Ranking Every NFL Starting Quarterback Entering 2021 Season
In the NFL, quarterbacks are the center of attention. Whether or not they're to praise or blame for the outcomes of games, we usually focus on the production and status of that position.
A team's quarterback can limit its offensive production or put it in playoff contention.
Let's find out where each starting quarterback stands for the 2021 season. Who's the cream of the crop? Which signal-callers have a lot to prove or need to worry about their job security?
We'll rank each quarterback with a strong emphasis on production over the past two to three seasons and their outlook for the 2021 campaign. Because of the latter criterion, a signal-caller's supporting cast can become a deciding factor in the pecking order.
We'll also look at traits and recent trends.
Dual-threat quarterbacks will have an advantage over pocket passers because of their ability to contribute to the rushing attack or take pressure off a subpar offensive line, which underscores the signal-caller's impact. We'll favor players on the upswing over those on the decline or coming off significant injuries. High-volume passers are rewarded since they need less complementary help to elevate an offense.
Now that you have the ground rules, let's sort out the players.
32. Tyrod Taylor, Houston Texans
Tyrod Taylor has started four games since 2018. He's a question mark because of his sporadic fill-in duties with the Cleveland Browns and Los Angeles Chargers over the past three seasons. Yet we know the 11th-year veteran's limitations because of his resume.
Taylor can extend plays with his legs, but he's a conservative passer. The 32-year-old hasn't eclipsed 3,100 yards or 20 touchdowns in any campaign.
The Houston Texans needed a stopgap signal-caller while Deshaun Watson faces 22 lawsuits from women accusing him of sexual assault and misconduct, as well as NFL and police investigations.
Taylor will serve as a capable starter who won't make many mistakes with the ball (20 interceptions in 72 contests), though he won't win a lot of games with his arm either.
At this stage in Taylor's career, don't expect to see anything new from him. Rookie third-rounder Davis Mills may take over for the veteran as the rebuilding Texans fall behind in the standings.
31. Jalen Hurts, Philadelphia Eagles
As a starter, Jalen Hurts has a small sample size with only four starts under his belt. Yet he flashed enough upside to avoid the last spot in these rankings.
In 2020, Hurts threw for 1,061 yards, six touchdowns and four interceptions, providing a spark for a Philadelphia Eagles offense that struggled through 12 games with Carson Wentz under center. The Eagles traded the latter to the Indianapolis Colts this offseason.
Because of his potential, Hurts should beat Joe Flacco for the starting job.
Hurts still has a lot to prove. As a rookie, he only completed 52.0 percent of his passes. After three collegiate terms at Alabama and one at Oklahoma, the dual-threat quarterback came into the league with questions marks concerning his ability to play at a high level with consistency.
Hurts didn't have a smooth collegiate career. At Alabama, he lost his starting job to Tua Tagovailoa and served as a backup in 2018. Though Hurts threw for 3,851 yards at Oklahoma, he didn't eclipse 2,800 in any of his three campaigns with the Crimson Tide.
Hurts will shake up defenders on the run, but he must make significant strides as a passer to become a franchise player.
30. Zach Wilson, New York Jets
Zach Wilson's arm talent moves him above Tyrod Taylor and Jalen Hurts.
Wilson fits in with the evolution of the quarterback position. He can make plays with his legs (642 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns at BYU) and beat defenses over the top.
According to Pro Football Focus, Wilson completed 73 percent of his pass attempts of 20-plus yards, better than fellow 2021 draftees Justin Fields (70 percent) and Trevor Lawrence (56 percent).
In 2020, Wilson had a breakout campaign that led to his surge up draft boards. He threw for 33 touchdowns and three interceptions with a 73.5 percent completion rate.
At BYU, Wilson had a strong offensive line that deserves some credit for his standout year, and he'll play behind two first-rounders in tackle Mekhi Becton (2020) and rookie guard Alijah Vera-Tucker. With an accurate arm, aggressive playing style and solid pass protection, he could win Offensive Rookie of the Year.
29. Drew Lock/Teddy Bridgewater, Denver Broncos
Drew Lock goes into a crucial third term. After two inconsistent seasons, he's in an even quarterback battle with Teddy Bridgewater.
Last year, Lock and Carson Wentz threw the most interceptions with 15 apiece. The former adjusted to a new offensive system under Pat Shurmur without his top wideout in Courtland Sutton (torn ACL) following a truncated offseason because of COVID-19 restrictions.
