It's time once again for that annual rite of spring passage, where I seek to cluster NFL starting quarterbacks into tidy little categories. It's my attempt to rank them, without going 1-32. Quarterback tiers are back, once again!
My goal every year is to try to project and evaluate in a way in which the composition of those in the tiers do not change much from one year to the next. Of course, that's far easier said than done, as many of these franchises have been chasing QBs to no avail for years (or decades in some instances). I am looking at the totality of the team around the QB, how secure the coach and GM are, the style of play, whether or not the QB himself is ascending or descending, his general health and degree of happiness with his surroundings, etc.
It's an inexact science, at best, but an exercise I enjoy doing around this time every year, for whatever it's worth. Not aiming for any hot take stuff; just my honest assessment of who has it better than others at the most important position in all of professional sports. Also, unlike in some years past I am limiting this to the 32 QBs who would be atop a depth chart right now and projected to start Week 1.
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So without delaying the process any further, here is a look at my latest incarnation of the QB Tiers (I believe this is Year Five of the process):
Tier 1: Bona fide franchise quarterbacks
2020: Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Carson Wentz, Ben Roethlisberger
2021: Mahomes, Jackson, Brady, Wilson, Rodgers, Josh Allen, Justin Herbert, Watson (I guess, if he even plays),
Father Time is undefeated, except when it comes to Brady. He keeps on winning hardware and his contemporaries continue to fade or retire. And, thankfully for the NFL, an expanding crop of young arms keep stepping up to potentially fill the void. It's wild to think that in the next nine months two more of these guys may be changing teams, as Brady did a year ago, but Rodgers's future in Green Bay is tenuous at best, Watson's ability to play football again anytime soon is quite uncertain and Wilson could be elsewhere in 2022 as well.
No one took a bigger leap forward in 2020 than Allen, whose MVP-like play is not a fluke (though I woulda said the same thing about Wentz a few years back). As for Big Ben, well, the second half of last season was no fluke, either, and you are going to have to read a while before he resurfaces in this piece.
Tier 2: Top pros, proven winners
2020: Matt Ryan, Matt Stafford, Dak Prescott
2021: Ryan, Stafford, Ryan Tannehill, Prescott, Baker Mayfield
This has tended to be where youngish veterans who I believe are top-10 talents land … but guys who wouldn't likely crack the list of best eight QBs on the planet any year (that's Tier 1 territory). Ryan and Stafford have been here for years and aren't leaving anytime soon, though I do believe Stafford will truly flourish finally with more competent people around him through that organization. I believe he has been one of the least respected elite QBs for while now, but one gunslinger can only do so much.
Mayfield has now looked the part for two of this three NFL seasons and is paired with the perfect coach and play caller for him, and that Browns offense is loaded with weapons and boasts the best OL in the NFL. All of that helps and Baker took to being a point guard instead of a three-point shooter under Kevin Stefanski. Dak may have already made the leap to Tier 1 had an injury not wiped out almost all of his 2020 season. But I also worry about that offensive line and run game and am not ready to anoint anything pertaining to the 2021 Dallas Cowboys just yet.
As for Herbert, he was nothing sort of transcendent and historic in his rookie season despite being on a middling team with a suffering coaching staff about to be whacked and thrown into the deep end when a team doctor punctured Tyrod Taylor's lung before a game, and he met every challenge in a way very few youngsters ever have. And Tannehill has been nothing short of excellent since taking over the starting job in Nashville in 2019.
Tier 3: Rising stars
2020: Kyler Murray, Jimmy Garoppolo
2021: Murray, Trevor Lawrence, Joe Burrow
Things start to get a little tricker, generally, around these parts. And I have been loath to put any rookie this high, but Lawrence has been the best player in his age group going back to middle school, and there is no reason not to think he will continue that at the pro level. I have massive reservations about almost everything going on with the Jaguars, still, but this kid will shine. Hard to screw up this kind of talent.
Same with Burrow, though a horrid lack of protection behind a brutal season-ending injury that, sadly, seemed almost predictable if you watched all the empty-set drop backs a year ago. This was a complex surgery and it usually takes a full season back before the QB is in peak form again. This kid is special but they'd better eliminate the games in which he gets hit 10 times or more.
