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2018 NFL QB Tiers: 50 execs rank the starting quarterbacks
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Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers reign supreme, as quarterbacks of resurgent teams rise and others fall down a peg. (1:03)
Jul 24, 2018

Mike SandoESPN Senior Writer

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Jared Goff and Carson Wentz are up. Eli Manning and Derek Carr are down. Jimmy Garoppolo and Deshaun Watson are ripe for debate.

My fifth annual NFL QB Tier rankings are here for 2018, backed by a panel of 50 league insiders. Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers still set the standard, of course. They were again the only unanimous Tier 1 choices after the 50 experts were finished placing each of the 32 projected starters into one of the five tiers. The higher the tier, the less help the quarterback needs to succeed.

The breakdown of voters this year: 10 general managers, five head coaches, 10 coordinators, 10 senior personnel executives, five QB coaches and 10 others with job titles ranging from assistant coach to salary-cap manager to analytics director.

We've got every team covered here, with candid insights from the 50 voters. The results provide a composite for how the league views its quarterbacks.

We start at the top.

Note: Because the fourth tier is reserved not only for lesser veteran quarterbacks but also for those without enough playing time to evaluate, exciting young prospects can lag in the rankings. Patrick Mahomes (one career start) is one example this year. Many voters who placed him in the fourth tier think he'll be better, but they reserved judgment in the absence of sufficient evidence.

To jump ahead to a specific tier, click the corresponding button below:



TIER 1

A Tier 1 quarterback can carry his team each week. The team wins because of him. He expertly handles pure passing situations.

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2014 2015 2016 2017
Previous rank 1 1 1 1
2018 tier average: 1.00

Rodgers has averaged 4.1 touchdown passes per interception over his 10 seasons as a starter. The ratio is 1.8-1 for the other 29 quarterbacks with at least 2,000 pass attempts in that same span. Brady (3.9) is the only other QB even remotely close. Fellow Tier 1 QBs Drew Brees (2.4) and Ben Roethlisberger (2.0) lag far behind. Those are striking differences for elite players within the same era.
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But now that Rodgers has missed 16 games over the past five seasons, there are questions to answer. Is durability a heightened concern as Rodgers approaches his 35th birthday this December? Will he need to reduce the number of off-schedule plays that have put him at risk of injury?

"Look at the injuries that cost Rodgers those 16 games -- every one was outside the pocket," a voter said. "Rodgers knows that. He is smart. If he starts limiting that, he could be like Brady -- in shape, fit, into his nutrition and able to be an elite performer into his late 30s. Because remember, if you're in the pocket, they can't hit you high, they can't hit you low and they can't hit you from more than a step-and-a-half away."

Fair enough, but if Rodgers cuts down on those off-schedule plays, how much less effective will he become? This voter had an answer for that question as well.

"Because Rodgers is so dangerous outside the pocket," the voter said, "people think he is especially reliant on that part of his game. What they don't realize is that Rodgers does most of his damage on schedule from inside the pocket, where only Brady and Brees are as good. This guy has the quickest release and livest ball in the league across every throw type imaginable."

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2014 2015 2016 2017
Previous rank 1 1 1 1
2018 tier average: 1.00

Brady passed for 505 yards in Super Bowl LII at age 40, nearly overcoming a terrible performance from the Patriots' defense and the injury loss of No. 1 wide receiver Brandin Cooks. He could be getting better. Even his biggest disappointments speak well of him.

"He has won five Super Bowls, but think about the Super Bowls they lost," a defensive coach said. "People forget, against the [2007] Giants, in the fourth quarter, he marched them down, he scored a touchdown and it took a helmet catch [by David Tyree] to win. They sacked him six times, hit him like 11 times -- it was the best defensive performance you could ever have had, and the guy still almost won the game."

What more can be said about Brady? I'll share three additional comments from voters this offseason.

Offensive coordinator: "It looks like he is getting better. He is such a quick decision-maker, he is so accurate, they keep expanding what they are doing, the burden is on him, they don't play good defense anymore. He carries that team."

GM: "The thing that is cool about Brady and people on the outside don't understand about the NFL is, it is the person he is. It is the leadership he brings to that building. He makes everybody excited about working there, playing on Sundays. Is he an a--h--- sometimes? We all are. But he exudes success and confidence. That is so hard to find in a quarterback."

Defensive coordinator: "Bill Belichick is an outstanding coach. If that guy [Brady] is not quarterbacking, then he is like the rest of us, trying to get our s--- together. Brady is just a special dude. The guy understands going back to college that he has to compete for everything all the time. That is what makes him great."

img
2014 2015 2016 2017
Previous rank 1 6 5 4
2018 tier average: 1.12

A common read on Brees is that he has declined physically and the clock is ticking louder for him than for Brady, but he's still good enough to remain in the top tier. As one personnel director put it, Brees might not play at a Tier 1 level for 16 weeks or even for full games, but he usually reaches that level when he needs to reach it.

"I thought he was done three years ago," a tiers voter said. "Give Sean Payton credit. They are running the s--- out of the ball. It helps protect him. It gives him really big windows to throw into. It is brilliant."

Another Brees admirer who studied the Saints' 2017 game at Lambeau Field thought it was increasingly important that the future Hall of Famer plays indoors at least 10 games each season, shielding his surgically repaired throwing shoulder from the elements. This voter said Brees' passes fluttered in that game, which New Orleans put away with a quarterback sneak for a touchdown after Brees threw two interceptions inside the Green Bay 40.

