-- The voting panel for our third annual NFL QB Tier Rankings consisted of 42 league insiders -- 10 general managers, five head coaches, seven offensive coordinators, five defensive coordinators, eight personnel evaluators and seven other position coaches/executives.
I polled coaches and evaluators on 33 QBs, asking them to place each player into one of five tiers, with Tier 1 reserved for the very best and Tier 5 reserved for the very worst:
Tier 1: Can carry his team each week. Team wins because of him.
Tier 2: Can carry team sometimes but not as consistently.
Tier 3: Legit starter but needs heavy run game/defense to win.
Tier 4: Might not want this guy starting all 16 games.
Tier 5: Do not think this guy should be starting.
In the end, we averaged the tier rankings for each quarterback to produce a 1-33 ranking across four tiers (no starting QBs received enough Tier 5 votes to fall into the fifth tier), and gave the insiders anonymity so they could speak candidly.
Here are the 2016 NFL QB Tier Rankings, with a full voting breakdown at the bottom of the article. We start with two players who received unanimous Tier 1 status for the second consecutive year.
TIER 1 (3 QBs TOTAL)
T-1. Tom Brady | New England Patriots
Avg. rating: 1.00 | Change in rating: 0% | 2015 rank: T-1
Brady opened last season with 22 TD passes and only two interceptions during the Patriots' 8-0 start. The TD-INT ratio dipped to 14-5 the rest of the way as New England lost top wide receiver Julian Edelman while becoming desperate enough at running back to bring Steven Jackson out of semi-retirement at age 32. It's tough finding league insiders who see significant decline in Brady, but speak to enough of them and you'll run across a few.
"He is going to be a 2 probably this year, but I'd say right now he is a 1," an offensive coordinator said. "I see him starting to slide a little bit physically. The thing that stands out to me is, the accuracy of his throws has really decreased. [Rob] Gronkowski and his receivers are making these unbelievable catches, ones that are low, that are outside, to make these plays."
Others thought Brady was actually improving by leveraging a growing knowledge base, finding new ways to beat defenses. A different offensive coordinator said he thought Brady worked through issues that affected him a couple years ago as he modified his throwing motion. This coordinator thought Brady had regained accuracy as a result.
"Yeah, he is pretty old, but does he look old to you when he plays?" one GM asked. "He is in complete and utter control of everything, and that is a 1 to me. And he can still throw the hell out of the ball. When he starts throwing like Peyton Manning threw last season, then I'll say, 'Well, he should be lower.'"
None of the 42 league insiders mentioned the four-game suspension Brady is facing in the Deflategate imbroglio. The upside for Brady is that his 39-year-old body could be fresher than usual late in the season. The Patriots have sometimes needed several games to figure out their offensive line. That was the case in 2014, and Brady took a physical pounding during those early weeks. His body will be spared from a similar fate this coming season.
"Any defensive coordinator who says they want to see Brady, they're lying," a defensive coordinator said. "He is just as good as he has always been, in my opinion."
T-1. Aaron Rodgers | Green Bay Packers
Avg. rating: 1.00 | Change in rating: 0% | 2015 rank: T-1
Rodgers finished 2015 with his worst 16-game season for completion percentage, passing yards and passer rating. His 64.9 Total QBR score was 10th in the league -- not bad, but not to the level Rodgers established over the previous four seasons.
"I think he is a 1, but he didn't play that way the last part of the season," a head coach said. "I went back and looked at all his games because he is one of the guys I like to study. I think he was changing too much stuff at the line of scrimmage."
Rodgers obviously wasn't the same without No. 1 wideout Jordy Nelson, the only receiver on the team he seems to trust against tight coverage on the perimeter. Rodgers attempted a league-high 200 passes traveling no more than 1 yard past the line of scrimmage. He completed only 52.4 percent of attempts longer than that, a figure that ranked 34th out of 35 qualifying quarterbacks, ahead of only Nick Foles. Rodgers ranked fourth on those throws from 2011-14 with a 65.8 percent completion rate.
"Even though Rodgers had an off year, he still makes me sick," a defensive coordinator said.
It was a tumultuous season by Green Bay standards. Coach Mike McCarthy gave up and later reclaimed play-calling duties. The Packers failed to gain a first down on 38 percent of drives, which ranked 30th in the NFL. They ranked fifth at 30.5 percent from 2008-14. Of course, a good chunk of the league would love to have the "problems" facing Green Bay.
"Rodgers did not have his No. 1 target and a significant target at that, and he still got his team to the playoffs," a different defensive coordinator said. "That is big. He is a competitor. They didn't even have what I would consider a running game or maybe they got away from the running game with Eddie Lacy's situation and yet, again, they are in the playoffs and really could have beaten Arizona -- it was so close. He is a heckuva player."
Avg. rating: 1.21 | Change in rating: +11.5% | 2015 rank: 4
Thirty-three of 42 voters placed Roethlisberger in the top tier, drawing a clear line between him and the quarterbacks listed below. There were zero complaints about the 16 interceptions Roethlisberger threw last season. Insiders understood how much pressure was on the Steelers' quarterback while he averaged 39.1 pass attempts per game.
"I just admire how he can play big-boy football," a GM said.
An offensive coordinator described Roethlisberger's evolution succinctly.
"He is probably as close to a 2 as a 1 can be," this coordinator said. "He has never been a guy who studied the game like Peyton did. He has been playing for 10 years and he is not a dumb guy, so he has figured it out just because he has played it, not so much because of the [extra] time he has put in. He is smarter and he is more mature. He can still make the throws and carry a team. He has won with a lot of different people."
Roethlisberger missed four games to injury last season after starting all 32 over the previous two seasons. He has only three 16-game seasons over the course of his career, however, and that is why some voters placed him in the second tier. But there is lots to like, including how Roethlisberger commands the offense at the line of scrimmage before the snap.
