By my analysis, the NFC South is the best division in the NFL for quarterback play. When I was breaking down each of these four QBs, I had a difficult time ranking them and fans of each team will probably disagree with my order, depending on how favorable I was with your Commander-In-Chief.
The last two NFL MVPs were quarterbacks in this division, Matt Ryan in 2016, and Cam Newton in 2015. Shockingly, five 5,000+ yard seasons have not been enough to get Drew Brees a league MVP, but he has established himself as one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time, and even more beloved than Archie Manning in The Big Easy.
Jameis Winston was the first overall pick in the 2015 draft and his growth and leadership have bolstered him into the conversation with the “shortlist” of current great quarterbacks.
This list will most certainly spark some chatter. Let your voice be heard!
1. Drew Brees – New Orleans Saints (6-0, 209 pounds, 38 years old)
I realize that Matt Ryan was the league MVP in 2016, took his team to the Super Bowl, and had the best season of his career, but the consistency and reliability of Drew Brees forced me to put him as my number one guy for 2017. I know that Brees is aging (38 years old), but this ranking is based on the 2017 season only and as exemplified last year, he has plenty left in the tank.
It seems like every year Brees gets kind of lost in the shuffle of QB talk. While everyone in the media drools over Tom Brady and his supermodel wife or argues the athleticism of Aaron Rodgers, or effervescently caresses the potency of the triple B’s in Pittsburgh, Drew Brees quietly goes about his business in New Orleans climbing up the quarterback all-time list.
In his career, Brees has only missed eight regular season games, has been to 10 Pro Bowls, been a first-team all-pro once, and has the all-important Super Bowl victory, beating another great in Peyton Manning.
Here is the craziest stat of all. Nine quarterbacks in NFL History have thrown for over 5,000 yards in a season. Dan Marino, Tom Brady, Matthew Stafford, and Peyton Manning have all done it once. Drew Brees has thrown for 5,000+ yards an astonishing FIVE times! That is ridiculous.
But I digress. This ranking is not based on career, but rather moving forward for the 2017 season. In 2016, Brees threw for 5,208 (a few hundred more than Ryan) and 37 touchdowns (one less than Ryan) for a crazy 70.0 completion percentage. Due to the Saints finishing 7-9 and missing the playoffs Brees was not even mentioned in the MVP conversation, and yet his stats were hand in hand with the winner, Matt Ryan.
The continuity between him and coach Sean Payton is unparalleled. A strong receiving corps anchored by Brandin Cooks and Michael Thomas, Coby Fleener entering his second season in the system as a tight end, and a versatile running game, makes Drew Brees still one of the best quarterbacks in the game and the top QB in the NFC South for 2017.
2. Matt Ryan – Atlanta Falcons (6-4, 217 pounds, 31 years old)
Matt Ryan had nothing short of a remarkable season in 2016, landing him with the Most Valuable Player award. He threw for 4,944 yards, 38 touchdowns, and only 7 interceptions. He also put together a great completion percentage with 69.9. He was selected to his fourth Pro Bowl and his first, 1st team all-pro.
There are two factors that led me to rank Brees above Ryan going into 2017.
First, 2016 was Ryan’s best season by a significant margin. He has only thrown over 30 touchdowns one other time, and in his four seasons prior to 2016, he threw 14+ interceptions each year, which is relatively high. His 16 interceptions in 2015 were not the highest in the NFL, but when you couple that with only 21 touchdowns it was not a great ratio.
Now, this isn’t to say that he can’t build off his 2016 campaign, put up great numbers in 2017 with arguably the best receiver in football (Julio Jones), and a dynamic two-headed rushing/ receiving attack out of the backfield, but that leads me to my second point.
Kyle Shanahan is no longer the offensive coordinator in Atlanta. 2016 was Shanahan’s second season with the Falcons, so his system was fully integrated and fully in place. He is regarded as one of the best offensive minds in the game today and one that clearly got the most out of his quarterback. Now he has moved on to become the head coach of the 49ers and Matt Ryan is left to learn a new system under Steve Sarkisian (an interesting marriage that has an unknown outcome). In addition, his quarterback’s coach, Matt LaFluer, is also gone as he took the offensive coordinator position for the Los Angeles Rams.
