2021 NFL Quarterback Rankings: Everyone is Chasing Patrick Mahomes
Peter Aiken/Getty Images. Pictured: Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers
No position in sports is more important than quarterback.
The QB touches the ball on every play. An elite quarterback might drag an average roster deep into the playoffs, while a bad signal caller can doom even the best rosters.
In my Power Rankings, QB is valued at over 40% of the entire Offensive Unit ranking. Heck, the QB is over 25% of the overall roster rating. Consider Patrick Mahomes -spoiler alert!- atop our rankings. The Chiefs rank No. 2 in my Offensive Unit rankings and No. 2 overall. But replace Mahomes with a league-average QB and they drop to 12th on offense and 8th overall. Replace him with a league-worst QB instead and suddenly they drop to 23rd and 19th.
The Chiefs roster with Patrick Mahomes is a Super Bowl favorite. With an average QB instead, they might struggle to win a playoff game. With a replacement-level QB, they miss the playoffs entirely.
That’s how important this position is. It’s why quarterbacks get their own column, and why we’ll revisit it every month or two all season too.
These are the 2021 Opening Day rankings. We’ll follow the same format we used for my offensive and defensive unit ranks and for my offensive line and coaching rankings: 1 to 32, in order, starting with Mahomes at the top.
Tier I — The Chief Stands Alone
1. Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs (2020 Opening Day rank: 1)
Is there anything Patrick Mahomes can’t do? Apparently the only answer is “block for himself,” as the Chiefs learned the hard way in the Super Bowl.
Mahomes has the strongest arm in the league and the best touch. He’s an awesome scrambler and elite at reading the defense. He’s creative and imaginative but careful with the ball. He does something almost every week that no one else on the earth can do. And he’s only 25, so we’ll be ranking him at or near the top for a very long time.
Tier II — The Perennial MVP Candidates
2. Aaron Rodgers, Packers (4)
3. Russell Wilson, Seahawks (2)
Not much controversy yet, but that’s OK.
Aaron Rodgers might be the most accurate quarterback in the league, and he’s certainly one of the most careful. He has 11 straight seasons with single-digit interceptions, taking care of the ball, making the decision every time, and moving in the pocket to keep the play alive and create a big play downfield. No one is more deadly with the hard count.
It’s fair to wonder if Rodgers can match what he did last year, though. He’ll turn 38 in December, after all, and not everyone can age like Tom Brady. Rodgers led the league with 0.370 expected points added (EPA) per play last season, per RBSDM. He lapped the field, and excluding garbage time that number leapt even higher to an outlandish 0.466 EPA/play. He was as far ahead of Mahomes as Mahomes was ahead of the No. 19 QB.
In 2019, though, Rodgers was at just 0.144 EPA/play. Considering Rodgers typically runs around 40 plays per game, that means he was worth around 15 points a game to the Packers last year but under six per game in 2019. This year we probably end up somewhere in the middle, but it’s worth noting just how much he elevated the Packers his 2020 MVP season.
Russell Wilson’s unique package of abilities that stands out. He has a huge arm, his 64.4 air-yard completion longest in the league last year on yet another one of those moon balls down the field, and he’s Mario-star invincible when he’s scrambling and creating on the move. He’s also accurate and careful with the ball, though he also routinely ranks bottom five in time per throw and his penchant for holding onto the ball so long does lead to too many sacks.
Still, no one is as dangerous with the game on the line. Wilson is 99-45-1 lifetime as a starter, an average of 11-5 per year. He’s never missed a game and never won fewer than nine in a season. And somehow, when one-score games are random for nearly every other QB in history, Russell Wilson has won 20 of his last 25 one-score games. It’s unfathomable that he’s never received a single MVP vote. Maybe that will change this season with new OC Shane Waldron around. He’s +1600 to win it at BetMGM.
