Quarterback is the most important position on the field, and it’s not even close.
Rarely do we see a team find success without an above-average quarterback. And if they do, it’s likely a result of a great supporting cast that isn’t sustainable long-term. As we enter into the 2021 NFL offseason, let’s analyze every NFL team’s need at the quarterback position.
VERY HIGH — NEEDS A NEW QUARTERBACK AS SOON AS POSSIBLE
Despite having one of the best offensive playcallers in the league, the Bridgewater-led Panthers were still only able to rank 21st in expected points added (EPA) per pass play.
Bridgewater was able to hit underneath throws like clockwork, but he proved incapable of orchestrating an efficient and effective downfield passing offense. He ranked 28th in passing grade and third-to-last in accurate-pass rate on passes thrown 10 or more yards downfield. Overall, he recorded a big-time throw rate that ranked ahead of only Andy Dalton, Nick Mullens, Cam Newton, Jared Goff, Tua Tagovailoa and Sam Darnold — not necessarily a great group to barely beat out.
It’s clear the Panthers feel the same way about Bridgewater, given the rumors that they will be searching the quarterback market this offseason.
When it comes to finding a serviceable signal-caller, no team will have more pressure on them than the Bears. They’ve long been a franchise known for weak quarterback play, and the fact that Jay Cutler is in the conversation for being the best passer to ever suit up for Chicago further validates that belief.
Mitchell Trubisky has simply not performed up to expectations, as he's earned a career passing grade that ranks second-to-last league-wide since he entered the league. Nick Foles didn’t help matters this season either, as the Bears ranked 31st in EPA per pass with him under center.
They’ve been rumored to be the front-runner for Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, but now it looks like the 2016 No. 2 overall pick would rather be Indy. And with veteran quarterbacks like Derek Carr, Jimmy Garoppolo and Matt Ryan all rumored to be staying put for 2021, the Bears are running out of options.
At this point, their best-case scenario might be landing Alabama quarterback Mac Jones in Round 1 this April. He may not have the physical tools, but the accuracy, decision-making, timing and processing he displayed with the Crimson Tide will give him a chance at the NFL level.
Denver is rumored to be on Deshaun Watson’s “shortlist” if he does end up being traded, and the Mile High franchise is unsurprisingly interested in acquiring the quarterback if he's made available. That kind of move would be the equivalent to Tom Brady joining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this past season — Denver would immediately be thrust into contention for the Lombardi Trophy. But if this does not happen, pivoting to a solution in the draft instead of giving Drew Lock another shot is the best bet.
Lock has appeared in 18 games in his two-year NFL career, and he has come away with the league’s third-worst passing grade over that span (61.8). No quarterback has thrown a higher rate of uncatchable passes (28%) on throws beyond the line of scrimmage since 2019. It’s time for a new era.
Philip Rivers was a shell of his former self in 2020, but he at least ran a successful passing offense. The veteran produced a 77.2 PFF grade and actually led the Colts to their most efficient passing offense of the last decade in terms of EPA per play.
But Indy is now back to square one in the wake of Rivers' retirement, and the worst part is that they are not well-positioned in the 2021 NFL Draft to make a major move. They’ve tapped into the veteran quarterback market as a result and are now the odds-on favorite to land Carson Wentz.
Wentz is not necessarily an established veteran, given that he just finished fifth-to-last in passing grade (60.0) and led the league in turnover-worthy plays despite not playing from Week 14 on. And while he may have had success early on in his NFL career, it mostly stemmed from unstable areas of play. The mechanics are a mess, and that, mixed with his bad decision-making, makes him a turnover machine in his current state.
The Clemson prodigy recorded an elite PFF grade above 90.0 in all three years as the starting quarterback for the Tigers and has all the tools needed to be a franchise quarterback. Armed with a bazooka of an arm, dangerous mobility and standout pocket presence, Lawrence is the real deal. The only real knock on him is the good but not elite accuracy, though it shouldn’t be that much of a concern. Lawrence is one of the best quarterback prospects of the century and capable of turning around the Jaguars franchise.
