How confident are you in your team’s quarterback situation?
Wait. Before you answer that, let’s get a couple of things straight.
Although this is the time of year for unbridled NFL optimism — post-draft, pre-minicamp, very few injuries so far — it’s important not to confuse optimism with confidence. If you are, say, a Bears fan, you can talk yourself into feeling very good about a situation that involves Mike Glennon‘s latest shot to be a starter combined with the future of Mitchell Trubisky. But that’s a hopeful feeling. Confidence has to wait for some evidence — real confidence does, at least.
Also, note the phrase above: “quarterback situation.” That means that although you might like your team’s starter better than some other teams’ starters, to answer our question, you must ask a few more questions. How confident are you that your starter can play all 16 games? How much longer can he play? How good do you feel about the backup if he has to play?
These are the factors that go into our occasional feature called the “QB Confidence Index.” Here, we examine each of the 32 NFL teams’ quarterback pictures, throw them into tiers and rank them based on how confident each team is right now. This list changes throughout the year, and again, it’s intended as something more than just a ranking of starting quarterbacks. Keep that in mind before you get mad about where your guy is sitting.
Let’s start with the top tier:
If there’s any cause for worry here, it’s that Tom Brady turns 40 in August and there isn’t a lot of history of quarterbacks who thrived after doing that. But Brady seems impervious to time, having just thrown 28 touchdowns and two interceptions in 12 regular-season games and won a Super Bowl at age 39. Besides, the Patriots have covered their bases by holding on to backup Jimmy Garoppolo, who drew heavy interest on the trade market from teams that were told repeatedly that he wasn’t available. Patriots officials will tell you that they feel completely confident that they can win if Garoppolo has to play, and they also like third-stringer Jacoby Brissett. This is the clear No. 1 quarterback situation in the league.
At halftime of the NFC Championship Game in Atlanta, I encountered a Falcons front-office official and asked how he was doing. “I’ll be better in an hour and a half,” he said. “That No. 12, he’s not human.” At the time, the Falcons led the Packers 24-0. “That No. 12” is Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, who didn’t have enough that day to bring Green Bay back but obviously strikes more fear in opponents’ hearts than anyone else on this list.
Rodgers hasn’t missed a game since 2013, which means backup Brett Hundley hasn’t seen any real action. But Hundley’s preseason work — combined with the high regard the rest of the teams around the league have for the Packers’ coaching staff’s work with quarterbacks — makes him a respected backup and possible 2018 offseason trade target.
Matt Ryan is the reigning MVP. Backup Matt Schaub, who knows this Kyle Shanahan-designed offense as well as any quarterback in the league, stuck around instead of following Shanahan to San Francisco. There might be some concerns about the transition to Steve Sarkisian as coordinator and playcaller, but there’s nothing but confidence in the men taking the snaps. Ryan has missed a grand total of two games in his nine-year career, is coming off his best season and has Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman and an array of weapons around him to help keep things humming in Atlanta.
Matthew Stafford hasn’t missed a game since 2010. Although he doesn’t chuck it as much as he used to, people around the Lions rave about the way he and offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter have connected. Stafford is enjoying his role at the helm of Cooter’s offense, which relies more on shorter, quicker throws than the offenses Stafford used to operate. It would be a big drop-off to backup Jake Rudock, but sixth-round pick Brad Kaaya offers interesting possibilities if he can develop quickly into the No. 2.
CONFIDENT … FOR NOW
When Ben Roethlisberger is on the field with Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, there’s no team more confident about the high-end potential of its offense. But Roethlisberger is 35, flirted openly with retirement this offseason and has played 16 regular-season games only three times in his 13-year career. This is not a player on whom Steelers fans can rely the way fans of teams in the first tier can rely on their starters.
Landry Jones is what he is as a backup — a guy you hope doesn’t have to play more than a game or two. Fourth-round pick Joshua Dobbs is an intriguing long-term prospect. If you’re going to have a young quarterback in a position where he needs to spend some time learning, it’s nice to have as qualified a student as Dobbs. The Steelers like their quarterback situation, but it comes with enough questions to keep it in the second tier.
Like the Patriots, Packers and Steelers, the Saints boast a surefire Hall of Famer at quarterback. Drew Brees just posted his fifth career 5,000-yard passing season (the rest of the known universe has combined for four — ever), and he has missed a grand total of two games in 11 years with the Saints. The Saints are here instead of higher because Brees is 38 years old and not signed beyond 2017.
