QB Index, Week 1: Ranking all 32 starters entering 2021 NFL season
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Some of my final conversations with Wess were about Justin Herbert. The chats took place as I drove my friend home from chemo on Tuesday afternoons, bouncing from family to food, from his cancer treatments to, inevitably, what we were seeing on NFL Game Pass. Wess hated the L.A. traffic with all his soul; I was grateful for the extra time together.

He had never been ambivalent about football like he was leading up to last season, although that feeling proved temporary. If his first battle with cancer gave him perspective, the second one boiled life down to essentials: his wife Lakisha, his newborn son Lincoln, his friends and family, his desire to get better.

When Marc Sessler, Dan Hanzus and I arrived at Wess and Kisha’s house for the 2020 NFL Kickoff game — the first time we were all together since the pandemic and his diagnosis turned life upside down — a transformation had already begun. Wess admitted he was tired, for the most Wess reason possible. He had stayed up deep into the night before, working on his Week 1 QB Index, a tome that took the basic assignment of ranking quarterbacks and wound up connecting the evolution of the position with the league as a whole, with football scripted and improvised, with sports and life as art.

He held on to that passion throughout the season. He insisted on writing QB Index, plugging in his computer to write while hooked up to chemotherapy machines. Tuesday was one of his best days of the week because he left the hospital full of steroids, feeling strong. He eventually gave up watching late night Game Pass in the bathtub because he ruined two iPads this way, a fact we’d laugh about a little too hard on the podcast without telling him what to do. You never told Wess what to do.

He eventually struggled to make deadlines and stopped writing around Thanksgiving. If it appeared like the work was taking too much out of him, I believe it also helped sustain him. It kept a part of life normal when the world around him was anything but.

This reflection is not some posthumous hagiography meant to imply that football will save us, a notion I can hear Wess calling out as phony. These were the facts as he lived them through the natural rhythms of the football calendar, one he lived for 12 straight seasons. It was an escape, another fascinating distraction in an endlessly fascinating world. Which brings us back to Herbert and those car rides.

Wess was convinced Herbert was the truth in the same way he was once convinced about Andrew Luck. I will miss so much about Wess, from eating his barbecue to hearing him argue with his brothers or marvel at his luck in love. But I will also miss the simple joys of hearing his weekly opinions on Herbert’s development, on this rookie QB class, on his beloved Aaron Rodgers’ Tom Brady-like late-career peak.

This football conversation with Wess started over daylong AOL Instant Messenger threads from our laptops in Tybee Island, Georgia, and New York when we worked at Rotoworld more than a decade ago. It took us across the country to Los Angeles to meet our podcast family Marc and Dan and eventually the woman that made him whole. It will continue here in the column we’ve shared, as I hear Wess’ voice in my head, arguing with the silly rankings below.

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2020 stats: 18 games | 66.1 pct | 5,590 pass yds | 7.9 ypa | 42 pass TD | 8 INT | 360 rush yds | 3 rush TD | 2 fumbles lost

He’s started for three seasons. He’s ranked no lower than the third-best quarterback in any of these seasons, and I’d have him top two in all three. Early Dan Marino is the only historical precedent here and the Chiefs’ offseason focus on improving efficiency and the running game should only make him tougher to defend.

2020 stats: 18 games | 70.2 pct | 4,941 pass yds | 8.1 ypa | 53 pass TD | 6 INT | 146 rush yds | 4 rush TD | 2 fumbles lost

The situation around Rodgers flipped. The depth of weapons around him is terrific, but there are questions about the offensive line, where only one starter (left guard Lucas Patrick) is expected to be back in the same spot he was in one year ago. Still, every sideline hair tussle between Rodgers and Matt LaFleur is a reminder that these two men have earned every benefit of the doubt. Year 3 in a system Rodgers mastered a year ago should allow him to overcome any obstacles.

2020 stats: 19 games | 68.4 pct | 4,544 pass yds | 7.7 ypa | 42 pass TD | 11 INT | 566 rush yds | 9 rush TD | 6 fumbles lost

While Allen still gives his opponents chances — his turnover-worthy plays ranked second in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus — he’s more likely to tighten the screws on the way toward winning the MVP award than backslide. The continuity in Buffalo is exceptional. 