"Brees is a 1, but he is on a heavy decline," this voter said. "I have a hard time doubting that guy because of who he is, but his arm talent is not near what it used to be. There are throws where if he doesn't make them on time, he can't make them anymore, whereas before it was, 'Oh, s---, Drew Brees is coming to town.'"

The percentage of Brees' passes traveling at least 10 yards past the line of scrimmage has declined each of the past four seasons, reaching 25 percent in 2017, the lowest for Brees in his 12 seasons with the Saints. However, a quarterbacks coach said he didn't think Brees' arm was limiting the team's offense.

"When you throw it to 41 [Alvin Kamara], you are not throwing it down the field," another quarterbacks coach said. "You are throwing short screens and option routes."

img
2014 2015 2016 2017
Previous rank 7 4 3 3
2018 tier average: 1.40

This is the second year in a row Roethlisberger finished with 30 votes in Tier 1 and 20 in Tier 2. He's a 1, except when he is not.

"He is a 1 and I think it will show up a little bit more this year," an offensive coordinator said. "They have put the burden on him and they will try to take it off just a hair this year."

Voters acknowledge Roethlisberger's talent and production while wondering how much more consistent he might be if he were as maniacal in his preparation as the other Tier 1 QBs.

"You could make an argument that he is a 2 because he doesn't play very good on the road, but with his production and what they have done offensively, I think he is a 1," a quarterbacks coach said. "Now, he does not take care of his body very well. He is so naturally gifted, but I think once it goes, it will go fast."

Roethlisberger's 0-2 record at home against Jacksonville last season and five picks in just one of those games bolstered the perception among some that he's too careless with the ball.

"He was always a 1 in my eyes, but I'm going to take him down to a 2," a tiers voter said. "Going into our game against Pittsburgh, we said, 'This guy is going to make 4-5 bad decisions. We just have to catch the ball when he throws it to us.'"
TIER 2

A Tier 2 quarterback can carry his team sometimes, but not as consistently. He can handle pure passing situations in doses and/or possesses other dimensions that are special enough to elevate him above Tier 3. He has a hole or two in his game.

img
2014 2015 2016 2017
Previous rank 8 11 13 5
2018 tier average: 1.62

The Falcons, trailing 15-10 with 6 minutes remaining in their divisional playoff game at Philadelphia last season, marched into position for the go-ahead touchdown. After securing first-and-goal from the 9 with 1 minute, 19 seconds left, Matt Ryan threw three incomplete passes as Atlanta turned over the ball on downs. That finish, and the way the Falcons finished their Super Bowl collapse against New England a year earlier, hurt perceptions.

"Matt Ryan was a hard one for me," a defensive coordinator said. "I put him as a 1 initially, but I changed him to a 2 because of the playoff stuff. They haven't won the Super Bowl. To me, if you are a 1, you have won a Super Bowl or you are just so talented that your team is playing bad around you and you didn't have a chance to do it."

Ryan's 20 touchdown passes in 2017 were his fewest in a season since he threw 16 as a rookie. He received 19 Tier 1 votes, seven fewer than he received last year, when he was coming off his 2016 MVP season.

"Honestly, I really like him," an offensive coordinator said. "It just seems to me in those tough, crunch times, something gets in the way."

Ryan is the only quarterback with a playoff victory among the top four in annual salary average; he has four, while Kirk Cousins, Garoppolo and Matthew Stafford have zero. Ryan also has six playoff defeats.

"He is probably better than I give him credit for, but I just see inconsistency with him," an offensive assistant said. "He is not a real good foot athlete. He cannot easily avoid. But he can throw the crud out of it and he has had a lot of success. He lines up and plays every week -- every week -- and plays good enough."

img
2014 2015 2016 2017
Previous rank 8 8 6 10
2018 tier average: 1.72

It was tougher for Russell Wilson to win over voters when the Seahawks' defense was historically great and opposing defensive coordinators focused on slowing a Marshawn Lynch-led running game. How much was really on Wilson's shoulders? The erosion of talent in Seattle has forced him to carry more of the load. He has done it well enough to command 15 Tier 1 votes this year, five times as many as he did last offseason.

"This past year, to me, he carried the team," a former GM said. "He was their best player and in my estimation he took it to another level. He might be a guy that is sometimes a 1, sometimes a 2. Last year, I thought he was a 1."

A team that was once defined by strong defensive personalities has been transformed.

"A lot of guys there thought they should be the alpha males, but the bottom line is, at the end of the game, everybody is looking at that guy [Wilson] to do it, and he gets it done a ton," a defensive coordinator said.

The Seahawks have a 29-18-1 record (.615) since Wilson signed his four-year, $87.6 million extension in 2015, down from 36-12 (.750) when his team-friendly rookie deal made it easier for them to funnel resources elsewhere on the roster.

Some voters questioned whether Wilson's high-profile pursuit of opportunities unrelated to football made him less focused on self-improvement than he was early in his career.

"He has been through two years of hell and he has driven his team to as much success as they can possibly have, with a horrible offensive line," an offensive coordinator said. "I do not remember him complaining about any of it. Now, I don't agree with him doing all these look-at-me things in the spring, like the ESPN show and Major League Baseball, but when it is time for the season, he is ready for the season. At least he does that."

img
2014 2015 2016 2017
Previous rank 13 12 14 8
2018 tier average: 1.74

Stafford matched Wilson with 15 Tier 1 votes. There is no meaningful separation between those two in terms of the voting breakdown, but the raw talent Stafford possesses makes him a more inviting target for criticism in the absence of a playoff victory over nine NFL seasons.

