Mahomes and Brees stood apart, together, from the early stages. Mahomes started setting records around Week 2. After Jared Goff's scorching September faded, Mahomes and Brees shared the top two spots in QB Index after six weeks, with Mahomes taking the top spot from Brees for good before Week 14. That unusual consistency at the top included a significant gap between them and the rest of the field, even after Brees' December mini-slump.
My admittedly subjective play-by-play grades were typical of other attempts to evaluate the position. Pro Football Focus' grades have Mahomes, then Brees well ahead of the pack. ESPN's QBR has the same order, with Mahomes at 81.6 and Brees at 80.8. There was a bigger QBR gap between Brees and third-ranked quarterback Mitchell Trubisky (!) than the one between Trubisky and the No. 11 QB, Russell Wilson. Football Outsiders' DVOA metric also has Mahomes comfortably ahead of Brees, with an even bigger gap to the No. 3 QB, Philip Rivers.
It is rare for all these subjective and objective measures to agree on anything, and they (we?) all agreed it's the season of Mahomes and Brees, in that order. There are strong echoes to the 2009 MVP race, when Brees and Peyton Manning led their respective teams to No. 1 seeds, Manning won the MVP and Brees won the Lombardi Trophy. (In that year, however, I believe Brees should have won the award.) For Brees to enjoy his best season since then nearly a decade later, on the doorstep of 40 years old, is nothing short of miraculous.
While Mahomes didn't ever have the off-weeks that Brees did, they shared an ability to make something out of nothing. It was remarkable to see Brees beat the perfect defensive play calls so often in wins over the Ravens, Rams and Steelers. He found a better balance of taking more risks with fewer mistakes than ever before, like when Brett Favre seemed to find a new level of play during his age-40 season in Minnesota. This was the type of season, a high point for an all-time great, that often ends in an MVP. The likelihood that it won't drives Saints fans crazier than it should.
I would vote for Mahomes because his pyrotechnics were matched by uncanny consistency, going an entire season without one truly down week. His season reminds me most of Kurt Warner's 1999 campaign, despite their differing styles. They were both first-time starters on a transformative offense that ranks among all-time greats. But reasonable minds can disagree -- or even vote for a non-QB like Donald or DeAndre Hopkins if they were ready to support that argument! -- and that's fine. Disagreement is healthy. Failing to appreciate how outrageously good Brees has been is not.
NOTE: This is the Quarterback Index. The QBs are ranked based on 2018 play alone. For these year-end rankings, any quarterback with over 500 snaps is listed, including two from the Ravens. Each QB's 2017 year-end ranking is listed for context.
Mahomes' start in Week 17 of last season provided a preview of the fireworks to come. It was more difficult to project Mahomes' mental maturity, how rarely he repeated mistakes, and how quickly he processed what defenses were doing to stop him. He finishes No. 1 because of his incredible consistency, with his lowest-graded game still approximating top-10 QB value.
2018 stats: 16 games | 66.0 pct | 5,097 pass yds | 8.8 ypa | 50 pass TD | 12 INT | 272 rush yds | 2 rush TD
Brees was ridiculously efficient while simultaneously escaping more dead-on-arrival plays to win games than we've seen from him since 2009. His record-setting completion percentage (74.4) wasn't just about dinks and dunks. If anything, the Saints struggled to get receivers as open as usual. Brees had the highest completion rate on passes traveling over 20 yards, according to PFF, so he was on point at every level.
2018 stats: 15 games | 74.4 pct | 3,992 pass yds | 8.2 ypa | 32 pass TD | 5 INT | 22 rush yds | 4 rush TD
He finished third in DVOA, third in PFF's grades and third here. Rivers' formula wasn't too different than normal -- he ranked high in deep accuracy and throws under pressure, according to PFF. Rivers' teammates were the biggest difference, so he faced less pressure overall behind a running game that kept defenses off balance.
2018 stats: 16 games | 68.3 pct | 4,308 pass yds | 8.5 ypa | 32 pass TD | 12 INT | 7 rush yds | 0 rush TD
Luck was a different quarterback post-surgery under Frank Reich, taking fewer chances and winning more downs before the snap. He was a different player in December than he was early in the season, too, trusting his arm to make tight-window throws and changing pace on throws for the Colts' up-tempo offense. It was a treat to have Luck back and a relief that a great career will continue aflame.
