Skip to main content

Ranking the eight NFL divisions by quarterback: AFC claims top three spots; North headlines NFC side

With the free agency frenzy, draft and schedule release in the rearview, NFL analysis has fully shifted to expectations for the 2023 season. And what better way to explore the coming campaign's outlook than by taking stock of the league landscape at the game's most important position?

Yup, it's that time again: Time for my annual pecking order of the eight divisions by starting quarterbacks.

In this exercise, I consider the past, present and future -- a healthy mix of what my eyes have seen and what my takes project.

With plenty of offseason change at the position via free agency, draft and trade, my updated QB division rankings are below. I'm sure there will be no debate.

1) AFC North

Burrow has just about everything you want in a franchise quarterback: the leadership, the swagger, the processing ability, the knack for delivering in the fourth quarter. Watching the former Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall pick work with Cincinnati's receiving talent -- most notably, Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins -- is breathtaking stuff. No wonder the guy's about to break the bank with a long-term deal. Speaking of which, Lamar rightfully received his nine-figure extension a few weeks ago. Just the second NFL player to win MVP in unanimous fashion, Jackson boasts a sparkling 45-16 career record and is the only quarterback in league history with a pair of 1,000-yard rushing seasons. But he's eager to sling the ball across the yard in 2023. At his press conference after signing the new $260 million deal, Jackson said, "I want to throw for 6,000 yards, with the weapons we have." OK, that's a little rich, but I'm picking up what Lamar is putting down. With Odell Beckham Jr. and Zay Flowers joining the receiving corps -- and Todd Monken taking over as offensive coordinator -- I expect the 26-year-old to blow past his previous high for passing yards (3,127 in 2019) while maintaining the ability to break your will as an electric runner.

After going nearly two years without playing a game, Watson predictably struggled in his six-week debut for the Browns last season. Suspended for the first 11 games of 2022 for violating the NFL's personal-conduct policy, he returned to complete just 58.2 percent of his passes with a 7:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 79.1 passer rating. I assume a full, normal, football-focused offseason and preseason will go a long way toward returning Watson's game to the form that saw him earn three straight Pro Bowl bids from 2018 through 2020. Meanwhile, I'm a big believer in the upside of this division's least-experienced passer, Mr. Pickett. The only first-round QB in last year' draft enjoyed a solid rookie season, but I expect a monster jump in Year 2. The Steelers upgraded the young quarterback's protection with additions in free agency (OG Isaac Seumalo) and the draft (OT Broderick Jones), while also trading for a worthwhile reclamation project in wideout Allen Robinson and scoring a rare blocking/receiving weapon in third-round tight end Darnell Washington. Pittsburgh is Pickett's team, and I envision him running with that mantle in 2023.

2) AFC East

Allen is a multifaceted megastar as a quarterback with rugged running ability and a rocket arm. And given how last season ended -- with the Bengals blowing the Bills out of their own stadium in the Divisional Round -- he'll carry a massive chip on his shoulder into the 2023 campaign. The rest of the NFL should be afraid. Buffalo assisted the franchise quarterback with its first two picks of the draft: mismatch weapon TE Dalton Kincaid and road-grading OG O'Cyrus Torrence. While Allen can win MVP any year, Rodgers has actually done so four times. And after leaving Green Bay -- his professional home since 2005! -- the future first-ballot Hall of Famer finds himself in the searing-hot spotlight of the media capital of the world. The last time Rodgers had something to prove -- after the Packers inexplicably traded up in Round 1 for Jordan Love -- he proceeded to win back-to-back MVPs. The 39-year-old will be reborn with Garrett Wilson and the rest of the Jets' weapons, fully energized to win in New York.

I like Tua. Always have. In fact, I love him in Mike McDaniel's offense, flanked by a cavalcade of burners that includes Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. It's a recipe for fireworks -- IF the quarterback can stay on the field. Tagovailoa's health is the biggest X-factor in the AFC East. I also like Mac, but last year was ugly. Granted, the Patriots apparently have learned that having a defensive coordinator call offensive plays isn't a recipe for success. I'm a fan of Bill O'Brien's coaching work, so I'm pretty confident he can get Jones back on track.

3) AFC West

What more can be said about Mahomes? Prior to last season, he lost one of the most explosive weapons in league history (Tyreek Hill). In the playoffs, he suffered one of the more dreaded lingering ailments (high ankle sprain). And yet, when all was said and done, he emerged with a second MVP and second Lombardi Trophy. In five seasons as Kansas City's starter, Mahomes has made five Pro Bowls and played in five AFC Championship Games, winning three of them to advance to the Super Bowl. He's a majestic, wildly unique all-timer who makes the impossible possible. No wonder he wins 80 percent of his games (79-19 NFL record, including the playoffs).