In two preseason games, Lock has played well, completing 14 of 21 passes for 231 yards and two touchdowns. Meanwhile, Bridgewater completed 16 of 19 passes for 179 yards and two scores in exhibition action.
Lock, the incumbent, has a higher ceiling and provides the explosive plays that keep defensive backs on their heels. He must show consistency, though. The 24-year-old signal-caller can make big plays downfield but tosses up too many ill-advised passes into coverage or misses his targets.
Lock has enough recent starts with some flashes to rank ahead of rookie quarterback Zach Wilson. If Bridgewater wins the job, he would also list 29th. The 28-year-old is efficient but lacks big-play ability, averaging 193 passing yards per game for his career.
28. Tua Tagovailoa, Miami Dolphins
Tua Tagvailoa doesn't have a big arm or the mobility that jumps out on film, but the Miami Dolphins can trust him to protect the football and minimize mistakes.
Last year, Tagovailoa threw for 11 touchdowns and five interceptions with a 64.1 percent completion rate in 10 contests, which includes nine starts. Yet the Dolphins benched him multiple times for Ryan Fitzpatrick, who held the lead position for the first six outings.
With tight end Mike Gesicki in addition to wideouts DeVante Parker, William Fuller V and rookie first-rounder Jaylen Waddle, Tagovailoa has the weapons to make a significant second-year leap. However, we have to wonder if his average physical tools will limit the Dolphins' passing production.
Nevertheless, Tagovailoa has more upside than Drew Lock because of his efficiency. He also has a lot more room to grow than Teddy Bridgewater.
27. Sam Darnold, Carolina Panthers
Through three seasons, Sam Darnold has some dazzling highlight plays but makes too many mistakes that lead to turnovers. He's thrown for 45 touchdowns and 39 interceptions with a 59.8 percent completion rate.
The New York Jets traded Darnold to the Carolina Panthers where he may have the best supporting cast in his career.
Darnold will team up with two wideouts who eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards last season in DJ Moore and Robby Anderson. He played two campaigns with the latter in New York. The Panthers signal-caller can also target 2019 All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey in the short passing game.
When Darnold went 7-6 as a starter for the Jets in 2019, he didn't have a 1,000-yard rusher or receiver. With his current group, he should record career bests in multiple passing categories. While that scenario could play out, the fourth-year pro must prove it before he moves up from the bottom of these rankings.
Darnold can make plays that few quarterbacks can match because of his physical traits (arm and mobility), which is why he's ranked ahead of Tua Tagovailoa.
26. Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco 49ers
Jimmy Garoppolo isn't a reliable starter. While he does have one year of solid play that helped lead the San Francisco 49ers to Super Bowl 54, the 29-year-old signal-caller has started more than six games once in seven seasons.
Over the past three terms, Garoppolo has missed 23 outings because of a torn ACL and ankle injuries.
Even in his standout 2019 campaign, he posted decent but not spectacular passing numbers (3,978 yards, 27 touchdowns and 13 interceptions) with a strong supporting cast. He played with the eighth-ranked scoring defense and a ground attack that accumulated the second-most yards.
Garoppolo can keep an offense steady with his 67.5 percent completion rate, but he hasn't shown the ability to elevate a unit with high-volume passing production. After the 49ers' second preseason contest, head coach Kyle Shanahan refused to name a Week 1 starter, which suggests rookie quarterback Trey Lance could win the job.
With all of that said, we've seen Garoppolo serve as a capable starter for a season, so he gets the edge over Sam Darnold, who's an unproven project.
25. Andy Dalton, Chicago Bears
Like Jimmy Garoppolo, Andy Dalton falls into the game manager category. He's more reliable with a stronger resume, though. The 33-year-old has started 142 games over the past decade.
Dalton has already played his best football. Don't expect him to turn back the clock with the Chicago Bears. However, he filled in adequately for Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott last season, throwing for 2,170 yards, 14 touchdowns and eight interceptions through 11 games.
Dalton doesn't have much upside, so he won't keep rookie quarterback Justin Fields on the sideline for long, but the 11th-year veteran can stabilize the position.
While the Bears' transition to Fields seems inevitable, Dalton will hold the starting role until the offense needs a spark.
24. Cam Newton, New England Patriots
Cam Newton had an awful 2020 campaign, averaging a career-low 177.1 passing yards per game with eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions. However, he signed with the New England Patriots last June and didn't have a full offseason to learn a new system after nine years with the Carolina Panthers.