2018 stats: 16 games | 67.3 pct | 4,593 pass yds | 7.2 ypa | 39 pass TD | 15 INT | 148 rush yds | 0 rush TD
Take the complaints of spoiled Packers fans with a grain of salt. Rodgers had fewer below-average games in my grades than any quarterback besides Mahomes. So Rodgers' floor was extremely high and his special throws carried the Packers' offense many weeks. This marks his fourth top-five finish in six years of the QB Index, one less than Tom Brady.
2018 stats: 16 games | 62.3 pct | 4,442 pass yds | 7.4 ypa | 25 pass TD | 2 INT | 269 rush yds | 2 rush TD
Wilson attempted only 427 passes, more than 200 less than Andrew Luck and Ben Roethlisberger. That puts his sky-high number of touchdowns (35) and sacks taken (51) into perspective, with Wilson running less than ever in a healthy season. No one bails his offense out more on third-and-long, a quality the Seahawks lean on too much.
2018 stats: 16 games | 65.6 pct | 3,448 pass yds | 8.1 ypa | 35 pass TD | 7 INT | 376 rush yds | 0 rush TD
Goff's three-game December swoon looms large in the mind. Try not to forget his dazzling first half of the season, including a few wins where he entered a zone few quarterbacks could. No matter what happens in the playoffs, Goff, 24, remains ahead of schedule.
2018 stats: 16 games | 64.9 pct | 4,688 pass yds | 8.4 ypa | 32 pass TD | 12 INT | 108 rush yds | 2 rush TD
A metronome on and off the field, Ryan is as consistent week-to-week as any quarterback in football. Anyone complaining about this ranking being too high didn't watch him play each week.
2018 stats: 16 games | 69.4 pct | 4,924 pass yds | 8.1 ypa | 35 pass TD | 7 INT | 125 rush yds | 3 rush TD
Big Ben doesn't shrug off defenders like he once did, but he makes enough wow throws downfield to make up for it. The league leader in attempts, completions, yards and interceptions, Roethlisberger is a lot. He's finished in the top five of the QB Index four out of six years, so this qualifies as a down year.
2018 stats: 16 games | 67.0 pct | 5,129 pass yds | 7.6 ypa | 34 pass TD | 16 INT | 98 rush yds | 3 rush TD
Brady had the highest variance of any top-15 QB. In other words, his down games were uncommonly down. That's not rare for an aging quarterback, as Brady's declining pocket movement often forced him to give up on plays too soon. Also uncommon: a 41-year-old outsmarting defensive coordinators, changing tempo and throwing darts on the way to finishing seventh in PFF's grades, sixth in QBR and seventh in DVOA. Even if this was the first time Brady dipped below year-end No. 4 in six years of doing this exercise, it was the greatest season by a 41-year-old quarterback in NFL history. By a lot.
2018 stats: 16 games | 65.8 pct | 4,355 pass yds | 7.6 ypa | 29 pass TD | 11 INT | 35 rush yds | 2 rush TD
He improved so much as the season wore on, finishing like Baker Mayfield without the same hype. The degree of difficulty on many of his completions was off the charts and Watson began trusting his legs again. Striking the balance between making a play and holding the ball too long remains a challenge, but Watson has already shown a veteran ability to improve the players around him.
2018 stats: 16 games | 68.3 pct | 4,165 pass yds | 8.2 ypa | 26 pass TD | 9 INT | 551 rush yds | 5 rush TD
Mayfield played closer to a top-5 QB down the stretch. As Tony Romo pointed out, that level of play came more from instincts than know-how, so there is MVP upside once he can read coverages better. I can't think of a quarterback in the last decade who entered the league with the same combination of accuracy, arm strength and huevos.
2018 stats: 14 games | 63.8 pct | 3,725 pass yds | 7.7 ypa | 27 pass TD | 14 INT | 131 rush yds | 0 rush TD
December was Cousins' lowest-graded month by far for the second straight season. It's one of those trends, like his struggles when playing in prime time, that I would take less seriously if not for the accumulation of quotes about Cousins that he seeks perfection too much and perhaps holds the ball too tight. The awful Vikings offensive line and Cousins both came up short in defining games against the Seahawks, Patriots and Bears.
2018 stats: 16 games | 70.1 pct | 4,298 pass yds | 7.1 ypa | 30 pass TD | 10 INT | 123 rush yds | 1 rush TD
Wentz's last two drives of the season resulted in touchdowns, tying the vaunted Cowboys defense on the road. The Eagles defense blew it in overtime, so his performance was quickly forgotten, like so many of the positives Wentz showed all season as a third-year starter coming off ACL surgery. It would be beyond insane to consider trading him.
