignominious enough for the history books, it's due to a number of rogue factors. This was the case for Jared Goff, the first overall pick in the 2016 draft and a young man who went through a rookie campaign one wouldn't wish on anybody.
According to Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics, Goff endured the worst season of any rookie quarterback drafted in the top 10 since at least 1987, and that includes Leaf, Kelly Stouffer, Akili Smith, Blaine Gabbert, Blake Bortles, Tim Couch and other names that have come to define quarterback bustitude past and present. The Rams sat him out the first half of the 2016 season so he'd be more ready for the slings and arrows of NFL defenses, and he still looked in over his head. Goff completed just 54.6 percent of his passes and threw seven interceptions to just five touchdowns. If his offense had any deep-ball risk built into it, Goff's interception numbers could have been far worse.
He struggled under pressure. He struggled with a clean pocket. He struggled to throw everything from simple screens to deep out patterns, and he did all that in an offense with a terrible offensive line, limited targets and a passing game implemented by former offensive coordinator Rob Boras that tasked Goff to make reads he wasn't ready for.
Now, if you look back at that Football Outsiders list, you'll see a name or two who overcame awful rookie seasons to have distinguished careers: Troy Aikman, Donovan McNabb, Eli Manning. In those cases, the young quarterbacks were able to expand their understanding of the game as the schemes they operated in became more favorable.
That's the one hope Jared Goff has after his awful 2016 season: Help has arrived.
Goff wasn't amazing in the 2017 preseason, but he did look to have a far better handle on things in the offense designed by new Rams head coach and former Redskins offensive coordinator Sean McVay. He has a better offensive line and new targets in draftee Cooper Kupp and veterans Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods. McVay will let Goff use his mobility to get free of congested pockets, and he's one of the best passing game designers in the NFL.
The hope is that Goff can develop into a workable NFL quarterback in 2017. After what he went through in 2016, that would be impressive.
29. Blake Bortles, Jacksonville Jaguars
When fans of your team are clamoring for veteran Chad Henne or any other ressonable backup to take your spot, things are not going well. This is the situation Blake Bortles faces as he enters the fourth year of his NFL career.
Bortles was considered a raw project during the 2014 draft process coming out of the University of Central Florida, but the Jacksonville Jaguars saw enough in terms of his athletic ability and arm strength to make him the third overall selection. While fantasy players still have a soft spot for Bortles, who often produces big numbers in "garbage time" situations, the questions about how he performs in every other situation have not subsided over the course of this shaky preseason.
Part of his struggles can be traced to the mechanics of his throwing motion, which have been an issue since his days at UCF. Bortles still has a loop to his throwing motion, dropping both his elbow and the football in the delivery process, which works to slow down his release and disrupts the timing on each passing play. The trebuchet movement impacts accuracy as well, as we have seen this preseason as Bortles overthrows or misses open receivers downfield. Frustration with his style of play is hitting a breaking point if some of the stories out of Jacksonville—as well as social media commentary—are to be believed.
It was big news when Bortles spent the offseason reworking his mechanics, just as he spent each previous offseason trying to streamline the throwing mechanism. But when you reach this point in your career as a quarterback, it is hard to undo years of muscle memory. Maybe your mechanics will be on point when throwing against air or in seven-on-seven drills, but when the pass rush is coming and the games matter, the tendency to revert to what you have done for years creeps in. Along with what looks to be a loss of confidence, this does not look like a good combination going ahead.
For now, Bortles has secured the starting job for Week 1, but with Henne behind him, the grumbling will continue. Jacksonville has talent in place on the offensive side of the ball, and the addition of Leonard Fournette should give the offense a boost on the ground. Plus, a young, talented defense could come together to be a strong unit this year. But if Bortles continues to struggle, the simmering pot of angst over his performance will turn into a complete rolling boil.
28. Mike Glennon, Chicago Bears
The Chicago Bears' decision to start veteran Mike Glennon as their quarterback over rookie Mitchell Trubisky has to be rooted in economics or a belief that rookies aren't ready to deal with NFL defenses. It can't possibly be based on Glennon's preseason tape versus Trubisky's.
Through the 2017 preseason, Trubisky executed offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains' scheme very well. His mobility and velocity worked perfectly with Loggains' combination of easy open reads and boot-action concepts. Glennon did not fare as well. The 2013 draftee of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is not especially mobile, nor does he have the quick decision-making or sharp release point required in the NFL. Basically, most things Mike Glennon does on the field look like they take a step too long. In the NFL, one step—or one second—is a very long unit of measurement.
The Bears gave Glennon a three-year, $45 million contract in March. It's essentially a one-year deal that the Bears can wriggle out of after 2017 without too much of a cap hit, but it still gives Glennon a $14 million cap number for the 2017 season, which is rich for a guy who hasn't started a regular-season game since 2014 and hasn't done anything in an NFL game to blow anybody away.
Most likely, the Bears fell in love with Glennon's combination of height (6'7") and velocity. The "big guy/big arm" thing has waylaid many NFL evaluators when it comes time to rate a quarterback's situational acumen, understanding of the game as it progresses and ability to adapt on the fly to changing defenses and unfavorable situations.
Glennon has not shown he can take any of those attributes and run with them. That's why the Bears will have to start Trubisky sooner than later if they hope to progress in their rebuilding efforts.
27. DeShone Kizer, Cleveland Browns
One of the more intriguing storylines in the last draft cycle was the saga of DeShone Kizer. In 2015, after an injury to starting quarterback Malik Zaire, Kizer stepped into the huddle on the road in Virginia and engineered a late comeback victory, on a perfectly placed deep ball to Will Fuller V. The young QB took the opportunity and ran with it, leading Notre Dame to the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. While Fuller left for the NFL, hopes were high for Kizer in his first full season as the starter.
But both the team and the quarterback struggled last year. The Fighting Irish limped to a 4-8 record, and Kizer looked flawed. There seemed to be some issues with his lower-body mechanics, opening up his left hip early as well as locking his front leg, which led to a dip in both accuracy and velocity. In addition, rumors surfaced of a fractured relationship between him and Brian Kelly, and anyone who watched those two on the sidelines could see there was tension. In the weeks before the draft, Kizer himself seemed to be his strongest advocate, as Kelly opined that his quarterback was not ready for the league and should have stayed in school.
All Kizer has done since then is enter an NFL training camp and lock down the starting job, becoming the first of last year's "Big Four" quarterbacks to earn the big seat at the table. The rookie was electric in his preseason debut, completing 11 of 18 passes for 184 yards and a touchdown. During that game, he showed the ability to click and climb the pocket when facing edge pressure and looked very composed when the pass rush started to penetrate the offensive line, He was given the nod to start Cleveland's third preseason game against Tampa Bay. He struggled at times, but there were flashes of brilliance, particularly on a deep sideline throw he made to Corey Coleman while rolling to his left.