It really isn’t all that crazy for New England to trot out Jarrett Stidham Week 1. It’d be the best thing for the franchise long-term because the quarterback is the right man for the tank. If the Patriots were to throw in the towel for 2021, they could put themselves in a position to grab the QB who is likely to be the prize of the 2022 class, Oklahoma's Spencer Rattler.
The Patriots' roster is hardly primed for postseason success. This past season, their team as a whole ranked outside the top 20 in total team WAR generated. If they pursue someone like Andy Dalton (69.5 passing grade in 2020) or opt to re-sign Cam Newton (67.8 passing grade in 2020), they’d be setting themselves up for another mediocre season and a middle-of-the-pack draft slot for next year, and that would put them out of reach for one of the top quarterback prospects — Just like they did this year.
Since entering the league at the No. 3 pick back in 2018, Darnold ranks second-to-last in passing grade, second-to-last in uncatchable pass rate on passes thrown beyond the line of scrimmage, fifth-to-last in turnover-worthy play rate and third-to-last in big-time throw rate. The USC product even led the Jets to the least-efficient passing offense in the NFL. Needless to say, the returns have not been great, and the odds of seeing a fourth-year breakout are extremely slim.
Do the right thing New York; take Zach Wilson, who recorded a passing grade above 90.0 in over half his games played in 2020, with the second-overall pick.
It was looking like the outcome at quarterback for Pittsburgh this offseason was going to be a Ben Roethlisberger restructure, but now there is a chance that may not be the case. Now, the Steelers could opt to move on from Roethlisberger and essentially force him into retirement. Either way, the quarterback situation is not looking pretty in The Steel City.
Big Ben had just one game with a PFF grade above 80.0 in 2020 and finished the season with a 69.0 mark (24th). Making matters worse, his downfield passing was inconsistent, as he produced the sixth-worst uncatchable pass rate when targeting the sticks.
There were signs of Big Ben declining back in 2018 when he earned a 75.2 passing grade, and he looked rough in his lone start in 2019 before suffering a season-ending elbow injury. In other words, Roethlisberger isn’t likely to be any better in 2021 than he was this past season. He is going to limit the offense and, if anything, will continue to decline.
Alex Smith wrote a comeback for the ages into the record books in 2021, but it’s no secret that he limited the Washington passing offense significantly. He was extremely reliant on his supporting cast making plays after the catch and only really got the downfield passing attack cooking in one game against a bad secondary. Overall, Smith had 58.6% of his passing yards come after the catch (4.3 percentage points higher than anyone else) and recorded an average depth of target of 5.4 yards (1.2 yards less than anyone else).
Taylor Heinicke no doubt impressed in his outing against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the playoffs, but Washington putting all of their eggs into that basket is a bad idea. In that game against the eventual Super Bowl champions, Heinicke posted a 92.0 PFF grade. In his six years prior to that, the former UDFA attempted only 77 passes and put up a 55.6 passing grade.
HIGH — CURRENT STARTER IS ON THE DECLINE, RUNNING OUT OF TIME OR HAS YET TO PROVE HIMSELF
Given the current quarterback market, Atlanta could get a monstrous package for quarterback Matt Ryan despite his headache of a contract. However, all signs currently point to Ryan remaining in Atlanta, as owner Arthur Blank recently said he would be “completely shocked” if he didn’t. And that could cause Atlanta to think twice about taking a quarterback with their top-five pick in April.
Ryan still has a couple of quality years left in him and showed no signs of drastic decline in 2020, as he posted a top-10 passing grade (82.1). Atlanta would be fine for 2021 if they decide to roll with the veteran and pass on a quarterback in the draft, but the prospect would be bleak long-term. So, there are two scenarios Atlanta should consider — either trade Ryan away and take Justin Fields in April, or keep him around for one more year and still select the Ohio State QB to let him sit and learn behind the longtime Falcon.
Fields will have a little bit of a learning curve with his processing speed and blitz recognition, but the talent is there for him to become a franchise quarterback. With PFF grades of 91.5 and 93.5 in his two years of starting action, Fields showed pinpoint accuracy, elite physical tools and protected the ball exceptionally well.
Jared Goff will be the Lions’ starter in Week 1 next season. The only question is: Will they still take a quarterback with the No. 7 overall pick?
