Update, March 13, 10:05 a.m. ET: Shortly after publication, Drew Brees and the Saints agreed to a two-year deal, according to NFL Network.
Don’t let last year’s NFL playoffs fool you—quarterback is still the most important position in sports. The immediate impact the Jimmy Garoppolo trade has made serves as a great reminder: It’s quickly re-energized the 49ers franchise, helped create an NFC West arms race, and proved influential in Richard Sherman’s decision to sign with a former hated rival. And all that action may end up as just a teaser for how the Kirk Cousins sweepstakes, the Vikings’ quarterback exodus, and this year’s talented QB draft class could shake things up around the league.
With so many options in the quarterback market—whether that’s via free agency, trades, or the draft—teams must decide how to weigh all the variables, and factors like age, salary, length of club control, injury history, trade-cost, upside vs. floor , and fit all come into play. With all those things in mind, here’s how I’d rank every available quarterback, from most to least valuable.
1. Drew Brees
If you’ve spent the past few months operating under the assumption that Brees—while technically approaching free agency—was all but a lock to return to the Saints in 2018, you’re not alone. A reunion’s still likely (I think), but we’re now into the NFL’s legal tampering period and the two sides have yet to work out an extension. It might be time to start taking the idea of Brees as a genuine factor in this quarterback market a little more seriously. If Brees were to start negotiating with other teams, he’d be breaking new ground: Future Hall of Fame quarterbacks almost never hit unrestricted free agency—particularly those still healthy and playing at an elite level, as Brees did in 2017. There’s always the fear the 39-year-old Brees is approaching a performance cliff, but he showed few signs of regression last year as he set a new NFL record for completion percentage (72.0).
Brees is accurate and smart, can attack every level of the field, and rarely makes poor decisions with the ball—you put him in any offense and he’s going to carry the team. Brees signing somewhere other than New Orleans would be one of the biggest NFL stories of the decade.
The Missing Puzzle Piece
2. Kirk Cousins
Statistically speaking, Cousins has posted top-10-quarterback numbers over the past three seasons combined, throwing for 13,176 yards (fourth among all passers) and 81 touchdowns (eighth) at 7.8 yards per attempt (fourth) with a 67.0 percent completion rate (third) and a 97.5 passer rating (sixth). I’m not quite ready call Cousins elite, but the soon-to-be-former Redskin is an aggressive, efficient passer—and with a strong supporting cast, he could be the perfect addition to a team that’s just a quarterback away from contending for a championship. In practical terms, if you drop Cousins onto the Jets or Broncos, they’re both going to be a whole lot more competitive. If you put him in Minnesota’s offense—which features pass catchers Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, and Kyle Rudolph; a strong run game under Dalvin Cook; and an elite defense—they’re an immediate Super Bowl favorite in the NFC.
It’s damn near impossible to predict how NFL draft prospects will pan out in the NFL, and the hit rate for quarterbacks taken in the first round remains low. But the potential reward for finding a starter in the draft far outweighs the risk of getting a bust. Why? Because hitting on that draft pick can open up a window for that team to spend big money elsewhere to build a championship roster.
More teams becoming aware of this (something the Seahawks realized five years ago), will be one of the dominant team-building themes for the rest of the decade. https://t.co/EGzosSs19B— Kevin Clark (@bykevinclark) March 9, 2018
This year’s quarterback class is widely considered to be one of the deepest and most talented of all time—but opinions vary wildly on the order in which the potential first-round picks stack up. It’ll be up to each quarterback-needy team to determine which passer best fits its respective locker room and scheme, but with just over a month and a half to go to the draft, here’s how I’d rank my top-four draft-eligible quarterbacks.
