Two years back I determined my own strata for evaluating starting quarterbacks in the NFL, and it has become a spring rite of passage for me.
Every May you can bank on me re-engaging in this exercise, which I remind you is not a straight 1-32 ranking of who I believe is best but rather my way of trying to clump the clusters of quarterbacks in the league in a quasi-cogent matter. And thus the time has come to take a look back at the year before and take my latest crack at trying to quantify where these various quarterbacks stand and where they might be trending.
I will continue with the same seven tiers I began with two years ago and, for the most part, the numbers of quarterbacks in these tiers are largely unchanged. I continue to clump more quarterbacks than I probably should in Tier 3 (Rising Stars), at least in part out of hope that some of the recent top draft picks at this position truly break through and become must-see QBs week in and week out. And, as always, the attrition inherit in this sport and particularly under center has resulted in several players moving off the list entirely.
At this time a year ago, dudes like Mike Glennon and Brock Osweiler were still in line to at least have a chance to start meaningful NFL games. We also wave bye-bye to Carson Palmer, Tony Romo (remember that last May him going to the broadcast booth was hardly a lock and I had him still in Tier 2), and Teddy Bridgewater was still hoping he might be the man in Minnesota and Brian Hoyer was set to start Week 1 in San Francisco (I did have the foresight to include Jimmy Garoppolo a year ago, among the few who knew it was inevitable he would be dealt by the trade deadline because the Patriots really had no choice - and I immediately thrust him into the Rising Stars tier, where he belongs). So, yeah, a pat on the back for that.
My colleague, Romo, is the only quarterback who was placed in a tier higher than Tier Five who is no longer on the list, and the new additions are fairly limited – rookie Josh Allen and second-year QBs Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. There are not many current quarterbacks who jumped significantly higher from one tier to another – Jared Goff was a big riser; I already had Carson Wentz in the Rising Stars category), while a few 30-somethings, in my estimation are falling and might not be getting up (Joe Flacco, Eli Manning took a tumble in their tiers).
So, with that out of the way, here is this year's breakdown.
Tier 1: Bona fide franchise quarterbacks
2018: Rodgers, Brady, Wilson, Brees, Roethlisberger, Newton, Carson Wentz
To be clear, if you are in this group you have won a Super Bowl and/or won an MVP and one could make a case you could do either this season and moving forward. Wentz doesn't have either hardware but he was in line to be MVP before he got hurt and his team still won the Lombardi Trophy. He's legit. I don't think I have to belabor the point with the rest of this group. Brady is the GOAT, a healthy Rodgers is the currently the best at throwing footballs for a living and Newton I believe will continue on an upward trend with a new staff around him and better talent on that side of the ball. Brees seems ageless like Brady and Big Ben is playing for another mega-deal. You don't make it into this tier unless there is a chance one day someone is at least considering if you had a Hall of Fame career.
Tier 2: Top pros, proven winners
2018: Ryan, Rivers, Stafford, Kirk Cousins
Some might argue Ryan should be in the top tier (Pete Prisco, for one), but I'm not willing to go there just yet. We'll see if his coordinator can get in sync with him and that offense can get back on track. I'm skeptical, and Ryan may be a guy where everything has to be perfect to get you deep. I've always been a big Stafford guy and that offensive line and running game have to improve, finally, to give him a fighting chance. Cousins moves to a great situation in Minnesota and we'll see how he handles Super Bowl or bust pressure. I think he'll be just fine. Rivers isn't as sharp as he once was and struggles with turnoveritis at times but this list is about rounding out the top 10-12 passers in the game and these guys fall into that category for me.
Tier 3: Rising Stars
2018: Garoppolo, Prescott, Winston, Mariota, Luck, Deshaun Watson, Carr, Jared Goff
Maybe I am using this as too much of a catch-all, with a quarter of all starting quarterbacks landing in this tier. But so be it. Winston and Mariota are about to exhaust their status here, as this is like the third straight year I have put them here and without a step forward, those days are over. (It's worth noting that Mariota is the only guy from this tier who has a playoff win … and that was pretty ugly). I want to see Dak get the ball downfield more. I want to see Luck back on the field and healthy. I'd love to see Watson pick up where he left off before his injury and Carr get back to where he was before his 2016 season ended. Notice a trend here. Kudos to Goff, who was a sponge around rookie coach Sean McVay.
Tier 4: You Can Win With Them
These are guys who will keep you in games and play above their heads at times and be smart and steady and get you to the postseason. They aren't going to get you to the promised land, but you can do a lot worse. Smith moved up to this category after a MVP-type season, but the fact a win-now Chiefs team moved off him like a win-now 49ers team once did tells you what you need to know. Taylor had no business getting that Bills team to the playoffs a year ago and will be a boon for the Browns while Keenum went from journeyman to playmaker with the Vikes last year.
Tier 5: Guys, Veterans And Place Holders
2018: Manning, Flacco, Dalton, Blake Bortles, McCown
If your team considered moving on from you a year ago due to age, contract, lack of production or all of the above, this is where you land. And if they should have done that a year ago, this is where you land. All of the teams represented here could/should turn over the reigns at some point in the 2018 season, even if they don't know it yet or are trying to pretend this isn't who they are. I'm not buying the Manning revival. Bortles got an extension that really wasn't an extension at all as its still pay-as-you go and the fact the Jags asked him to do almost nothing in the playoffs tells you what you need to know. McCown is the ultimate band-aid guy to get Sam Darnold ready, and the Bengals may come to regret not drafting a QB high (Lamar Jackson, who Baltimore took at 32, specifically) as Dalton has been largely pedestrian and his productivity has waned with his supporting cast.
Tier 6: Good Luck
2018: Bradford, Tannehill
Both of these guys generally miss far more games than they play, they tend to tease with a flash here or there, but then leave you longing. If you are believing in them, you are probably fooling yourself, and I fell for it a year ago with Tannehill, knowing how highly Adam Gase thought of him and what great work he has done with quarterbacks in the past. But I'm a skeptic now and I have to see him avoid injury to believe it. As for Bradford, well, I haven't been fooled in a long, long time, but amazingly here is always another GM ready to give him another $20M to invariably rehab from another season-ending surgery. Good for him. But rookie Josh Rosen will end up playing more football for the Cardinals than he will next year.
Tier 7: The Verdict Is Out
2017: Goff, Paxton Lynch
2018: Patrick Mahomes, Mitchell Trubisky, Josh Allen
I came damn close to thrusting Mahomes right into the Rising Stars tier, even after just one start, because I do buy the hype on him and believe he will be special under Andy Reid. But he's still basically a rookie and he'll suffer some as they all do at that stage. I'm not buying the hype that Trubisky – still very raw – is now suddenly plug and play with a rookie head coach who has barely called plays and a few new pieces around him. I gotta see that to believe it. And Allen has some very real woes to fix with his inaccuracy issues, and I wouldn't shrug that off, though I have a hard time thinking he can't beat AJ McCarron out given all the moving and shaking the Bills did just to ultimately get in position to draft him.
And in case you were wondering, McCarron would be in this tier, too, and should someone trade for Nick Foles, even with that playoff run and Super Bowl win, he'd still be in Tier 5 for me. Flacco has an amazing January/February not that long ago and finds himself back in that tier now. A month does not a season make though I wouldn't discount a desperate team trading for Foles should injuries arise. And should Darnold, Jackson, Baker Mayfield or any other rookie QB play any considerable amount of time, well, none of them is a sure thing and the verdict is clearly out on all of them.