It’s no secret that Goff was aided significantly by Sean McVay in Los Angeles. In his four years with the Rams’ head coach, Goff had the third-highest percentage of his passing yards come after the catch (49.6%) and ranked third-to-last in turnover-worthy plays (88).
This past season, he had the eighth-highest percentage of throws 10-plus yards downfield result in a negative grade and produced the seventh-lowest positively graded throw rate. The former indicates Goff missed a lot of his downfield shots, while the latter insinuates a lot of his production may have stemmed from easy, shallow throws. No quarterback had more passing yards on throws five yards or fewer downfield than Goff in 2020 (1,973).
Jameis Winston is likely to re-sign with the Saints on another cheap, one-year deal, and that’s the best-case scenario for the team considering Drew Brees’ retirement and how cap-strung they are.
The 2015 No. 1 overall pick is quite easily the most volatile quarterback PFF has ever charted. In his five years starting for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Winston never ranked worse than fourth in percentage of throws earning a positive grade and never ranked better than 25th in percentage of throws earning a negative grade.
He can lead a successful passing offense within the right ecosystem with his high-end play, but if his decision-making is no different than what it was in Tampa Bay, then it’s going to take a lot of turnover luck for him to find success. If for some reason Mac Jones were to fall all the way to New Orleans at No. 28 — as PFF Draft Analyst Austin Gayle indicates in his latest mock draft — they should dial that pick in as quickly as possible.
Jimmy Garoppolo has played in just one full season in his NFL career due to being a backup in New England and battling injuries in San Francisco. In that one full year, which ended with a Super Bowl loss for the 49ers, Garoppolo earned a 77.3 PFF grade, ranking 13th in the NFL. Over the course of his San Francisco career, Garoppolo has posted an 80.8 PFF grade. That’s over 13 grading points higher than the other four 49ers quarterbacks to play 1,000 snaps in the PFF era (Shaun Hill, Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick and Nick Mullens).
He struggles to see linebackers, has not been durable throughout his NFL career, practically lost the 49ers the Super Bowl last year with a few miscues and has been propped up by Kyle Shanahan’s scheme. Those are all rightful concerns with Jimmy G.
He won't be an elite quarterback or lead San Francisco to the Super Bowl himself, but he can be the ultimate game manager in this ecosystem, as we saw in 2019. After all, the 49ers finished third among the 32 offenses in successful pass-play rate that season.
STILL EVALUATING — IN LIMBO
We have to place Cincinnati here just because it’s still very early in Joe Burrow’s NFL career. But all signs are pointing to the 2020 No. 1 overall pick developing into the top-10 quarterback we were expecting.
Despite missing nearly the entire second half of his rookie campaign following a gruesome knee injury in Week 11, Burrow still finished as the 16th-most valuable quarterback in the NFL. His deep ball wasn’t as finely tuned as in his historic 2019 season at LSU, but Burrow was money on just about every other throw. In fact, he recorded the sixth-best passing grade in the NFL this year when throwing 19 yards or fewer downfield.
With a better offensive line that isn’t routinely losing reps quickly after the snap, as well as a true deep threat like Ja’Marr Chase, expect Burrow’s deep ball to come to back life in 2021.
Burrow’s accuracy was also on full display in his rookie campaign. He had the lowest rate of passes to result in a quarterback-fault incompletion (4%) this season from a clean pocket. That’s two percentage points higher than any other NFL quarterback in 2020.
There were some doubts about Justin Herbert’s ability to immediately produce for the Chargers, but he silenced the critics in convincing fashion. Herbert earned a 78.6 passing grade, a mark that tied for 12th in the NFL this season and ranks as the sixth-best grade ever from a rookie in the PFF era. That said, don't get completely carried away with Herbert’s success in Year 1.
When isolating his play to just throws from a clean pocket, Herbert drops to 24th in the NFL in passing grade (76.2). His performance was fairly reliant on plays under pressure, which is extremely volatile from year to year. On those dropbacks, Herbert’s 75.4 grade was the best in the NFL. The sixth overall pick actually had more turnover-worthy plays when kept clean (10) than when pressured (six). That’s not sustainable.