Kizer enters the season as the starter, and while there will be bumps along the way, he is in position for success. The Browns are a young, athletic team on the rise, and with targets such as Coleman, rookie tight end David Njoku and Kenny Britt, as well as a cohesive offensive line, Kizer has some weapons to get the ball out to. Plus, with the creative offensive mind of Hue Jackson in place, the rookie QB will be in a good situation from a scheme and mental perspective. Finally, Kizer's progression and development since his final college season should be enough to give Browns fans true hope for the years ahead.
26. Tom Savage, Houston Texans
Last season the Houston Texans invested heavily in free-agent quarterback Brock Osweiler, but it was Savage who provided perhaps the biggest spark of the year for the Texans. In Week 15 Osweiler was benched against Jacksonville after throwing his second interception, and Savage entered the game and help engineer a comeback from a 13-0 deficit, leading Houston to a 21-20 victory. He was named the starter for the Week 16 game against the Bengals and was at the helm for the division-clinching victory over Cincinnati. But he suffered a concussion in Week 17, which forced the organization to turn back to Osweiler for the playoffs.
Entering his fourth NFL season, Savage performed well enough this preseason to stave off first-round selection Deshaun Watson. Savage completed 27 of 36 passes for 246 yards and a touchdown without an interception. He has an understanding of Bill O'Brien's offense and can make the anticipation throws and touch throws that are required in that offensive scheme. That, plus the struggles of Watson, has been enough to help Savage secure the job for the start of the season.
Houston made it to the divisional round last year even though Osweiler got the bulk of the starts, and it had the No. 1 defense in the league mostly without J.J. Watt due to injury. Watt is back, and the defense looks to be just as tough as it was in 2016. The offense has weapons for Savage, including DeAndre Hopkins, a pair of talented second-year wide receivers in Will Fuller V and Braxton Miller, and some solid tight ends in C.J. Fiedorowicz, Ryan Griffin and Stephen Anderson. Savage will not be asked to do a ton, as this team can rely on the weapons around him and its defense to win games. That might be enough for the Texans to get back to the playoffs out of the AFC South.
25. Brian Hoyer, San Francisco 49ers
New San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan is one of the best offensive play-designers in the NFL. His unique combination of zone blocking, pre-snap motion, player deployment and advanced route concepts turned Matt Ryan into a superstar and NFL Most Valuable Player in 2016 and nearly bagged the Falcons their first Lombardi Trophy. Shanahan now inherits a roster in the Bay Area with far less overall talent than the one he had in Atlanta, and he will need a quarterback who can digest his entire game plan and execute it flawlessly.
Most likely, that quarterback will be acquired by the 49ers after the 2017 season via free agency or the draft. In the meantime, Shanahan has Brian Hoyer as a stand-in. Hoyer played for the Browns in 2014 when Shanahan was their offensive coordinator, which explains to a degree why Shanahan would want such a limited and occasionally mistake-prone player to lead his first season with his name on the line. But it does nothing to solve San Francisco's quarterback problem over the long term.
Hoyer started his professional career with the Patriots as Tom Brady's backup from 2009 through 2011, and like every quarterback who's had that designation over the last 15 or so years, Hoyer has been gifted with the perception that there's something magical he picked up during his time in Bill Belichick's employ. Whatever that may be, it generally hasn't translated on the field in a starter-caliber quality. Hoyer is a decently athletic player with an OK arm who will occasionally try to move past his physical limitations, sometimes with disastrous results—he's perhaps best known for the four-interception debacle he performed against the Kansas City Chiefs in the 2015 Wild Card Round.
That ended Hoyer's time with the Houston Texans, and he was next seen starting five games for the Chicago Bears in 2016—completing 67 percent of his passes for 1,445 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions. As long as he was presented with easy openings and a clean pocket, he did very well, and Shanahan will scheme the easy openings for him. To be fair, he looked terrific in the preseason against Minnesota's starting defense in Week 3 of the preseason, throwing touchdown passes on his first two drives, including a beautiful deep ball to receiver Marquise Goodwin.
Hoyer will do an adequate job of helping Shanahan install his offensive genius onto the field for the 49ers. They should not be fooled into the notion that he's the guy to do that over the next few seasons.
24. Trevor Siemian, Denver Broncos
Many considered the 2015 NFL draft quarterback class to be a two-man show between the guys at the top, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota. Seven quarterbacks in all heard their names called during draft weekend, the last of them Trevor Siemian out of Northwestern.
Drafted by the Denver Broncos with the 33rd pick in the seventh round (pick No. 250 overall), Siemian saw minimal action as a rookie, appearing in one game to take a knee. But he was part of a Super Bowl winner, and the following offseason Peyton Manning retired and Brock Osweiler left for Houston, opening up the quarterback job. Siemian won that in preseason camp, holding off 2016 first-round selection Paxton Lynch.
Siemian looked solid in the season opener, a Super Bowl rematch against the Carolina Panthers, and had some very strong games throughout the season. He finished the year completing 59.5 percent of his passes for 3,401 yards and 18 touchdowns with 10 interceptions. While those numbers are not spectacular, they surpassed the production the Super Bowl champions received the prior season from the combination of Manning and Osweiler. While the quarterback competition was renewed this past offseason, again Siemian was able to hold off Lynch (who struggled and seems slow to adjust to the professional game). For the second straight season, the Northwestern product enters Week 1 as Denver’s starting quarterback.
Siemian takes the reins for an offense that has weapons at all the skill positions and for a team that features one of the more talented defenses in the league. He has a tremendous pair of receivers in Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas, a stable of talented running backs including C.J. Anderson, Devontae Booker and Jamaal Charles, and some options at tight end in Virgil Green, Jeff Heuerman and A.J. Derby. With that group and this defense, Denver should contend in the AFC West. Siemian should improve in his second year as the full-time starter, and if he does, the Broncos will be a tough team to face in the year ahead.
23. Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles
The Philadelphia Eagles selected Carson Wentz with the second overall pick in 2016 and decided to make him the starter for his entire rookie season even though he rarely faced tough defenses during his time at North Dakota State. Though he had moments when his physical abilities overcame his mechanical shortcomings, he looked about as rough as you'd expect from any quarterback pressed into that situation.
That's not to say that Wentz is a hopeless case; in fact, it's quite the opposite. He has every base attribute you'd like in a quarterback—he's a big, tough kid with excellent mobility and the velocity to make any throw. When I watched his college tape, I compared him to a young Ben Roethlisberger. The important part of Roethlisberger's development, however, is that after the Steelers selected him as their franchise quarterback in 2004, they understood he'd take his lumps learning to read NFL defenses after playing for Miami of Ohio. As such, they built their offense around a strong running game until Roethlisberger was ready to take over.
Wentz attempted 607 passes last season, completing 379 for 3,782 yards, 19 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. His quarterback rating decreased in each of his first four months in the NFL as defenses started to vary their looks against him. He was also saddled with an underwhelming group of receivers and a rushing attack that wasn't strong enough to build an offense around. Who knows what the Eagles were expecting when they threw a small-school kid into the fire under those circumstances and asked him to throw more passes than any rookie in NFL history not named Andrew Luck, but it's a wonder Wentz didn't collapse under the weight of it all.
