There are two types of teams: Those with a franchise quarterback and those searching for one.
Some teams think they have a franchise quarterback, but everyone outside the building can see otherwise. Others seem perpetually stuck in the hamster wheel, searching for the answer at the most important position in professional football.
Late last year, The Ringer’s Danny Heifetz wrote about analysis passed along to him by former NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky and former NFL staffer and college quarterback Nate Tice. Heifetz wrote:
Tice and Orlovsky both compare modern quarterbacking to basketball. Scheme can only do so much. There comes a point when a play breaks down and ball handlers must create their own shot. Deshaun Watson, Russell Wilson, and Justin Herbert can do that. Kirk Cousins and Jimmy Garoppolo cannot — they merely knock down open jumpers when a shot is designed for them. This is the difference between average NFL quarterbacks and great ones.
This may be the single-most intelligent observation about NFL quarterbacks I have read, a concept that comes into play early and often as you work your way through these rankings.
So who is the best? Where does your favorite team’s starter rank amongst his peers?
Let’s get to the list.
32. Daniel Jones (New York Giants)
2020 rank: 31
Maybe teammates call Daniel Jones “Danny Dimes” for the same reason people call exceptionally tall folks “Tiny” or “Shorty”. Jones threw zero dimes in 2020, but did throw 10 interceptions to go along with a league-leading 11 fumbles. Bad as that may seem, Jones managed an impossibly low 11 touchdown passes in 14 starts last season. This is what happens when a team spends the sixth overall pick on a Day Two prospect.
31. Jared Goff (Detroit Lions)
2020 rank: 20
There may be no pairing of franchise and quarterback more perfect than the bumbling Detroit Lions and Jared Goof — er, Goff. With the Rams, Goff was a pretender. Now, he starts for a team befitting his talent level. Goff should be forced to pay some of the four-year, $134 million contract extension he signed in 2019 to his former head coach, Sean McVay. If not for McVay, Goff would be carrying a clipboard for a living and never would have started a Super Bowl.
30. Ryan Fitzpatrick (Washington Football Team)
2020 rank: 28
Ryan Fitzpatrick owns 11 NFL records. Here are a few: Fitzpatrick is the first quarterback to start a game against one opponent for six different teams; the first quarterback to throw four touchdown passes in a single game with five different teams; and the first quarterback to start and win a game against the same opponent for six different teams. He shares the NFL record for most 400-yard passing games in a single season with Dan Marino and Peyton Manning. I hope Ryan Fitzpatrick plays forever.
29. Andy Dalton (Chicago Bears)
2020 rank: NR
Why is Justin Fields on the bench? Is Matt Nagy trying to get fired? Fields is the first quality quarterback the Bears have had in decades (literally) and Nagy, who is on the hottest of seats entering the 2021 season, decided to roll with the quarterbacking equivalent of this tee shirt. Bears fans ought to circle Oct. 3’s game against Detroit, as it presents a perfect opportunity for Dalton to make way for Chicago’s exciting rookie quarterback.
28. Jalen Hurts (Philadelphia Eagles)
2020 rank: NR
Jalen Hurts did some good things with the Eagles late last season despite being saddled with a third-rate offense. Hurts also did a lot of bad things. Were he eligible, Hurts would have finished tied for 27th in interception percentage (2.7%), 33rd in sack percentage (8.1%), and dead last in completion percentage (52.0%), more than five percentage points behind 35th-place Drew Lock. Philly’s front office is notoriously aggressive and Hurts must make significant progress if he wants to start for the Eagles in 2022.
27. Zach Wilson (New York Jets)
2020 rank: NR
The Jets do not learn from their mistakes. For the third time, New York’s decision-makers are dropping a raw, highly touted rookie into a struggling offense and expecting him to right the ship. Wilson struggled against first-team defenses throughout the preseason and will continue to do so into the fall. Wilson has the physical skills to make it in the NFL, but it is going to be a long rookie season full of growing pains for the former BYU standout.
26. Tua Tagovailoa (Miami Dolphins)
2020 rank: NR
Tua Tagovailoa pisses me off. I pounded the table for Tua as he came out of Alabama, touting him as the franchise quarterback Miami has been seeking since Dan Marino retired 20 years ago. Instead, a quarterback who played fearless football for the most demanding coach in the college game entered the pros and played scared. Dolphins head coach Brian Flores said all the right things this summer but, as recently as late-August, Miami was considered the front-runner to acquire Deshaun Watson. Fair or not, 2021 appears to be a make-or-break season for Tua.
25. Mac Jones (New England Patriots)
2020 rank: NR
A few months ago, I wrote about Mac Jones’ fit in New England. I did not realize how right I was. Jones not only took Cam Newton’s job, he sent the former league MVP packing altogether. Jones has earned rave reviews from teammates and tepid approval from Bill Belichick, which is as close to a ringing endorsement any Patriots player will get from their boss. After a slight hiccup last season, Belichick may have found the heir to Tom Brady’s throne.