Tier III — The Franchise Guys
4. Tom Brady, Buccaneers (17)
5. Dak Prescott, Cowboys (9)
6. Lamar Jackson, Ravens (3)
7. Josh Allen, Bills (24)
8. Justin Herbert, Chargers (N/A)
9. Kyler Murray, Cardinals (8)
Whew, that’s a huge tier. The truth is that it started as two tiers for me, but I couldn’t make up my mind where to draw the line. In some versions, Jackson and Allen ended up with the pair above them; in others they dropped down to the two below. In the end, the entire group gets that all-important moniker:
Maybe you’ve heard of the guy at the top, Tom Brady. Apparently some idiot who wrote this column a year ago was dumb enough to rank Brady 17th heading into the new season. Wait, that was me? Shoot.
Brady is 44 but does it even matter anymore? He totally reinvented himself last year under Bruce Arians, eschewing those easy under routes to the James Whites and Wes Welkers of the world and instead dialing it up aggressively down the field. Per Next Gen Stats, Brady had the highest averaged intended air yards of any starter. He also had the most aggressive air yards to the stick, meaning he was constantly throwing past the first down marker and then some. He knows his weapons are elite, and he’s giving them a chance.
I may have been too dumb to rank Brady among the top half of the Opening Day starters in 2020, but I’m back in on the GOAT this year: he’s my pick to win MVP, and still available at +1200 at PointsBet even after a huge opening night.
He needed that big game too, because Dak Prescott was up for the showdown. Did you ever imagine Dak might one day become a top-five QB? He’s ranked top-five in success rate each of the past two seasons, defined by the number of plays with positive expected points added, per RBSDM. Prescott is accurate and aggressive down the field, and he’s become a truly elite option. As he gets healthy again and the three guys above him age out, he might ascend even higher still.
It feels like people have soured on Lamar Jackson, and that also feels like a mistake. There’s little doubt Jackson is an absolutely electric runner after back-to-back 1000-yard seasons, the first QB ever to do so. He’s essentially a RB who can also throw. But it’s easy to forget just how good he was as a passer two seasons ago too, when he led the entire NFL in EPA/play his MVP season. The passing numbers plummeted last year, but he’s still only 24 years old and has his best weapons ever this year.
This is quite the leap from Josh Allen, from 24th in my Opening Day rankings a year ago all the way to 7th this year — and you probably still think he’s too low. It’s easy to argue he should be higher. Allen ranked top-four in key Football Outsiders metrics like DVOA and DYAR. He was also 4th in EPA/play last year and first in success rate at 56.3%.
Allen has a cannon for an arm, but it’s his accuracy that’s really skyrocketed. Three years ago, Allen finished the season at an ugly 52.8% completion rate, including -7.7% Completion Percentage Over Expectation (CPOE), per Next Gen Stats. In other words, an average QB should’ve completed over 60% of the throws Allen was making. He looked like he might not belong in the NFL at all. In 2019, Allen’s CPOE rose to -3.7%, but that still made him the third worst starter in the league. Then last year, he leapt all the way to +4.6 CPOE, second in the entire NFL. He also jumped from 25th in the NFL against the blitz to 3rd best. It’s a remarkable, unprecedented improvement.
If Allen matches what he did last year, he’s an easy top-five pick and probably belongs a tier above. If he continues his ascent even a little, he’ll be No. 2 before too long and maybe even challenge for that top spot. For now, that rapid ascent makes him an obvious regression candidate. We’ll see.
Justin Herbert and Kyler Murray are a bet on the future coming very soon. Herbert had a remarkable rookie season. He has a huge arm and showed outstanding mechanics and reaction speed with terrific touch and ball placement on his throws. His metrics already made him a top-10 QB as a rookie, and he could be ready to explode under new OC Joe Lombardi.
Murray is more in the Jackson mold. He’s an electrifying scrambler and creator, though he’s still working to harness his arm as an equal weapon. If Week 1 was any indication, he might be well on his way. Murray threw for four TDs and ran for another, vaulting all the way to +900 to win MVP at BetMGM, second to only Mahomes. This ranking might be a bit ambitious for Murray at this stage of his career, but QB is so important that it’s always worth it to be on upside.
Tier IV — Depends on What’s Around Them
10. Matthew Stafford, Rams (10)
11. Matt Ryan, Falcons (13)
12. Ryan Tannehill, Titans (16)
13. Kirk Cousins, Vikings (11)
14. Derek Carr, Raiders (21)
15. Baker Mayfield, Browns (22)
And now you see why we were so willing to bet on upside.
