The NFC South has featured formidable quarterbacks for years. At the start of the 2019 NFL season, three of the division’s four starting quarterbacks had a Super Bowl appearance under their belt.
The same can still be said now: though Cam Newton is done in Carolina, Tom Brady has entered the division to make the NFC South easily the most loaded division at the quarterback position in the NFL.
Six-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback Tom Brady will square off twice a year with Super Bowl-winning, future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees in one of the most exciting intradivisonal matchups in recent memory.
Matt Ryan has a Super Bowl appearance under his belt, against who else but Brady himself. Atlanta infamously blew a 28-3 lead, so the Falcons fanbase could see some solace if they are able to beat the Buccaneers in a key game or keep them out of the playoffs.
Teddy Bridgewater is making his return to the starting quarterback position after going 5-0 as a backup last year. The four expected starters are all highly capable signal-callers that should make for some great football games.
And who can forget the backups: the XFL’s most exciting player, the Houston Texans all-time passing leader, and of course, Blaine Gabbert.
In order to rank these twelve quarterbacks, I’ll consider the same guiding question: who would I want at quarterback if I was building a team for 2020?
In this way, age doesn’t inherently hurt a quarterback’s ranking, as I’m building for right now, not the future. But at the same time, an aging quarterback that has been seeing decline may be realistically expected to continue that decline.
Without further ado, my ranking of all the quarterbacks in the NFC South, prior to the 2020 NFL Draft.
We’ll be ranking all twelve quarterbacks currently on one of the four NFC South rosters. But these four quarterbacks are at the bottom of the depth chart, with not enough information to accurately rank them among the quarterbacks that actually see the field.
These quarterbacks are:
- Ryan Griffin, Buccaneers: The 30-year-old has split his seven-year career with the Saints and Buccaneers, serving as a backup in Tampa Bay since 2015. He’s only been called upon once to take the field: going 2-of-4 for 18 yards on his lone NFL drive.
- Danny Etling, Falcons: Etling was drafted in the seventh round of the 2018 NFL Draft by the New England Patriots. He earned a Super Bowl ring off the practice squad in his rookie season. New England tried converting Etling to wide receiver, but after being waived, he resumed practice squad duties for the Falcons. He served as the backup for one game in 2019.
- Kurt Benkert, Falcons: This 24-year-old quarterback out of Virginia has been with the Falcons for two seasons. His 2019 campaign never even began though, after a preseason toe injury put him on injured reserve.
- Will Grier, Panthers: Of these four quarterbacks, only Grier has started at the NFL level. But leaving him “unranked” as opposed to last place among ranked quarterbacks is doing the former Florida/West Virginia quarterback a favor. He went 0-2 for the Panthers in 2019, as Carolina dropped those games by a combined score of 80-16. Grier passed for no touchdowns and four interceptions.
8. Matt Schaub, Atlanta Falcons
Matt Schaub had a handful of solid seasons for the Houston Texans, even reaching the playoffs in 2011 and 2012. But now six seasons removed his starting days, the 38-year-old quarterback may soon be on the last legs of his career.
Schaub actually started one game for the Falcons in 2019 due to a Matt Ryan injury, completing 74.6% of his passes for 580 yards, three touchdowns, and an interception. The veteran is still a reliable backup option when called upon.
7. Blaine Gabbert, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
30-year-old Blaine Gabbert is already an NFL journeyman: starting three or more games for four different franchises so far. This includes 27 starts with the Jacksonville Jaguars, 13 starts with the San Franciso 49ers, five starts with the Arizona Cardinals, and three starts with the Tennessee Titans in 2018. The 2019 season was only the second time in his 9-year career that he failed to start three games or more.
Gabbert’s numbers certainly don’t jump off the page: 48 passing touchdowns to 47 interceptions, 6.1 yards per attempt, 56.2% completion percentage, and a 71.7 quarterback rating over the course of his career.
I’d give Gabbert a slight edge over Schaub due to his age and superior mobility. Gabbert is by no means a dual threat quarterback, by hes’s rushed for 80 yards or more in a season four times, with a career-high of 185 yards with the 49ers in 2015. Schaub, a full-time starter for six seasons, peaked at 68 yards in his prime.
Gabbert may have the chance to learn and elevate his game under the direction of the Buccaneers starting quarterback, Tom Brady.
6. Taysom Hill, New Orleans Saints
Taysom Hill is one of the most exciting players in football. For those of you that don’t know, Hill is listed as a quarterback, assuming third-string duties behind Drew Brees and Teddy Bridgewater last season.
But he’s far more than a quarterback: lining up on kickoff coverage, serving as a primary kick-returner, catching passes from the tight end position, lining up in the backfield next to Brees, or taking direct snaps as the quarterback. He’s been nicknamed the “human Swiss army knife” as one of the most versatile players in the NFL.
