Who will be the NFL's five best QBs by the end of 2020? - Sports Illustrated

Survey: Who Will Be the NFL's Five Best Quarterbacks by the End of 2020?

Albert Breer polls more than 50 NFL decision makers about which quarterbacks they expect to lead the pack at the end of this season. Plus, power rankings, how the NFL will look on TV and market-setting contracts for star players.
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Saying the 2015 Texas Bowl changed the landscape of the NFL would not be overstating it.

On Dec. 29 of that year, the Chiefs were a good-not-great team. Andy Reid had stabilized the franchise and was entrenched in his third year as coach, with John Dorsey at GM and Alex Smith at quarterback. Those guys, at the time, probably couldn’t pick Patrick Mahomes out of a lineup. But what went on tape that day would soon become very identifiable within the walls of team headquarters.

Back then, Brett Veach was still in his first year as co-director of player personnel, working underneath Dorsey and VP of football ops Chris Ballard, and alongside Mike Borgonzi, who held the same title. And when Veach and I talked a couple months ago—a conversation you may have caught on my podcast—he explained it was that game that stirred his awakening on what was coming to the NFL.

Veach tells his scouts he has an “excite-o-meter” watching prospects, set off by “guys that you start the tape and when you look up, you don’t even realize that four or five hours have passed and you’ve watched every single game because you’re not even thinking of this as an assignment.”

Mahomes’s Texas Tech team lost by four touchdowns in that Texas Bowl.

And Veach’s excite-o-meter might as well have burst into flames.

“This was visual evidence that was so eye-popping,” Veach said, from his vacation. “Here you are—you’re watching Texas Tech. They’re playing an LSU team that has a bunch of first-rounders that year on both sides of the football, and he’s single-handedly unstoppable. So you want to talk about making people around him better, making things happen when things shouldn’t happen? And then your mind starts to think … What if you put him with Coach Reid? And what if he’s able to understand the West Coast offense? And what if you put a ton of talent around this guy?

“If this guy can line up against LSU and have first-round defensive linemen breathing down his neck, have first-round corners covering his wideouts, have first-round safeties playing the deep half of the field and he is able to just—on his own—move the ball up and down the field and make something out of nothing, what if you put him with Coach Reid? And what if he had better receivers than the other team, and what if he had offensive linemen that could protect him? The sky could be the limit for this guy because this guy is like nothing we’ve seen before.”

It’s been almost five years since that game was played. We know what’s happened since.

This week, I reprised an exercise I ran back in 2015 and again in 2018—asking NFL folks to list for me, 1-through-5, who they believe the top quarterbacks in football will be when we get to the end of the season. The results prove how right Veach was back then.

We really haven’t seen anything like this before.

***

Football is here! And to get you ready, in this week’s GamePlan, we’ve got …

• My Week 1 Power Rankings ballot.

• A look at what you’ll see on your TV this weekend.

• The NFL’s recession-proof contracts.

But we’re starting with the guy you’ll see climb back on the big stage tonight, six months after he rubber-stamped all the excitement he’d created over two season with a Super Bowl title.

***

Dan Marino won an MVP in his second NFL season, as a sort of Mahomes-level phenom of his own time. Joe Montana and Tom Brady each won championships, and Super Bowl MVPs, within their first three years as pros. And all three of those guys went on to become the all-time greats those sorts of starts promised them to be.

Mahomes has already done both, and he doesn’t turn 25 until next week.

So it was that when I scrambled to put together the poll—honestly, just because I felt like this would be a good time to do it again—I sort of expected it to turn out the way it did. But to see NFL people agree so overwhelmingly on something was still jarring. Most of these guys could disagree over the color of the yard markers (orange or more of a tangerine?), and yet on this one they were in complete lockstep.

The request, again, was to rank who they believe the top five quarterbacks in football will be at the conclusion of the season, and I scored it simply—five points for a first-place vote, four points for a second-place vote, three for a third-place vote, two for a fourth-place vote, and one for a fifth-place vote. The idea, of course, is not to rank guys on where they’ve been, but where they’re going.

