If you don’t have a Peyton Manning, you better have everything else. This is a lesson Manning himself learned in 2015-16, when the shell-of-his-former-self quarterback was dragged to his second Super Bowl title by the Broncos’ elite defense. Champion aspirations always begin and usually end in the quarterback room, making it the most important position in North American sports.
Everything is taken into account as we evaluate the league-wide landscape. Age, track record, future projection, injury history, retirement rumblings, etc. As I stress every year, this is why simply having the best quarterback does not mean you have the best quarterback situation. Tom Brady and Drew Brees are year-to-year propositions. Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan are not. Last year’s list can be found here. 2016’s is here.
Editor’s Note: The 2018 Rotoworld Draft Guide provides more than 500 extensive player profiles, tiers, projections, Evan Silva’s Sleepers and Busts and much more. Get the NFL Draft Guide now.
1. Seahawks, Russell Wilson
Russell Wilson is older than you think (30 in November) but younger than the rest of his elite brethren. Although Wilson has never won an MVP award, the Seahawks have never had a losing season on his watch. That could change in 2018 but it won’t be because of Wilson, who rebounded from an injury-marred 2016 with an electric 2017. Wilson accounted for 37 touchdowns while turning the ball over just 14 times. He did so despite getting walloped for 43 sacks behind the league’s worst group of blockers. Trying times are ahead for Seattle. The defense’s heart has been cut out while the offensive line has scarcely improved. Wilson’s proven “weapons” are Doug Baldwin and little else. 2018 figures to be his most challenging campaign. The reason it won’t be a lost cause for the Seahawks is their quarterback’s presence under center. Wilson’s combination of proven production and safely-bankable future seasons gives Seattle the league’s best quarterback situation.
2. Packers, Aaron Rodgers
The NFL’s best player turns 35 in December. That age has hardly been a precipice for elite quarterbacks, though it can be a warning light for the more mobile-minded. Steve Young, John Elway, Tony Romo, etc. Aaron Rodgers himself can attest to the increased difficulty of scrambling around in your mid-30s. 2017 saw him miss half the season with a broken collarbone for the second time in five years. The older the human body gets, the less it likes getting crunched by 300-pound linemen. This is the minefield Rodgers must navigate as he looks to age like a fine Tom Brady wine. We will continue to give Rodgers the benefit of the doubt, as his play has yet to slip. Perhaps he will have to spend less time gliding around the pocket, but mobility is not his only weapon. There’s also his league-best arm, and more than anything, his brain. As gifted mentally as he is physically, Rodgers should have the computing power to provide another half decade of elite play.
Carson Wentz is coming off one of the best sophomore seasons in NFL history. His 33 touchdowns — which he managed in 13 games — were tied for the sixth most ever for a quarterback 25 or under, while his seven interceptions were the fewest for a pre-25 30-touchdown campaign. He was on pace to become the league’s youngest MVP since Emmitt Smith in 1993 before tearing his ACL in Week 14. Wentz’s knee is his only question mark going forward. Already bound to regress on last year’s sky-high 7.5 touchdown percentage, Wentz’s recovery figures to limit his mobility as he gets his legs back underneath him. He won’t be matching or exceeding his 2017. Thankfully for the Eagles, he should have at least another decade to do so. A Favreian-type talent, Wentz is poised to turn the Eagles into annual Super Bowl contenders.
4. Lions, Matthew Stafford
One of the league’s most underappreciated players, Matthew Stafford got in nine years of NFL football before turning 30. The No. 1 overall pick of the 2009 draft has not missed a game since 2010. Once inefficient and turnover prone, Stafford has grown more careful and precise with age. Amongst the 18 quarterbacks to make more than 40 starts since 2015, Stafford’s 33 interceptions are 12th. In that same group, his 66.1 completion percentage ranks fifth. At one time the owner of a curiously-low touchdown percentage — 3.6 from 2012-14 — Stafford has seen it normalize to 4.9 over the past three seasons. He has accomplished all this while remaining prolific, averaging 4,345 yards since 2015. Maybe Stafford will never become a true superstar, but he’s cultivated one of football’s highest, safest floors. There is still time to establish a new ceiling.