Wentz's mechanical issues are understandable and correctable, but he needs more weapons around him to take that pressure off. Head coach Doug Pederson said as much this offseason, and with the acquisitions of receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith and running back LeGarrette Blount, Wentz should have the help he needs—if Jeffery and Smith can stay healthy and Blount doesn't turn back into a pumpkin now that's he's no longer a Patriot.
Wentz has the potential to be a top-10 quarterback. It will be up to those around him to ensure that potential isn't wasted.
22. Jay Cutler, Miami Dolphins
Only a few weeks ago, Jay Cutler was ready to embark on a second career as a broadcaster. But when Miami Dolphins starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill suffered a non-contact knee injury, head coach Adam Gase—who worked with Cutler in Chicago—was able to coax the 34-year-old out of retirement.
Cutler had one of the best seasons of his career while running Gase's offense with the Bears in 2015. He posted 6.71 adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A), his highest-ever mark and well above the league average of 6.3 that year. He also completed 64.4 percent of his passes, the second-highest mark of his career, and tied his previous high of four fourth-quarter comebacks. Cutler did all of that despite only having Alshon Jeffery on the field for nine games, which helps explain why the Bears finished 6-10 that year.
In Miami, Cutler has both Gase and some talent around him. The wideout trio of Kenny Stills, DeVante Parker and Jarvis Landry might be the best in the division, and Julius Thomas and Anthony Fasano are serviceable options at tight end. With Jay Ajayi in the backfield, the Dolphins' running game should take some pressure off the passing attack.
At this stage of his career, Cutler still has the arm talent to make every throw asked of him in Gase's offense. If he cuts down on his tendency to make questionable decisions and takes care of the football, this might turn out to be a mutually beneficial reunion between coach and quarterback.
21. Tyrod Taylor, Buffalo Bills
After four years with the Baltimore Ravens as a backup quarterback and occasional wide receiver, Tyrod Taylor signed with the Buffalo Bills before the 2015 season. During training camp that year, Taylor won the starting job over former first-round selection E.J. Manuel and journeyman quarterback Matt Cassel. As a first-time starter, he completed 63.7 percent of his passes for 3,035 yards and 20 touchdowns with only six interceptions.
In an offense that featured vertical threats such as Percy Harvin, Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods, it's no surprise that Taylor put up big numbers and showed an ability to operate in a downfield passing scheme. On passes thrown for 31 or more yards, he completed 15 of 35 attempts for 674 yards and six touchdowns with only one interception in 2015. In addition, he gained 8.0 yards per pass attempt and averaged 7.1 adjusted net yards per pass attempt, which ranked fifth and ninth in the league, respectively.
Both Taylor and the Bills took a step back in 2016. The Bills finished with a 7-9 record, and some of Taylor's numbers dropped as well. He completed 61.7 percent of his passes and threw for only 17 touchdowns despite throwing 56 more passes than the year prior, and saw his yards per attempt (Y/A) drop to 6.9 and his ANY/A drop to 6.07, both of which were below league averages. His 6.9 yards per attempt ranked 22nd in the league, while his 6.07 adjusted net yards per pass attempt ranked 18th.
If you look at this Bills roster, coaching staff and scheme, the handwriting appears to be on the wall for Taylor's time in Buffalo. The team drafted Nathan Peterman in the fifth round this past spring, and the rookie seems like more of a fit for new offensive coordinator Rick Dennison's style of play. The team also traded away Watkins and added receivers in Jordan Matthews, Zay Jones and Corey Brown that fit a more West Coast-based passing attack than a vertical scheme. Meanwhile, Taylor has been in the concussion protocol since Buffalo's second preseason game, and he has yet to return to action.
If Taylor retains the starting job for Week 1, he'll need to show the ability to adjust to an offensive style that is perhaps not tailored to his skillset. Dennison's offense thrives on boot action, designed rollouts and attacking the intermediate levels of the field. Taylor struggled in that area, particularly last season. On throws between 21 and 30 yards, he completed only nine of 28 attempts for 228 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions, giving him a dismal quarterback rating of 35.1. That's a small sample size, but he'll need to improve in that area of the field to be successful for Buffalo. Otherwise, the Bills might turn to their rookie quickly in what looks to be a rebuilding year.
20. Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens
Is Joe Flacco elite? When you turn on news coverage of a presidential debate and see a sign in the crowd asking that question, you know the joke has pierced the larger national conversation.
Ravens fans and Flacco supporters point to a Super Bowl title and numerous playoff appearances to make their case, while his detractors look at his advanced statistics—such as his below-average career 5.75 adjusted net yards per pass attempt—and talk about how Rahim Moore misplayed a Hail Mary throw to prove their point.
As is often the case in life, the truth is more of a gray area and likely lies in the eyes of the beholder.
Over the past two seasons, the questions surrounding Flacco have intensified. Despite setting career-high marks in completion percentage over each of the past two years, a torn ACL cut his 2015 campaign short, and he looked hesitant and tentative in the pocket at times last season. He has also thrown double-digit interceptions in each of his nine NFL seasons, including 15 last year.
Heading into 2017, Flacco again will be without his usual security blanket in tight end Dennis Pitta, who suffered a season-ending injury during OTAs. The offense still has some outside receiver threats, such as Breshard Perriman, who showed flashes of his predraft promise last season, as well as Mike Wallace, whom the Ravens loved to use on shallow crossers to get the ball into his hands quickly. Plus, the additions of wide receiver Jeremy Maclin and running back Danny Woodhead give Flacco a few more options on offense.
In the end, however, it comes down to the man himself. At 32 years old, Flacco is entering the final stages of his career. A back injury also caused him to miss much of the preseason. But if the Ravens' weapons stay healthy, their defense performs up to expectations and Flacco gains more confidence in his lower body, he may have a strong run in the year ahead.
Or perhaps a team signs Rahim Moore off the street, just in time to face the Ravens in a big game...
19. Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs
Alex Smith's NFL career got off to a rough start after the San Francisco 49ers drafted him first overall in 2005. He played for a different offensive coordinator in each of his first six NFL seasons and struggled to find footing in each offense. But when head coach Jim Harbaugh arrived in 2011, Smith finally found sustained success in an offensive scheme. He posted career-best numbers that season, completing 61.3 percent of his throws for 3,144 yards and 17 touchdowns with only five interceptions. The 49ers finished the regular season with a 13-3 record and made it to the NFC Championship Game before falling to the New York Giants.