"He is so talented, but here is my issue," a defensive coordinator said. "They should have been scoring lots of points and they never did. It falls on him. He is a 1 talent, but between a 2 and 3 performer. He has gotten more disciplined, but sometimes he freelances and it takes him a while to get it back. Then, if it's late in the game and the coverage gets generic in 2-minute, it is like, 'Boom, he gets hot.'"

The Lions rank 13th in offensive points per game over the past three seasons. Stafford, for his part, set an NFL record in 2016 with eight fourth-quarter comeback victories, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.

"Detroit is going to be at least .500 every year with that guy [Stafford] and most years you win 9-10 games and be in the playoffs," a GM who placed Stafford in Tier 1 said.

The Lions are 25th in ESPN's defensive-efficiency metric since Stafford entered the league in 2009. Ryan's Falcons and Brees' Saints have won playoff games and reached Super Bowls despite ranking lower over the same period.

"Stafford doesn't necessarily get the results as far as overall wins and playoffs," a voter said, "but he probably has more responsibility on him and has for his entire career than almost all the other quarterbacks."

img
2014 2015 2016 2017
Previous rank 6 7 8 8
2018 tier average: 1.80

It was tough to blame Philip Rivers for the Chargers' playoff absence last season when their special-teams issues were so pronounced, especially with Rivers reducing his interception total to 11 from a league-high 21 the previous season. The reduction in turnovers could explain why 15 voters placed Rivers in the top tier, up from eight last offseason. That made Rivers one of the biggest gainers in Tier 1 votes, behind only Wilson, Carson Wentz and Stafford.

"I have watched him and he can still do everything," a head coach said. "He is fearless with the ball and doesn't care who the receivers are. You can put me out there and he is going to come after you. It is ridiculous."

That fearless mentality does not always serve the Chargers well. The Chargers are 6-18 against the AFC West over the past four seasons. Rivers has six touchdown passes with 13 interceptions in an ongoing eight-game losing streak to Kansas City.

"I always feel like he is calling the game by himself out there," an opposing coach said. "I think he sees the field good. He is a tremendous competitor. Results-wise, I don't see it. Are you scared to death every time you play him? Yeah, I am, but if you look at what he has done, some of the interceptions are just crazy."

Defensive coordinators said they relished and dreaded matching wits against Rivers.

"You better be on your s---, now," one of these coordinators said. "He is going to know all your s---. We played him one year, we had a check, we made the check and he knew the check. He threw a touchdown and he was giving us our check back, like, 'Here it is, f--- you guys.'"

img
2014 2015 2016 2017
Previous rank NA NA NA 21
2018 tier average: 1.84

Only Goff enjoyed a larger gain from last offseason among returning quarterbacks. Wentz's 1.1-point improvement from a 2.9 average vote to a 1.8 likely would have been even greater if he had been the Eagles' quarterback during their Super Bowl-winning playoff run.

"I think he is a 2 that will be a 1, and then once he is a 1, it looks like he has a lot of the traits like Brady," a Super Bowl-winning coordinator said. "You'd just like to see him do it more."

A personnel director was one of 12 voters to place Wentz in the top tier already.

"Obviously, he had the knee, but if healthy and all that stuff, he's a 1," this director said. "He has a little backyard in him, but he is a very poised passer, a really gifted runner and he has the arm to make all the throws. He is confident, doesn't get rattled, does all the things that you want, and his team -- the players -- they gravitate to him."

A quarterbacks coach who placed Wentz in the second tier noted that most teams would be in trouble if they lost a Tier 1 quarterback. The Eagles flourished.

"He was slightly above average as a rookie," another voter placing Wentz in the third tier said. "He played 12 games and part of a 13th game last year. With all these guys, we should ask what they would be with an average supporting cast, average coaching, an average defense and an average kicking game. Remember how excited people were about Derek Carr a year ago? These young guys should be slow to ascend. What's the rush?"

Eagles backup Nick Foles doesn't have his own entry here because he's not the projected starter, but I did include him in the survey. He landed solidly in the third tier between Joe Flacco and Tyrod Taylor, pulling five votes in the second tier, 34 in the third and 11 in the fourth.

"He is a 3 and I could rationalize putting him as a 2 because he is a better thrower than anybody gives him credit for," an offensive coach said of Foles.

img
2014 2015 2016 2017
Previous rank 5 3 7 6
2018 tier average: 1.94

Voters weren't sure how to handle Andrew Luck. Some assumed, for the sake of the exercise, that he would be healthy and near 100 percent by Week 1. Others assumed he would need time to re-establish himself. Nearly everyone feared Luck might suffer additional setbacks that would keep him off the field even longer. It wasn't until after the voting was finished that the Colts announced Luck had been cleared for training camp without limitation.

"The big wild card there, beyond the health, is the offensive scheme they are going to run," a voter said. "Yes, they need players and must fix their line, but they also need to get the ball out of his hands. If they do that, and I expect them to do that, they can help him out."

Luck remained solidly in the second tier even though his average vote fell by 0.22. He was the only quarterback who received more than five votes in each of the top three tiers. Here's a sampling of voters' perspectives based on which tier they placed Luck in:

Tier 1 Luck voter: "I'm keeping him there until he proves me differently. He is one of those guys where his team is never out of a game."

Tier 2 Luck voter: "I've gotta go 2 just because of his career, but he could be a nothing. He hasn't played in how many months? But you have to give him the benefit of the doubt because when he was playing, he was a stud."

Tier 3 Luck voter: "I'll say 3 because he has played well in the past, but to me, he is almost a 4 in the sense that he is unproven after the injury."

img
2014 2015 2016 2017
Previous rank 16 14 4 12
2018 tier average: 2.30

The drop from Luck (1.94 average) to Cam Newton (2.30) is the largest from one quarterback to the next in the survey. It's not that Newton has plummeted. His average was unchanged from last year. Wilson, Stafford, Rivers and Wentz simply pulled away from him. Those four combined for 31 more Tier 1 votes than they commanded a year ago. (There were 31 additional Tier 1 votes overall).