Tough circumstances aside, Newton seems like he's on the decline. Last season, the 32-year-old held on to the ball too long in the pocket and may have lost zip on his fastball. Among qualifying quarterbacks, he ranked 30th in QBR (47.0).
Newton's dual-threat capability props up his standing among bottom-tier quarterbacks. In 2020, the Patriots fielded the fourth-ranked ground attack, partially because of his 592 rushing yards. Leaguewide, he tied for the fourth-most rushing touchdowns (12).
Despite the wear and tear on his body, Newton remains a viable threat on the ground, which forces linebackers and safeties to drop down into the box. With new perimeter weapons in Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, he could exploit one-on-one matchups downfield in a bounce-back year, which would keep rookie quarterback Mac Jones on the bench.
With his rushing production, Newton adds a dimension to an offense that Andy Dalton hasn't been able to provide.
23. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Washington Football Team
Suiting up for his ninth team, Ryan Fitzpatrick has become arguably the league's best stopgap quarterback over the past few seasons.
Without a franchise quarterback in place, Washington signed Fitzpatrick coming off one of his best campaigns.
At 38 years old, Fitzpatrick can still extend plays and find his playmakers in the passing game for chunk yardage. In 2018, he led the league in yards per completion (14.4). Last season, he recorded career highs in completion percentage (68.5) and QBR (76.9) as a primary starter.
On the flip side, Fitzpatrick has never led a team to the playoffs. He can throw over the top for big plays, but sometimes that results in turnovers. In 2020, the risk-taking signal-caller had the fifth-highest interception rate along with Sam Darnold among qualifying quarterbacks.
His playing style isn't going to change. Washington must take the good with the bad.
Fitzpatrick, coming off a solid year, sits one spot above Cam Newton, who looks to rebound from his worst statistical season.
22. Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars
Though Trevor Lawrence hasn't played a regular-season game, his upside puts him over quarterbacks who have limited unimpressive resumes or trend toward decline going into the 2021 season. A majority of—if not all—general managers would take this year's No. 1 overall pick rather than 38-year-old Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Lawrence has the skill set to become a top-tier quarterback. He's quick on his feet, makes shrewd split-second decisions and tests defenses on all levels of the field. The Clemson product comes into the league with three full seasons of collegiate experience, playing against top-notch competition in the College Football Playoff every year. He's prepared for the pro stage.
Lawrence should have some strong passing performances. DraftKings lists him as the favorite to win Offensive Rookie of the Year (+350) for good reason. He'll have a talented three-wide receiver set that features Marvin Jones Jr., DJ Chark Jr. and Laviska Shenault Jr.
Based on his ability to maximize his offensive weapons at Clemson, which has churned out NFL-caliber talent, Lawrence should have a solid rookie campaign.
21. Jameis Winston, New Orleans Saints
In 2020, Jameis Winston served as a backup. Now, he's in a true quarterback competition with Taysom Hill.
Winston and Hill will likely battle for the starting job through the final preseason game, though the former projects as a more viable option because he's a younger and more experienced starter.
Through his first five terms, Winston threw for 121 touchdowns and 88 interceptions with a 61.3 percent completion rate. He must make better decisions to avoid excessive turnovers, but the strong-armed quarterback can also pull his team out of a deficit with his aggressive playing style.
In 2019, Winston became the Buccaneers' all-time leader in passing yards in a season (5,109). On the flip side, he threw a league-leading 30 interceptions. Those numbers highlight his highs and lows, but we know he's a capable NFL starter who can post gaudy numbers with a strong supporting cast.
Still 27 years old, Winston could revive his career under New Orleans Saints head coach and offensive play-caller Sean Payton, who's fielded a top-10 scoring offense in 12 of his 14 active seasons with the team. He's in a more trustworthy system than Trevor Lawrence, who has a first-time NFL head coach in Urban Meyer.
20. Daniel Jones, New York Giants
As a rookie, Daniel Jones showed promise, throwing for 24 touchdowns and 12 interceptions through 13 contests. He took a big step backward last season with 11 passing scores and 10 interceptions.
In 2020, New York Giants star running back Saquon Barkley missed 14 games with a torn ACL, which likely impacted Jones' performance. Opposing defenses didn't have to prepare for a ball-carrier who ran for 1,300-plus yards in 2018. Big Blue also missed his pass-catching skills out of the backfield.
