In case you aren't aware, the pool of young quarterback talent across the NFL is quite deep. That's especially true inside the AFC, where four different signal-callers 26 years old or younger have either won MVP or advanced to the conference championship in the last four seasons. So how would we rank all 16 of the AFC's projected starting QBs entering 2022? We're so glad you asked.
Here's our pecking order, starting with a couple of off-field friends and on-field rivals:
1. Patrick Mahomes (Chiefs)
It's gotten to the point with Mahomes that anything less than highlight-reel perfection raises questions about whether he's "slipping" as his generation's premier gunslinger. Take, for example, his 2021 campaign, in which he forced lots of throws and relied too much on off-script plays but still posted a top-10 QB rating, threw 35+ touchdowns for the third time in four years and effortlessly led the Chiefs to their fourth straight AFC Championship Game appearance. He'll face new challenges in 2022, throwing to JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling instead of go-to deep-ball artist Tyreek Hill. But he still possesses unteachable creativity in and outside the pocket, and as long as he's paired with Andy Reid, it's tough to bet against his title chances.
2. Josh Allen (Bills)
It's fitting that the Bills' last two seasons have ended in playoff thrillers against the Chiefs, because Allen is the closest thing to Mahomes in terms of the contemporary prototype under center -- big, athletic, and wired to make the big play. His own absurd talent is the primary (only?) cause for concern; he's still gotta ensure he doesn't bruise his own big body running through defenders, or force turnovers by hunting for the home run. But he is MVP material, there's no doubt about it. His rapid ascent has been so notable that it'll be disappointing in Buffalo if his Bills don't reach a Super Bowl within a year or two.
3. Justin Herbert (Chargers)
If Mahomes is the magician and Allen is the supersized dual threat, then Herbert is the prototypical pocket passer. Any concerns about the Oregon product's college competition or softer-spoken leadership have been silenced by a historic debut, with Herbert becoming the first player in NFL history to throw 30+ TDs in each of his first two seasons. Despite the Chargers still seeking their first playoff appearance with him under center, few teams probably feel as secure at the position, where the 6-foot-6 signal-caller possesses veteran poise and one of the most electric arms in the league.
4. Russell Wilson (Broncos)
If we're looking strictly at past performance, Wilson probably deserves to be even higher. He's on a Hall of Fame path thanks to his pristine 10-year run in Seattle, where he led a perennial winner with unmatched poise, elusiveness and deep-ball touch. The question is, what version of Wilson are the Broncos getting? Certainly he'll be better than the banged-up Russ of 2021, but is he still championship-caliber? At 33, in a league where Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers have hit new gears close to or beyond 40, time is still on his side. Let's see if he can quickly embrace the new scenery and revive Denver a la Peyton Manning circa 2012.
5. Joe Burrow (Bengals)
Bengals fans will no doubt clamor for Joe Cool to be higher, and understandably so. At 25, he's already overcome a severe knee injury to thrust Cincy back into the national spotlight, posting MVP-level numbers to advance to the Super Bowl in year two. His swagger gets all the headlines, but it's really his unfazed pocket presence and across-the-board mechanics that make him franchise material. Chemistry with big-play machine Ja'Marr Chase helps, too. So long as he stays upright behind a rebuilt line, the Bengals should continue to make noise, cementing him as one of many rising AFC stars.
6. Lamar Jackson (Ravens)
The spectrum of opinions on Jackson is quite wide. Some see the former MVP who once led the NFL in TD passes, a one-of-a-kind specimen with the speed and arm talent to change every game. Others see a system-dependent runner (and inherent injury risk) who's yet to master big-game passing. Perhaps both perspectives are true. Even if Jackson's skills work best in a run-heavy attack (and the Ravens' remade lineup seemingly confirms as much), he's still a home run waiting to happen. And that kind of QB can never be counted out. The key will be staying healthy and staying efficient to finally make a deep run.
7. Deshaun Watson (Browns)
Here's the biggest asterisk on the list. Talent-wise, Watson has proven to be a top-10ish pocket passer with the legs to rival a Mahomes or Allen in a shootout. And the Browns are paying him to be at least that. But it's widely expected he'll be suspended for at least part of the 2022 season while facing 24 civil lawsuits (and counting) alleging sexual assault or misconduct. Besides the moral conundrum of his leadership, Watson hasn't suited up in two years and saw some stats during his 2020 career year padded because he was playing in blowouts for a bad Texans team. No matter his results, they will be polarizing.
