The Aaron Rodgers injury serves as the latest reminder: In pro football, nothing is more important than quarterback play. Here are the top 21 quarterbacks in the NFL right now. (Why 21? I set out to do 20, but thought the first man on the outside looking in, Goff, was too interesting to not write about.) And by “right now” we mean, if you had to choose a QB to play with for the rest of the 2017 season-only, who would you want? Assume the QB can bring his offensive system along, but not the players around him.
21. Jared Goff, Rams: In many respects, he’s a more talented Kirk Cousins. Goff throws the seam ball well, he’s sharp on early down play-action where the reads are defined (a key facet in head coach Sean McVay’s system), he’s willing to attempt tough throws when the situation demands and, while not mobile per se, he can make the occasional play when things break down. Even better, Goff himself is not usually the one breaking them down; he’s getting firmer from the pocket. But also like Cousins (especially a younger Cousins), Goff is prone to making the boneheaded mistake. That’s not atypical this early in a QB’s career. The Rams have a nice young head coach-quarterback tandem.
20. Deshaun Watson, Texans: Is five-and-a-half games too small a sample size to put Watson on this list? Probably. But if we’re talking about playing now? Defenses have yet to figure out Watson’s mobility or how to bait him into the ill-advised decisions that he already flirts with too often. That will change, it’s just a matter of whether Watson can grow fast enough to outpace his opponents. If he doesn’t, turnovers will ensue. Watson is a nice touch passer but not a flamethrower. His future hinges on how well he commands Bill O’Brien’s scheme. O’Brien, to his credit, has tweaked that scheme to accommodate his rookie QB.
19. Joe Flacco, Ravens: He’s on the list because it doesn’t feel right to put callow QBs like Goff and Watson ahead of an accomplished 10-year vet and Super Bowl winner. But sheesh, what has happened to the Ravens’ leader? His poise and aggressiveness have abated and his decision-making often goes awry. He’s been a shell of his former, star-caliber self the past year-and-a-half.
Addendum on Flacco being one spot ahead of Watson: I’ve seen every snap from both QBs on film, and there’s no doubt that Watson has been infinitely better in 2017. Each week, Watson has gotten quicker and smoother going through his reads, but there have been cases where he’s looked like a rookie—most notably, several ill-advised throws late in the down, many of which he doesn’t have the arm strength for—and gotten away with it. If he keeps making those mistakes, at some point his luck will change. (He very well could continue to improve rapidly, in which case I’ll be the biggest idiot left standing.) As for Flacco, I’ve always been smitten with his arm strength; I guess that’s the big-armed-pocket-passer-loving part of me that I just can’t quit. He is 32, too young to be washing up—I just can’t stop thinking he’ll turn it around. And, ultimately, I think there’s something to be said for Flacco’s decade-worth of solid tape. As for Watson, he had a shaky game-and-a-half followed by four great games. His long-term outlook is exciting, but this exercise is focused only on the remainder of his rookie year.
18. Andy Dalton, Bengals: Because he’s not great from a messy pocket and doesn’t have the biggest arm, he needs quality players around him in order to thrive. When he has that, he’s an excellent field general who can throw well between the numbers.
17. Marcus Mariota, Titans: Mariota can obviously make plays with his legs, but in Tennessee’s offense he must also be proficient throwing on first and second down (including play-action). He has a quick enough release, but you’d like to see more consistent accuracy.
16. Carson Palmer, Cardinals: He’ll continue to get the living daylights beaten out of him behind a bad Cardinals O-line and in a scheme that doesn’t leave extra men in to help pass protect. It’s incredible that Palmer keeps standing tall in the pocket and making his downfield reads. That’s why Arizona still has a fighting chance in the NFC West.
15. Dak Prescott, Cowboys: We wondered how he’d play once the perfect conditions of his rookie season disappeared. Well, this year, top receiver Dez Bryant has struggled, Dallas’s O-line has underachieved and Ezekiel Elliott has been bottled up (and could soon be serving that six-game suspension). Prescott’s response has been impressive. He continues to be a pocket QB first, a mover second. That’s a must in pro football. When Prescott has used his legs, he’s been sensational. He’s low on this list because the sample size of games he's played without those perfect conditions (five games) is small. But if he continues this current growth, he’ll soon be top 10.
