Ranking all 14 NFL playoff quarterbacks: Strengths, weaknesses

ByDan Orlovsky ESPN logo
Thursday, January 12, 2023

When the NFL playoffs for the 2022 season kick off Saturday, we will see some of the league's best talent under center. Eleven of the top 15 finishers in Total QBR made the field. Eight of the 14 playoff teams' projected starters were first-round picks (along with two of the backups). All seven AFC teams could start quarterbacks under the age of 30, and up to six passers could make their first playoff start, per ESPN Stats & Information research.

These guys will all be big factors in whether their teams go on deep playoff runs, and I see a lot of quarterbacks here who can compete for a Super Bowl title this year.

Ranking all 14 of the starting signal-callers isn't easy. I based the following 1-14 list on how each passer is playing at the moment and what I expect from them as we head to the postseason. I tried to remove the surroundings for each quarterback and weigh their abilities and recent form on their own, unattached to team strength, playcalling or supporting cast on offense. This is just how I would stack the quarterbacks right now based on watching each on tape over the course of the season.

The first name of the list wasn't too difficult to place, but it got harder from there.

1.Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs

Mahomes is theStephen Curryof the NFL. He has an amazing ability to just slow everything down around him and use his immense football sense to do pretty much whatever he wants to do with the football, regardless of the situation. He finished the season with a league-leading 77.6 QBR and threw 41 touchdown passes, his most since an MVP-winning 2018 season. His arm talent is off the charts, and there isn't much he can't do.

I suppose there is a little concern with him getting too frisky with the football at times, though. He threw 12 interceptions, one year after throwing 13. There is some "I'm just going to try this" to his game, and it's not always necessary. But the thing about Mahomes is he normally pulls it off anyway.

2. Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals

Burrow isn't just playing quarterback out there -- he's playing against the defense. He knows exactly what is needed at any given moment and how to play against every opponent. With three seasons under his belt, along with a run to last year's Super Bowl, he sees the field better than anyone in football. And he now has back-to-back years with 34 or more TD throws despite mediocre protection in front of him.

There aren't too many flaws with his game. I love what I see on tape pretty much every weekend from Burrow. His arm strength might not be at the same level as some of the other QBs listed here, but he still completed 13 downfield passes (at least 25 air yards) this season.

3. Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills

No play is dead with Allen under center. He's the NFL's ultimate playmaker, whether it be with his rushing ability or huge arm. And when Allen is on his game, he's the hottest quarterback in football. Per ESPN Stats & Information research, Allen has the best TD-to-INT ratio (14-1) in playoff history among QBs with at least 150 passing attempts. His 71.2 QBR ranked second this year to Mahomes, and his 7.1 yards per dropback were fourth.

Allen's biggest strength can be his biggest weakness, though. He needs to learn to curb his competitiveness at times. He seems to get into this mode where he feels like he has to do it all himself, and it can get him into trouble. His 29 interceptions over the past two seasons lead the league.

4. Jalen Hurts, Philadelphia Eagles

Hurts has abutterfly effect on the rest of the Eagles' roster. You can just see how much he changes that team when he's under center, and he createsproblems for opposing offenses. Hurts forces opponents to play true 11-on-11 football thanks to precision passing and the ability to run the ball like a tailback.

He completed 66.5% of his passes this season and only threw six interceptions, and his 66.7 QBR finished fourth. And onlyJamaal Williamshad more rushing TDs than Hurts' 13. He can chase the big play too much, but then again, he does have A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith out there running routes for him.

5. Justin Herbert, Los Angeles Chargers

Everyone knows about Herbert's huge arm and ability to drive the ball. But I think he is getting better with his eye manipulation, too. That matches the arm talent at this point. He can hold or move defenders very well with his eyes to pick apart the defense and find voids. Some of his key targets were injured for stretches this season, but he still threw 25 TD passes and completed 68.2% of his throws.

Herbert can sometimes be a little too by-the-book out there. By that, I mean he has such impressive football sense that he can actually go through progressions too fast. He moves off things too quickly, and a little bit more patience might allow some receivers to come open.

6. Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens

Is there a player facing more pressure in these playoffs? I'd go so far as to say there hasn't been one in the past 10 years. Consider how much the Ravens lean on him, how important this performance is for his next contract, how much he is betting on himself and the fact that he has now missed five games in each of the past two seasons. That said, Jackson is one of probably five players who can flat-out take over the postseason with his talent when healthy. This is game-breaking skill of the Super Bowl caliber. His 64.7 QBR is third since being drafted in 2018 among active QBs, behind just Mahomes and Allen.

But the injuries will be a factor; he hasn't played since early December (knee), and there's still no guarantee he playsin the wild-card round. I also don't trust the Ravens' aerial offense enough in the pass-happy AFC playoffs. If Jackson could throw it to himself, I'd feel better, but the lack of go-to wide receivers limits his upside.

