In 2016, the secret is out. The NFL is a passing league, and it has been for about ten years. As Peyton Manning rides into the sunset and Tom Brady gears up for what may be his last run, the NFL is witnessing a changing of the guard. While quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers, Tony Romo, and Philip Rivers aren’t going anywhere, it’s time to look towards the future. Here are the top ten quarterbacks under 30 years old.
Many experts, especially Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller, believe that Teddy Bridgewater may be the best young quarterback in professional football. And there’s no question that he’s been successful in this league. He led the Minnesota Vikings to an NFC North title in 2015 despite sharing the division with Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. However, despite the fact Bridgewater isn’t responsible for the scheme his team runs, or that he plays with future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson, the reality is that Bridgewater’s numbers just aren’t there yet. He barely broke 3,000 yards in 2015, and his 14 touchdown passes were only good enough for 26th in the league. That was sandwiched between injured quarterbacks Joe Flacco and Andrew Luck, who only played a combined 17 games this season.
When injuries sidelined Peyton Manning late in 2015, fourth-year back-up Brock Osweiler took over, and despite having limited experience, he played well. He’d go on to win five of his seven starts, throwing for a little under 2,000 yards and ten touchdowns before being benched by the returning Manning. Disgruntled by being benched, Osweiler would choose to follow the money and sign a four-year, $72 million contract with the Houston Texans in the off-season. While Osweiler played well and may end up being a good quarterback for the Texans, he hasn’t done enough yet to warrant a spot on this list.
Tyrod Taylor was perfectly adequate for the Buffalo Bills this season. He threw a little over 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns with only six interceptions while leading the Bills to a .500 record. He added another 568 yards and four touchdowns on the ground and played well enough to earn himself another year as the incumbent starter for the Bills. These numbers are fine and as the Bills look to run the ball more anyway, Taylor fits their system well. He’s just not better than the ten young passers on this list.
Top 10 NFL Quarterbacks Under 30
10. Marcus Mariota
It didn’t take Marcus Mariota long to make an impact for the struggling Tennessee Titans as a rookie in 2015. He threw for four touchdowns in his very first NFL game as they blew out the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. While the Titans would only win two more games with Mariota under center, and he missed four and a half games with injuries, there’s a lot to like about him. In six of the 12 games he did play in, he threw multiple touchdowns, including another four touchdown performance in a rout of the New Orleans Saints in the Super Dome.
Mariota is 6’4, an exceptional athlete, and a home-run waiting to happen for the Titans. If he can stay healthy, and they can build around him, at the very worst, he’ll be another Colin Kaepernick. He needs to work on reading defenses and staying in the pocket if he wants to have a long and healthy career, but there’s no question that the Titans have their franchise quarterback.
9. Jameis Winston
In an era where option QBs are very popular, it’s nice to see a pure passer like Winston in the league. At 6’4″ and 231 pounds, Jameis Winston can sling the ball. While it’s true that he only threw 22 touchdowns, and his 15 interceptions weren’t pretty, Winston did something that rookie passers rarely do. He passed for over 4,000 yards. For comparison, Super Bowl champion Joe Flacco has yet to throw for 4,000 yards in a season. Before 2015, Russell Wilson hadn’t even thrown for more than 4,000 yards. So for Winston to come on to a team that had the worst record in football the season before, and for him to eclipse that mark, it’s a promising sign. He still needs to improve, but he’ll have the chance to do so. The Buccaneers seem content to let him throw the ball, as he threw the ball at least 30 times nine times as a rookie.
With Doug Martin in the backfield, and a pair of receivers like Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson on the outside, the pressure is on Winston to succeed. If he can work on his decision making, we may see more performances like the five touchdown beatdown he gave the Philadelphia Eagles in November.
8. Blake Bortles
People will probably argue that Blake Bortles should be much higher on this list, especially since he had 4,400 yards and threw more touchdowns than everyone not named Tom Brady. And that’s a fair point. Statistically, Bortles had arguably the second or third best season of anyone on this list.
Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. While the yards and touchdowns leap out, he also led the league in interceptions with 18. Only five quarterbacks threw the ball more than Bortles did in 2015. And paired with the 27th ranked rushing offense, the Jaguars were mostly one dimensional. It also helps that the Jaguars spent a lot of their season in garbage time. The Jaguars lost 11 games by an average of 14 points, including a 51-17 loss to the New England Patriots and a 51-16 loss to the Indianapolis Colts. In those two blowout losses, Bortles combined for five touchdowns, almost 500 yards, and only one interception.