"He is a stud," a quarterbacks coach said. "He does some s--- that is just off the map. There are some things that fall apart, and he gets off schedule and that guy just makes plays. He has a hose. He is huge. He is so hard to bring down. He is competitive. He is gritty. He is smart. We played him this past year and our defense struggled that day because of him. That guy can win for you every week."
TIER 2 (12 QBs TOTAL)
Avg. rating: 1.57 | Change in rating: +36.8% | 2015 rank: 14
Newton made a huge jump from one year ago after throwing 21 TD passes with just one INT over the Panthers' final eight regular-season games.
"It is a resounding 1 for me," said a defensive coordinator who has faced Newton multiple times. "Guess who is the cornerstone of their running game? It's Cam Newton. Guess who is the cornerstone of their passing game? It's Cam Newton. Who are his wide receivers? He has [tight end] Greg Olsen. How about anybody else? He goes out there and gets it done consistently. He has a big, powerful arm. He is not a great passer, but he is a great thrower. He can carry your football team."
Eighteen of 42 voters placed Newton in the top tier. Some of the others said they would follow suit if Newton played at a high level over the course of a full season. Newton ranked 24th in Total QBR and had a 53.7 completion rate through Carolina's first eight games last season, but thanks to a stellar Carolina defense, the turnovers Newton committed rarely cost the Panthers. Carolina allowed 32 points off 19 turnovers, good for a league-low 1.7 points allowed per turnover. That was a huge reason Carolina got off to a 14-0 start.
"I'm close to making him a 1," a pro personnel director said. "The only thing that scares me is that he is inconsistent. I don't know how you change that."
None of the 42 insiders brought up the way Newton bailed from the postgame interview session after Carolina's Super Bowl defeat. The vision of that widely panned incident did come to mind when some voters described Newton as a front-runner.
"He has rare energy when things are going good," a GM said. "It is as good as it gets, and he can lead when he is out in front. When things aren't going well, that is when he makes mistakes. He has bad energy for the team, he sucks the life out of it. He is a manic quarterback. But as long as his defense performs, as long as big plays are made that bail him out, that will always re-energize him."
There has never been another quarterback with Newton's combination of size, speed, strength, running ability and throwing ability. If he is not a 1, he is not far off.
"He has matured, he has developed more as a passer, more as a leader," a coach with ties to the Panthers said. "I thought he was elite at times in certain areas of his game this year -- as a passer. He had his off moments like we all do, but just the overall body of work from a leadership standpoint, he has grown in that regard. He is probably in all honesty a 1.5, but when you help take your team to the Super Bowl, you gotta give him a 1."
Avg. rating: 1.60 | Change in rating: -7.4% | 2015 rank: 6
Brees finished the 2015 season with numbers very similar to the ones he produced back in 2009, when the Saints won the Super Bowl. The Saints' defense and running game weren't nearly as productive this past season, explaining why New Orleans finished 7-8 with Brees in the lineup, and 7-9 overall. Still, most voters did not seem to think Brees was the same now as then simply because the numbers said so.
"I think he struggled throwing the football for the first time this past year," an offensive coordinator said. "The accuracy was not what it has been."
Brees ranked among the NFL's top five last season in completion percentage on passes traveling 21-plus yards past the line of scrimmage. He was in the top five on passes traveling fewer than 10 yards downfield. He was in the top five on passes thrown 10-14 yards downfield. But Brees' 50 percent completion rate on intermediate throws -- those traveling 15-20 yards downfield -- ranked only 21st. That rate matched his New Orleans-era low and was about 10 percentage points beneath what it has generally been with the Saints.
"They throw the ball a freaking ton, and he is still good at it," a personnel director said. "He is still a good player. I just don't see him in the elite category that those top guys are in. I think age is starting to catch up."
Brees turned 37 in January, but he is the only quarterback in the NFL to post a QBR score of 70 or higher in each of the past three seasons. Is that a player in decline, or is it a player going above and beyond to prop up a team that has been historically bad on defense?
"I can't see Drew Brees being in the 2s," said a defensive coach who was one of 17 voters placing Brees in the top tier. "Want to get into a shootout? It's a large antiperspirant/deodorant game for us on defense. I don't see the deterioration. He is a victim of his cast of characters. Let's recreate the quarterback challenge in Honolulu and watch him put the ball in the laundry cart from 35 yards away."
Avg. rating: 1.62 | Change in rating: +5.6% | 2015 rank: 8
Wilson proved last season he could produce at a high level without running back Marshawn Lynch. Like Newton, Wilson will ascend into the top tier more universally if he puts together a strong season from start to finish. Wilson had a 25-2 TD-INT differential over the Seahawks' final eight games last season. That was enough to convince some.
"Watching how bad their offensive line was last year and watching him have to overcome it and consistently make plays with his feet and arm is what convinced me," a personnel director said. "Who are his weapons? Marshawn was beat up last year. Jimmy Graham got hurt. They have an average corps of wideouts with a competitive, gritty, tough slot receiver who he trusts. So it's not like he has elite weapons, and that is what got me over the hump."
The Seahawks have led the league in fewest points allowed every season since Wilson entered the NFL in 2012. That has spared Wilson from playing many games when the pressure was on him to throw down after down. Winning from the pocket in obvious throwing situations remains the surest way for quarterbacks to earn respect in the NFL. Wilson has done it when called upon, but he hasn't had to do it consistently. That matters for some.
"He knows, 'Hey, I can punt and I'm fine,'" another offensive coordinator said. "It is going to be that type of game, and it plays to his strengths. If he played on a bad football team and had to throw it to stay in games and shoot it out, some things would show up."
Wilson does have a league-high 20 victories since 2012 in games when his team was tied or trailed by one score in fourth quarters, counting playoffs.
