Ranking the NFL's 7 Worst Veteran Starting Quarterbacks Entering 2022 Season
The caliber of quarterback play across the NFL has risen dramatically over the last five years. An influx of highly athletic and accurate passers has changed how the position is played. It's easier than ever to post efficient numbers; therefore, the bar has been elevated for exceptional quarterbacks to make an impact on winning.
The NFL's best quarterbacks can not only create big plays and convert touchdown opportunities at a high rate, but they're also avoiding turnovers better than ever. That wasn't always the case. Looking back at the top NFL passers a decade ago reveals a different standard.
Of the 32 quarterbacks who started at least 10 games in 2021, 19 finished the season with an interception rate of 2.5 percent or lower of their total pass attempts.
In 2011, just 14 of the 35 quarterbacks who started the same amount of games could claim the same level of ball protection. Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Cam Newton, and Philip Rivers all exceeded a turnover rate of 2.5 percent yet still made the Pro Bowl that year.
We're looking at the 2021 starting quarterbacks and ranking the worst seven. We're filtering out the young bucks who have not been in the NFL for at least three seasons in order to level the playing field. There's still time for recently drafted quarterbacks to still make a leap in 2022.
But the rest are on the hot seat after posting mediocre stats and failing to impact their team's ability to win on game day. These players don't produce enough touchdowns and avoid turnovers at a high enough level, and their overall conservative nature is more harmful than helpful. Those that take checkdowns often are effectively padding their completion rates instead of taking risks on more difficult throws.
Let's jump in and dive into why these seven starters have landed in this precarious position and what they can do to get off this list.
7. Ryan Tannehill, Tennessee Titans
2021 stats: 67.2% completion rate, 3,734 yards, 21 TDs, 14 INTs
After seeing a massive resurgence in his first two seasons in Tennessee, Ryan Tannehill saw everything around him crumble in 2021. In 28 games between 2019 and 2020, Tannehill completed 67.3 percent of his passes and averaged 27.5 touchdowns, 6.5 interceptions, and 8.6 yards per attempt per year. He had a touchdown rate of 7.2 and an interception rate of 1.7.
His 2021 season held steady with his completion rate. However, his yards per attempt dipped to 7.0, his touchdown rate dropped to four percent, and his interception rate climbed to 2.6 percent. Tannehill became a liability quickly despite racking up seven touchdowns on the ground for the second consecutive year.
Some of his decline was beyond his own control. Star running back Derrick Henry missed nine games with a broken bone in his foot. A.J. Brown missed four games, and Julio Jones was barely visible in the 10 games he participated in. The offensive line took a clear step backward when defenses keyed in on the passing game.
Instead of rising to the occasion as a veteran passer, Tannehill played tentatively and became turnover-prone. He ranked in the bottom half of the league in touchdown rate, interception rate, yards per average attempt, or yards per game. The Titans had zero chance of winning in the playoffs with such inconsistent play from a 33-year-old quarterback.
Tannehill enters this season in a make-or-break year. Several young quarterbacks matched his caliber of play in 2021, and the Titans added third-rounder Malik Willis as his backup in the 2022 NFL draft. If Tannehill repeats his low level of play, the Titans can release him in 2023 with a June 1 distinction and save $27 million of his $36.6 million cap hit.
A revamped offensive line, healthy Henry, and an overhauled receiving corps will need to propel Tannehill to a return to his previous level. If they can't, he'll tank Tennessee's Super Bowl hopes in a hurry.
6. Jared Goff, Detroit Lions
2021 stats: 67.2% completion rate, 3,245 yards, 19 TDs, 8 INTs
Both of the top two picks from the 2016 NFL draft could justifiably be on this list. Neither Jared Goff nor Carson Wentz is more than mediocre. But for as many faults as Wentz has, his ability to create big plays is more valuable than Goff's inability to impact the game.
Goff wasn't always so check-down happy. On the surface level, his completion rate with arguably the worst receiving corps in the NFL is impressive. He also restricted his turnovers to the second-lowest rate of his career at just 1.6 percent of his throws.
However, he is nothing more than a milquetoast game manager. He finished 27th of 32 quarterbacks in yards per attempt and 22nd in touchdown rate. Goff was also dead last in intended air yards per attempt.
The only clearly worse veteran passers than him in 2021 were Ben Roethlisberger, Sam Darnold and Andy Dalton.
The Los Angeles Rams gave up on Goff because of his inability to create outside of his first read and the wave of turnovers he produced. He has fumbled a staggering 51 times in 83 career games, including nine last season. He's also a complete non-threat rushing unless he's on the goal line.
