There is a timeless and endless debate in the NFL over who the best quarterbacks in the league are. It has raged forever at water coolers and at bars and over the internet and it will continue for as long as men are throwing footballs on television for a living.
NFL quarterback is the most important position in all of professional sports and true star quarterbacks are essentially akin to A-list celebrities. Everything they do on or off the field is scrutinized in the sports media as well as the gossip pages (just ask Tom Brady, Cam Newton and Russell Wilson, for starters).
And, since it's the dog days of the NFL offseason, I figured it's the perfect time to weigh in on the state of quarterbacking. I want to do rankings in a somewhat organized fashion and not just fire off a list of names. (Hey, I can't let Prisco and Brinson have all the low-hanging fruit in May and June, can I?)
So I thought about a way to divide the quarterbacks into tiers and then more or less kinda-sorta rank them within those tiers. I was looking for what appeared -- at least to me -- to be natural cutoff points to delineate one strata of quarterbacks from the next. I wanted to acknowledge the fact that over time many of these men will fluctuate from one tier to the next based on age, development, the supporting cast, coaching stability (or lack there of) and, of course, injury. This exercise is meant to be a snapshot, by and large, though I am projecting and predicting somewhat as well.
And while it's quite possible that some of these QBs will end up in a different tier should I continue this undertaking a year from now, I am also doing it in a way in which I highly doubt that someone who is in Tier 4 or 5 right now is going to be a guy who would end up as a consensus top-tier quarterback in 12 to 24 months. I am projecting this off of the 32 guys I expect to be opening day starters. It's not meant as a 1-32 ranking but more of a conversation starter as to how to quantify clusters of quarterbacks in a fairly cogent manner.
So, at this point, I figure it's a good time to explain the tiers:
Tier 1: Bona fide franchise quarterbacks
These are the men among men. They are the QBs who have an opportunity to be viewed as iconic figures when their careers are complete. They are individuals who lift a franchise by their very presence, who are tremendously accomplished on the field and have won huge games -- in many cases willing their team to do so. They tend to transcend their sport. I went back and forth between having five men in this category or seven in this category and ultimately settled on six.
'Nuff said. Greatest player of his generation.
At this moment in time, I would venture a good bit of his peers, if forced to take a truth serum, would call Rodgers the most complete quarterback in the game. Even his "down" seasons are pretty damn great.
Still in his prime, impervious to pretty much everything and entering what could be his most prolific season yet. His years with Todd Haley will surpass even what he did with Bruce Arians, and he still has a window to add to those two Lombardi Trophies.
He still has his haters, but he has accomplished historic things in just a few years and is becoming an elite pocket passer to go along with everything else he does. He's still just scratching the surface and has a competitive edge that will carry him.
The most physically gifted and physically imposing quarterback in the NFL who was a super-worthy MVP last year. He has more trophies and more title game appearances in his future. He lifts a very limited offensive cast each and every week and finds new ways to keep winning football games. He's also maturing each year as well, though he's still prone to a misstep or two.
Tier 2: Top pros, proven winners
These are the guys who most teams in the NFL would covet if given the chance to deal for them. Though, by and large, these guys are too good to ever be available -- unless dogged by a career-threatening injury. They are regulars in the postseason and accomplished leaders.
I agonized over this one and in many iterations of this list he was in Tier 1. But given his age and uncertain future as a potential free agent and the Saints' struggles the past few years and his rising interception numbers, I ended up here.
I had him in the top tier for a week or so, but he ends up here because of his age -- he's now 36 -- and the lack of postgame heroics and recent injuries. Despite those other factors, I still came damn close to having him crack the top tier. If he stays healthy this season I expect big things from the Cowboys.
He hadn't missed a snap until a season-ending injury last year and has never had much of anything to work with on offense. His historic playoff production and Super Bowl MVP land him in this group.
It should be a huge year for him, but he has been so up and down and so prone to picks that there is no way to justify him being in the first tier. And with two Lombardi Trophies already won and having been a part of some iconic plays in the process, he can't be lower than this tier, either.
He hasn't been able to get over the hump in the postseason, and is starting to run out of time with San Diego seemingly rebuilding again. But he is one of the most prolific passers of his time and an absolute gamer who wrings every bit of talent from his body.
I went back and forth with him between this tier and putting him in Tier 5. His exits from Cincy and Oakland never sat quite right with him, and his utter failures in the postseason are well chronicled. His regular-season renaissance with Bruce Arians lands him at the bottom of this tier, but it's not with great conviction on my end.
Tier 3: The rising stars
Here is where I get a little cute, some might say. This designation is for young starters who have started three years or less who I truly believe have the chance to move up into the top tier in the next 2-3 years. They have the ability to do it all and project to potential greatness if things fall into place. They have boundless upside, and have already displayed myriad winning attributes. I'm looking at guys who have a chance to be remembered well after they retire, and not just locally.
He survived a traumatic rookie season -- no protection, and his coach getting fired at midseason -- and has everything you could want in a young quarterback. He will begin to lift that franchise some this season and if they build around him decently he will reward them massively.