Jones had to take on a large load offensively. This year, the Giants prepared him to handle more responsibility. They signed Pro Bowl wideout Kenny Golladay and selected Kadarius Toney in the first round of the draft.
According to ESPN's Jordan Raanan, the Giants may lighten Barkley's workload, so Jones may have to show significant progress to keep the offense competitive in high-scoring matchups. Regardless, the Duke product faces increased pressure to show he's the answer at the most important position.
In two seasons, Jones has recorded 702 rushing yards and three touchdowns. He's far more dangerous than Jameis Winston outside the pocket.
19. Jared Goff, Detroit Lions
If we heavily emphasized resume, Jared Goff would list a few spots higher in the pecking order. He's earned Pro Bowl honors twice and thrown for 4,600-plus yards in two seasons. That's enough to push him over an unproven quarterback such as Daniel Jones.
However, Goff's career has trended in the wrong direction. Since 2019, he's been inefficient, throwing for 42 touchdowns and 29 interceptions. This offseason, the Los Angeles Rams swapped him out for Matthew Stafford.
In 2021, Goff will play with a lackluster wide receiver group. Tyrell Williams, who missed the 2020 campaign with a torn labrum and hasn't recorded 50 catches in a season since 2016, is arguably his best wideout. Breshad Perriman has practiced with the second unit, per The Athletic's Chris Burke. Amon-Ra St. Brown has upside, but he's a rookie.
Both Williams and Perriman average a little more than 16 yards per reception. If they stay healthy, Goff could post big numbers on occasion. If the two wideouts continue to battle injuries, don't expect much from the Lions' passing attack.
18. Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals
Despite Joe Burrow's limited resume, he's flashed enough through 10 games to earn the benefit of the doubt coming off a torn ACL and MCL.
Last season, Burrow threw for 13 touchdowns with five interceptions and averaged 268.8 yards per contest, which ranked seventh leaguewide. In a full season, he could've eclipsed 4,000 yards with his 65.3 percent completion rate.
Following months of physical rehab, Burrow admitted that lingering mental struggles contributed to a rough first week of training camp, per The Athletic's Jay Morrison.
"Right now it's just putting the mental and physical together, getting my feet back under me in the pocket with people around me," Burrow said. "That's the last step for me, get my pocket presence back and understand when I'm pressured and when I'm not."
In the first few weeks of the season, Burrow may seem skittish in the pocket, but once he settles down and gets back into the flow of the game, the second-year signal-caller should move the ball with wideouts Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins and his former LSU teammate Ja'Marr Chase, who also has to shake off early struggles on the field.
Burrow's offensive weapons propel his upside, giving him a nudge over Jared Goff.
17. Carson Wentz, Indianapolis Colts
Initially, Carson Wentz's career trajectory trended toward rising star status. Through his first two seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, he threw for 49 touchdowns and 21 interceptions. In 2017, Wentz recorded the league's best QBR (78.5), but his campaign ended prematurely because of a torn ACL in Week 14.
Thanks to subsequent injuries and inconsistent play, Wentz hasn't been able to match the production from his 2017 Pro Bowl term. Over the past three years, he's missed nine regular-season games.
In 2020, Wentz hit rock bottom, throwing for 16 touchdowns and tying Drew Lock for a league-leading 15 interceptions with a 57.4 percent completion rate. The Eagles benched him for the final quarter of the campaign and then traded the 28-year-old to the Indianapolis Colts.
Wentz came to Indianapolis with the injury bug. In August, he underwent surgery on his foot, but according to ESPN's Chris Mortensen, he could be available for Week 1.
If healthy, he has all the tools to contend for Comeback Player of the Year. He can evade pressure with his legs and stretch defenses with the deep ball.
Wentz has some health concerns, but he's shown star potential, which moves him one spot above Joe Burrow.
16. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers
Perhaps we can fault former Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner for Roethlisberger's conservative year, but the play-caller may have emphasized the short passing game out of necessity. The 39-year-old quarterback told reporters he underwent a "total reconstruction" on his elbow after an injury cost him 14 games in 2019.
Despite the limitations in his ability to push the ball downfield, Roethlisberger threw for 3,803 yards, 33 touchdowns and 10 interceptions with a 65.6 percent completion rate. He stretched the field in spurts or when the Steelers needed big plays. Further removed from elbow surgery, we could see him attack over the top with more consistency.
