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NFL Quarterback Ranking Project: Mid-season Tiers

Ranking every starting QB in one of six tiers

Seth Dunlap
November 08, 2017 - 11:18 pm
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It’s officially the midway point of the 2017 NFL season.  Every team has played at least eight out of their 16 scheduled games, with those who haven’t had their bye playing nine.  Our NFL Quarterback Rank Project uses this point of the season to re-evaluate our preseason tier rankings.  

For those who haven’t followed our project in the past on “Double Coverage” or the “Go For Two Podcast”, we have three annual rankings – one in the preseason, one at midseason, and one following the season.   These tiers are designed to give an objective view of the quarterback play across the NFL.  One of the favorite exercises of modern fans is to discuss which quarterback is elite, and which isn’t.   We’re here to help you at the water cooler. 

These tiers are flexible, but they aren’t reactionary.  Just because your favorite quarterback had a stretch of 4-8 good to great games, he won’t vault from Tier 4 to Tier 1.   Conversely, a guy who has previously established himself as elite won’t fall out of that tier so easily.   Carson Wentz has been great this season.  Matt Ryan hasn’t.  However, eight games is a very small sample size.  Remember Nick Foles’ incredible season of 27 TDs to just two interceptions?  It would have looked extremely foolish retrospectively to rush him to elite status. Aaron Rodgers had the worst 20 game stretch of his career during the 2015-16 seasons.  That was an aberration and more of a reflection on the talent around him than his abilities to play the position.  While some were ready to move him out of elite status, we weren’t.   I’d say that debate has settled itself out nicely in Rodgers’ favor.

This season has seen the rise of young quarterbacks like Wentz, Jared Goff, and Deshaun Watson and unexpected risers like Alex Smith.  On the opposite end there has been the implosion of Trevor Siemian, Carson Palmer, DeShone Kizer and more.   To try and sort it all out we divide the NFL starting quarterbacks into one of six tiers, from the elite Tier 1 to the “CFL All Stars” of Tier 6. 

 

Tier 1 – Elite

This top of the mountain.  These quarterbacks can, and most have, won championships.  They can carry a team by themselves when the need arises.  They are great passers, leaders, and winners. 

  • Aaron Rodgers (previously Tier 1) He continues to make incredible throws that simply no other quarterback alive can.  In five games and change he threw for 13 touchdowns to just three interceptions with a quarterback rating above 100.  Rodgers remains in this tier and doesn’t look like he will be going anywhere soon, regardless of the injury.
  • Tom Brady (previously Tier 1) The GOAT is putting up MVP worthy numbers once again.  It’s telling that the Patriots were willing to deal Jimmy Garoppolo.  The organization believes that Brady isn’t anywhere close to done, or regressing. 
  • Drew Brees (previously Tier 1)  – The Saints’ legend remarkably has had only one season in his career where he’s thrown less than 10 interceptions.  He’s taking care of the ball better than ever at the age of 38, as he’s on pace for only eight such mistakes this year.  Brees is sure to get MVP consideration if the Saints continue their surprising turnaround.
  • Russell Wilson (previously Tier 1)  – This dude is just an absolute magician with the football.  He continues to be the best deep ball thrower in the NFL, and is also the best in the league on throws outside of the pocket.  Wilson is on pace for the most attempts, yards, and touchdowns in his career.  The Seahawks offense now squarely revolves around him.
  • Matt Ryan (previously Tier 1)  – He is having obvious problems adjusting to his new offensive coordinator, Steve Sarkisian.   Ryan is on pace for his worst season statistically since perhaps his rookie year.   However, while many people would be knee-jerk to remove him from our elite tier we realize that it’s only eight games of struggles.  We aren’t going to overlook his incredible MVP campaign last season, and a 10 year career of consistently good to great play.   Perhaps he falls to Tier 2 by seasons end.  Not yet.

 

Tier 2 – The Very Good, but Not Elite

No objective observer should have these quarterbacks in the top tier, but they deserve to be right behind it.  These QBs are proven winners, have top level talent, and have shown the ability to win big time football games in hostile situations.  However, it is unclear whether they have the ability to carry a team with their play like the signal callers in Tier 1.

  • Alex Smith (previously Tier 3) Just how good has Smith been this season?  He has 18 TDs to just one interception.  He’s on pace to shatter his career high for touchdowns, passing yards, attempts, rating, and interception ratio.  If the Chiefs figure things out and make a run at a top two seed he will, and should, be in MVP consideration. 
  • Carson Wentz (previously Tier 4) Yes, the Eagles are playing like the most balanced team in football but the reason they are the best team in football is the play of Wentz.  He has thrown 23 touchdowns to just five turnovers.  He has won at Kansas City and Carolina, extremely hostile environments.   He is obviously worthy of inclusion in this tier, and could be squarely at elite status by year’s end.  
  • Matt Stafford (previously Tier 2) I never got the Stafford hate.  If he hasn’t been elite, then he’s been darn close to it.  Stafford is on pace for 4,400 yards and 28 touchdowns, and could finish with the highest rating and fewest interceptions in his career.  Stafford is proving he is worth every penny of that record setting contract.
  • Derek Carr (previously Tier 1) Perhaps we were a bit premature in putting Carr in our elite tier in the preseason.  He still shows off a big arm and big play ability, but he is way too reckless with the football.  Carr is on-pace for a very Eli Manning like 24 interceptions.  That’s not good.  That’s not elite. 
  • Kirk Cousins (previously Tier 2) If you ever doubted Cousins resolve, consider that he has played in an incredibly toxic situation in Washington for his entire career and still has gotten better each year.  His latest triumph was orchestrating a late game comeback, on the road, in Seattle.  That just doesn’t happen.   