Surprisingly, the Saints did not draft a quarterback this year, though they did bring in Chase Daniel as a free-agent backup option they like a lot. Former third-round pick Garrett Grayson remains as a potential developmental prospect.
Sensing a theme here? Well, these are supposed to be tiers of similarly categorized players. Philip Rivers is 35 and coming off his worst season of the past nine, having thrown a career-high 21 interceptions to go with a 60.4 completion percentage that’s four points south of his career average. Behind him are only Kellen Clemens, Mike Bercovici and undrafted rookie Eli Jenkins. The only reason the alarming backup situation doesn’t knock the Chargers down further is that Rivers hasn’t missed a game since he became the Chargers’ starter in 2006 — way back when the team played in San Diego.
Speaking of durable 2004 draft picks whose backups don’t matter … Eli Manning hasn’t missed a game since he became the Giants’ starter midway through his rookie season. His production dipped in 2016, but some in the Giants’ building believe a lack of non-Odell Beckham weapons and poor pass protection had more to do with that than anything else. Manning did just turn 36, though, and the team is thinking about the future.
One member of the coaching staff said third-round pick Davis Webb “has a ways to go to be the No. 2,” which means that the Giants likely will carry three quarterbacks and either Josh Johnson or Geno Smith sticks as the backup. Again, though, Manning’s backup exists to run the scout team.
CONFIDENCE IS A TWO-WAY STREET
The Colts believe strongly in Andrew Luck and are paying him a salary that reflects that. He is 27 years old, has a career record of 46-30 (including his six playoff games) and is coming off his best statistical season, which included career highs in completion percentage (63.5) and Total QBR (71.2). But he has never had enough protection from his offensive line, and the Colts have not assembled a sufficient array of skill-position helpers to keep Luck from having to do it all himself.
New general manager Chris Ballard seems to understand the roster’s deficiencies and is at work trying to keep Luck upright and productive as he reaches his prime. But Luck has dealt with injury issues the past couple of seasons, and the backup options right now are Scott Tolzien, Stephen Morris and undrafted rookie Philip Walker. Confidence here would get a boost from an encouraging season by the offensive line.
Russell Wilson is 28 and has never missed a game in his five-year career. But man, did it look as if he might have benefited from missing one or two last season. Seattle’s persistent refusal to invest in the offensive line cost Wilson a fully healthy season and limited the offense throughout 2016. He showed in 2015 that he’s capable of carrying the team when things are OK in front of him. But until we’re sure they are, it’s tough to have confidence in Seattle’s ability to keep Wilson as healthy as he needs to be to perform at that ’15 level. Trevone Boykin is a backup with major question marks, which is why there’s so much Colin Kaepernick-to-Seattle buzz right now.
There are so many questions around Cam Newton right now, not least of which is his timetable for recovery from offseason shoulder surgery. One season after he rampaged his way to a Super Bowl and a league MVP award, Newton saw his completion percentage dip to a Mark Sanchez-ian 52.9. The worst season of Newton’s career coincided with fresh concerns about his ability to protect himself — and the ability of his team and the officials to protect him — on the field. The shoulder surgery this offseason kept those concerns front of mind.
Carolina’s backup situation is better than those of the other teams in this tier, given that Derek Anderson seems to know how to keep the ship afloat when Newton can’t play. But the Panthers sit behind Indy and Seattle in our rankings because the health concerns with Luck and Wilson are projected, while Newton’s are current.
Derek Carr spent the bulk of the 2016 season as a swashbuckling, fourth-quarter-comeback-making MVP candidate, and we’re left to wonder what might have been of the Raiders’ season had he not broken his leg in late December. The late-game heroics and the 28:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio masked his middle-of-the-road completion percentage (63.8), yards per attempt (7.0) and Total QBR numbers (62.1), but Carr has shown improvement every season, and at 26 years old, he is in line for a confidence-boosting contract extension this offseason.
Brady, Ryan and Dak Prescott (who has played only one year) are the only quarterbacks with a higher Total QBR since the start of the 2015 season than Kirk Cousins. Washington didn’t extend Cousins last year because it wanted to see another season like the one he had in 2015, and he gave them one. Washington still hasn’t extended him, and if it doesn’t by July 15, it’s almost sure to lose him next March.
Sources say there have been discussions about a long-term deal, and the team is interested up to a certain salary level. But due to the deadline and the lack of clarity in the Washington front office following the early March firing of general manager Scot McCloughan, there isn’t a lot of optimism from either side that something will get done in the next two months.