8. Derek Carr (Raiders)
This is where you might draw the line between bona fide franchise QBs and solid, if unspectacular, starters. That's not to say Carr hasn't earned his place as face of the Raiders, enduring organizational turmoil to produce as a borderline top-10 passer for a good chunk of his career. Reuniting with college teammate Davante Adams should help accelerate his offense. But for all Carr brings as a gritty, efficient, underrated leader, he's yet to prove himself as a late-season and/or big-game winner, with just a single playoff start in an eight-year career. He's got the charisma to rewrite his story, but for now, he's more sturdy than special.
9. Ryan Tannehill (Titans)
We've reached an inflection point of Tannehill's career. After seven middling seasons on a middling Dolphins team, he helped transform the Titans into what they are today, bringing unexpected stability to a tough, old-school playoff contender. Robbed of Derrick Henry and steady pass protection for much of 2021, he fell into turnover streaks before bottoming out in the playoffs, where he's 0-3 in his last three starts. At 33, two teams and 10 years into his career, it seems that Tannehill is what he is, like most starting QBs: a serviceable arm who can get you to the postseason but isn't necessarily built to elevate the lineup beyond that.
The Colts kind of struck gold landing Ryan as their last-minute replacement for Carson Wentz, but that says more about their annual state of QB affairs than it does Ryan's present talent. At 37, coming off three straight years of so-so play for mediocre Falcons teams, he seems a bit more deflated physically than, say, Matthew Stafford, who got a similarly beneficial relocation from his original team in 2021. But in Indy, all the Colts really need is more stability -- an efficient, experienced enough arm to guide their Jonathan Taylor-led offense. And he should be able to provide that. If the defense is elite, maybe he's got a surprise run left.
For years, efficiency was the name of the game for the Patriots at QB -- "death by 1,000 paper cuts," as some said. That continued with Jones in 2021, as the rookie proved NFL-accurate while leaning on Bill Belichick's ground game and defense. The question is, what is the ceiling, for both Jones and the Patriots collectively? The QB must be less streaky to ensure New England actually contends again, but it's unclear if he's got the support staff or weaponry to go toe to toe with more explosive teams.
12. Trevor Lawrence (Jaguars)
This might seem too high to some, and too low to others. Lawrence, after all, really struggled to overcome the mess that was the Jaguars' 2021 season; he never looked consistently comfortable, and his turnovers easily outnumbered his TDs. But let's not forget this guy was crowned the best QB prospect since Andrew Luck one year ago. Now under the mentorship of Doug Pederson, he's primed to better showcase his ability as a total-package starter. All the teams below would undoubtedly love to take him.
13. Tua Tagovailoa (Dolphins)
Tua's critics have been abnormally loud after two so-so NFL seasons. The Alabama product has improved his accuracy and looked more confident since entering as an abrupt replacement for Ryan Fitzpatrick as a rookie. He's also got a real chance to break out under new coach Mike McDaniel, who should deploy more run-based concepts while utilizing new toys like Tyreek Hill. But it's fair to wonder about the ceiling. Take it for what it's worth, but his career start is comparable to that of journeyman Teddy Bridgewater.
14. Kenny Pickett (Steelers)
It might be a stretch to put Pickett here considering Mitchell Trubisky may well open 2022 as the starter, but the Steelers couldn't have found a more natural successor to Ben Roethlisberger, drafting the guy who literally knows the facilities from his time at Pittsburgh. Growing pains are inevitable, and Pickett's skillset perhaps projects more steadiness than superstardom. But he's better positioned to find immediate results than some of his young counterparts, considering the Steelers' improved line, endlessly developing receiving corps, old-school building blocks (i.e. Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth) and proven staff.
15. Zach Wilson (Jets)
This could look foolish if the Jets' new-look lineup delivers on its promise, giving Wilson added help up front (Laken Tomlinson), in the backfield (Breece Hall), out wide (Garrett Wilson) and at tight end (C.J. Uzomah). But a big leap from 2021, when Wilson went from victim to purveyor of offensive issues, still requires the athletic gunslinger to make sound decisions. He's got the tools to be a play-maker, but like Sam Darnold before him, the challenge is staying smart amid a total rebuild.
16. Davis Mills (Texans)
This is perhaps more an indictment of the situation in which Mills finds himself, as Houston looks as if it'll struggle to improve upon its 4-13 finish from 2021, turning to 64-year-old Lovie Smith, who hasn't posted a winning record since 2012, as the latest figurehead of a curious rebuild. To be fair, the Stanford product stood tall despite a bad supporting cast as a rookie, and his size and requisite arm talent offer promise. But to what end, when his lineup is again littered with replacement-level veterans?