"Cam is a 2-slash-3 who probably fits more in the 3 category," a defensive backs coach said. "The defense has always been consistent there, and Cam has really only hit it two years since he has been there. He is close. He can almost be a 2, but I would say a 3 for the inconsistency."

Newton's 78.4 passer rating over the past two seasons ranks last among 25 quarterbacks with at least 20 starts over that span, below Trevor Siemian (79.2) and Blake Bortles (81.5). Newton is 21st in Total QBR (47.4), 24th in touchdown-to-interception ratio (1.3) and last in completion percentage (56.4) over that period. But when Newton is dialed in, he can be a unique force. He just hasn't done it as consistently.

Newton and Garoppolo were the only quarterbacks to receive a vote in each of first four tiers. While there remains uncertainty over Garoppolo, most voters have made up their minds on Newton. All but four placed Newton in the second (30) or third (16) tiers. The 10 quarterbacks ahead of Newton all commanded at least a dozen Tier 1 votes. Newton drew three.

"Ron Wolf always talked about the most important thing for a quarterback being that when he walked on the field, it tilted in his favor," an evaluator who placed Newton in the top tier said. "I know Cam is a little unorthodox and everyone wants him to be a better passer, but he can carry his team each week. He is, for sure, a difference-maker and it has been that way since college, where he took what was basically a 6-6 Auburn team to a 12-0 national championship season."

img
2014 2015 2016 2017
Previous rank NA 20 16 7
2018 tier average: 2.42

Carr suffered the second-largest decline from 2017 to 2018 in average tier rating (1.9 to 2.42). Only Manning's average fell by more.

"He came back to reality," said an offensive coordinator who has had Carr in the third tier all along. "I thought he would. I think he's a 3 and I don't know that he will ever have a year like he did when everyone got so excited about him."

Carr's talent is undeniable. He's athletic and can make difficult throws from odd angles. He did not fare as well last season after the Raiders fired offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave and struggled to generate a rushing attack behind an offensive line that wasn't as good.

"If everybody is healthy, they win with him at quarterback," a GM who placed Carr in the second tier said. "If they have injuries, I don't know if he is the type of guy who can make them win anyway. I'm not saying he won't get there."

After rehabbing from a broken leg last offseason, Carr suffered a back injury against Denver in October.

"The year he played really well, they were playing well on the line and keeping guys off him," another voter said. "He started getting hit. That is what he showed in college. You start getting to him, he starts missing throws even when he is not getting hit. It affects him."

Some wondered how the deeply religious Carr would handle potentially harsh coaching from Jon Gruden. There was also some question as to whether Carr would be as comfortable in a system that could feature tighter formations, although no one knew for sure what Gruden's offense would look like.

"He throws a really pretty ball," a GM who has been skeptical of Carr said. "Is he a good leader? Is he tough? I think you can pressure him and he gets rattled easily. He needs a quick passing game. Otherwise, he is not going to hang in there."

img
2014 2015 2016 2017
Previous rank NA NA NA NA
2018 tier average: 2.58

Garoppolo and Watson have lower average tier ratings than Alex Smith and Cousins, who head up the third tier. Garoppolo and Watson sneak into the second tier because that is the tier in which they received the most votes.

Garoppolo looked the part while seeming to instantly turn around the 49ers, but he made only five starts, which wasn't much to go on.

"I would make him a 3, which I think is a generous grade for a guy who hasn't played very much," a former GM said. "He won a bunch of throwaway games. But I do like his fit for that offense. You've gotta be smart, you've gotta be a good ball handler, you've gotta be able to throw on the run. Garoppolo has all those things, so I think he is going to do well."

Garoppolo joined Newton as the only quarterbacks to receive at least one vote in each of the top four tiers. The four votes Garoppolo received in the fourth tier came from voters who thought there wasn't enough evidence.

"Tier 3 is fair [for Garoppolo], but it's too early to tell," an offensive coordinator said. "I think there is a better chance he's got that big upside than not, but he could be Kirk Cousins, too."

Multiple offensive coordinators said they thought what Garoppolo put on tape suggested he could reach the top tier eventually.

"That style of player, that quick-twitch kind of guy, is really exciting," one of them said. "It is just reactions to things that happen to him -- not sluggish. And then when you add instincts on top of that, where you can see things happen before they happen, and you are quick and you throw with anticipation into holes that are not there yet, then you have a real chance."

Garoppolo had seven touchdown passes with five interceptions last season, hardly the type of ratio typically associated with top-tier QBs (Rodgers had 38 touchdowns with five picks during the 2014 season, for example). Garoppolo averaged 8.8 yards per pass attempt, however, and he was second -- to Watson! -- in Total QBR among players with at least 175 pass attempts.

"Garoppolo fit the Gil Brandt college formula coming out [27-plus starts, 26-plus Wonderlic, 60 percent completions]," said the lone voter who placed Garoppolo in the top tier. "He throws a runner's ball, always leading the receiver to where he should be. It looks like he understands defensive schemes -- not like my other Tier 1 guys, but better than my Tier 2s. Throw in a full offseason with Kyle Shanahan and I'm comfortable saying Tier 1."

img
2014 2015 2016 2017
Previous rank NA NA NA NA
2018 tier average: 2.60

The voting results easily could be interpreted in a manner that would have pushed Garoppolo and Watson into the third tier. They had lower averages than Cousins and Smith, after all. Either way, the excitement over these potentially dynamic young players is real. With Watson, the torn ACL he suffered last season complicates an already tricky evaluation.