As a quarterback, the 29-year-old would still have to prove that he’s worthy of being a starter. In his regular season career, he’s attempted just 13 passes, completing six of them, for 119 yards, no touchdowns, and an interception. He’s scored three rushing touchdowns and six receiving touchdowns as well.
Moving forward, Hill’s most valuable role may be doing exactly what he’s doing now: moving all over the field and using his athleticism in a variety of positions. I would still take him as my starting quarterback over Schaub and Gabbert, if those were the options. Hill’s unique skillset would be more valuable, even if Scaub and Gabbert may be more fundamentally sound passers. If Hill were to be a full-time starter, I would expect the results to be a little Tim Tebow-esque. That could be a good thing or a bad thing.
5. P.J. Walker, Carolina Panthers
Philip “P.J.” Walker had a hard time sticking with the Indianapolis Colts from 2017 to 2019, bouncing between the practice squad, the reserve/future list, and the waiver wire.
But the former Temple quarterback made himself a household name as the best quarterback of the shortened 2020 XFL season. Over five games, he led the league in passing yards (1,338) and passing touchdowns (15,) as well as leading the Houston Roughnecks to a 5-0 record. He threw just four interceptions, and also rushed for 99 yards and a touchdown.
After the XFL’s abrupt end to their season, due to the coronavirus pandemic, Walker signed a two-year deal with the Carolina Panthers. He likely slots in as the backup, unless Will Greir does something to win that job.
I find Walker to be the best backup quarterback in the NFC South. Sure, it wouldn’t be as easy to put up video game numbers in the NFL, but his skill set (which I’ve compared to Lamr Jackson’s) translates well to the league’s current landscape. It would be great to see Walker starting one day in the NFL.
4. Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
Matt Ryan is still one of the NFL’s most capable and consistent passers at 34 years old. Ryan has passed for over 4,000 yards in nine straight seasons for Atlanta. The peak of Ryan’s career was in the third quarter of LI, when his team held a 25-point lead over Tom Brady and the Patriots.
Ryan was one of the league’s top quarterbacks in 2016, and while he’s still no scrub, he’s failed to reach the same heights of that season. Most notably, Ryan completed a laser-accurate 69.9% of his passes for 4,944 yards and 38 touchdowns in 2016. His 7.1% touchdown percentage led the league, along with his 9.3 yards per attempt.
Fast forward to 2019, and you’ll still find Ryan putting up numbers: a league-high 408 completions to go along with 4,466 passing yards (5th in the NFL.) So why is Ryan ranked as the fourth-best quarterback in his own division?
My biggest gripe with Ryan is his record over the past two seasons: 14-17. He’s still putting up numbers, but they don’t mean as much without wins to support them. In terms of year-to-year regression, Ryan’s 2019 campaign was worse than his 2018 season in almost every way. He saw drops in completions, completion percentage, passing yards, passing touchdowns, yards per attempt, and time sacked. Ryan was in fact sacked a league-high 48 times in 2019. He also doubled his interceptions thrown, from seven to fourteen.
Ryan is still an above average starting quarterback, but he’s losing a step in some key areas of his game. Unfortunately that may leave the Falcons in purgatory as they remain committed to the veteran quarterback for the foreseeable future.
3. Teddy Bridgewater, Carolina Panthers
While Matt Ryan may be on his way down, Teddy Bridgewater’s stock in rising. After going 5-0 in relief of Drew Brees for the New Orleans Saints in 2019, Bridgewater has been handed the reigns as the Carolina Panthers next starting quarterback.
Bridgewater went 6-6 with the Minnesota Vikings in 2014 as a 22-year-old out of Louisville, before leading the Vikings to an 11-5 record and playoff appearance in his lone full season as a starter.
In 2016, Bridgewater suffered an untimely, non-contact ACL tear that would temporarily derail his career. He would essentially miss the next two seasons, with a 19-month recovery timeline. Bridgewater signed with the New York Jets the following offseason, but was promptly traded to the New Orleans Saints.
He lost a Week 17 start against the Panthers in 2018, but filled his backup role to perfection in 2019: going a perfect 5-0.
Bridgewater isn’t a high volume passer like the other three starting quarterbacks in the NFC South, but he gets the job done efficiently. This isn’t to say he’s “just a game manager,” either, as he’s capable of putting the game’s outcomes in his own hands. Bridgewater has six career game-winning drives in just 34 starts, including two last year. His record as a starter is a highly respectable 22-12.
It’s probably not hard to see why Bridgewater is ranked below the next two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks. But why is he already higher than Ryan, despite not being a full-time starter since 2015?
In a much smaller sample size, Bridgewater was more efficient in 2019 than Ryan.