"I put him as a 1," said a defensive coordinator who has faced Seattle multiple times in recent seasons. "The kid is a winner and not a guy you want to go up against. He is extremely, extremely gifted as a leader and a winner. Yeah, as a quarterback, you can point to this and that, but when you look at the whole job description of the position, he is a 1."
Avg. rating: 1.67 | Change in rating: -45.8% | 2015 rank: 3
Voters had to decide how much to downgrade Luck following an injury-shortened 2015 season that saw him struggle. Luck got 16 votes in the first tier, 24 in the second and two in the third. That was a significant shift from 2015, when 30 of 35 voters placed him in the top tier.
"Luck is a 1," a defensive coordinator said. "He was still able to come out and compete with a lacerated kidney. The man had a lacerated kidney for how many games until it was, 'OK, it's bleeding too much and I can't play'? Who are his wide receivers? T.Y. Hilton. Does he have a great running back at this stage? The combination of his arm strength, his intelligence, his physical ability -- he could carry a football team and he did it his first few years."
A GM said he thought "a large swath of teams" would choose Luck over Rodgers if both were available on the market, based on Luck's long-range outlook. That doesn't change Luck's stat line for his last 16 games, counting playoffs: 56.8 completion rate, 30 TDs, 22 INTs, 78.9 passer rating and 48.9 Total QBR.
"I'm much higher on Andrew Luck than a lot of people because I think the problem with Andrew Luck is all that's surrounding him sucks so bad, including their defense, that it impacts him as a player," another GM said. "There are days I want to put him as a 1, but I will go high, high 2 right now."
A great majority of voters expected Luck to bounce back. A couple were less sure.
"I did think he was a surefire 1," another GM said. "Do I think he has a great future? I don't know. He played really bad last year, even when he was healthy. I'm interested in seeing how he responds this year."
Avg. rating: 1.76 | Change in rating: -6.3% | 2015 rank: 7
Rivers' presence on the Chargers' roster has generally allowed them to be right around .500 or better even when their defense and running game faltered. Rivers couldn't stop San Diego from posting a 4-12 record last season, but most voters still thought he belonged on the border between the first and second tiers. Inconsistency keeps him out of the top tier.
"If you don't make him move, he can get into a rhythm and he could throw for 400 yards on you," a pro personnel director said. "On the other side of that, if you pressure him and make him move and get some hits on him, he could throw you two or three picks. I think the arm talent and accuracy is there. Heck of a mindset, man. He is really, really sharp, and he can dissect you pretty good."
Rivers' consistency would improve if he played behind a competent offensive line and could hand off to a productive running back. The Chargers weren't just bad in those areas last season. They were among the worst. One GM called San Diego's offensive line the worst in the game. He noted that Antonio Gates is 36 years old, top wide receiver Keenan Allen missed half the season and the Chargers still had a top-10 offense by yardage, if not by superior measures.
"He physically makes the team better than what it should be because of his leadership, his work ethic, everything," an offensive coordinator said. "That, to me, makes him a 1. A good way to look at it, if you started the season with any team, no matter what they have, you gotta figure you are going to win at least eight -- Philip is usually going to give you eight wins just because of who he is. That to me says a lot."
Avg. rating: 2.05 | Change in rating: +5.7% | 2015 rank: T-12
Manning's 65 TD passes over the past two seasons rank third in the NFL behind Brady and Rodgers, who have 69 apiece. Manning has thrown nearly as many interceptions over that span (28) as Rodgers and Brady combined (29), but there's no question he's enjoying a revival.
"I've seen him be just elite and I've seen him kind of be Eli at times, but still, he has won a couple championships," a defensive coordinator said. "He is really bad at times and you scratch your head. He has taken his team from the kickoff and won and he has also come from behind to win. He came from behind against Carolina last season."
Manning piled up 10 TDs with one INT during wild games against the Panthers and New Orleans last season. He led the Giants back from a 28-point deficit in the third quarter against Carolina, tying the score in the final two minutes. Down 14 in the fourth quarter at New Orleans, Manning led the Giants into the lead.
"They kept Ben McAdoo and that lets Eli grow another year in that system that is completely different from anything Kevin Gilbride ran," an offensive coordinator said. "I think Eli is only bound to get better. Having a healthy [Victor] Cruz and then Odell Beckham Jr. having another year in the system, that should get better and better."
Teams with defenses as bad as the Giants' D has been recently almost never contend. Manning has proved he can excel in championship situations if the Giants can get him there.
"I think he is the kind of guy that if he gets to the playoffs, his give-a-crap factor is so low that he ends up just getting it done," a head coach said.
Avg. rating: 2.10 | Change in rating: +22% | 2015 rank: 15
How could Palmer get more third-tier votes (six) than first-tier votes (two) after leading the NFL in Total QBR and earning one MVP vote for a 13-3 team that ranked second scoring? Here is how: Palmer's shaky postseason play strengthened his reputation within the league for shrinking in the big moments, while amplifying fears he is nearing the end physically.
"If you look at the playoff game last year, why did they lose?" a GM said. "You tell me."
Palmer finished the 2015 postseason with four TDs, six interceptions and a 28.8 QBR score. The four picks he threw against the Panthers doomed Arizona to a 49-15 defeat.
"When I watched that Carolina game, I could see it on his face right from the get-go," a head coach said. "Sometimes you think, 'This might be my only shot, I have to make a play,' and you tense up."
A quarterback coach who makes teaching tapes showcasing Palmer's fundamentals said he thought Palmer's arm lacked endurance. A personnel director who studied Arizona's games expected an increase in interceptions for 2016 based on the 12 or 13 near-picks he counted from Palmer last season. An offensive coordinator who placed Palmer in the third tier coming off ACL surgery last summer placed him in the top tier for 2016, citing Palmer's ability to produce from the pocket with defenders around him.