2018 stats: 11 games | 69.6 pct | 3,074 pass yds | 7.7 ypa | 21 pass TD | 7 INT | 93 rush yds | 0 rush TD
Three of Newton's four lowest-graded games came in succession before he was shut down with a shoulder injury after Week 15. Before the depressing end, Newton was running as much as usual while piloting a more consistent passing attack. Potential surgery looms.
2018 stats: 14 games | 67.9 pct | 3,395 pass yds | 7.2 ypa | 24 pass TD | 13 INT | 488 rush yds | 4 rush TD
A trendy darkhorse MVP candidate before the season, Stafford slid back to career norms while struggling to overcome injury and personnel shortages. He's too talented to be this boring and that's why he'll have a new offensive coordinator in 2019. His year-end rankings in the QB Index since 2013 show a consistent, durable starter: 13th, 17th, 19th, eighth, eighth and now 16th.
2018 stats: 16 games | 66.1 pct | 3,777 pass yds | 6.8 ypa | 21 pass TD | 11 INT | 71 rush yds | 0 rush TD
Dalton cooled off after an excellent September before injuring his thumb in November. He remains on the dividing line between franchise quarterback and replaceable, which should ensure that the Bengals keep him forever.
2018 stats: 11 games | 61.9 pct | 2,566 pass yds | 7.0 ypa | 21 pass TD | 11 INT | 99 rush yds | 0 rush TD
Dak and the Cowboys coaches bear responsibility for a Dallas passing attack that was often maddening to watch. It wouldn't be a surprise if Dak had new coaches next time around. He reminds me of a more erratic young Ben Roethlisberger because he's so hard to take down and throws a nice deep ball on the move. But Prescott played without clarity often, a beat late on throwing windows that were no longer there.
2018 stats: 16 games | 67.7 pct | 3,885 pass yds | 7.4 ypa | 22 pass TD | 8 INT | 305 rush yds | 6 rush TD
The Bears hired Matt Nagy to be their Sean McVay, and Trubisky's second-year growth mirrored Jared Goff's 2017 improvement, even if the styles are dramatically different. Trubisky is one of the league's best scrambling quarterbacks, yet still can be inaccurate, especially deep. His improvement throughout the season, especially in learning what throws not to make, bodes well for the future.
2018 stats: 14 games | 66.6 pct | 3,223 pass yds | 7.4 ypa | 24 pass TD | 12 INT | 421 rush yds | 3 rush TD
Winston finished in the top 10 in yards per attempt for the third year out of four, ranked eighth in QBR ahead of Jared Goff and 15th in DVOA. Those numbers seem to miss the delay of games taken, the situational struggles in the red zone and the throws that can't be explained postgame by someone who plays with a high football IQ on so many other snaps. Winston started his career as a top-20 QB and hasn't made much progress since then.
2018 stats: 11 games | 64.6 pct | 2,992 pass yds | 7.9 ypa | 19 pass TD | 14 INT | 281 rush yds | 1 rush TD
Mariota has played better than his numbers indicate after throwing only 24 touchdowns with 23 interceptions over the last two years combined. But it's disheartening to see the 25-year-old's career ceiling get lower by the year, with defined weaknesses dealing with pressure or throwing on the move combined with recurring durability questions.
2018 stats: 14 games | 68.9 pct | 2,528 pass yds | 7.6 ypa | 11 pass TD | 8 INT | 357 rush yds | 2 rush TD
There was a moment late in Oakland's Christmas Eve win over Denver when Carr changed the play call to a doomed run on third-and-long, appearing to exasperate Jon Gruden on the sideline. Carr approached Gruden with apprehension, trying to explain why he took the safe way out, an attempt to pacify a head coach who will probably never be satisfied.
2018 stats: 16 games | 68.9 pct | 4,049 pass yds | 7.3 ypa | 19 pass TD | 10 INT | 47 rush yds | 1 rush TD
An argument can be made that Jackson added more value as a runner than any quarterback over half a season in NFL history. That's partly true because of what Jackson did for his teammates, with Gus Edwards and Kenneth Dixon eating easy gains up the middle while defenses protected the edge to stop Jackson. While Jackson connected on a sneaky amount of pretty throws on third-and-long, some errant passes and a league-leading 12 fumbles kept his impressive grade for a rookie relatively in check.