In terms of natural talent, Herbert isn't far from Mahomes. He's the kind of quarterback you build in a lab: a strapping athlete at 6-foot-6 and 236 pounds with a golden arm. Still just 25 years old, Herbert's poised to author his best season yet in Year 4. With first-round pick Quentin Johnston joining Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, the Chargers have a legit Big Three at wide receiver -- with an emphasis on BIG. I can't wait to see how Los Angeles' new offensive coordinator, Kellen Moore, maximizes the Bolts' aerial attack.

As a starting quarterback, Jimmy G's the epitome of solid. Not superb, not really good -- just solid. He reunites with Josh McDaniels in Vegas, adding some intrigue. And while we're talkin' play-caller-playmaker pairings ... If Russ has anything left, Sean Payton will find it. The Broncos' new head coach is special as an offensive guru/quarterback whisperer. Can he salvage Wilson after the 34-year-old's disastrous debut in Denver? This is a true unknown.

4) NFC North

The top two quarterbacks in this division -- Goff and Cousins -- don't get the credit they deserve. Last season, Goff was the second-best QB in the entire NFC, behind only Jalen Hurts. During the Lions' 8-2 finish, the Pro Bowler posted a 17:1 TD-to-INT ratio. No, he's not a truly elite quarterback, but he's a fine fit on this rising Lions squad. Cousins is similar in that he's not elite but quite good. The man routinely puts up numbers, and this past season, he guided Minnesota to a 13-4 record by leading the league in fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives (eight apiece). Does he cower under the prime-time spotlight? He does. But he's a longtime staple in the 8-16 range of starting quarterbacks, which is nothing to scoff at.

Fields is the most fascinating figure in this quartet, and not just because he took the league by storm last season with 1,143 yards on the ground, including a whopping 10 gains of 20-plus yards. In addition to his dynamic legs, Fields boasts a big arm and solid frame. Chicago upgraded his protection in free agency (OG Nate Davis) and the draft (OT Darnell Wright) while also nabbing him a No. 1 wide receiver via trade (D.J. Moore). It's Year 3. It's go time. And I'm a huge believer.

Love is the most questionable figure in this group, and not just because he's started one game and attempted a grand total of 83 regular-season passes. By spreading Love's money out with a one-year extension -- as opposed to picking up his $20.272 million fifth-year option -- the Packers essentially admitted that they don't know what to expect from the 24-year-old signal-caller. I have my doubts.

5) NFC East

Let's get the obvious out of the way: Hurts is a certified star. He finished second in MVP voting and then went out and matched Patrick Mahomes on Super Bowl Sunday. (Shoot, you could argue the losing quarterback deserved MVP honors in Super Bowl LVII.) After the Eagles' field general, the division's quarterbacking gets interesting ...

I always defend Dak, but last year wasn't great, to say the least. He led the NFL with 15 interceptions despite missing five games due to injury. Now, the optimist would say that the injury -- a fractured thumb in the season opener -- doomed Prescott's season before it really got going. I'm open to that possibility. I'm also open to the possibility that the soon-to-be 30-year-old could benefit from Mike McCarthy taking the play-calling reins and Brandin Cooks joining the receiving corps. The Cooks trade, in particular, strikes me as one of the most underrated moves in the entire NFL offseason. So maybe I won't need to defend Dak in 2023!

Can Jones follow up his breakthrough season of 2022? "Danny Dimes" enjoyed a career year under the superb coaching of Brian Daboll and Co. Theoretically, he should be able to duplicate -- and build on -- his success in Year 2 in the system, especially with some new pass-catching toys in tight end Darren Waller and rookie receiver Jalin Hyatt. But that playoff performance in Philadelphia -- not to mention, the 2019 through 2021 seasons -- give me serious pause.

And then there's Washington. Color me baffled when it comes to this situation. Apparently, one decent start from a fifth-round pick was all the Commanders needed to see. In his first and only game action of 2022, Howell threw for 169 yards with a touchdown and a pick, while rushing for 35 yards and a score, in Washington's Week 18 win over Dallas. Four months later, he appears to be The Guy, with veteran Jacoby Brissett added as an insurance plan. I don't get it.

6) NFC West

What a weird QB group to evaluate and rank. Too low? Too high? Who's playing?

I still think Stafford has plenty of gas left in the tank despite being 35 years old and fresh off an injury-abbreviated nine-game season. Sean McVay didn't retire and Cooper Kupp is apparently healthy -- these two factors make me bullish on Stafford as a Comeback Player of the Year candidate. And while we're on the subject of that award ...