3. Sam Darnold
The former USC signal-caller pushes the ball down the field with a strong arm and has the ability to vary his velocity and touch—alternating between well-placed lasers into tight coverage or raindrops over the head of defenders. He makes big throws from the pocket and is athletic enough to extend plays when the protection breaks down, and when he does move out of the pocket, he keeps his eyes downfield to find the open man. However, he makes a few too many “blind” throws, too—plays where it appears he decides where he’s going with the ball before the snap—and that resulted in way too many interceptions (22 total) during his two-year career as the Trojans’ starter. Still, he’s got great size (6-foot-3, 220), a big arm, and mobility, and if he can rein in those wilder tendencies and play with more discipline and ball security, he could be a star.
4. Baker Mayfield
The best way to describe Mayfield is that he’s just, well, a gamer. The first thing you notice when you flip on the tape is a lack of size—he checked in at 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds at the combine—but apart from that, it’s hard to find many things to dislike about the 2017 Heisman Trophy winner out of Oklahoma. He’s accurate down the field, has a good feel for the pocket, stays balanced when he throws, and is a dynamic athlete. He’s hyperaggressive—you see a few too many throws forced into tight coverage—but he’s a natural playmaker with obvious leadership qualities. Like many of his peers, Mayfield operated in a spread scheme for the Sooners, so he may need a coach who’s willing to incorporate some college-style concepts to ease his transition to the pros, but I like his chances at the next level.
5. Josh Rosen
Rosen’s a rhythm passer with a silky-smooth delivery, and when he throws on time, he looks like the second coming of Matt Ryan. It’s the way that he plays when things break down, though, that puts him behind Darnold and Mayfield on this list. The former UCLA star doesn’t always sense pressure quickly enough to react, and when he’s forced to move outside the pocket, his mechanics go out the window and and his velocity suffers. Still, because he’s such a natural, accurate thrower from the pocket, it’s easy to picture Rosen starting early in his career. In the right system, one designed to simplify reads and get the ball out of his hands quickly, he could thrive.
6. Lamar Jackson
Jackson’s mechanics may need some work at the next level: He throws with an upright posture, his feet are very close together when he winds up, and too often, he’s off-balance (or fails to step into the throw) when he lets go of the ball. But despite those concerns, he’s got impressive touch and anticipation as a downfield, outside-the-numbers thrower—and his experience operating in a pro-style scheme at Louisville gives him a chance to play early for the team that selects him. And his running talent gives him unique upside: If he’s paired with a coach who’s willing to utilize his speed and explosiveness in the open field judiciously, he could bring that change-the-math dimension to any team’s offense.
The “If Healthy” Caveats
7. Sam Bradford
Bradford’s floor is that of an efficient game manager who can protect the ball and give his team a chance to compete. That’s what we saw in 2016 when he dinked-and-dunked his way to a then-record 71.6 percent completion rate with a league-low average of 7.2 intended air yards per pass (i.e., the distance his passes traveled in the air), tossing 20 touchdowns and just five picks. His ceiling, based on how he played at the start of last season, might be as one of the best quarterbacks ever. The realistic outlook for 2018 is probably somewhere in between. The big question mark, though, is the status of Bradford’s knee. The 30-year-old signal-caller missed all but two games last year after having surgery to remove loose particles, repair cartilage, and smooth out a bone spur. It’s an injury that Zimmer recently described as “degenerative,” a term that calls into question Bradford’s ability to stay on the field in 2018 and beyond. He’s a risky option because of that injury, but if he’s healthy, he offers a moderately high reward.
8. Teddy Bridgewater
Bridgewater’s career was put on extended hold by the devastating knee injury he suffered just prior to the 2016 season, and it took the former first-rounder a year and a half to get back onto the field. The promise Bridgewater showed as a Pro Bowler in 2015 could be enticing for a handful of teams. But the severity of his injury was basically unprecedented—he nearly lost his leg after dislocating his knee and tearing several ligaments—and that casts doubt on his ability to get back to his pre-injury form. Because of that, Bridgewater’s most likely going to be looked at as a backup option or injury flier in the short term. But for a team willing to roll the dice that Bridgewater’s knee won’t be a factor, the free-agent Viking is just 25 years old and still has the potential to develop into the ascending franchise quarterback we saw two seasons ago.
