Ranking the NFL’s eight divisions by their quarterback talent
- Which NFL division has the best quarterbacks? We take a close look at each quarterback in all eight divisions and rank accordingly.
All right, let’s first get this brief preface out of the way before we start. This is a collective, composite grading of each division, based on all four quarterbacks, from top to bottom. So if one division happens to have the best QB in the league in it, but the other three teams in the division all employ very bad QBs, well, that’s worse than a division with four QBs that are all pretty good. Also, these ratings are based on this current 2016 season. I repeat, they are based on this current 2016 season. They are not based on the quarterbacks’ entire careers. So yes, Matt Ryan ranks as better than Aaron Rodgers, because for this season, right now, that is the case. In certain scenarios, however, when all other factors were pretty much equal, the breadth of accomplishments in a career were factored in. As was the age-old eye test (meaning, my own take on who I find to be more pleasing/less pleasing to watch play football) and various X-factors (dysfunction does not help your rating).
That was really just a long-winded way of saying that this ranking is very subjective. But also, it is incontrovertibly correct. (Don’t @ me).
Now let’s get started. Shall we start with the worst first? Sure, why not.
8. AFC South
When you have Blake Bortles and Brock Osweiler in the same division, is this really a question? Osweiler has managed to do what Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, T.J. Yates, and Brandon Weeden couldn’t even do last season, and that is make DeAndre Hopkins look human. Osweiler’s QB rating when targeting Hopkins this year: 51.0. The rating for those four journeymen QBs when targeting Hopkins in 2015: 93.8. Wrap your mind around that. I don’t even know how it is possible. Osweiler’s overall QB rating this year (72.2) is the third-worst in the Texans’ franchise history, behind only two David Carr seasons that rank among the worst in NFL history. Again, wrap your mind around that. I’m just happy that he already got his money already. And poor Bortles. We all thought this was going to be the year that both he and the Jaguars made the leap. Instead, we got consecutive games in which he threw interceptions that bounced off his own receiver’s foot. I’m not ready to write off Bortles’s career just yet, but his season has been so bad that the Jaguars may be looking for a new coach and a new QB in the off-season.
Of course having Andrew Luck in the division bumps up the collective score here, as he’s returned to form this year despite the fact that the Colts team around him does him little favors. And Marcus Mariota has certainly improved on his already solid rookie year, helped out by a much-improved offensive line, and is well on his way to having a respectable NFL career. Plus he is seemingly getting better every week, as he’s thrown a touchdown pass in eight straight games. But when you have Osweiler and Bortles sharing a division, you’re going to need more than that to not rank dead last.
7. NFC West
For full disclosure, the Case Keenum/Jared Goff combo in L.A. combined with the Blaine Gabbert/Colin Kaepernick combo in San Francisco almost usurped the Osweiler/Bortles duo in terms of odiousness. The Rams lose bonus points here because of the way they handled their quarterback situation all season—continually saying Goff wasn’t ready (which intimates that Keenum was actually, somehow, the better option), until randomly one day deciding that Goff is now ready, and then throwing him out there with the same boring, basic offensive game plan that they have run all year without any success, pretty much dooming him to failure. Hey, maybe Eric Dickerson was right? The way that Jeff Fisher has handled the QB situation (and the Dickerson situation) this year has been the absolute epitome of 7–9 bullsh*t— actually, when all is said and done, probably more likely 5–11 or 6–10 bullsh*t.
Still, Goff has shown flashes in his limited playing time, and Kaepernick has looked much improved for the 49ers in recent weeks. So both of them give you at least the patina of promise. And yes, Carson Palmer has been incredibly disappointing this year (especially for me, who picked him before the season as my NFL MVP, and the Cardinals as my Super Bowl winner, but alas). But the main factor that places the NFC West above the AFC South is one Russell Wilson. There are few (maybe just one, actually) other quarterbacks I’d rather have in an important game over Wilson. Plus, what other quarterback has actually caught a touchdown pass this year? And he married Ciara earlier this year, and we all know what that meant for him… So the rest of the quarterbacks in the NFC West can thank Wilson here for not being the last ranked division.
6. AFC North
This is an interesting one, as it’s a division with some very notable quarterbacks in it. But Joe Flacco, Ben Roethlisberger and Andy Dalton have all played some of the worst football of their careers this year. After firing offensive coordinator Marc Trestman and replacing him with Marty Mornhinweg, the Ravens vowed to stretch the field more and showcase a more dynamic passing game. Yet Flacco still ranks 30th in yards per attempt, which for a QB with his arm-strength is hard to comprehend. The Ravens’ offense has been so anemic that their best player is a kicker, and that has mostly negated the fact that their defense has been dominant (second in the league in yards allowed). Dalton has led the Bengals (my other preseason Super Bowl pick!) to the most disappointing campaign in the league this year. Dalton was a leading MVP candidate before getting injured last year, buoyed by a touchdown percentage of 6.5%. That number has fallen all the way down to 2.9% this year, easily the worst mark of his career. And yes, it certainly doesn’t help that his offensive line is a shell of what it once was, and he’s been sacked 32 times already.
