DENVER — I saw a quote attributed to Kyle Shanahan as the 49ers’ head coach explained his team’s trade up from the No. 12 overall draft pick to No. 3, where San Francisco will take the third-best quarterback available.
"There's a risk any season you go into without a top-five QB," Shanahan said.
It got to me thinking about who, exactly, were the NFL’s top 5 quarterbacks. Didn’t have to think long. Actually, there’s a clearly defined top 6.
Patrick Mahomes II, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Josh Allen, Russell Wilson and Lamar Jackson.
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You can argue about my order. Brady can always be No. 1. Wilson and Jackson have a greater body of good work than Allen.
But based on the NFL’s perpetual what-have-you-done-for-me-lately, that’s my order based on what these quarterbacks did coming off 2020.
The next 6 are much more debatable, especially with the recent retirements of Drew Brees and Philip Rivers and the uncertain status of Deshaun Watson.
Justin Herbert, Dak Prescott, Watson, Ben Roethlisberger, Ryan Tannehill, Derek Carr, Matthew Stafford and Matt Ryan deserve next-wave consideration. Young talent vs. body of work makes it difficult to rank the likes of Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Joe Burrow. There’s 17 quarterbacks and we haven’t mentioned Kirk Cousins, Jared Goff, Jimmy Garoppolo or Carson Wentz, yet.
Here at 9News we like lists of 9. Here are my top 9 quarterbacks, in order. (Note: I am suspending Watson from consideration until the multiple sexual assault allegations against him receives due process through the civil and the NFL legal system).
1. Patrick Mahomes II, Chiefs
He’s got all the wondrous stats – an average of 13 wins, 38 TDs, 8 INTs and 108.7 rating in his three seasons as a starter, plus a 6-2 playoff mark with 17 TDs against just 4 INTs.
But it’s also the eye test. Broncos fans have seen it. The Broncos have never beat him in 7 tries. He’s clutch in the fourth quarter. I give him the edge over Rodgers for three reasons. One, he’s been to the Super Bowl each of the past two years, winning one. Rodgers hasn’t been to the Big Game in 10 years. Two, Mahomes is 25 and Rodgers is 37. And three, Mahomes seems to be a little more team-above-self.
Then again, the Chiefs didn’t take a quarterback in the first round, as the Packers did last year. And Rodgers might be all in on the Packers if he got a ten-year, $450 million contract as the Chiefs gave Mahomes.
2. Aaron Rodgers, Packers
He’s been better for much longer than Mahomes. Counting the postseason, Rodgers has 94 more wins and 326 more touchdown passes than Mahomes. And a case can be made Mahomes has had a better supporting case in each of his three starting seasons than Rodgers ever has.
Mobility and arm talent set Mahomes and Rodgers far above the rest. It’s those two and everybody else.
3. Tom Brady, Bucs
One of these days, I’ll give Brady the respect he deserves. Maybe after he wins an 8th Super Bowl. No quarterback has ever cared more about winning. His competitiveness has helped overcome his physical limitations. He can’t run, although he does avoid the rush extremely well from within the pocket. He doesn’t have the arm strength of 35 other quarterbacks in the league. But he is accurate, intelligent and – perhaps his top characteristic – poised under pressure. Oh, and what a leader. A great team leader.
I can’t believe he beat Rodgers, then Mahomes, in back-to-back postseason games, to win his seventh Super Bowl at age 43. In his career, Brady has 264 wins and 664 touchdown passes, counting the postseason. That’s 64 more wins than next-best Peyton Manning and 56 more TD passes than next-best Drew Brees.
But this isn’t a top 9 active QB list of all-time. It’s the top QBs heading into the 2021 season (not including No. 1 draft pick Trevor Lawrence). Brady’s got to start losing it one of these years. Doesn’t he?
4. Josh Allen, Bills
To me, this is the closest quarterback talent to Elway since The Duke retired 22 years ago. Allen has the smallest body of work of any top 6 quarterbacks. But at 6-foot-5, 237 pounds he is also the most physically imposing with the strongest arm and is the strongest runner. Allen’s game took a quantum leap last season, especially in passing accuracy, and his upward trend is why I ranked him just ahead of Wilson and Jackson.