14. Russell Wilson, Seahawks: Yes, he’s hindered by a shaky O-line, and that accentuates some of his limitations as a pocket passer. If Wilson is unable to get the ball out quickly, his lack of height and vision become issues, and the play can break down. Wilson can become dangerous—really dangerous, in fact—but not if he has bouts of inaccuracy like he’s had a few times this season.
13. Philip Rivers, Chargers: Meet the NFL’s most difficult QB to reconcile. Rivers is a true field general, owning the entire offense and commanding the game at the line of scrimmage. He still has the arm to make all the throws, and, though it’s unattractive, he can create new throwing opportunities off of movement, both outside the pocket and especially inside the pocket. And yet . . . the Chargers have suffered from perplexing turnovers and tight losses. It’s been for a variety of factors, but at some point you have to consider the quarterback’s culpability. How do you analyze a QB whose process is so much better than his team’s results?
12. Kirk Cousins, Washington: The “and his system” stipulation on this list is critical. Cousins fits Jay Gruden’s scheme about as well as any QB fits any coach’s scheme. The slow development of wide receivers Josh Doctson and Terrelle Pryor has hurt, but Cousins understands how the system can get the ball to interior playmakers like tight ends Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis, and especially scatback Chris Thompson. Cousins still occasionally attempts throws beyond his abilities, but as a timing and rhythm passer, he’s become very sound.
11. Jameis Winston, Bucs: An intriguing old-school dropback pocket passer, no one attempts more tight-window downfield throws than the third-year pro, and often the results are positive. Naturally, though, some are negative. That creates the fine line that Winston and head coach Dirk Koetter must walk together.
10. Alex Smith, Chiefs: He’s still a game manager. However, he’s managing the best-designed offense in football. As a smart player who has been in that offense for five years, Smith has naturally become more aggressive. He doesn’t leave nearly as many throws on the field as he used to.
9. Eli Manning, Giants: Yes, he’s had a few of his patented horrendous turnovers (the sack-fumble at the end of the Chargers game comes to mind). And yes, he’s without his receivers and playing behind a questionable offensive line, which will continue to impact his performance. But Manning hasn’t suddenly forgotten how to play football, and in a quick-timed scheme like New York’s, where two-receiver route combinations can work when the defense is properly diagnosed, he’s still a QB you can win with.
8. Derek Carr, Raiders: The Raiders have underachieved, but we shouldn’t overlook Carr’s quick release and accuracy. He’s become a more decisive passer, and he has the legs to survive when indecision does set in. Quarterback is not among Oakland’s problems, which is why their problems can be resolved.
7. Cam Newton, Panthers:The plan was to give Newton more throws to running backs in hopes of improving his completion percentage. So far, it’s gone well. Newton is connecting on 64.5% of his passes—5.7 percentage points better than his career mark. He still doesn’t (and probably never will) have the consistent precision-accuracy and timing to run a full-fledged spread quick-strike game, but the Panthers don’t need him to. They’ve incorporated Christian McCaffrey as the underneath piece in their existing deeper dropback concepts, and so Newton’s game still centers around downfield power throws, where he’s as effective as anyone. Oh, and also around his mobility, of course. The plan to run Newton less has, fortunately, fallen through. In crucial moments—third-and-medium, late in games, in the red zone, etc.—Newton’s legs become Carolina’s primary weapon. This offense would be lost without that. His mechanical glitches still make week-to-week consistency a question. But if Newton continues to play at his current level, he’ll climb this list, just like he did in 2015.
6. Carson Wentz, Eagles: We thought before the season that Eagles head coach Doug Pederson might expand the offense to better capitalize on Wentz’s late-in-the-down playmaking prowess. He has, and Wentz has responded. You can’t teach a quarterback to keep his eyes downfield under duress the way Wentz does, and you certainly can’t teach him to make Wentz’s strong-armed throws, which can come off design or improvisation.
5. Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers:Contrary to speculation, he can still play. Even if—if—he’s not quite the physical specimen he was, his evolution into a cerebral QB, both before and after the snap, will make him a great overseer of an offense that can rely on a smashmouth ground game or spread passing game. And by the way, there isn’t a defensive coordinator in the league that doesn’t still worry about Roethlisberger’s playmaking prowess.