If you’re a fan of a team with one of these quarterbacks, you know exactly how it feels. When things are good, they’re really good. Give these guys blocking, good weapons, and a nice scheme, and they can really light it up and put up numbers. But take one piece of the Jenga tower out and things can crumble quickly. They’re all good, definitely above average QBs, but their potential greatness depends on how good everything is around them.
The Rams are hoping they have the right pieces around Matthew Stafford. This is one of the most interesting QB experiments we’ve seen in some time. Sean McVay clearly did not trust Jared Goff, but Stafford has a huge arm and led the league in both aggressiveness and completed air yards in 2019, per Next Gen Stats. Compare his 9.0 intended air yards average from a year ago to Goff’s meager 6.5, second lowest in the NFL.
What could the Rams look like with a genuinely talented QB, one McVay trusts to throw beyond the sticks and attack down the field? We caught a glimpse in Week 1, when Stafford repeatedly connected deep and shredded the Bears defense. He actually led the NFL in Week 1 with a 8.9 completed air yards average. If he keeps that up, McVay’s explosive offense might be back and better than ever.
Matt Ryan and Ryan Tannehill might be headed in opposite directions, and if so, it’s because of Arthur Smith. Smith elevated Tannehill in incredible ways his last two seasons in Tennessee. Tannehill ranked top-three in the NFL last season in EPA/play, success rate, and average air yards. Now Ryan gets his turn with Smith, his new head coach, and he won MVP the last time he had an elite signal caller on his side. Will Tannehill still be an elite QB without Smith around? And could Ryan reach new heights with Smith’s playaction attack maximizing efficiency down the field?
Nobody gets excited about Kirk Cousins or Derek Carr, but most advanced metrics place both of them among the top-10 QBs. Cousins is remarkably accurate. He’s ranked top-five in completion percentage over expectation (CPOE) three straight seasons. He also ranked 9th last year in both EPA/play and success rate.
Carr can be overly cautious at times but takes care of the ball and is quite accurate himself. In 2019, he led the league in EPA+CPOE by a mile excluding the bottom 30% of win percentage, with an absurd 80.3% completion percentage and a 58% success rate. In other words, when the game was still in hand in 2019, Carr graded out as the best QB in the league. The problem with both Cousins and Carr is that they each struggle to step up in those key moments when the moment is biggest.
This is a step up into this tier for Baker Mayfield. He quietly improved a ton the second half of last season, and he ranked second in the NFL in EPA+CPOE in that same still-in-hand frame we just mentioned with Carr. But Mayfield isn’t careful. He ranked top-five in intended air yards and highest air yards to the stick, making him more Tannehill than Carr. The question with Baker is what his peak is. He can get to the top of this tier, sure, but is there still a top-10 ceiling? Mayfield’s due for a contract extension, and the Browns are a chic Super Bowl pick. Baker is a question mark right now, but another step forward could make him an exclamation mark instead.
Tier V — If Health Permits…
16. Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers (7)
17. Jimmy Garoppolo, 49ers (20)
18. Carson Wentz, Colts (15)
What to do with these three? It’s hard to say. A fully healthy version might vault to the top of the previous tier or beyond, but we may never get a full healthy season from any of these three again.
Ben Roethlisberger is on his last legs. He had terrible metrics last year, his 4.6 completed air yards average lowest of any starter. But he gets the ball out faster than any QB, a must behind his poor offensive line, and he can still get hot and give his team a shot. He’s 39 going on 55.
Jimmy Garoppolo routinely ranks near the bottom of the league in air yards, but that might be by design since Kyle Shanahan has built his team around so many playmaking YAC guys and just wants his QBs to get the ball to them quickly. Jimmy G ranked 7th in success rate his last healthy season, and the 49ers offense with Garoppolo has ranked top-five in EPA/play vs. just 27th without him. The 49ers are 23-8 with Garoppolo starting, a 12.6-win pace. He’s been better than you think — he just can’t stay healthy.