"To me, he is like the guy from Philly [Wentz]," an evaluator said. "Let's just see if he can get through the year healthy. He played like a 1 when he played. These teams are doing a great job doing what guys can do, playing to their strengths. The league has gotten better at that. Whether guys can stay healthy playing that way, that would be my question."

Watson suffered his injury during practice, without contact, so it's tough to blame his playing style.

"I give him an optimistic 3," an offensive coordinator said. "There were a lot of good things, but also a lot of bad things that got glossed over. It was a little bit of his legend. Even the games where they scored a lot of points, he made some horrendous throws that he got away with. Do I think he is talented? Yes. Do I like him? Yes. I just think he is a 3 that could become a 2."

Watson, paired with a Houston defense that ranked 30th for the season in ESPN's efficiency metric, went 3-3 in his six starts. He had 19 touchdowns, eight interceptions, a 103.0 passer rating and 81.3 Total QBR overall.

"He is a player, man," a quarterbacks coach said. "S---, talk about what a team was, night and day with and without him, not just once but twice, before he played and then after he played. And then if you go back to his true freshman year at Clemson, he tore his ACL halfway through that season and that was a totally different team before and after him. Big-time guy."
TIER 3

A Tier 3 quarterback is a legitimate starter, but needs a heavier running game and/or defense to win. A lower-volume passing offense makes his job easier.

img
2014 2015 2016 2017
Previous rank NA NA 20 13
2018 tier average: 2.52

Cousins slipped from the bottom of the second tier to the top of the third without the consensus on him changing at all (the year-over-year difference was a matter of two of the 50 votes sliding from the second to the third tier). Cousins joined Smith and Dak Prescott as the only quarterbacks to receive all their votes in the second and third tiers.

"He is smart, has enough elusiveness, got a quick release and is not going to stand back there nursing the ball," a voter said, "but I haven't seen him be able to put the team on his back and just will himself to a win."

Cousins could go from being an overachiever in relation to his fourth-round draft pedigree to being an underachiever in relation to his fully guaranteed $84 million contract, but he is not alone. Four of the six highest-paid quarterbacks in the league have never won a playoff game. That includes Cousins.

"My biggest problem with Cousins is he is just so unaggressive in the pocket," an offensive coordinator said. "When people get around him and they squeeze in, he looks like he weighs 160. That was Case Keenum's strength. He made more plays out of plays that could have been a sack. I don't know if Cousins makes those plays, but Cousins will get some balls thrown quicker."

Some voters thought Cousins was also more accurate than Keenum.

"Cousins has had no run game at all the last couple years and has been really productive," a personnel director said. "You put him in Minnesota and think ideally he will be a better player. As far as the Super Bowl, that is the expectation. I don't think so, but he will be a good quarterback for them."

img
2014 2015 2016 2017
Previous rank 18 16 18 20
2018 tier average: 2.52

Polling was generally done in alphabetical order of team or player names, so voters were not asked about the Redskins' new quarterback (Smith) and their old one (Cousins) in succession. Even so, they finished with the same number of votes in each tier: 24 in the second and 26 in the third. On follow-up, voters typically said they would prefer Smith if given a choice, partly because they perceived him to be a better leader.

"I watched all his tape and would make him the last guy in the second tier," an offensive coach said of Smith. "He gets the most out of what he's got more than anybody else I've seen. He is a great decision-maker."

Smith started five consecutive seasons under Andy Reid and played with a stable of dynamic playmakers featuring Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. Smith is joining a Redskins team lacking in that type of firepower. For that reason, it could be tough for him to complete eight touchdown passes of 50-plus yards, as he did with Kansas City last season (the most since John Hadl in 1968).

"Kansas City is going to miss him," an offensive coordinator said. "They are going to be excited about how dynamic [Patrick] Mahomes is, but when it is said and done, I think they would have won more games with Alex than they will with Mahomes next year. They are going to be hoping Mahomes will play more like Alex in the future."

img
2014 2015 2016 2017
Previous rank 8 12 9 11
2018 tier average: 2.78

Manning's average vote declined by six-tenths of a tier, the largest decline for any returning starter. There was some optimism that new coach Pat Shurmur, healthier skill players and new running back Saquon Barkley could be a good combination for Manning.

"My gut tells me he is going to end his career strong, but he is a 3 right now," a GM said. "I think with Barkley helping him now and the tight end with those receivers, I have a funny feeling he will be like his brother, play another three years, play well and ride out."

The knocks on Manning were that he could no longer move and had become so conscious of being hit that he was looking for a spot to sit down. That is not a good combination for anyone, and particularly not for a player whose accuracy has been inconsistent.

"Shurmur helps him the same way he helped Keenum," a personnel director said. "He finds favorable matchups. With the weapons that they have in New York, I think he is going to be really good for Eli. Eli struggled because he kept getting hit, and he is scared of getting hit. I think maybe Shurmur will be able to get the ball out quicker and get it in the playmakers' hands quicker."

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2014 2015 2016 2017
Previous rank NA NA NA 14
2018 tier average: 2.78

The way Prescott struggled without Ezekiel Elliott explains why the young quarterback received 13 fewer votes in the second tier this offseason compared to last. He stayed in the third tier overall, slipping three spots in the order.

"What you see is, he needs a run game and the MVP of that team is not Dak Prescott -- it's Ezekiel Elliott," a defensive coordinator said.