- Completion Percentage: Bridgewater 67.9%, Ryan 66.2%
- Interception Percentage: Bridgewater 1.0%, Ryan 2.3%
- Yards per Attempt: Bridgewater 7.1, Ryan 7.3
- Passer Rating: Bridgewater 99.1, Ryan 92.1
- Sack Percentage: Bridgewater 5.8%, Ryan 7.2%
Over the course of a full season, Ryan would still pass more yards and touchdowns than Bridgewater. But Bridgewater’s stats in key areas like avoiding sacks and not turning the ball over, more often than not, lead to a more successful football team.
2. Tom Brady, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
It’s not often that one of the greatest athletes to ever play their position changes teams after decades of loyalty to one team.
Then again, Peyton Manning left the Indianapolis Colts for the Denver Broncos late in his career. In the NBA, LeBron James has made not one, not two, but three shocking team changes, and he’s undeniably one of the best to ever play the game.
Maybe it’s these recent trends, maybe it was the media whispering in our ear throughout the 2019 NFL season. But for some reason, when Tom Brady left the New England Patriots, I wasn’t as shocked as I would’ve expected.
But the greatest quarterback of all time doesn’t come into the NFC South as the best passer of the bunch. Not at this stage in his career, barring a significant change. Brady hasn’t fallen off a cliff: far from it, he’s still one of the best in the game, winning Super Bowls left and right. There’s just another guy in the division doing it a little bit better, at a similarly advanced age.
Brady will be 43 years old when he takes his first snap for the Buccaneers. By all metrics, he’s beating father time. He passed for 4,057 yards (7th in the NFL) and 24 touchdowns (13th) en route to a 12-4 record and AFC East crown. With the rare task of having to play on Wildcard Weekend, Brady found himself in an equally unlikely early playoff exit.
If I had to rank all the quarterbacks in the NFL, Brady would still be Top 10. There’s few quarterbacks that can lead an offense better, and Brady’s accuracy and football IQ makes his offense a threat whenever he has the ball.
But Brady’s time at the very top, from a skill standpoint, seems to be over. As mentioned, he failed to rank higher than 7th in passing yards or 13th in passing touchdowns. His 60.8% completion percentage ranked 27th out of 32 qualified quarterbacks. His 88.0 passer rating was his lowest since 2013, and he was sacked six more times in 2019 than in 2018.
Brady is still above average, but for the first time in two decades, he’s not the best quarterback in his own division.
1. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
Looking at Drew Brees statistics and records on Pro Football Reference.com makes me think one thing: it’s a shame he only has one Super Bowl ring.
Brees has been a model of consistent, high-octane passing for much of two decades himself. Over the last two seasons, he’s completed an eye-popping 74.4% and 74.3% of his passes. But unlike a “play-it-safe,” game-manager, Brees is an aggressive force. In 2017, he led the league in both completion percentage and yards per attempt: an insane feat that shouldn’t normally be possible.
But Brees isn’t a normal quarterback. He’s also a natural winner. Though the Saints have suffered three straight seasons with a divisional round playoff loss, Brees is hardly to blame.
In 2019, Brees’ season was shortened by a thumb injury. The Saints hardly missed a beat, going 5-0 with Teddy Bridgewater as their starter, and Brees went 8-3 in his 11 starts. In 2018, Brees had an elite 13-2 record to make his overall record 21-5 over the past two seasons.
Brees has led the league in completion percentage for three straight seasons, and has only dipped below 68.0% once in the past eleven seasons. Brees held the league’s best passer rating in 2018 (115.7,) though he achieved his own career-high in 2019 (116.3.)
This is due in part to Brees’ ultra-low interception rate: 1.1% in 2019, 1.0% in 2018. Brady is also well-known for taking care of the ball, with a career-best rate of 0.5% in 2016, as well as being the league’s leader four times. Brady’s 1.3% in 2019 and 1.9% in 2018 are still very good: just not as good as Brees. Again, this shouldn’t really be possible with the volume and aggressiveness of Brees’ passing game, but his decision-making and video game-like accuracy allows him to limit turnovers tremendously.
We’ll compare Brees and Brady using rates and per game statistics, since their totals wouldn’t match up with a drastically different number of starts.
- Completion Percentage: Brees 74.3%, Brady 60.8%
- Touchdown Percentage: Brees 7.1%, Brady 3.9%
- Interception Percentage: Brees 1.1%, Brady 1.3%
- Yards per Attempt: Brees 7.9, Brady 6.6
- Yards per Game: Brees 270.8, Brady 253.6
- Passer Rating: Brees 116.3, Brady 88.0
Brees will be 41 years old when the 2020 NFL begins, so he may not be able to keep this up forever. But on a one-year basis, there’s maybe only one or two quarterbacks in the NFL I would choose over Brees. Which quarterbacks? Maybe that’s an idea for a future article.
Drew Brees is the best quarterback in the NFC South: even with the best player to ever play the position coming into the division.
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Statistics via Pro Football Reference.com
“General Knowledge” including age and career history via Wikipedia
Featured Photo: Chris Graythen / Getty Images; Julio Cortez / Associated Press acquired via LA Times.com