On paper, Bortles’ season looks phenomenal. But look a little deeper and it becomes obvious that Bortles, along with receivers Allen Robinson and Hurns, were desperately trying to compensate for a defense that gave up 376 yards and 28 points a game. It could be argued that if they improved the defense and trimmed the turnovers down a little, the Jaguars would have the NFL’s best offense, but therein lays a dirty secret. Bortles only completed 59 percent of his passes last season, which was bad enough to be 31st in the league.
Bortles is oozing potential. If the team can improve, he can be a really great quarterback in this league. But if the Jaguars keep putting the pressure on him without giving him the tools to succeed, his numbers will only get worse with time.
7. Ryan Tannehill
In many ways, Ryan Tannehill perfectly represents the Miami Dolphins. It looks like he has all the tools, his numbers are fine, but when push comes to shove, he falls apart. On paper, Ryan Tannehill looks like a franchise quarterback. He’s 6’4, 220 pounds, and over the last three years, he’s thrown around 4,000 yards and 25 touchdowns. However, during Tannehill’s tenure, the Dolphins have never had a winning record, and are constantly being pushed around by teams like the Jets and Bills.
It’s hard to figure out what the problem is with Tannehill. His deep accuracy isn’t incredible, but in today’s NFL, it doesn’t really have to be. Quarterbacks like Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, and even Tom Brady have found plenty of success without having an especially strong arm, while quarterbacks like JaMarcus Russell and Kyle Boller have struggled despite having cannons for arms.
It’s not like Tannehill has been without weapons either. Wide receivers Mike Wallace, Brandon Marshall, Greg Jennings, and Kenny Stills have all had success elsewhere. But in Miami, their numbers have been mediocre. Even a breakout season from Jarvis Landry wasn’t enough to make the Dolphins contenders in the AFC East. Tannehill is too good to be left off of this list, but if he doesn’t improve at some point, the Dolphins will have to look for another solution under center.
6. Andy Dalton
Unlike Tannehill, Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton has achieved some success in this league. In fact, since Andy Dalton was drafted in 2011, the Bengals have made the playoffs every single year, including two AFC North championships in 2013 and 2015. Unfortunately, Dalton has won as many playoff games as Andy Dalton as well, going one and done in each of the last five years. Now, it’s worth noting that Dalton was injured late in the season, and wasn’t responsible for the last season’s disappointing wild card loss to Pittsburgh.
However, four one and done playoff losses is a pattern, and one that has to be especially frustrated for Marvin Lewis and the Bengals faithful. It’s hard to know where to credit Dalton and where to credit his team. Before he was injured, 2015 was easily Dalton’s best statistical season. He was on pace for 31 touchdowns, 4,000 yards, and only nine interceptions. Before that, Dalton’s numbers were either underwhelming, like in 2014 where he threw for less than 3,400 yards and had 19 touchdowns to 17 interceptions, or hard to look at like in 2013, where he threw for over 4,200 yards and 33 touchdowns, but also 20 interceptions.
The Bengals are having a rough offseason. They lost a big chunk of their offense, but at least they know they can win, at least in the regular season with Dalton. If he can pick up where he left off in 2015, they should be contenders again next season.
5. Derek Carr
Of all the quarterbacks on this list, nobody has a cleaner path to the number one spot than Oakland’s Derek Carr. In the storied history of the NFL, only Dan Marino has more touchdown passes (68) through two seasons than Carr (53). His fiery competitiveness, wealth of football knowledge, and cannon of an arm have the feverishly passionate members of the Raider Nation very excited for the future. But it’s not Derek’s ability that earns him such a high spot.
While there’s no question that Carr is a talented young passer, it’s the team surrounding him that will elevate him to great heights during his NFL career. Oakland’s commitment to the offensive line and addition of skill position players have created a very nurturing environment for Carr. Veteran wide receiver Michael Crabtree and phenomenal rookie pass catchers Amari Cooper and Clive Walford give Carr no shortage of options on offense. And that’s without mentioning the run game or versatile H-back Marcel Reece. Now that the AFC West is up for grabs, Carr and the Raiders could make a push to join the AFC’s elite, and change the face of the NFL moving forward.
4. Matt Stafford
Statistically, Matt Stafford blows everyone else on this list away. He’s had at least 4,200 yards in each of the last five seasons, and even broke 5,000 yards back in 2011. He’s had three seasons with at least 29 touchdowns, and despite being a little injury prone, always has good numbers. Even in 2015, where the Lions struggled mightily, Stafford still completed 67 percent of his passes for over 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns.
Of course, his success comes with an asterisk because he’s played with perhaps the best receiver in football, the supposedly retired Calvin Johnson. Stafford has been accused of relying on the physical anomaly that was the 6’5″ speedster. Not that it’s a bad thing. It’s not like Stafford is supposed to ignore the seemingly un-coverable Johnson to prove his worth.