5. Falcons, Matt Ryan
Now 33, Matt Ryan hasn’t missed a game since he was 24. In between has been the highest of peaks and lowest of valleys. 2015 was the nadir, with Ryan providing as many turnovers as touchdowns (21) as the Falcons limped to an 8-8 record to complete an 18-30 (.375) three-year stretch. He stunningly rebounded in 2016 to win the Falcons’ first MVP award and bring them within an improbable choke of their first Super Bowl title. Ryan split the difference between these two extremes in 2017, throwing for a disappointing 20 touchdowns but posting the third-highest YPA of his career (7.74). Ryan can’t single-handedly win you a division like Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, but he can make hay with excellent supporting casts. That’s what he has for 2018 with Calvin Ridley joining Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman and Mohamed Sanu. Ryan has the kind of big-armed skill-set that has aged exceptionally well in the 21st century. He should have a minimum of 4-5 prime seasons left in the tank, enough for the Falcons to reach at least one more NFC Championship Game. They have averaged an appearance every five years with Ryan at the controls.
6. Panthers, Cam Newton
Cam Newton in a nutshell? His 59.1 completion percentage last year was his highest since 2013. Now 29, Newton is a finished product as a passer. The “next step” isn’t coming. That’s why the Panthers ultimately decided not to change him as a runner. The buzz going into 2017 was that Newton was going to run less and get the ball out quicker. After four games where he averaged just 5.5 rushes and accounted for only seven total touchdowns, that plan went out the window. Newton was unleashed to the tune of 10 weekly rushes for the season’s final 12 games, resulting in the Panthers’ fourth playoff appearance in seven years with Newton at quarterback. Newton’s play is never going to be easy on the eyes. Whatever city he’s playing in will be the overthrow capital of the world that day. But it’s pointless to hope for Newton to be someone he’s not. He’s a monster truck under center, one fitted with a cannon to get the ball down field. It’s a style that could burn out early, but Newton is still on the right side of 30. At the bare minimum, he should have 3-4 years of elite football left in the can.
7. Colts, Andrew Luck
It’s been forever since Andrew Luck started a game but it won’t be much longer. The human body does heal. Luck will be out there. When he is, it will be as a 29-year-old former No. 1 overall pick who has posted a 5.9 touchdown percentage over his past 38 games. That’s going back to the start of the 2014 season. It’s a small, skewed sample size, but only Aaron Rodgers had a higher percentage of his throws go for six during that timeframe. It’s possible Luck will never be the same but it is more likely he will pick up where he left off. Luck was already hobbled during a 2016 where he averaged 7.78 yards per attempt and posted a 31:13 TD:INT ratio. He’s one of the best quarterbacks in the league, one who still has over a year on the right side of 30. He should be under center for at least another half decade in Indianapolis, and likely longer. Luck’s career hasn’t been what was expected. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t been good. There’s still lots of time for it to get where it’s been going.
8. Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger
Ben Roethlisberger’s latest gambit on his 4D chessboard? Saying he hopes to play at least three more seasons. This, after the then 34-year-old supposedly flirted with retirement during the 2017 offseason. It’s never easy to tell which way the Roethlisberger wind is blowing, but the overall weather is always the same: Dominant football. His 7.90 YPA over the past four seasons is second only to Matt Ryan’s 7.95, while his 5.1 touchdown percentage is fourth. As accurate as he’s ever been — a completion percentage of at least 64.0 each of the past five years — Roethlisberger continues to balance efficiency with aggression. According to Pro Football Focus, 15.7 percent of Roethlisberger’s 2017 attempts were directed more than 20 yards down the field. Only Russell Wilson and DeShone Kizer threw deep more often. Years of savage hits have reduced Roethlisberger’s mobility, but he’s missed just one game with injury over the past two seasons. The only thing keeping Roethlisberger from ranking higher on this list is his year-to-year outlook. If his mind sticks with his “three more years” pledge, his body should be able to honor it.
