The 2018 NFL stretch run QB rankings

Would you rather have Brees, Rodgers, or Wilson? Has Mahomes or Goff cracked the top tier? And has Brady finally slipped?

No position in sports is more important than quarterback, and every so often, it’s worth checking in on the field to see where everything stands. All the 2018 NFL bye weeks have passed and as we hit the home stretch for the final five games of the season and playoffs, this seemed like the right time to take stock in the league’s best QBs.

Ten teams will have a different Week 13 starter than they ran out on opening day, an astonishing 31% turnover rate. And the gap between the haves and the have-nots has never been wider. You can make a pretty good case for 13 or 14 QBs who have the ability to lead their team to a couple playoff wins, but there are just as many guys you probably shouldn’t even turn the TV on for. Almost half of the league will start a QB this week that their fan base is unhappy with, but meanwhile the league’s top ten or so guys are doing things we’ve never seen in NFL history. The modern passing era has gone wild, and you either have a good QB that can keep up, or your team cannot compete.

Let’s take a look at all 32 Week 13 NFL starting quarterbacks and rank them from 32 to 1. As always, ranking takes context. Some QBs are helped or hurt by their coaching system or talent around them. In a vacuum, which quarterback would you want on any team in the league more than any other?

The awful eight

32. Cody Kessler (preseason ranking: NR)

Kessler is 0–8 lifetime, but Blake Bortles is so terrible Kessler gets to start anyway. He’s a game manager, and not a very good one, and he takes a lot of sacks. Cody Kessler is not the answer.

31. Nick Mullens (NR)

Mullens lit up the Raiders on national TV in his first start, but he’s been bad against the Giants and Bucs and the luster may be gone. Apparently Kyle Shanahan can make any QB look decent for a game or two. Let’s just say Jimmy Garoppolo will be getting his job back next fall.

30. Josh Allen (NR)

Sure, Allen is 3–3 as a rookie starting QB but that is all about the Bills defense. Allen has thrown three TDs in six starts and with just 153 yards per game, and his 11.7% sack rate are atrocious. Don’t be fooled by the record. Allen is awful. He flashes at times but has a long ways to go.

29. Josh Rosen (NR)

Rosen has been the worst rookie starter. In eight starts with decent weapons around him, he’s hit 200 yards only three times and completed 60% of his passes only twice. The sacks and interceptions come in droves and Rosen hasn’t really had a single good game yet. Hopefully he finds more stability under OC Byron Leftwich moving forward.

28. Jameis Winston (NR)

Winston’s TD and YPA are up in Todd Monken’s offense, but he is a mistake machine. He’s 5–12 the last two seasons with 20 fumbles, 22 interceptions, and 47 sacks. That’s over five sacks and turnovers per game. Winston would post better stats than anyone else in this tier but guarantee the L just as well.

27. Jeff Driskel (NR)

Don’t feel bad if you’ve never even heard of Driskel. He’s a 25-year-old rookie who will start the rest of the season for the Bengals now that Andy Dalton is on IR. The Bengals liked Driskel enough to let A.J. McCarron go. He’s athletic and talented and has had awhile to watch and learn, and he’s got some talented weapons around him. Driskel could be decent in Cincinnati.

26. Colt McCoy (NR)

Want to feel old? Colt McCoy is 32 years old. Feels like just yesterday McCoy was lighting it up at Texas, where he completed an insane 77% of his passes one year. Did McCoy enter the NFL a decade too early? Small-ish mobile QB who doesn’t make mistakes and completes a huge percentage of passes… doesn’t that sound like Baker Mayfield? McCoy is is not good, but he is safe. He is the anti-Aslan. There’s no reason he can’t fill in just fine for Alex Smith.

25. Sam Darnold (24)

Darnold’s had some real stinkers. He leads the NFL with 14 interceptions, and he’s completed 50% or fewer of his passes in five of nine starts. But he’s also had a couple complete games, helping the Jets put up 90 points in two wins when everything clicked. Darnold needs to cut out a ton of mistakes, but the upside is enough on his best day to put him atop this awful tier.

It’s time to move on …

24. Eli Manning (22)

Manning looks lost against the blitz, leading the league in sacks. He’s become Captain Checkdown with about 700 Saquon Barkley dump-offs per game. Expect the Giants to take a look at rookie Kyle Lauletta down the stretch.

23. Case Keenum (28)

Keenum has regressed to the mean after a great Vikings season. His interceptions are up and the numbers are blah. But there’s one thing Keenum does well: he can create something out of nothing. With the game on the line, Keenum seems to find a way amidst chaos. He leads the NFL in game-winning drives with four, and he’s at his best when everything goes wrong.