But much like Bortles, Detroit struggled with the run in 2015. In fact, Stafford’s Lions were dead last in rushing, averaging only 83 yards a game. Stafford only threw 14 fewer passes than he did last year, and while he completed significantly more of those passes, there’s no question that Stafford is facing insurmountable odds. It’s not his fault that the Lions have been this bad. But without Calvin Johnson to catch his passes, with no freak receivers in sight, and being paired with a lame duck coach like Jim Caldwell, things aren’t going to get any easier for Matt Stafford.
3. Andrew Luck
If this list was being written a year ago, Andrew Luck would have a stranglehold on the number one spot. In 2014, he threw for 40 touchdowns and almost 5,000 yards, leading the Colts to their third straight AFC South championship. Unfortunately for Luck and fans of the Colts, a nagging rib injury, paired with a lacerated kidney and abdominal tear kept him out for most of the season. Luck managed to play in seven games, but with the exception of a 312 yard, three touchdown game against the then-undefeated New England Patriots, his performances were shaky at best, throwing multiple interceptions in five games.
Despite that, it’s impossible to deny that Andrew Luck is impossibly talented. He’s got the athletic ability of Cam Newton with the football smarts of Peyton Manning and the heart of Tom Brady. While the Colts have struggled to surround him with the talent that his predecessor had, he’s still made the players around him better. After almost a full year to recover, Luck should return to form in 2016, and make the Colts contenders again.
2. Cam Newton
Coming off of a season where Cam Newton scored 45 touchdowns, won the league MVP, and took the Carolina Panthers to the Super Bowl, it was hard to not give him the number one spot. With a rare combination of size, speed, and arm strength, Cam Newton is a dream quarterback prospect. Despite playing in a wild and competitive NFC South, Newton and his Panthers have won the division in all but two of his seasons under center.
Ultimately, the reason he’s only number two on this list is because before 2015, he wasn’t as dominant. During the first four years of Newton’s career, he leaned on the defense and had mediocre stats. In fact, before 2016 started, Newton had only thrown for 300 yards or more in a game eight times in four seasons, and they lost all but one of those games. Having said that, there’s no reason to believe his break-out campaign will be a fluke. In 2015, he threw for over 300 yards four times, and the Panthers won all four games. 2016 will see the return of massive receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, and unlike their Super Bowl 50 counterparts, the Carolina Panthers were able to retain most of their roster. This time next year, Newton and the Panthers may have finished what they started, and Newton can add topping this list to his rapidly expanding resume.
1. Russell Wilson
The only player on this list with a Lombardi Trophy is Seattle’s Russell Wilson. While many will claim Wilson’s success is due in large part to the talent surrounding him, his 2015 campaign says otherwise. When a holdout by safety Kam Chancellor weakened their defense, and a nagging injury sidelined running back Marshawn Lynch, all the pressure fell on Wilson’s shoulders. Despite playing behind a brand new offensive line and throwing to what some would call a mediocre receiving corps, Russell Wilson would go on to have the best passing season in the history of the Seattle Seahawks.
That’s not a joke. 2015 would see Wilson throw for 4,024 yards, 34 touchdowns, and only eight interceptions. Not only did it make Wilson the first Seahawks quarterback with over 4,000 passing yards in a season, but he became the first Seahawk with more than 30 touchdowns since Dave Krieg in 1984. Even more impressive is that Krieg also threw 24 interceptions, three times as many as Wilson. Paired with the 553 yards he added on the ground, it’s actually surprising that Wilson didn’t earn more MVP consideration.
Many people are quick to dismiss Wilson as “just another scrambler”, but unlike Newton, Johnny Manziel, or other running QBs, Wilson doesn’t look to run first. Wilson uses his size and quickness to dodge pass-rushers and extend the play. While many players, Newton included, would panic and take off down the field, Wilson keeps his eyes downfield and tries to make the best of a bad play. For evidence of this, just look back to the play that he had against the Minnesota Vikings in the playoffs this year. With 13 minutes left, Wilson and the Seahawks trailed by nine points. They were in Vikings territory and marching when center Patrick Lewis snapped the ball past Wilson’s head, sending the football bouncing back 13 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Instead of falling on the ball and staying down, Wilson carefully picked up the ball, and despite facing five unblocked Minnesota Vikings, he scrambled to the right and lofted the ball to rookie receiver Tyler Lockett, who turned a disaster into a 35 yard gain.
The demise of the Seattle Seahawks has been prophesized since the moment they upset the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII. People said there was no way they could keep playing their style of defense, especially in this age of free agency. People said their offense was based on the run; they’d completely fall apart when they couldn’t go to the run anymore. People have said a lot of things about the sustained success of the Seattle Seahawks, but one thing is for sure. As long as Mr. Wilson is under center, the Seahawks will be just fine.