Bet on Upside (and Your Coaching)
9. Josh Allen
At 6-foot-5, 233 pounds, Allen looks like an NFL quarterback built in a lab—and it wasn’t surprising that he wowed scouts and coaches at the combine, showing off his cannon arm and top-echelon athleticism. Unfortunately, his tape has never matched his measurables: Allen’s decision-making often left something to be desired, and he was, at times, wildly inaccurate, finishing his career with a completion percentage of just 56.2. He failed to dominate at the college level despite facing lower-level competition at Wyoming, ending his junior year there with a 16-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and he struggled mightily when matched up against Power Five opponents. It’s really easy to fall in love with Allen’s rare arm talent—and he may have more upside than any quarterback in this draft class—but he’s going to need to develop better touch and accuracy in the short and intermediate zones in order to realize that potential.
How Much Are You Willing to Offer?
10. Nick Foles
Foles revived what looked like a stalled career with an unbelievable three-game playoff performance when, in relief of the injured Carson Wentz, he completed 72.6 percent of his postseason passes for 971 yards, six touchdowns, one pick, and a 115.7 passer rating to lead the Eagles to Super Bowl glory. That’s the version of Foles who took the league by storm back in 2013, and the way the 29-year-old vet pushed the ball down the field, found open receivers on third down, and kept plays alive certainly made teams sit up and notice. But while Foles did make many legitimately impressive throws, his lackluster performance over the prior three seasons should certainly factor into the equation. The price tag for acquiring his services factors in as well: Anyone looking to trade for Foles would reportedly have to cough up a first-round pick, a steep price to pay for an inconsistent quarterback who carries a strong risk of falling back to earth in a different scheme and under a new play-caller.
11. Jacoby Brissett
Brissett played in, let’s say, a less-than-ideal situation in Indianapolis last season. He was a last-minute addition to a team in transition, filling in for Andrew Luck in an offense that lacked talent at receiver, couldn’t protect him with the offensive line, and didn’t offer much support in the way of a run game or defense. Still, the 24-year-old flashed the potential to develop into a solid starter, throwing 13 touchdowns to seven picks in the Colts’ dysfunctional scheme. If Luck’s really ready to return to the field, the Colts might be willing to move their former starter in exchange for a draft pick or player.
Catch Him If He Falls
12. Mason Rudolph
Rudolph doesn’t offer as much arm-talent upside as Darnold or Allen, he’s not as dynamic of a playmaker as Mayfield or Jackson, and he’s not as polished as Rosen, but he’s still likely a day-two pick—and as a relatively forgotten man in this highly touted class, he could benefit from a year or two to develop without the weight of expectation on his shoulders. The former Oklahoma State star is accurate and willing to take risks, and was highly productive in college, throwing 92 touchdowns and rushing for another 17 in his four years with the Cowboys. With some seasoning, he’s got the chance to turn into a starter at the next level.
A Bridge to the Future
13. Josh McCown
McCown offers a short-term, high-floor option as a bridge quarterback for a rebuilding team—and it could be a squad looking to invest in one of the draft-eligible passers listed above. The soon-to-be 39-year-old veteran threw 18 touchdowns and nine picks last year for the Jets, finishing with a respectable 94.5 passer rating. He’s not dynamic, and he’s probably not going to carry anyone to the playoffs, but any franchise looking to stay competitive as it builds toward the future could do worse than the longtime vet.
Someone’s Gonna Talk Themselves Into It
14. A.J. McCarron
McCarron hasn’t played a meaningful snap in two seasons, but after winning a grievance against the Bengals, he’s poised to hit the free-agent market. The team that seemed like his most likely suitor—the Browns, with former coach Hue Jackson—just traded for Tyrod Taylor, so his options may be limited. What he does have going for him are five scintillating games from the 2015 season (four regular-season games and a playoff loss to the Steelers) in which he took over for Andy Dalton and completed 63.5 percent of his passes for 1,044 yards with seven touchdowns and three picks and an 89.8 passer rating. Of course, that was a Bengals offense that featured A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu, and Tyler Eifert as pass catchers, so if you’ve got a near-perfect situation to drop him into, he just might work.
