A common question I receive on Twitter is something is similar to this:
Comfortably in the top half of starters in the AFC and pushing as a top 5 one. A challenge in a conference with Brady, Mahomes, Luck, Rivers, Mayfield, Watson and Ben, etc… https://t.co/gEfH2oRe2k
— Joe Caporoso (@JCaporoso) March 17, 2019
Basically, how big of a leap does Sam Darnold need to make next year in order for the season to be a success and as a byproduct of that, where should he fit in alongside other starters in the NFL when comparing them to each other? For the purpose of this article, let’s just focus down on the AFC and what the current lay of the land is. As a qualifier, these are not straightforward “rankings” but rather the different tiers the starters fall into…
Tom Brady, New England Patriots – The upcoming year is always the year that Brady and New England are finally going to be done. We can safely remove him from up here the first time the Patriots don’t waltz into the AFC Championship Game without breaking a sweat and Brady comes up short in a game that actually has tangible ramifications in January. It is his conference (league) and we are all just living in it…and it sucks.
Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs – Put together a monster performance in his sophomore year, electrifying the NFL en route to a well deserved MVP trophy. There is no question Mahomes was aided by a stellar supporting cast and coaching but diminishing what he accomplished last year because of that is naive. He is the best young quarterback in the NFL heading into the 2019 season and the first pick if there was a draft tomorrow with every player in the league and you could pick one for the next ten years.
The AFC South Stars
Andrew Luck – Luck reminded everybody just how damn good he was last year when healthy and not surrounded by a Ryan Grigson roster. With an ascending offensive line in front of him and a savvy GM behind him, Luck should be well positioned to lead the Colts to being a Super Bowl contender for years to come.
Deshaun Watson – Left a sour taste in everybody’s mouth with a poor playoff performance that shouldn’t diminish a wildly successful sophomore season. Watson has a poor offensive line and average coaching staff but is also aided by arguably the best receiver in the NFL. A playmaker, culture changer and walking 20+ yard gain, Watson still deals with over the top criticism from people who were comically wrong about him in the pre draft process before 2017 (the same people who were dancing on his grave after two games last year as he returned from a major surgery). If healthy, Watson will have Houston competing in January year in and year out.
The Old Guard
Philip Rivers – In the age of quarterbacks playing forever, there is no reason not to expect another few productive years from Rivers who is coming off a 32 touchdown, 12 interception season and a divisional round appearance. He still has the ability to attack down the field and take advantage of an increasingly talented roster and underrated coaching staff. Rivers is likely Canton bound one day but it remains to be seen if he can ever get over the New England hump…he certainly couldn’t last year.
Ben Roethlisberger – Similar to Rivers, except with a pair of Super Bowl wins and the reputation for driving away talented skill position players. The Steelers missed the playoffs without Le’Veon Bell last year and will now try to return without him or Antonio Brown. Roethlisberger is a Hall of Famer who is likely to be a productive starter for a few more years but with his style of play (and team situation), his game may not age as well as Rivers.
The Year Two Crew
Baker Mayfield – Should have been the Rookie of the Year for the turnaround he led in Cleveland. The Browns are very much AFC North favorites heading into his second year, thanks mostly to his presence. Yes, he had a much better surrounding situation than the rest of the “year two crew” but that doesn’t take away how accurate and productive Mayfield was as a rookie, silencing the nonsensical pre-draft concerns about him.
Sam Darnold – After a roller coaster, injury marred first three quarters of the season, Darnold turned on the jets (!) for a strong finish despite one of the worst supporting casts in the NFL and the worst playcaller in the league. At only 21 years old, the sky is the limit and there is no reason he can’t take a year two Wentz/Goff/Trubisky like jump with more talent around him and more experience under his belt.
Lamar Jackson – Better than his naysayers want him to be but not as good or proven as his fans make him out to be. Jackson showed elite playmaking ability as a runner during the stretch run last year with inconsistent passing, at best. The Ravens are going to be a run dominant team with him under center but if he takes strides when throwing down the field, they will have a chance to be a serious contender in January.
Josh Allen – After years of complaining about a run first quarterback who struggled to make plays in the passing game, Bills fans were granted…a run first quarterback who struggled to make plays in the passing game. Allen had a weak supporting cast but did nothing to quell the concerns around his accuracy and ball security during his rookie year but was nothing short of electric (yes, electric) when running the football.
Derek Carr – It has been a slow regression since he returned from his season ending injury after 2016. Carr is accurate but timid and has played an extremely limited game over the past two years. The Raiders invested around him this offseason with Antonio Brown and Tyrell Williams but there is no reason to be confident he will be Jon Gruden’s long term guy under center.
Marcus Mariota – Perpetually hurt and frustratingly inconsistent. We saw flashes of how good Mariota could be in the playoffs two years back but he has rarely played to that level. Tennessee made some savvy offensive investments (Adam Humphries, Roger Saffold) but it won’t matter if Mariota can’t give them at least 14 games.
The JV Old Guard
Nick Foles – It seems unwise to think Foles will replicate his Philadelphia magic on a different team based on everything we’ve seen from the rest of his career. He will unquestionably be an upgrade over Blake Bortles but betting on him to exceed being a middle of the road starter is risky at best.
Joe Flacco – He has been a flat out bad quarterback in recent years, which is why it makes perfect sense that John Elway actively went out of his way to acquire him. Denver will be lucky to stay out of the AFC West basement this season and still needs a long term answer at quarterback.
Andy Dalton – The numbers always look better than the reputation but at 31 years old and surrounded by one of the weakest coaching staffs in the NFL, Dalton and the Bengals don’t appear to be headed anywhere but a rebuild. It is probably best for both sides to get a divorce at this point but clearly they need one more 6-10 season to seal the deal.
Ryan Fitzpatrick – The rotating AFC East bridge quarterback to nowhere is ready to get Miami to 5-11, just out of reach of the top quarterback they want to draft next season. A “leader” who is overrated in the locker room and “winner” who doesn’t win, Fitzpatrick has built a wealthy career of being an average backup who has a handful of head turning games per season that is eventually washed away by waves and waves of interceptions.