Smith was in the midst of another solid season the following year, but he suffered a concussion in Week 10 against the St. Louis Rams and was replaced by Colin Kaepernick. When Smith was cleared to return to action, Harbaugh stated both players would see time. But the starting job remained Kaepernick's, and he led the 49ers to the Super Bowl while Smith remained on the sideline. In that offseason, Smith left the West Coast for the AFC West, as the Niners traded him to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Under head coach Andy Reid, Smith has found an offensive scheme that fits him well. The West Coast-based system meshes with his quick processing speed and decision-making. While Smith has a reputation for being conservative and prone to checkdown routes, he's grown over the past few years. During his first season in Kansas City, he averaged 6.5 yards per attempt and 5.94 adjusted net yards per attempt, but he bumped those marks up to 7.2 and 6.39 last year, respectively. With the addition of speedy wideout Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce emerging as a matchup nightmare at all levels of the field, this Chiefs offense is developing more of a vertical component in addition to the quick-hitter stuff near the line of scrimmage.
However, some storm clouds are gathering on the horizon for Smith. Kansas City traded up in the first round to draft Patrick Mahomes II with the 10th overall selection, making the former Texas Tech star the second quarterback chosen in the draft. While Mahomes performed well in the preseason, the job is Smith's for now. But the excitement around the rookie as well as his raw ability begs the question of when Reid will turn the reins over to him. Throws like these from Mahomes might make the decision harder for Reid.
Until then, Smith will continue to run Reid's offense, take care of the football, complete over 65 percent of his passes and hope to guide the Chiefs back to the playoffs for the fourth time in five years.
18. Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals
When he's healthy, Carson Palmer is one of the NFL's best and most accurate quarterbacks. He's also a perfect foil for Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians, who has play designs that are equal parts vertical passing game and West Coast offense. For every go route to one side of the field, there are two or three short angular routes designed to make the quarterback's life easier.
Palmer executed that offense as well as he could in 2015, earning his first Pro Bowl berth since 2006. But after he suffered a finger injury late in the year and overworked his arm that offseason, per Arians, the 2016 campaign was less than satisfactory for everyone involved. Palmer's arm wasn't what it used to be, and the injury seemed to affect his accuracy more than we had seen in the past.
At his best, and with the right cast around him, Palmer is as good and productive a quarterback as you could hope for. But considering he will turn 38 in December, there's less margin for error.
Arizona's offensive line wasn't great in 2016. The receivers struggled with inconsistency. Running back David Johnson was the only game-after-game star on offense not named Larry Fitzgerald, and both Palmer and Fitzgerald have flirted with the idea of retirement in recent years.
If 2017 is Palmer's last season, Arians will need to make a few adjustments to ensure his starting quarterback can go out on a high note. In 2016, Palmer completed just 22 of 69 passes of 20 or more air yards for 700 yards, five touchdowns and five interceptions, per Pro Football Focus. That's far from ideal for a head coach who demands seven-step drops and vertical velocity from the man behind center. But if Arians emulates the strategy Kurt Warner once used to take this franchise to a Super Bowl—loads of three-step drops and quick, open passes—Palmer could see an uptick in productivity in 2017.
17. Eli Manning, New York Giants
Over the last few seasons, former Giants offensive coordinator and current Giants head coach Ben McAdoo has aimed to give Eli Manning more defined openings in a shorter passing game. That strategy reduces the number of plays in which Manning oversteps his abilities and creates negative plays with wildly inaccurate throws, and it mitigates the clear evidence Manning's arm strength is not what it once was.
Many great quarterbacks changed their style as they lost their fastball and still succeeded. Manning's older brother is one of history's most prominent examples. But the extent to which the Giants asked him to throw deep was still a concern. Last season, only Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers and Kirk Cousins had more pass attempts that went 20 or more yards in the air than Manning's 78, per PFF. He completed just 23 of those 78 passes for 752 yards, six touchdowns, six interceptions and a passer rating of 60.4. Only Blake Bortles, Brock Osweiler and Joe Flacco had a worse deep-ball passer rating.
This wasn't a one-year phenomenon. Manning no longer has the easy velocity to make deep throws all over the field, and his offensive line can't help him extend plays (especially left tackle Ereck Flowers, who is particularly ill-prepared to play his position). Though top receiver Odell Beckham, Jr. is one of the league's most dynamic deep receivers, that matters less if Beckham's quarterback starts to spray airballs and helium balloons all over the place.
The Giants' signing of former Jets receiver Brandon Marshall seems to be a concession to this reality. Marshall has never been an outstanding deep receiver, but he's one of the best possession and contested catchers of his era, and he still has enough left in the tank to help Manning in the short to intermediate game. The addition of Mississippi tight end Evan Engram in the first round of the 2017 draft could further help Manning in the later years of his career.
No matter what he's accomplished through his career, Manning must accept the reality of his current limitations. It's even more important for his coaches to do so.
16. Kirk Cousins, Washington Redskins
For Kirk Cousins, 2016 was the perfect combination of location and opportunity. The fifth-year man from Michigan State, who Washington took in the fourth round of the 2012 draft to be Robert Griffin III's backup, finally came into his own with a Pro Bowl season in which he completed 406 of 606 passes for 4,917 yards, 25 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He also proved to be one of the most prolific deep passers in the league, completing 39 of 82 passes thrown 20 or more yards in the air for 1,359 yards, 11 touchdowns and three picks, per PFF. For a guy whose velocity was questioned in college, that's no small feat.
The Redskins responded to Cousins' career-defining season by placing the franchise tag on him instead of giving him the lucrative multiyear deal he sought. Given the current quarterback market, the $23.94 million guaranteed Cousins will receive in 2017 is a bargain if he can replicate his 2016 season and an acceptable money burn if he's not. Washington's front office clearly wants to see if Cousins is more than a one-year wonder before giving him a five-year deal, and there's a lot to be said for that.
Unfortunately for Cousins, the Redskins also allowed three of his best friends to walk out the door this offseason. Offensive coordinator Sean McVay, whose designed openings and route combinations made things easier for Cousins, became the Los Angeles Rams' new head coach. His top two receivers, DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon, left in free agency. After signing Terrelle Pryor and hoping for the best with the rest of their receiving corps, the Redskins have put Cousins in a position where he must elevate those around him with his own play.
Based on the 2017 preseason, the early returns aren't encouraging. Cousins isn't a guy who will throw with anticipation. He tends to be balky under pressure, and his mechanics will regress in unfavorable situations. There were multiple instances in the preseason where Cousins took sacks or threw wildly incomplete because he couldn't make elementary reads, which brings to mind a quarterback who pre-determines his reads and finds it hard to adjust when route concepts change.
This is the crucible for Cousins. If he proves unable to transcend his surroundings, he'll be thought of as a hothouse flower who can't succeed without the ideal environment around him. Such players don't generally get top-dollar contracts.
15. Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals
Coming out of TCU, Andy Dalton was considered by some to be a quarterback who would face a difficult transition to the NFL. Dalton was thought to be undersized, and given the offensive scheme he ran for the Horned Frogs, many questioned whether his collegiate production would translate to the professional game. But starting in Cincinnati, Dalton had led the Bengals to five straight winning seasons and playoff berths, before the team took a step back last year.
