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Ranking eight NFL divisions by quarterback: AFC claims three of top four spots; NFC West at No. 2

Which division had the best quarterback play in the NFL last season?

If we go strictly by the statistics, it wasn't the AFC North, which featured the league's MVP (Lamar Jackson) and three playoff teams. It also wasn't the divisions boasting Dak Prescott, Brock Purdy, Josh Allen or Patrick Mahomes, the quarterbacks who finished second, fourth, fifth and seventh, respectively, in MVP voting. Nor was it the AFC South, home of last year's Offensive Rookie of the Year, C.J. Stroud, who authored one of the finest debut seasons in recent memory.

The numbers actually point to the NFC North as having the best quarterback play in total last season. Don't believe me? Well, when you add everything up, the North ranked first among the eight divisions in completions, passing yards, passing touchdowns and passing first downs. It's also a division that heads toward the 2024 season with an enhanced reputation following three combined playoff victories this past January by the Lions and Packers, who were fueled by strong seasons from a couple of signal-callers (Jared Goff and Jordan Love). Meanwhile, the Bears and Vikings each just used a top-10 pick on a QB in April's draft, giving the division two high-profile additions at the game's most important position.

But how can I rate the NFC North ahead of other, more established QB quartets? If we start with the top two quarterbacks in each division, there are arguably four with as strong or stronger pairs of passers leading the way. In fact, I couldn't even wedge the NFC North into my top five divisions in this area heading into 2024, respected as that group might now be overall.

This is the challenge -- and the fun -- of determining which divisions offer the most QB talent, top to bottom. How heavily does last year matter? How highly do you rate potential after six teams drafted a quarterback in Round 1? The injury factor also must be weighed. It's a tangled, confusing mess.

Several of these groups were hard to separate, but here's my best shot at doing so.

1) AFC North

On name value alone, this division packs some serious punch.

Jackson is coming off his second MVP campaign. Burrow is making a league-high , having guided Cincinnati to a pair of AFC Championship Games and a Super Bowl over his past two healthy seasons. Watson boasts a contract with the most guaranteed money in league history. Wilson is a nine-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champ, while Fields is a 25-year-old former first-rounder with 38 starts under his belt.

Pound for pound, top to bottom, there's a lot to like with the North crop. Hence, the division receiving top billing on this list. But there also are some clear trap doors here.

Even with some losses on offense in Baltimore, Jackson should be fine, fresh off a brilliant campaign. But Burrow and Watson both are working back from season-ending injuries, and the Browns no longer have the Joe Flacco safety net behind the enigmatic Watson. Wilson has been in a slow decline in recent years, and Fields has only made modest gains over the past few seasons as a passer.

Yet this group ranks first because of the high, firmly established floors of Jackson and Burrow -- when healthy -- as well as the potential for the Browns and Steelers to improve their QB play from a year ago.

2) NFC West

All four starters are established. I also listed Howell, a 17-game starter for the Commanders last season, because I believe the Seahawks want someone to push Smith after the veteran slid back a bit last season. Geno's 2022 campaign was a career-changer, but getting back to that level of play -- in a new offensive system -- won't be automatic. I'll be a bit surprised if Howell doesn't start games for Seattle this season.

Stafford has hinted in recent years that he might be nearing the end of the road, and he was off to a tough start in 2023 when he suffered a midseason thumb injury, forcing him to miss a game. But after he came back, Stafford was pretty lights out down the stretch and nearly stabbed his former Lions team in the heart with a brilliant performance in the playoff loss at Detroit. How long the 36-year-old can stay (relatively) healthy and close to his peak is anyone's guess.

Purdy is a fascinating debate. Some might argue he's overrated and a product of Kyle Shanahan's system; others might say it's insane to keep him out of the league's top 10 quarterbacks. I tend to fall somewhere in the middle. Are there limitations to Purdy's game? Yes. And yet, how do you not give him credit -- even with his inconsistencies -- for putting up big numbers after coming back from major elbow surgery?

Murray seemed to show he was back late last season, and the Cardinals clearly agree. But his placement among contemporaries is tricky. For me, if Purdy is near the top of the second tier of QBs, Murray belongs in that group but closer to the bottom. He was a little more judicious as a runner after ACL surgery, but if he comes back strong this season with Marvin Harrison Jr. in tow, I'll surely move him up the list.

3) AFC West

This division is tricky to rate because it features two established stars and two battles between young and bridge QBs. And just how much upside do those young quarterbacks have anyway? I ultimately slotted this group third, but thought long and hard about putting it both second and fourth.

Any division with Mahomes surely deserves a bump, especially after he just won his third Super Bowl title. It's hard to imagine Herbert isn't in better hands now with Jim Harbaugh as coach. In fact, it might be the kind of thing that turns a superior young talent into a consistent winner.

Stidham had a few eye-opening moments with the Raiders two seasons ago and earned his first QB win with the Broncos this past January, but he's been a mixed bag overall and has fewer than 200 pass attempts since being drafted five years ago. There's hope for Nix, and he might be in the best spot possible with Sean Payton, but it could take some time before Nix is a difference maker.

Likewise, the Raiders' QB situation only holds so much appeal right now. Minshew dragged the Colts to the precipice of the playoffs last year, and in 37 career starts, he's been pretty solid statistically (62.6% completions, 59 TDs, 24 INTs). But there's also a reason he's on his fourth team in five years. O'Connell struggled badly in his first start, but settled in fairly well, putting up decent numbers in starting the final nine games: 61.5% completions, 1,905 passing yards, 11 passing TDs, five INTs and one fumble).

In the end, the power of Mahomes and Herbert wins out, but the bottom half of the AFC West must exceed expectations, even slightly, in order for the division to rise. But even if the Broncos and Raiders don't maximize their QB performances, it's hard to put the AFC West QBs much lower because of the two stars.