24. Tyrod Taylor (Houston Texans)
2020 rank: 23
Houston is coming off a 4–12 season which saw the team’s former starting quarterback made the leap to elite status. Tyrod Taylor is not elite. Not even kind of. Taylor’s career highs in passing yards (3,035), passing touchdowns (20) and passer rating (99.4) inspire little confidence. Taylor’s picture appears alongside the next man on this list when you look up “game manager” in the football dictionary. Taylor will keep the offense afloat, as he has done for the Bills, Browns and Chargers, before likely ceding the offense to Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler, the presumed no. 1 pick in the 2022 NFL draft.
23. Teddy Bridgewater (Denver Broncos)
2020 rank: 22
Teams could do a lot worse than Teddy Bridgewater. The former Louisville quarterback does not do anything particularly great, but he does not take anything off the table, either. Bridgewater takes good care of the football and his rate stats are perfectly fine. But Teddy Two Gloves, who has never thrown more than 15 touchdown passes in a season and has only twice thrown for more than two scores in a game, is not tipping the balance of a game in his team’s favor.
22. Jameis Winston (New Orleans Saints)
2020 rank: NR
Quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers are elite because their ceilings are high and their range of outcomes is limited. On any given play, the outcome of a Mahomes or Rodgers pass is likely to be good, and the worst-case scenario is a throwaway or harmless incompletion. Jameis Winston has all the talent in the world — he was the no.1 pick in 2015 for a reason — but his range of outcomes may be as wide as any starting quarterback in the league. Winston is one of only eight quarterbacks to throw for 5,000 yards in a season, but he is also the only quarterback in NFL history to throw 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in a single campaign.
21. Jimmy Garoppolo (San Francisco 49ers)
2020 rank: 16
Barring an unexpected turn of events, 2021 is Jimmy Garoppolo’s final season with the 49ers. Trey Lance was not drafted third overall to sit on the bench for long, and Garoppolo’s offseason departure would save San Francisco $25 million. The Nov. 2 trade deadline may be an inflection point for Garoppolo if a quarterback-needy team decides to jump the line and make a move for San Francisco’s current starter.
20. Trevor Lawrence (Jacksonville Jaguars)
2020 rank: NR
Early returns on this spring’s first overall draft pick have not been great. There are a lot of moving parts in north Florida, however, which have hindered Lawrence’s development. Urban Meyer is still adjusting to the pro game and the first-team offense has been hit hard with injuries. Losing former college teammate Travis Etienne to a season-ending Lisfranc injury is a big blow to Lawrence, but the running back cupboard is not bare: James Robinson ran for 1,040 yards while adding 49 receptions and three touchdowns in 2020 en route to a spot on the PFWA All-Rookie Team.
19. Sam Darnold (Carolina Panthers)
2020 rank: 24
Sam Darnold has the backing of Carolina’s decision-makers, at least for now. The Panthers shelled out three draft picks, including second- and fourth-round selections in 2022, for the opportunity to bring the former top-five pick to Charlotte. The Panthers also traded incumbent starter Teddy Bridgewater to Denver, leaving P.J. Walker as the only quarterback behind Darnold. Getting away from Adam Gase did wonders for Ryan Tannehill and Darnold has to be hoping for the same fate.
18. Carson Wentz (Indianapolis Colts)
2020 rank: 9
There was a moment back in 2017 where Carson Wentz looked like a superstar in the making. Since then, Wentz has missed 12 regular-season starts due to injury and lost the starting job in Philadelphia to Jalen Hurts. Wentz responded with a terrible attitude and a trade demand. That is a bad, bad look for a guy who is supposed to be a franchise quarterback. Indianapolis took a low-risk flyer on a quarterback with a high ceiling, but Wentz has a long way to go before he reaches the heights of his early days with the Eagles. Trust me.
17. Kirk Cousins (Minnesota Vikings)
2020 rank: 13
Kirk Cousins might be the funniest quarterback in the NFL. Not because of anything he does, mind you —Cousins is an incredibly annoying try-hard — but because he keeps getting paid gobs of money for being astoundingly average. Minnesota gave Cousins the first fully guaranteed contract in NFL history in 2018, then doubled down on their mistake by giving Cousins a two-year, $66 million extension last March. Cousins will cost the Vikings a whopping $45 million next season regardless of his status with the team, meaning a Cousins-less rebuild may be imminent in the Twin Cities.
