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What Happened to the NFL Quarterback Middle Class?

Brad Gagnon@@Brad_GagnonFeatured Columnist IVSeptember 9, 2022

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When looking at the NFL's current starting quarterback landscape, it isn't hard to identify the elites and the scrubs.

But now more than ever, it's difficult to find much in between.

We saw two of the elites during the season opener Thursday night, with Josh Allen of the Buffalo Bills and Matthew Stafford of the Los Angeles Rams going head-to-head in California. Few will fight you on them being in the top tier of quarterbacks, as well as recent MVPs Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, and Lamar Jackson, the golden Tom Brady, multi-time Pro Bowlers Russell Wilson and Dak Prescott, and likely even emerging stars Justin Herbert, Joe Burrow and Kyler Murray.

As for the lower class, is anyone going to debate us on Mitchell Trubisky, Drew Lock and Marcus Mariota? You might not even be able to get away with calling Carson Wentz so-so considering his ugly 87.9 passer rating over the last three years.

Then there are the guys who haven't remotely made it yet. The jury is still out on most of them, but even the first round of the draft is a crapshoot when it comes to quarterbacks. There's a good chance that the majority never become reliable NFL starters.

That group is huge, mainly because 17 quarterbacks were chosen with first-round picks between 2018 and 2021. The to-be-determined class includes Zach Wilson, Davis Mills, Justin Fields, Daniel Jones, Trey Lance, Tua Tagovailoa, Jalen Hurts, Baker Mayfield and Trevor Lawrence.

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With Deshaun Watson's tier up in the air until his return from suspension, that leaves us with only Matt Ryan, Derek Carr, Kirk Cousins, Ryan Tannehill, Jameis Winston, Jared Goff and Mac Jones in the middle tier.

That group is almost certain to grow when some of the recently drafted signal-callers blossom, but not all of them will. And for how long does that category retain the 37-year-old Ryan?

Cousins and Tannehill are the definition of middle-of-the-pack and in their primes, but Winston and Goff aren't realistically guaranteed starting jobs beyond this season. Meanwhile, anything could happen with the 24-year-old Jones despite an encouraging rookie season with the New England Patriots in 2021.

Winston threw a league-high 30 interceptions in his last full season as an NFL starter with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and has started only seven games in the two seasons since. Meanwhile, Carr and Cousins are both three-time Pro Bowlers, while Tannehill has a triple-digit passer rating during his three-year tenure with the Tennessee Titans.

It wouldn't be wild to call Carr, Cousins and Tannehill elite, to move Jones to the "jury's still out category" and to toss Winston and Goff (who has a sub-90 passer rating over the last three seasons) into the bottom tier. That would leave us with a middle class of one (Ryan).

Regardless, it's a small pool of good-not-great passers.

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Why is that happening? Well, organizations are continually, impatiently chasing the elite, and understandably so.

When's the last time a non-elite quarterback carried his team to a Super Bowl win? Nick Foles finished the job for the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles, but Wentz did most of the work getting Philly there with a MVP-caliber campaign. Peyton Manning wasn't in his prime for the Denver Broncos in 2015, but we're still talking about a five-time MVP there.

You have to go back to Eli Manning with the New York Giants and Joe Flacco with the Baltimore Ravens about a decade ago, and both of those guys tore it up on their respective Super Bowl runs in 2011 and 2012 with 20 touchdown passes to one interception combined.

There's less time and space now for quarterbacks like Mariota, Winston, Tannehill or Goff to fail and then recover. It does happen, but the environment isn't as conducive to those situations when you have 17 quarterback go off the board in the first round in a four-year span (compared to only 12 in the previous five years).

Is that trend changing? Maybe. Only one quarterback went off the board in the top 73 picks of this year's draft. Maybe that was an aberration, but it does likely explain why guys like Mariota, Trubisky and Lock are serving in starting roles for now.

Last year, eight qualified quarterbacks had triple-digit passer ratings, while eight had sub-85 ratings. That left about half of the qualifiers somewhere relatively close to the leaguewide rating of 90.8.

Numbers alone aren't totally indicative of quarterback effectiveness, but don't be surprised if that middle group shrinks even further in 2022.

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