Cover 7 | Thursday A daily NFL destination that provides in-depth analysis of football’s biggest stories. Each Thursday, Mike Sando examines an emerging storyline around NFL quarterbacking.
Life on the week-to-week NFL roller coaster can be disorienting. Every so often, I like to step back, regroup and reframe in my mind how I feel about teams, players, coaches and situations.
I’ve done that with the 32 starting quarterbacks, reconciling preseason expectations with the general feel one-third of the way through the 18-week regular season. Five quarterbacks are faring better than expected. Four aren’t as bad as feared. The past six weeks have amplified questions surrounding quite a few others.
We’ll dive right in, mindful that there are no final judgments in October, as much can change in just a few weeks.
1. Better than expected
If someone had said this is how the season would start, a realist would have signed up for it, no questions asked.
Tua Tagovailoa, Miami Dolphins: He’s healthy and producing on a record-setting pace for an offense that ranks second in NFL history for yards through six games.
C.J. Stroud, Houston Texans: He’s been even more consistently accurate and polished as a pocket passer than advertised, and it’s showing up right away, despite not having the best talent around him.
Jared Goff, Detroit Lions: He has picked up where he left off last season (top five in EPA per pass play). This time, the Lions are playing well enough on defense for his efforts to translate into the win column with greater consistency.
Brock Purdy, San Francisco 49ers: His elbow injury has been a non-factor for a 49ers offense that appeared unstoppable until encountering the Cleveland Browns’ defense in Week 6.
Matthew Stafford, Los Angeles Rams: A return to health has allowed Stafford to keep the Rams competitive with and without Cooper Kupp.
2. Not as bad as feared
It seemed like just about everyone expected the worst, but these QBs have not lived down to those expectations.
Zach Wilson, New York Jets: Wilson has cut down on mistakes sufficiently for New York to beat Buffalo and Philadelphia during a 3-3 start that saw the Jets take Kansas City to the wire as well.
Baker Mayfield, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: His statistical production aligns generally with his promising 2018 rookie season, for a Buccaneers team no one outside 1 Buccaneer Place expected to have a 3-2 record at this point.
Sam Howell, Washington Commanders: Despite the 34 sacks he has taken, it’s tough to say Howell is dooming a 3-3 team that ranks 11th in offensive EPA per game, compared to 25th on defense and 30th on special teams.
Joshua Dobbs, Arizona Cardinals: Dobbs’ limitations have not stopped Arizona from ranking 15th in offensive EPA per game (31st on defense, fifth on special teams) despite his acquisition less than a month before the season.
3. Tier 1 exemption group
These Tier 1 QBs are not lighting it up every week, but their bodies of work are so strong, a six-game sample doesn’t really affect how we feel one way or the other.
Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs: Mahomes ranks fifth in EPA per pass play despite ranking 23rd, one spot below Arizona’s Dobbs, in percentage of pass plays gaining more than 15 yards.
Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills: Allen ranks third in EPA per pass play and was at his best against the Dolphins in the one game Buffalo needed to win the most. Concerns over consistency are valid, but no reason for panic.
Justin Herbert, Los Angeles Chargers: The Chargers rank sixth in EPA per pass play and ninth on offense overall despite a rough outing from Herbert against Dallas in Week 6.
Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals: Burrow’s calf injury and a schedule packed with tough defenses (Cleveland, Baltimore, Tennessee and Seattle so far) explain why he ranks last in percentage of pass plays gaining more than 15 yards. It’s fair to wonder if this just isn’t his year, but too early to say so definitively.
4. Awaiting next step
These rising young star quarterbacks have not lit it up out of the gates, but there’s still hope they can ascend into the top tier.
Jalen Hurts, Philadelphia Eagles: Hurts has the same number of turnovers through six games (eight) as he had all last season, but the Eagles still have a top-six offense by EPA, partly on the strength of their rushing.
Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars: Eight dropped passes over a two-game period earlier in the season contributed to a slow start. Now, Lawrence is dealing with a knee injury that could affect his availability.
5. Environmental concerns paramount
These teams know what they have and should be fine with it, but their QBs could use more help.
Kirk Cousins, Minnesota Vikings: Cousins leading the league in pass attempts without much volume in the running game and without a consistent defense seems problematic, especially with Justin Jefferson injured.
Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens: Injuries at left tackle, running back and receiver have affected Jackson as he transitions to a new approach on offense after missing early offseason work while negotiating a new contract.
Geno Smith, Seattle Seahawks: Smith has played three of five games without both starting tackles, increasing the degree of difficulty early in the season.
Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys: Prescott was at his best when the Cowboys had a strong ground game. This season, their running backs have hit Prescott-era lows for yards per rush, success rate, EPA per rush and explosive rush rate.
6. Patience, please
These rookies hoped for smoother starts but are just getting started.
Anthony Richardson, Indianapolis Colts: Richardson flashed talent while on the field but will undergo season-ending shoulder surgery after a 162-snap rookie season. The early question is whether he can hold up physically long enough to develop as a passer.
Bryce Young, Carolina Panthers: Changing offensive play callers after an 0-6 start won’t improve the weaponry in Carolina, which seems to be the leading problem.
7. Concerning for various reasons
The first six weeks have amplified question marks these quarterbacks carried into the season.
• Young QB sub-category: Optimism ran high for some of these players before the season, but not so much at the moment
Jordan Love, Green Bay Packers: Six career starts isn’t much to go on, so no final judgments here, but the three seasons Love spent behind Aaron Rodgers raised expectations for a faster start. Perhaps the Packers’ bye will provide a reset.
Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh Steelers: Those hoping for a second-year jump have not yet seen it from Pickett or the Steelers’ offense under second-year coordinator Matt Canada. An early schedule featuring tough defenses has not helped.
Desmond Ridder, Atlanta Falcons: Five interceptions in the past three games renewed skepticism that followed Ridder into the season.
Mac Jones, New England Patriots: Jones’ relative success as a rookie shifts some of the scrutiny to coaching and supporting cast. Either way, the first six games have been concerning.
Justin Fields, Chicago Bears: There was little evidence Fields had made strides as a passer even before he suffered a dislocated thumb on his throwing hand in Week 6.
Daniel Jones, New York Giants: Two touchdown passes, six interceptions and 28 sacks in five games would raise concerns for anyone.
• Seasoned veteran QB sub-category: I’m fearful these higher-priced quarterbacks have peaked.
Deshaun Watson, Cleveland Browns: Watson needs reps after a long layoff and isn’t getting them after suffering a shoulder injury. There’s scant evidence so far he can recapture his pre-Cleveland form.
Russell Wilson, Denver Broncos: Sean Payton’s reluctance to open up the playbook has renewed speculation about Wilson’s future in Denver.
Jimmy Garoppolo, Las Vegas Raiders: Continuing injuries and diminished production raise concerns.
Derek Carr, New Orleans Saints: It’s been a slow start for Carr in New Orleans after signing a deal worth $37.5 million annually.
Ryan Tannehill, Tennessee Titans: This was likely going to be Tannehill’s final season with the Titans. Now, a high-ankle sprain clouds his short-term future as well.
(Top photo: Kevin Sabitus / Getty Images)
The Football 100, the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time, goes on sale this fall. Pre-order it here.