This year, like most years, there’s been a lot of talk surrounding quarterbacks across the NFL. With so much rookie quarterback talent coming out of this year’s draft, signal callers across the league are in the spotlight, both newcomers and veterans alike. How will this year’s rookie gunslingers compare to starters around the NFL? Which veterans will be outperformed and outshined in 2021?
Today, we’ll go over which divisions have the best play from all four of their quarterbacks, ranking them by the overall talent at the QB1 spots. I want to emphasize the word “overall” here. This is a ranking of divisions determined by which have the best quarterbacks top-to-bottom. Some divisions have future Hall-of-Famers bringing up the overall average talent, but the second-through-fourth-best quarterbacks in their division don’t do enough to keep that overall grade high. For example, the NFC North and South have Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, respectively, but no other starting quarterback in those divisions is even close to their level, so the overall rank suffers.
For this ranking, I, of course, considered past performance, but I also factored in future potential and established legacy when considering talent for each signal caller. Obviously, none of this year’s rookies have played in any games yet, so it wouldn’t be fair to count that against, say, the AFC East with its two rookie starters.
All of that said, here are my rankings of each division based on their overall talent at QB1.
#8: AFC South (Trevor Lawrence, Ryan Tannehill, Tyrod Taylor, Carson Wentz)
On one hand, the AFC South has one of the most hyped quarterback prospects of the last decade in Jaguars starter Lawrence. On the other hand, they have… no one outstanding.
Tannehill is in his third year with the Titans after nine years in Miami. After a career year in 2019 that earned him the Titans’ starting spot and a Pro Bowl nod, he followed it up with an impressive showing in his first 16-start season since 2015. Whether that efficiency continues in 2021 or Tannehill starts his regression to the mean is something we’ll have to wait and see.
Taylor and Wentz are the two quarterbacks that hurt this division’s ranking the most. Taylor is at best a one-year starter in Houston, having seemingly made a career out of being the quarterback on the hot seat for high potential rookies (see: Herbert, Mayfield) after three years starting in Buffalo. This offseason, Wentz departed from the team that drafted him with the second overall pick in 2016 after an abysmal 2020 season in which he led the league (tied) with 15 interceptions. Lawrence is perhaps the quarterback with the most potential in the NFL, but no one else in the AFC South comes close to matching it.
#7: NFC East (Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jalen Hurts, Daniel Jones, Dak Prescott)
What brought the division up a notch was what will become the keyword for these rankings: potential.
We know what to expect out of Fitzpatrick, he’s an established, journeyman veteran who’s got the power of Fitzmagic on his side—I still think about that face mask miracle throw against the Raiders last year. It’s the other three quarterbacks here who are harder to define.
Hurts is entering his first full year as the Eagles’ full-time starter. He didn’t light the world on fire in his four games in 2020, but he did beat the playoff-bound Saints in his debut and showed off his mobility on the ground. We’ll get a better sense of Hurts and his potential future after we see him start a full season.
Jones and Prescott are interesting cases. Jones is entering his third year under center in New York with a newly upgraded receiving corps. Prescott will return under center for Dallas after missing most of last season with an ankle injury that required surgery. NFC East overall has boom-or-bust potential at quarterback, but I’m not high on any of the four heading into 2021.
#6: NFC North (Kirk Cousins, Andy Dalton/Justin Fields, Jared Goff, Aaron Rodgers)
The NFC North has the reigning MVP and future Hall of Famer in Rodgers, but don’t sleep on some of the division’s other quarterbacks.
Cousins has been a very solid face of the offense for Minnesota since he joined the team in 2018, making the most out of his mediocre offensive line situation by relying on the star-studded receivers around him. Goff has had a solid career up to this point as well, having earned two Pro Bowl nods and an NFC Championship win in his five-year career. He’ll have some work to do in Detroit with a new offense and a depleted group of receivers.
Dalton is the starter in Chicago, but it won’t be long before we see Justin Fields take over the job, and if he can perform in the regular season like he did in the preseason, he’ll be the most exciting and talented quarterback the Bears have had in years.
#5: NFC South (Tom Brady, Sam Darnold, Matt Ryan, Jameis Winston)
Tom Brady. I don’t think I have to say much more, but every year more people wonder if this is the year his age will catch up with him, and every year he shows them it isn’t. I’m inclined to believe this year isn’t it either (see: Super Bowl LV).
Darnold, Ryan, and Winston are obviously all several steps below Brady’s talent, but there’s reason to be optimistic about each of them. Darnold has gotten a change of scenery away from the bright spotlight of New York, and the move to Carolina might end up being the career change he always needed. They’ve certainly got a better run game to take the pressure off.
Ryan will play his first season without Julio Jones in 10 years. The good news is they drafted an incredible pass-catching replacement in tight end Kyle Pitts. Ryan is getting old, but he hasn’t shown any sign that he’s deteriorating just yet after leading the league in completions over the last two seasons.