Roethlisberger has plenty of pass-catching options to gash defenses all over the field. Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and JuJu Smith-Schuster can match up with the best three-wide receiver sets across the league. Pittsburgh can also use two-tight ends sets featuring Eric Ebron and rookie second-rounder Pat Freiermuth, who has flashed at practice, per The MMQB's Albert Breer.
Roethlisberger will adjust to a new offensive system under Matt Canada. Expect early rough patches, but the Steelers have the pass-catching talent to elevate their aging quarterback.
A healthy Roethlisberger ranks higher than a banged-up Carson Wentz.
15. Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns
As Roethlisberger trends in the wrong direction, Baker Mayfield's trajectory leans toward a bright future.
Between Week 12 and the AFC divisional round of the previous campaign, Mayfield threw for 15 touchdowns and just two interceptions. In two of those contests, he broke out of the game manager mold and carved up defenses, tossing at least three touchdown passes in both outings.
After a turnover-prone 2019 campaign with 22 touchdowns and 21 interceptions, Mayfield made significant strides, logging 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions without star wideout Odell Beckham Jr. (torn ACL) for nine outings.
For the first time in Mayfield's career, he'll play in the same offensive system for consecutive terms. Coming off a solid year coupled with the return of Beckham, the No. 1 pick from the 2018 draft can make another leap in his development.
Even though Mayfield plays in a run-heavy system under head coach Kevin Stefanski, he has the offensive playmakers in Beckham, Jarvis Landry and Austin Hooper, who may have an expanded role in the aerial attack, to rack up big numbers through the air in a more balanced attack.
14. Kirk Cousins, Minnesota Vikings
Typically, Kirk Cousins is efficient rather than explosive throwing the football.
Nevertheless, Cousins takes the 14th spot over Baker Mayfield because he has racked up big numbers in high-volume passing seasons. He's thrown for at least 4,200 yards in three campaigns. In 2020, the two-time Pro Bowler recorded a career-high 35 passing touchdowns.
Cousins is also one of the league's most accurate quarterbacks in recent terms, connecting on at least 67.6 percent of his attempts in each of the last three seasons. Mayfield ranked 30th in completion rate (62.8) last year.
Cousins will play with one of the league's top wide receiver duos in second-year pro Justin Jefferson and two-time Pro Bowler Adam Thielen. According to Judd Zulgad of SKOR North, he's built chemistry with tight end Irv Smith Jr. as well.
If Jefferson continues to play at the level of a star receiver and Smith has a bigger role in the passing attack, Cousins may lead a more balanced offense for the 2021 campaign.
13. Derek Carr, Las Vegas Raiders
Since head coach Jon Gruden's return to the sidelines in 2018, Derek Carr has steadily improved as a playmaker with increasing passing yards and touchdown totals.
Carr flashes more of his physical tools, using his legs to extend plays. He just needs to stay aggressive in critical moments, as Hall of Famer Kurt Warner pointed out in a film study. More importantly, the eighth-year pro must take better care of the football in a crowded pocket. He's led the league in fumbles for two of the last three seasons.
Carr doesn't have a year with gaudy passing numbers across multiple categories, but like Kirk Cousins, he's one of the league's most efficient quarterbacks, completing at least 67.3 percent of his passes in each of the last three seasons.
Coming off one of his best campaigns in which he threw for a career-high 4,103 yards and ranked 11th in QBR (71.0), the 30-year-old may have more room for growth under Gruden. With that said, Vegas' revamped offensive line with new, inexperienced starters in center Andre James, rookie right tackle Alex Leatherwood and possibly guard John Simpson raises concerns with Carr's ball-security issues.
Still, Carr ranks one spot higher than Cousins, who hasn't made recent strides in off-platform plays and listed 18th in QBR (63.2) last season.
12. Matthew Stafford, Los Angeles Rams
Since 2018, Matthew Stafford's numbers look average. In that three-year span, he hasn't thrown for 30 touchdowns in any of those campaigns, eclipsed 4,000 yards once and completed a little more than 64 percent of his passes in the last two terms.
Stafford also has injury concerns. He missed half the 2019 campaign with hip and back issues and battled through multiple injuries last season, per The Athletic's Jourdan Rodrigue. All things considered, the Los Angeles Rams will surround him with a stronger supporting cast than he had with the Detroit Lions over the past few years.
Rams head coach Sean McVay may opt to feature a run-heavy offense. In three of the last four campaigns, his teams have ranked top-10 in rush attempts. Running back Darrell Henderson Jr. could lead the charge with Cam Akers (torn Achilles) out for the 2021 season.