2018 stats: 16 games | 58.2 pct | 1,201 pass yds | 7.1 ypa | 6 pass TD | 3 INT | 695 rush yds | 5 rush TD
Ignore the sour ending in Foxborough. In Darnold's previous three starts, he dazzled with decisive decision-making and impressive second-reaction improvisations. Those three excellent starts -- and a smattering of early season signs -- provide plenty of hope the Jets finally found The One.
2018 stats: 13 games | 57.7 pct | 2,865 pass yds | 6.9 ypa | 17 pass TD | 15 INT | 138 rush yds | 1 rush TD
Manning finished 35th in PFF's grades partly because he swallowed up negative plays that had nothing to do with his offensive line. Just avoiding mistakes isn't enough of an asset for a quarterback without mobility or a strong arm. Manning can throw with accuracy in games where everyone is healthy and he's protected flawlessly, but that's not enough for a player with such defined physical limitations.
2018 stats: 16 games | 66.0 pct | 4,299 pass yds | 7.5 ypa | 21 pass TD | 11 INT | 20 rush yds | 1 rush TD
This ranking is a reminder that Flacco started nine games this season at a respectable level before he was hurt. Flacco's season-ending QB Index rankings since 2013 are headed the wrong way, though: 11, 18, 21, 25, 26. That's not a trend that should excite teams in free agency, assuming Flacco is released in the offseason.
2018 stats: 9 games | 61.2 pct | 2,465 pass yds | 6.5 ypa | 12 pass TD | 6 INT | 45 rush yds | 0 rush TD
He started slow and ended worse. Keenum approximated the replacement-level starter the Broncos were hoping for during the middle eight games of the season, but eventually collapsed under the weight of expectations, injuries and faulty line play. By the end, he looked like Rams-era Keenum. The ceiling is too low here for the Broncos to stand pat at the position.
2018 stats: 16 games | 62.3 pct | 3,890 pass yds | 6.6 ypa | 18 pass TD | 15 INT | 93 rush yds | 2 rush TD
This undrafted first-year player from Southern Mississippi ranks fourth in passing yards through a QB's first eight career starts, and he averaged 8.3 yards per attempt, good for fifth in the NFL. Kyle Shanahan deserves much of the credit for the QB's success. However, Mullens exhibits many of the characteristics we saw in Shanny acolyte Kirk Cousins, with a side of badass.
2018 stats: 8 games | 64.2 pct | 2,277 pass yds | 8.3 ypa | 13 pass TD | 10 INT | -16 rush yds | 0 rush TD
Smith's devastating injury -- involving compound and spiral fractures in his right leg -- was an enormous downer for one of the NFL's most respected players. Smith struggled to adapt to Jay Gruden's offense before that, leaving the future of the Redskins' starting job very much in doubt.
2018 stats: 10 games | 62.5 pct | 2,180 pass yds | 6.6 ypa | 10 pass TD | 5 INT | 168 rush yds | 1 rush TD
Tannehill quietly had his most disappointing season, now safely on the wrong side of the Dalton Scale. He finished second-to-last among qualifiers in PFF's rankings, second-to-last in QBR and third-to-last in DVOA. He combines too many negative plays without the ability to make plays on his own or hit difficult throws.
2018 stats: 11 games | 64.2 pct | 1,979 pass yds | 7.2 ypa | 17 pass TD | 9 INT | 145 rush yds | 0 rush TD
Jacksonville's contract extension for Bortles was the worst personnel decision made by any front office last offseason. He's likely to be released and is no lock to get a backup job.
2018 stats: 13 games | 60.3 pct | 2,718 pass yds | 6.7 ypa | 13 pass TD | 11 INT | 365 rush yds | 1 rush TD
The Paul Bunyan of quarterbacks didn't change many minds as a rookie, but it was a fun ride. His believers celebrated his running ability and wow plays, seeing the next Cam Newton. His detractors see an arm too scattershot to ever trust.
2018 stats: 12 games | 52.8 pct | 2,074 pass yds | 6.5 ypa | 10 pass TD | 12 INT | 631 rush yds | 8 rush TD
There were plenty of beautiful throws that showcased Rosen's accuracy and anticipation, like a would-be game-winning toss against the Seahawks in Week 17 that was dropped. This ranking reflects Rosen's production this season, not his chances to make a big leap next year.
2018 stats: 14 games | 55.2 pct | 2,278 pass yds | 5.8 ypa | 11 pass TD | 14 INT | 138 rush yds | 0 rush TD
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