There are some days every offseason that I look forward to. One of them is “play-action passing day,” the moment during the off-season when Football Outsiders releases their play-action passing data from the previous year. In today’s NFL, play-action passing has become almost a cheat code, so seeing what teams rely on it, and what teams do not, is always fascinating.
Another is the “quarterback tier day.” For the past few years Mike Sando, now with The Athletic, releases his quarterback tiers as produced by voters from 50 NFL insiders. You can read the piece for yourself over at The Athletic, which is worth a subscription even in these difficult times.
Before diving into the tiers themselves, part of the reason that I love this piece each year is that the concept of tiering players, rather than flat-out ranking them, makes so much sense to me both as a fan and as an analyst. For example, when I sit down to rank players, especially quarterbacks, it is often hard to divorce my own biases for player types when doing so. I have a tendency to appreciate the traditional pocket passer over the more athletic, creative types, and while that is something I am working on it can lead to some rankings that are not completely in line with conventional wisdom. I mean, I just put Kirk Cousins in my Top 11 quarterbacks over at USA Today, so you can see what I’m getting at. But when you put players into tiers, that eliminates somewhat those personal preferences.
Now let’s dive in a bit.
Looking at the top tier
In Sando’s piece, the top tier of quarterbacks is defined as follows: “A Tier 1 quarterback can carry his team each week. The team wins because of him. He expertly handles pure passing situations. He has no real holes in his game.”
This tier contains no real surprises, but there are some names that could be considered surprises in terms of their omission. Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Deshaun Watson are the quarterbacks voted into the first tier. Nothing to glaring there, although one could make the case that Rodgers’ play has slipped of late. According to those voting, the problems with the Green Bay Packers’ offense is laid at the feet of his supporting cast, and not the quarterback himself. “Voters blamed Rodgers’ supporting cast, not the quarterback himself, for the Packers’ offensive regression over the past five seasons. But for the first time in the seven-year history of this survey, Rodgers did not at least tie for the top spot.”
What stands out more than the inclusion of Rodgers, is the fact that two quarterbacks I would have in a top tier are missing: Tom Brady and Lamar Jackson. These were the first two quarterbacks in Tier Two, but for me, both are still worthy of being in the top group. Yes, Brady is not the quarterback he was 10, or even five years ago, but if Rodgers is getting credit for a lack of talent around him, I’d remind voters who Brady was throwing to a season ago. In the upcoming year, however, he’ll be playing with some of the best weapons at his disposal since the Randy Moss/Wes Welker days.
As for Jackson, his omission from the top tier might be due to how the tiers are constructed:
Jackson belongs in the top tier if we waive the pure-passing requirement that arguably has stood between the Ravens and a playoff victory over the past two seasons. Pure-pass situations arise when, through score differential and time remaining, the offense must pass, thereby freeing defenses from worrying about the running game. Jackson’s success is predicated on an exceptionally well-schemed running game that features his generational talent prominently. Teams dependent upon dynamic rushing attacks can suddenly flounder when their quarterbacks are forced to pass. That is where the top-tier quarterbacks traditionally separate themselves. Think Mahomes when facing a 10-point deficit against the 49ers in the Super Bowl, or Brady trailing 28-3 against the Falcons a few years earlier.
But for my money, Jackson has made strides as a pocket passer, but he did not have that far to go when coming out of Louisville. He was a better thrower from the pocket than he was given credit for. If he and the Baltimore Ravens win a playoff game or two, he’ll move up these rankings.
The rest of Tier 2
There were some other interesting names in the second tier. At the outset, these are players who “...can carry his team sometimes but not as consistently. He can handle pure passing situations in doses and/or possesses other dimensions that are special enough to elevate him above Tier 3. He has a hole or two in his game.”
These names include two quarterbacks who were hurt for most of 2019: Ben Roethlisberger and Matthew Stafford. Both are great talents at the position, but injuries are a question mark for them as 2020 beckons. Matt Ryan, Carson Wentz, Dak Prescott and Philip Rivers round out the group.
Honestly, there is not much that stands out here, as these quarterbacks are generally considered to be that next group of passers after the elite players. One name that is missing, a name I would include here, is Kirk Cousins. Over the past two years in Minnesota he has put up some elite numbers, and has been better when pressured than one usually expects to see from him. The biggest question facing him in 2020 is how he handles the dual departures of Stefon Diggs and - perhaps more importantly - Kevin Stefanski.
Riding the bell curve
The bulk of the quarterbacks on Sando’s list find themselves in the third tier, keeping with a grading curve that would make some college professors proud. Tier 3 quarterbacks are those players who are “...a legitimate starter but needs a heavier running game and/or defensive component to win. A lower-volume drop-back passing offense suits him best.”
These players include Kyler Murray, Cousins, Jared Goff, Jimmy Garoppolo, Ryan Tannehill, Cam Newton, Derek Carr, Baker Mayfield, Josh Allen, Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Darnold, Daniel Jones, and Nick Foles,
Let’s start here: These seem solid rankings for the vast majority of these players. I would personally move Cousins up a Tier, and Tannehill was better than most give him credit for last season so he could perhaps slide to the top of this tier, but this is a solid list. I think players you can hope will play above this tier in 2020 include Murray and Newton in his new surroundings.
But that brings us to what New York Giants fans are wondering: Jones himself.
Here’s what the most optimistic said about the Giants’ young passer:
“He is going to jump some of those dudes in the third tier ahead of him,” a quarterbacks coach said. “He has enough arm talent. His decision making and poise are better than Josh Allen or Sam Darnold. And he’s not on a better team. He has a better running back, but he just makes good decisions, sees the field. I’ve just been impressed, and he has enough poise where he can do it consistently, whereas I think the Buffalo guy (Allen) doesn’t, and Darnold doesn’t.”
As for concerns facing Jones in his second year, the insiders share the concerns we have voiced here: Learning yet another new offense, and taking care of the football:
Jones’ ball security and tendency to hold the football too long were by far the biggest concerns raised by voters. Learning a second NFL system in two years without a normal offseason was another. There was hope spending one season with Eli Manning would pay off.
“He is better than I thought he was coming out of college, but he led the league in fumbles and had a lot of bad plays at Duke,” an offensive coordinator said. “You can rationalize and say he was outmanned, playing against really good teams, but guys that have bad plays have bad plays.”
Jones finished his rookie season with 23 turnovers, tied for second in the NFL behind Jameis Winston.
In the end, however, there is cause for optimism:
“He is tougher than I thought he was,” a different quarterbacks coach said. “He stared down the barrel of a gun. That system put him in some positions where he had to really show some courage, stand back in the pocket, deep three-level throws. He was getting smacked, but he was delivering the ball, he’s accurate. He has athletic ability, arm talent, smarts, toughs. If they get the right coach, right people around him, he is going to be really good.”
That toughness matters so much to the development of a quarterback. The “It Factor,” things that do not show up on film that easily but mean the world when a QB faces the difficult tests the NFL has to offer. Jones checked that box as a rookie, and his competitive toughness and mental fortitude will pay dividends as he looks to improve on a rookie season in uncertain times.
In all, the piece is one of the best that comes out each summer, and is definitely worth your time.