4. Drew Brees, Saints: Business as usual. He still gets through his progressions as efficiently as anyone, which is why New Orleans’s offensive line shuffles have not been a huge problem, and why Brees’s declining arm strength usually isn’t.
3. Matt Ryan, Falcons: Though they’re slogging through a valley right now, the Falcons under new coordinator Steve Sarkisian have mostly looked like the schematically diverse, run/pass-synchronized offense that they were under Kyle Shanahan. It helps that Sarkisian’s QB can identify the defense before the snap (Atlanta’s varied formations out of base personnel helps) and work through his progressions smoothly after it.
2. Matthew Stafford, Lions: With Aaron Rodgers shelved, Stafford right now possesses the best arm in football. His ability to throw with velocity from a variety of platforms has been the difference in a few Lions wins; no one is better on far-hash, downfield throws. Stafford actually makes it risky to play Cover 2. Plus, he continues to show more pre- and post-snap maturity in coordinator Jim Bob Cooter’s offense. The Lions frequently line up in static formations and let their QB research the defense and tweak the play call before the snap. That’s what the Colts did in the Peyton Manning years. True, it wasn’t a great showing for Stafford against the Saints last Sunday, and yes, the Lions’ passing numbers are far from dazzling (there aren’t many weapons there). That doesn’t change the fact that Stafford’s skills have now caught up to his extraordinary talent.
1. Tom Brady, Patriots: He’s having the best season of his pretty decent 18-year career. New England’s offensive line woes have not just led to Brady getting knocked around, they’ve also forced him to move within the pocket (which he does better than anyone in history) and make throws with hits looming. Brady has been masterful here, especially given that New England has evolved into more of a vertical passing attack. Brady’s arm strength shows no sign of decline, and his precision accuracy remains pinpoint, even under pressure.
FILM NOTES ELABORATION
We forget how players can improve as they build experience in their team’s scheme. Vikings safeties Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo are great illustrations. They’ve played faster each year under head coach Mike Zimmer. You could argue that Smith is the best all-around safety in football, in fact. He’s rangy in all directions, reliable as an openfield tackler and dangerous making plays on the ball.
Andy Benoit and Gary Gramling wrap up the Sunday action each Monday morning on “The MMQB: 10 Things Podcast.” Subscribe on iTunes.
CAUSE FOR CONCERN?
There are mixed reports about whether Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant has asked for a trade. Either way, Bryant has lost snaps to rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster and has only 17 catches in six games this season. If calls are indeed being made about him, buyer beware. Besides the off-field baggage, anytime a player with Bryant’s type of fluid speed and explosiveness fails to produce, red flags raise. Especially when that player is in a stable offense like Pittsburgh’s.
KEEP AN EYE ON
Packers defensive tackle Kenny Clark. He’s starting to show why he was a first-round pick in 2016. Clark has strong arms (great for disengaging blocks), plays low and closes with burst, including when lateral movement is involved.
So where does Green Bay’s offense go from here? Brett Hundley has size and more than enough arm to make plays. The question is whether he can lead an offense on an everydown basis. He must get quicker working through his progressions; too often against the Vikings Hundley was mentally robotic. Having a full week of practice and a gameplan more tailored to him can change the equation; Hundley’s film this week against the Saints will be more revealing. One thing is for certain: The Packers must be better in the screen game. Several screens short-circuited at Minnesota. When Aaron Rodgers was out in 2013, Mike McCarthy relied heavily on backfield screens, particularly when the Packers got into scoring position. That would be a nice way to usher Hundley along.
NON-FOOTBALL THING ON MY MIND
Why does Halloween have to be on October 31? If Thanksgiving can be on the fourth Thursday of November, why can’t Halloween be on the fourth Saturday? A hasty Wikipedia search says: October 31 signifies the first day of Allhallowtide, being the time to remember the dead, including martyrs, saints and all faithful departed Christians. Maybe 0.1% of the population, this is the true meaning of Halloween. To the other 99.9%, it’s about candy, costumes and parties. Halloween this year is on a Tuesday. Ew. Move it to October’s fourth Saturday.
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