"I don't think the Cardinals have anywhere near the success without him," a different offensive coordinator said. "This guy makes some unbelievable throws. I think he is a 1. Unfortunately, Bruce Arians' style of offense is going to catch up to him because putting all those guys out and not protecting, Carson is going to get hit and I just don't think he is going to make it through the year."
11. Tony Romo | Dallas Cowboys
Avg. rating: 2.14 | Change in rating: -17.2% | 2015 rank: 9
Romo's stock fell as voters questioned whether he could make it through a season healthy at age 36.
"I think you can win with him and because of him sometimes, but he lacks a little size and durability that keeps him out of being a 1," a GM said.
A secondary coach praised Romo for his ability to read defenses and move defenders in coverage with his mobility and pump fakes. The Cowboys have frequently needed Romo to bail out their defense, contributing to an aggressive mentality that some held against him.
"He doesn't play the game, he plays individual plays," a quarterbacks coach said. "He plays every play like they are down six with 1:40 left and there are no timeouts. He is the perfect guy at putting your team in a horrible situation. To me, if a play is not good, it is not in him to give up on it and move on. He always feels like he can make something happen. The way he played against Carolina on Thanksgiving was indicative of that."
As for Romo's durability, he had played in 62 of 64 games over a four-season period before lasting only four games in 2015. He threw seven picks in those four games, nearly matching some of his recent season-long interception totals. That raised concerns.
"I think Romo needs that run game to be as good as he has been," a personnel director said. "This year, with Ezekiel Elliott, we will see what happens."
12. Joe Flacco | Baltimore Ravens
Avg. rating: 2.19 | Change in rating: -12.8% | 2015 rank: 10
The team around Flacco has deteriorated, robbing him of the ground game and defense that helped make him a championship quarterback. The Ravens have cycled through offensive coordinators regularly as well, and now Flacco is coming off reconstructive knee surgery.
"He is unbelievably physically gifted," a coordinator who has studied Flacco closely said. "He makes some throws that are unbelievable. But I don't think he processes things enough mentally to become a 1. I don't think he can lead a team or carry a team. He can take what is there, and if you give him help, he can be pretty good."
A GM said he thought Flacco had become somewhat timid when the pocket was closing in around him. He also thought Flacco could be streaky based on how things go for him early in games.
"Flacco has a little better arm and is a little more accurate than a Jameis Winston, but Jameis is not afraid of anything," this GM said. "Jameis is competitive and will stand in and deliver, where I think Flacco will see ghosts and get nervous and lose confidence. They have a lot of similar negative traits where they don't always go to the right spot, and lack some mobility."
13. Matt Ryan | Atlanta Falcons
Avg. rating: 2.21 | Change in rating: -9.2% | 2015 rank: 11
Voters expressed disappointment in where Ryan's career has gone. They acknowledge the roles a weak defense and shaky offensive line have played in his struggles, but many also used to think Ryan had the ability to fight through those issues more effectively. They have reassessed.
"I haven't completely lost faith in him," a personnel director said, "but I thought he could be a guy who could tilt the field more. Now, I think he has fallen more in line with the game manager and not a guy who is going to pull it out by himself."
Since entering the NFL in 2008, Ryan does own a league-high 28 victories in games when his team was tied or trailing by one score in fourth quarters. A GM blamed recent struggles on what has happened around Ryan, while a quarterbacks coach said the Falcons' diminished weaponry has exposed Ryan as a third-tier QB.
"Their red zone turnovers were horrible last year," this QB coach said. "I think you have to protect the guy from himself. He has Julio Jones and they have a good back, but when it was Julio and Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez, that is when he was a 2. It shows he needs more help than people thought he needed."
Avg. rating: 2.38 | Change in rating: -9.7% | 2015 rank: T-12
Some voters think Stafford has become another Jay Cutler -- talented, but too flawed to belong in the upper tiers. Some thought losing Calvin Johnson to retirement would diminish Stafford further. But others familiar with recent coaching changes in Detroit think Stafford has a chance to flourish under coordinator Jim Bob Cooter. Stafford did come alive under Cooter last season, throwing 19 TDs with only two INTs over the Lions' final eight games.
"They have changed a lot of the protection stuff that didn't make any sense, and it looks like they are going to let Stafford push it down the field more," an offensive coach said. "You are going to see Stafford play really damn well."
A GM called Stafford an erratic decision-maker and a late decision-maker, but he also thought the Lions had failed to support Stafford sufficiently through the offensive line and running game.
"Stafford reminds me so much of Cutler," a pro personnel director said. "It will be interesting to see if he is better or worse without Megatron, because I think he relied too much on finding him. When you are the second fiddle on a team like Stafford has been with Megatron around, you have a way out. You can be a little less accountable."
Avg. rating: 2.50 | Change in rating: +15.1% | 2015 rank: T-18
The Bengals went into last season saying all the right things about Dalton asserting himself as a leader, taking control of the team, etc. Dalton proved it was more than just talk, tossing 25 TDs against seven INTs before a thumb injury ended his season. The way Dalton played gave some hope that he was becoming more than the prototypical third-tier QB.
"You can argue the fact that he had a plethora of talent around him and he did," a pro personnel director said. "But you see the way the team played with him at the helm, and then you see how it fell off dramatically when they put another guy in there to manage it. He has grown, he knows his limitations and he plays within those and doesn't hurt your team. That is the maturation of a quarterback who knows what he needs to do to make his team successful."
The Bengals lost two of their better wide receivers in free agency. They have a new offensive coordinator in Ken Zampese after Hue Jackson left for Cleveland. Can Dalton continue his ascent?
"He played better than I thought he was capable of playing," an offensive coordinator said. "I am still not convinced that he is a solid 2, but it would be kind of hard to argue that."