9. Patriots, Tom Brady
Tom Brady’s 2017 was nothing if not Shakespearean. Along the way to becoming the league’s oldest MVP at age 40, Brady is rumored to have forced the trade of his understudy while falling out with his mentor. These unpredictable contours still ended in a familiar spot: The Super Bowl. It was Brady’s eighth appearance in 16 non-injury shortened years as starter. Brady has long talked of playing beyond the bounds of what was previously possible, but that was before his bitter 2017. A more sober Brady admitted to Oprah in June — seriously — that time is running out. “I think about it more now than I used to,” Brady said. “I think now I’m seeing there’s definitely an end coming sooner rather than later.” It sounds revelatory coming from Brady, but elementary from a 41-year-old. Regardless of his intentions, Brady is year to year at this stage of his career, perhaps even game to game. Peers like Peyton Manning and Brett Favre learned this lesson in real time. With Jimmy Garoppolo gone, the Pats don’t have a backup plan. Brady’s ceiling remains the highest in football. That’s why even one year of Brady merits a top-10 ranking. It’s just that the floor could fall out at any moment.
10. Saints, Drew Brees
There have been nine 5,000-yard seasons in NFL history. Drew Brees has five of them. The nine times a quarterback has finished with a completion percentage north of 70? Brees was four of them. That’s … insane. Brees is every bit as good as Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers, and when the dust settles on this era of NFL football, it’s possible future generations will decide he was the best to ever do it. The only thing holding Brees back on this list is age. He turns 40 in January. Brady crossed that rubicon without breaking a sweat. It’s possible, if not likely, Brees will, too. You just can’t take anything for granted when it comes to a 39-year-old human body and the NFL. Brees is year to year. For 2018, the Saints will gladly take it, paying Brees roughly $25 million. When it comes to 2019, check back next year.
11. Chargers, Philip Rivers
Going on 37, Philip Rivers is coming off his most effective campaign since his career-best 2013. He also avoided the second half slump that had plagued him every year since 2014, playing his football down the stretch. Nevertheless, the Chargers still missed the playoffs for the fourth-consecutive season. The Bolts now have one postseason win in nine years. That’s an organizational-wide failure that would normally get the quarterback scapegoated. Rivers’ play has remained just beyond reproach, even as he tossed an unseemly 21 interceptions in 2016. With the way Rivers’ quarterback compatriots have been aging, there’s little reason to expect that to change in 2018. Rivers has never missed a game since becoming starter in 2006. Although he’s aging every bit as well as Tom Brady or Drew Brees, a “cliff” season is always a possibility for a player closer to 40 than 30. That, and the Chargers’ perpetual turmoil are the only reasons Rivers might not be back next year. Ultimately, he should be under center making his 209th consecutive start in Week 1 2019.
12. Vikings, Kirk Cousins
Money finds Kirk Cousins. After playing under the franchise tag back-to-back seasons — extremely unusual for a quarterback — Cousins somehow became the first signal caller in NFL history to land a fully guaranteed, multi-year contract. Cousins has been in the right place at the right time ever since Robert Griffin III’s starting career was cut short by knee issues. Although circumstance has played its part, the time can only be so right if you’re not good. Cousins is. Over the past two seasons, just Matt Ryan, Tom Brady and Drew Brees have posted a higher YPA. Only Brees and Ryan have thrown for more yards. The Redskins’ system is pass-happy, but Cousins executed it to near perfection. He’s now migrated to an even-better setup. Believers in the run, the 2018 Vikings have the best defense Cousins has ever played with. The same can be said for his weapons. Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson are good. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen are better. If you’re parsing the word “elite,” Cousins does not meet the definition. Good enough to win with? Absolutely. It’s long been the right time for Cousins. Now his watch is finally synced up with that of his team.
13. Raiders, Derek Carr
Although he’s missed only two regular season games in four years, Derek Carr has been beset by injury, suffering a gruesome leg break in late 2016 before fracturing three bones in his back last Week 4. Slated to miss 2-4 weeks, Carr ended up sitting out just one, but he paid the price down the stretch. Carr appeared genuinely lost for much of the season’s second half, bottoming out in Weeks 14-17. Carr averaged a pitiful 191 yards per game and 5.63 yards per attempt as the Raiders collapsed to an 0-4 finish, supplying as many touchdowns as interceptions (five) in the process. Carr blamed the injury — “when you break three bones in your back, it doesn’t feel good” — but that doesn’t change the fact that he finds himself at a mid-career crossroads. Having never averaged more than 7.03 yards per attempt, Carr is looking to get back on track with Jon Gruden, who hasn’t manned a sideline since 2008. Carr is a legitimate starter. That’s half the battle in a quarterback-starved league. It’s just becoming less clear if there’s another step he’s capable of taking. If the 27-year-old doesn’t do it in 2018, it’s probably never happening.