Winston’s eye surgery has seemed to do wonders for him based on his three preseason games. He completely dominated what began as a quarterback battle between him and Hill to replace Drew Brees in New Orleans, and the Saints have a stellar group of receivers to match.
#4 AFC West (Teddy Bridgewater, Derek Carr, Justin Herbert, Patrick Mahomes)
Patrick Mahomes is awesome. He was the 2018 MVP and he’s led the Chiefs to back-to-back Super Bowl appearances. The only quarterback who has ever beat Mahomes in the playoffs is Brady, who did it in the AFC Championship after the 2018 season and in the Super Bowl last year.
Herbert is coming off an incredible rookie year in which he broke the record for most passing touchdowns by a rookie on his way to winning the 2020 Offensive Rookie of the Year award. A new Chargers coaching staff can really take advantage of the special talent Herbert is in 2021.
Bridgewater came to Denver from Carolina after the Panthers traded for Darnold, and he won the starting job over Drew Lock based on his preseason performance that featured just eight incompletions on 30 passing attempts. Carr has had three straight 4,000-yard passing seasons since Jon Gruden returned as head coach of the Raiders. He’s cut down on interceptions as well. The AFC West is one of the best divisions as far as talent and potential from all four of their quarterbacks.
#3 AFC East (Josh Allen, Mac Jones, Tua Tagovailoa, Zach Wilson)
The division leads the league in, say it with me, potential.
Wilson and Jones balled out in the preseason. Wilson proved he was more than ready to be the Jets’ starter for Week 1, and Jones took full advantage of Newton’s COVID testing mishap to take over as the starter in New England.
Elsewhere, Allen became the first quarterback not named Brady to lead his team to an AFC East title since Chad Pennington and the Dolphins in 2008. The Bills look like the real deal under Allen, making it all the way to the AFC Championship last season, and they’ll be looking to defend their AFC East title in 2021.
Tagovailoa is the biggest question at quarterback in this division. He started nine games in his rookie year, but Fitzpatrick bailed him out late in games on several occasions. If Tagovailoa can show that he’s developed well in his experience last year and this preseason, he’ll likely find more success this season.
#2 AFC North (Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson, Baker Mayfield, Ben Roethlisberger)
The AFC North has a ton of young talent and one of the most established quarterbacks of the previous generation.
Mayfield not only led the Browns to the playoffs for the first time in 18 years, but he won an away playoff game in Pittsburgh. It was the first away playoff win for Cleveland since 1969. Fellow 2018 draftee Jackson has shown greatness in his time in Baltimore, winning the MVP award in his second year in the NFL. On top of their success, they’ve got youth on their side too, so their potential for success in the future is some of the highest across the NFL.
Burrow will be entering year two of his NFL career after his much-anticipated rookie campaign was cut short with a torn ACL and MCL. The Heisman winner has got the potential to be the face of the franchise the Bengals always hoped for, and hopefully the knee injury doesn’t give him too much trouble going forward.
Finally, Roethlisberger is a bonafide Hall of Famer and one of the top quarterbacks of his generation. His age and injury troubles have only held him back slightly, as he was still able to secure an AFC North title as recently as last year.
The AFC North is chock full of talent at quarterback on every team, and they’re going to be fun to watch this year.
#1 NFC West (Jimmy Garoppolo/Trey Lance, Kyler Murray, Matthew Stafford, Russell Wilson)
With Stafford’s arrival in Los Angeles and Lance’s in San Francisco, the NFC West became one of the divisions most stacked with quarterback talent in the NFL.
Wilson has found success since the beginning of his career in Seattle, and he’s got the previous back-to-back Super Bowl appearances and a ring to show for it. Stafford didn’t have the same winning success in Detroit, but no one can doubt his talent as a quarterback. He’s got one of the strongest arms in the league and under new head coach Sean McVay, he’ll have the chance to really thrive with the Rams.
Murray has one of the highest ceilings of any quarterback currently and he’ll be looking to bounce back from the Cardinals' disappointing collapse in the back half of 2020. As a dual-threat quarterback, Murray has shown a great ability to take full advantage of his talent with both his arm and his legs, throwing for 26 scores and rushing for another 11 last year.
Finally, the double team of Garoppolo and Lance makes the 49ers truly formidable under center. Garoppolo hasn’t been exactly the quarterback San Francisco had hoped for, especially with the injuries, but his talent was enough at least to bring the 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2019. Lance adds another dynamic with his mobility, and his high potential ceiling matches—if not surpasses—Murray’s.
The NFC West has two defined generational talents in Stafford and Wilson, and Murray and Lance look like they could very well be two of the faces of this newest generation of quarterbacks in the NFL. Top to bottom, the NFC West has the talent, established performers, and high potential to give them the title as the division with the best quarterbacks in the NFL.
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