 

Tier 3 – The Old Guard/Young Guns

The quarterbacks you’ll find here are guys either in the twilight of their careers or the up-and-comers.  They are once-elite, or on a trajectory to get there.  They fall below Tier 2 as they have noticeable holes in their current game, with either an extended pattern of less than elite play or too small of a sample size to elevate them further.

  • Ben Roethlisberger (previously Tier 2) This was perhaps the toughest call in the entire rankings.  It’s undeniable that Big Ben has regressed from his peak.  This season he has just 10 touchdowns with nine interceptions.  He also has his lowest quarterback rating (82.7) since 2008.  Roethlisberger is entering the late Elway/Manning phase of his career where if he wins more titles it will be more about the players around him than his play.  Also, objectively you would likely be better off with any of the quarterbacks in the tiers above under center than him at this point. 
  • Phillip Rivers (previously Tier 3) Rivers is set to go join Dan Fouts as Chargers quarterbacks who racked up big time numbers but never got a chance to play for a championship.  It’s nearly time the franchise moves on from Rivers and starts a real rebuild.
  • Dak Prescott (previously Tier 3) Prescott is certainly the beneficiary of an elite offensive line and running game, but we’ve seen maturity beyond his age.   What separates him from the next tier is showing that he can take a game over himself.   His hasn’t thrown for over 252 yards in a game this season, and he hasn’t shown consistent ability to bring his team back when playing from behind. 
  • Jared Goff (previously Tier 5) I’m a little torn on how to rate Goff’s play so far this season.   On one hand he is playing vastly better football than during his poor rookie season.  However, he is feasting on the league’s worst defenses.  Against two of the better defenses out there, Jacksonville and Seattle, he had his worst two games of his season.  Let’s just say the jury is still out on Goff.
  • Jameis Winston (previously Tier 3) Injuries have really hampered his development this season.  Winston seems like he is regressing, but he gets a pass for now until we see him fully healthy again.
  • Marcus Mariota (previously Tier 3) Much like Winston he is having a regression year, partly due to injury.  He has thrown just six touchdowns in seven games.  The emergence of other young QBs makes Mariota’s development seem a bit stunted.
  • Deshaun Watson (previously unranked) Watson looks every bit of a future star in this league.  The question now will be how he recovers from yet another knee surgery.
  • Tyrod Taylor (previously Tier 4) Taylor barely qualifies as a “young gun” now at age 28.  His play doesn’t warrant a higher tier, yet he is certainly playing better than the quarterbacks below.  It would be great to see him with more weapons than what he’s surrounded with now.  He is on pace for a career high in touchdowns and yardage, and his career QB rating sits at 95.8.  The Bills have found their franchise quarterback.

 

Tier 4 – The Trent Dilfers

Some people will use a comparison to Trent Dilfer as a negative.  I don’t!  These guys are certainly competent NFL starting quarterbacks, and if they are in the right system surrounded by the right talent they can make surprising runs at championships.  However, their skill sets are limited compared to those quarterbacks above.

  • Andy Dalton (previously Tier 3) I think Dalton is a capable NFL quarterback, but there’s nothing really special about him.  I think this year shows how he will struggle when the talent around him suffers. 
  • Cam Newton (previously Tier 4) Look at the numbers, not the name.  Over his career Newton has completed 58.8% of his passes, has a quarterback rating of just 85.4, and his TD to interception ratio is a very pedestrian 1.6/1.  His MVP season was an aberration, not the norm.
  • Carson Palmer (previously Tier 3) Another season derailed by injury in the sunset of his career.  Palmer is squarely in the Dilfer stage of his career.  No coach or coordinator should ask Palmer to carry his team any longer.   
  • Joe Flacco (previously Tier 4) We really could rename this tier The Joe Flaccos right? 
  • Eli Manning (previously Tier 4) It’s been well documented that Manning has greatly regressed the past few seasons.  While he’s playing decent football without Beckham and some of his best weapons on offense, the Giants need to find their future answer at the position in the next couple drafts.
  • Sam Bradford (previously Tier 4) – It certainly isn’t what people expected when he was drafted #1 overall in 2010 by the Rams, but Bradford seems like he will have a solid, albeit injury riddled, career.  The Vikings would be a real threat in the NFC right now if he wasn’t on IR.
  • Blake Bortles (previously Tier 5) – Is Bortles turning into a competent game manager?  It’s still a small sample size but he is avoiding turnovers and making more high percentage throws than he has at any point in his career.   Doug Marrone and the new coaching staff seemed to have done wonders for him.