Yet Stafford still has the arm talent to carry an offense with wideouts Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp on the perimeter.
Stafford ranks higher than Derek Carr because of his ability to carry an offense without a viable ground attack. He hasn't played with a top-20 rushing offense since 2013. Yet he's thrown for 4,200-plus yards five times in that span, which tops Carr's career high in passing yards (4,103).
11. Justin Herbert, Los Angeles Chargers
Justin Herbert had a special 2020 rookie year, which is why he ranks 11th despite his limited sample size.
Herbert won Offensive Rookie of the Year and broke rookie records for completions (396) and passing touchdowns (31). He consistently made plays in crucial situations. According to Pro Football Focus, the Oregon product threw the most touchdowns in the red zone (20) and on third or fourth down (14) for a first-year quarterback since 2010.
Herbert frequently delivered deep strikes. Per PFF, he recorded 12 touchdowns on passes of 20-plus yards, the most for a rookie since 2006.
Even more impressive, Herbert posted those numbers with limited offseason reps because of COVID-19 restrictions and shaky pass protection. He felt pressure on 28.7 percent of his dropbacks.
This offseason, the Los Angeles Chargers replaced four of their starting offensive linemen. If the new unit needs time to jell, Herbert can use his mobility to evade pocket pressure or move the chains. Last year, he recorded five rushing touchdowns and 20 first downs.
Though Matthew Stafford has a stronger overall resume, Herbert had a historic rookie campaign, and he doesn't have injury concerns going into 2021. The second-year pro quarterback should continue to ascend with wideouts Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and dual-threat running back Austin Ekeler in his pass-catching group.
10. Kyler Murray, Arizona Cardinals
Kyler Murray shouldered a tremendous offensive load last season, throwing for 3,971 yards and 26 touchdowns along with 819 yards and 11 scores on the ground. The dynamic signal-caller is the engine of the Arizona Cardinals offense.
However, he struggled down the stretch this past year, much like he did as a rookie. The 2019 No. 1 overall pick didn't throw a touchdown pass in either of his final two outings, and the Cardinals wound up missing the playoffs.
Murray told ESPN's Josh Weinfuss that a shoulder injury affected his throwing motion during the second half of this past season. At 5'10" and 207 pounds, he cannot afford to take too many hits, which raises some concerns about his durability.
Nonetheless, Murray's dual-threat ability should help him stay out of harm's way. With some timely slides, he can avoid big hits.
In Murray's third season with head coach and play-caller Kliff Kingsbury, he's likely to take a bigger leap than Justin Herbert, who's going to operate in a new offense under Joe Lombardi.
9. Ryan Tannehill, Tennessee Titans
The Miami Dolphins traded Ryan Tannehill to the Tennessee Titans in March 2019, and he promptly revitalized his career.
After taking over for Marcus Mariota midway through the season, Tannehill threw for 2,742 yards, 22 touchdowns and six interceptions with a career-high 70.3 percent completion rate in 12 games (10 starts). He also led the league in passer rating (117.5) and yards per completion (13.6) and won 2019 Comeback Player of the Year.
Last season, Tannehill threw a career-high 33 touchdowns and ranked fourth in QBR (78.3). However, he'll now have to prove that he wasn't just a product of Arthur Smith's system.
Smith, the Titans' offensive coordinator for the past two seasons, took over as the Atlanta Falcons' head coach this offseason. Tannehill must adapt to a new scheme under Todd Downing, who hasn't called plays since the 2017 season with the then-Oakland Raiders and fielded the 23rd-ranked scoring offense.
Tannehill has enough talent around him to remain efficient and rack up impressive passing stats. The Titans acquired star wideout Julio Jones this offseason, and they already had A.J. Brown, who has averaged 17.4 yards per reception in two seasons.
Skeptics may hold Tannehill's first six seasons in Miami against him, but if you look at his production over the past two years, he's a top-10 quarterback. The 33-year-old has performed at a higher level than Kyler Murray, who's struggled to finish strong in his first two seasons.
8. Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys
After signing a four-year, $160 million extension in March, Dak Prescott will have to play up to heightened expectations this season.
In 2019, Prescott threw for a career-high 4,902 yards, 30 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Before he suffered a season-ending injury in Week 5 of this past season, he was on pace to throw for a record-setting 5,939 yards with a 68 percent completion rate.
