It's strange that Winston and Mariota are so under the radar considering their highlight-ready styles. But they play for smaller southeastern cities on teams that haven't made the playoffs since George W. Bush's presidency. (Not exactly national TV darlings.)
I want to write like Winston plays football. His aggressiveness stands out, always confident he can fit passes into tight windows. Winston plays with such obvious joy that he inspires me to use terrible Favrian clichés. (He's like a kid out there! You'd love to be his teammate!) Winston shows preternatural abilities like manipulating safeties with his eyes, going through his reads and moving with calm while the world collapses around him. His ability to improvise when necessary is underrated and his innate feel for pressure around him reminds me so much of Ben Roethlisberger. Except Ben is not delivering this speech. Or this one.
If Winston is all vertical routes and bombast, Mariota is about speed and precision. His release is quick. His feet are quick. His decision making is quick. The game doesn't need to slow down for Mariota. The game around him needs to speed up or get left behind. With an upgraded Titans offensive line and far better weapons, Mariota is set to take a huge step forward.
The second-year quarterback jump is real and often dramatic. Just try to remember what you thought of Blake Bortles or Derek Carr at this time a year ago. Eli Manning and Alex Smith are two examples of high picks who flailed as rookies before showing huge gains in Year 2. Mariota and Winston were already solid starters last year, showing flashes of brilliance. Their preseason play showed clear growth. This is going to be the last season for a long time where both players aren't prime-time game mainstays. Get on board now.
This is the Quarterback Index. Every week, I'll rank each quarterback's play on this season alone. Since there are no games to evaluate yet, this week's rankings are based on one simple question: Who would you want as your quarterback for the 2016 season?
Best of the best
A year ago at this time, Rodgers got the "Class of his own" treatment in this file. That was before a shockingly mediocre final three months of the regular season, not all of which can be blamed on Rodgers' teammates. (Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, for instance, didn't ever have rough patches that long during their prime.) Still, Rodgers is the best quarterback in football this decade. He's still in his prime and his surrounding support is excellent. Ranking him below No. 1 is overthinking it.
Newton played so well down the stretch last season that he can't help but take a small step back. It will be fascinating to see how Cam and the Panthers handle some inevitable adversity this year. Will his sometimes-streaky accuracy from 2011 through '14 return? ... Brady is ranked as if he's playing the entire season because anything else would be disrespectful.
Wilson played at an MVP level in the second half of last season. With a promising young receiver group in place that goes four deep, and a greater appreciation for winning before the snap, it wouldn't be a shock to see Wilson atop this list by season's end. ... When Roethlisberger was younger, it was often said that he might not be a player that ages well. Now he's 34 years old and playing at a higher level than ever before.
Palmer's playoff meltdown isn't getting overrated here, but it's also not ignored. Just as important: Brees and Rivers have been appreciably more reliable than Palmer throughout their careers. Palmer was so close to going his entire career without finding the right system for his skills. That's one of many reasons to be thankful for Bruce Arians. With that said, a moderate regression should be expected. Palmer averaged 7.4 yards per attempt from 2013 through '14, including his first year under Arians when he threw 22 picks. He led the league at 8.7 YPA last year and cut his interception rate in half the last two seasons. He's 36 years old and it's just too weird to expect every aging quarterback to excel.
Brees and Rivers should both be buoyed by improved options to throw to this season. It would be great to see Rivers supported by a strong running game and an average offensive line because it's been a while since he had either one. If Brees plays like he did last season in New Orleans, the Saints will have no choice but to pay him all the money. (If it even gets that far.)
This week's rankings are inherently predictive, not a ranking of past achievement. They are the quarterbacks I'd want running my team for this season. Winston and Mariota have a higher ceiling than the players below. So save the "WHAT HAS HE EVER WON?" tweets.