22. Derek Carr (20)

Carr is living proof that completion percentage without context is useless. He’s completed 68% of his passes thanks to a litany of check downs and easy passes, with no interceptions since October 7 pretty impressive considering how bad the Raiders are. Carr was an MVP candidate only a few years ago. If I were an NFL GM and I see how Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper have looked on new teams, I’d try to make Carr the next Jon Gruden trade target.

21. Lamar Jackson (NR)

Is Jackson even really a quarterback? ProFootballReference lists his rushing stats first, and he’s run for 190 yards in two starts with only 27 completions combined. Still, unconventional doesn’t mean bad. Jackson has given the Ravens a spark, and though his talents are different, you can built an offense around them for half a season — just ask Tim Tebow. Jackson has helped provide rushing lanes for Gus Edwards, suddenly a household fantasy football name, and he’s making his passes count, completing 61% of them for over 12 yards per completion. For everyone else in this tier, it’s time to move on. For the Ravens, they already have.

The injury question marks

20. Ryan Tannehill (27)
19. Mitchell Trubisky (25)
18. Marcus Mariota (12)

We don’t know enough about this trio thanks to some unspecified injury news … but I’m not sure any of them would move up too far if healthy. Tannehill has been the 20th best QB in the NFL for like five straight seasons. I think I’m finally out on the Mariota experience. And I’m still unsold on Trubisky. Decent QB with inflated TDs, fans who secretly feel better on his runs than his passes, compiling a nice win total thanks to terrific offensive scheming, Allen Robinson, and a nasty league-best defense? I can’t see real good, is that Blake Bortles over there?

Not quite enough in the modern passing era

17. Dak Prescott (17)

The Cowboys are on a three-game win streak, but I remain skeptical of Dak Prescott or the idea that he was just one good WR away from relevance. Dak is still a low-ceiling game manager. He might be new-era Alex Smith. He doesn’t make many mistakes, with interceptions in only three games this season, but he’s thrown 13 TDs in 11 games, never more than two in a game this year. Prescott is up for an extension this spring, and this Dallas stretch is probably going to cost them tens of millions of dollars in an extension they’re likely to regret. I’m not even sure he should be next year’s starter.

16. Baker Mayfield (NR)

Mayfield should be Rookie of the Year, not Saquon Barkley. He’s been quite good, especially considering everything he was up against in Cleveland. In three games without Hue Jackson, Baker has completed 74% of his passes with nine TDs and one pick. He led the Browns to their first winning streak in 64 games, and he’d have Cleveland on the brink of the playoffs if not for their awful end-game play early in the season. Mayfield is the real deal, and he’s already a top-half-of-the-league QB. Cleveland finally has their guy.

15. Matt Stafford (10)


14. Deshaun Watson (13)

The Texans have won eight in a row, but they’ve weirdly gotten better by asking Watson to do less. He threw 35 passes a game as Houston started out 0–3, adding 40 rushing yards a game too. He’s cut over seven passes a game out during the win streak and is barely running at all. Is Houston giving Watson the Russell Wilson treatment, keeping him bottled up until they need him to make a play? He leads the league with four 4th-quarter comebacks and still looks electric at times, and he’s probably still not even fully healthy yet.

Too many mistakes to win a Super Bowl?

13. Tom Brady (2)

The GOAT might finally be cooked. In a year when everyone else is breaking passing records, Brady is posting his worst TD rate, interception rate, and QBR since 2013. He’s 22nd in the NFL in completion percentage, 20th in TD rate, and 18th in yards per attempt. He just doesn’t feel as threatening this season, even with Josh Gordon and the rest of the weapons out there. Are there really 12 better QBs out there than Tom Brady? It feels crazy but I wouldn’t trade anyone ranked ahead for him.

12. Carson Wentz (NR)

Wentz is my guy, but much like the rest of the 2018 Eagles, things just feel a bit off. Most of Wentz’s underlying numbers are still good, but I’m not sure he has his timing back yet after the injury, and that makes sense since it was still less than a year ago. Wentz is holding the ball too long, trying to make too much happen, and it’s leading to far too many sacks and mistakes. Without last year’s defense and blocking, he hasn’t been the same.

11. Kirk Cousins (9)

Cousins is a great front runner. When he can stand in a clean pocket, make a read, and fire the ball to Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, he can get as hot as anyone. But when no one is open or when the play breaks down, he doesn’t measure up. He holds the ball too long and takes too many sacks and fumbles, and he still has a complete clunker about once a month.

10. Ben Roethlisberger (7)

Speaking of clunkers once a month, Big Ben continues to do his thing with nearly identical numbers to the past two years. He’s leading the league in pass attempts at age 36 with almost 43 per game. It looks like the Steelers may have to win four games to win a Super Bowl, and a couple will probably need to be on the road. Can Roethlisberger still string four good starts together?