We hear all the time about how the NFL is a passing league, almost as though the running game is a waste of time. But the value of the running game cannot be fully measured through rushing statistics.

"When you have that run game, you are going to see simple single-high defenses, so there will not be combination coverages, no stuff where the coverage is going to change on the motion, because people are geared to stop your run game," a defensive coordinator explained. "Unless you have two man-child corners, there are going to be some open throws."

While some voters expressed renewed concerns about Prescott's accuracy, his rushing contributions helped him finish fourth in QBR last season. There was still optimism about what he can become, although Jason Witten's retirement and weakness at wide receiver in Dallas could be problematic.

"He is not afraid, he did it as a rookie, he took his shots last year and still said the right things," a voter said. "I like him."

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2014 2015 2016 2017
Previous rank NA NA NA 32
2018 tier average: 2.80

The magnitude of the Rams' offensive reversal came as a shock, but an offensive coordinator quoted in the 2017 QB Tiers deserves credit for saying this about Goff last offseason: "It was a little bit unfair throwing him in there like they did, especially when everything was in turmoil with that organization. I think he has a chance. Maybe he can move toward a 3 this year with the idea of becoming a 2 one day."

That is what happened. Goff made the largest year-over-year leap in average tier, diminishing his 0-7 record as a rookie starter in this evaluation. Now the expectations increase again.

"A starting quarterback should be able to take advantage and not hinder the offense when everything is great -- the playcaller, the running back, all that," a voter said. "Give Goff credit for that. There are moments when the QB has to convert -- it's on him. Atlanta put Goff in those situations during the playoff game, and he could not convert. Now, this offseason, you can bet teams have been breaking down how to slow that offense."

Fourteen voters placed Goff in the second tier. Four placed him in the fourth, which seemed surprisingly low following a full season of productive play. But some voters gave much more credit to coach Sean McVay, a healthy Todd Gurley and an improved offensive line. Goff's rookie season wasn't totally irrelevant to them.

"I'm going to step out here a little bit and say he's a 2," a former GM said, "because of the upside, because of the arm talent, because of how he bounced back from adversity. They gave him some weapons, but the majority of quarterbacks need them. He went through some stuff, he responded in the right way and I respect that in a quarterback."

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2014 2015 2016 2017
Previous rank NA 26 17 18
2018 tier average: 2.86

It's a problem when a quarterback known for making poor decisions on the field is also known for making poor decisions off the field. That is Jameis Winston, although there was good with the bad on the field last season.

Winston set career bests in 2017 for completion rate (63.8), yards per attempt (7.93), interception rate (2.5) and passer rating (92.2). He also missed three games to injury, added less value as a rusher and saw his QBR fall below 50, a career low. He's now facing a three-game suspension after the NFL substantiated allegations that Winston groped a female Uber driver.

"He's a 3 and part of his deal is he is hot and cold," a defensive coordinator said. "You can always count on him to turn the ball over for you. We counted on it and he was just super careless with the ball."

A former GM noted that Winston was "on fire" against Atlanta last season, which made this evaluator think Winston could succeed with the right team and coach. A current GM noted that Winston beat the Saints late in the season, when the quarterback was supposedly healthy.

"I knew he would struggle coming out," an exec said. "It's his makeup, and then he has lazy feet and a careless mentality. He is still young, but I don't like his game. He has a long, drawn-out delivery and he doesn't throw guys open. That works at Florida State when your receivers are better than the DBs you are playing against, but if you are a second late in the NFL, you are screwed."

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2014 2015 2016 2017
Previous rank NA 25 19 16
2018 tier average: 2.94

Marcus Mariota suffered the fourth-largest decline from last offseason behind Manning, Carr and Joe Flacco. That was after he became the fourth player since 2015 to finish with more interceptions than touchdown passes on at least 400 attempts, joining DeShone Kizer, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brock Osweiler.

"His intangibles push him up, but man, he throws lollipops up there," an exec said. "He was not real accurate. He doesn't scare you when you play them. They are going to run a bunch of RPOs this year and that will be interesting."

Mariota was coming off a serious injury last season, one that could have lingered. One coach said the Titans had to limit their game plans in an effort to protect Mariota physically. Will that change?

"He is my 3 ascending guy," a defensive coordinator said. "He is more accurate than you give him credit for. They knew he could run, so they put in all that other bulls--- for him instead of saying, 'Listen, let's just be a quarterback.' You don't need to build the Kordell Stewart offense for him. I think he's pretty good."

A veteran offensive coach raised a long-range concern.

"I think he is a 3 that is going to stay a 3," this coach said. "He has too many issues keeping his eyes up the field. He has a little of that Jake the Snake [Plummer]. The eyes go down, he takes off running and you can't survive in this league playing that way."

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2014 2015 2016 2017
Previous rank 19 18 15 19
2018 tier average: 2.96

Andy Dalton ranks 21st in annual salary average and 22nd in this survey. He was very good (70.0 QBR) when the Bengals had a stacked roster in 2015. He has been average to pretty good the rest of the time, just like the Bengals.

"He is one of those guys who was a Pro Bowler at one point, but they never take the next step," a former GM said. "He's smart, they respect him, he's won games for them, but I can't see him going to the next step. I compare Andy to Alex Smith: good enough to win with, but can they get you over the hump?"

Dalton has three years remaining on a contract that is increasingly friendly from a team standpoint as the quarterback market continues to inflate. Goff, Wentz, Mariota and Winston could all pass Dalton in the salary hierarchy over the next couple years. Can the Bengals rebuild their roster sufficiently to take advantage of the relative discount?

"You had better be pretty damn good everywhere else if you want to go win and have him as your quarterback," an offensive coordinator said.