This is what keeps Washington in this part of the rankings. If it were truly confident about its situation, Cousins would have his long-term deal already. Instead, Washington backs him up with Colt McCoy and Nate Sudfeld and risks the possibility of starting from scratch in 2018.
When your performance declines in your age-36 season, that doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence. Carson Palmer‘s completion percentage last season was his lowest since 2011, when he was a Raider. (Remember Palmer as a Raider?) His yards per attempt were his lowest since 2010, when he was a Bengal. (Remember Palmer as a Bengal?) Touchdowns down, interceptions up, fumbles way up … it was alarming stuff all the way across the board for Palmer in 2016.
The Cardinals didn’t draft a quarterback, but they added Blaine Gabbert and undrafted rookie Trevor Knight to a backup corps that already included Drew Stanton and Zac Dysert. The only other teams with five quarterbacks right now are the Vikings (if you count injured Teddy Bridgewater) and the Bills (we’ll get to them in a second).
If Palmer is healthy and throwing it the way he was in 2015, the Cardinals are as confident as anyone. But there isn’t a real solid feel to the quarterback situation in the desert right now.
Sources close to the situation say the Chiefs’ coaching staff hasn’t lost faith in Alex Smith, who is expected to be the starter all season while first-round pick Patrick Mahomes II learns the NFL game. Tyler Bray or Joel Stave would be in line to fill in if Smith were to get hurt early in the season. But Smith is signed for only two more years, and the Chiefs can get out of his contract very easily next offseason.
Smith is fine for what the Chiefs are doing right now, and it appears that they believe they can win with him. But in today’s AFC West, winning isn’t easy. At some point, the Chiefs are going to look to Mahomes to elevate their ceiling at the most important position.
One of a few teams (including Carolina and Tampa Bay) whose draft seemed to be aimed at making its quarterback’s life easier, Cincinnati used a top-10 pick on speedy wide receiver John Ross and a second-rounder on controversial but talented running back Joe Mixon. You can draft like that when you’re confident in your quarterback situation, and the Bengals are. Andy Dalton‘s performance ticked downward a bit in 2016 from its excellent 2015 levels, but he still completed 64.7 percent of his passes and averaged 7.47 yards per attempt in spite of major injuries to — and free-agent defections from — his skill-position group.
Backup AJ McCarron has some experience and is valuable enough that the Bengals turned down trade offers this offseason. This is one place where the Bengals have no worries.
As long as he’s paired with offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, Sam Bradford knows how to do what the team asks him to do. The Vikings are quite confident that Bradford, who set the NFL’s single-season completion percentage record last season (71.6), can deliver, and they hope that their new tackles, running backs and receiver Michael Floyd can help him flourish to a greater extent than he did in his first season in Minnesota.
They still don’t know what to expect health-wise in the long term from Teddy Bridgewater, but in the meantime, Case Keenum is there as a veteran backup in case something happens to Bradford. The team is also high on Taylor Heinicke, a 2015 undrafted free agent who struggled with his own health issues last season.
Yes, there are a lot of guys who have already been discussed here who don’t have a Super Bowl ring like Joe Flacco does. Flacco’s 2012-13 postseason run was a delirious romp no Baltimore fan will ever forget. But the Ravens have played four whole NFL seasons since then, and over that time, Flacco ranks 21st in Total QBR, behind the likes of Colin Kaepernick, Jay Cutler and Ryan Fitzpatrick. His 2016 season was his best yet in terms of completion percentage (64.9) and passing yards (4,317). But still, 20 touchdowns against 15 interceptions? Yawn. Given how painfully thin the Ravens are at receiver, it’s hard to think backup Ryan Mallett would offer much if he had to play. This might be the league’s dullest decent quarterback situation.
LET’S SEE SOME MORE
There is nothing about Dak Prescott‘s first season to discourage confidence, other than the size of the sample. There is no reason to fear a Prescott tail-off, other than the history that tells us to pump the brakes. After 16 games, Robert Griffin III looked like a sure thing. After 13 games with Chip Kelly, Nick Foles looked like the quarterback of Eagles fans’ dreams. I think Prescott should be fine as long as his offensive line stays together, but a 16-game sample (no matter how brilliant) isn’t enough to erase all doubt.
