Cliché as it is to say the NFL is a quarterback-driven league, it doesn’t make it any less true.
The best players at the position become the face of their respective franchises, elevate the play of those around them and inevitably lift the profile of their team. That leads to deserved clout: leverage for big paydays, influence within the organization and larger-than-life individual brands.
Read on for a glimpse at the 25 field generals in the NFL who carry the most clout with all those factors considered, and how that could foretell how their teams will fare in the years to come.
25. Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens
The arrival of first-round pick Lamar Jackson doesn’t place Flacco’s job in immediate jeopardy. That’s what happens when you have one of the best playoff runs in NFL history.
Flacco is still living off a dazzling postseason following the 2012 campaign, when he averaged over nine yards per attempt with 11 touchdowns and zero picks in leading the Ravens to a Super Bowl XLVII triumph. The next year Flacco threw 22 interceptions, and he’s guided Baltimore to only one additional playoff appearance. How’s that for clout? It took five years for a Flacco contingency plan to be deployed.
With some help at receiver arriving in the offseason in Willie Snead, Michael Crabtree and John Brown, along with the first-round selection of tight end Hayden Hurst, Flacco has enough weapons to produce with his back against the wall in 2018. Otherwise his tenure under center will come to an abrupt end.
24. Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns
He’s slated to sit his entire rookie season behind Tyrod Taylor, but the No. 1 overall pick in the draft is already going to make a splash.
A nasty competitive streak, undeniable talent, leadership intangibles and Cleveland’s need for a franchise quarterback will create pressure to play Mayfield should Taylor struggle at all. The Browns fanbase should be impatient, but it’d be unwise to rush the reigning Heisman Trophy winner into action.
In the meantime, Mayfield has already started his own documentary series and will be a featured star on HBO’s Hard Knocks during training camp and the preseason. All these factors may mean Mayfield plays on Sundays before a Baker’s dozen of games go by.
23. Josh Rosen, Arizona Cardinals
Retrospectively unfounded preseason hype and premature coronation tend to dominate minicamp headlines. However, Rosen has a real chip on his shoulder after being the fourth quarterback taken in the 2018 draft at No. 10 overall — and he’s apparently using it to propel his way up the depth chart in a hurry.
Cardinals superstar cornerback Patrick Peterson has said things like Rosen “blew my mind the first week with him,” that his football IQ and pocket presence are “off the charts” and that the UCLA product is the “future of our franchise.”
Despite Peterson’s concession that Sam Bradford would be the starter, don’t be surprised if the outspoken, swagger-infused Rosen supplants the injury-plagued veteran to ignite excitement within the Cardinals organization.
22. Case Keenum, Denver Broncos
The former undrafted free agent had a breakout 2017 season (22 touchdown passes to only seven interceptions) in guiding the Minnesota Vikings to the NFC title game. That run was punctuated one of the most epic game-winning playoff touchdown throws ever, as Keenum hit Stefon Diggs as time expired to defeat New Orleans in the Divisional Round.
Despite those heroics, Minnesota opted to sign Kirk Cousins, while Keenum left town for Denver. Getting an endorsement from Broncos general manager and legendary quarterback John Elway is quite the compliment to Keenum. If he proves up to the challenge and emulates the caliber of play he displayed last season, Keenum’s underdog story will only grow — and should serve as a narrative the Broncos can rally around.
21. Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs
Talk about preseason buzz. Tamba Hali is entering his 12th season with the Chiefs and compared Mahomes to Brett Favre in terms of arm talent and playmaking ability. Mahomes flashed well in last year’s preseason and led Kansas City to a win over Denver in Week 17, his only start.
Considering the Chiefs traded up to get Mahomes in the 2017 draft and traded away Alex Smith after the tenured starter led the NFL in passer rating, it’s obvious Mahomes holds serious clout for such an inexperienced player.
Mahomes’ potential is undeniable, and don’t be surprised if the 22-year-old helps Kansas City to a third straight AFC West crown.
20. Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans
Mariota’s quiet, lead-by-example style could be mistaken for a lack of fire in the belly. He also threw 15 interceptions to only 13 touchdowns this past year for a 79.3 passer rating after going north of 90 in his first two seasons.
However, he had four fourth-quarter comebacks and five game-winning drives in the regular season — and rallied the Titans from 21-3 down against Kansas City to earn his first playoff victory.
Talk about thriving when it matters most. That’s an important quality for a signal-caller to have. For whatever Mariota lacks in extroverted antics, he makes up for with his exciting brand of football: a lightning-quick release, the arm and accuracy to make any throw and elite athleticism at the position to make plays with his legs. Expect a bounce-back year in overall stats and a resultant rise for Mariota among the league’s best quarterbacks.
