There are three clear generations of quarterbacks in the NFL. There’s the group drafted between 2000 and 2005—and they still dominate the sport. It began with Tom Brady, ended with Aaron Rodgers, and had quarterbacks like Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, and Philip Rivers in the years between. Historians will look back on that list and wonder: “How did we get to a point where Blake Bortles started for at least four straight seasons?”
The generation after that is intriguing but less successful than the Brady-Rodgers group. They are the passers raised in seven-on-seven leagues and some early spread offenses, known for their accuracy and their increased mobility. The big names are Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck, and Cam Newton, with Ryan Tannehill and Andy Dalton dotting the fringes.
Then there are, well, let’s call them “the ’90s kids.” Few of them have been successes: Christian Hackenberg, born in 1995, is not a contender for best of his generation. Nor is Jared Goff, he of 1994.
There are four clear contenders for Eventual Best ’90s Kid QB—five if you listen to more Philly talk radio than any licensed doctor would ever prescribe. Two of those promising signal-callers, Oakland’s Derek Carr (1991) and Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota (1993), play each other in Week 1. Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston has the first Sunday of the season off, while Dak Prescott kicks off his sophomore campaign against the Giants and Carson Wentz does the same against Washington.
By the time these players enter their early 30s and reach their quarterbacking peaks, there will be few other good quarterbacks across the league. The NFL has mainly botched the spread offense transition, and so a good chunk of this generation of quarterbacks isn’t likely to pan out. But if this quintet continue to break toward stardom, it will be because they married the skill sets of the two previous generations: They can move, they can throw accurately (and not just on short passes), and they understand multiple offenses. Millennials have been blamed for killing so many industries—napkins and diamonds, for instance—but in football, they are killing the interception. Both Darr and Prescott have interception rates below 2 percent. That’s elite, but if you aren’t a ’90s kid, you wouldn’t understand.
Before the rest of the season kicks off, let’s handicap the odds of each quarterback becoming the undisputed king of his generation.
Case For: All of these other players landed in enviable situations. The offensive lines were good. The receivers were, in some cases, great. The coaching staff was solid.
The same can’t be said for Wentz. Last season, his outside receivers were described as “abysmal” by CBS; the language wasn’t more vulgar, presumably, because of CBS’s rules against profanity. He also lost tackle Lane Johnson to a 10-game suspension.
The best argument for Wentz, then, is that he had flashes of greatness despite his unfortunate circumstances. Hell, last October Wentz looked like he was going to lead the Eagles to the Super Bowl. He revved up the hype train into such a high gear that Eliot Shorr-Parks wrote a column for NJ.com in which he said there were only five quarterbacks in the entire NFL he’d take over Wentz. This year the supporting cast is much improved, and Wentz is exactly the quarterback Philly needs—the kind that’s easy to get excited about.
Case Against: As with Carr, numbers don’t love Wentz. Stats guru Michael Saflino has repeatedly compared his early numbers to ... Mark Sanchez’s. The bigger worry, though, is mechanical. Yahoo’s Charles Robinson tackled the subject last year: People inside the league have worries about his throwing motion. Yeah, sure, but PHILLY IS EXCITED! Let’s just enjoy it.
Odds of Being the Best in His Generation: 6-to-1
Case For: An athletic, electric quarterback who spent the past two seasons developing into a good pro, and his team should make the playoffs this year. Earlier this week The MMQB detailed all the steps Mariota took to get to this place—things as simple as learning how to call plays in the huddle and taking a snap under center. But now he’s here:
Mariota's arm is much better than I thought coming out of college pic.twitter.com/6rNCQVPBpp— John Middlekauff (@JohnMiddlekauff) September 6, 2017
At this point, I am the president of the Mariota fan club. I wrote a profile of him earlier this week and came away thinking that he’s probably the quarterback I’d most want to play for, especially if my car had a habit of developing an oil leak. His teammates agree: He’s a budding superstar.
Case Against: Two years in, he’s yet to finish a season healthy. He broke his leg last December and sustained a knee injury the December before that prevented him from finishing the 2015 season.
Health aside, the other concern is his fumbles—19 in two NFL seasons. Mariota’s quarterbacks coach, Jason Michael, told me that the turnovers were a function of him learning that he doesn’t have to win the game on every play. Mariota is gradually learning how to slide and throw away passes.
Case For: Winston doesn’t do short passes. Among all quarterbacks, he had the highest percentage of his yards come through the air last season. He throws touchdowns—28 of them in 2016—and uses his weapons well. Winston has star receiver Mike Evans, and he knows to chuck it up to him. With new additions DeSean Jackson and O.J. Howard, Winston won’t be afraid to do even more of that in 2017. He’ll have the best season of any of these quarterbacks—as long as he manages to fix one thing ...