Prescott has since recovered from the ankle injury, but he felt soreness in his shoulder during training camp, which may cause the Dallas Cowboys to keep him out of preseason action.
ESPN's Adam Schefter believes Prescott may have to play through the 2021 season at less than 100 percent (h/t Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio). However, the Cowboys signal-caller told NFL Network's Tom Pelissero that "there's no doubt" he'll be 100 percent for the year.
If healthy, Prescott should be able to light up defenses with wideouts Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup. Because of his strong supporting cast and experience in Kellen Moore's offensive system, he ranks one slot higher than Ryan Tannehill, who may not look like the same quarterback under Todd Downing as he was under Arthur Smith.
7. Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
Going into his 14th NFL season, Matt Ryan hasn't shown any major signs of decline. He's a high-end second-tier quarterback who can still move the ball through the air at will.
Ryan has now eclipsed 4,000 passing yards in 10 consecutive campaigns. He led the league in completions for each of the past two years.
The Atlanta Falcons traded top wideout Julio Jones to the Tennessee Titans in June, but Calvin Ridley had a strong third year, hauling in a career-high 90 passes for 1,374 yards and nine touchdowns. Ryan also built a strong rapport with Russell Gage, who caught 72 passes for 786 yards and four touchdowns last season.
New Falcons head coach Arthur Smith has experience as a tight ends coach, which should well for rookie first-rounder Kyle Pitts, too.
The Florida product is listed as a tight end, but he could line up out wide and beat cornerbacks in one-on-one matchups. Smith could turn him into an immediate star to lessen the blow of losing Jones.
We never know how a shift in offensive philosophy will affect a quarterback, but Smith turned Ryan Tannehill's career around and put wideout A.J. Brown in a position to produce big plays. Ryan should have a productive year with Ridley, Gage and Pitts. And unlike Dak Prescott, he isn't entering the season with any injury issues.
6. Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens
Lamar Jackson belongs in a separate category because he's the NFL's most dangerous quarterback on the run. The 24-year-old is the only signal-caller in league history to rush for 1,000-plus yards in multiple seasons.
Jackson can also beat defenses with his arm. In 2019, he was named the league's MVP while throwing an NFL-leading 36 touchdown passes and only six interceptions with a 66.1 percent completion rate.
Despite that impressive All-Pro campaign, Jackson has a glaring hole in his skill set. He still struggles to throw outside the numbers, as Jonas Shaffer of the Baltimore Sun highlighted in May.
"According to Sports Info Solutions, on throws outside the numbers, his accuracy dipped from 64.7 percent to 59.7 percent, his interception rate more than doubled (to 3 percent), and his passer rating fell from 101.7 to 85.3," Shaffer wrote.
Jackson hasn't averaged more than 208.5 passing yards per game in any of his three seasons. He's benefitted tremendously from offensive coordinator Greg Roman's run-dominant system, which has produced record-setting numbers.
To reach the top five, Jackson has to improve as a passer. The Baltimore Ravens selected wideouts Rashod Bateman and Tylan Wallace in the first and fourth rounds of this year's draft, respectively, and signed Sammy Watkins, which should help in that regard.
Despite his limitations through the air, Jackson is the league's most dynamic signal-caller. That puts him above Matt Ryan, who can only hurt a defense when he's stationary in the pocket.
5. Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills
In 2020, Josh Allen came of age and helped lead the Buffalo Bills to the AFC Championship Game with electric performances.
Last season, Allen ranked among the NFL's top five in passing yards (4,544), touchdowns (37) and QBR (81.7). If not for Aaron Rodgers (more on him later), he might've had a shot to win league MVP.
At 6'5" and 237 pounds, Allen has a cannon-like arm, and he can run past or through defenders on the move. The Pro Bowl signal-caller racked up 1,562 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns in his first three seasons.
Heading into last season, Allen had to improve his accuracy and ball placement. After completing fewer than 59 percent of his attempts in 2018 and 2019, he recorded a 69.2 percent completion rate in 2020.
The Bills have kept the core of their offense together, including play-caller Brian Daboll. With the continuity around him, Allen should continue to show why he's a franchise quarterback in 2021.
Allen's development as a passer gives him the slight edge over Lamar Jackson, who still must work on using the entire field through the air.
4. Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
Russell Wilson has put his dual-threat skill set on display for nine seasons. As a result, he's one spot above Josh Allen, who just jumped into the league's upper echelon of quarterbacks last year.