TIER 3 (13 QBs TOTAL)
16. Derek Carr | Oakland Raiders
Avg. rating: 2.62 | Change in rating: +15.9% | 2015 rank: T-20
Carr's statistical production spiked last season, but the optimism voters expressed for him last summer seemed a little less enthusiastic. Carr is liked, not loved.
"He gets flustered, now," a personnel director said. "When we got pressure on him, he turned into a different guy. The great ones aren't like that. Russell Wilson, there is never going to be panic in him. As a matter of fact, he wants it because he knows he can break contain, and if they get single coverage, they are going to beat it. I still have some reservations about Carr because of his poise under pressure."
A coach familiar with the Raiders said he thought Carr wasn't the same after Oakland lost center Rodney Hudson to injury. Hudson was one of the Raiders' big-money additions in free agency last offseason. Carr threw 24 TDs with seven INTs when Hudson was on the field. His TD-INT ratio fell to 8-6 when Hudson was unavailable.
"I think as the offensive line and defense improve, Carr will settle down and really grow and be what we think he can be," an offensive coordinator said.
Questions about Carr's toughness and mettle linger. Carr can answer those doubts by performing better when it matters. He ranks 29th in Total QBR over the past two seasons when Oakland has been tied or trailing by one score in fourth quarters.
"He struggled in college and is still struggling in the toughest situations with the toughest coverages, and when the game is on the line," a different offensive coordinator said.
Avg. rating: 2.71 | Change in rating: +28% | 2015 rank: 26
People who liked Winston coming out of Florida State still like him. Some who had questions about Winston's maturity like what they've seen so far. A defensive coach who studied Winston raised concerns about short accuracy (Winston ranked 32nd in completion percentage on throws traveling fewer than 10 yards downfield). A GM thought Winston's mechanics and ability to read the field would impede consistency. But the general feeling on Winston is, "So far, so good."
"Winston's buffoonery just didn't show up," an offensive coordinator said. "They found a way to play very, very tough on offense and they found a way to hand the ball off a lot, which took tons off him. What they did down there was one of the best-kept secrets going, and it saved the kid. I thought they rallied around him and I was happy for him. He talks out of his ass, and I was just never sure if there was a real guy in there and whether he could really, truly bring people together and lead them. They helped him, and he did it."
Winston is one of 11 QBs to start 16 games as a rookie over the past decade. Wilson, Ryan and Luck were the only ones with QBR scores above the 58.6 posted by Winston. Newton was fifth on that list at 56.2, putting Winston in strong company.
"He has such great intangibles and leadership qualities," a personnel director said. "After watching him play against us in person, I almost bet that he is going to be a guy we are talking about as one of the really good ones, and I think that is going to happen really soon."
While Winston's extreme competitiveness is an asset, a pro personnel director thought it affected his poise at times, notably against the Rams last season.
"Jameis has got that magnetic personality, kind of the way teammates really love Cam Newton," a GM said. "He might be quirky and all that, but when it comes time to play, he can play."
18. Alex Smith | Kansas City Chiefs
Avg. rating: 2.74 | Change in rating: +1.2% | 2015 rank: 16
Smith keeps proving he can win while leading teams with strong ground games and defenses. No qualifying quarterback has thrown shorter passes on average in each of the past two seasons, bolstering Smith's reputation as a risk-averse passer defensive backfields need not fear. Smith's scrambling ability makes him more than the typical third-tier quarterback, however.
"I would put him on the 2 side of the two-three," a defensive coordinator said. "He has gotten his teams to the playoffs. I know in that system Andy Reid asks a lot of those quarterbacks. Alex has a ton of sneaky mobility that people don't really prepare for or respect."
A personnel director compared Smith to Dalton and said the supporting cast was the biggest difference. Smith's offensive line and wide receivers haven't been as good. The Chiefs have tried to address those areas. Have they done enough?
"This is the first time Alex will have a chance to have an offensive line in Kansas City," the director said. "He has Jeremy Maclin. He has multiple backs and tight ends. He has had to manufacture a lot in the past, which is different from Andy Dalton."
Smith is respected more than he is feared.
"He is not going to stress you vertically and do three-level passing game throws that are going to wow you," a quarterbacks coach said, "but he is going to take care of the ball and play efficiently and put you in position to win the game if you are playing good defense."
Avg. rating: 2.83 | Change in rating: +20% | 2015 rank: 25
The Titans ideally would have eased Mariota into his rookie season. Instead, they had him attempting 35-plus passes in six of the 12 games he played. (By comparison, Seattle's Wilson has 35-plus attempts in seven of his 64 regular-season games to this point.) Mariota took 38 sacks and missed four games to injury, but his numbers were good.
"I think the kid is a 2, maybe even higher," a head coach said, "but the people around him weren't as good as Jameis' people. Marcus got killed. He got destroyed. He was like a sacrificial lamb back there. If he was with our offensive line, he would be a 2 or maybe a 1."
That is high praise for a QB with such a short résumé. This head coach was not alone.
"The games he played, you watch him, he has poise, he can run, he's a very good athlete, he can make all the throws," a personnel director said. "You just see a composed player. Coverages kind of got him at times -- he tried to force things -- but those things are fixable. He is going to be a top-five quarterback in the next few years."
Avg. rating: 2.93 | Change in rating: N/A | 2015 rank: N/A
Cousins completed nearly 70 percent of his passes for 4,166 yards with 29 TDs and 11 INTs last season. He had a 101.6 passer rating and 70.1 Total QBR score that ranked sixth in the NFL. Voters would like to see Cousins produce similarly again before placing him in the second tier.
"I like him," a defensive coordinator said. "He is similar a little bit to Ryan Fitzpatrick in that, perception-wise, he is a backup, but I think from an intangibles standpoint, guys want to be around him. He put up with the situation with RG III, and I thought handled it fairly well. He got them to the playoffs. I see him as a 3 with the arrow going up. He has to win some bigger games in order to become a 2."