Cowboys coaches are working in the film room with Prescott, studying the second games he played against division opponents for clues on how teams will attack him with a year’s worth of NFL tape to study. Complacency is among Prescott’s biggest enemies, and it’s encouraging that he doesn’t seem the type to cave to it. Kellen Moore is a backup whom offensive coordinator Scott Linehan likes, but Moore hasn’t played enough to inspire any confidence.
Neck and neck with the next team on this list, Tennessee gets the slight edge because of how much more careful Marcus Mariota is with the ball than Jameis Winston is. Like Prescott, Mariota is in a good situation behind a strong, young line and with an excellent supporting run game. He has shown strides as a leader and as an operator of the offense in his two seasons. He threw 26 touchdown passes and just nine interceptions in his second season and looks the part when he’s on the field.
There’s some concern about health, as he was unable to finish either of his first two seasons, but at age 23, he seems to be coming along at least as well as the Titans could have hoped. Backup Matt Cassel surely could do fine handing the ball off to DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry, if need be.
Winston is a couple months younger than Mariota and so far has a higher Total QBR and a better win-loss record. The Buccaneers’ brain trust believes that he’s a tough player who commands the huddle and has his teammates’ loyalty and that the new weapons they got for him this offseason (including DeSean Jackson and O.J. Howard) will help him elevate his game to the next level.
The interceptions remain a concern, as only Philip Rivers and Blake Bortles have thrown more than the 33 Winston has thrown since the start of 2015. And there’s almost nothing behind him, as the backup right now is either Sean Renfree or Ryan Griffin. Winston is the Bucs’ guy, and they’d love for him to justify and keep building up the confidence they have in him.
It’s difficult to figure out how to write about Tyrod Taylor. Did you know that, among quarterbacks who’ve played at least 20 games the past two seasons, he ranks fourth in touchdown/interception ratio, seventh in Total QBR and 11th in yards per attempt and has the third-fewest interceptions? No, I’ll bet you didn’t know that.
Taylor is clearly a better player than a lot of people want to believe he is, yet he hasn’t risen to the point where he inspires any level of confidence that he’s a franchise guy. Add an all-new coaching staff and front office in Buffalo, and the team itself probably doesn’t yet know how it’s supposed to feel about its quarterback situation.
New general manager Brandon Beane wasn’t exactly blowing kisses to Taylor in his introductory news conference, and though Taylor is surely the starter right now, it isn’t difficult to imagine them trying out Cardale Jones, T.J. Yates or even fifth-round rookie Nathan Peterman if Taylor isn’t doing what they want him to do.
It was exciting that Carson Wentz was ready to play and play as well as he did out of the gate as a rookie. But in the end, Wentz didn’t have anything beyond a somewhat encouraging rookie season. He had 16 touchdowns, 14 interceptions and ranked 29th among qualifying quarterbacks with a paltry 6.23 yards per pass attempt. Was the experience valuable? Absolutely. Are Eagles fans justified in being optimistic? Without a doubt. Is it reasonable to expect things to get better with Alshon Jeffery and a bunch of new helpers around him? Completely reasonable, yes.
But this gets back to what we said at the beginning about optimism versus confidence. Wentz offers a ton of the former but has a ways to go before he offers reason for the latter. Old friend Nick Foles returns as the backup, and Matt McGloin is there as well.
WATCH YOUR BACK
There’s no one ostensibly pushing Ryan Tannehill for the Dolphins’ starting quarterback job. Perpetual backup Matt Moore is of course still there, as is David Fales. Tannehill would have to get hurt or become totally incompetent to lose the job. But the Dolphins played fine with Moore in there last season after Tannehill got hurt.
Although Tannehill is technically signed through 2020, the only remaining guarantee after this season is an injury-only guaranteed $5.525 million of his $17.475 million 2018 salary. The Dolphins can escape the Tannehill contract next offseason. He set a new career high in completion percentage (67.1) in his first season under coach Adam Gase, but he has yet to elevate his game to a point that justifies a $20 million-per-year cap charge.
The Dolphins didn’t draft Tannehill’s eventual replacement, but that doesn’t mean they’re 100 percent confident with what they have for the long term.
It’s probably still Trevor Siemian to start the offseason, but the new coaching staff offers a clean slate, and it isn’t crazy to imagine a scenario in which 2016 first-round pick Paxton Lynch plays well enough this summer (or, if not, this fall) to win the job. The Broncos like Siemian more than everyone else seems to, and they can afford to roll with a caretaker type while Lynch develops, especially with the way they lean on their defense and run game. Their confidence in their quarterback situation is rooted in the fact that they don’t ask their quarterback to do as much as other teams do.