While Roethlisberger has played great at home this year, he’s been downright abysmal on the road—though a large part of that is due to playing through injuries or returning too soon from injuries. By no means has he had a terrible season, but he has been a far cry from the Big Ben we are accustomed to watching. And when you combine the disappointing level of play for those three big name QBs this year with the Browns’ Cody Kessler/Josh McCown combo, well, it’s not the worst quarterback division in the league, but it’s pretty darn close. Also, this feels like a good time to remind everyone that the last QB to win a game for the Browns was… Johnny Manziel.
5. AFC West
I can’t say enough positive things about Derek Carr this season. The Raiders QB slipped into the second round of the NFL draft in 2014 simply because he shares a last name with his brother, Derek, who has (unfairly) gone down in history as one of the league's biggest busts. Yet despite all that, Carr has proven this season that he’s this league’s next star QB. His 13 game-tying or go-ahead TD passes in the fourth quarter or overtime in the last two seasons are six more TDs than the QB who places second on that list. In the fourth quarter of games this year, he’s completing 67.8% of his passes, with 10 TDs and 1 INT (122.5 QB rating). He’s the real deal—I wont even hold it against him that his dislocated pinky made me queasy for days.
What brings this division down is not Carr, obviously, but rather the three other QBs who are having average to below average seasons. Alex Smith has had an amazingly confusing career. He somehow just keeps winning. I truly don’t understand it. Sure, he’s very accurate and doesn’t turn the ball over much. But his average pass attempt this year has gone 6.64 yards and when he throws a touchdown we are all genuinely surprised. I appreciate Smith’s career, from a pure improbability standpoint, but I’m not sure if his teams win because of him or in spite of him. Philip Rivers, on the other hand, has had a very under-appreciated career due to almost always being on bad Chargers teams. But this has not been his finest campaign: his completion percentage is down this year and his interception rate is up. And he’s had a sharp decline over his last five games (nine interceptions, QBR of 81.6). And Trevor Siemian, well, I don’t even know what to say about Trevor Siemian. After I Googled who he was at the beginning of the year, I expected him to crash and burn this season, and he hasn’t done exactly that. He also hasn’t been exactly good. Actually, he hasn’t even been very close to average. But he’s been good enough in many games to keep the Broncos in the playoff hunt. But one great quarterback, with three average to below-average quarterbacks gets you fifth place in my book.
4. AFC East
Yes, Tom Brady is my top ranked quarterback this year. He missed four games and is still in the top-15 in most statistical categories, and is still likely to win MVP at year’s end. He’s also filmed a great commercial and pretended to be a lead blocker on one Patriots running play, and both made for great television. His greatness, however, is completely negated by the corresponding terribleness that is Ryan Fitzpatrick this year. I won’t even cite any stats for Fitzpatrick’s season, because I’m afraid they might be too upsetting and would require us to put a NSFW tag on this piece. Even worse than Fitzpatrick, however, is the fact that the Jets refuse to try out one of their other young QBs (Bryce Petty or Christian Hackenberg). What is the point of keeping four quarterbacks on your roster if there is no chance that they will ever even see the field?
The saving grace for the AFC East is that Ryan Tannehill has been kind of a stud this year. I guess the football world was not lying when it labeled Adam Gase a ‘quarterback whisperer,’ whatever that means. Over Tannehill’s last six games (all wins) he has a completed nearly 68% of his passes, with a 9:1 TD:INT ratio, and a 104.7 QB rating. And Tyrod Taylor makes up for his average passing abilities by being one of the biggest rushing QB threats in the league. He will probably never be a top-10 QB, but he has proven that last year wasn’t a fluke, and so he falls right in that 10-15 range, the meaty part of the curve. So the AFC East can blame Fitzpatrick—if the Jets QB had the season he had in 2015 this year, this division would rank much higher.
3. NFC North
Jay Cutler has been so bad this season that when he tore his labrum and was replaced with Matt Barkley, many Bears fans saw that as an upgrade. I had almost forgotten Barkley was even still in the league. Cutler has been hurt almost all year, and when he has been healthy (or at least healthy enough to play, as Cutler has a history of toughing it out through injury) he has had the worst statistical season of his career. However, this division also has Aaron Rodgers, Sam Bradford, and Matt Stafford—three quarterbacks who have had odd and misunderstood 2016 campaigns.
