Welcome to my third-annual attempt to clump and categorize the NFL's starting quarterbacks.
The first two years I created this strata, it was a labor of love. I poured over it for hour after hour and went back-and-forth on how to divide the tiers and how much to factor in past production. It would take on two or three incarnations in a notebook before I took to the laptop to write up a proper column. But things went a little smoother this time around.
This year, it was far less arduous. Perhaps it's me patting myself on the back, because I didn't feel like much had to change from the 2018 list, save for some obvious new additions (PATRICK BLEEPIN MAHOMES) and with guys who I had in the bottom tier for veterans, already in 2018, losing their starting gigs in 2019 (Sam Bradford and Ryan Tannehill, anyone?). Basically, things just fell into place.
The biggest changes came in Tier 3 (Rising Stars), which, frankly, I've been a little too liberal with in the past. I've whiffed on projecting a breakthrough for too many young quarterbacks who have either regressed or simply failed to take off, so I am cutting down from eight Rising Stars a year ago to just four in 2019. And yes, this does involve my own opinions and projections, and is not based on some statistical equation or advanced formula.
It's subjective, and, well, subject to change – as in next spring, when I do it all again. But I tend to like the tiers I created and, aside from over-valuing what Kirk Cousins, Tyrod Taylor and Case Keenum might be able to accomplish in new locales a year ago, I can't quibble too much with what I did in 2018. Age and injuries knocked some from the list – inevitable in this sport – and with so few QBs from the upcoming draft expected to start right away (aside from first-overall pick Kyler Murray), I am comfortable going with these 32 guys (if Josh Rosen is dealt to Washington, and displaces Keenum as the starter, feel free to project him into Tier 7: The Verdict Is Out. The Cardinals tried like hell to break him in half as a rookie, but he hung in there and deserves better someplace else).
On to the list …
Tier 1: Bona Fide Franchise Quarterbacks
2017: Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Newton
2018: Rodgers, Brady, Wilson, Brees, Roethlisberger, Newton, Carson Wentz
2019: Rodgers, Brady, Wilson, Brees, Roethlisberger, Newton, Patrick Mahomes, Andrew Luck
This is the highest of terrain, reserved for men who have won MVPs and rings, or, in several cases, both. It isn't easy to crack, but Mahomes, throwing 50 touchdowns passes in what amounts to his rookie season and nearly slaying the Pats to get to the Super Bowl, um, yeah, that will qualify. Wentz drops down, with injuries slowing his ascent, though I could see him right back here in 2020. I believe Newton will have a bounce-back season as well: I like the assemblage of talent around him and a second year with Norv Turner will produce some big things in Carolina, says here. It's time for Rodgers to start playing week in and week out like an MVP, too, and we'll see how his relationship develops with novice head coach Matt LaFleur. Luck has been destined for this tier for a while, and with the way he played last year, after missing so much time to serious injury and worrying if he'd ever make it back, I suspect that by January no one is arguing against him being in the top eight passers on the planet.
Tier 2: Top Pros, Proven Winners
I am still kicking myself for going against my gut and putting Manning in this slot two years ago. Belonged way down. Anywho, Ryan and Rivers speak for themselves, and normally a guy like Mayfield would probably be in Tier 3 after less than a season under center. But he won, regularly, with a Browns team that had not won anything for like two years, and he did it despite Hue Jackson still being the head coach at the time. The kid will be Tier 1 next spring and I came damn close to putting him there today. Watson bounced back with aplomb from an ACL tear, and maybe this year the Texans will actually start protecting him from getting pummeled most weekends. Might be a novel approach, with J.J. Watt not getting any younger and this kid being the franchise and all.
Tier 3: Rising Stars
This is the domain for those with immense upside and youth on their side, who I believe will be knocking on the door of a top 10-12 QB when the upcoming season is all said and done. And, yeah, I have been too lenient with entrance to this club in the past. It's difficult to pick precisely which first and second year QBs will really take a leap forward, and injuries have been a factor here. If Wentz stays healthy he moves up next year, Darnold will do big things in Year 2 and Kyle Shanahan will get a lot out of Jimmy G, trust me, even coming off surgery. With the Rams now the hunted and with Todd Gurley's health a subject of debate and conjecture, will Goff take another leap forward? Even with the genius of Sean McVay behind him, I'm not certain he joins the truly elite. There are some limitations. If all goes well, guys in this category could have Pro Bowls and accolades in their future.
Tier 4: You Can Win With Them
Pressure is on Cousins to deliver in January, big time. He needs to beat good teams. Stafford's arm talent and toughness are unquestioned, but he's been increasingly under scrutiny and that contract is a monster. Prescott is about to get paid like a top QB, but I remain a skeptic about him advancing beyond what he is, and the inability to push the ball downfield much is a problem. If Carr doesn't produce with the new cast of talent put around him, Jon Gruden will make him the next big-name player traded out of Oakland. Foles' recent resume keeps him out of Tier 5, though I think he'll have a hard time thriving with the Jaguars having arguably the worst skill players in the NFL around him. Bruce Arians' arrival in Tampa could save Winston, and I'm willing to bet on that working out. Plenty of people are anointing Trubisky, but I want to see him play better outside of the scripted first quarter and handle a bigger role. The Bears have a tougher schedule ahead and if that defense slips just a little … With all of these guys, if there is enough around them they can help you win games, but expecting them to be able to carry your team is probably asking too much.
Tier 5: Guys, Veterans And Place Holders
Mariota is not young, he continues to be perpetually banged up, he now has Tannehill breathing down his neck and he is dealing with another change at coordinator. Not good. Fitz-magic will last a month or so, then age and interceptions catch up. The Dolphins aren't worried about 2019, anyway. Flacco could face competition in Denver's 2019 draft as he did in Baltimore's a year ago, and Dalton's future is also in the balance if a new rookie head coach with close ties to McVay (Zac Taylor) can't cull more from that offense this year. Very tradable contract if/when the Bengals do move on.
Tier 6: Good Luck
2018: Bradford, Tannehill
2019: Manning, Keenum
I shoulda never let Bortles' middling 2017 playoff performance fool me into bumping him up a peg. Shame on me. The Giants continue to live in an alternative universe where Manning is not only a starting NFL QB, but one who should be empowered and buttressed and prolonged. Have fun running the ball without Odell Beckham running routes. Keenum in Washington, with a head coach waiting for the guillotine and a roster destroyed by Bruce Allen, will be a disaster. And then they'll turn to Colt McCoy and that will be a disaster, too, and if I am Rosen I am praying this is not where I am dealt.
Tier 7: The Verdict Is Out
Darnold did not make this category a year ago because at the time he was behind McCown and Teddy Bridgewater on the depth chart (and Bridgewater has yet to appear on the list because he has not been in line to be the starter, sadly due to injuries, since I began this exercise, but I think he has Tier 4 potential in the immediate future, and more if he was able to stay healthy). Allen and Jackson blew away opponents with their speed and athleticism and uncanny ability, but both are raw and need work on mechanics and footwork and accuracy. What Jackson did midseason, thrust into a team on the brink, and then leading Baltimore somehow to the division title, frankly didn't get enough attention. Murray's size will be a huge concern until he shows he can do it on Sunday -- and I think he can do it on Sunday, but I worry about the whole Kliff Kingsbury experiment. This category amounts to an incomplete, and, frankly, should probably be before Tier 5 in that there is so much untapped potential, but the reality is they just haven't had a chance to play enough.