Free agency will open its doors in a few days’ time (the legal tampering period begins Monday) with Tom Brady, Jameis Winston and Ryan Tannehill representing just a few of the big names potentially headed elsewhere. Next week’s musical chairs will go a long way toward determining the league’s new quarterback landscape, as will the upcoming draft with Joe Burrow, Tua Tagavailoa and Justin Herbert considered among the top prizes in this year’s rookie crop. But before ludicrous amounts of money start pouring into bank accounts, let’s gauge the temperature at the most important position, not just in football, but arguably in all of professional sports. With free agency waiting in the on-deck circle, here are my current Top 15 quarterbacks in the NFL.
15. Kyler Murray, Arizona Cardinals
No, surprisingly Devlin Hodges and Redskins liability Dwayne Haskins did not make my Top 15. But Kyler Murray did, earning his place on the strength of a compelling rookie campaign that included, above other impressive feats, a combined 24 touchdowns (20 passing, four rushing), 3,722 passing yards (that computes to 232.7 per game) and another 544 yards on the ground, second to only Lamar Jackson among NFL signal-callers. It’s debatable whether Murray deserved Rookie of the Year honors—Josh Jacobs was a one-man wrecking crew for the Raiders—but the former Heisman winner was never out of his element, returning the Cardinals to relevance (or something thereabouts) with his superior instincts and unrivaled athleticism.
Murray isn’t a finished product by any means and neither is Kliff Kingsbury’s offense, but with a better batch of weapons (the Cardinals are a good bet to address the receiver position in next month’s draft), there’s no telling what the dual-threat 22-year-old can accomplish. It seems Murray made the right choice eschewing baseball (the former center-fielder was drafted ninth overall by the Athletics in 2018) for the bright lights of the NFL. Don’t discount Murray’s toughness either. The former top overall pick delivered one of his finest performances in Arizona’s season finale (325 yards with two touchdowns against the Rams) despite a hamstring pull limiting his mobility.
14. Ryan Tannehill, Free Agent
Ryan Tannehill broke out in a big way last season, lighting it up with a league-leading 9.6 yards per attempt in 2019 while registering the fourth-highest quarterback rating (117.5) in NFL history. Tannehill, who began the year as a spectator before eventually usurping Marcus Mariota as the Titans starter, was also among the league leaders in accuracy, hitting his mark on a ridiculous 70.3 percent of his throws last season (third-highest completion percentage). As phenomenal as Tannehill was during the regular season, he took a clear backseat during the Titans’ playoff run, filling the role of game-manager while Derrick Henry rumbled to a combined 377 rushing yards in upsets of New England and Baltimore.
Tannehill largely underachieved as a Dolphin and is older than you might think (he’ll turn 32 this summer) but the former wide receiver never had much to work with in Miami and was consistently let down by injuries and poor coaching. A smart decision-maker with underrated wheels (his legs carried him to four rushing scores in 2019), Tannehill will assuredly earn a starting job wherever he lands in free agency (Tim Kelly predicts he’ll be a Patriot).
13. Tom Brady, Free Agent
This is where Tom Brady finds himself these days, more middle-of-the-pack than top-of-the-class. Brady’s precipitous decline prompted New England’s earliest playoff exit in a decade (Derrick Henry made sure the Pats were one-and-done) but there’s no doubt other factors were at play including inferior offensive play and an uncharacteristically weak supporting cast (shame on New England for equipping the greatest quarterback ever with off-brand receivers and unimaginative play-calling). Now headed for the open market—uncharted water for the Foxboro fixture—Brady’s NFL future is in flux.
While the 42-year-old’s best is undoubtedly behind him, Brady still showed flashes last season (only six players threw for more yards) and is less than two years removed from hoisting a Lombardi Trophy. Even with his arm strength dwindling, it wouldn’t be a surprise to anyone if the cerebral Brady has another trick or two up his sleeve.