Keeping the number to five is, for me, an exercise in figuring out who NFL folks believe are capable of being elite this year, and to get the answer I canvassed a pretty wide range of people. Head coaches. General managers. Scouting VPs and directors. Offensive coordinators. Quarterback coaches. I got 53 ballots back.

The results …

1) Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs: 261 points (49 first-place votes)

2) Russell Wilson, Seahawks: 153 points

3) Lamar Jackson, Ravens: 88.5 points (2 first-place votes)

4) Deshaun Watson, Texans: 70.5 points (1 first-place vote)

5) Aaron Rodgers, Packers: 69 points (1 first-place vote)

6) Drew Brees, Saints: 54 points

7) Tom Brady, Buccaneers: 41 points

8) Carson Wentz, Eagles: 16 points

9) Dak Prescott, Cowboys: 15 points

10) Kyler Murray, Cardinals: 12 points

T-11) Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers: 4 points

T-11) Cam Newton, Patriots: 4 points

13) Matthew Stafford, Lions: 2 points

T-14) Ryan Tannehill, Titans: 1 point

T-14) Jimmy Garoppolo, 49ers: 1 point

Mahomes got 261 of a possible 265 points, a result of finishing first on 49 ballots and second on the other four. For context, Rodgers topped the list in both 2015 and 2018, winning with 18 of 27 first-place votes the first time, and 23 of 32 the second time around. That’s 67% and 72% of the vote—a strong majority, just not as strong as Mahomes’s majority. The K.C. QB was first for 92% of the voters.

And we’ll dive a little more into how to process all of this with Mahomes in a second. But first, a little more on the results of the poll.

• Wilson was a very strong second—even though he didn’t get a single first-place vote (those were tough to come by). He appeared on 48 of the 53 lists I got, easily the closest number to Mahomes’s clean sweep. In fact, Jackson was the only other quarterback to make it on to more than half the ballots, appearing on 35 of them. Watson and Rodgers, showing up on 26 apiece were on just under half the lists.

• Even as public perception on Brees has started to erode a little, a lot of NFL people believe he’s got another good year in him. He outdistanced his fellow 40-something Brady, both in points and the number of ballots he appeared on (23 to 19).

• Of the guys still inside their first five years, it was pretty obvious, to me at least, that I’d see a lot of ballots with the names Mahomes, Watson and Jackson on them. It is interesting to see the three others in that age range who made it—Prescott was on 10 ballots, Wentz and Murray both showed up on eight—and then who didn’t.

• Stafford is the one guy I thought there’d be a little more love for. But he didn’t do great in 2015 (5 points) or 2018 (0 points) either.

All right, so those are the numbers. Now let’s get to what I see as the really interesting part of all this.

***

Most of the people I polled, even if their teams didn’t need quarterbacks in 2017, took at least a cursory look at Mahomes coming out of college. And it’s not like he was a fourth pick or anything that year.

But lots of people who presumably had the same access to that Tech/LSU tape that Veach did thought Mahomes’s game wouldn’t translate to the NFL and, as such, 10 teams passed on him—the nine picking in front of the 10th overall pick, and the Bills, who traded that pick away to the Chiefs. So what did everyone miss? How, exactly, did this happen?

“I think more than anything, we overcomplicated the evaluation of that position,” said one NFC scouting director, when I asked after he voted Mahomes first. “When it’s not like what you’re used to seeing, that tends to make you nervous about it. And coming from Texas Tech, you had all those guys that put up big numbers. Kudos to those guys in Kansas City for seeing the talent and how it fit what they do.”

Another scouting executive raised his 25 interceptions over 25 games in his last two years at Tech, the aforementioned history of video-game numbers from Red Raiders quarterbacks who didn’t pan out as pros, and the team’s 12-13 record over that time. And if you roll that all into seeing something that doesn’t fit into the box of what you’re used to seeing at the position—and Mahomes’s style is undeniably unconventional—it’s not hard to see where doubt crept in three years ago.

Those who are honest about it now acknowledge that.

“People thought he was one of these guys that just ran around and chucked it up,” said an AFC scouting chief. “Decision-making was something people dinged him on, and you never really got to watch him play from the pocket. When you have a guy running around, not being disciplined in the pocket, running out of the pocket all the time, it doesn’t fit to the preconceived notion of what a quarterback is.”