19. Kirk Cousins, Minnesota Vikings
Apparently the Vikings believe Cousins is the one who can lead them to the promised land. They certainly have the championship-caliber defense to win their first Super Bowl, not to mention plenty of weapons for the former Washington Redskins starter to thrive. Minnesota has a Pro Bowl tight end in Kyle Rudolph in addition to one of the best young receiving duos in football in Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen.
Plus, running back Dalvin Cook will be back after his promising rookie year was derailed by a torn ACL. Cook is “ahead of schedule” on his rehab according to head coach Mike Zimmer, so he should help establish a strong rushing attack to complement “Captain Kirk.”
Since Washington never really committed to Cousins, he has plenty to prove in his fresh start and has all the means at his disposal to emerge as a top-tier quarterback — a label he hasn’t garnered despite three straight 4,000-yard passing seasons.
18. Jared Goff, Los Angeles Rams
After a disastrous rookie year, Goff came alive under first-year head coach and play-caller Sean McVay. The combo lifted the Rams to an NFC West title, and there’s reason to believe the team will only be better in 2018 and beyond.
With a new cornerback duo of Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib to help the other side of the ball, Goff should find himself in plenty of favorable situations to thrive as his experience grows.
It also helps Goff to have a new toy in the passing game in dynamic receiver Brandin Cooks, who’s arguably an upgrade over Sammy Watkins, and an elite running back in Todd Gurley still behind him. Los Angeles is a big market, and Goff has the makings of a big-time player thanks to his own talent and McVay’s offensive genius steering the way.
17. Alex Smith, Washington Redskins
The man was remarkable in 2017: career-best totals in passer rating (104.7), passing yards (4,042) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (26-5). Kansas City opted to go with young gun Patrick Mahomes and shipped Smith to the nation’s capital.
This is the second time in Smith’s career he’s been moved on from in favor of a more dynamic, stronger-armed upstart. It’s what happened to him when the San Francisco 49ers rode with Colin Kaepernick for a time, though as everyone knows, that didn’t last.
In any event, Smith has his work cut out to shine in an NFC East that features defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia, the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants. But the odds have been stacked against Smith before, and he’s often performed best when maximum adversity hits. Now he has a new organization to prove himself to, but the Redskins seem as supportive of him as can be imaginable since they moved off a strong starter in Kirk Cousins for him.
16. Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders
Although there’s an out in Carr’s contract after this year (h/t Spotrac), he did enough to merit a five-year, $125 million payday a full season before his rookie deal expired. It made him the highest-paid NFL player at the time, but the 27-year-old regressed in 2017, throwing more than double the interceptions he threw (13 to six) from the prior year as Oakland fired coach Jack Del Rio.
Now franchise favorite Jon Gruden is back at the helm, and will demand a lot out of Carr as his offensive triggerman. Gruden’s personality and visibility as an ESPN analyst in recent years only increases Oakland’s exposure.
Carr is composed enough to handle the high-profile return of “Chucky” but must pick up Gruden’s system quickly and shine. The Carr-Gruden partnership could well lift the Raiders to new heights and further entrench the young gunslinger as the long-term answer for Oakland at the game’s most important position.
15. Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts
Luck needs good fortune if reports of his wilting right throwing shoulder are any indication. Drafted first overall in 2013 to be the long-term successor to GOAT-caliber superstar Peyton Manning, the results have been mixed for Luck during his tenure to date.
On one hand, he guided an undermanned Colts team to the playoffs as a rookie and in the two seasons after that. Unfortunately, he’s been riddled with injuries, namely the right shoulder problem that caused him to miss all of 2017, and his career passer rating of 87.3 isn’t exactly setting the NFL ablaze by today’s standards.
Pass protection has been a problem throughout Luck’s career. He’s also held the ball too long and taken unnecessary hits at times. Luck must be a better decision-maker in terms escaping the pocket to get out of harm’s way. Otherwise it won’t matter if his bazooka right arm returns to full strength — although that’s also vital to ensure Luck’s career doesn’t run out prematurely.
14. Philip Rivers, Los Angeles Chargers
If it’s possible to be overlooked as one of the best quarterbacks of his generation, Rivers has been. The Chargers often start seasons poorly and have to play catch-up all year. Their lack of team success has hurt Rivers’ profile. It seems only a matter of time, though, before good fortune strikes for Rivers and his supporting cast helps him enough to make a deep postseason run.
That could well happen this coming season. Rivers has averaged way over 4,000 yards and more than 30 touchdown tosses over the past five years, so he’s showing no signs of slowing down.
Recent high draft picks in running back Melvin Gordon and receiver Mike Williams were designed to help Rivers directly. Gordon has started paying dividends, and if Williams can provide a spark after being ineffective as a rookie, the regard for Rivers will grow worldwide — as it should for a player who’s ninth all-time in passing yards at 50,348.
13. Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions
This year marks a decade of NFL experience for Stafford. The previous nine years have produced plenty of clutch heroics from the cannon-armed, strapping Stafford, but only two playoff appearances and zero wins therein. Despite the lack of postseason accolades, Detroit rewarded the 30-year-old with a fresh-five year contract to make him the newest highest-paid player in football.
Stafford had a great 2017 with a 99.3 passer rating, 29 touchdown throws and only 10 picks. The problem is, he hasn’t had a running game to speak of in years, so the resulting 9-7 record wasn’t enough to make the playoffs.
Perhaps the head coaching change to former New England defensive coordinator Matt Patricia will instill superior support for Stafford, whose top-flight skill set and eye-popping plays have been supplemented by improved consistency of late.
12. Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco 49ers
The fact he hails from the New England Patriots organization gives Garoppolo clout in and of itself. Nevertheless, he’s passed every on-field test with flying colors and helped the 49ers win their last five games in 2017. San Francisco had seen enough to reward him with a five-year, $137.5 million contract.
Garoppolo immediately won over a franchise that’s employed two of the game’s most accomplished signal-callers in Joe Montana and Steve Young. “Jimmy GQ” legitimately has a chance to be in that company if the start to his career is any indication.
With a full offseason to digest head coach Kyle Shanahan’s complex offense, look for Garoppolo to have even more command and help the Niners hang tough in what should be a highly competitive NFC West.
11. Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
There’s no question the offense looked different once Shanahan left as coordinator to take the head gig in San Francisco. But Ryan still guided the Falcons to the postseason and was met with a contract extension worth $150 million over five years.
Ryan has thrown for more yards (41,796) in his first 10 seasons than anyone in NFL history. To Atlanta’s credit, the front office has done everything possible to position Ryan for success, from building a stout offensive line, to assembling arguably the best backfield tandem in football with Devonta Freeman and Tevon Coleman.
The Falcons also traded up for Julio Jones in 2011, and even with him and Mohamed Sanu in the fold, they gave Ryan another weapon this draft in Alabama star receiver Calvin Ridley. “Matty Ice” is well on his way to becoming one of the most decorated passers ever, but needs a Super Bowl and continued production to be in the all-time great conversation.
10. Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans
As voted by his peers, Watson was already No. 50 in NFL Network’s “Top 100 Players of 2018.” Talk about a meteoric rise — the former Clemson national champion played only seven games as a rookie and made six starts.
Watson’s first impression was undeniable, though. Until a torn ACL suffered in practice derailed his season, he was well on his way to Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, leading the NFL at the time with 19 touchdown passes.
The Texans haven’t had a surefire franchise quarterback since their inception. All indications are Watson is that and more. His combination of leadership, penchant for big plays, running ability and football smarts to pick up the pro game so quickly bode well, as he should have Houston in the AFC South hunt when he returns this year.
9. Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys
Similar to Watson in some ways, Prescott tore it up as a rookie but lasted the whole season, going 13-3 as the starter for America’s Team. Last season was somewhat of a sophomore slump, though, as Prescott’s play suffered when workhorse tailback, Ezekiel Elliott, played only 10 of 16 games.
All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith also missed three contests, and the Cowboys scored an average of 7.3 points in those games. There’s considerable pressure on Prescott to prove he can lift the level of play of those around him as all great quarterbacks do. He’s armed with a great back in Elliott and what many consider the best offensive line in football.
Year 3 is huge for Prescott, but he’s weathered criticism before and still managed to guide Dallas to nine wins after his initial season created so much buzz and raised expectations. He seems to have the right makeup to handle being in the spotlight for one of sports’ most famous franchises, and could earn a new contract early with a playoff win.
8. Eli Manning, New York Giants
It’d be easier to put Manning higher on the list, only he doesn’t quite command the respect the other top quarterbacks do, nor does he strike fear into the opposition in similar fashion.
Undeniable, though, is the fact that Manning is a two-time Super Bowl champion, has had a bad rushing attack behind him for much of his career and has experienced dysfunction in New York in recent years. He was even benched last year to end his consecutive starts streak at 210. That cost ex-coach Ben McAdoo his job.
The G-Men drafted running back Saquon Barkley second overall instead of Manning’s successor, a telling reveal of the aging quarterback’s stature. A West Coast offense led by new coach Pat Shurmur will get the ball out of Manning’s hands quickly to weapons like Odell Beckham Jr. and tight end Evan Engram, reinvigorating the 37-year-old to mount at least one more postseason push.
7. Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers
No one boasts the sheer power as a ball-carrier Newton has from the quarterback position. It makes up for his inconsistent accuracy, although his risky style of play also translates to lots of chunk gains in the passing game — and immense popularity.
Newton has an MVP award to his name and a Super Bowl appearance but has a contentious relationship with the media and is scrutinized as much as any American athlete. He commands respect due to his physical tools and accomplishments to date, but Newton must learn to carry himself with greater poise to become a Super bowl champion.
The NFC South garners plenty of attention with the likes of Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Newton in the same division. But Newton has the most natural talent of them all. If he can continue working on his mechanics and stay healthy despite the punishment his massive frame takes, he could be the most popular figure in the league in the coming years.
6. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers
Big Ben plays for one of the best franchises and has enjoyed an immensely successful tenure featuring two championships and 51,065 career passing yards.
The only reason he’s not higher on the list is because there are a couple playmakers at his disposal who steal some of the spotlight. Le’Veon Bell is the most complete back in football, coming off a year where he ran for 1,291 yards and caught 85 passes. Antonio Brown is widely considered the NFL’s best receiver and has five straight 100-catch seasons.
Pittsburgh has been careful not to ruffle Roethlisberger’s feathers by drafting his eventual replacement too early. Landry Jones was a 2013 fourth-round pick, and Mason Rudolph was selected in the third round of this year’s draft. Until Roethlisberger opts not to play anymore, the Steelers won’t move off him — and will be in Super Bowl contention until that day arrives.
5. Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles
Drafted second overall just two years ago, Wentz has even exceeded expectations since entering the NFL. Supposed to start his rookie year as the third-string quarterback, he wound up starting all 16 games in a trial by fire. That experience sharpened him into an MVP-caliber player by Year 2.
Wentz was in the conversation for 2017 MVP until he tore his ACL in Week 14. The Eagles went on to win the Super Bowl with Nick Foles under center, yet there’s no question Wentz will be the starter whenever he’s fully recovered.
It’s a bummer Wentz couldn’t finish off the run through the playoffs for Philly, but he still led the offense for the majority of games for a championship team, throwing 33 touchdown passes. His job is fully secure and the scary thing is, he’s only bound to get better.
4. Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
Wilson fell into Seattle’s lap in the third round of the 2012 draft. Talk about the football gods smiling down on an organization. No one has won more games through their first six seasons than Wilson (65), a dual-threat genius the likes of which the NFL has never seen.
The Seahawks have gutted their team, haven’t protected Wilson with a competent offensive line and would be a disaster for the next couple years if he weren’t there. In addition to throwing for 34 touchdowns last year, Wilson was the team’s leading rusher with 586 yards.
It’s not so much that Wilson has a ton of clout with his own team — he seems to be a polarizing figure since his infamous Super Bowl XLIX interception, which retired defensive lineman Cliff Avril said ultimately tore apart the team. The clout and respect come from those on the outside who marvel at what Wilson can do with so little help at his disposal.
3. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
The hope is Wilson’s career doesn’t take on the same type of course Brees’ has. Another undersized quarterback who’s made the most of his own unique skill set to say the least, Brees was saddled with Saints teams who had salary cap problems and horrible defenses for much of his prime.
Finally, New Orleans brought some reinforcements, hauling in an excellent 2017 draft class and acquiring much needed defensive reinforcements. Running back Alvin Kamara’s breakout rookie year also took the burden off Brees to carry the offense with his arm.
The Saints were ultimately a miraculous, last-second touchdown by Minnesota away from the NFC Championship Game.
2. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
Rocket arm? Check. Pocket presence? Check. Uncanny ability to escape pressure and throw on the run? Check. Elite accuracy? Check. Icy, competitive countenance? Check.
Rodgers took over for Brett Favre amid a lot of hoopla, but he’s carved out his own legacy and owns the lowest interception rate (1.6 percent) in NFL history, throwing just 78 picks on 4,895 attempts to 313 touchdowns.
The Packers haven’t given Rodgers enough help. He’s such a rare talent who should have more than one Super Bowl trophy by now. When he isn’t healthy, Green Bay falls apart, and went 7-9 in 2017 with Brett Hundley and his 70.6 passer rating starting the majority of games.
1. Tom Brady, New England Patriots
Hard to argue Brady isn’t the GOAT. He’ll turn 41 in August, but in his last game, he set a Super Bowl record for passing yards for the second straight year. That extraordinary effort ultimately wasn’t enough to earn Brady a sixth championship.
Until “Tom Terrific” shows any signs of regression, he shouldn’t budge from this spot. His presence led to the Patriots trading away a tremendous potential successor in Jimmy Garoppolo.
As long as Brady continues to play at his current level, he’ll remain not only the face of New England’s franchise, but rather the face of the entire NFL.