His best season was probably the 2015 campaign, when he completed 66.1 percent of his passes for 3,250 yards and 25 touchdowns against only seven interceptions, and had an ANY/A of 8.17, well above the league average of 6.3 that season. But his year was cut short with a fractured thumb, and the Bengals limped into the playoffs and lost in the Wild Card Round under the guidance of backup A.J. McCarron.
Dalton’s numbers took a step back in 2016, partly due to some struggles in protection. He was sacked 41 times last season, the second-highest number of his career the the biggest total since his second year in the league. While he excels at getting the ball out of his hands quickly, even that wasn’t enough to mask the problems up front. His completion percentage, touchdown numbers, and Y/A and ANY/A all dropped from his strong 2015 campaign.
The organization looked to add some offensive firepower for Dalton this offseason by drafting the speedy John Ross out of Washington to bolster the receiving unit and adding the talented Joe Mixon from Oklahoma (despite his off-field incident) at the running back spot. While Mixon has been solid in the preseason, Ross left the fourth and final game with a knee injury. But Dalton still has one of the league’s top receivers in A.J. Green, an upper-tier tight end in Tyler Eifert and additional pieces at WR in Brandon LaFell and Tyler Boyd. With those pieces, and some improved play up front, Dalton's 2017 may resemble his 2015 campaign. However, if the OL struggles and the offense cannot round into form, Dalton might endure another step back.
14. Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys
No team takes a quarterback in the fourth round of the draft and expects him to help define its offense in his rookie year, so if anyone tells you they saw Dak Prescott’s 2016 season coming, you know that's a lie. The plan was for Prescott to bolster up a weak backup quarterback rotation behind Tony Romo. But when Romo was hurt in the preseason, Prescott was pressed into service, and the extent to which he succeeded is a testament to his own development, as well as the work of the Cowboys' coaching staff.
Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan gave Prescott an ideal package for a first-year quarterback to start the season: Take the easy reads, focus on the running game and rely on a great offensive line. But as the season went on and Prescott showed an acumen for the game at the highest level, the Cowboys started to take the training wheels off. Prescott was audibling at the line more and checking into plays that would exploit defenses ganging up against the run.
Overall, it was a smashing success. With 311 completions in 459 attempts for 3,667 yards, 23 touchdowns and just four interceptions, Prescott was the ideal young quarterback in a multifaceted offense. He didn’t take what the defenses weren't giving him, he didn’t make too many mistakes and as time went on, he was able to shoulder more responsibility. The addition of his running ability gives Dallas a hidden dynamic. Defenses find it difficult to guess right when asked to choose between Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott on option plays. That's why Prescott also scored six rushing touchdowns and gained 282 yards on just 57 attempts.
2017 will be a fascinating season for Prescott. He's handled everything thrown his way with rare aplomb. Now, with more on his plate and Elliott facing a possible suspension, he’ll have to take the same next-level challenge every young starting quarterback must deal with: Can he be the face of his offense?
It would be unwise to bet against him.
13. Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders
One of the bigger offseason storylines was the contract extension given to Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr. The five-year, $125 million dollar deal made the QB the highest-paid player in the league until Matthew Stafford put ink to paper to sign his new contract.
Many questioned whether Carr was worth that amount of money, particularly against the salary cap. But given his talent level, growth, quarterback economics and the darkness that can be QB purgatory, for my money the Raiders were wise to lock up their young quarterback.
Carr produced at an impressive level for the Fresno State Bulldogs, served as the team’s starting quarterback for three seasons and won the Sammy Baugh Award in 2013 his final year, which is given to the nations top passer. But due to some concerns about the offensive scheme he ran in college, as well as some hesitance given the professional career of his older brother David, Carr had to wait until the second round to hear his name called. Despite the setback, Carr beat out Matt Schaub to earn the starting job for the start of the 2014 season, and has been entrenched as the team’s starting quarterback since.
In just three seasons as the team’s signal caller, Carr has produced impressive numbers. At the end of the 2015 season, he had already thrown for 53 touchdowns, second-most for any quarterback in league history after two seasons behind only Dan Marino. During his rookie season Carr posted an ANY/A of only 4.82, but last year, that number grew to 7.20, which was seventh-best in the league. As for the team, the Raiders finished with a 3-13 record in 2014, but last year went 12-4 and earned a Wild Card berth. Oakland was in position to win the division, but Carr suffered a broken leg in the penultimate game of the season, and with their quarterback on the bench, the Raiders lost the season finale and dropped to second.
Carr is back, and the Raiders still have impressive pieces around their franchise quarterback. Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree remain talented, explosive receivers on the outside, and the offensive line is one of the top units in the league. Plus, the addition of Marshawn Lynch adds another talented ball-carrier to a deep stable of running backs. If Carr continues his growth and development at the position—and all signs point to him doing so—the Raiders are in position to reap the benefits of locking up their young QB.
12. Philip Rivers, Los Angeles Chargers
Death, taxes and Philip Rivers making awkward-looking throws into tight windows.
Since joining the Chargers in 2004, thanks to a draft-day trade with the New York Giants, Rivers has been a fixture in the organization. A long, protracted contract negotiation delayed his arrival into camp as a rookie, and he served as the third-string quarterback his first season, behind Drew Brees and veteran Doug Flutie. He was promoted to the backup spot for 2005, and when the team released Brees before the 2006 season, Rivers finally rose to the starting job. Since then, he’s appeared in six Pro Bowls, completed 64.4 percent of his career passes for over 45,000 yards, and thrown 314 touchdowns against 156 interceptions. His best statistical season might have been in 2013, when he completed a career high 69.5 percent of his passes for 4,478 yards and 32 touchdowns, with 11 interceptions, leading the Chargers to a wild-card berth and an opening-round victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. Under Rivers, the Chargers have advanced to the AFC Championship Game once, in 2007. The quarterback earned a ton of praise for his performance in the loss to New England on the road, playing the entire game with a torn ACL that required offseason surgery.
Last year, both Rivers and the Chargers struggled. The team suffered early injuries to offensive weapons such as wide receivers Keenan Allen and Steve Johnson, as well as running backs Danny Woodhead and Branden Oliver. They finished with a 5-11 record, last in the AFC West. Rivers endured a down year as well, throwing a career-high 21 interceptions. He also completed only 60.4 percent of his passes in 2016, the second-lowest number in his years as a starter. But there were bright spots for Rivers, as he helped Dontrelle Inman and Tyrell Williams emerge as quality receivers. In addition, Rivers remains able to make off-platform throws with tremendous accuracy and more than sufficient velocity.
With Allen healthy, the continued growth of Williams and Inman, the continued presence of Antonio Gates at one tight end spot and the emergence of Hunter Henry at the other, Rivers should have weapons in the passing game. Plus, on the defensive side of the football, the Chargers have one of the league’s top pass-rushing duos in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. Los Angeles looks to be a more well-rounded team for the 2017 season, and the veteran quarterback might have one final ride to glory in him.
11. Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions
When the Detroit Lions made Stafford the highest-paid player in NFL history on August 29 with a five-year, $135 million contract extension with a $50 million signing bonus and $92 million guaranteed, it was more a reflection of the current quarterback market than any sort of empirical statement that Stafford is the best at his position. The Lions would know better than that, given that they have to deal with Aaron Rodgers twice every season.
Still, locking up Stafford through the early part of the next decade makes sense. The first overall pick in 2009 just turned 29 in January, and he’s already put up some fairly ridiculous numbers in an offense that has always asked him to throw the ball at an above-average rate. Only Matt Ryan and Peyton Manning have completed more passes in their first eight seasons than Stafford’s 2,634; only Ryan, Manning and Drew Bledsoe have attempted more passes than Stafford’s 4,285; only Manning, Ryan and Dan Marino have thrown for more yards than Stafford’s 30,303; and only Manning, Marino, Brett Favre, Ryan and Tom Brady have more touchdown passes than Stafford’s 187.
Pretty impressive stuff in the abstract, made more impressive by the fact that the Lions were rebuilding out of the Matt Millen era during his early years. Those numbers would indicate that Stafford has Hall of Fame potential, which he does show at times. He has one of the most remarkable arms in NFL history—from his days at Georgia, he showed the kind of velocity we’ve seen from just a handful of quarterbacks through the game’s evolution. He’s also learned to throw from multiple platforms, he has a workable mobility, and over the last couple of years, Lions offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter has helped Stafford rein in some of the more unpredictable aspects of his play.
Still, those aspects show up. Stafford has so much belief in his ability to make “wow” throws that he hasn’t yet fully learned when to resist the temptation to try the impossible. He doesn’t always read coverages well, and his relatively low interception totals in recent years (10 in 2016) hides the fact that he throws more interceptable balls than he should.
It’s part of the big-arm gunslinger mentality, and it’s something the Lions have learned to live with—obviously, if they’re giving Stafford that kind of money—but if he’s determined to earn that contract with postseason success, he’s going to have to ease off on an over-reliance on his base physical attributes and normalize his efficiency. The best quarterbacks have done this; the ones who do not never quite hit the mark.
10. Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
NFL free agency is a major money grab, leading to a lot of happy players with fat new contracts. But it could be argued that the happiest guy in the 2017 free-agency period still has two years and an option left on his rookie contract. When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed former Eagles and Redskins receiver DeSean Jackson to a three-year, $35 million contract in March, Jameis Winston got a crucial piece of the equation as he tries to take the next step as an NFL quarterback. Combined with Mike Evans, perhaps the best contested-catch receiver in the league, Jackson will give Winston the ability to throw deep to a receiver who can beat any defender who makes one false move.
It’s great for a young quarterback who’s already shown a lot of development. In 2016, his second NFL season, he put up his second straight 4,000-yard campaign, throwing 28 touchdowns to 18 interceptions. Despite appearances, Winston isn’t a running quarterback, nor was he at Florida State—he’s a pure pocket passer in the Philip Rivers mold who will make the tough throw even with bodies around him.
Still, there’s room for more work to be done. Winston isn’t always accurate—indeed, he’ll go through stretches of time where he doesn’t seem to see the field well, and it’s Evans who has picked up the slack on some of his more poorly thrown balls. Winston also needs to back off the belief he can throw into impossibly tight windows—that kind of courage can be an asset, but it must be balanced by mechanical efficiency and a sense of the field that leads to optimal accuracy. Winston is not there yet. He must do a better job of aligning his upper and lower body so that he’s throwing where he wants to and his physical attributes match his decision-making skills.
That said, Winston has shown the potential to be a top quarterback, and with the targets he has now, it will be entirely on him if he’s not.
9. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers
Entering his 14th season as the starter for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger remains one of the top-flight quarterbacks in the NFL. Roethlisberger is a few years removed from his best statistical season, the 2014 campaign, when he completed 67.1 percent of his passes for 4,952 yards, 32 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. His yardage, as well as his ANY/A (7.82), remain career-high numbers. But last season, he still earned his third straight Pro Bowl. Roethlisberger completed 64.4 percent of his passes for 3,819 yards, 29 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, as well as an ANY/A of 6.99, which was above the league average of 6.2.
In the wake of Pittsburgh’s loss in the AFC Championship Game to the New England Patriots, the veteran quarterback considered retirement. His remarks, and the uncertainty of his status with the team in the weeks that followed, led the organization to draft a quarterback a few months ago, selecting Joshua Dobbs out of the University of Tennessee. But Roethlisberger has recommitted to the team, and he looked efficient in his only preseason action, completing six of nine passes against the Colts in the third preseason game for 73 yards. He remains one of the tougher quarterbacks in the pocket and can use his play strength to remain upright in the face of pressure to make strong, accurate throws under duress. Plus, he still has the quick release, as well as the combination of velocity and touch to all levels, that have been a hallmark of his professional career.
The Steelers seem to be loading up for one final run at a title under Big Ben. They added Ju-Ju Smith-Schuster to an already abundant wide receiver corps that includes Antonio Brown, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Martavis Bryant. Le’Veon Bell is ready to go after ending his holdout. When Bell is 100 percent, Pittsburgh is a complete enough team to again challenge New England in the AFC, and perhaps the Steelers and Roethlisberger do indeed have one final run at glory in them.
8. Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers
One year after he grabbed the NFL Most Valuable Player award and led his Carolina Panthers to a 15-1 season and a Super Bowl berth, Newton had what was perhaps his worst professional season in 2016. His completion rate dropped from 59.8 to 52.9, his adjusted yards gained per pass attempt (AY/A) dropped from 8.3 to 6.4, his touchdown rate from 7.1 to 3.7 and his passer rating from 99.1 to 75.8.
There could be some truth to the notion that Newton never recovered mentally from the beating he took at the hands of the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50, but there was a lot more at play with his regression. Newton was dealing with injuries most of the season, his receiver group was average at best with the exception of tight end Greg Olsen, the running game (which is where many of Newton’s positive plays come from) was not as sharp, and he was getting hit over and over as the NFL continued to struggle with the idea of how mobile quarterbacks should be protected.
There’s no doubt that Newton is a player who lets things get to him, but 2016 wasn’t all his fault. To try to remedy the issues with the talent around him, the Panthers made two important draft picks—Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey in the first round, and Ohio State speed receiver Curtis Samuel in the second. Samuel can help Newton on everything from go routes to fly sweeps, but it’s the addition of McCaffrey that could really pay dividends. The Stanford alum can run inside and outside the tackles to be sure, but it’s his potential as an outlet receiver that makes him interesting in this offense. McCaffrey can catch everything from simple screens to deep seam routes, and he should be an instant force multiplier for Newton.
Over time, Newton has developed skills beyond the running quarterback who was more a “see it and throw it” guy when he came into the league. He has one of the best deep arms in the game and can create explosive plays off play-action and quarterback motion. He can throw with anticipation and see the field; no quarterback who’s done what he’s done would be able to do so without his specific abilities. And while there is still an element of randomness to his play, and he’ll occasionally whiff on his throws, Newton does indeed have the skills required of top-level quarterbacks.