14. 49ers, Jimmy Garoppolo
Jimmy Garoppolo has started seven NFL football games. His teams have never lost. The 26-year-old rampaged down the 2017 stretch for a squad that was 1-10 before inserting him under center. Garoppolo averaged 308 yards per game and completed 67 percent of his passes with Marquise Goodwin as his No. 1 receiver. His 8.76 yards per attempt would have led the league by a considerable margin had he played enough to qualify. It was scintillating stuff, crystallizing why football god Bill Belichick had been so reluctant to let his No. 2 go. The 49ers, who gave Garoppolo $48.7 million guaranteed in February, are all in. That’s quite an investment in a late-20s quarterback with 272 career attempts, one whose limited résumé already includes an in-game shoulder injury. But those nitpicks illustrate little more than a potential risk that is still heavily outweighed by the potential reward. Playing for one of the league’s most creative offensive minds in Kyle Shanahan, Garoppolo might already have one of its signature attributes, his quick release. It allows Garoppolo to complete passes other quarterbacks can’t even attempt, and to escape pressure that would otherwise get home. Garoppolo’s road to starting duties was unusual, but its destination seems clear: Stardom.
15. Cowboys, Dak Prescott
Coming off one of the best rookie quarterback seasons of all time, NFL reality bit Dak Prescott in 2017. Prescott actually got off to a hot start, accounting for 17 touchdowns compared to just four interceptions across the Cowboys’ first six games. Then everything went south. Most prominent of Prescott’s problems was Ezekiel Elliott’s six-game suspension, though LT Tyron Smith’s back woes weren’t far behind. Worst of all was the collapse of the Cowboys’ skill corps. With neither Dez Bryant nor Jason Witten separating, Prescott found himself helpless, especially during Elliott’s ban. As a passer, Prescott posted a horrendous 8:9 TD:INT ratio over his final 10 starts. For the season, he still averaged 6.26 yards per carry while completing 62.8 percent of his throws. Prescott’s 86.6 QB rating was not apocalyptic. It’s the kind of year he would be primed to bounce back from with an improved supporting cast. Unfortunately, Allen Hurns and third-rounder Michael Gallup were the best the Cowboys could do. Prescott is going to have to weather more rough seas. If he can do so with a little more aplomb than he did in 2017, he will be well on his way to cementing franchise player status.
16. Titans, Marcus Mariota
There are two ways to look at ex-coach Mike Mularkey’s system. 1. It held Marcus Mariota back. 2. Mariota didn’t rise above it. Mularkey did not put Mariota in the best position to succeed. He tried to square peg a spread passer into an “exotic smashmouth” round hole. It was always going to be an exercise in frustration. Mariota still should have been better. That was especially true in 2017, where Mariota derailed to the tune of a 13:15 TD:INT ratio while posting career worsts in both yards per attempt (7.14) and QB rating (79.3). Returning from a knee injury and battling hamstring woes, the supposed dual-threat rushed only 60 times all season, averaging 21 yards per game. It was rock bottom. Even under Mularkey, there would have been nowhere to go but up in 2018. Thankfully, Mularkey is gone and forward-thinking coach Mike Vrabel is in. Vrabel has tapped Sean McVay lieutenant Matt LaFleur to run his offense. Ultimately, only Mariota can make his season — and career — a success. But it is no small thing that he is finally being primed for it. Whereas Mularkey treated Mariota as the driver of the car, Vrabel wants him to be the engine. Mariota is finally getting an honest opportunity to see where the road takes him.