Case Against: He threw the second-most interceptions in the NFL last season with 18 and was fifth in picks during his rookie year. In the same way that Mariota is still learning to be a “pro” quarterback, there are some basic areas that Winston needs to improve in, too. Sam Bradford broke the record for completion percentage last season, and it’s turned into a Twitter joke among pundits, but short passes are often useful within an offense because they allow for a safe gain when the rest of the defensive look poses a problem. Bucs Nation ran a smart piece analyzing Winston’s interceptions, concluding: “Winston is reckless with the ball in his own territory. He does not use the check-downs or simply throwing the ball away in order to play the game of field position.” This is the season to learn that.
Case For: Aside from the fact that the Cowboys went 13-3 and looked like legitimate Super Bowl contenders for most of the season, while Prescott showed poise and command from Day 1 and forced team legend Tony Romo to concede his position once he came back from injury? Well, here’s one: Only two signal-callers had better quarterback ratings than Prescott on play action last season—Russell Wilson and Tom Brady.
Last week I wrote a piece about how the NFL is botching its quarterback pipeline, but I mentioned Prescott as an unqualified success. A handful of people came into my mentions to tell me that Prescott, in fact, is not good at all and that he just benefited from his supporting cast.
Now, normally I ignore these sorts of complaints, but this was an idea I hadn’t considered, so I thought about it more than your typical tossed-off Twitter take. As first, I thought it was dumb. Upon further reflection, I have decided that it is incredibly dumb and one of the worst takes in football.
Case Against: In a vacuum, you could make the argument that Prescott’s supporting cast was good and that he’d be worse if he played in, say, Cleveland. But that would completely ignore the 2015 season. Tony Romo was hurt and the team looked like it was learning the rules of football in real time en route to a 4-12 season.
Here are the two legitimate concerns: First, Prescott has only one season under his belt. The list of one-hit wonders at quarterback is long, and it’s possible he’ll regress now that there’s a year of tape on him.
Second, as last season progressed, playbook aficionados noted that Prescott struggled with complex defensive schemes. As former NFL quarterback Sage Rosenfels wrote last December: “As a young quarterback, you focus so much on safeties and linebackers that many times you miss the subtleties of a defensive end who’s light in his stance or a safety blitzing with zone-dropping players behind him. This higher level of football takes time to understand and master.”
Case For: Of all of these quarterbacks, he has worked the biggest miracle: He made the Raiders great. Carr resurrected a franchise that looked unsalvageable, made impossible comebacks look sustainable, and went from second-round pick to (briefly) the highest paid player in the NFL in just four short years. Last season, when we named the best team to watch on RedZone, the Raiders were the runaway favorite—in large part because Carr makes everything fun. He has a natural ability to make hard throws look easy:
Like Winston, he plays to the strengths of his offensive supporting cast. Plus, last season, at age 25, he cut his interceptions in half from 13 to six.
Case Against: When you watch Carr, you’re convinced that the numbers shouldn’t apply. He felt like he was single-handedly breaking win probability with some of his comebacks. But fun is not a statistic. Some of his stats aren’t as elite as his contemporaries’. He completed 63 percent of his passes last season, 15th in the NFL, and his 7.03 yards per attempt, which might be the most important number for a passer, was 18th in the NFL, just ahead of Bradford’s.
Four More Thoughts for Sunday and Monday
1. Does Adrian Peterson have just a little bit in the tank for an F-U touchdown against the Vikings? The answer is probably not. Despite early rave reviews, the buzz around Peterson is pretty much nonexistent at the moment.
2. Is the Tom Savage–Blake Bortles matchup as bad as Scott Tolzien–Jared Goff? Nothing underscores the league’s quarterback shortage quite like Tolzien-Goff, but don’t sleep on Savage-Bortles. They’re two quarterbacks who need to be benched as soon as possible in order for their teams to compete. You might be expecting a bunch of interceptions, but I wouldn’t even go that far. I don’t anticipate many successfully thrown passes.
3. How will Cleveland use hyperversatile rookie defensive back Jabrill Peppers against a Steelers offense with tons of weapons? Peppers is going to play safety, but if he needs to, he can play corner or linebacker. It will be fascinating to see if the Browns try to match up Peppers up with Le’Veon Bell, who’s Peppers’s flexible offensive equivalent, with all of his different rushing and receiving roles.
4. What happens when Aaron Rodgers and Earl Thomas are both at full speed and on the same field? Rodgers is my MVP pick, but I think a healthy Thomas is the biggest-impact nonquarterback in football. Once Thomas got hurt, according to Pro Football Focus, the quarterback rating of Seattle’s opponents on passes more than 10 yards rose 40 points. If the Seahawks defense, now featuring Sheldon Richardson, is going to be a dominant, league-wrecking force, slowing down Rodgers would be a great way to start.