2020 stats: 20 games | 64.4 pct | 5,694 pass yds | 7.6 ypa | 50 pass TD | 15 INT | 3 rush yds | 4 rush TD | 1 fumble lost

It’s as pointless to try to separate Brady from his idyllic surroundings as it once was to attempt to separate Brady and Bill Belichick’s success together. Brady is (still) the man to maximize this loaded Bucs roster in this loaded offensive era, playing in a system that incorporates the best of Brady alongside Bruce Arians’ aggressiveness. Expect a fast start.

2020 stats: 17 games | 64.4 pct | 3,098 pass yds | 7.3 ypa | 26 pass TD | 11 INT | 1,175 rush yds | 8 rush TD | 4 fumbles lost

Since 2018, Next Gen Stats has Lamar Jackson gaining 300-plus more yards over expected than the next-closest rusher, Derrick Henry. Jackson is the primary reason why the Ravens had a historic rushing attack followed by a mortal top-three rushing attack. That baseline of excellence is underrated in its impact, giving Jackson such an edge that it’s hard to rank him much lower than this if his passing numbers just remain average. 

2020 stats: 17 games | 67.5 pct | 4,386 pass yds | 7.5 ypa | 42 pass TD | 14 INT | 563 rush yds | 2 rush TD | 4 fumbles lost

It’s possible to recognize that Wilson bears responsibility for his performance down the stretch last season — probably the worst he’s played since his rookie year — and to recognize that he’s likely to bounce back to form. New offensive coordinator Shane Waldron should put Wilson in more advantageous situations, even if there are some early growing pains. 

2020 stats: 16 games | 66.6 pct | 4,336 pass yds | 7.3 ypa | 31 pass TD | 10 INT | 234 rush yds | 5 rush TD | 1 fumble lost

He had the rookie season I imagine Patrick Mahomes would have had if the Chiefs had played him, albeit with typically terrible Chargers pass protection. While that doesn’t mean an MVP campaign is on tap, it can’t be ruled out. However, the change to a coordinator without a great track record (Joe Lombardi) dims the excitement about the rebuilt line. 

2020 stats: 5 games | 68.0 pct | 1,856 pass yds | 8.4 ypa | 9 pass TD | 4 INT | 93 rush yds | 3 rush TD | 3 fumbles lost

The early portion of last season showed plenty. Prescott finally found a coaching staff that would let him throw on every down, change tempo, change plays and win before the snap like a six-year veteran who plays like he’s been in the league even longer. His recent injuries are the only concern here.

2020 stats: 17 games | 65.7 pct | 3,984 pass yds | 7.9 ypa | 34 pass TD | 8 INT | 272 rush yds | 7 rush TD | 1 fumble lost

No one is more courageous in the pocket, but Tannehill’s numbers against pressure decline more than almost any other starter. His play-action numbers, however, are still off the charts. If that makes Tannehill a system quarterback, it doesn’t matter much because he’s in the right system. Only Patrick Mahomes has a higher adjusted net yards per pass attempt since the start of 2019.

2020 stats: 16 games | 67.2 pct | 3,971 pass yds | 7.1 ypa | 26 pass TD | 12 INT | 819 rush yds | 11 rush TD | 4 fumbles lost

Quite possibly the third-best quarterback ever as a pure runner behind Lamar Jackson and Michael Vick, Murray took a step forward with his deep passing in 2020. If he adds more of a sustaining intermediate game to go with his dinks, dunks and bombs, he’ll stay in the top 10 for a while.

2020 stats: 16 games | 67.3 pct | 4,103 pass yds | 7.9 ypa | 27 pass TD | 9 INT | 140 rush yds | 3 rush TD | 8 fumbles lost

He might never be Brett Favre, but Carr’s willingness to go deep and use his legs more often in 2020 helped him elevate his play under Jon Gruden. This playing style feels more sustainable than his 2015 breakout year.

2020 stats: 16 games | 65.0 pct | 4,581 pass yds | 7.3 ypa | 26 pass TD | 11 INT | 92 rush yds | 2 rush TD | 3 fumbles lost

Ryan was better than average even in a down year, with a down offensive line, in a problematic scheme. The line might not be much better, but new coach Arthur Smith can help Ryan get his top-10 form back.