And what we’ve seen since is unmistakable—that a guy with that style, all the talent in the world to pull it off and a great head on his shoulders to grow in the areas that didn’t show up on tape as much, can be a premier prospect.

Or, as that scouting chief succinctly put it, “People thought, Well, this is a sandlot style, and lived in that box of the traditional pocket-passer forever. And I think now maybe your mind has to be open to the guy with the big arm who just makes plays. Because now who do you think about when you see it? You think of Patrick Mahomes.”

So the NFL will change. And maybe if another kid capable of throwing it like Marino once did, but doing it off-platform, and from different arm angles—as one scout put it, “Like a shortstop making a double play, but instead of throwing it to second, he’s throwing it 50 yards across his body”—comes on the scene, he won’t be looked at like he was playing a different sport in college.

Sometimes, it’s just as simple as that.

Good for Veach for seeing that.

Good for us, for getting to watch it again tonight—and for a long time to come.

***

patrick-mahomes-chiefs

POWER RANKINGS

1) Kansas City Chiefs: I can’t wait to see where this goes next.

2) San Francisco 49ers: The roster is still loaded, and the Niners are still stacked at the lines of scrimmage—even after losing talents like Joe Staley and DeForest Buckner. I think this is going to be a very good team for a very long time to come.

3) Baltimore Ravens: I almost feel like people forgot that they were 14-2 last year. There’s a lot of ascending young talent on that roster (Hollywood Brown, Ronnie Stanley, Mark Andrews, Matthew Judon, Marlon Humphrey, etc.), and a promising rookie class, with Patrick Queen and J.K. Dobbins looking like immediate contributors. And I didn’t even mention the reigning MVP yet …

4) New Orleans Saints: I think this is the best overall collection of talent in the NFL, and the league’s most balanced roster. If Brees is Brees, I see them in range of 12 wins or so, even in a pretty competitive division.

5) Philadelphia Eagles: I’ll be honest, the offensive line injuries made me waver a little bit here. Losing a starting left tackle (Andre Dillard) and elite guard (Brandon Brooks) would test any team’s depth. But between constant investment in that area and a great line coach (Jeff Stoutland), I think they can manage the issue. And I think the move to get rid of a few guys who were “on scholarship” there will make the team a little tougher, too.

***

THE BIG QUESTION

How will the NFL look different on TV?

I’ve been curious about this, so on Wednesday I got in touch with NFL VP of broadcasting Onnie Bose to find out. And Bose was quick to inform me that the experience everyone will have on the couch tonight and over next five months has been front-of-mind for everyone at 345 Park Avenue for quite some time.

“Really from the day the draft ended, we’ve focused on this,” said Bose, calling from Kansas City, where he’ll be on site for the opener. “It was a philosophical conversation with the networks on how we could create as authentic an experience as possible, whether the stadiums were empty or there were ten- or twenty-thousand people there. And what should that experience feel like?

“In the end, we really wanted to use technology to our benefit, the same way we did in pulling off the draft.”

For Bose, his crew and the league’s broadcasting partners, the audio immediately became the biggest piece, and Bose himself found direction on that pretty early watching other leagues restart overseas.

In particular, it was the return of the Bundesliga back in May—“I promise you, there’s never been more talk about German soccer in our office than there was then,” Bose says—that sparked the initial plans. At that point, the NFL was already leaning toward piping in crowd noise, but hadn’t made a final call yet.

The international feed of the Bundesliga’s return brought games without the crowd noise, giving massive German stadiums almost a hollowed-out feel on TV. Perhaps recognizing that, the league reversed on its second weekend back, using crowd noise to try and restore normalcy to the broadcast over what almost came off as a distraction to the game itself. “That just reinforced to us,” Bose said, “that, yes, we’re on the right track.”

Driving the point home, Bose saw the difference in MLS games on Fox (with the audio) and ESPN (without the audio), and the NFL never turned back.

The next piece to the puzzle was actually choosing audio to use and that’s where Bose stumbled onto a pretty fortunate twist in all this. It just so happened that over the last three or four years, NFL Films has been collecting audio from home games for all 32 teams, basically on the premise that there’d come a time when the audio would prove to be very, very valuable.