12. Kirk Cousins, Minnesota Vikings
Kirk Cousins got a huge monkey off his back last year by finally winning his first playoff game (he was at the controls for Minnesota’s overtime triumph in New Orleans), which came after guiding the Vikes to a respectable 10-6 regular season. The 31-year-old of “You Like That!” fame remained accurate as ever, throwing bullseyes on 69.1 percent of his attempts while coaxing a career-best season out of Stefon Diggs (63-1,130-6 on 94 targets).
Cousins’ lack of big-game success (he sports an embarrassing 8-15-1 career record in primetime) has been a frequent source of criticism, though it’s hard to quibble with his lifetime 96.8 quarterback rating (nearly identical to Brady’s 97.0), good for the seventh-highest in league history. And while Cousins’ road woes can’t be ignored (17-27-2 career record), the shrewd vet merits praise for his remarkable durability, appearing in all but one game (last year’s meaningless Week 17) over his last five seasons.
11. Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions
Fractured vertebrae cost Matthew Stafford the second half of his 2019 campaign, ending his streak of 136 consecutive regular-season starts (at the time, it was the third-longest active streak among quarterbacks). But before the injury bug hit, the former Georgia standout was having his best season to date, setting career-bests in both quarterback rating (106.0) and yards per attempt (8.6).
Though not the fleetest of foot (he last contributed a rushing touchdown in 2016), Stafford’s downfield chops have never been in question. Whether it’s been Calvin Johnson, Kenny Golladay or any of the other receivers Detroit has cycled through over the years, the Lions lifer has always been adept at finding the end zone, putting 256 touchdowns on his NFL ledger since arriving as the first overall pick in 2009. There’s been talk of the Lions testing the quarterback waters in next month’s draft (Tua Tagavailoa and Justin Herbert could both be on their radar), but I don’t see them moving away from Stafford, the franchise’s all-time leader in passing yards (41,025), completions (3,559), wins (69) and just about any other stat you could think of.
10. Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
Though 28-3 looms large on Matt Ryan’s NFL resume, the quarterback’s overall body of work more than makes up for his Super Bowl blemish. The BC alum has had himself a touchdown-palooza of late, leading 119 end-zone voyages (that figure stretches to 123 if you include the four rushing scores he’s contributed during that same span) since the start of 2016.
It never hurts to have a Hall-of-Fame receiver in your back pocket (Julio Jones has finished among the league’s top-two in receiving yards each of the last five seasons), but that’s no knock on the long-time Falcons marksman, who is quietly on a Hall of Fame trajectory. Beyond his eye-catching stats (career totals of 51,186 yards and 321 touchdowns), the former MVP has also been an ironman, incurring just one absence over the last decade. The 34-year-old endured a midseason lull in 2019 but started the year strong (300-plus yards in each of his first six games) and finished the same way, clearing 300 yards passing in four of his final five performances. Even at this late juncture in his career, Ryan remains a top-flight quarterback and perennial MVP candidate.
9. Dak Prescott, Free Agent
It’s Dak Prescott’s turn to get paid and what a windfall it will be for the talented 26-year-old, who is aiming to become the highest-salaried player in the sport’s history.
Even if Prescott earns that distinction it would only be temporary with Patrick Mahomes a near lock to better that mark when the Chiefs inevitably extend him.
Regardless, the fourth-round Mississippi State product has been everything the Cowboys could have hoped for and more, seamlessly replacing mainstay Tony Romo.
The former Rookie of the Year is probably headed for the franchise tag, which would net him a shade under $27 million next season. That’s well below Prescott’s exorbitant asking price (he reportedly balked at a $33-million-a-year overture from the Cowboys last summer), but still a substantial improvement on the $2.025 million he pocketed in 2019. A negotiating tug-of-war is likely to play out between the two sides, but if their current impasse continues, Jerry Jones will surely be the first to cave. Besides, Dak holds all the cards after setting career-highs in both touchdowns (30) and passing yards (4,902) last season, the latter of those figures falling just shy of Romo’s franchise record established in 2014.
8. Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles
Carson Wentz’s Philadelphia tenure has had its peaks and valleys, though considering the circumstances, 2019 may have been his most impressive year yet. Injuries decimated the Eagles’ receiving room (Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson and Nelson Agholor all missed significant time), though that didn’t stop the resilient Wentz from slinging 27 touchdown passes en route to a division title.
Philadelphia’s postseason stay was a short one—the Eagles were ousted by the visiting Seahawks in their playoff opener—but at least Wentz was finally able to conquer his longstanding injury demons, appearing in all 16 games for the first time since his rookie year in 2016. A superb athlete for his size (6’5”/237), the 27-year-old hasn’t even scratched the surface of his sky-high potential, though the Eagles can ill afford to squander another year of his prime on a subpar supporting cast. Whether it’s in the draft or via free agency, you can bet GM Howie Roseman will be working overtime to improve Philly’s skill corps ahead of a make-or-break 2020.
7. Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers
Cam Newton has largely been MIA the past few seasons, owing to a string of tough-luck injuries including a Lisfranc sprain that cost him most of last year. It’s a shame Newton’s health hasn’t cooperated because after years of slumming it with the flawed likes of Kelvin Benjamin and fellow draft bust Devin Funchess, he finally has enticing weapons around him including 1,000-yard receiver D.J.
Moore, yardage-guzzler Christian McCaffrey and warp-speed touchdown artist Curtis Samuel.
Cam has taken more punishment than most and it’s fair to question whether he’ll ever return to his pre-injury form. Despite his heavy mileage, Cam could benefit from aligning with first-time head coach Matt Rhule, a sharp offensive mind whose creative schemes could lead to a career renaissance for the dual-threat 30-year-old. Some have earmarked Newton as a potential trade candidate this offseason, though the uncertainty surrounding his health could make that a tall order.
6. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers’ 2019 campaign, at least relative to his usual output, was more famine than feast, at one point enduring a stretch of seven straight games without a 300-yard passing performance. After passing on a league-high 67.5 percent of plays in 2018, the Packers featured a more balanced attack this past season, airing it out with far less frequency (59.8 pass percentage) while leaning heavily on 1,000-yard rusher Aaron Jones.
Whether that change in philosophy was a product of the Packers’ new coaching regime, a conscious effort to limit the 36-year-old’s workload or a symptom of Green Bay’s patchwork receiving unit (no one outside of Davante Adams topped 500 yards), it was odd to see a player of Rodgers’ elite caliber used so sparingly.
Rodgers’ efficiency also plummeted as the 15-year vet slumped to his worst passer rating (95.4) and lowest completion percentage (62.0) since 2015. Known for his late-game heroics, Rodgers looked unusually flustered in Green Bay’s season-ending loss at San Francisco, committing three turnovers in a 37-20 rout. It’s hard to construe a 26-to-4 touchdown to interception ratio as having a “down” year, but that’s what happens when you set the bar as high as Rodgers has throughout his career. The two-time MVP is far from finished, but if last year’s events were any indication, Father Time is at least on his heels.
5. Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans
Sometimes greatness can be hard to quantify. This isn’t one of those times. Deshaun Watson did it all last year, throttling teams with his arm (26 touchdowns, 67.3 completion percentage) while creating equal havoc with his legs (seven rushing scores). Outside of the Drew Brees/Michael Thomas pairing in New Orleans, there might not be a more imposing duo in football than Watson and his Clemson brethren DeAndre Hopkins, who synched up for 104 catches spanning a whopping 1,165 yards last season.
Watson could stand to improve in certain areas—he was a bit loose with the rock last season (10 fumbles, 12 interceptions). But that’s merely nitpicking as the supremely gifted 24-year-old has quickly emerged as one of the game’s brightest stars. A born winner, the Texans are in excellent hands with Watson, who could soon be on the precipice of a market-setting extension … assuming reigning Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes doesn’t beat him to the punch.
