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Now that the preseason is underway, fans are inundated with rankings. Power rankings for teams, fantasy rankings for QBs and skill players, team defense rankings – they’ve all been done, thousands of times.
Why are there so many rankings pieces? Because rankings are fun! We here at OutKick like to have fun, so we wanted to get in on the action. But we also fancy ourselves as different from other places, so we wanted to put our own spin on it.
Below, I have ranked the 16 starting quarterbacks in the AFC; I plan to do the NFC next week. But instead of ranking them by ability or past performance, I ranked them based on how important this season is for their careers. Let’s dive in.
IT’S ALL RIDING ON 2022
Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens
This is predicated on the idea that Lamar and the Ravens do not agree on a contract extension. If Jackson enters the season without a new deal, then he’s number one with a bullet. The difference between an MVP season and poor one will swing his next payday potentially by as much as $100 million. No player in the league can compare in that regard. If Jackson does get a new deal, then none of it really matters and he would be near the bottom. As of now, he’s the easy choice for #1.
Prediction: Jackson will regret not signing an extension this past offseason.
Tua Tagovailoa, Miami Dolphins
Arguably no NFL QB is under more pressure to perform this season. Entering his third season, Tua has yet to show that he was worthy of the Top 5 NFL Draft pick that the Dolphins spent on him. Even worse, the QB selected one spot behind him in the 2020 NFL Draft, Justin Herbert, has already established himself among the game’s elite.
Miami has been connected to seemingly every potential quarterback, including Tom Brady and Deshaun Watson, and it seems even they don’t believe in Tua. But the team went out and traded for Tyreek Hill this offseason after drafting Jaylen Waddle in the Top 10 last season. There are no excuses left. If this season goes poorly, Tua may be relegated to a backup quarterback for his career. There’s a lot riding on his shoulders in 2022.
Prediction: Tua is not the guy and Miami will be forced to move on next season.
LAST GASP BE A STARTING QB
Mitchell Trubisky, Pittsburgh Steelers
Mitch, or Mitchell – whatever he’s going by now – is an enigma. He’s a proven winner, sporting a 29-21 career record as an NFL starter. But he was beaten out by Nick Foles prior to the 2020 season only to later replace him and vastly outplay him in the second half of the season. Despite the run, he signed in Buffalo to be Josh Allen’s backup.
After one season of barely seeing the field, Trubisky went to Pittsburgh who selected Kenny Pickett in this year’s draft. Pickett is not ready to start, so Trubisky appears to be the guy. It’s a good situation for Trubisky – the Steelers haven’t had a losing season since 2003. They won 9 games last year and made the playoffs despite Ben Roethlisberger being barely able to get the ball more than 10 yards down the field. If he struggles at all, expect to see Mason Rudolph or Pickett, and the end of Trubisky’s career as a starter.
Prediction: Trubisky will hold the starting QB job all season, but the Steelers will be a below .500 team for the first time in nearly 20 years. Why does he keep his job? Because Mason Rudolph stinks and Kenny Pickett is at least a year away.
LEGACY ON THE LINE
Ryan Tannehill, Tennessee Titans
Tannehill and the Titans are in an interesting spot. The 34-year-old QB resurrected his career in Tennessee after a mediocre stint with the Dolphins. He led the Titans to the AFC Championship in 2019 and to a #1 overall seed in the AFC last season. But after an embarrassing performance against the Bengals, Titans fans are getting restless. They see a team that has the tools to win the Super Bowl but are being held back by Tannehill. To that end, the Titans selected Malik Willis in this year’s draft/.
He will likely find a starting QB gig next season, regardless of how he plays, but to prove that he can be the leader of a Super Bowl-winning team would change his legacy in the minds of football fans. That matters to someone like Tannehill, who still has to prove he can be “the guy” in his 10th NFL season.
Prediction: Ryan Tannehill will continue to be Ryan Tannehill; a serviceable NFL starter who isn’t equipped with the skills to win a Super Bowl without hero performances from those around him.
Derek Carr, Las Vegas Raiders
It was pretty much a toss-up between Carr and Tannehill for the third spot, but many of the same principles apply. The difference, to me, is that Carr hasn’t had the supporting cast in prior seasons that Tannehill did, so he gets cut a little more slack. Plus, there was the whole Jon Gruden debacle.
That safety net has been removed, though, as the team brought in All-Pro wide out Davante Adams who has said Carr is a potential Hall of Fame QB. They also hired Josh McDaniels, widely considered to be one of the best offensive minds in the game. Although Carr signed a contract extension this past offseason, his legacy – and the Carr name – are at stake in a pivotal 2022 campaign.
Prediction: Carr will thrive with Adams, incumbent tight end Darren Waller and new head coach Josh McDaniels. The Raiders are set at QB for the next three seasons.
Matt Ryan, Indianapolis Colts
Matt Ryan is a former league MVP who led the Atlanta Falcons to a Super Bowl. So why is he in this group? Like the Titans, the Colts fans believed the only thing missing from their potential Super Bowl run last season was competent QB play. Enter the 37-year-old former #3 overall pick. Ryan will be forever remembered as the leader of the 2016 Falcons that blew a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl to the New England Patriots. This season is important because the Colts have all the pieces. Does a guy who is on the wrong side of 30 have enough in the tank to get himself back to the Super Bowl?
Prediction: The Colts will be ecstatic that they replaced Wentz with Ryan and will easily win the AFC South. They will be in the mix for #1 seed in the AFC.