Kyler Murray's first half of the season had him on a path to MVP consideration and a move to Tier 1, but major questions remain about Kliff's Killer offense in AZ. Far too often opposing scouts and coordinators would tell me their ability to move the ball came down to Murray going off script and improvising, and everyone on that coaching staff and front office should be feeling the heat if this team once again fails to take a meaningful step to the playoffs. Running around for first downs will only take you so far.
Tier 4: You can win with them
2020: Derek Carr, Tannehill, Mayfield, Kirk Cousins, Allen, Teddy Bridgewater, Philip Rivers, Tyrod Taylor, Jared Goff
2021: Cousins, Carr, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Wentz
I have been far too generous with this designation in the past. I'm being a little more judicious this time around. Been burned too often before. Carr and Cousins have made their bones here for a while. And here they stay; both those teams continue to have one wandering eye for other QBs and the Vikings just took their possible replacement for Cousins in the draft. Las Vegas has been linked to Wilson and Rodgers. Stay tuned …
Fitzpatrick's category changes based on the team around him, but he is no longer strapped to an overtly rebuilding roster and has a monster defense behind him in Washington. WFT won that crappy division a year ago and just might do so again, and they added some very interesting weapons on offense. I'll buy it. As for Wentz, the poor way in which he handled his rapid fall from grace has me thinking we have already seen by far the best from him, but Frank Reich is uniquely equipped to handle him and knows him inside and out. Colts play in an awful division and have a decent roster, so perhaps Wentz can stabilize his play and curtail all the turnovers and play KISS football to win the AFC South title.
Tier 5: Guys, veterans and place holders
2021: Garoppolo, Goff, Jameis Winston, Bridgewater
None of the guys listed above should be doing anything but renting right now. The 49ers drafted their next QB already and Jimmy G will be dealt in 2022, while Goff will be hard pressed to earn that money in Detroit. Lions may end up kicking themselves for passing on Justin Fields this year, and I suspect Goff ends up being a bridge QB at best for them.
Winston barely got to play in New Orleans a year ago and I believe Sean Payton will cull the best out of him … but he also is on a very cheap one-year deal and the Saints will be looking to upgrade. Maybe they eventually land a veteran, or draft one high a year from now. But this feels like a stop gap. Bridgewater, a former Saint, is on the move again and while I believe he will be a nice fit in Denver, I also believe that team is deep in the QB market come 2022.
Tier 6: Good luck
2020: Mitch Trubisky
2021: Roethlisberger, Daniel Jones, Sam Darnold, Andy Dalton
I could see the Steelers experimenting with a new QB by midseason. When you take that kind of paycut to stick around to try to go out on something other than the terms of that ugly playoff loss to the Browns, chances are things won't get much better. Offensive line looks shaky at best. Lack of mobility a big problem. I just don't see this going well and things have been trending down since 2019.
Have never bought in to Jones and this is make-or-break time for him now with all the new toys he has; and make or break time for those who selected him. Too many fumbles for me and too high of expectations. Darnold has endured much in Gotham as well, and he moves on but I worry about all the hits he's already taken and what he's already been through. And that owner will have eyes for other QBs, too. This will be a true referendum on Panthers coordinator Joe Brady, and it may be too tall a task.
Dalton will make way for Justin Fields at some point, and has a nice future ahead of him as a top-of-market back-up, but the constant influx of first-round QBs has phased guys like him and Flacco out.
Tier 7: The jury is out
2020: Burrow, Garnder Minshew, Darnold, Jarrett Stidham, Dwayne Haskins, Drew Lock, Jones
2021: Zach Wilson, Tua Tagovailoa, Mac Jones, Jalen Hurts
Wilson is going to end up playing sooner than he should, and I would suspect Week 1. Huge jump he is being asked to make, and he had few games against elite competition in college. Tua has been under fire since the moment he was picked and his coach has seemed to be lukewarm about him at best; hardly ideal for his development.
Hurts had some brilliant flashes after playing far sooner than expected last year as Wentz flamed out. Has more pieces around him now and the Eagles run game will continue to roll with him under center as well. Jones was the Pats guy and fits what Bill Belichick wants and one would think plays pretty much right away, with Cam Newton able to be used as a dynamic change-up in the red zone and short yardage and certain packages.