A New Way To Approach NFL Quarterback Rankings

When I look at a quarterback’s stats, my eyes shoot to three categories—completion percentage, yards-per-completion and interception percentage. In those three stats, I can see quickly if they’re hitting their throws, how much damage their doing and whether or not mistakes are being made. This morning, I decided it was time to sit down and simplify it even further, reducing each quarterback to a single numerical ranking that encompasses all three categories.

What follows is the fruits of that research. In parentheses, beside each quarterback’s name, is their ranking in the three key categories in the order listed above—completion percentage, yards-per-completion and interception percentage. The final number simply adds them all up.

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One thing I want to stress is that these are not my “quarterback rankings”. They are simply the way I approach quarterback evaluation. I’m not a believer in the notion that you can really reduce final evaluation of any player to one number. For example, here are some of the most notable things this ranking does *not* account for…

*The quality of a quarterback’s supporting cast. A QB who can’t get protection is going to have a hard time generating a good yards-per-completion number.

*The system a QB functions in. A quarterback that plays in a dink-and-dunk offense is going to have a high completion percentage, low yards-per-completion and a low interception percentage. In such a system, there’s probably upwards of 25 quarterbacks who would all post the same numbers.

*The quality of a defense. A quarterback that plays on a team with a bad defense has to take chances—ergo, higher interception percentage. A quarterback on a team with a good defense has to play it safe—which may hurt his yards-per-completion because it’s imprudent to take too many chances down the field.

*I’m not really into touchdown passes as a big stat. I see it as a Fantasy League thing more than anything else. Having said that, my own system doesn’t factor in red-zone effectiveness or third-down conversions. It treats all passes the same, which is a bigger reason to emphasize this data is a starting point not an ending point.

Those are just four examples, and I’m sure you can think of a few more, especially if you’re favorite quarterback doesn’t rank well here. That’s fully appropriate. Sports is as much art as it is science, and while we try to quantify performance, there is a point where beauty is simply in the eye of the beholder.

Why then, did I blow a couple hours compiling this data? Well, any good argument at least needs a starting point and I do believe this raw numerical ranking provides the best means of doing that. If a quarterback completes passes, generates yards and stays away from mistakes, I think we can safely assume he’s pretty good. If he doesn’t do any of those things, he’s not. The extraneous factors may reduce credit or mitigate blame, but are they aren’t going to alter the fundamental landscape.

That said, here are the rankings for the 28 quarterbacks who have started at least ten games. I also included three of interest that didn’t make ten starts—Aaron Rodgers, now shut down for the year after seven starts, and his replacement Brett Hundley. I also included DeShaun Watson, who showed so much promise for Houston in his rookie year before being knocked out for the season. These three quarterbacks are italicized in the rankings.

The quarterbacks are segmented off into groups of players with comparable ratings. Each one is followed by a brief comment on what struck me as noteworthy…

Tom Brady (5-6-3): 14
Alex Smith (3-10-2): 15
Comment: It might seem counterintutivie that Smith is still right up there with Brady after Kansas City’s midseason swoon. But it was injuries and poor play on defense that were a bigger factor in those losses.

Drew Brees (1-21-4): 26
Matthew Stafford (6-11-10): 27
Jared Goff (20-2-7): 29
Kirk Cousins (7-12-12): 29
Case Keenum (2-23-5): 30
Comment: Full disclosure—as a Redskins fan, my entire purpose in starting this project was to determine if Kirk Cousins should be signed to a mega-contract this offseason. I’ll take that up in more detail in a future blog post, but if you’re a Cousins supporter these rankings back you up.

Matt Ryan (8-7-20): 35
Jameis Winston (11-9-16): 36
Carson Wentz (27-4-6): 37
Philip Rivers (21-3-14): 38
Comment: This is why I never found Carson Wentz’s MVP case to be compelling. Any mitigating factors actually work against him—he plays with a great running game, a great defense and still ranks this low. The good news for Philly fans—that means Nick Foles can replicate this performance in the short-term. And in the long-term, Wentz’s only flaw—an erratic completion percentage—is likely to smooth out with experience.

Josh McCown (4-25-18): 47
Blake Bortles (24-14-9): 47
Russell Wilson (24-8-17): 49
Ben Roethlisberger (12-13-24): 49
Tyrod Taylor (18-31-1): 50
Comment: What if you gave Russell Wilson the offensive line and defensive support that Wentz has? What if you gave him Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell like Roethlisberger has. Here’s an example of where I take the data into consideration, but it isn’t the final word. I consider Russell Wilson to be at least in that second group of quarterbacks with Brees, Cousins, Stafford, etc.

Aaron Rodgers (9-27-19): 55
Jacoby Brissett (30-19-8): 57
Dak Prescott (14-20-23): 57
Eli Manning (15-32-13): 60
Derek Carr (17-29-15): 61
Cam Newton (26-18-29): 63
Comment: The low ranking of Aaron Rodgers might be considered a knock against the system. First off, remember health really doesn’t matter here—six of his seven starts took place without injury being a factor. But over the last three years, Rodgers has not looked the part of an elite quarterback, save for that flurry to close the 2016 season. I still consider him part of the elite group because of his career body of work, the fact his offensive line is terrible and that closing “run the table” rush of ‘16 does count for something. But whatever factor you want to cite as the culprit, Rodgers is enduring some of the same mid-30s blahs that characterized Brett Favre’s career in Green Bay.

DeShaun Watson (22-1-33): 66
Joe Flacco (10-35-21): 66
Marcus Mariota (18-17-32): 67
Andy Dalton (28-15-28): 71
Mitch Trubisky (29-22-21): 72
Brett Hundley (13-32-30): 75
Comment: Joe Flacco got a huge long-term contract after Baltimore’s Super Bowl win following the 2012 season.  He is now terrible. This is what gives me pause about the Redskins going all-in on Cousins or any other quarterback.

Jay Cutler (16-33-31): 80
Trevor Siemian (31-24-34): 89
Comment: What I’m about to write should not be taken as anything more than a football statement—but Miami or Denver would have been vastly better off signing Colin Kaepernick. If you believe, on principle, that you just don’t want to watch him play, that’s a separate topic and I respect principled positions. But that he was passed over for quarterbacks like these should at least banish all doubt (if there’s any left) as to why he’s not in the league.

DeShone Kizer (35-28-35): 98
Comment: The fact poor Kizer, who is in a miserable situation ,is this far on the bottom of the rankings in Cleveland is something I take as validation of this statistical method. If he ranked higher, I’d assume a flaw in the system. Obviously not all his fault and not even mostly his fault. But to paraphrase Bill Parcells, the numbers are what they are.

There you have it. Remember, like any responsible stat, this should serve only as a starting point for discussion and a deeper understanding of how a quarterback succeeds or fails statistically in his particular system with his unique supporting cast. Let the conversation begin.