15. Jay Cutler
I put Cutler in this category last year, too, and sure enough, someone—namely Dolphins coach Adam Gase—did, in fact, talk himself into it. It’s probably going to take even more acrobatic mental gymnastics—plus an injury to a regular starter or two—for that to happen a second straight year. Some GM or coach may look at what Cutler managed in Miami’s talent-deprived offense last year, though—particularly in the team’s shocking 27-20 win over the Patriots in Week 14—and convince themselves they can win with the mercurial 34-year-old veteran. At the very least, they might prefer Cutler over some of the completely uninspiring signal-callers I’m about to mention …
16. Mike Glennon
Glennon was also on this list last year, shortly before he received $18.5 million in guaranteed money from the Bears. He did not live up to that deal, obviously, completing 66 percent of his passes with four touchdowns and five picks in four starts, but there may be a desperate team or two out there who would give him the benefit of the doubt and believe he’ll perform better for a team coached by someone other than John Fox.
17. Matt Moore
Moore’s been one of the more reliable career backups in the league over the past 10 years, and the 33-year-old posted positively Glennonesque numbers in relief of Cutler last season, tossing four touchdowns and five interceptions in four games.
18. Brock Osweiler
It may not be worth much, but Osweiler does have some experience the past three years, with 25 starts on his résumé. He’s also very tall.
Probably Not, but What the Hell?
19-21. Kyle Lauletta, Luke Falk, or Mike White
It’s a long shot that any of this trio turns into anything more than a backup at the next level, but each boasts a combination of size, smarts, accuracy, and/or leadership that gives them a chance to develop into that rare midround gem.
The Case Keenum Award for Shocking Breakout Stars
If you claim to have expected the performance we saw last year out of Keenum, you’re either a liar or an immediate member of his family. Or both. Here’s a few more names to throw against the wall and see if any of them stick.
22. Geno Smith
We’ll just overlook the fact that Smith recently waded into the flat-earth “debate” for a second and imagine a (spherical) world in which the 27-year-old former Jet and Giant took a step forward under the tutelage of Eli Manning in 2017. It did cost Ben McAdoo his job, but Smith got the chance to show he’s not a total disaster when he was named starter over Manning in Week 13 as he threw for 212 yards and a touchdown in a 24-17 loss to the Raiders.
23. Austin Davis
Davis was pretty impressive in preseason action for the Seahawks last August, and the former undrafted free agent, who’s made stops in Denver, Cleveland, and St. Louis, does have 10 starts on his résumé.
24. EJ Manuel
Manuel’s another guy who’s shown flashes at times in preseason action, and the former first-rounder was called on to play in two games last year for the injured Derek Carr, throwing for 265 yards, a touchdown, and a pick. He’s got a big arm and some playmaking ability, as he showed on this throw to Michael Crabtree for a score.
25. Tom Savage
Please just don’t ask Savage to play against the Jaguars’ defensive line.
26. Drew Stanton
Anyone confident enough to talk (dance?) this much trash to Kam Chancellor has a chance to be great.
27. Blaine Gabbert
Gabbert’s still got all the tools that made him a first-round pick: prototypical size, a big arm, and plus-athleticism to make plays with his feet. On the other hand, he never shook the tendency to drop his eyes in the face of oncoming pressure, and he turns the ball over a lot (like, A LOT), so …
28-32. Matt Barkley, Chad Henne, Chase Daniel, Derek Anderson, T.J. Yates
I’m just putting these names here to be thorough.
33. Johnny Manziel
Manziel’s spent the past two years out of football, but it looks like he’s serious about an NFL comeback—and he’ll get a chance to show teams what he can do in spring league action in early April. The former first-rounder started just eight games in two seasons, and he may need a stint in the CFL before an NFL team offers him another job, but according to Manziel, a few clubs have already shown interest.