Carson Wentz was abysmal last year. His -4.1 CPOE ranked last in the NFL, and he literally averaged negative expected points added per play. That’s bad, in case that’s not obvious. Wentz has a big arm and is aggressive down field but not necessarily accurate. He tends to hold the ball too long and make over-aggressive reads, looking for the big play. This ranking is a bet on Frank Reich and a good offensive line, but it could be ugly for the Colts if the bet is wrong. Philip Rivers actually ranked second in EPA/play excluding garbage time last year, so if Wentz is bad, it’s a bigger drop-off than you’d think.
Tier VI — Young Guys Ready to Make a Leap
19. Joe Burrow, Bengals (18)
20. Tua Tagovailoa, Dolphins (N/A)
21. Trevor Lawrence, Jaguars (N/A)
If we get a star breakout this season like Herbert or Allen, this trio is the most likely set of culprits.
Should Joe Burrow rank higher? Maybe, but his metrics weren’t particularly great as a rookie and he had a pretty troublesome training camp and preseason recovering from that knee injury. Burrow lacks high-end arm strength but makes up for it with elite ball placement, touch, and mechanics. His +3.7 CPOE ranked just outside the top-five as a rookie, his one standout metric while he’s been unable to fire down the field so far. And though he’s still new to the NFL, Burrow is 24. That’s the same age as Lamar Jackson and just one year younger than Mahomes, so Burrow needs to figure it out quickly.
The metrics were pretty rough for fellow rookie Tua Tagovailoa last season, but he’s a popular sophomore breakout pick. I’m skeptical. Tagovailoa’s accuracy hasn’t been great, and he hasn’t shown that he’s much more than a decent game manager so far. Lefty QBs change things for the whole offense, and we don’t see them very often.
This year’s highly touted rookie is No. 1 pick Trevor Lawrence. He has all the tools, with outstanding pocket presence, a big arm and all the pedigree, and some have billed him as the next great quarterback prospect. Now we find out.
Tier VII — The Placeholders
22. Jared Goff, Lions (19)
23. Teddy Bridgewater, Broncos (26)
24. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Washington (31)
25. Jameis Winston, Saints (N/A)
26. Tyrod Taylor, Texans (25)
27. Andy Dalton, Bears (N/A)
Barf. These guys are placeholders. Every time on this list knows this won’t be the quarterback for long. Over/under 0.5 of them starting for these teams a year ago? I think I’d take the under.
Teddy Bridgewater is the ultimate game manager. He routinely ranks near the bottom of the league in aggressiveness and air yards, but he takes care of the ball, stays out of the way, and lets his playmakers get the job done. That’s why he makes sense for Denver with all their offensive talent and elite defense.
It could be a rude awakening for Jared Goff without Sean McVay. He ranked last in the NFL in air yards to the sticks among starters last year and third to last in average completed air yards. Translation: McVay didn’t trust him with the keys to the Ferrari, and now he upgraded for a better model.
Ryan Fitzpatrick was actually pretty good last year. He ranked 6th in EPA/play and second in success rate, and he gets the ball out as quickly as almost any quarterback. A healthy Fitzpatrick would’ve been a real step forward for Washington at QB. Instead, he’s now hurt and Taylor Heinecke has the reins. Heinecke would’ve ranked last on this list. Uh oh.
What can Jameis Winston be with outstanding coaching and protection? This ranking reflects Winston over his career, when he’s been a walking turnover machine. Sure, he has a big arm and can splash some serious numbers, but his mistakes hurt the team as much as his arm helps them. Either way, this is a big change from Drew Brees. Brees ranked among the highest expected completion percentage and lowest intended air yards the last few seasons, while Winston is usually just the opposite. He’s aggressive and risky, and if this is going to work, Sean Payton needs to preemptively make up for the impending mistakes by taking advantage of the playmaking downfield.
Tyrod Taylor and Andy Dalton aren’t particularly interesting and won’t be starting long. Rookies Davis Mills and Justin Fields will take their place soon enough. It’s just a matter of when.
Tier VIII — Young Guys Who Aren’t Ready Yet
28. Jalen Hurts, Eagles
29. Mac Jones, Patriots
30. Zach Wilson, Jets
We got next. The order here is nothing more than experience. Jalen Hurts has played at least a few NFL games, so that’s a leg up for readiness right now. Mac Jones played much tougher competition and is a year older. Zach Wilson has the best upside of the three but he’s got a long learning curve ahead.
