Haves and Have Nots: An Early Look at the NFL's QB Landscape for the '22 Season


Written by: Dave Hartman


Joe Brrr - One of the AFC's Many Talented Young Guns

The NFL’s Free Agency period doesn’t start until the middle of next week, but we’ve already seen some significant player movement at the most important position in the game and maybe in all of sports. In the past 10 days, we’ve learned that Aaron Rodgers will be staying in Green Bay after all, Russell Wilson is moving on to Denver, Drew Lock is headed to Seattle, and Carson Wentz is leaving Indianapolis (after just 1 season) and going back to the NFC East, this time with the Washington Commanders. Coming out of the 2021 season, Tom Brady, Big Ben, Rodgers, Wilson and Deshaun Watson were the biggest dominoes that could impact the NFL landscape of the QB position, and 4 of the 5 have fallen. In this piece, we’ll look at that landscape for 2022 and beyond.

A number of teams are still unsettled at QB for the 2022 season, and free agency and the Draft are yet to play out, so we aren’t done. There won’t be any big-name QBs available in free agency (oddly enough, the top free agent QBs are the first 2 overall picks from the 2015 draft - Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, and the 2nd overall pick from the 2017 Draft - Mitchell Trubisky - who’ve all struggled to establish themselves as viable NFL starters). There could still be an additional trade or two involving prominent names, and especially as Watson's legal situation becomes clearer (on Friday, a Texas grand jury determined not to indict Watson on any of the 9 counts it was asked to consider). He and Jimmy G are both good candidates to be moved before summer. And a handful of rookie QBs will get picked in the first couple of rounds at the Draft, although unlike recent Drafts, this QB class isn’t considered a particularly strong one for potential franchise QBs. Last year, 3 rookie QBs started in Week 1, and a total of 6 rookie QBs had multiple starts during the season. Don’t expect a repeat of that this season.

As the NFL has evolved into a passing league, having an elite, franchise QB has become an even bigger critical key to success. More and more, you can look at the NFL as a league of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. If you don’t have a franchise QB, getting to a Super Bowl - and getting past those teams that do have one - is really difficult. Yes, the 49ers have gotten to a Super Bowl and a Conference Championship in 2 of the last 3 seasons with a decent (but not elite) QB, but I believe that's the exception, not the rule. There are a bunch of “have-not” teams out there who’ve been trying to find a franchise QB for what seems like forever, and it’s no coincidence that those teams have struggled to be competitive year in and year out - Miami, the Jets, Chicago, Cleveland and Washington immediately come to mind, but there are others as well. There just aren’t 32 people on the planet who can play the position of NFL QB at a level of excellence. So, with that dichotomy of haves and have-nots in mind, let’s take a look at what the QB position looks like today, and what it can tell us about this coming season and beyond.

As it stands today, here are the likely week 1 starters for all 32 NFL teams. Again, there will be some changes to this as the offseason continues to unfold. Teams are listed in order of 2021 final standings.

AFC

East:

BUF - J. Allen

NE - M. Jones

MIA - Tua

NYJ - Z. Wilson

North:

CIN - Burrow

PIT - ?

CLE - Mayfield

BAL- Jackson

South:

TEN - Tannehill

IND - ?

HOU - Mills

JAC - Lawrence

West:

KC - Mahomes

LV - Carr

LAC - Herbert

DEN - R. Wilson

NFC:

East:

DAL - Prescott

PHI - Hurts

WAS - Wentz

NYG - D. Jones

North:

GB - Rodgers

MIN - Cousins

CHI - Fields

DET - Goff

South:

TB - ?

NO - ?

ATL - Ryan

CAR - ?

West:

LAR - Stafford

ARI - Murray

SF - ?

SEA - ?


Does anything jump out at you? It sure does for me. First off, the AFC is more settled, with 14 of 16 teams already seemingly set on their starter for this coming season (and in most cases, well beyond that), while the NFC has at least 5 situations that are still up in the air for 2022 and beyond. And that’s not surprising, because as you go down the list, what starts to become abundantly clear is that a disparity in QB talent exists between the 2 conferences - and it’s BIG. This has been a trend in development for the last few seasons, and it got exacerbated with Brees (2021) and Brady (2022) retiring, and now with Russell Wilson (who has already been to 2 Super Bowls) being traded from the NFC to the AFC. The AFC has a lot more “haves” than the NFC.