Matt Ryan finally had his breakout year in 2016. There is no denying his football IQ and talent but those two major factors forced me to rank him behind Drew Brees moving forward.
3. Jameis Winston – Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-4, 232 pounds, 23 years old)
The former number one overall pick in the 2015 draft is entering his third season as a starting quarterback. He was invited to the Pro Bowl as a rookie and has thrown for over 4,000 yards in his first two seasons.
Perhaps his greatest quality is his leadership and continually growing maturity, the main factor that came into play in ranking him above Cam Newton. When you watch him play and watch post game interviews, there is no question that he has a burning desire to win. Hell, just look up the speech that he gave to his alma mater Florida State during halftime in a game where the Seminoles came back to beat Ole Miss. He has it. Whatever IT is, he has it.
In two seasons, the Buccaneers went from the first pick in the draft to 9-7 and one win away from a playoff birth.
One thing that Winston needs to drastically improve on is his decision making and protecting the football. His 18 interceptions last season will have to be dramatically reduced. One game that comes to mind was a matchup between the Dallas Cowboys. He made some amazing plays that single-handedly kept his team in the game. But his three interceptions (the last coming on the final drive of the game) eventually led to the 6-point loss. I expect him to continue to grow and cut down these mistakes in 2017.
To me, Winston has a higher ceiling, and thus, why I ranked him above Newton.
4. Cam Newton – Carolina Panthers (6-6, 260 pounds, 27 years old)
I’m sure I will get some backlash from Panther fans for this one. I realize that Cam was the NFL MVP in 2015, and led his team to a 15-1 record en route to Super Bowl 50. The Super Bowl, a game where we saw Cam’s maturity, or lack there of, put on full display. A game that I don’t know if Cam has yet to recover from.
Everyone knows that losing is not fun. All the work that you put in throughout the week and then to lose can be extremely mentally draining and even depressing. However, as an adult, and especially as a quarterback, there is a professionalism that you expect to be displayed whether you win or lose. This is what separates Jameis Winston and Cam Newton. Just watch a press conference after each team loses and you decide who you want in your locker room.
This is not to be a call-out of Cam’s character or integrity as a human being, but his leadership and drive have been in question at times and are a major reason why I put him at the bottom of the NFC South.
Now let’s just look strictly at the numbers. Many will argue that 2016 was just an outlier year in his career, a year where the whole team was out of sync and was a bust from week 1. I wish this were true for Panthers’ fans, but it just factually isn’t.
In Cam’s last three seasons’ he has thrown for 3,127 yards, 3,837 yards, and 3,509 yards, respectively. His completion percentages in those three seasons: 58.5, 59.8, and 52.9. I absolutely think he was deserving of his MVP in 2015, but it is eye-opening that he had a completion percentage under 60. In fact, in his six-year career, he has only had a completion percentage above 60 ONCE. In 2016, Drew Brees almost completed 20% more of his passes than Newton. Crazy.
Anyone that watches him play, especially opposing defenses, know that if you rattle him early his game falls apart. In 2015, the Panthers jumped to big early leads in almost every game and proceded to jam it down teams throats. Defenses figured Cam out in 2016, and he could never bring his team back from early deficits. In Newton’s six wins in 2016, only one came against a team with a winning record, the Washington Redskins.
He has three seasons with under 20 touchdown passes and only one season with more than 30 (2015).
People will argue that his running and big play ability should make him rank higher. With the controversy of all the big hits he takes, his rushing yards were cut in half in 2016 and I believe will continue to dwindle as his career progresses.
In Newton’s six years I think we may have seen the ceiling with him. He had a great year in 2015, but his other years have been mediocre at best with low completion percentages and the inability to bring his team back into games after trailing early.
Don’t hear me wrong, Cam Newton is still a very viable NFL starting quarterback, but in a division with very strong quarterback play, he has the lowest floor and the lowest ceiling.
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