Allen threw 10 interceptions, took 26 sacks and won two playoff games last year, while Wilson, after a torrid start, wound up throwing 13 picks, took 47 sacks and played poorly in his lone playoff game last season.
5. Russell Wilson, Seahawks
One more Wilson-like season in year 10 of his career and he’s a likely, first-ballot Hall of Famer. He went to back-to-back Super Bowls and should have won them both. But it’s been a while. After a 6-1 start in the postseason, Wilson and his Seahawks have lost 6 of their last 9 playoff games.
He’s become a much better passer than anyone ever thought when Seattle selected him in the third round of the 2012 draft – he had 19 touchdown passes against just 3 interceptions through five games last year before hitting a midseason slump. And he’s still a terrific scrambler, rushing for 500-plus yards for the fifth time in his career last season.
But like Rodgers in Green Bay, Wilson has been trying to carry a team that hasn’t been playing great defense in recent years.
6. Lamar Jackson, Ravens
He’s been a sensational regular-season quarterback in his 2 ½ seasons as a starter – right up there with Mahomes as the best. Jackson’s won-loss records have been 6-1, 13-2 and 11-4. He’s thrown 62 touchdowns against just 15 interceptions the past two years. He’s rushed for more than 1,000 yards each of the past two seasons.
He’s just been poor in the playoffs, going 1-3 with 3 TD passes against 5 interceptions for a 68.3 passer rating. Still, Jackson, along with Wink Martindale’s creative defenses, make Baltimore a Super Bowl-contender every year. Jackson has to start passing better in the postseason, though, if he is to crack the top 5.
7. Justin Herbert, Chargers
Yes, I’m making a leap here based on talent, promise and one-year production. A sophomore slump would not be surprising. And supporters of Big Ben and Matt Ryan must be outraged. But from what I saw, this kid is some kind of special. He’s an effective runner at 6-foot-6, 236 pounds. He threw the ball better than I thought he would, completing 66.6 percent for 4,336 yards and 31 touchdowns against just 10 interceptions in 15 games.
If the NFL started over and held a wide-open expansion draft for 2021, you’d take Mahomes first, but you might take the 23-year-old Herbert second. Or maybe, Mahomes, Lawrence and then Herbert. The point is …
8. Dak Prescott, Cowboys
While I have real concern he will ever be the same again following his gruesome fractured-dislocated ankle injury last season that required multiple surgeries to repair, anyone drawing $40 million a year makes this list.
Prescott, 27, is otherwise in that career sweet spot that blends youth with considerable experience. He averaged 10 wins in his first four full seasons as a starter with 27 touchdowns against 9 interceptions and he also rushed for 5-plus touchdowns a year.
His value to the Cowboys was demonstrated through his absence last year. It would be great for the league, never mind America’s Team, if Prescott can fully recover from that lower leg injury. I’m going to have to see it, though.
9. Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers
Tough call over Tannehill, Stafford, Carr and Ryan, especially when Big Ben compares to a 39-year-old pitcher whose fastball has dropped from 94 mph to about 85. But Roethlisberger still wins and wins big. He went 12-3 last year with 33 touchdown passes against 10 interceptions.
He’s already a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He went to three Super Bowls in his first six seasons, winning two, and he might have gone to one or two more had Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown not got injured and sideways a few years back.
Tannehill has been one of the league’s most efficient passers the past two seasons, but he’s a complement to the league’s best running back in Derrick Henry.
I’ve never been a big Stafford fan but Sean McVay thinks he’s elite and I’ll defer to his judgment.
Ryan has been a top 12 quarterback who has occasionally popped into the top 6 or 7 the past 13 years but he is about to turn 36 and he has gone 7-9, 7-8 and 4-12 the past three years.
Carr has compiled consistently top 12 passing stats during his 7 seasons and his Raiders’ defense has been mostly atrocious. Still, he’s had just one winning season.