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2014 2015 2016 2017
Previous rank 12 10 12 15
2018 tier average: 3.06

Two voters actually put the former Super Bowl MVP in the fifth tier, no longer a legitimate starter. That seemed particularly harsh, but there's no question Flacco has been heading in the wrong direction.

"I'm never scared of Joe," a defensive coordinator said. "I'm trying to stop the run game with Baltimore because that is the only way Joe is effective."

A GM put Flacco in Tier 4 with an asterisk.

"I think he can be a 3 if they play the right style of offense," this GM said. "He's fine if they run the ball, play-action pass and play good defense, but they can't help themselves."

Multiple voters acknowledged that personnel attrition had made Flacco's job tougher in recent years. This survey ranks him as the third-best starter in the AFC North, with Browns newcomer Tyrod Taylor gaining on him.

"A little bit is the personnel around him, a little bit is what they ask him to do," a quarterbacks coach said of Flacco, "but I do believe he is a one-dimensional player [deep ball] and everything just happened right for him, the year he went to the Super Bowl."

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2014 2015 2016 2017
Previous rank NA NA NA NA
2018 tier average: 3.06

One take on Keenum: He's a 4 who played like a 2, which makes him a 3 until further notice.

"He is one of those guys who will have a couple good years and then he will go to be a good backup and at the end of the day he is going to play 12-13 years in the league and he'll be fine -- like Josh McCown," a defensive coordinator said.

The Broncos aren't asking Keenum to be a star. They want him to avoid the negative plays that doomed them last season, and to play well enough to win with a good defense on his side. While a head coach said he's always liked Keenum and thought the QB showed himself to be a low 2, more voters placed Keenum in the fourth tier than in the second.

"He's a 3 on his best day," an offensive coach said. "They had defense and really good receiving talent for him in Minnesota, and they had enough rushing attempts where it was not all on him and they mixed the play-action so he could survive. What is the difference between Case Keenum and Nick Foles?"

Keenum avoids the rush better, for one.

"Yeah, maybe," this coach replied, "but they are high-end backups who got opportunities with teams that had both sides of the ball ready to go. I just do not think Keenum all of a sudden got good."

The next question is whether Denver is set up as well as Minnesota in terms of supporting Keenum. This coach thought the Broncos' receivers were less hungry and on the downside. But what if having a competent quarterback energizes them?

"Keenum has confidence and he's calm in the pocket," a former GM said. "He doesn't get frantic and make stupid decisions. He has just enough arm strength to make the throws. He won, and he went from nothing to something."

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2014 2015 2016 2017
Previous rank NA NA 26 25
2018 tier average: 3.20

Taylor moved more solidly into the third tier this offseason, pulling seven additional Tier 3 votes and seven fewer Tier 4 votes compared to last year.

"You saw what happened when they tried to play the other kid," an offensive coordinator said, referring to Nathan Peterman throwing five first-half interceptions after replacing Taylor in Buffalo's lineup.

Taylor avoids interceptions and can threaten defenses with his feet -- not just as a runner, but as a buyer of time. Taylor led the NFL over the past three seasons in percentage of third-and-long passes (7-10 yards needed) producing first downs. He averaged 3.09 seconds before the pass on those throws, second only to Rodgers' 3.14 among players with at least 100 attempts in those situations.

"The receivers he had in Buffalo were terrible," a coach said. "They got rid of two [Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods] who flourished other places, and they replaced them with the big guy from Carolina [Kelvin Benjamin] who runs 4.85 [actually 4.61 at the combine] and god knows who else. Then they run Tyrod out of town."

An offensive coordinator said he thought Taylor was so focused on avoiding interceptions that it limited the plays he made, noting that there were "NFL throws that needed to be made" when receivers were open, but Taylor did not make them. A defensive coordinator said he thought facing Taylor was a "nightmare" because of the running and scrambling ability.

"His receivers in Buffalo were not good, so he and Shady [LeSean McCoy] had to do it all," an offensive coach said. "Cleveland does not have great receivers, but if Josh Gordon comes around, look out. Tyrod could make another jump."

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2014 2015 2016 2017
Previous rank NA 27 22 29
2018 tier average: 3.30

Bortles went from getting 40 votes in the bottom two tiers last year to getting only 14 in those tiers this time around. He jumped into Tier 3 as a result. Was it him? The team around him? A combination?

"That is a perfect example of defense and a run game, and what you can get away with at quarterback," a veteran coach said. "Someone who completely and utterly commits to that mentality and the whole building is behind it -- they drafted it, they sell it and everything is all about that."

Bortles became the first starting quarterback in NFL history to win a playoff game while failing to pass for even 100 yards -- he had 87 in the wild-card round against Buffalo, while rushing for 88. Bortles rebounded the next week to play well against the Steelers, especially on third down. Then he played well enough to nearly upset New England in the AFC title game. This looked like progress.

"We watched a lot of his previous tape while scouting Allen Robinson in free agency and I was just shocked at how many bad balls were thrown by him -- shocked," an evaluator countered. "I don't think one season makes a guy."

Others thought that was giving Bortles a bad rap.

"The perception is that he is terrible, but the reality is, he's a 3, and that's not terrible," an offensive coordinator said.

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2014 2015 2016 2017
Previous rank 23 17 24 22
2018 tier average: 3.36

Ryan Tannehill's QBR has been below 50 every season but 2014. (By comparison, Bortles has been above 50 twice over that span, despite having one fewer season.)

Is this the year Tannehill takes off?

"He is one of those guys like Dalton, where you wait for them to take the next step, but they kind of just level off," a former GM said. "He's been hurt, too."