YOUNG QBs, BUT A LOT TO PROVE
Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars
Last season was a lost one for Lawrence, who had to deal with a Jags roster completely bereft of talent and a mess of a head coach in Urban Meyer. People are willing to cut him that slack, even though he led the league with 17 interceptions and just 12 touchdown passes. But when you’re the former #1 overall pick, expectations are high. Gone is Urban Meyer.
In Meyer’s place is Doug Pederson, the man who once won a Super Bowl with a combination of Carson Wentz and Nick Foles and arguably neither of them is starting NFL quarterback caliber. He gets his security blanket back – former Clemson teammate Travis Etienne who missed last season with injury – and the team spent big to bring in wide receiver Christian Kirk.
It’s not a make-or-break season for Lawrence by any stretch, but he has to show at least some of that promise the Jags believed they were getting when they took him first overall.
Prediction: Lawrence will go off this season, throwing for over 4,500 yards, 30+ TD and fewer than 10 interceptions.
Zach Wilson, New York Jets
There are many similarities between Lawrence and Wilson – both were selected in the Top 2 of last year’s draft, both played on teams with nearly no talent and had terrible head coaches. Like Lawrence, Wilson gets a new head coach, Robert Saleh, and the team spent a first round pick on wide receiver Garrett Wilson and a second round pick on running back Breece Hall to give Wilson some weapons.
The biggest difference between the two is that Wilson has been much more visible this offseason and there are questions about having more potential distractions in New York. As far as this season, I could write almost the same thing for Wilson as I did for Lawrence … and I will: It’s not a make-or-break season for Wilson, but he has to show at least some of that promise the Jets believed they were getting when they took him second overall.
Prediction: Wilson will take a small step forward in 2022, but questions will linger about his long-term viability as the QB answer for the franchise.
YOUNG QBs, BUT NOT A LOT TO PROVE
Mac Jones, New England Patriots
I struggled with putting Jones in this tier or the one above it. He doesn’t have the high draft pick pedigree that either of the two before him, he was much better than both last season and he’s in a better situation. But he does have one major issue to address: his ceiling.
There’s was never any question that he was the most NFL-ready coming into last year and that was borne out. But this is the guy who is replacing Tom Brady and the Patriots have a standard of excellence that no other team does. Even still, we know what Mac Jones is, Bill Belichick will scheme around his limitations, and he will be fine. Solid, but unspectacular.
Prediction: Jones is good enough to start in the NFL but will never be among the elite throwers of the football. That’s enough for Bill and the Pats will make the playoffs.
Davis Mills, Houston Texans
Mills comes into the season with even less pedigree than Jones as a third-round pick in 2021 and showed some flashes last year. But the Texans never really let him do anything, electing for short, quick passes and a screen game that kept him out of trouble. If there’s one thing that he needs to show it’s that he can run an offense with the capability of opening up when need be. If he does struggle, though, it’s not going to cause huge issues because the expectations for him and the team are so low that it probably doesn’t matter.
Prediction: Texans will be out of the playoff race by somewhere around midseason and casual fans won’t even know or care who their starting quarterback is by Week 10.
EFFORTING TO GET OR STAY ELITE
Justin Herbert, Los Angeles Chargers
Some believe that Justin Herbert is already a top NFL QB, and I am one of them. But he’s playing for a team with strong talent and has a 15-17 career record with no playoff appearances. A lot of that blame is rightfully placed on the defense, but Joe Burrow was able to lead his team to the Super Bowl despite one of the worst offensive lines in football. Part of being in that elite tier is lifting a team that has holes. Herbert has put up video game numbers, but until he pushes his team to new heights, he can’t quite claim that yet. He has a great opportunity in 2022 to do it.
Prediction: 2022 will be Herbert’s coming out party and he will win the league’s MVP award en route to the Chargers dethroning the Chiefs in the AFC West.
Russell Wilson, Denver Broncos
It feels weird to put Wilson and Herbert in the same group, but despite their massive age gap they are remarkably similar in what 2022 means to them. While Herbert is out to show he can get into that elite group, Wilson wants to prove he can still be part of it. Wilson has won nearly two out of every three starts in his NFL career over an astounding 158 regular season games. He also led the Seahawks to the playoffs in eight of his ten seasons and is a Super Bowl champion. But after missing time with injury for the first time in his career and switching teams in the offseason, questions surround Wilson’s future. Can he still lead a team to a Super Bowl?
Prediction: Wilson will be fine, but there’s too much firepower in the AFC West for him to vault Denver into Super Bowl contender status.
ELITE QB, AND THAT AIN’T CHANGING
Patrick Mahomes Kansas City Chiefs
Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills
Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals
Thousands of words have been written about these guys and there’s not much to add here. This season is important in the sense that adding a Super Bowl victory, or an MVP award, would be great for their legacies. But overall, they have cemented themselves. Barring catastrophe, there is nothing that can happen this season that will really change our perspectives on them.
GETS HIS OWN TIER BECAUSE WTF
Deshaun Watson, Cleveland Browns
Will so much up-in-the-air about his future, it’s hard to say what this season means for Watson. After all, he might not even play. If he does, he seems likely to miss at least half the season. At that point, the pressure and expectations will be high. Despite that, he signed long-term in Cleveland and it seems like the 2023 season is much more important for his career than this one.
Follow Dan Zaksheske on X – formerly known as Twitter: @RealDanZak