Cousins' reputation for turning into an interception machine lingers from his four-pick game against the Giants in 2014. He threw zero picks in nine games last season. He never threw more than two in a game. A coordinator whose team faced Washington last season said he thought DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon and Jordan Reed made Cousins look good. This coordinator thought Cousins would struggle with average weaponry.
"In my opinion, he is kind of a manager," a pro personnel director said. "If you get after him and hit him, I don't know if he rises to that challenge yet. He has to prove it to me this year. I don't think he can do it by himself."
21. Jay Cutler | Chicago Bears
Avg. rating: 2.95 | Change in rating: +5.2% | 2015 rank: T-20
The Bears went 27-13 with Cutler as their starting QB from 2010-12. They have gone 16-25 with Cutler starting from 2013-15. Defense has been the difference. Chicago has gone from allowing 18.8 points per game (fourth) during the first stretch to allowing a league-worst 27.4 points per game over the second stretch. Cutler's statistical production has actually improved significantly.
"Jay earned the bad rap, to be quite honest, but if his playing style continues the way it went last year, he can be a solid 2," a personnel director said. "He cut down on the interceptions and made solid throws. He will trust his arm too much, but he took a step last year being a better teammate and player."
That didn't stop former Bears tight end Martellus Bennett from playing along when his brother, Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett, called Cutler the NFL's worst quarterback. The blatant disrespect hits at one of Cutler's deficiencies.
"Cutler needs guys around him who are his guys and who play their asses off for him," a veteran offensive coordinator said. "He has not had that. And unlike some other quarterbacks, Jay does not have the personality to make it right. He needs it to be right already."
Avg. rating: 3.00 | Change in rating: +21.6% | 2015 rank: 27
Most voters thought Bortles had moved into the third tier and toward the second tier after passing for 4,428 yards and 35 TDs in his second season. There were also 18 interceptions. A personnel director said he thought Bortles could make a Dalton-like jump this season if the Jaguars' offensive line improves sufficiently.
"He is working his way into a 2 really quick," a defensive coordinator said. "In fact, I will give him a 2. I think it is the simple fact of, do we know who his wide receivers are? Do we really know who these guys are? And yet they had two 1,000-yard wide receivers on his football team without an offensive line. That is outstanding. Who else does it?"
The Broncos had two 1,000-yard receivers despite spotty quarterback and line play last season. The Cardinals and the Jets were the other teams with two 1,000-yard receivers.
Bortles has skeptics. One head coach said he grew frustrated watching Bortles play because the quarterback "took forever" with his reads. Another head coach noted that Bortles has not played in meaningful games, while an offensive coordinator questioned Bortles' mechanics.
"When I study their tape, I'm not scared to play that guy at all," a quarterbacks coach said. "I think he is talented. I think he has a decent arm. He has some mechanical issues. He forces the ball a lot. I know he is getting coached well, but to me he is a high 3. The decisions he makes with the football keep me from saying he is a 2."
Avg. rating: 3.10 | Change in rating: +4.1% | 2015 rank: T-23
Voters respect Bridgewater the way they respect Alex Smith: as a smart player whose physical limitations could keep him straddling the line between the second and third tiers. Some thought Bridgewater's leadership could help him ascend, just as Smith's mobility is an X factor for him.
"I think Bridgewater is all leadership, relationship, camaraderie," a personnel director said, "but I think that is a skill and I think we underestimate it. People in the league crush Bridgewater, but all he does is win. That is all he has done his whole life, and there is a reason why he has done it."
A veteran defensive coach called Bridgewater a check-down king. A personnel director questioned Bridgewater's accuracy and said Bridgewater would become a liability without Adrian Peterson in the backfield. Another director said he wondered whether the Vikings' frequent praising of Bridgewater amounted to the team trying to convince itself. But as the Vikings transition back to an indoor stadium, a GM said he thought Bridgewater could approach the second tier when protected from the harsh elements.
"I wasn't really worried about him throwing it deep down the field, but I will say this: He doesn't play scared," an offensive coordinator said. "He had a great throw in a two-minute situation where he was like, 'F--- it, I'm turning this b---- loose. I thought that was good."
Voters have their impression of Bridgewater as a heady but limited game manager.
"I didn't think he was going to be that good, but we played him and he actually impressed me," a quarterbacks coach said. "He was more athletic than I thought. He had a little more arm talent than I gave him credit for. He would be one of the top 3s for me, and I'd take him over Ryan Tannehill. He is not a pure talent by any means, but he is a solid player."
24. Ryan Tannehill | Miami Dolphins
Avg. rating: 3.12 | Change in rating: -9.2% | 2015 rank: 17
Dolphins fans aren't the only ones growing impatient with Tannehill. Some voters are, too.
"I am hoping Adam Gase can help make him better," a GM said. "Adam has a unique way about getting guys better. He can take what he is trying to do and break it down in components that make sense to the guys. He gains their confidence very easily."
One head coach said he suspected Tannehill has struggled becoming a leader for a range of reasons. Tannehill was already married upon entering the league, putting him in a social demographic separate from other young teammates. Tannehill is naturally quiet, and some thought his former coach, Joe Philbin, was not an enthusiastic endorser. Reports have surfaced suggesting former Dolphins receivers weren't onboard with Tannehill.
"I really want to move him up, but I just think Tannehill is a one-level thrower," an offensive coordinator said. "He can't arc and pace the ball. Adam will hide his deficiencies. Tannehill would get exposed other places. They will throw short, underneath stuff -- catch-and-carry plays. But if Tannehill went and played in vertical offense, it would be a train wreck."