16. Ben Roethlisberger (Pittsburgh Steelers)
2020 rank: 18
Ben Roethlisberger is old. This is easily confirmed information, by either looking up Big Ben on Wikipedia or Pro Football Reference. The former lists his birth date (March 2, 1982) and the latter his 2020 statistics, where he finished 16th in passing yards and 33rd (out of 35 eligible players) in yards per completion despite completing the third-most passes in the NFL. Roethlisberger signed a contract extension this spring that, crucially, includes no cap penalties if the team parts ways with their long-time quarterback after the 2021 season.
15. Joe Burrow (Cincinnati Bengals)
2020 rank: 27
The good news: Cincinnati appears to have found its franchise quarterback in Joe Burrow. Before his season-ending knee injury last year, Burrow played well for the talent-strapped Bengals, tossing 13 touchdown passes and 268.8 yards per game, the seventh-best mark in the NFL. The bad news: Burrow spent every one of his 10 starts running for his life behind a barren offensive line. Drafting Burrow’s college teammate, wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, fifth overall in April’s draft was a good choice, but the Bengals must focus on improving in the trenches if Burrow is to reach his full potential.
14. Baker Mayfield (Cleveland Browns)
2020 rank: 17
At first glance, Baker Mayfield appears to be getting better. His interception rate last season (1.6%) was nearly three times lower than his 2019 mark and was eighth-best in the league. Mayfield improved in almost every measurable way, year over year, from year two to year three. His adjusted passing numbers in 2020 were nearly identical to his rookie season, when many believed Mayfield deserved to win the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year award. But fellow 2018 draft classmate Josh Allen has already penned an extension with Buffalo, and both Steve Bisciotti and John Harbaugh have said a new contract for Lamar Jackson is just a matter of time. Mayfield remains in limbo with no firm commitment from a team who wandered the quarterback wilderness for more nearly two decades.
13. Derek Carr (Las Vegas Raiders)
2020 rank: 19
I don’t mean to alarm you, but Derek Carr may actually be good at football. In each of his three years under Jon Gruden, Carr’s numbers have improved, peaking with a stellar 2020 in which Carr threw for 4,103 yards with 27 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Carr’s performance last season mirrored his 2016 campaign, when he led the Raiders to a 12–3 record and within a hair of the no. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs. If Gruden can muster even baseline performance out of Las Vegas’ defense, Carr could be a big reason why the Raiders return to the playoffs for the first time in five seasons.
12. Matt Ryan (Atlanta Falcons)
2020 rank: 11
Matty Ice puts up numbers. He has thrown for at least 4,000 yards and 20 touchdowns in 10 straight seasons. Ryan is quietly ninth in NFL history in regular-season passing yardage (55,767) and third in yards per game (272.03). Unfortunately, that production has not led to consistent success — Atlanta has nearly as many sub-.500 seasons (five) as 10-win campaigns (six) since Ryan took over the starting gig in 2008.
11. Justin Herbert (Los Angeles Chargers)
2020 rank: NR
Alright, it’s comeuppance time: I was wrong about Justin Herbert. The 2020 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year looked like a seasoned vet after stepping in for an injured Tyrod Taylor last season. Herbert broke the NFL rookie record for passing touchdowns and became only the fourth rookie to throw for more than 4,000 yards in their debut campaign. Most importantly, Herbert never seemed too big for the moment and appears poised to be the heir to Philip Rivers’ throne in southern California.
10. Ryan Tannehill (Tennessee Titans)
2020 rank: 21
Ryan Tannehill is a pretty damn good quarterback. Since taking over for Marcus Mariota in 2019, Tannehill’s numbers are comparable to Patrick Mahomes’ performance with the Chiefs. Thanks to an offseason trade with the Falcons, Tannehill now has an elite veteran receiver in Julio Jones joining the likes of Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown on offense. Tannehill has to prove he was not a byproduct of former offensive coordinator Arthur Smith’s system, but it is about time we give Tannehill the benefit of the doubt.
9. Kyler Murray (Arizona Cardinals)
2020 rank: 14
Kliff Kingsbury, so-called master of the Air Raid offense, was supposed to elevate Kyler Murray to unprecedented heights. After two seasons together, it is clear Murray is elevating Kingsbury instead. Murray’s adjusted passing numbers have been stagnant year over year — he has, essentially, performed like a league-average quarterback in that regard — but last season’s performance is faded by a shoulder injury Murray suffered in mid-November. 2021 is a prime opportunity for Murray to prove he is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.
8. Josh Allen (Buffalo Bills)
2020 rank: 25
Let’s start with the obvious: Josh Allen was stellar in 2020. In a season that began with Allen in the MVP conversation, Allen shattered career highs in completion percentage, passing yards, touchdowns, quarterback rating, QBR, and just about every adjusted passing metric available via Pro Football Reference.
2020 is an outlier for Allen. Prior to last year’s explosion, Allen’s career numbers were not even average: 56.3 completion percentage, 15 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, 6.6 yards per attempt, 78.2 rating. His production in college mirrored that performance.