This is no slight to Herbert, as he had a remarkable rookie campaign, but don't be surprised if he regresses in 2021.
Tagovailoa still has a lot to prove before we can confidently say he is going to be a franchise quarterback. He finished his rookie year with a 63.9 passing grade, well below the marks of fellow first-round quarterbacks Joe Burrow (74.3) and Justin Herbert (78.6). The 2020 No. 5 overall pick struggled to hit shots downfield, producing one of the lowest big-time throw rates in the NFL (2.1%), as well as the fourth-worst passing grade and accurate pass rate on the throws of 10-plus yards.
It’s way too early to write off Tagovailoa as a possible franchise quarterback, but it’s evident that the early returns aren’t great.
The jury is still out on Daniel Jones about whether he is the long-term answer for the Giants. He showed modest growth in Year 2, raising his 65.6 passing grade as a rookie to 74.4 in 2020. The 2019 No. 6 overall pick still displayed poor pocket awareness with more fumbles in a collapsing pocket than any other quarterback in the league while also converting pressure to sacks at a high rate of 21% (eighth-worst).
But from a clean-pocket — the most stable area of quarterback play — Jones was right where he needed to be. He ranked 12th this past season in passing grade in such situations. His deep ball was also on point, as he placed third in the NFL in passing grade on 20-plus-yard throws. This upcoming season is a massive year for the New York Giants franchise, and Jones will dictate the direction the team heads.
With Carson Wentz a virtual lock to be traded, the Eagles are left with Jalen Hurts and the No. 6 overall pick. And if they don’t make a move with that early draft pick, it might be time to press the panic button in Philly.
Hurts did make some plays with his legs in 2020. He picked up a 10-plus yard gain on 64 of his runs. At the same time, though, he put the ball in harm’s way too often both through the air and on the ground (nine turnover-worthy plays in four starts), held onto the ball too long (2.98-second average time to throw) and displayed suspect accuracy (last in uncatchable pass rate on throws beyond the line of scrimmage).
It’d be unfair to say Hurts will never be a quality starting quarterback after just four starts, which is why the Eagles land in the “still evaluating” category, but he’s not one to bank on. Philly should absolutely pursue a quarterback early in the 2021 NFL Draft.
MEDIUM — STARTER FOR THE NEAR-TERM IS SET, BUT KEEP YOUR EYES OPEN
At any point this offseason, Houston can move into the top tier of this list or back down to the very bottom. The Texans’ front office has reiterated on several occasions that the team won't trade Deshaun Watson despite his demands, but the franchise sits here at the “medium” need tier because it cannot afford to act like he is absolutely coming back until he says so. The Texans need a Plan B heading into the 2021 season.
The obvious best-case scenario is making amends with Watson. He is fresh off a season in which he was one of the three highest-graded quarterbacks in the NFL (92.5) and is on the path to a Hall of Fame career. If Watson’s mind is made up, Houston’s attention has to turn to the 2021 NFL Draft and quarterbacks Zach Wilson and Justin Fields.
In a non-Trevor Lawrence year, those two would be in the conversation for QB1. PFF lead draft analyst Mike Renner named Wilson the best quarterback in the class when it comes to outside the pocket passing and named Fields the most accurate. Houston can’t go wrong with either one if they were to trade Watson to a team picking early in the draft.
Carr finally got the green light to throw the ball downfield in Jon Gruden’s offense this past season. His average depth of target went from 7.1 yards in 2018 to 6.9 yards in 2019 to 8.5 yards this past year. Specifically, we saw the difference in Week 9. Up to that point, Carr’s average depth of target was relatively normal to the Raiders' offensive standards (7.4 yards) and he posted a subpar 68.2 passing grade in those games (24th). From Week 9 on, Carr’s average depth of target was 9.5 yards and he was the third-highest-graded passer, with a 90.3 mark.
He posted a career-high big-time throw rate on the year that ranked fifth in the NFL, leading him to the fourth-best passing grade on throws of 10 or more yards downfield — behind only Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson and Patrick Mahomes. Carr did this while also maintaining a top-three negatively graded throw rate throughout the year.
Is this a new Carr and Gruden offense? Only time will tell.