2020 stats: 16 games | 64.2 pct | 4,084 pass yds | 7.7 ypa | 26 pass TD | 10 INT | 112 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 1 fumble lost

I struggled to separate quarterbacks ranked 10-13, but you can call me crazy for wanting to see Stafford play at an MVP level before assuming it will happen. He’s spent most of his career outside the top 10 quarterbacks and the position is more loaded than ever. He unquestionably has better support in Los Angeles than he ever did in Detroit.

2020 stats: 18 games | 62.7 pct | 4,030 pass yds | 7.2 ypa | 30 pass TD | 9 INT | 179 rush yds | 1 rush TD | 4 fumbles lost

If Mayfield’s downside is Cool Kirk Cousins, that’s not so bad. His upside doesn’t need to be much higher than how he played from Week 13 onward last season for the Browns to win a Super Bowl. 

2020 stats: 16 games | 67.2 pct | 4,265 pass yds | 8.3 ypa | 35 pass TD | 13 INT | 156 rush yds | 1 rush TD | 5 fumbles lost

The offensive line could be worse than a year ago, with rookie OT Christian Darrisaw missing all but a handful of practices since being drafted. The receiving depth behind Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen is somehow thinner with Irv Smith Jr. out and Kyle Rudolph in New York. If Cousins’ success mostly depends on his surroundings like all mid-tier starting quarterbacks, this projects as a down year. 

2020 stats: 16 games | 66.0 pct | 4,304 pass yds | 6.4 ypa | 37 pass TD | 14 INT | 11 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 1 fumble lost

The Steelers finished 21st in passing DVOA last season and 30th in rushing. At this stage of his career, Big Ben needs that second number to go up for the first number to get back above average. It’s imminently achievable! 

2020 stats: 9 games | 68.5 pct | 2,091 pass yds | 7.8 ypa | 13 pass TD | 8 INT | 151 rush yds | 2 rush TD | 0 fumbles lost

The three best seasons of Fitzpatrick’s long NFL tenure thus far have been the three most recent. His late-career peak is even more surprising than Tom Brady‘s run over the last five years — and somehow, Brady’s longevity makes another year of Fitzmagic feel possible. The league’s rules and play-calling trends have bent toward elder quarterbacks. 

2020 stats: 6 games | 67.1 pct | 1,096 pass yds | 7.8 ypa | 7 pass TD | 5 INT | 25 rush yds | 0 rush TDs | 0 fumbles lost

The term “system QB” has been given a bad name over the years, but it’s no small feat that Jimmy G can run Kyle Shanahan’s system with proficiency. He may not raise the floor of players around him, but that level of play was good enough to nearly win a Super Bowl. (It is also no small matter that Garoppolo is willing to rotate snaps with Trey Lance with a smile on his face.)  

2020 stats: 4 games | 63.6 pct | 75 pass yds | 6.8 ypa | 0 pass TD | 0 INT | -6 rush yds | 0 rush TDs | 0 fumbles lost

Everything has changed since we last saw Winston. He’s now playing behind a better offensive line after a year in Sean Payton’s system. He’s noticeably fitter and had LASIK surgery. On the other hand, his receiving options are considerably diminished compared to what he was working with in Tampa. There’s never been a doubt about Winston’s throwing ability or his football IQ, so I expect Winston 2.0 to be more efficient under Payton.

He looked so comfortable in the preseason lighting up backups. If you think that’s automatic, just look at how Wilson’s predecessor in New York, Sam Darnold, struggled against backups in his preseason work this year in Carolina.

Occasionally slow to process in the preseason, Lawrence also made more than enough impressive throws to get everyone excited about the No. 1 overall pick. I’ll withhold too much judgement on his offensive coaches until seeing more, but I’m concerned enough to put them on the radar.

I’m putting all the rookie Week 1 starters near one another, because they all looked the part in the preseason. They’re this aggressively high because I expect them to reach the floor of what’s seen as a good rookie season by a quarterback — and that floor has risen considerably in recent years. 

2020 stats: 14 games | 62.5 pct | 2,943 pass yds | 6.6 ypa | 11 pass TD | 10 INT | 423 rush yds | 1 rush TD | 6 fumbles lost

He was better than the numbers show he was a year ago. PFF notes that in 2020, Jones was pressured on the second-highest percentage of plays of any starter, and his receivers dropped the ball at the second-highest rate in football. The Giants spent on help and have high hopes for Saquon Barkley, but I’m not convinced the coaching or his offensive line are any better than they were last season. 