Missing the 2017 season with a torn ACL left voters with nothing new to go on.

"He has a good arm and is a good athlete, but similar to that [Sam] Bradford-type deal, he really hasn't done much except tease us and flash a little bit," a personnel director said. "He needs to be managed, like a lot of them do."

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2014 2015 2016 2017
Previous rank 21 23 28 23
2018 tier average: 3.38

Bradford got more Tier 3 votes (29) than Tier 4 votes (20) and there was even a Tier 2 in there, but the obvious durability concerns were an overriding factor.

"If it's 7-on-7, he is a 1 every day of the week, but it is not 7-on-7, so he is a 3," one voter said.

Bradford's performance for Minnesota against New Orleans in the 2017 opener would hold up well against any game any quarterback might play, multiple voters said. The fact that Bradford could not stay in the lineup the next week despite suffering no new injuries was troubling.

"The teams that have him don't seem to want to stay with him," a former GM noted.

The Rams, Eagles and Vikings all moved on from Bradford since March 2015. He has a 16-15 starting record with 42 touchdowns, 19 interceptions, a 94.2 passer rating and 47.1 QBR since then. One coordinator noted that Bradford played in 15 games two seasons ago, and didn't see why that could not happen again.

"I think he is developing a lot of NFL scar tissue that isn't good for a career," a head coach said.
TIER 4

A Tier 4 quarterback could be an unproven player with some upside, or a veteran who is ultimately best suited as a backup.

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2014 2015 2016 2017
Previous rank NA NA NA NA
2018 tier average: 3.54

Mitchell Trubisky fits into the not-enough-information category, especially after playing for a defense-minded head coach (John Fox) without much weaponry.

"He makes me nervous in that most of his plays come off some kind of movement or broke-down play and I think those plays dry up real fast," an offensive coordinator said. "I just don't think there is enough information and I certainly can't evaluate him off what they were doing last year. I will be anxious to see because they are going to run the Kansas City offense. It is a quarterback-driven offense, and I don't know that he is going to be able to carry it."

There was some thought among voters that Trubisky could enjoy a Goff-like revival after undergoing a coaching change and weaponry overhaul, although no one expected Chicago to start scoring the way the Rams did a year ago. One GM questioned Trubisky's accuracy. Another noted that when Trubisky was in college, he couldn't make an average team much better than average.

"I like Trubisky," a defensive coordinator said. "I think that kid has a shot to be decent. He is athletic, he's got a big arm, he has pretty good accuracy. When we played him, they had zero receivers. He was playing with a junior-high cast."

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2014 2015 2016 2017
Previous rank 24 29 NA 34
2018 tier average: 3.78

McCown will finish the 2018 season having earned $32 million after age 35. He also will surpass David Carr as the highest-earning quarterback from the 2002 draft. Not bad for a player who has been considered ideally suited as a backup over the years.

"He does play at a high level for stretches," an offensive coordinator said. "The more you have to play him, the more at risk you are of it going the other way, especially when he tries to run and gets hurt."

McCown's QBR with the Jets last season (51.9) was higher than the QBRs for Winston, Newton, Carr, Manning, Flacco and Dalton. McCown went 5-8 as a starter for a team Vegas had assigned a five-victory over-under heading into the season.

Mentoring first-round pick Sam Darnold will be part of McCown's job now. One voter said he thought McCown could be a QB coach in a year if he wanted to. Another voter said McCown had the makings of being a future head coach.

"McCown is probably making 80 percent of his money for what he does Monday through Saturday," an evaluator said. "God bless America."

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2014 2015 2016 2017
Previous rank NA NA NA NA
2018 tier average: 3.80

Mahomes ranks this low only because he has hardly played, leading most voters to place him in the fourth tier until more information becomes available.

"He is a 4 with the arrow pointing way up," a GM said. "He can be a 2. I think it will take Andy Reid a year. Mahomes will be good, but he will turn the ball over and I think that is what you will have to get under control. But I do think he has major upside."

Mahomes' lone start came in a meaningless Week 17 game last season when the Chiefs were resting starters for the playoffs.

"Everybody is making him out to be the next Roger Staubach," another GM said. "Let's wait and see. The guy has played one game and it was a meaningless game. Quarterback is one position where it is a lot easier to get worse than it is to get better."

A quarterbacks coach placed Mahomes in the Stafford category for arm talent.

"This guy, he doesn't have to have a clean pocket, he doesn't have to be able to follow through," this coach said. "The ball explodes off his wrist. He and Stafford have the greatest wrists of any quarterbacks in the NFL, in my opinion."

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2014 2015 2016 2017
Previous rank NA NA NA NA
2018 tier average: 4.10

AJ McCarron has seven touchdowns, three interceptions, an 87.6 passer rating and a 48.0 QBR while going 2-2 as a starter, including playoffs.

The Bills liked McCarron, but still drafted Josh Allen seventh overall in April.

"He is a confident, cocky kid," a coach with ties to the Bengals said. "He believes he can be an NFL quarterback. That can be good and bad. The year Andy [Dalton] broke his thumb, he goes in and throws a pick-six on his first pass."

A few voters held out hope for McCarron. Most seemed lukewarm.

"He does not deserve a 3, but I like him," a GM said. "I would be feeling like, 'We might be on to something.' He basically won a playoff game if that guy did not fumble. He can anticipate throws on the boundary that legit quarterbacks anticipate. Right now, if they said I could have Tannehill or McCarron, I would take McCarron."
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ESPN Insider NFL: 2018 NFL QB Tiers: 50 execs rank the starting quarterbacks

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