Sean McVay and Les Snead made a power play a few weeks ago by trading for Matthew Stafford. The longtime Detroit Lion is surely going to open up the playbook for McVay and allow him to dial up more downfield shots. On throws of 10-plus yards downfield this past year, Stafford ranked in the top 10 in PFF passing grade, fifth in passing yards (2,307; over 850 more than Goff), eighth in big-time throw to turnover-worthy play ratio (Goff was 26th) and fifth in percentage of passes that were perfectly placed (Goff was 28th).
That being said, I wouldn’t bet on the 33-year-old leading the Rams to a deep playoff run all by himself. After all, he has never sniffed an “elite” PFF grade in his career — his season-best mark was 82.6 in 2019 in only eight games. Stafford is the definition of a slightly above-average quarterback. But with a great offensive mind like McVay who managed to build a passing offense that ranks sixth in successful pass-play rate since his arrival in 2018, that may be all L.A. needs.
Cousins may have his limitations and won’t be the type of elite passer who can single-handedly carry a team to victory, but he is one of the more efficient passers in the league and is capable of producing at a top-10 level with the right supporting cast and play-calling. He has earned a passing grade above 79.0 in each of the last three seasons, never ranking lower than 14th at the position.
Still, he can’t continue to get off to the sluggish starts we saw in 2020. The difference between Kirk Cousins in the first three quarters versus the fourth quarter last season was staggering. Through the first three quarters of action in 2020, Cousins ranked 19th in passing grade and 27th in turnover-worthy play rate. In the fourth quarter, Cousins was first in passing grade and second in turnover-worthy play rate. And the latter production came mostly in instances where the game was already out of reach.
Ryan Tannehill went from posting one of the lowest passing grades we have ever recorded in 2018 with Miami to the highest-graded passer of the 2019 season with Tennessee. In other words, he was screaming regression for 2021. But he only took a minor step back. Tannehill’s 91.0 passing grade from 2019 dipped to just 85.2 in 2020, which was still good enough to rank seventh among qualifying quarterbacks.
Former offensive coordinator and new Falcons head coach Arthur Smith showed once again why he is one of the best play-callers in the league and deserving of a head coaching gig. He aided Tannehill with a boatload of play-action passes (second-most PA passing yards in 2020) and played a massive role in him owning the highest positively graded throw rate in the NFL. Still, Tannehill fared well without those play-action passes and performed great in categories he can control, like his negatively graded throw rate. Tannehill held a top-10 spot in passing grade without play-action, and his negatively graded throw rate ranked eighth.
It will be interesting to see how the two-year Titan fares with Smith calling the offense’s shots in 2021.
LOW — SEARCHING FOR BACKUPS IN THE CASE OF INJURY DISASTER
While Kyler Murray is still inviting way too much pressure and sacks with his play style (his 36 sacks invited since 2019 are most in the NFL), he did show the growth we were hoping to see from a passing perspective in 2020. Murray’s 61.1 passing grade as a rookie spiked to 77.2 in 2020, ranking 14th in the NFL. Specifically, the drastic improvement occurred with his in-rhythm passing from the pocket.
The 2019 No. 1 overall pick was a bottom performer in that area as a rookie with a 64.3 passing grade on such plays, but this year he raised that mark to 89.9. Murray also, of course, made countless plays on the ground with his legs that resulted in a position-leading 86.5 rushing grade.
There has never been a quarterback who can stress defenses more with his rushing ability than Lamar Jackson. Over the last two years, Jackson has picked up 79 gains of 10 or more yards on the ground — 29 more than any other quarterback. His broken tackle total is also more than double that of anyone else at the position (76). Jackson is clearly not as strong as a passer, but he has proven to be above-average relative to his counterparts, with the ninth-best passing grade in regular-season play over the last two years.
Josh Allen had one of the biggest breakout years the NFL has ever seen this past year. After posting passing grades of 58.0 and 61.4 in his first two seasons at the NFL level in 2018 and 2019, Allen recorded a near-elite mark of 89.8 in regular-season play this past season (sixth in the NFL). He ranked dead last in percentage of uncatchable passes thrown in both 2018 and 2019 with rates above 25% but nearly cut that in half to 16.5% (tied for fourth).