7. Tom Brady, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Brady is back in the playoffs again, and you can never count him out. He can still hit the throws outside the numbers in one-on-one situations. But his touchdown count dipped by 18 from last season, and his yards per attempt (6.4) was his lowest in a season since 2002.

The good news for Brady? He gets the ball out fast.

The bad news for Brady? He gets the ball out fast.

With poor offensive line protection this season, Brady has avoided pressure by using the quick game, averaging 2.45 seconds before passing (quickest in the NFL). That's a good thing, because Brady's 6.7 QBR under pressure ranks 29th. But it's also bad because it limits the offense. The Bucs can only get the ball downfield with play-action, and they simply don't do it enough.

8. Daniel Jones, New York Giants

Jones attacks the middle of the field really well, showing some high-end ball placement. His 75.9% completion rate on throws between the hashes ranks second in the NFL. And he has become a rushing asset for the Giants' offense, picking up just shy of 600 yards with his feet in 2022.

I do wonder if his "good" is good enough, though. Can Jones carry the Giants to a string of playoff wins? The supporting cast doesn't have the same talent as other NFC contenders, so Jones will have to take over at times.

9. Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars

Lawrence is playing free right now. He's a fearless quarterback who will force you to defend every single blade of grass on the field, vertically and horizontally. His TD-to-INT ratio in his rookie year was 12-17, but it jumped to 25-8 in 2022. His completion percentage also leapt from sub-60% to 66.3%. However, you'll still see some adrenaline-fueled misses. After all, he's still only 23 years old.

10. Geno Smith, Seattle Seahawks

Smith is as good at going through progressions as any of these quarterbacks. He says "no" quickly when it isn't there and moves on, and he's confident in what his eyes are telling him. That helped him to an NFL-leading 69.8% completion rate and the league's sixth-best QBR (61.1). But he holds the ball a bit too long, which results in a higher sack count. He took 46 this season, tied for the third most.

11. Kirk Cousins, Minnesota Vikings

Few quarterbacks have the caliber of supporting cast that Cousins has in Minnesota. That starts with Justin Jefferson, whose presence on the field allows him to be more aggressive. But he's occasionallytoo aggressive, trusting his eyes too much. A streaky quarterback, Cousins has to play to a certain style of game to be successful. He helped the Vikings to 13 wins, but his 49.8 QBR was 23rd in the league.

12. Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys

This might look low, but Prescott enters the playoffs fresh off the worst season of his career. The ball has just consistently been in the wrong place, and he doesn't seem to be seeing the field clearly. He missed five games earlier in the season, but he still tied for the league lead in interceptions (15). Prescott has been too quick to leave the pocket, too, not putting enough faith in the protection.

But I'll say this: Prescott is nails out there. He has an unwavering mentality, and that can go a long way in the postseason. And his connection with receiver CeeDee Lamb is outstanding.

13. Brock Purdy, San Francisco 49ers

This isn't really a knock. It's just an unknown. We haven't seen Purdy play enough to know what he's going to do in the playoffs. But in his limited time starting for the Niners, he has for the most part known where to go with the football. His eyes are consistently in the right place. His 65.6 QBR would rank fifth in the league if it qualified, and he hasn't lost a game yet. But how will he handle the pressure of the postseason? What will happen if/when San Francisco finds itself down 14-0?

14. Skylar Thompson, Miami Dolphins

Thompson is in line to start in the wild-card round withTua Tagovailoa ruled out. He is still very inexperienced as a seventh-round rookie third-stringer, completing just 57.1% of his throws across seven games (two starts) and averaging 5.1 yards per attempt. But he has some mobility and explosive arm strength. The ball pops off his hand as a thrower, though he often is overly aggressive and needs to weave in a little more touch on some of his passes.

Others who could play

  • Tua Tagovailoa, Miami Dolphins: Tagovailoa is out for the wild-card round but could play at some point if Miami advances. His 68.5 QBR ranked third this season, and he sees things before they happen. He can throw over or around defenders as good as anyone in the league, and he has been very efficient in his breakout year, averaging 8.9 yards per attempt (first in the NFL).
  • Teddy Bridgewater, Miami Dolphins: Bridgewater is instinctive and aggressive -- yet not careless -- with the football. He is still dealing with a dislocated pinkie on his throwing hand.
  • Tyler Huntley, Baltimore Ravens: Huntley is a good rhythmic passer, and while he's not Jackson, he still brings some rushing ability. We are still waiting on confirmation that Jackson will play in the wild-card round.
  • Anthony Brown, Baltimore Ravens: Brown might be forced into action if both Jackson and Huntley can't play in the wild-card round. The undrafted rookie has completed just 44.9% of his throws across two games and has yet to throw a TD pass.

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