Goff cannot be a difference-making quarterback unless he suddenly learns how to create positive plays while under pressure. Tom Brady is the only high-end starter who is a statue in the pocket like Goff is. Brady compensates with his pinpoint precision and possesses one of the best minds the NFL has ever seen.
Goff still struggles reading pre- and post-snap coverage changes, and his mechanics vary wildly within games. Much will need to change for him to continue being a starter beyond 2022. The Lions can escape his $30.65 million cap hit with just $10 million in dead cap if he can't improve his performance this season.
5. Daniel Jones, New York Giants
2021 stats: 64.3% completion rate, 2,428 yards, 10 TDs, 7 INTs
Entering his fourth year with the New York Giants, 2019 first-round pick Daniel Jones is in a make-or-break season. General manager Joe Schoen and head coach Brian Daboll opted against guaranteeing Jones' fifth-year option. And yet, Daboll could save Jones' career as a starting quarterback after the franchise failed him as much as he's failed them.
Since his collegiate days at Duke, Jones has never been an overlay accurate or safe passer with the ball. He should not have been drafted so highly in the 2019 class based on those tendencies. Former general manager Dave Gettleman banked on the occasional big play and solid deep-passing prowess of Jones and overlooked skittishness in the pocket and the penchant for turnovers.
There hasn't been a lot to point toward in favor of Jones becoming an average passer beyond a few flashes. His rookie touchdown rate of 5.2 percent helped build optimism he could overcome the negative plays so long as he created more positive plays, like an early-career Carson Wentz or Jameis Winston. But his touchdown rate has plummeted to 2.5 and 2.8 percent over the last two years.
The interceptions have also lowered to a more acceptable level, but Jones ranks toward the bottom of all starters with a career 6.6 average yards per completion. One would think his completion rate would be near 70 percent with so many short passes, but instead his three-year average of 62.8 also places him among the bottom third of starters from 2021.
Daboll's presence and a healthy surrounding cast should help elevate Jones' play in 2022. He has dealt with bad luck around him as much as any quarterback since he entered the NFL. However, his baseline skill set is still low, so there needs to be a blend of self-improvement and better infrastructure for Jones to be an option for the Giants in 2023 and beyond.
4. Mitch Trubisky, Pittsburgh Steelers
2021 stats: 75% completion rate, 43 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT (eight passes in six games)
Forever set to be compared to fellow 2017 draft classmate Patrick Mahomes, Mitch Trubisky has the opportunity to rewrite the narrative of his career now that he's in Pittsburgh. He wasn't awful in Chicago throughout his tenure, but inconsistency with his field vision led to far too many turnovers and a lack of impactful plays. The physical tools were never the issue.
The dual-threat passer flamed out in Chicago despite racking up a 29-21 record in four seasons. He has solid speed and is comfortable escaping outside of the pocket; his issues stem from uncertainty as he reads defenses.
It's easy for defenses to get Trubisky to do what they want. Dropping seven defenders into zone all but guarantees he will take a check down because he doesn't trust his eyes and arm to thread passes through tight coverage. That's why he has a career completion rate of 64.1 percent but is now a journeyman despite turning 28 later this summer.
His career average of 6.7 yards per completion would have landed him tied for 26th in 2021, and his career touchdown rate (4 percent) and interception rate (2.4 percent) also place him among the bottom half of 2021 performers. Pittsburgh will turn to first-round rookie Kenny Pickett quickly if Trubisky can't do better consistently.
The good news for Trubisky is that Pittsburgh has a great set of weapons to rely on. He's never had such a deep array of playmakers, including Najee Harris, Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, George Pickens and Pat Freiermuth. Pittsburgh's offensive line will need to play better than it did last year, but Trubisky could also help them more than Ben Roethlisberger did thanks to his mobility.
There's room for Trubisky to be a decent starter with his physical skill set. He projects as a much better fit for Matt Canada's unique motion-based offense thanks to his legs and strong arm on short throws. Hopefully his year on the bench behind Josh Allen allowed him to learn more of the nuances of the NFL.
3. Marcus Mariota, Atlanta Falcons
2021 stats: 50% completion rate, 4 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INTs (two passes in 10 games)
One of the most fascinating offseason developments was how Atlanta quickly decided to replace franchise legend Matt Ryan with free agent Marcus Mariota. Atlanta failed to lure Deshaun Watson from the Houston Texans and also burned their bridge with Ryan as they sought his replacement. Instead of then trading for Jimmy Garoppolo or Baker Mayfield, Atlanta almost immediately signed Mariota.
Mariota and Falcons head coach Arthur Smith have their own history. Smith was Tennessee's offensive coordinator in 2019 when Mariota had a middling run and was eventually benched for Ryan Tannehill. Tannehill immediately thrived because he excelled where Mariota didn't as a more accurate and discerning decision-maker.