Good for the Panthers to realize that he needs more around him to help him reach the pinnacle of the position.
7. Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans
In just two short years in the NFL, Mariota has more than silenced any concerns facing him coming out of Oregon. He threw four touchdown passes in the first half of his NFL debut, becoming the first NFL player to accomplish that feat in his first NFL game. Mariota finished his rookie season completing 62.2 percent of his passes for 2,818 yards and 19 touchdowns against 10 interceptions, despite suffering an injury early in Week 15 and missing the final two-plus games of the season.
Mariota improved on those numbers last season, throwing for 3,426 yards and 26 touchdowns with only nine interceptions, in another season cut short because of an injury, as he suffered a fractured fibula. When you dive into those numbers a bit, you can see some of his growth. Last year, he placed in the top 10 among all NFL quarterbacks in both Y/A (7.6) and ANY/A (7.14), placing ninth and eighth in those statistics, respectively.
Additionally, Mariota remains a difficult player to game plan for as a defensive coordinator. Not only does he have the ability to extend plays with his legs and force defensive backs to cover long into each play, but the Titans can overload a formation to one side of the field or the other and simply run quarterback power to the weak side of the formation with pulling linemen in front of Mariota to pick up yardage in bunches. Mariota has also shown the ability to make those window throws and anticipation throws that many evaluators wondered if he could make when he was coming out of college. Put all of these aspects together, and you have a very dangerous quarterback to defend.
Fully healthy after the leg injury, Mariota is poised for a strong 2017 campaign. The Titans added some offensive firepower for him, drafting Corey Davis with the fifth overall selection in the 2017 draft, giving Mariota a vertical threat, and Taywan Taylor out of Western Kentucky in the third round. Tennessee also added Eric Decker to the mix, signing him in free agency after the New York Jets released him. These weapons, combined with Mariota’s continued growth and development at the position, have many thinking the Titans are on the brink of a run deep into the playoffs. If you were starting a team from scratch now, it would be hard to look past Mariota as the quarterback to build a foundation around.
6. Sam Bradford, Minnesota Vikings
When the Vikings traded for Sam Bradford following Teddy Bridgewater’s horrible August 2016 knee injury, it was unclear what the team was getting. Bradford, the first overall pick in the 2010 draft out of Oklahoma, was a star in college but had gone through transitions of both injury and inconsistency throughout his professional career. Early on with the Rams, he was limited by his offensive game plans and the talent around him, and his own difficulty staying on the field—among other injuries, he missed the entire 2014 season with a torn ACL. Bradford had a bit of a professional resurgence in Philly in 2015, but it was after the Vikings deal that he was able to show everything he can do.
Despite an indifferent running game, and without a top-flight group of receivers, Bradford set a single-season NFL record with a 71.6 percent completion rate in 2016, completing 395 of 552 passes for 3,877 yards, 20 touchdowns and five interceptions. The low pick rate and high completion percentage would indicate that Bradford had a lot of success with short passes, and that’s true.
But he also posted the third-highest quarterback rating on passes 20 or more yards in the air, completing 23 of 47 such throws for 754 yards, five touchdowns and one interception. The deep ball wasn’t a primary component of Bradford’s game—it was more important to get him working in a new system and extending drives with completions—but he’s no risk-averse Alex Smith, and given his overall deep accuracy, don’t be at all surprised if he heaves the ball downfield more in 2017.
And that’s the real story of Bradford’s 2016—he learned a different system and was entirely efficient despite perhaps the worst pass-blocking offensive line in the league. Bradford is able to do this because of his great accuracy, and that starts with his mechanics—he steps into throws with efficient motion, and he also throws with the sense of anticipation that will allow his receivers to move into defined openings. That sense of timing elevates him in to the NFL’s top level at the position. Only Aaron Rodgers had a better quarterback rating under pressure last season than Bradford’s 87.7, and with the Vikings upgrading their offensive line a bit in the offseason, that should help a bit.
Bradford will be a free agent after the 2017 season, and at 29, he has a lot of good years left if he can stay healthy. The Vikings should consider him their franchise quarterback, because he’s already played as if he is.
5. Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
Quarterbacks who spend most of their time under pressure because of bad offensive lines can go one of two ways: They can either adapt to the pressure and learn how to move within and outside the pocket to mitigate the damage, or they can become shell-shocked and smaller versions of their former selves.
To a degree, Russell Wilson did both of those things in 2016.
Mostly, he’s adapted to the reality that the Seattle Seahawks consider the offensive line to be something of a low-budget science fair project in which raw prospects and positional conversions rule the day. The Seahawks do this in part because Wilson’s dynamic mobility lets them get away with it, but last season, it started to come back to bite the team—and their quarterback. Wilson played through a number of lower-body injuries and gutted it out productively, but he started, more than ever, to bail out of pockets even when there wasn’t pressure.
One could say that given the percentage to which Wilson was pressured, this was an understandable and natural reaction. And it was. But part of being a great quarterback is the ability to do the things that are unnatural—to stand in the pocket even when you know you’re going to get your block knocked off and make the difficult throw. Wilson did that enough anyway—he completed 41 of 82 deep passes in 2016 for 1,372 yards and eight touchdowns—but the five interceptions Wilson threw on such passes speaks to a certain randomness about his play.
The Seahawks help support this randomness by devising plays in which Wilson rolls out of the pocket on designed runs and then darts around until he has a receiver open downfield. It’s an unconventional gambit, but it generally works because Wilson has top-level velocity and accuracy on the move, and he’s unafraid to take chances.
Here’s the problem with that approach: Quarterbacks who take this philosophy into their 30s don’t tend to last long. The hits add up, and Wilson was pressured on 41.5 percent of his 701 dropbacks last season. At some point in the near future, the Seahawks are going to have to realize they have a highly valuable asset who turns 29 in November, and the injuries are only going to get more pronounced if Wilson isn’t allowed to flourish in a more conventional structure.
4. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
Drew Brees has been so good for so long, and makes that excellence look so easy, we tend to forget his greatness. But it’s worth noting what he’s done over the last half-decade without a consistent receiver corps, a dominant running game or anything resembling a quality defense. The Saints have gone 7-9 in four of the last five seasons, but Brees continues to put up ridiculous numbers for two reasons: He can, and he has to.
From 2012 through 2016, no quarterback has attempted more passes (3,279), completed more passes (2,223), thrown for more yards (25,369) or more touchdowns (184) than Brees. New Orleans’ offenses have not ranked lower than second in yards and ninth in points over the last three seasons, and their defenses have never ranked higher than 27th in yards and 28th in points over that time. The Saints have traded Jimmy Graham and Brandin Cooks, his two most talented targets. To ignore how much Brees has had to lift his team beyond its own organizational muck is to do a great disservice to one of the NFL’s all-time greats.