No, Rodgers has not been the same MVP-winning, world-beating, magician-like quarterback we have known him to be. But he’s also still on pace for nearly 4,500 yards and 40 touchdowns. So let’s pump the breaks on the Aaron Rodgers has peaked and it’s all downhill from here talk. Bradford probably wishes this season ended after Week 5, but even the criticism here is largely unfair. He’s completing 71.3% of his passes (second in the league) and he’s only thrown three interceptions (albeit some have come at the most inopportune of times, see: Thanksgiving vs. the Lions). And when you consider the fact that he hasn’t had his franchise running back all year, lost both of his starting tackles, has just about no skill players around him, learned the offense in under a week, and had to change offensive coordinators mid-season, well it’s actually kind of a remarkable season. No he’s not great, and probably was not worth giving up all those draft picks for, but one cannot pin all of the Vikings’ recent struggles on Bradford. And while Stafford is not going to reach the 5,000 yards he put up in 2011, the Lions QB been putting together the best campaign of his career this season—despite Calvin Johnson retiring. He’s turned himself into a more accurate passer (nearly 67% completion rate and only 5 interceptions), and has remarkably led seven game-winning drives so far this year. Yes, that is a game-winning drive in every single game that the Lions have won. So while Cutler brings this group down a notch, the top-three QBs in this division are the second best inter-division trio in the NFL.
2. NFC East
I went back and forth on the positioning of the NFC East and NFC North. While the East does not have a QB ranked as highly as Stafford this season in terms of statistics, it does have Dak Prescott, who is also an MVP candidate. Prescott is obviously helped by a historically dominant offensive line and the league’s best rushing attack, but he is putting together possibly the best season for a rookie quarterback in NFL history. The Cowboys are 10–1, he’s thrown two picks compared to 18 touchdowns, and he’s handled the Tony Romo-looming-over-his-shoulder dynamic with poise and aplomb.
But what places the NFC East over the North is that there is no Jay Cutler here: The rest of the QBs in this division range somewhere from average to above average. Kirk Cousins is proving his haters wrong and coining catchphrases at a borderline unsustainable rate. Over the last 20 weeks, he has the highest passer rating of any QB in the league. Carson Wentz has slowed down considerably after his torrid start to the season, but he was so good early that it balances out his poor performances of late. And Eli Manning is, well, Eli Manning—one of the most inconsistent star quarterbacks of all-time. He’s on pace for another 4,200-plus-yard, 30-touchdown season, yet still throws confounding interceptions that lose his team games, and still hasn’t quite figured out how to get the best out of Odell Beckham Jr. consistently this season. But since this is the only division (except our winner) that doesn’t have one QB drastically dragging down the group, it slots in at No. 2. It’s the ‘you’re only as strong as your weakest link’ corollary.
1. NFC South
This was the only ranking that wasn’t actually hard to decide at all. The NFC South easily has the best four quarterbacks in the NFL. Think about this: the worst passer in the division is Jameis Winston, who is arguably the best young quarterback in the league. The scary thing is that Winston is clearly still maturing—over his last six games he has thrown 13 touchdowns and three interceptions, with a passer rating of 104.1 The second-worst QB in the division (this year) is Cam Newton, who was the clear-cut NFL MVP last year after an historic campaign. And yes, the Panthers have fallen off the map this year, and Newton’s numbers have dropped precipitously across the board. But just watch Carolina play any given week, and it’s hard to see two snaps go by without Newton’s sieve-like offensive line serving him up on a platter to opposing pass rushers. No, he’s not having a great season— but he is still Cam Newton, and you’d be hard pressed to find many teams that wouldn’t happily take him as their starter.
Over in New Orleans, every year I expect Drew Brees to hit a steep decline— he’s nearly 38 years old and has averaged 650+ pass attempts over the last six seasons, easily the most in the league—yet somehow he remains one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. This might even be his finest season yet, especially when you consider the supporting cast around him. And, yes, there is of course Matt Ryan, a legit MVP candidate. His QB rating is 2nd in the league when throwing from a clean pocket, and 5th when throwing under pressure. He’s the most accurate deep ball passer in the league; when throwing 20+ yards downfield, he has 9 touchdowns, 0 INTs, and a 136.3 QB rating. So with no weak links, an MVP candidate, an age-less wonder still at the top of his game, an overly criticized former MVP, and the league’s most promising young signal-caller, the NFC South is our clear champion.