It's my favorite ranking of the year! An annual tradition: the quarterbacking pecking order of the NFL divisions.
This is not an overriding power ranking of the divisions. It's a rundown of how the league's eight foursomes stack up when it comes to the game's marquee position. This is not a historical ranking. It's based on what I think about each team's starting signal-caller at this very moment in time, just a couple months away from the 2021 season.
Of course, this offseason has significantly reshaped the quarterback landscape, which leads to less certainty and more fun in this exercise. So, let's get to it!
1) NFC West
No surprise here: The NFL's most competitive division reigns supreme at the sport's most important position. Stafford changes everything for the Rams -- and the Rams change everything for Stafford. He's a spectacular quarterback who's finally going to get his due at age 33. With Sean McVay and the surrounding talent in Los Angeles, the former No. 1 overall pick's a legit MVP candidate and could be a Super Bowl champion. Wilson, of course, already has a ring. He's also a first-ballot Hall of Famer playing at the top of his game, having just set career-highs in touchdown passes (40) and completion percentage (68.8). Sure, he clearly has some issues with team brass, given the drama earlier this offseason. And the O-line still looks a little troublesome to these eyes. But Wilson is a star who makes the most out of what he has, both in terms of his own skill set and the surrounding talent. After petering out down the stretch last season, I think he comes out in 2021 as a man on a mission.
I expect Murray, another former No. 1 overall pick, to become truly great in 2021. It's Year 3 in Kliff Kingsbury's offense and the surrounding pieces are in place, especially at the receiver position. This cat's dynamic as a passer and runner, a modern playmaker at the position. That's not exactly the case with Jimmy G, who brings this group down. That said, he's obviously been solid when healthy, as evidenced by his 22-8 record in San Francisco. Not to mention, Lance -- a true dual-threat with serious arm talent -- waits in the wings. His lack of experience could keep him on the bench longer than some 49ers fans would like, but once the No. 3 overall pick gets comfy in Kyle Shanahan's scheme ... Watch out!
2) AFC West
Mahomes is the best quarterback in the game bar none. It's crazy to think that, of his three seasons as an NFL starting quarterback, 2020 ranks as his worst. I'm laughing as I type that. That's just how it goes when you win league MVP in Year 1 and Super Bowl MVP in Year 2. But yeah, the guy still posted a 38:6 TD-to-INT ratio and made it right back to Super Bowl Sunday, so "worst" is a relative term there. Herbert is fresh off one of the best rookie seasons in NFL history -- I'd call it the best at the quarterback position. Despite playing behind an offensive line that Pro Football Focus ranked dead last at season's end, the Oregon product set a rookie record with 31 touchdown passes while completing 66.6 percent of his passes with a 98.3 passer rating. With the arm, the athletic ability, the size, Herbert's the total package. Scary to think he's only going to get better. Speaking of which, the Raiders' quarterback just continues to improve, despite what some people seem to think. I've been a card-carrying member of the Derek Carr fan club for years, and last season was quite satisfying, as the seven-year veteran set career-highs in passing yards (4,103) and passer rating (101.4). Carr's legit. Bag it, haters.
Now, Denver's situation is the glaring "Yeah, but ..." in this division's rundown. I'm not exactly head over heels for Bridgewater or Lock. But could that QB room add a certain somebody in the coming weeks? Somebody who, um, just won MVP? Stay tuned!
3) AFC North
I thought it was close between the AFC West and AFC North, but Mahomes raised the bar and Roethlisberger lowered it. Big Ben is pushing 40 and his arm shows it. Obviously, he's a Hall of Famer, but remember: This ranking is based on my expectations for the 2021 season. And those aren't too high when it comes to Roethlisberger, especially behind Pittsburgh's patchwork offensive line. In 2021, Ben's the fourth-best quarterback in his own division. On the other end of the career spectrum ... Burrow is going to shine. Fresh off a promising -- albeit injury-abbreviated -- rookie campaign, the 2020 No. 1 overall pick now has his No. 1 receiver from back at LSU. With Ja'Marr Chase joining Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd in Cincy, Burrow has a legit Big Three. Burrow also has it -- you know, of the indefinable sort.
Jackson is a flat-out stud and the best quarterback in this division, breaking ankles, throwing darts and generally taking breaths away. He's a former MVP who will be in the mix for the award every year for the foreseeable future. As for the guy who went No. 1 overall in Jackson's draft class? The light went on for Baker last year under savvy coach Kevin Stefanski. As long as Odell Beckham Jr.'s return to the lineup doesn't disrupt things, Mayfield will have the best full season yet in 2021.
4) NFC South
Despite the fact that he's about to turn 44, Brady is still playing brilliant, elite, winning football, having just captured his seventh ring in his first year with the Buccaneers. With a full season under his belt -- and the accompanying familiarity with his receivers and the Byron Leftwich/Bruce Arians offense -- there's reason to believe Brady will be even better this regular season than last. The G.O.A.T. is still playing like it in his mid-40s. Crazy. Ryan's carved out a fine career of his own, and he's still going strong at a youthful -- well, compared to Mr. Brady -- 36 years old. He certainly wasn't the problem in Atlanta during last year's 4-12 debacle, piling up 4,581 passing yards and 26 touchdowns (against 11 picks). That said, I think new head coach/play caller Arthur Smith and freak rookie Kyle Pitts will take Ryan's game to a different level in the back nine of his career.