 

Tier 5 – Placeholders, Backups, and Rookies

There are two types of quarterbacks in this tier.  The first are veterans who are/were only starting in situations where teams are in full rebuild mold or due to injury to the entrenched started.  The others are rookies who we don’t have enough information on to place properly in a higher tier. 

  • Brian Hoyer (previously Tier 5) Hoyer deserves a roster spot in this league, but he should be usually holding a clipboard on game days.  Or is it "holding a tablet" now?
  • Josh McCown (previously Tier 5) The Jets have gotten way more out of McCown than they could have imagined.  Unfortunately, those wins have only hurt their draft position and their ability to find a quarterback of the future.
  • Ryan Fitzpatrick (previously Tier 4) There was a long time that these rankings thought Fitzpatrick could be a Tier 3 starter for a contender.  That ship has sailed.
  • Brock Osweiler (previously Tier 5) Can Brock save Denver’s season on Sunday against the Patriots?  Count me as skeptical. 
  • Case Keenum (previously Tier 5) Keenum has filled in acceptably for the Vikings, with seven touchdowns to three interceptions and a 63.7% completion rate.  Teddy Bridgewater may take that job back soon.
  • Jay Cutler (previously Tier 5) Jay Cutler came out of retirement for the fat paychecks he is getting from the Dolphins.  He is playing at well below replacement level for them this season in emergency relief of Tannehill.  
  • Mike Glennon (previously Tier 4) Many people thought Glennon got a raw deal in Tampa and should have a shot at a starting job.  Well, he got that chance in Chicago and squandered it.  He will likely have a long career as a backup in the league if he wants it. 
  • Trevor Siemian (previously Tier 5) These rankings weren’t sold on Siemian in the preseason.  Now, neither are the Broncos who have benched him in favor of Brock Osweiler.  That’s one heck of an indictment.
  • Mitchell Turbisky (previously unranked) He’s really a starting quarterback by proxy in Chicago right now.  John Fox and the staff there are trying to minimize his expose during his rookie season.  Turbisky has thrown for 512 yards . . . on the season.  That’s an average of 128 yards in his four starts.
  • Brett Hundley (previously unranked) Hundley was thrown into an impossible situation replacing Aaron Rodgers.  He hasn’t inspired much confidence since, throwing no touchdown in his two starts.    
  • Matt Moore (previously Tier 5) Moore has had himself a nice career as a backup in Miami.  That’s where he should remain – as a backup. 
  • Cody Kessler (previously Tier 5) Kessler played decently last year in a limited role for the Browns, but he has found himself behind Deshone Kizer on the depth chart for most of the season. 
  • Jacoby Brissett (previously Tier 4) Brissett has actually played pretty well in relief of Andrew Luck, throwing for nearly 2,000 yards with an almost 2/1 TD to interception ratio. 

 

Tier 6 – CFL All Stars

This tier is reserved for the special few quarterbacks who are starting in dire situations on very bad teams across the league.  Not only should they not be starting in the NFL, they probably shouldn’t even be on active NFL rosters.

  • Deshone Kizer (previously unranked) Normally would be a bit unfair to put a rookie quarterback with a half dozen starts in Tier 6, but he has played beyond terribly.  He has three touchdowns, 11 interceptions, a 52.1% completion rate, and his quarterback rating is 51.1.  No NFL quarterback, starter or backup, survives long in the league with those type of numbers.
  • Tom Savage (previously Tier 5) – This tier was almost renamed The Tom Savages.  What was Bill O’Brien thinking in naming him the starter over Deshaun Watson in the preseason?
  • C.J. Beathard (previously unranked) How long till Beathard is the answer to one of those tricky Tuesday Trivia sports questions in the Bay Area on random 49ers quarterbacks who have started football games for the franchise?
  • Drew Stanton (previously Tier 6) Would Stanton be on any NFL roster not coached by Bruce Arians, who has some odd affinity for him?

 

*Designated for Assignment

These are the quarterbacks we just don’t know where to place due to injuries or other factors that have caused them to miss significant time.

  • Andrew Luck (previously Tier 2) – Will Luck ever reach his potential greatness or will the injury problems plague him throughout his career.  It’s almost panic time in Indianapolis.
  • Ryan Tannehill (previously Tier 4) Tannehill seemed to be turning a corner last season.  The preseason knee injury may have derailed his progression, but he is young enough to bounce back with a full recovery
  • Teddy Bridgewater (previously Tier 5) Bridgewater has made his return to the Vikings roster.  It’s only a matter of time before he is their starter again.  Depending on how well he plays we could have a full blown quarterback controversy next offseason between him and Bradford.

 

 

 

 

 

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