There is hope for 2017, though. Personnel revisions on defense should present some level of improvement, and the acquisition via free agency of fellow future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson and the selection of Tennessee running back Alvin Kamara should amp up the running game. Second-year man Michael Thomas looks to take over for Cooks as Brees’ best target, and he has the talent to do it.
The time has to be now. The Saints wasted the best years of the second half of Brees’ career dinking around with the roster, and he turned 38 in January. He still has the same great processing speed, timing and rhythm, and ability to throw on the move, but his deep ball has diminished a bit—not so much that the team will have to minimize the passing game too much, but enough to make the new focus on the run game a smart move.
Adding to the urgency is the fact Brees is going into the final year of his contract. He may attain his stated goal of playing until he’s 45, but it’s unlikely he’d want to do it for a team that has failed so spectacularly over the last few years to give him what he needs to succeed.
3. Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
Matt Ryan has been a very good, and occasionally great, quarterback for a long time. He made his first Pro Bowl in 2010, has thrown for more than 4,000 yards and 25 touchdowns every season since 2001, and he has never had an outlier disaster season. Before 2016, Ryan was a consistent quarterback with specific limitations the Falcons could work with.
And then, in offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s second season with the Falcons, Ryan shrugged off many of those limitations in service to Shanahan’s schemes. The result was his first MVP season, and it would have led to a Lombardi Trophy under most circumstances that didn’t involve the New England Patriots.
Formerly relatively immobile from the pocket and prone to regressing under pressure, Ryan bought into Shanahan’s boot-action plan and became a dangerous thrower where he had not been before. He took full advantage of Shanahan’s mastery of pre-snap movement and formation diversity to slice opposing pass defenses to bits. Ryan’s 2016 season was the perfect mixture of quarterback, coach, scheme and surrounding cast. That it will be utterly diminished by Atlanta’s ultimate Super Bowl failure doesn’t diminish how Ryan developed as a player.
Consider this: Of all the qualifying quarterbacks who attempted a deep pass last season, Ryan is the only one who didn’t throw a single interception on a pass of 20 or more yards in the air. He completed 40 of 65 deep passes for 1,334 yards, 13 touchdowns, no picks, and a preposterous 138.2 quarterback rating. He threw six touchdowns and no interceptions when under pressure. Ryan led the NFL with a 26.1 percent play-action rate and threw 10 touchdowns to just two interceptions when he had to turn his back to the defense, turn back around, and make quicker reads to his receivers.
Ryan’s overall stats were impressive, of course—443 completions in 632 attempts for 5,958 yards, 47 touchdowns and seven interceptions, including the postseason—but it’s important to break his game down situationally and understand that he excelled in every possible situation, including those that gave him trouble earlier in his career.
The only possible ding of perception at this point? Ryan now has to prove he can have that same kind of season without Shanahan’s schematic brilliance. Steve Sarkisian, no slouch as an offensive mind himself, will replace Shanahan, who took the job as the 49ers’ head coach. One imagines that Ryan will benefit from a fairly similar playbook, and he has all his targets from last season. If he can do it again and establish that he’s at that level no matter who’s calling the plays, he will have made himself into one of the league’s best quarterbacks.
2. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
When we talk about great players in any team sport, we’re talking about players who make everyone around them better. There is no way to be a great NFL quarterback without increasing the prospects for productivity for everyone on your offense despite whatever limitations may be present. And no modern quarterback does that to a higher degree than Aaron Rodgers.
Rodgers’ receiver corps has been limited by injury and inconsistency over the last few seasons. Mike McCarthy, his head coach and primary play designer, has morphed weirdly from a creative purveyor of West Coast offense concepts to an old-school coach who refuses to scheme his receivers open and seems insistent on working out of a Packers playbook from Super Bowl I. His offensive line had improved in the last few seasons from below-average to above-average, but you’ll never mistake him for Dak Prescott or Derek Carr, standing and surveying the field behind perfect protection.
And yet, none of that matters with Rodgers. None of that matters because he’s so brilliant at deducing what defenses are planning in the pre-snap phase, he’s the most accurate quarterback in the game today to all levels, he throws just as well out of the pocket and on the run as he does when standing still, and he’s able to combine an on-field creativity with mechanical efficiency that allows him to throw consistently from multiple platforms. In many ways, he’s the evolutionary Steve Young—a player with all the athletic gifts who has perfected them through hard work and tape study.
If Rodgers was with a more creative offensive coordinator, you’d see numbers the NFL has never seen. Imagining him under the guidance of a Sean Payton or Kyle Shanahan brings to mind one man playing every other team on the “rookie” setting. He’ll probably throw 40 or more touchdowns in 2017 with fewer than 10 interceptions, and he’ll get the Packers as far in the playoffs as they can go with a limited playbook, a weird running game and a pretty good defense.
But make no mistake—just because he’s won only one Super Bowl doesn’t mean that he’s not potentially the greatest quarterback of his era. It just takes an understanding of what Rodgers is working with to get how unique he is.
1. Tom Brady, New England Patriots
If New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady had yet to solidify his place on the Mount Rushmore of quarterbacks, his performance down the stretch in Super Bowl LI may have convinced artists to put chisel to stone. After a slow start, Brady finished the game completing 43 of 62 passes for two touchdowns and an interception and helped engineer the biggest quarterback in Super Bowl history, as the Patriots overcame a 28-3 deficit to secure the win in the first overtime in a Super Bowl game. The overtime drive, capped off by a short touchdown run from James White, became the longest game-winning drive led by Brady in his playoff career, eclipsing by one yard a drive against the Baltimore Ravens in the 2015 playoffs. With five Super Bowl wins, Brady stands alone among quarterbacks in league history.
This is not to say that the Patriots’ signal-caller was flawless during New England’s playoff run. He threw a pick-six early in the Super Bowl, forcing a throw to Danny Amendola on an under route when Julian Edelman seemed a safer option. He also struggled in New England’s divisional round game against the Houston Texans against the league’s top defense, throwing two interceptions and completing less than 50 percent of his passes. On perhaps the most memorable play of Super Bowl LI—Edelman’s fingertip reception just above the turf at NRG Stadium—Brady forced yet another throw into coverage.
These plays and the Houston performance led some to wonder if Brady was, despite the Super Bowl win, showing signs of regression with respect to his arm strength. But when you watch that overtime drive and see throws like the long out pattern to Amendola on the right sideline, the deep comeback route to Chris Hogan on the left sideline, or the dig route drilled into Edelman over the middle, you know the veteran QB can still dial up the velocity when he needs to.
While the Patriots enter the upcoming year looking to replace production from the injured Edelman, the addition of Brandin Cooks as well as the return of a healthy Rob Gronkowski portend future success for this offense. Plus, with the landscape of the AFC East, New England is in good position to make another run deep into the playoffs. In his preseason action, the QB has looked sharp to date and is in good form heading into Week 1. Brady may be on the back nine of his career, but with the pieces around him, he should be in for a big season.
Advanced stats via Pro Football Focus unless otherwise noted.