I believe Jameis can blossom into a great player under Sean Payton. The head coach said as much to me on SiriusXM Radio earlier this year. Now, Saints GM Mickey Loomis told me last week on The Adam Schein Podcast that there will be a legit quarterback competition this summer between Winston and Hill. I'd put my money on Jameis, who can represent a true upgrade on the 2020 version of Drew Brees. I love Darnold getting a second lease on NFL life under Matt Rhule and Joe Brady. I'm still a huge believer in the quarterback's talent. Rhule and Brady will maximize it -- as opposed to the Jets, who surrounded the former No. 3 overall pick with bad players and worse coaching.
5) AFC South
For this exercise, I'm not including Deshaun Watson. Yes, he was a top-four quarterback in the NFL last season. But back in January, Watson was obviously unhappy with the Texans, asking to be traded. And then, of course, a series of sexual assault allegations against Watson became public in the spring. Consequently, his status is completely up in the air for 2021. Personally, I don't think he'll take another snap for Houston. Thus, I'm not including him in this drill. That brings the division down, obviously. Though I have always liked Tyrod more than most. He's solid.
With all that said, there's a lot to like across the rest of the AFC South. Lawrence is one of the greatest quarterback prospects in NFL history. The tools, the winning, the calm demeanor -- it's all there. I expect his talents to be on display immediately in Jacksonville under Urban Meyer. Of course, my expectations don't always come to light. I was absolutely floored watching Wentz become the worst quarterback in the NFL last season, but I firmly believe he will be reborn with Frank Reich back in his corner. Indianapolis is the perfect change of scenery for the 28-year-old. Not only does Wentz get away from the pressure cooker of the Philly sports scene, but he gets an ultra-talented roster (especially up front) and spectacular coaching. I think Wentz bounces back with a brilliant effort, playing like the 2017 MVP favorite he was before tearing up his knee. On the Tannehill front, forget about the Miami days. He has become excellent in Tennessee. Two seasons, two passer ratings north of 105 and two playoff appearances. And now, with Julio Jones to go alongside A.J. Brown, Tannehill's poised to enjoy his finest season yet.
6) NFC North
Rodgers is the reigning MVP and, in my opinion, the most talented quarterback ever. Yep, count me among those on Team Rodgers, as I've written and said many times before. I think the disdain he has for certain people in the Packers organization is beyond real and beyond repair. A no-show at OTAs, Rodgers also just skipped minicamp for the first time in his career. And his public comments in recent weeks give you no reason to believe he'll be back in Green Bay. Honestly, I don't really blame him, given how the trade up for Jordan Love went down. I pondered removing Rodgers from this exercise -- because I'm not planning on seeing him play for the Packers again -- but ultimately decided to leave him in. For now. If Love has to take the field, the Packers instantly have the No. 32 starting QB in football.
I want Fields to beat out Dalton in the worst way. And I hope Fields is given every opportunity to do so from Day 1. Chicago wisely pounced when the Ohio State quarterback started to slide in April's draft. He has an electric skill set that represents hope at a position that's long been a nightmare for Bears fans. And it's not like Dalton has a history with the franchise -- he's yet to take his first snap in the Windy City -- so please don't compare this to the Alex Smith/Patrick Mahomes setup in Kansas City when Matt Nagy was the offensive coordinator. On the Lions front, I think Goff needed a change of scenery in the worst way, coming off of a year where he played hot potato with the football. He can be solid. I like the former No. 1 overall pick. But it's a downgrade at the position for Detroit. Kirk Cousins is Kirk Cousins. He's a top-16 NFL QB who can float higher in the rankings when he gets hot.
7) AFC East
Allen got my AP vote for Offensive Player of the Year last season. He's a bona fide star. And yet, with him just heading into Year 4, we haven't even seen his peak yet. The sky's the limit for this spectacular athlete with a cannon arm -- who, by the way, just completed nearly 70 percent of his passes last season. I won't be at all surprised if he delivers Buffalo its first Lombardi Trophy. I also won't be surprised if Tua flips the script in Year 2. OK, let's get it out of the way: The Dolphins should've taken Justin Herbert instead. Yes, this is true. But that doesn't mean Tagovailoa is destined for doom. Especially now that Miami has significantly upgraded his weaponry -- and now that he's enjoying a real offseason. People seem to conveniently forget that he joined the NFL in the midst of a global pandemic, fresh off major hip surgery. Can we give the kid a chance?
In New England, I'd favor Mac over Cam. What does Bill Belichick think? Well, he's heaped plenty of praise on Newton during his time in New England, but the NFL is a bottom-line business and The Hoodie's a bottom-line guy. In New York, the Jets are smitten with Wilson. And Joe Douglas drafted smartly around the No. 2 overall pick, immediately snatching a blocker (Alijah Vera-Tucker), receiver (Elijah Moore) and running back (Michael Carter) with his next three picks. Wilson will face a learning curve, but the Jets are establishing an environment that's infinitely better than the one which buried Sam Darnold.
8) NFC East
I'm obsessed with Dak. That's well documented. Healthy and financially secure with a stellar receiving trio at his disposal (Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup, oh my!), Prescott will put up MVP-type numbers, lead the Cowboys to a division title and win in the playoffs.
I love Dak. I loathe the rest of the division. Heck, I won't be surprised if Hurts is the second-best quarterback in the NFC East this year, especially with the addition of Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith. But Hurts remains raw as an NFL signal-caller. Meanwhile, I think the Washington quarterback situation is terrible. I'm sorry, but Ryan Fitzpatrick is not the answer. And I still haven't seen anything all that encouraging from Jones, whose most consistent contribution is turning the ball over.