4. Drew Brees, Free Agent
Drew Brees has more NFL records than he knows what to do with—career passing yards, touchdown passes, completions, single-season completion percentage. You name it, Brees probably has it. The prolific 41-year-old missed a spell with a thumb injury in 2019 but came back better than ever, finishing his 19th NFL season and 14th in New Orleans with a stunning 116.3 quarterback rating, bettering the career-high he set a year earlier (115.7).
With Brees’ assistance, Michael Thomas made some history of his own last season, supplanting Marvin Harrison as the NFL’s single-season receptions leader (149). Sean Payton occasionally frustrated fantasy football players by taking Brees off the field in certain red-zone packages (Taysom Hill vultured seven touchdowns while operating as a Swiss-Army knife), but don’t get the wrong idea. There’s no quarterback controversy brewing in the Big Easy. This is Brees’ team and always will be.
New Orleans’ early playoff exit highlighted by an uneven performance from the Saints’ long-time field general (208 passing yards, two turnovers in a loss to Minnesota) no doubt left a bad taste in Brees’ mouth, further fueling the veteran’s competitive fire. Unlike fellow free agent Tom Brady, who seems legitimately torn on where to play next season, we all know where Brees will be setting up shop in 2020.
3. Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens
You could make an argument that Lamar Jackson’s sophomore campaign was the greatest statistical season in league history. Not only did Lamar lead the league in touchdowns passes with 36, but he also tallied 1,206 yards on the ground, the most ever by an NFL quarterback. Even in the absence of a star receiver (though Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews may soon qualify), the explosive 23-year-old had no trouble shredding opposing secondaries, spouting off for 24 touchdowns with just one interception over his final seven games.
Baltimore’s season ended in disappointment—Tennessee bullied the Ravens in a Divisional Round win—but Lamar was still magnificent, netting a career-high 365 passing yards (albeit on an exhausting 59 attempts) while adding an additional 143 yards with his feet. Jackson may not be as polished a passer as Patrick Mahomes, who cemented his status as the league’s top signal-caller throughout KC’s postseason run. But as far as dual threats go, Lamar is in a class by himself.
2. Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
We’re eight years into the Russell Wilson Era and still no closer to solving Seattle’s slippery escape artist, a cannon-armed assassin whose steady hand has led the Seahawks to seven playoff appearances in their last eight seasons. Wilson was pegged by many as a regression candidate heading into 2019—retirement claimed his weapon of choice, Doug Baldwin—but apparently the diminutive (at least by quarterback standards) gunslinger wasn’t privy to this plan. If anything, he took his game to another level, putting the league on skates with 34 touchdowns (31 passing, three rushing) and a sparkling 66.1 completion percentage as Seattle punched its playoff ticket on the strength of an 11-5 regular season.
Equal parts inventive (his improv skills are second to none) and fearless, Wilson’s next regular-season absence will be the first of his storied career. The 31-year-old Wisconsin alum already has one Lombardi on his shelf and would probably have another if not for his costly interception (the reckless play call on second and goal was OC Darrell Bevell’s doing) at the tail end of Super Bowl XLIX. The likely Hall of Famer is also a pioneer of sorts, ushering in a new age with undersized quarterbacks who may have been overlooked in the past (Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray both come to mind) finally getting their due.
1. Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs
Hyperbole is rampant in our current environment where Twitter narratives spread like wildfire, but there’s no exaggerating Patrick Mahomes’ greatness. If anything, Mahomes is being undersold. Has a QB mega-star ever come to prominence THIS quickly? Fifty touchdowns and MVP honors in year two (his first as a starter), a ring and accompanying Super Bowl MVP Award in year three (not to mention his heroics put the kibosh on a 50-year title drought in KC) … is there anything on a football field the 24-year-old hasn’t accomplished already?
There’s no arguing that Mahomes is a prodigy and the future of the National Football League. But his impact stretches further than that. He’s a joy to watch, a 6’3” swag bag with a near-endless bag of tricks. Between his no-look touchdowns and throwing with his non-dominant hand, Mahomes may as well be Steve Nash in shoulder pads. With Mahomes steering the ship, last year’s Super Bowl parade in the barbecue capital may be the first of many.