That time is now.

“You look at the history of NFL Films, what Ed and Steve Sabol built, they captured so many great images,” Bose said. “But then if you look at the composite, the audio is just as important, and sometimes more important. It’s a real credit to the guys on the audio team that they saw that, and have sound this good, the kind you’d do a film with. So we have a whole slate of audio available. Obviously, it was pretty smart for them to keep that audio.”

So tonight, you’ll hear sounds from Arrowhead on the broadcast, and Bose is hopeful that, “On a standard game coverage shot, anywhere from the 50 to the 25, framed right as the ball is snapped, you won’t be able to tell the difference.” To that end, behind the scenes, each team will have an engineer in front of a sound board, pushing buttons to try and recreate the feel we’re used to.

Now, that doesn’t mean there won’t be noticeable differences.

On wide shots, you’ll see the first 20 feet of the stands (about eight rows in most stadiums) tarped, with team colors and branding, team and league messaging and sponsors’ ads all over those tarps. Some stadiums (Arrowhead isn’t one) are doing the fan cutouts you’ve seen in other sports. And the fan mosaics that you saw at the draft, and on the screens courtside in the NBA bubble, will be worked into broadcasts and show up on some jumbotrons.

I did ask, too, whether the networks were told to avoid shots of empty stands, and Bose said that those calls will be made by the networks themselves, not the league.

Of course, everyone watching knows the deal, and so there’s no real reason to avoid showing it. And if anything, watching all the other sports has strengthened Bose’s feeling that the NFL can create a good viewing experience for everyone plopping down in the living room later tonight.

“We clearly had the benefit of having our last season over before the pandemic started, and all this runway to September,” Bose said. “We got to watch other sports come back or start their seasons. And we’ve learned a lot, going all the way back to when we were recording Korean baseball games in the spring.”

And tonight, the rest of us get to see the result of all that time and work.

***

jalen-ramsey-la-rams

WHAT NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT

The boom at the top of the NFL player market.

Since the pandemic began …

• The quarterback market was jolted by deals for Mahomes (a groundbreaker in length and total dollars) and Watson (who signed a more traditional deal, but one that showed a huge uptick over what Wilson got, when he became the previous standard-bearer for such deals). Pre-COVID, the market was at $35 million per year. Watson got to $39 million per. Mahomes got to $45 million per. So if you want apples-to-apples (Watson v. Wilson), you get an 11% bump. If you want to include Mahomes’s outlier deal, he got a 29% bump.

• Among pass rushers, we saw Cleveland’s Myles Garrett get a five-year, $125 million deal, then the Chargers’ Joey Bosa move the needle to $135 million over five. At $27 million per year, Bosa’s deal is a 15% hike over the $23 million per Khalil Mack got.

• At corner, Tre’Davious White scored a four-year, $70 million extension ($17.5 million per year) in Buffalo, which was bested this week by Jalen Ramsey’s five-year, $100 million deal in L.A. ($20 million per). Both of those came after Miami’s Byron Jones and Philly’s Darius Slay got deals exceeding $16 million per year after switching teams. And before all this? Miami’s Xavien Howard had set the bar at $15.1 million. Ramsey got a 20% uptick over that.

• Eagles tackle Lane Johnson got a new deal that put him at $18 million, outpacing the previous high of $16.5 million per year (set by Trent Brown and matched this offseason by Anthony Castonzo). Then, Houston’s Laremy Tunsil blew everyone out of the water at $22 million per, a 33% increase over where Brown was.

And I’m waiting for final judgment on DeAndre Hopkins’s deal in Arizona, but that stands to be in this group too.

So what does all this tell us? Well, certain positions were due to break the ceiling of $20 million per year, and that happened here. But it also says that great players will get paid—regardless of whether a cap shortfall is coming, or uncertain times lay ahead. That leaves the pinch to be felt elsewhere.

Usually, in the NFL, that pinch is felt by the middle class.

See many contracts done for those guys lately?

***

THE FINAL WORD

It’s been a long road getting here. But I want to thank everyone who kept reading, listening and watching through a very different time in our country. I promise you that it’s appreciated.

I hope you all get to enjoy the excitement of what’s coming tonight.