A new coach (Doug Marrone) and new VP of football operations (Tom Coughlin) mean the heat is on 2014 first-round pick Blake Bortles. He had an absolutely rotten 2016 season and has thrown more interceptions (51) than anyone in the league the past three years other than Philip Rivers (52). Like the Dolphins, the Jaguars didn’t draft anyone to compete with or pressure Bortles. Like the Dolphins, they have an eternal backup option in Chad Henne if things don’t work out.
They picked up Bortles’ 2018 contract option, but until next March, that is guaranteed only against injury, which means they can cut Bortles loose next spring if they don’t feel that he is worth $19 million in 2018. It’s a prove-it year for Bortles in Jacksonville, and the organization is looking for reasons to feel confident.
It’s another tough call here between this team and the next one, but I’m going with Houston because I like their first-round pick better than I like Chicago’s. Tom Savage opens as the starter, but he’ll face immediate pressure from Deshaun Watson, the collegiate champion the Texans moved up to take in the first round of the draft.
People who have worked with Watson believe he’ll win over the locker room and the coaching staff sooner rather than later, and of the rookie quarterbacks, he’s the one most likely to start a significant chunk of 2017 games. Savage can hold him off if he plays well, but Houston coach Bill O’Brien changes quarterbacks all the time, and it’s entirely possible that he goes back and forth between those two (with maybe a little Brandon Weeden thrown in) a few times this season.
They signed Mike Glennon as a free agent and then traded up to draft Mitchell Trubisky No. 2 overall. If they really want to replicate the Eagles’ 2016 quarterback offseason, they need Trubisky to make Wentz-level progress this summer and for someone else’s starter to get hurt a week before the season and trade them a first-round pick for Glennon. That seems farfetched, but hey, you never know.
Mark Sanchez and Connor Shaw are even there to compete for the Chase Daniel role. Assuming the current depth chart holds, one Bears source said “Mike would have to really mess up” to lose the job to Trubisky this year. All bets are off in 2018, when the remaining guarantee on Glennon’s deal drops to $2.5 million. How confident will the Bears be in Trubisky — and in Glennon — when it’s time to make next year’s plan?
NO EARTHLY IDEA
A year ago, the Rams were confident enough in Jared Goff to make him the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. They traded up to do it, even. But Jeff Fisher and his coaching staff are gone, and Goff is starting over with a new coach (Sean McVay) who is only nine years older than he is and has plenty of his own ideas about offense and quarterbacks. The organization is committed to Goff for at least a couple more years, and the only backup right now is Sean Mannion.
As such, the story of the season (and the Rams’ seasons to come) will be how McVay and his staff mesh with Goff and manage the early part of his career. It remains to be seen how confident either side of that equation should or will be with the other.
We can be reasonably confident about what Brian Hoyer offers if healthy. We also, unfortunately, given his history, can be reasonably confident that Hoyer won’t stay healthy. Behind him are Matt Barkley and third-round pick C.J. Beathard, and new coach Kyle Shanahan almost certainly has his eyes on the likely 2018 free agency of Kirk Cousins.
First-time head coach Shanahan and first-time GM John Lynch got six-year deals, and they won’t be in any real trouble until at least 2019. Their ultimate quarterback answer could be playing high school football right now.
Multiple sources said the Browns’ offseason quarterback plan was to add a veteran (ideally Jimmy Garoppolo or AJ McCarron via trade) and draft one in the first round. They did neither, unless you count the trade that brought them Brock Osweiler (which they instead announced as a trade that brought them a second-round pick).
Osweiler’s still there, and at this point, he could end up starting for the Browns. So could Cody Kessler, who is the current favorite of the coaching staff’s, or Kevin Hogan, who was in the mix last year. The Browns did draft former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer in the second round, though everyone seems to agree that he needs time before he’ll be ready.
This looks like another mess of musical quarterback chairs, but at least in Osweiler the Browns have someone who has won high-level games and in Kizer they have someone they can reasonably groom as a high-end future prospect. So … trending upward?
The Jets brought in Josh McCown, who’s in line to start until they figure out what they have in Christian Hackenberg and Bryce Petty. Officials from three teams whom I spoke with for this project called the Jets’ quarterback situation the worst in the league, and more than one speculated that the Jets would be in prime position to take advantage of next year’s well-regarded quarterback draft class. That, obviously, does not scream “confidence,” but someone has to come in last.