Ranking projected NFL starting quarterbacks by division

Success at the NFL level depends in large part on a team’s starting quarterback situation. Examining the league by division, there is a common theme: franchises with the superior players at the position tend to be prohibitive favorites to win big.

Some divisions are stronger across the board than others in terms of quality of field generals, while others have clear-cut elite players who stand out above the crowd.

Read on for a closer look at each division’s projected 2018 starting quarterbacks and how they stack up with each other when pitted against their biggest rivals.

AFC East

1. Tom Brady, New England Patriots; 2. Josh McCown, New York Jets; 3. Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins; 4. Nathan Peterman, Buffalo Bills

The Patriots have owned the AFC East over the past decade and a half, winning the division 14 of the last 15 years.

Some stats to show Brady’s superiority: McCown has 23 career wins as a starter; Brady has 27 in 37 playoff starts. Peterman threw five picks in his only start last year; Brady has thrown twice that many in his last 28 regular-season contests, and also 60 touchdowns. The most games Tannehill has won as a starter in a single season is eight; Brady has never won fewer than nine, save for 2008 when he missed 15 games.

McCown has had a bizarre, journeyman odyssey of a football career but played some of his best ball at age 38 last year, registering a 94.5 passer rating. He threw 18 touchdowns to only nine picks and also ran for five more scores. Three of his five wins came against eventual AFC playoff teams: Jacksonville, Buffalo and Kansas City.

Although some may be surprised to learn Tannehill is 7-1 in his past eight starts, his athleticism may be limited coming off a torn ACL, and he’ll definitely have some rust to knock off, not to mention three road trips in the first four games of 2018.

The Bills may start AJ McCarron; However, it is alarming he hasn’t immediately separated himself from Peterman, who has reportedly “looked the best so far,” according to a source who spoke to NFL insider Benjamin Allbright a few weeks ago. Rookie first-round pick Josh Allen is too raw to play right away. The Wyoming product may get a chance to start by default in 2018, but his poor accuracy is a major red flag.

AFC North

1. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers; 2. Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals; 3. Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens; 4. Tyrod Taylor, Cleveland Browns

A career yards per attempt of 7.9 ranks Big Ben tied for fifth all-time — and the first three names on that list were finished with football by 1960. He threw for 4,251 yards in 2017 and has the luxury of Le’Veon Bell in the backfield to take pressure off him, not to mention arguably the best receiver in the game in Antonio Brown.

One might be surprised to learn Taylor has a better career completion percentage and passer rating than his AFC North counterparts Dalton and Flacco, the former a three-time Pro Bowler and the latter a Super Bowl MVP. Stocked with dynamic Browns targets in Josh Gordon, Jarvis Landry and David Njoku, Taylor may well have a career year this season and catapult over Dalton and Flacco in the divisional quarterback hierarchy. He’s already close as it is.

Flacco’s passer rating has hovered in the lower 80s over the past three seasons, which is unacceptable by today’s NFL standards. Considering his arm strength, it’s amazing Flacco only averaged 5.72 yards per attempt last season. If he doesn’t improve, look for first-round pick Lamar Jackson to take over sooner than expected and establish himself as one of the NFL’s next big stars in short order.

Cincinnati has been absent from the playoffs the past two years, and the heat is on Dalton to prove his worth as a franchise quarterback all over again. If not for Flacco’s one year of playoff magic, it wouldn’t be as difficult to place Dalton No. 2 in this division.

Still, Dalton has been the better player in recent years, highlighted by a 106.3 passer rating in 2016.

AFC South

1. Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans; 2. Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts; 3. Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans; 4. Blake Bortles, Jacksonville Jaguars

This may appear ridiculous on the surface to have Luck slotted at No. 2, but no one really knows what’s going on with his right shoulder. He missed a full season, and it is kind of a tad important for a quarterback to have a healthy throwing arm.

Watson was leading the NFL with 19 touchdown passes before the injury bug bit him last season as he tore an ACL in practice. That goes to show how unimpressive the rest of this division is at the most important position.

Although the latter two on this list guided their teams to the playoffs in 2017, Mariota threw more interceptions (15) than touchdowns, while Bortles continues to be the glaring weak link in an otherwise loaded, Super Bowl-caliber roster. The Jaguars have stubbornly stuck with the former No. 3 overall pick, opting not to take Lamar Jackson late in the first round of the draft. We’ll see if that doesn’t come back to bite Jacksonville.

AFC West

1. Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers; 2. Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders; 3. Case Keenum, Denver Broncos; 4. Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs

If this isn’t the most exciting division of quarterbacks in the AFC, it’s certainly the most interesting and evenly matched. Like the East and North, there’s a clear front-runner in Rivers, who’s thrown for over 50,000 yards in his career, but none of the other three are big slouches.

Carr broke his leg in Week 16 of the 2016 campaign, and if not for that, Jack Del Rio may still be coach and the Raiders may have advanced at least to the AFC title game. After a down season, though, Jon Gruden takes over with a new offense, so Carr has his work cut out to maintain his spot on this list.