Despite how things played out in Tennessee, Mariota expressed excitement about reuniting with Smith, saying the coach helped him "play free." The 28-year-old has thrown just 30 passes over his last two seasons with Las Vegas as a backup and hasn't had real success in the league since his breakout sophomore season.
Since producing 45 touchdowns to just 19 interceptions over his first 27 games, Mariota has slumped with 32 touchdowns to 26 interceptions in 44 games. Defenses started forcing him to move outside of the pocket and throw deeper downfield and he couldn't adjust. His lack of downfield accuracy and poise under pressure limited his ability to "play freely."
With 2022 third-round rookie Desmond Ridder breathing down his neck, Mariota won't have long to prove himself as more than a fringe starter in Atlanta. The Falcons have little surrounding talent, so his best hope is for 2022 first-rounder Drake London to be ready for a Justin Jefferson-type breakout.
Either that or Mariota's two years on the bench behind Derek Carr will have hopefully allowed him to read defenses faster and give him more confidence to deliver accurate passes with defenders hanging around his feet.
2. Drew Lock, Seattle Seahawks
2021 stats: 60.4% completion rate, 787 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs (in six games)
On the surface, it makes zero sense the Seattle Seahawks would enter the 2022 season with Drew Lock as their starting quarterback. Taking Lock from Denver in their trade of superstar Russell Wilson made sense, as they could use a younger backup than Geno Smith to develop, but Lock showed little in his time with the Broncos to suggest he could be a starter. He failed to beat out journeyman Teddy Bridgewater for the 2021 job after starting 13 games in 2020.
Despite his strong arm and impressive mobility at 6'4", 228 pounds, his accuracy and decision-making have been an issue since he was at Missouri. He was a project coming out of its spread system that was RPO-heavy. As expected, he is inconsistent in identifying defenses pre-snap and can be baited into bad throws from more complex coverages and blitzes because he lacks experience making high-level reads.
With a 59.3 percent completion rate, 25 touchdowns and 20 interceptions, Lock is clearly on the lower end of starters. His advanced numbers aren't more promising. Despite being surrounded by a solid young cast of playmakers in Denver, he threw a touchdown on 3.5 percent of his attempts with an average of 6.7 yards per completion.
Seattle may be hoping Lock's development will mirror Josh Allen's since he was another big-armed passer who had turnover issues and a low yards-per-completion rate in his first two seasons. Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer reported Seahawks general manager John Schneider "really liked" Lock ahead of the 2019 draft. He even compared his acquisition in the Wilson trade to that of Jared Goff in the Matthew Stafford deal.
Denver already tried its hand at developing Lock but couldn't find enough reason to even give him a second full season as a starter. Seattle could look to trade for Baker Mayfield to ensure a higher level of competition but has thus far not made any moves. The Seahawks are hoping their surrounding cast, led by DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett and a deep backfield of rushers, helps Lock elevate his game in his fourth season.
The raw skills are there, but the nuance is missing. Things could get ugly quickly in Seattle if Pete Carroll and Co. can't get him up to speed.
1. Sam Darnold, Carolina Panthers
2021 stats: 59.9% completion rate, 2,527 yards, 9 TDs, 13 INTs
Getting away from Adam Gase and one of the worst supporting casts in the NFL was supposed to save quarterback Sam Darnold's career. Darnold, the former third overall pick in the 2018 draft, had plenty of fans across the league despite playing so poorly in New York because he was an exciting prospect who made splash plays out of structure throughout his USC tenure. What those pundits didn't weigh heavily enough was his recklessness with the ball and the reason why he relied on extending plays to look good.
Darnold has below-average arm talent for an NFL starter, and he compounds his lack of velocity and natural accuracy with poor lower-body mechanics and slow eyes while reading the field. His career numbers are much more consistent with what an average passer back in 1994 would produce. Unfortunately, that lands him as the worst starter in the NFL in 2022.
He's completed just 59.8 percent of career attempts for 54 touchdowns and 52 interceptions. His yards per attempt cratered to 6.1 and 6.2 in 2020 and 2021. Darnold's sack rate has ranked 34th and 27th over the last two years.
The Panthers appeared to be a better fit than New York if for no other reason than they had a competent play-caller in Joe Brady. Brady was unable to make the pairing work, though, and head coach Matt Rhule made a change at offensive coordinator after a 5-7 start, and Darnold went on injured reserve with a shoulder injury.
Though Carolina's offensive line was woeful and running back Christian McCaffrey played in just seven games, Darnold looked completely lost beyond facing limitations. Playing with DJ Moore, Robby Anderson and Terrace Marshall Jr. should've been a recipe to be at least competent. Instead, the Panthers offense sputtered and Darnold proved he's nowhere near an NFL-caliber starter.