Allen did serve up a heavy dose of downfield passes that may have been catchable but were inaccurate. Still, he at least gave his receiver a chance on those and produced an insanely higher volume of big-time throws. It wouldn’t be much of a surprise if Allen regressed slightly in 2021, but it’s clear he proved us all wrong and showed Buffalo he can be their franchise quarterback longterm.
Baker Mayfield has been a roller-coaster in his three years in the league. He impressed as a rookie with an 83.2 PFF grade, then took a massive step back in Year 2 with Freddie Kitchens and saw his grade fall to 77.4. This year, Mayfield got off to an atrocious start but rallied after the first month and half and performed at a truly elite level.
After earning a 57.3 passing grade through the first six weeks of 2020, Mayfield went on to record the second-highest mark in the league (91.8) from there on (including the postseason). He got comfortable in Kevin Stefanski's offense and looked like the franchise guy down the stretch. Now he just has to sustain it.
The ongoing question of “Should the Cowboys pay Dak?” is likely (and thankfully) going to come to an end in the coming weeks. Prescott deserves to receive a decent-sized long-term deal in Dallas, even if he is coming off a gruesome ankle injury.
Prescott shined with first-time play-caller Kellen Moore back in 2019, producing a top-10 PFF grade at the position while ranking as the third-most valuable quarterback in the NFL per PFF WAR. He followed that up with a fiery start in 2020 before going down with that season-ending injury in Week 5, ranking seventh among quarterbacks in PFF grade through the first five weeks of the season (85.2) and leading the league in deep passing yards with 507. He has proven to be more than capable of performing at a high level in any given year, and that’s not something a lot of NFL teams can say they have at quarterback.
There were signs of Aaron Rodgers possibly hitting his decline in 2019, which prompted Green Bay to think ahead and draft Jordan Love in Round 1 of the 2020 NFL Draft. In response, Rodgers came out in 2020 and had the best season we have ever seen in the PFF era, which led to MVP honors. His 95.1 PFF grade is the highest we have ever awarded at the position. Needless to say, the “sign of decline” was a fluke. After this kind of season from Rodgers, it wouldn’t be a terrible idea for Green Bay to shop Love, as he would still fetch good compensation that would in turn help build on their Super Bowl window.
Kansas City is obviously all set at quarterback for the next decade. There have only been seven instances since 2006 of a quarterback posting a 90.0 PFF grade in one of their first four years in the league. Patrick Mahomes has three of them. He makes throws that few — if any — can make and is the best quarterback the NFL has ever seen when it comes to creating off structure. As a matter of fact, his 91.7 passing grade on those plays over the last three years is over 10 grading points higher than any other quarterback in the league.
In his three years of starting for the Chiefs, Mahomes has led the franchise to an AFC Championship game and two Super Bowls. He is on the path to greatness, and Kansas City is only at the beginning of a dynasty that could rival what the New England Patriots did with Tom Brady.
Seattle’s brass may have to seek some relationship counseling with Russell Wilson after his comments over the last few weeks, but as long as he is a Seahawk — and it looks like he will be in the short-term at the very least — they have no reason to worry. While Wilson does invite pressure far more than he should, he still has been one of the best quarterbacks on a throw-for-throw basis in recent years and has overcome the beatings he has taken. This past season in particular, Wilson tied for the most sacks plus hits invited with 24 and ranked sixth in passing grade at 88.6. Over the last two years, Wilson has generated more WAR than anyone in the NFL and is the only quarterback to rank top-three in clean-pocket and pressured passing grade.
One would think that a team with a quarterback who will be 44 years old when he starts in Week 1 would be in dire need of a new signal-caller, but Tampa has an exception with Tom Brady. The reigning Super Bowl MVP has shown no signs of slowing down and is coming off arguably his most impressive season yet. He earned a 93.5 PFF grade in his first season with the Buccaneers. Not only was that the second-best in the NFL this past season, but it was also the seventh-best mark we have recorded in our 15 years of grading.
Brady, who at this point is the consensus G.O.A.T. of the NFL, still has more gas left in the tank. The Bucs still have a window to be in Super Bowl contention, and they need to do everything they can to retain the core that was alongside Brady in their run this past season.