Don’t get too excited about Hurts from Week 1 just yet. His air yards were comically low, a hilarious -6.2 air yards to the sticks per throw, per Next Gen Stats. That was a stark contrast from last year, when Hurts led the league in intended air yards per throw and also held onto the ball longer than any QB. Right now, he’s more runner than quarterback.
Tier IX — And For That Reason, I’m Out
31. Daniel Jones, Giants (27)
32. Sam Darnold, Panthers (23)
If you want to put these two into one of the young tiers, by all means, but I’m just not sure there’s much potential left to tap into. Not everyone gets a Josh Allen or Ryan Tannehill redemption arc.
Daniel Jones had a 0.007 EPA/play last year. Spoiler alert: it’s not great when your quarterback basically adds zero to your offense. Jones had a 45.6% success rate, well below average. He can make plays with his legs but still makes far too many mistakes with the ball and in his reads. QBs just don’t look this unremarkable for two years and then turn out good.
Sam Darnold has a whole extra year of seasoning and has arguably shown even less. He was the worst regular starter in the league last year. He ranked dead last in EPA/play and success rate, and he’s ranked bottom-five in CPOE and expected completion percentage every year as a starter. The metrics paint Darnold as bad and unredeemable. The Panthers made a sizable bet that the metrics are wrong. Matt Rhule and Joe Brady have their work cut out for them.
5 Key Takeaways for Bettors
1. Super Bowl contenders have elite quarterbacks.
Not exactly breaking news. Still, it’s worth noting that of the 10 teams with the best Super Bowl odds, eight of them have a top-10 quarterback on this list.
The only outliers? The 49ers and Browns, who are +1400 and +1500 at DraftKings. If you’re betting on San Francisco or Cleveland, know that you are making a direct bet on Garoppolo or Mayfield — or maybe Trey Lance.
2. The Cowboys, Chargers, or Cardinals could be sleepers if they get MVP-level quarterback play.
While quarterback could hold back the Browns or 49ers, elite QB play could elevate otherwise average rosters in Dallas, Los Angeles, or Arizona.
If Dak Prescott really is a top-five QB, the Cowboys might have sneaky Super Bowl value at +3500. That might be a bridge too far for the Chargers or Cards, but if you believe in Justin Herbert or Kyler Murray, you can still get plus juice on both to make the playoffs: +137 on the Chargers and +190 for the Cardinals, both at DraftKings.
3. Jameis Winston might be one of the biggest swing players in the NFL in 2021.
One other potential sleeper? The New Orleans Saints could continue to surprise if Payton turns Jameis Winston into something.
If Winston is more like the 12th best QB than the 25th, the Saints leap into the top 10 in my offensive rankings and even higher overall. That would make the Saints value for playoffs (+114 at DraftKings) or Super Bowl odds (+2500 at BetMGM). It would also put Winston in play for Comeback Player of the Year (+1700 at FanDuel) or maybe even MVP (+2500 at BetMGM). Sean Payton for Coach of the Year could still be another angle.
If Jameis turns into Not Jameis in 2021, it could change the entire complexion of the NFC.
4. Don’t underestimate how much a quarterback injury can doom a team.
Remember the Mahomes example in the intro. The Chiefs drop to a borderline top-10 team with an average QB in place of Mahomes, and they fall to the bottom half of the league if they replace him with Sam Darnold.
Injuries are inevitable. When one of those top names gets hurt, don’t forget just how much it cripples the rest of the roster. Don’t be afraid to bail in a hurry.
The same goes for Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers if they finally hit the age wall.
5. Washington might already be in trouble.
My colleague Raheem Palmer thinks Taylor Heinecke is a better QB for Washington, but I don’t buy it.
Heinecke committed a critical turnover in the fourth quarter of Washington’s first two games this season, and the man he’s replacing really gave the Football Team a new ceiling.
Washington ranked dead last in Football Outsiders’ Offensive DVOA a year ago, but Fitzpatrick ranked sixth in EPA/play last year and could have really improved this offense.
If he can’t come back soon, you might want to hedge out of any Washington futures quickly.