Ranking college football QB tiers: From Heisman contenders to question marks

We’re not out of spring practice season yet and quarterback depth charts are beginning to form. For some teams around the country, having a pre-existing starting quarterback is a luxury. 

Usually, anyway. 

So with the dog days of the offseason soon upon us, it’s time to take stock of where the quarterback landscape sits, from the best of the best, to the ones fighting for their jobs. We present to you the six tiers of college football quarterbacks. 

The top tier is named after former Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, who led the Tigers to a pair of national championship games against Alabama, winning one. He is the most recent epitome of the highest level of quarterback play.

The lowest tier is named after former Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg, a one-time blue-chip recruit who never had all the tools around him to live up to the lofty expectations. Don’t worry, the lowest tier isn’t bad, but rather inconclusive. If we’re a college professor handing out grades, it’s an “I” not an “F.”

So, yes, there’s an obvious order to the madness -- you would take a top tier quarterback over a bottom tier one in an instant -- but the in-between tiers are as much about fit as how good someone is. In some cases, it’s more. 

Former Texas Tech Red Raiders quarterback Patrick Mahomes, for whom the third tier named after, is a perfect example. A lot of coaches would take Mahomes if they could, but he wasn’t a first-team All-Big 12 selection in 2016 -- Baker Mayfield , a former Red Raiders quarterback himself, was -- and Mahomes never received the accolades he probably deserved because the team around him didn’t have the same level of play. However, he’s an exceptional talent and could be a beast in the pros in the right situation. 

Also, this order isn’t static. Just because a quarterback is listed in, say, the Kevin Hogan Tier (Tier 4) doesn’t mean he couldn’t end up somewhere else. Quarterbacks get better and they regress. Seldomly do they stay the same. This is about where they are right now heading into the 2017 season. 

Let’s get to it... 

The Deshaun Watson Tier: Heisman contenders, All-American favorites

Baker Mayfield ( Oklahoma Sooners ), Jalen Hurts ( Alabama Crimson Tide ), Lamar Jackson ( Louisville Cardinals ), Sam Darnold ( Southern California Trojans )

These were generally no-brainers. Hurts provided some pause at season’s end, but he was electric overall as a true freshman. His ceiling remains high and he’ll be on a loaded team once again. I worry some that Mayfield won’t have the year he’s expected to because Oklahoma replaces so many key offensive skill players, but the dude has been dynamite since he was a freshman. This group is small for a reason. 

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Jalen Hurts may be a fringe Tier 1 player, but he earned it throughout the year. USATSI

The Aaron Murray Tier: All-Conference and proven winners

Mason Rudolph ( Oklahoma State Cowboys ), Deondre Francois ( Florida State Seminoles ), Jake Browning ( Washington Huskies ), Luke Falk ( Washington State Cougars ), J.T. Barrett ( Ohio State Buckeyes ), Brett Rypien ( Boise State Broncos ), Mike White ( Western Kentucky Hilltoppers ), Logan Woodside ( Toledo Rockets )

Let’s talk about Barrett because, let’s face it, that’s who people are really interested in here. The senior can check off plenty of Tier 1 boxes. He was a record-breaker as a first-year starter in 2014 and a key component in a national title-winning run. He has plenty of individual awards to his name and Heisman pub to boot. However, I get the feeling he’s accomplished about all he’s going to in college. He’ll put up stats and be a tremendous leader, and the Buckeyes will win plenty of games. I just don’t know if he’ll be in that highest echelon in his position -- at least not without some help in the receiving game. 

The Patrick Mahomes II Tier: Talented NFL hopefuls 

Josh Rosen (UCLA), Jacob Eason ( Georgia Bulldogs ), Josh Allen ( Wyoming Cowboys ), Wilton Speight ( Michigan Wolverines ), Trace McSorley ( Penn State Nittany Lions )

The Pac-12 is loaded at quarterback, so I wonder if Rosen, as talented as he is, will get buried on everyone’s All-Conference/All-America teams if the Bruins don’t shock the world and win at least the South division. Plus, UCLA Bruins is breaking in a new offensive coordinator. Rosen has a bright future, but he might fall victim to the Mahomes treatment. 

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Josh Rosen has a lot of question marks coming into 2017. USATSI

The Kevin Hogan Tier: Gritty coaches’ son and/or established starters

Brent Stockstill ( Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders ), Austin Allen ( Arkansas Razorbacks ), Quinton Flowers ( South Florida Bulls ), Jesse Ertz ( Kansas State Wildcats ), Riley Ferguson ( Memphis Tigers ), Clayton Thorson ( Northwestern Wildcats ), Ryan Finley (NC State), Richard Lagow ( Indiana Hoosiers ), Brogan Roback ( Eastern Michigan Eagles ), Luke Del Rio ( Florida Gators ), Kyle Shurmur ( Vanderbilt Commodores )

Tier 4 is jam-packed and it doesn’t even include everyone it could. That should say a lot about the quarterback group moving into the new season. There’s plenty of experience, but not the same level of star power as we saw last year. That can change, of course. Flowers is an interesting name to keep an eye on if South Florida makes any kind of run toward the College Football Playoff. 

The Mitchell Trubisky Tier: Names to watch for a big leap

Drew Lock (Missouri), Nick Fitzgerald ( Mississippi State Bulldogs ), Will Grier ( West Virginia Mountaineers ), Eric Dungey ( Syracuse Orange ), Tanner Mangum (BYU), Justin Herbert ( Oregon Ducks ), Jarrett Stidham ( Auburn Tigers ), Ben Hicks (SMU), Brandon Wimbush ( Notre Dame Fighting Irish ), Jake Bentley ( South Carolina Gamecocks ), Player TBD ( Clemson Tigers )

There’s a mixture of new names, transfers and second-years starters here. Specifically, the SEC, which has been lambasted for poor quarterback play in recent years, has more than a few names that could elevate the offensive perception of the conference. If nothing else, the West Division should be a lot of fun if Fitzgerald and Stidham pan out. Also, pay attention to Grier. He was a stud at Florida and has been the story at West Virginia since arriving. 

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Jarrett Stidham could be a difference maker at Auburn. USATSI

The Christian Hackenberg Tier: Jury’s still out, could go either way

Alex Hornibrook ( Wisconsin Badgers ), Brandon Harris ( North Carolina Tar Heels ), Max Browne (Pitt), Kenny Hill (TCU), Malik Zaire (TBD), Danny Etling (LSU), Shane Buechele ( Texas Longhorns ), Kyle Allen ( Houston Cougars ), John Wolford ( Wake Forest Demon Deacons ), Manny Wilkins ( Arizona State Sun Devils ), Troy Williams ( Utah Utes )

Being lumped into Tier 6 isn’t a bad thing -- or, at least, it doesn’t have to be. It means what it means, which is that no one is quite sure what to make of these particular quarterbacks yet. They could blossom as a breakout star, or they could get benched by Week 3. There are a lot of transfers here. Like, a lot a lot. 

CBS Sports Writer

Ben Kercheval joined CBS Sports in 2016 and has been covering college football since 2010. Before CBS, Ben worked at Bleacher Report, UPROXX Sports and NBC Sports. As a long-suffering North Texas graduate,... Full Bio

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