After a breakout year in Minnesota, Keenum changed teams when the Vikings opted for Kirk Cousins in free agency. The 30-year-old is the least physically gifted signal-caller in the AFC West, yet he brings a moxie, veteran presence under center that obviously was enough to sway Broncos legend and general manager John Elway to sign him.

Now, Mahomes is the last-ranked player on this list, but he could rise up to first in no time, especially with Rivers entering the twilight of his career. The cannon-armed first-round pick from 2017 was good enough for the Chiefs to trade reigning NFL passer rating leader Alex Smith to Washington, and he’s as talented a pure thrower as there is in the NFL.

NFC East

1. Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles; 2. Alex Smith, Washington Redskins; 3. Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys; 4. Eli Manning, New York Giants

This may be the deepest quarterback division in football, considering the Eagles won the Super Bowl with Nick Foles filling in for an injured Wentz. But that doesn’t take away from what the latter did in his second season, throwing 33 touchdowns in 13 games. He’s only going to get better.

After a strong rookie year, Prescott hit a sophomore slump as Dallas missed the postseason. Meanwhile, as mentioned before, Smith had his best season ever in Kansas City, and given his superior experience and two prior playoff wins, he slots ahead of Prescott on this list.

Manning is a two-time Super Bowl MVP, so it’s hard to justify placing him below the other two on the list. That’s the reality of how he’s performed in recent years. New York has done him no favors, though, when it comes to supplying Manning with a rushing attack. That could change with the arrival of No. 2 overall pick Saquon Barkley and perhaps revitalize Manning for one or two more years.

NFC North

1. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers; 2. Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions; 3. Kirk Cousins, Minnesota Vikings; 4. Mitchell Trubisky, Chicago Bears

Plop any of the top three guys in the NFC North into any given division on this list so far besides the AFC East, and they’re at least in the conversation for No. 1 quarterback in that cluster.

Rodgers is probably the best player at his position in football. In terms of arm strength, accuracy, athleticism and production, no one is better. He also doesn’t have the best supporting cast or a system conducive to maximizing on his immense talents.

Speaking of which, Stafford has had an abysmal rushing attack throughout most of his career. He continues to get it done in the clutch to keep Detroit relevant, though, with 32 game-winning drives and 26 fourth-quarter comebacks.

With Super Bowl expectations weighing on him, there’s considerable pressure on Cousins to rise to the occasion in Minnesota, but he has thrown for more than 9,000 yards in the past two seasons.

Trubisky is an unknown commodity entering his second year in Chicago but will be helped with the arrival of No. 1-caliber receiver Allen Robinson through free agency.

NFC South

1. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints; 2. Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons; 3. Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers; 4. Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Goodness is this division loaded. You know what’s crazy? Brees is third on the all-time passing list, tied with Tom Brady for third with 488 touchdown passes and is first all-time with a 66.9 completion percentage. Yet he’s never won the league MVP. Ryan and Newton have.

Brees has been saddled with bad defenses for years but still has a Super Bowl MVP award to his name. The Saints were robbed of reaching the NFC title game last year, so don’t be surprised if Brees continues to light it up and garner some regular-season MVP consideration.

Despite the departure of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who oversaw Ryan’s MVP 2016 campaign, “Matty Ice” took Atlanta back to the playoffs this past year. That goes to show Ryan’s leadership intangibles and how well he understands the game.

Those attributes are lacking in Newton, who’s not nearly as accurate of a passer as Brees or Ryan but has incredible physical gifts, which allow him to run the ball like no other player at the position.

As for Winston, he’s starting the season on a three-game suspension, proving once again he is a bad decision-maker on and off the field. Tampa Bay knew what it was getting when it took him No. 1 overall. He came across as a phony leader on HBO’s Hard Knocks, had one of the stupidest pregame speeches of all-time and is clearly the NFC South’s quarterback cellar dweller.

NFC West

1. Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks; 2. Jared Goff, Los Angeles Rams; 3. Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco 49ers; 4. Sam Bradford, Arizona Cardinals

Between the top three and this year’s 10th overall pick Josh Rosen waiting in the wings in Arizona, this could soon become the best quarterback division in the game.

Wilson was Seattle’s leading rusher last year, took the fourth-most sacks (43) despite his rare elusiveness and tossed a league-high 34 touchdowns. Translation: Wilson has little to no help and still finds a way to be extremely productive.

In one of the best NFL stories in recent memory, Goff rose from the ashes of a burned rookie season to post a 100.5 passer rating under first-year coach and play-caller Sean McVay, leading the Rams to a division crown. That big leap forward in Year 2 bodes well for Goff’s future, as does having a running back like Todd Gurley to back him up.

“Jimmy GQ” has a smaller sample size than anyone. The fact he’s 7-0 as an NFL starter can’t go unnoticed, though. He’s won all five starts in San Francisco and has a full offseason to grasp Shanahan’s complex offensive system. It stands to reason Garoppolo could eventually eclipse Goff as the division’s second-best signal-caller.

And finally, Bradford is a solid player when healthy, but he’s no more than a placeholder until Rosen is ready to take the reins.