17. Texans, Deshaun Watson
“God mode” is one way to silence the doubters. For six brief rookie starts, Deshaun Watson was the most electrifying player in the NFL, outplaying his lofty No. 12 draft position while coming stunningly close to equalling his transcendent college play. That his season was ended by a practice injury was one of the crueler football developments in recent memory. As the story has shifted to Watson’s seamless rehab, we shouldn’t forget that for all his first-year glory, there were reasons for pause. It goes without saying that Watson’s astonishing 9.3 touchdown percentage will regress. Less discussed is his 3.9 interception percentage. Via PlayerProfiler.com’s Matt Kelley, only eight of Watson’s 13 “interceptable passes” were picked off. And of Watson’s 204 overall attempts, just four were muffed by his pass catchers. As Kelley puts it: “Defenders dropped more of Deshaun Watson’s passes than Texans receivers.” A dual-threat returning from a serious leg injury who is sure to regress as a passer, Watson is going to have sophomore growing pains. How severe they are will tell the story of where his career is going. Right now, Watson is a franchise player with a limitless ceiling but undefined floor. We need more information.
The Browns have written the book on how not to handle your quarterback situation, publishing many, many new additions. They have finally thrown it out. After aggressively turning excess draft capital into underrated starter Tyrod Taylor, GM John Dorsey made the daring but correct decision to select diminutive Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield at No. 1 overall. Either player would be the Browns’ best starter since the original iteration of the team moved to Baltimore. Together, they represent the perfect situation for a club in transition. Mayfield has the skills to start as a rookie, but Taylor’s presence allows him to be eased in, a luxury in the modern game. Long-term, you could argue Mayfield is the league’s most gifted quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck. Plans are just that, but the Browns not only have a good one, they have the best one of any team without an established franchise player. The corner might finally be getting turned in Cleveland.
19. Bengals, Andy Dalton
The living embodiment of “steady, if unspectacular,” Andy Dalton is closer to the end of his Bengals tenure than the beginning. Going on 31, Dalton is coming off his least productive campaign since 2014. Injury and blocking issues were the primary culprits, but Dalton’s offense averaged an unsightly 24.2 yards per drive, good for last in the NFL. Dalton has only ever been as effective as his supporting cast, and right now, it’s in transition. Dalton has just three seasons remaining on the seven-year, $97.09 million “pay as you go” deal he signed in 2014. The Bengals can move on with $0 in dead money after 2018. That’s probably not their current plan, but this season will tell the tale. If coach Marvin Lewis is sent packing, no one should be surprised if his quarterback goes with him.
Jameis Winston has been as advertised since coming off the board with the No. 1 overall pick in 2015. Too often, that hasn’t been a good thing. Although clearly an NFL-level starter, Winston has been reckless as a passer. His 2.85 interception percentage is second only to Jay Cutler’s 2.86 for the worst in the NFL since 2015. More concerning has been Winston’s off-the-field issues. He is suspended for the first three games in 2018 after more or less admitting to sexually assaulting an Uber driver in 2017. This is only after he first tried to impugn the woman’s credibility. For this to happen after Winston was accused of rape at Florida State is deeply troubling. The Bucs didn’t release their quarterback, but he is on thin ice. The team went so far as to omit Winston from their 2018 stadium mural. The NFL has said Winston could be subject to a lifetime ban if he commits another violation of the league’s personal conduct policy. Even with the turnovers, Winston has the skill-set to be a decade-plus answer at quarterback. It’s an open question whether he has the personal integrity. Winston is signed through only 2019.
21. Rams, Jared Goff
Historically awful as a rookie, Jared Goff was pleasantly watchable as a sophomore, immediately taking to coach Sean McVay’s offense to become one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the league. Goff was everything he was not in Jeff Fisher’s “system,” completing layups, hitting big plays and avoiding sacks. It must be said that Goff’s instant turnaround was heavily schemed. Most famously, McVay rushed Goff to the line of scrimmage so he could bark audibles into his headset until the 15-second mark on the play clock. An incredible, and league-leading, eight of Goff’s 28 touchdown passes originated behind the line of scrimmage. Goff was managed and manipulated. Of course, one of the hallmarks of a good quarterback is the ability to be coached. We just need to see if Goff can handle the league’s inevitable adjustments in 2018. Never the highest-ceilinged prospect, Goff might already be at the outer limits of what he can accomplish. That wouldn’t be a bad thing. The Goff we got in 2017 was a viable NFL starter. It also wouldn’t be surprising if McVay eventually decides he needs someone with more horsepower to lead his attack.