... Geno was a total stud in Seattle last year, earning CPOY honors. In March, he signed a lucrative contract extension. In April, he got a dynamic slot receiver (first-round pick Jaxon Smith-Njigba) to perfectly complement his fantastic duo on the outside (DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett). So here I am in May, thinking Smith is lined up for another productive season.

Now let's venture into the unknowable. I like a healthy Brock Purdy, but when will we get that? Elbow surgery isn't exactly a minor thing. I've always liked Lance's raw tools, but he still couldn't hit the broad side of a barn last year before suffering a season-ending ankle injury in September. Darnold also has some raw talent; maybe Kyle Shanahan can foster it? Just so many questions with this quarterback room. Arizona's situation is similarly opaque. Kyler's still rehabbing a torn ACL, with new head coach Jonathan Gannon providing this update last week: "He's a long way away, but we don't play for a long time, either." OK ... Who's excited for Colt McCoy??! Furthermore, who's thinking this rebuilding team could have an interesting decision on its hands if it bottoms out in 2023 and lands the No. 1 overall pick in 2024?

7) AFC South

Truth be told, I wanted to put this division higher, but I just couldn't -- not with a pair of unproven rookies and a veteran I don't believe in.

Let's start with the unassailable stud of the group. After Jacksonville swapped out Urban Meyer for Doug Pederson, we all saw the true Trevor Lawrence. Following his lost rookie season, Lawrence more than doubled his touchdown passes (25, up from 12) and halved his picks (eight, down from 17), making the first of what's sure to be many Pro Bowls in Year 2. The former No. 1 overall pick drove the Jaguars' playoff push in the second half of last season -- posting a 15:2 TD-to-INT ratio in Jacksonville's 7-2 close -- and then guided the Jags to an historic comeback win over Justin Herbert's Chargers on Super Wild Card Weekend. All of this is setting the table for an elite season in 2023.

Now for that aforementioned veteran I don't believe in ... I'm just not a big Tannehill fan. This should be his final season in Tennessee, but I don't think the Titans have a successor on the roster, despite taking stabs in each of the last two drafts. Malik Willis, a third-round pick of the Titans in last year's draft, looked like he was playing quarterback for the first time as a rookie, barely completing 50 percent of his passes and posting a 42.8 QB rating over eight appearances, including three starts. Tennessee took another Day 2 swing at the position in April, snagging Will Levis with the second pick of Round 2. I'm skeptical, and not just because the guy puts mayo in his coffee. At Kentucky, he had a knack for giving the ball to the other team. Sure, the SEC is tough, but the NFL is tougher. The Titans have a lot of recognizable names in the quarterback room, but they lack a long-term solution at the position.

I do believe in this division's two first-round quarterbacks. Stroud and Richardson need time, but it's going to happen. Stroud was absolutely prolific at Ohio State, and DeMeco Ryans put together a really great offensive staff that will ease his transition into the NFL. Houston's weapons aren't great, but they are better than you think, with guys like Dameon Pierce, Robert Woods, Dalton Schultz and Devin Singletary. Richardson isn't just a freak show of an athlete; the 20-year-old has routinely earned positive marks for his work ethic. This is huge, since he still has many areas in need of refinement, starting with his accuracy. Still, I think he's going to surprise some people as a rookie in Shane Steichen's offense, especially with Jonathan Taylor as the ultimate support at running back. Let him play. Let him lead. Let him make mistakes and learn.

8) NFC South

Regular readers know how much I love Derek Carr. He's eternally underrated, and I believe he will thrive with this change of scenery, especially if Michael Thomas can actually rekindle his career. But when Carr is the most accomplished quarterback in the division by a country mile, that's not ideal for the downtrodden NFC South.

Now, I'm confident Young will live up to his draft pedigree as the No. 1 overall pick sooner than later. He's a beautiful mind at a cerebral position, a resilient gamer with immense toughness that belies his slight frame. Not to mention, the Panthers have surrounded him with a spectacular coaching staff that understands the position, including head coach Frank Reich, quarterbacks coach Josh McCown and senior assistant Jim Caldwell. This is going to work, even if/when Young suffers some rookie growing pains.

Ridder's more of a question mark as a third-round pick entering Year 2. That said, I do think the Falcons can break through in Arthur Smith's third year on the job. He'll support Ridder with a potent running game, especially now that Bijan Robinson's in the backfield. I liked Ridder at lot at the University of Cincinnati, where he burnished his reputation as a fine leader and program frontman. He could be solid under the watchful eye of Smith, with a stout offensive line in front of him and a bevy of young weapons (Robinson, WR Drake London, TE Kyle Pitts) at his disposal.

What's in store for Baker as a Buc? Who knows? This past season, he was bad in Carolina and solid in Los Angeles. He hasn't been legitimately good in years, though there is legit receiver talent around him in Tampa.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter.

Related Content