Avg. rating: 3.19 | Change in rating: N/A | 2015 rank: N/A
The pattern is clear for Fitzpatrick wherever he goes. He plays well enough to factor into the starting equation, but his miscues stand out enough for teams to think hard before re-signing him. The Jets did bring back Fitzpatrick, but first they dared him to sign elsewhere.
"He was with Chan Gailey, and Chan is good," a head coach said. "If he leaves Chan, he needs to get back to Harvard and redo that degree. Chan has been a football lifesaver."
Fitzpatrick threw 31 TDs with 15 INTs on his way to a 63.6 Total QBR, which ranked 12th. But three interceptions with the season on the line in Week 17 affirmed suspicions.
An offensive coordinator said he couldn't recall a quarterback as impressive drawing up plays on the whiteboard as Fitzpatrick was coming out of college, but he said Fitzpatrick plays as though he's the only one unaware of his limitations.
"He has played well, but he just makes those decisions that are head scratchers," a different offensive coordinator said. "Last year, when they had a chance to get into the playoffs if they won the game, that was his chance to be the guy, and he couldn't get it done. He is a great guy, but he has had opportunities everywhere."
26. Tyrod Taylor | Buffalo Bills
Avg. rating: 3.29 | Change in rating: N/A | 2015 rank: N/A
Taylor finished his first season as a starter with 20 TDs, six INTs and a 67.8 QBR score that ranked seventh in the NFL. He ran the ball 104 times for 568 yards and four TDs. Those are impressive numbers, but voters think Taylor will have to improve his accuracy and durability to ascend.
"Tyrod Taylor can do a lot of things Russell Wilson can do, but Tyrod misses throws," a head coach said. "If Russell gets the open guy and sees him, he hits him."
A defensive coordinator placed Taylor in the third tier and meant it as a compliment because he had so much respect for Taylor's running ability.
"He makes plays with his legs, and if you're strong on defense and you have a bit of a running game, then I think he can get you through," a former GM said. "I don't see him taking you to the promised land, but I think you can win playing the right way."
A head coach gave Taylor the QB's only second-tier vote.
"I think he is smart and I think he sees stuff," this head coach said. "He is not the biggest guy, but he has a gun. He has a good way about him."
27. Brock Osweiler | Houston Texans
Avg. rating: 3.36 | Change in rating: N/A | 2015 rank: N/A
Voters are universally optimistic about Texans coach Bill O'Brien getting the most from Osweiler. That doesn't mean voters universally think Osweiler is going to be an upper-tier QB.
"I wouldn't have minded if he stayed in Denver," said a head coach whose team faces the Broncos this season. "If he was any good, they would not have let him go. That is one position, especially if your general manager is a quarterback, you don't let that guy go if he is good."
The Texans are not the first team to spend big for a quarterback mostly because they didn't have one they liked. Teams don't have to love quarterbacks to pay them well. A personnel director from the AFC West said he thought Osweiler would gain confidence from knowing he has enough job security to ride out the occasional bad game.
"I just need to see him as the guy," another personnel director said. "He is a leader type, but he is not an innate leader. Some of it is manufactured. He has to grow into a leader. He will talk and do all that stuff but it is not as natural as it is with some of the other guys. I think that can backfire on you, especially when you are faced with adversity."
Voters described Osweiler as a big quarterback with a strong arm, average accuracy and unremarkable ability as an anticipatory thrower.
"If they try to put the game on his shoulders, I think he is not the type of quarterback who is going to win it for you," a different personnel director said. "He needs a strong run game, which they will give him. He needs an O-line, which he did not have in Denver last year. Is he a $17 million quarterback? Well, that's what the market says he was. That will put a lot of pressure on him to perform and I'd be a little leery of that."
Avg. rating: 3.48 | Change in rating: -7.7% | 2015 rank: T-23
Bradford made no friends among voters when he publicly complained about the Eagles' decision to draft Carson Wentz second overall. However, some thought Bradford showed enough late last season to generate optimism around his performance projection.
"He was healthy for the first time, he knows where everybody is, knows how to use them and he reads coverages easily," a head coach said.
An offensive coordinator called Bradford the ultimate tease as a highly skilled player who can appear rattled and does not deliver ultimately. Bradford still has not played behind a strong offensive line or in an offense with exceptional weaponry.
"He has the arm talent, I think he is a smart guy, I think he is a little [soft], which came out the way he handled his business to begin with this offseason," a QB coach said. "I just don't see the decision-making, consistent accuracy and the fortitude that [makes me think] we have a shot to win every Sunday. With Doug Pederson coaching, I would take Alex Smith over Bradford, but it's the same kind of situation."
Bradford entered this offseason with 78 TD passes and $78 million in career earnings. The $22 million guaranteed in his current deal will push him to the $100 million mark.
"I'm not the greatest Bradford guy," another QB coach said. "I don't think he can create anything himself, and in this day and age, pockets aren't going to be clean."
TIER 4 (5 QBs TOTAL)
Avg. rating: 3.83 | Change in rating: -30.3% | 2015 rank: T-18
Kaepernick was a dynamic dual-threat QB when the 49ers had a dominating defense, dominating offensive line, two outstanding tight ends and an all-star coaching staff. Without those things, Kaepernick is scrambling to beat out Blaine Gabbert for the starting job under his third head coach in three years. See how that works?
"They have proved you can win with him," a QB coach said, "but he is a guy you really have to cater to because he really struggled with some of the pro-style stuff from a protection standpoint, and obviously his accuracy has hindered him."
Voters saw Kaepernick's performance at Arizona early last season as a giant red flag. Kaepernick wasn't just bad while throwing four picks during a Week 3 defeat, he appeared lost. Voters have gone from evaluating technical aspects of Kaepernick's game -- a throwing motion that hinders getting the ball up and down the seam, as one offensive coordinator put it -- to asking more existential questions.