22. Chiefs, Patrick Mahomes
It’s the age of accountants at quarterback. With high-percentage passing increasingly sweeping the land, gunslingers are a dying breed. Enter Patrick Mahomes, who likes to throw deep as much as any quarterback since maybe Brett Favre. Schooled in Texas Tech’s “throw now, think later” system, Mahomes is not only inclined to think big, he’s inclined to think big every play. This couldn’t be further from the Alex Smith truth the Chiefs are moving on from, which is not a coincidence. Andy Reid wants to re-open his offense after a half-decade in the big play friend zone. To his credit, Smith adapted last season, directing 12.3 percent of his throws more than 20 yards down the field. This was after he did so just 9.4 percent of the time in 2016. It was a sneak peak of what the Chiefs are expecting from Mahomes. 12.3 percent is Mahomes’ downfield over/under in an attack that now features Sammy Watkins opposite Tyreek Hill. Handpicked by one of the brightest offensive minds in NFL history to pilot a system tailor made for his skills, Mahomes is set up for success. All he needs to do to rocket up the quarterback ranks is execute.
23. Redskins, Alex Smith
In their refusal to pay Kirk Cousins, the Redskins … paid Kirk Cousins. Playing under back-to-back franchise tags, Cousins took home a cool $43.9 million over the past two seasons. Seemingly enraged at Cousins’ continued betting on himself and winning, the Redskins made no attempt to re-sign the quarterback they lucked into in the fourth round of the 2012 draft. The Redskins didn’t believe in Cousins. That’s fine. But in their haste to turn the page, they committed $55 million guaranteed to 34-year-old Alex Smith, a player the Chiefs couldn’t wait to move on from. The talent difference between Smith and Cousins isn’t that large. But Cousins is four years younger and by most measures better. They were running different systems, but Cousins generated 1,466 yards more yards and 11 more touchdowns than Smith over the past two seasons. Cousins’ 7.86 YPA during that timespan was the fourth highest in the NFL. That’s a number Smith has cleared exactly once. Granted, it was in 2017, but unless all the Redskins care about is fewer turnovers — an area where Smith has a leg up on just about everybody — there’s not a viable argument for choosing Smith over Cousins. Smith will not torpedo the Washington franchise. As Andy Reid can attest, he’s also not going to get it over the hump. No NFL quarterback has established a harder ceiling.
The Jets traded up for a USC quarterback. What’s the worst that could happen? Even if Josh McCown is the quarterback of the present, Sam Darnold is the future. That future could arrive as soon as September. If you’re a top-three pick, the countdown clock starts on draft night. Darnold enters the NFL as one of its youngest players. He would be the youngest Week 1 starter in league history if he beats out McCown in training camp. Darnold’s youth showed at USC, where he was a turnover machine, tossing 13 interceptions and losing nine fumbles in 2017. Both his release and footwork need polishing. Those flaws didn’t prevent him from consistently generating big plays. Darnold’s ceiling is as high as his floor is low. The risk is considerable, but that is true of almost every non-Andrew Luck prospect. Darnold is a worthy gamble for a team that’s been searching for a quarterback since its last USC product bombed.
25. Dolphins, Ryan Tannehill
Now 30, Ryan Tannehill has never had a 30-touchdown season. Formerly durable, he has missed 19 straight starts with ACL issues. An NFL team could do a lot worse than Tannehill — see Cutler, Jay — but it’s doubtful Tannehill is going to be better than what we have already seen. If you’re looking for reasons for optimism, Tannehill will be over a year removed from his most recent injury in Week 1. He will also have the deepest supporting cast of his career. His only season under coach Adam Gase was his best. All is not lost. That didn’t stop the Dolphins from thinking about selecting Tannehill’s successor in the draft. Peter King reported in March the ‘Fins were “looking hard” at quarterbacks, while they did little to hide their Baker Mayfield infatuation. Tannehill is capable of holding down the fort for a few more years, but the hourglass on his tenure has started. Short of being a whole new player — Tannehill 2.0, as his knee brace calls it — Tannehill is on his Dolphins downslope.