Carson Wentz put together an MVP-caliber campaign in 2017 and his career is now at a crossroads. That may not be the case for Allen, but he needs to prove last year was not an aberration. Allen has the tools and the infrastructure to do so. But it’s all on Allen now.
7. Matthew Stafford (Los Angeles Rams)
2020 rank: 10
I have been a Matthew Stafford stan for years. He has been a great quarterback on a bad team for more than a decade and is largely responsible for most of the success Detroit found in his 12 years under center. Despite a dozen years in the league, Stafford is still only 33 years old and is now playing for one of the best offensive minds in all of football. The time for Matthew Stafford to be underrated and underappreciated is over. Look for Stafford to make a big statement now that he is out from under the dark cloud hovering over the Lions franchise.
6. Lamar Jackson (Baltimore Ravens)
2020 rank: 3
The first round of the 2018 draft produced five quarterbacks, but two will be linked for the foreseeable future: Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson. Both lead AFC contenders and the status of their contracts with the Bills and Ravens, respectively, was the talk of the NFL summer news cycle once pundits got tired of discussing Aaron Rodgers’ petulant behavior. Lamar, however, has already won the league MVP award. He is one of only five active starting quarterbacks to win the honor and the other four will likely end up in the Hall of Fame. That is pretty damn good company. Say what you want about the development of his passing game, but Jackson runs the offense John Harbaugh and Greg Roman designed for him. Crucially, Jackson has done something nobody in the 25-year history of Baltimore Ravens football has done: Make opponents respect, and even fear, the Ravens’ offense.
5. Dak Prescott (Dallas Cowboys)
2020 rank: 6
The Cowboys not paying Dak Prescott until this spring is one of the funniest story lines in recent NFL history. Prescott threw for nearly 5,000 yards in 2019 and was on pace for nearly 6,000 passing yards (an unsustainable, yet still incredible, pace) before suffering a season-ending ankle injury last season. Prescott’s adjusted passing numbers have been among the best, year over year, throughout his NFL career. He passed the eye test ages ago. Prescott is an elite franchise quarterback and it took Jerry Jones two years to pay Dak accordingly. You can’t make this stuff up.
4. Russell Wilson (Seattle Seahawks)
2020 rank: 2
Russell Wilson is an incredible quarterback. He is likely headed to Canton when his playing days are finished. Seattle would be doomed without Russ, especially in the impossibly difficult NFC West. But let’s cut the B.S. with Wilson and call it like it is: He’s a passive-aggressive diva. Wilson tries very hard to look like the consummate teammate with his benign sound bites and polished public persona. He goes out of his way to be vanilla. But Wilson finally showed his true colors this offseason when he threw the Seahawks under the bus by not-so-subtly suggesting he wanted a trade. “I’m not asking for a trade but I’d like to play for these specific teams” is the most Russell Wilson thing Russell Wilson has done as a professional football player.
3. Aaron Rodgers (Green Bay Packers)
2020 rank: 8
Nobody throws a hissy fit like Aaron Rodgers. One of the smartest players in the league, Rodgers feigned ignorance as he held up one of the most storied professional sports franchises in the country and dominated the offseason news cycle with conveniently timed stories about his unhappiness with, and desire to leave, the Green Bay Packers.
Rodgers is one of the most physically gifted quarterbacks to ever play the game, a first-ballot Hall of Famer who responded to reports of his demise by winning the league MVP award last year. He is almost certainly going to be one of the best performers of the 2021 season, which will almost certainly be his last in Green Bay. The Packers will suffer without him, especially with Jordan Love at the helm, but Rodgers’ attitude and behavior wore thin years ago. Good riddance, pal.
2. Patrick Mahomes (Kansas City Chiefs)
2020 rank: 1
What is there to say that has not already been said about Patrick Mahomes? He is the perfect quarterback for the offense Andy Reid built in Kansas City. No lead is safe with Mahomes under center. The Chiefs’ offense is a Death Star and Mahomes is its captain. Kansas City may have fixed its proverbial exhaust port (or, if you’re not a Star Wars fan, the offensive line that cost them Super Bowl LV) and, if so, Mahomes and the Chiefs will be nearly unstoppable as they march toward a third consecutive Super Bowl appearance.
1.Tom Brady (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
2020 rank: 5
Last year was the first time I ever ranked Tom Brady outside the top spot in these rankings.
It will not happen again.
Brady switched teams for the first time in his 20-year career, endured the most abnormal offseason in NFL history, and had no preseason games to develop on-field chemistry with his new teammates. It didn’t matter. Brady led the Bucs to a Super Bowl title, dismantling the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs en route to a 31–9 victory.
Tom Brady is the best quarterback in NFL history and there is no debate. Just ask the guy who held the crown before Brady.