"There is something missing with him," another offensive coordinator said. "I don't know what it is. Maybe it is the desire to play. That is the feeling that I get from watching him and when he talks about football and all you hear. For a guy who has talent like that to be so inconsistent, if he doesn't love it, he is never going to be that great."
Kaepernick isn't the first quarterback to suffer through one really bad season. Injuries were one factor. The question now is whether new coach Chip Kelly will name Kaepernick the starter. Most voters I asked thought Gabbert would probably be the choice.
"Chip doesn't like those edgy guys, man, and Kaepernick is a little edgy," a personnel director said. "Now, if Kaepernick is studying and doing the things he is supposed to be doing, maybe he beats him out. But I think Gabbert will do all the right things as far as studying, knowing the offense -- and he is just as talented. Kaepernick can run, but Gabbert can run, too."
30. Blaine Gabbert | San Francisco 49ers
Avg. rating: 3.93 | Change in rating: N/A | 2015 rank: N/A
Gabbert exceeded expectations last season, but there were no real expectations when he took over for Kaepernick.
"Gabbert has done some pretty good stuff and I think he can be a 3," a head coach said. "I know Chip likes him. I think it all depends on how Kaepernick handles the locker room and how he handles himself. If he is going to be a jerk, then Chip will go with Gabbert."
Gabbert started eight games last season. He had a 61.4 Total QBR in his first four starts, going 2-2. He had a 26.7 QBR in his final four sacks, going 1-3.
While Kelly is evaluating less off last season than on what he sees this summer, some voters suggested the 49ers' new coach thinks his system is more important than his quarterback. Then again, Kelly's record with the Eagles -- 14-4 with Nick Foles, 4-6 with Mark Sanchez, 6-7 with Sam Bradford and 2-4 with Michael Vick -- mostly varied with the team's talent level. That is an area where the 49ers are trying to make up ground.
"Chip is a sharp guy and he will get a quarterback to play somewhat efficiently," a defensive coordinator said. "I think somebody is going to become a little bit better of a quarterback, whether it is Kaepernick or Gabbert."
31. Mark Sanchez | Denver Broncos
Avg. rating: 4.14 | Change in rating: N/A | 2015 rank: N/A
An offensive coordinator sizing up the Broncos said Denver never would have won the Super Bowl last season if Peyton Manning had not replaced Brock Osweiler in the playoffs. That wouldn't seem to have much to do with Sanchez, except that this coordinator had Osweiler in the fourth tier and Sanchez in the fifth. The coordinator thought Manning exercised remarkable restraint to reduce the turnovers that plagued Denver during the regular season and have defined Sanchez's career.
"Sanchez does everything you want in the classroom, but in the heat of battle, he scares me with the ball," a pro personnel director said. "I have no idea what he is going to do or who he is going to throw it to."
Sanchez couldn't have found a situation much better than the one awaiting him in Denver. Coach Gary Kubiak will stick with the running game. The Broncos have talented weapons at wide receiver and a defense that should lower the scoring bar for Sanchez and the offense to clear.
"When Sanchez had good people around him in New York, he was in the AFC Championship Game twice, and he did it as a rookie," said an offensive coordinator who gave Sanchez one of six votes in the third tier. "I think Kubiak's system will help him a whole bunch. They will run all the bootleg stuff. One thing about Kubiak is, he will be adamant about running the ball. He won't sit the guy back there 50 times."
32. Robert Griffin III | Cleveland Browns
Avg. rating: 4.21 | Change in rating: -7.7% | 2015 rank: 28
Last summer, an offensive coach thought Griffin was "finished" because, in his view, the QB's ego would never let him hit rock bottom. That coach again placed Griffin in the fifth tier, reemphasizing that Griffin would need to bottom out in order to grind his way back properly. This voter and others expect Browns coach Hue Jackson to take pressure off Griffin by running the ball. While some thought Griffin could be reborn, none sounded likely to bet on it.
"I think there is hope because there are some traits, but I don't think he is going to be the decision-maker Hue is used to or wants," a GM said. "Hue is demanding on the ball coming out on time to the right place accurately, and I just am not sure that is what he is going to find in him. [Griffin] has been the guy who views himself as the guy to make the play, rather than let the other guys make the play."
The 4.21 average tier ranking for Griffin was lower than the 4.14 average for teammate Josh McCown, who was competing for the starting job until Jackson named Griffin the starter Monday. Both quarterbacks are known for absorbing big hits and neither has been consistently productive of late, increasing the chances that both play. A personnel director questioned whether the Browns had the playmakers to help Griffin salvage his career.
"I think it is going to be fun to watch Robert because Hue Jackson is very creative," a quarterbacks coach said. "I'll just be interested in what he asks him to do. Robert is smart enough to read defenses, but it is new to him. He never had to do it at Baylor. The kid was a true junior coming out. It is a big learning curve."
33. Case Keenum | Los Angeles Rams
Avg. rating: 4.48 | Change in rating: N/A | 2015 rank: N/A
Voters like Keenum for what they think he should be: a backup quarterback.
"I think he has two things going for him," a pro personnel director said. "He has a good mind and he is competitive, but I think he lacks in playmaking ability, I think he lacks in arm strength, I think he lacks in accuracy -- everything else that goes with playing the position."
Keenum, who finished 2015 with a 3-2 starting record, had six TDs with no INTs during a two-week stretch for Houston during the 2013 season.
The Rams' other starting quarteracks over the past four seasons -- Sam Bradford, Austin Davis, Shaun Hill, Kellen Clemens and Nick Foles -- typically seemed worse for the experience. Voters questioned the Rams' offensive coaching and personnel over the years. Keenum can only hope things turn out better for him, although he knows the Rams are viewing him as though he came to them through a temp agency after selecting Jared Goff.
"They didn't draft a quarterback first overall for nothing," a former GM said.