I can't believe it's already been four years since I birthed this idea. Now it's become an annual spring rite of passage. I couldn't fathom letting a May pass without it.
Yes, it's time to revisit the annual quarterback tiers, as I once again categorize and clump the 32 projected starting passers in my own unique way. The strata is the same; only the names change. And this year, with the influx of novice quarterbacks into prominent roles continuing to rise, there is certainly a lot of change. New stars continue to emerge, certain band-aid QBs continue to survive and familiar names like Cam Newton, Joe Flacco, Andy Dalton, Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston no longer apply.
Turnover is inevitable in the NFL in more ways than one. The overwhelming reality is that with so many teams drafting QBs in the last four years and transitioning, the bottom tier has been thinned out and fewer clubs are clinging to makeshift placeholders. The top tier remains largely the same, but not much else.
As always I am projecting forward and incorporating factors out of the player's control like the quality of the coaching staff, the strength of the roster, the difficulty of the schedule and in this year's case, unlike any before, the stark realities of a virtual offseason amid a global pandemic.
Tier 1: Bona fide franchise quarterbacks
2019: Aaron Rodgers Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Newton, Patrick Mahomes, Andrew Luck
2020: Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Wilson, Deshaun Watson, Brady, Brees, Rodgers, Carson Wentz, Roethlisberger
There should never really be more than eight or nine quarterbacks in this cluster – the top 25 percent on Earth. And extreme youth, or guys over the age of 36, continue to reign supreme. I was super high on Jackson since his draft selection and his MVP season was one for the ages. Mahomes is the best football player on earth. Wilson is a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer who seems destined to be better appreciated down the line than, by many, in real time. I do have some reservations about a few guys in this group, however.
I believe it's fair to ask if Rodgers' best work is in the past. That is not to say he does not still possess elite traits, but the DNA of that franchise is changing and this coaching staff may still prove to be an odd match for him -- he won't be finishing his career in Green Bay, regardless. Big Ben coming off an elbow surgery gives me some pause and Brees' injury history the last few years makes me wonder a bit, too. If Wentz stays healthy, and I understand that is a bit of a big if, he will be in the MVP conversation. Book it.
Tier 2: Top pros, proven winners
Stafford has always been underappreciated and let down by those around him. He was looking like an MVP last year before he got hurt. I bet he picks up where he left off. Prescott had a career year to gain massive leverage over Jerry Jones in his ongoing contract saga. Ryan isn't getting any younger either, and the cast around him is not what it once was. At his price point, Ryan just sneaks into the top-10.
Tier 3: Rising stars
I admit I have been too quick to let too many into this particular club. I have bought into a little hype and allowed one year of production to greatly impact my analysis. No longer. Too many have dropped off in Year 2. This is all about meeting that upside potential and exceeding it.
So, you might ask, am I being too rash with anointing Murray after his strong rookie season? Nope. He is about to take another leap forward and adding one of the greatest receivers of this generation and bolstering the offensive line will only hasten that fact. He is pointed to do very big things. As for Jimmy G, reaching a Super Bowl in his first fully healthy season as a starter ain't half bad and he will continue to win a lot of games and have the opportunity to shine in the playoffs.
Tier 4: You can win with them
Welcome to the QB middle class. That's where we're at. Mayfield's propensity to step in his own poo with his words and deeds have him thrust into a pressure-packed vortex in Year 3. That could go either way. Most of these guys will be plenty functional as long as everything is going well around them; they won't hold back a talented team but they aren't likely to elevate a middling one.
The Bills offense plays to all of Allen's strengths and they keep adding weapons. Bridgewater and Taylor will make sound decisions and won't turn the ball over anything close to how their predecessors did. Rivers, however, does so with far too great a regularity to find himself in the upper reaches of this process anymore. Perhaps the stout Colts offensive line will help cure him of some of that but he seems to me to have hit the wall. These guys will be functions of their systems and products of their environment by and large.
Tier 5: Guys, veterans and place holders
2019: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Dalton, Flacco, Mariota
We should probably rename this category after Fitzpatrick, and kudos to him for his longevity and the enthusiasm he brings to the game. On a better team, he could do more, but Miami isn't there yet and Tua will take over at some point in 2020. In the meantime, the Fins are in great hands with Fitzmagic. Most franchises have already made their handoffs to the young gun.
Tier 6: Good luck
It's doubtful this era in Bears history ends well. Jobs are on the line, with so much invested in this over-drafted QB, and at some point, Nick Foles (a Tier 5 guy if he were in this thing; not a huge upgrade!) will get his shot in a system he knows very well. There is nothing inspiring confidence about this Bears offense and watching it the past few years has been painful.
Tier 7: The jury is out
I hate that there are so many names in this category, but that's the deal in the NFL right now. The virtual offseason will do these guys no favors and some of them are, frankly, in an untenable position with scant chance to succeed in the short term, stuck with rookie coaches and/or new systems and with precious little talent around them.
Let's just say I don't envy many of them. I think it's fair to wonder about Darnold at this point and 2020 will obviously be huge for him. Jones gives the ball away far too freely. I think Burrow will be great … but it might take some time. Minshew remains very intriguing to me and I like him more than most from what I gather. He looks like a gamer to me.