Not enough was made of his fine rookie season, frankly, and this kid has the goods. No off-field issues last year and he is already the voice of that team. He has done nothing but win his entire life.
OK, so he's started more than three seasons, but I'm putting him here after spending most of last season watching football from the sidelines while dealing with injuries. That time away from the field will serve him well for years to come. He needs to slow things down, get away from bad habits with the football and learn to better protect himself from injury. The kid has everything going for him and will bounce back nicely I believe.
I love watching him play. Love his moxie in the fourth quarter. Love the big arm. He has thrived in a place that has been a death trap for quarterbacks in the past. He'll continue to rise along with this franchise.
Tier 4: The guys that can be winning quarterbacks
These are very solid players, though not as dynamic as the top tiers. They can lead your team into the postseason any given year, but they also can be very erratic and by and large have suffered on the bigger stages. Could they become part of that second-best tier if they put it all together? Sure. But I can't say it's probable that happens.
They have somewhat limited ceilings based on certain traits (too many picks, limited athletic prowess, injury-prone). You can win with them, and you can certainly do worse than them, and I went back and forth between five and eight men in this category as well, settling on six. I tried in general to make this group skew with guys in their late 20s/early 30s, and then there is one exception to that group who I felt like in the end had to go here.
Lack of anything close to success in truly big games is damning with me. He has been surrounded by an abundance of talent, but that may be dipping some now. His pay-as-you-go contract speaks to his standing in the league.
I am not on his hype train like some others -- ahem, Pete Prisco. A lot of his stats are padded by garbage time in the second half of games the Jags were already going to lose. He has a ton going for him, but with a renewed roster I need to see more consistency and fewer mistakes. He has led NFL in picks the past two years despite being loaded with red-zone weapons.
If he fares well playing on the franchise tag, he could jump up. There is a lot to work with in that offense and he came into his own as a leader last season.
He has not fared well when it matters most, and he doesn't seem to be meshing so well with the new offensive staff in Atlanta. He has also been too susceptible to backbreaking mistakes around his end zone and the opponent's as well. Only Eli Manning has thrown more picks the past three years.
He has a rifle arm and does enough as a gunslinger to make you wonder if he can put it together, but he ain't a kid anymore, either, and the interceptions come in bunches far too often for me.
I don't see enough in terms of arm talent and top high-end ability to put him in that third tier, but he can manage a game and is a great kid who that team can rally around. He will certainly continue to develop over time.
Tier 5: Guys, veterans and place holders
In many cases these are stopgap guys. They can look very good in spurts but aren't going to get teams over the top and have a reached a point in their careers where they are much closer to the end than the beginning. They have been told by at least one team, "No thanks, we don't want you anymore." They will often do things to undermine themselves, and/or have not and very likely will not ever get over the hump.
He is what Jim Harbaugh thought he was when he dealt him from San Francisco: Good enough to hold the place for a few years and get you to the postseason, but that's where it tops out.
The fact he has already played for like a quarter of the league and doesn't have a job right now says it all. He's at his best with Chan Gailey, and he'll be back with the Jets as a band-aid starter again.
He is what he is and with a lesser cast and another new coordinator in a lame-duck contract year, that could be bad combination.
Tier 6: Good luck with these guys
It's generally not very pretty and while some of these guys came into the league with a lot of hype and high draft selection, consider me (in general) a distinct non-believer. Many of them make a lot of money ... which speaks more to the overall state of quarterbacking in the NFL than it does to their actual on-field accomplishments. Buyer beware; they'll do just enough just enough of the time to make some think they can actually get it done, which can be a very dangerous combination for general managers.
I dabbled with putting him in Tier 4. I love a lot of what he can do, but you have to worry about durability and playing in a lame-duck year on what could be a bad team is hardly ideal. In the right circumstances I think he can be much higher on this pecking order.
I can't see him getting through a season, especially with that cast around him. He's young but already somewhat broken down. 2012 looks like the anomaly.
It's a huge gamble to pay him big bucks, and color me a skeptic at this point. I don't see the upside in him some others apparently do. He's a system guy to me who now must produce immediately based on the mega-contract he got from a team with expectations of a long playoff run.
Not sure he is going to be Adam Gase's cup of tea. He doesn't make big boy reads or throws and is very limited downfield. Still looks pretty rudimentary to me.
Few men have made more money for doing less. Oft-injured and very rarely productive.
Chip Kelly loves to try to resurrect quarterbacks. Good luck with this one. Looks like a lost cause to me. If I had put Colin Kaepernick on this list, he would be in Tier 4 (I think).
Tier 7: The verdict is out
These are projected rookie starters, and we just don't know yet.
Paxton Lynch, Broncos: There's a much better cast around him than many young starters, and with that defense he won't have to do all that much for Denver to still be competitive.
Jared Goff, Rams: Good luck, son. Behind that line you might be in trouble. He will endure a lot of pain as he learns his way. It has been a very long time since this team developed a quarterback and I have my reservations. It takes a village.
So there you have it. That's my list.
I'm not saying it's definitive. And I myself struggled with a good half-dozen guys before slotting them. But I think the categories hold up pretty well, and we'll see how much I shuffle the deck should I take another crack at this next June.