Russell’s Hustle and Bustle Join a Loaded AFC West

Not only is there a significant QB talent gap between the AFC and NFC, but there’s an age component associated with it. Even with Brady’s retirement and Wilson switching conferences, the NFC is still older at the position. It currently has 3 starting QBs who are 34 or older (Rodgers, Ryan and Stafford), while the AFC has none (The AFC’s oldest starters are Wilson and Tannehill who are both 33). And here is where the gap is really significant: the quality and quantity of young QB talent. The AFC has 5 QBs aged 26 and younger who’ve already established themselves as clear franchise QBs: Mahomes, Allen, Burrow, Jackson and Herbert. Two of these players have already won a league MVP, and they’ve collectively been to 3 Super Bowls, with 1 win. The NFC? It only has one such player - 24 year-old Kyler Murray, who has yet to win a playoff game. If I was starting a franchise today, I’d take those 5 young AFC QBs before I’d take any young QB in the NFC, and that includes 28 year old Dak Prescott, who along with Murray is the only NFC starter under 30 who has established himself as a franchise QB. And the gap grows even more when you go a step further and consider the QBs going into their 2nd and 3rd years who haven’t yet proven themselves. Time will tell, but right now the AFC group that falls into this category (Lawrence, Z. Wilson, M. Jones, Tua, and Mills) is deeper and based on early results, appears to be more promising than the NFC group (Lance, Fields, and Hurts, and I’ll even throw in Daniel Jones who’s going into his 4th season).

Just how big is the overall gap? Here’s another way to look at it. Kirk Cousins, who is the textbook definition of a solid, but not elite, starting QB, is probably the 5th best QB in the NFC right now. In the AFC, he’d barely crack the top 10 (especially if you include Watson). I’ll say it once more: The overall gap in QB talent between the AFC and NFC is a big one, folks. Yes, I know that the NFC won the last 2 Super Bowls, and did so with a pair of veteran QBs. But look at the list again - most of the NFL’s elite QB talent is young, and most of it is housed in the AFC. Over the last few seasons, we’ve seen a generation of franchise QBs retire from the game (Brady, Brees, Big Ben, the Manning brothers, and Philip Rivers), and they’ve been replaced with an outstanding new generation of signal callers. The future is now - and much of it resides in one conference.

So what does this mean for the NFL? Well, elite QB play tends to make a team very competitive, so look for the AFC to have more good teams than the NFC for the next few seasons, as was the case this past season. Meanwhile, I’m not sure what factors Aaron Rodgers considered when he made his decision to stay in Green Bay - like many, I grew sick of that saga a long time ago - but when you consider how important excellent QB play has become, and how difficult it is for teams to win multiple playoff games in a row against really good teams with top QBs, it’s pretty clear that the road to the Super Bowl is going to be easier in the NFC for at least the next half-decade. We just saw how Mahomes, Allen and Burrow cannibalized each other in this year’s playoffs - and we’re likely to see variations on that theme in the AFC every year for the foreseeable future. As a fan, I’m thrilled about that. Give me more of what we got this past postseason. But if you’re a fan of an AFC team, understand what you’re up against. Getting back to Rodgers, with his years of opportunity to win another Super Bowl dwindling, he was smart to stay in the NFC. As for Wilson, getting back to a 3rd Super Bowl isn’t going to be easy. Forget the conference - he’s got Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert in his division, plus Derek Carr who’s on a team that just made the playoffs and is in the same “good QB” category as Kirk Cousins. The AFC West is going to be FUN this year.


Kyler - Looking to Build on 2021 Success

Will this imbalance change? Sure it will, eventually. And if Watson ends up on Carolina or another NFC team, that would improve the balance at the QB position by a bit. Still, and getting back to the theme of haves and have-nots, once a team is lucky enough to find its franchise QB, the tendency is to keep that treasure for as long as possible. When Tom Brady left New England, he was already 42 and had been there for 2 decades. And the Lions moved Matt Stafford at age 33 after a decade of not being able to build a competitive team around him - he had zero playoff wins in Detroit. Russell Wilson is a franchise QB, and he has been moved in what should still be his prime, and that’s a rarity. So don’t expect to see any of the young franchise QBs get moved any time soon. Finders keepers, as they say.


To see more NFL and Fantasy Football content from David Hartman, visit his blog, the Pigskin papers, at www.thepigskinpapers.com.



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