The hardest tier to rank
A world where Matt Ryan peaked as a quarterback from 2010 to '12 and then took a permanent step back is a dark, confusing place. I choose hope. ... Make a "Top 25 throws of the season" for every player on this list, and Bortles would have the best video. He still looks a year or two away from mastering the subtler parts of the position. ... Eli Manning's rough preseason is not a major concern. The total lack of depth anywhere on the offense outside the starting wide receivers is a bigger issue.
Dalton's growth will be tested with a new wideout group and Tyler Eifert missing early in the year. ... Smith is set up for a career campaign in Year 4 under Andy Reid now that he finally has a full array of players around him. ... There are a lot of moving parts around Flacco this year and it's unfair to assume he'll be as effective coming off torn ACL surgery. ... If Stafford could put together a full season like the half-season he enjoyed last year under coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, he would be a top-10 quarterback. Great half-seasons, however, have become a Stafford staple. The other half is the tricky part.
Carr is emblematic of this difficult tier to rank, which could be scrambled in almost any order. I don't know what his ceiling is. The combination of youth and continuity on the Raiders' offense is a very rare feat.
Tier new bar
The bar for starting quarterbacks has been raised incredibly high. Tannehill averaged more than 4,000 yards over the last two years with 51 combined touchdowns and 24 interceptions, yet he's rightly considered below average. It's not hard to make the case for Tannehill taking a jump back into the tier above, and that's true for this entire group.
Cousins has the surrounding receiver talent to lift him up, yet even his own organization is in wait-and-see mode on the 28-year-old QB. ... Taylor had a fantastic offseason in Buffalo by all accounts, embracing the mantle of franchise quarterback. He might be my favorite quarterback if I were 9 years old because he combines perhaps the best pure running skills at the position with an exceptional long ball. ... Cutler is in the toughest spot of this tier, and perhaps has one of the toughest jobs in all of football. He cares.
Nearing replacement level
Garoppolo didn't look much different this preseason than he did as a rookie. He's not a risk taker and his good preseason numbers were misleading because of dropped interceptions. He goes through reads like a veteran but lacks many "wow" plays, like a Patriots version of Andy Dalton. Don't be surprised if New England runs a lot of hurry-up with him at the helm.
No one can question the Eagles' faith in Wentz. His ascension to the starting job is a matter of circumstance (a first-rounder for Bradford!) and zealot-like belief. It's not like the Eagles have seen Wentz perform in game situations. He missed nearly the entire preseason with broken ribs and was still in pain last week. During his one preseason outing, he fumbled, threw a nasty interception and averaged under four yards per attempt with shaky ball placement. Wentz also displayed the ability to make unblocked defenders miss like a young Russell Wilson. This is going to be fun to watch, but how long can he last?
Despite being taken 133 picks after Wentz, Prescott is better set up for early success. The physical traits are obvious, but I'm most interested to see if the sterling accuracy and decision making carry over to the real games. The talent around him, not to mention a forgiving early schedule, should inspire a lot of Dak-Romo think-pieces over the next month.
I can't tell if the Broncos are showing an uncanny eye for quarterbacks by starting Siemian in Week 1 or if this decision will be remembered like the Ravens' decision to sign Elvis Grbac to defend a Super Bowl title. Siemian shows surprising juice on his throws for a former seventh-round pick from Northwestern.
Gabbert is set up to fail. While Chip Kelly can create yards out of thin air, there's only so far you can get with Quinton Patton and Jeremy Kerley getting starter snaps in the year 2016. San Francisco's first three games come against the Rams, on the road in Carolina and then at Seattle. Colin Kaepernick could be starting by Week 4. ... It is fun to believe the good things we saw from RGIII in the preseason were real. If nothing else, Griffin already has shown enough to believe that he'll be more functional than in his final starts with Washington. Hue Jackson knows the art of quarterbacking.
One of the quarterbacks in this tier will wind up making a run to relevance and it will be glorious. One won't make it to Week 3. Good luck trying to guess who's who.