MVP candidates any other year

9. Jared Goff (21)

You may think this is too low for Goff, but he continues to operate in the best situation in the league thanks to Sean McVay and the league’s top weapons. Goff’s 9.3 YPA and 13.7 YPC are best of everyone on this list (behind only Ryan Fitzpatrick), and he’s added a litany of big plays this season while keeping his turnover rate down and seeing his completion percentage go up. He’s also been quietly clutch. The Rams have six one-score wins — more than you thought, right? — and Goff has come up big late with four 4th-quarter comebacks. I only have him this low because I genuinely believe the guys ahead of him would be just as good or better under McVay.

8. Matt Ryan (8)

Ryan is like Goff, except that he’s now duplicating his MVP season and doing it without Kyle Shanahan. Ryan leads the league in passing yards and has a pristine 24–5 TD-INT ratio, and he’s doing it in a much tougher situation with far less help. It’s not his fault the entire defense got hurt.

7. Cam Newton (11)

Newton may have won me back over after I was out on him in preseason. He’s been even better than his MVP year, with by far his best passing season. Newton is completing 70% of his passes, a full 10% above his career average, and he’s kept his YPA high even with the better efficiency. He’s still running just as well and is taking the fewest sacks of his career, and he can still take over games physically in a way no other QB can.

6. Philip Rivers (5)

If I told you there was a nearly-40-year-old QB having the best season of his career with a career high 9.1 YPA and 70% completion rate leading his team into serious playoff contention with at least 2 TDs every game this season, would you think of Drew Brees or the guy the Chargers got rid of him for? Rivers is a Hall of Fame QB having the best year of his career. He ranks top five in virtually every passing stat. His team is only one win away from being the AFC 1-seed. And yet he’s 25–1 to win the MVP and completely off the radar and actually dropped from my preseason rankings. This season is insane.

5. Andrew Luck (6)

4–3–4–4–3–3–3–3. That’s how many TDs Luck has thrown in his past eight games. That’s tied for the second longest streak of 3-TD games in NFL history, and the other two to do it were 2004 Peyton and 2007 Brady, who both won MVP and set the TD record for a season. The Colts are also on a five-game winning streak. And no one is even talking about any of this. Again, this season is insane.

The top four, however you’d like to rank them

4. Patrick Mahomes (16)

Mahomes is the most must-watch athlete in sports right now. He’s on pace for 5277 yards and 53 TDs with only five games left. He’s tied with Goff for the league lead in YPA and YPC, and he adds the ability to make plays with his legs and create something out of nothing, twice completing a pass with his left hand this season. Mahomes is absolutely electric, and he might be #1 on this list in two months. But we’re going to need to see it with everything on the line first, and he needs to cut out a few of the gunslinger mistakes too.

3. Russell Wilson (3)

Brian Schottenheimer can’t fool me. Wilson is still as good as any QB, no matter what kind of crappy system he’s hidden in. Seattle has nothing at receiver and still has little to no protection, yet Wilson is having the finest year of his career. He stupidly ranks 25th in the NFL in passing attempts yet still has a sparkling 25–5 TD-INT ratio, sixth in the league in TDs with three game-winning drives, and as always, he’s doing it all on his own. No one in the NFC wants to see Seattle in a Wild Card game.

2. Drew Brees (4)

Nobody’s hotter than Brees right now, and it looks like he may finally win the MVP award he’s waited his whole career for. Brees has 29 TDs and only two interceptions. He is completing an astounding 76.2% of his passes. He leads the league by a remarkable five full percent and looks set to smash his own completion percentage league record he set… last year. Brees could throw an incompletion on his next 25 passes and he’d still lead the league in completion percentage. And these are not inconsequential passes. Brees is averaging 10.2 adjusted yards per pass attempt. That leads the league and would rank third all time. Drew Brees will turn 40 a couple days after his first playoff game this year. And if he keeps playing like this, it sure as heck won’t be his last.

1. Aaron Rodgers (1)

There’s been some buzz this week about Rodgers being done after his dud in Minnesota. Nonsense. Rodgers is having his best statistical season since at least 2014. He has 20 TDs and just one interception, this despite being under pressure all year with one legit receiver and no running game until November. The Packers suck. Mike McCarthy sucks. There’s still nothing more terrifying than the prospect of Rodgers having the ball with any time at all on the clock. I watched the Vikings game with my dad. We agreed that a 17-point lead with six minutes left might feel safe but figured a 13-point lead was as good as a loss. So Rodgers missed Davante Adams by a foot. Fine. He’s mortal. There’s still no one on the planet I’d rather have with it all on the line.

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