2020 stats: 12 games | 57.4 pct | 2,620 pass yds | 6.0 ypa | 16 pass TD | 15 INT | 276 rush yds | 5 rush TD | 4 fumbles lost

Frank Reich should help, but some of Wentz’s weaknesses — from inconsistent accuracy to holding on to the ball too long — have only grown worse as Wentz has gained more experience. If his foot still isn’t right coming off preseason surgery, that could reduce his mobility, which would severely impact his game.

2020 stats: 10 games | 64.1 pct | 1,814 pass yds | 6.3 ypa | 11 pass TD | 3 INT | 109 rush yds | 3 rush TD | 1 fumble lost

I fully expect this ranking to rise. The strengths he had coming into the league — accuracy, decision-making and timing — often do not show up in a quarterback’s rookie season. Tagovailoa looked more comfortable navigating the pocket in the preseason than he did a year ago.

2020 stats: 10 games | 65.3 pct | 2,688 pass yds | 6.7 ypa | 13 pass TD | 5 INT | 276 rush yds | 3 rush TD | 4 fumbles lost

I worry about the offensive line. I worry about the arm strength Burrow showed as a rookie. I worry about Zac Taylor. I worry about Burrow missing the offseason coming off a torn ACL. I worry he’ll take a step back in the areas of his game that are his calling cards — accuracy and uncanny confidence — coming off surgery. Burrow could be very good in the long run without being that good this year, especially early. 

2020 stats: 17 games | 66.9 pct | 4,281 pass yds | 7.2 ypa | 22 pass TD | 13 INT | 109 rush yds | 4 rush TD | 4 fumbles lost

In three of his four full seasons as a starter, Goff’s level has been consistently around or just below league average by most objective measures, from PFF grade to DVOA to QBR. The exception was 2018, a season with a sour ending that further reinforces the notion that Goff’s play is as consistent as his haircut, despite the lofty draft pedigree.

2020 stats: 15 games | 69.1 pct | 3,733 pass yds | 7.6 ypa | 15 pass TD | 11 INT | 279 rush yds | 5 rush TD | 3 fumbles lost

I am a fan of Bridgewater and feel pressured into ranking him this low, but I’ll humor my editors for a week before he starts rising. In the meantime, here are some numbers from Teddy’s disappointing year in Carolina: 17th in QBR, 24th in PFF (for QBs taking 50 percent of snaps) and 19th in DVOA. He’s a lot closer to league average than given credit for, and he has an incredible amount of talent around him in Denver.

2020 stats: 15 games | 52.0 pct | 1,061 pass yds | 7.2 ypa | 6 pass TD | 4 INT | 354 rush yds | 3 rush TD | 2 fumbles lost

I’ll take the potential promise of a young, relatively unproven starter like Hurts over a few of the known quantities ranked below. Hurts’ running ability behind a great offensive line provides a high floor to his first full season as a starter.

2020 stats: 11 games | 64.9 pct | 2,170 pass yds | 6.5 ypa | 14 pass TD | 8 INT | 114 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 1 fumble lost

He wasn’t as bad as you remember in 2020. He was exactly what you’d expect operating behind one of the worst offensive lines in the league while working with explosive playmakers. He was Andy Dalton, rising and falling according to the situation around him. The situation around him in Chicago — especially with regard to his offensive line and play-caller — doesn’t inspire confidence that he’ll remain the starter for long. 

2020 stats: 2 games | 53.3 pct | 208 pass yds | 6.9 ypa | 0 pass TD | 0 INT | 7 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 0 fumbles lost

The difference between Taylor’s upside now and his upside when he was starting in Buffalo (2014-17) probably comes down to his running ability. Back then, he was one of the best natural runners in football at the position. If he still has the juice in his legs at 32 years old, he could surprise with a few big plays while making minimal errors. 

2020 stats: 12 games | 59.6 pct | 2,208 pass yds | 6.1 ypa | 9 pass TD | 11 INT | 217 rush yds | 2 rush TD | 2 fumbles lost

There are Gase-ian reasons why Darnold struggled in New York. But any belief in his abilities is primarily based on college scouting reports that are now over three years old. Matt Rhule will undoubtedly help, but Darnold’s preseason play didn’t inspire confidence.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter.

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