Like most of the signal-callers in the top 10, Wilson can use his legs to escape pressure, move the chains or score touchdowns. He's rushed for 4,506 yards, 21 touchdowns and 259 first downs in his career.
At 5'11" and 215 pounds, the 32-year-old has forced us to change the way we evaluate the position. Analysts have begun to compare smaller mobile quarterbacks to him.
In 2020, Wilson generated early MVP buzz. By Week 8, he had already thrown for 26 touchdowns and only six interceptions. To put that into perspective, only 11 quarterbacks surpassed that number of passing scores in the entire season.
However, Wilson cooled off in the second half of the campaign, throwing for 14 touchdowns and seven interceptions over his final nine outings. Despite the drop-off in production, he finished with a career-high 40 touchdown passes.
This offseason, the Seattle Seahawks replaced offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer with Shane Waldron. Wilson had a say in the hire, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.
In a new uptempo offensive attack, Wilson could look like the MVP candidate we saw through the first half of the 2020 campaign.
3. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
In 2020, Aaron Rodgers put together arguably the best season of his illustrious career. He led the league in completion rate (70.7), passing touchdowns (48), and QBR (84.4), all of which were career highs since he took over as the Green Bay Packers' starter in 2008.
As backup quarterback Jordan Love waits his turn, Rodgers isn't ready to fade into the sunset. Coming off his third MVP season, he should be able to rack up gaudy numbers in 2021 as well.
Rodgers has arguably the NFL's best wide receiver in Davante Adams, who led the league in touchdown catches (18) and receiving yards per game (98.1) last year. He isn't the only weapon at Rodgers' disposal this year, though.
This offseason, the Packers acquired wideout Randall Cobb, who previously played for them from 2011 through 2018. Rodgers also has another reliable red-zone target in tight end Robert Tonyan, who caught 11 touchdown passes last season.
In recent years, Rodgers didn't have multiple established targets whom he trusted in the passing game. With Adams, Cobb and Tonyan, the Packers' passing attack could finish top five in both yardage and scoring.
The reigning league MVP tops Russell Wilson, who doesn't even have an All-Pro season on his resume.
2. Tom Brady, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tom Brady is an anomaly. At an evolving position, the 44-year-old remains one of the NFL's best quarterbacks despite being purely a pocket passer.
The league's other top signal-callers can move the pocket and forced missed tackles. Running has never been a part of Brady's game, but he can poke holes in coverages, manipulate safeties with his eyes and usually puts the ball in good spots for his receivers.
After somewhat of a down year in 2019, Brady bounced back with 4,633 yards, 40 touchdowns and 12 interceptions with a 65.7 percent completion rate during his first season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Despite his age, he hasn't lost much zip or accuracy while attacking all three levels of the field.
Aaron Rodgers won league MVP and ranked atop of several noteworthy statistical categories last season, but Brady led his team to a Super Bowl victory. He changed the short-term trajectory of the Buccaneers in only one year despite not even having a full offseason.
After spending a full spring and summer with one of the league's best receiving trios, Brady may somehow record even better passing numbers in 2021.
1. Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs
Tom Brady has a stronger career resume than Patrick Mahomes, but over the last three years, the latter has helped lead the Kansas City Chiefs to consecutive Super Bowls, won league MVP and became one of two players to throw for 50-plus touchdowns and 5,000-plus yards in a single season.
Between his age and his lack of mobility, Brady needs a strong offensive line. That group protected him well last season, as he dealt with pocket pressure on only 17.8 percent of his dropbacks.
Mahomes had to deal with a little more heat behind an average offensive line without right tackle Mitchell Schwartz for 10 outings. He felt pressure on 22 percent of his dropbacks during the regular season.
Mahomes couldn't evade a relentless swarm of Buccaneers defenders in Super Bowl 55, but he at least has the mobility to escape the pocket and make plays on the move. Over the past three seasons, the 25-year-old has run for 798 yards, six touchdowns and 56 first downs.
Mahomes is still an ascending talent going into his fourth season as a starter. He doesn't have experience comparable to Brady or Aaron Rodgers, both of whom have spent at least 16 years in the league. However, neither of the future Hall of Famers have put together a season that tops the young signal-caller's 2018 campaign.
Mahomes has two elite pass-catchers in wideout Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce. He also has head coach Andy Reid, who's a likely future Hall of Famer, and Eric Bieniemy, a buzzy head-coaching candidate to help keep him razor-sharp for the 2021 season.
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