4) AFC East

This division has a little bit of everything. There's the sure-fire Hall of Famer on the 18th tee of his career (Rodgers). The young superstar (Allen). The vet without a long-term deal yet, perhaps needing to prove himself again (Tagovailoa). And a bridge QB (Brissett) trying to hold off the kid (Maye) as long as possible.

All four situations are quite different, and stylistically, they vary quite a bit, too. There might be some overlap in the games of Rodgers and Tagovailoa, although I am not yet ready to compare the promising but raw Maye to Allen. One day, perhaps, but even so, Allen has established himself as one of the league's premier dual-threat playmakers. We don't even know when Maye will get his shot to start.

Rodgers and Tagovailoa also come with some injury concerns if the recent past is any indication. Rodgers is entering a season during which he'll turn 41 years old. The Jets have given him some strong tools with which to work, and this could be a playoff team if he stays healthy, but it's hard not to be worried. Slotting Rodgers right now is no easy task.

Tagovailoa has been on notice for a few years now. He made it through his first full season in 2023, starting out like gangbusters before petering out down the stretch, along with the rest of the Dolphins. Is an extension looming? If so, that could change the entire dynamic of Tua's upcoming season. There's a massive difference between playing with a security-blanket contract vs. playing on an expiring deal.

Brissett is a solid, dependable bridge QB. Right now, he and Maye rate collectively on the lower end, and some of that comes with a team starting over -- and with some so-so offensive talent at key positions like left tackle and wide receiver. Maye might be too gifted to keep off the field for too long, but asking him to make lemonade from lemons early on might be foolish.

5) NFC East

Whether you rate Hurts ahead of Prescott or vice versa, both are safely in the top dozen quarterbacks in the league. How strong this division is, quarterback-wise, could depend as much on how the other two teams fare at the position.

Hurts took a step back from his MVP runner-up season of 2022, throwing a career-high 15 interceptions and seeing his effectiveness wane significantly down the stretch. He should return to form this season with most of his offensive corps back, along with the addition of electric RB Saquon Barkley, but there is the matter of getting in sync with new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. Of course, Prescott enjoyed a rebirth season in 2023 with Mike McCarthy and Brian Schottenheimer calling the offensive shots, so these kinds of situations can be invigorating. But for Dallas this season, the problems lie with an O-line that has yet to be ironed out and a skill-position group that lacks firepower beyond CeeDee Lamb.

Daniels feels like the Commanders' Week 1 starter, even if Dan Quinn isn't yet ready to make a call there. Assuming the No. 2 overall pick can stay healthy -- and his lean frame gives me some pause -- he might be one of the clear Offensive Rookie of the Year favorites.

The Giants' situation has far less upside than those of the other three teams in this division. Jones will have his chance to revive his career in New York, and rookie WR Malik Nabers might be a true difference maker, no matter who throws him passes. I'm not counting out Lock, however. His career has been a bit wayward, but he had some moments last season in Seattle and appears to have some . Either way, you could see Big Blue being in the QB business next offseason.

6) NFC North

This feels unfairly low, but so much of the North's promise lies in the hands of the kids. In a year or two, we could regard Love, Williams and McCarthy as the nucleus of the league's young QB talent. On the flip side, all three come with enough questions and projection that we must hedge slightly right now.

Last Nov. 1, following four straight losses, Packers GM Brian Gutekunst clearly didn't know yet if Love was The Guy. Now, a massive contract extension for Love feels all but imminent. During the final 10 regular-season games and the playoff win at Dallas, Love was special. But in the playoff defeat at San Francisco, he came unglued. The future remains very bright, but Love's inconsistencies remind us that nothing is certain.

Williams will be the Bears' starting QB Week 1 barring something unforeseen, but it won't be shocking if he takes some time to settle in -- not too different from what Love endured last season -- even with Chicago facing a manageable slate. His upside is tremendous, but how quickly will this new Bears offense fire on all cylinders?

Both Chicago and Minnesota feel like strong QB situations for a rookie to enter, but how quickly McCarthy earns the job remains unknown. Darnold could hold him off for a bit, but either way, the Vikings appear to have far better options now than they did after Kirk Cousins went down last season. With Justin Jefferson, Jordan Addison and more, this is an offense where either quarterback won't be asked to carry the team on their respective backs. We expect solid play at worst, but will Darnold or McCarthy deliver anything special? That's hard to say.

No disrespect to Goff, who has done all that he's been asked of -- and more -- in Detroit. He's clearly in peak career form, even with a few tough games in the second half of last season, and he's undeniably been a huge part of the Lions' franchise revival. Is there a higher ceiling for Goff? Winning a Super Bowl would invite that kind of talk, but it's hard to imagine Goff being worlds better than he has been in the past two seasons, even with Ben Johnson staying in the fold to call plays.

7) AFC South

There's no younger QB division than this one -- and arguably no group with more upward mobility. Lawrence being the elder statesman -- with a massive extension already secured -- just sounds weird. Nonetheless, it's also a fascinating group that has some real boom-or-bust potential.

Stroud was a marvel as a rookie and appears to have a better offensive cast in Year 2. All indications are that he's a star in the making. The schedule is tougher, but his surrounding talent appears better. At the moment, the arrow's pointing firmly upward. But Lawrence serves as a reminder that not all progress is linear. Jacksonville's QB took a big step forward in Year 2 under Doug Pederson but regressed last season, especially as injuries mounted. Clearly the Jaguars believe in Lawrence as the future, given the contract they just gave him, and there's ample evidence he's due for a bounceback. Stroud's Year 2 journey could face a few more speed bumps against a tougher slate.

Richardson and Levis are the ultimate wild cards. Both 2023 draft picks had promising moments as rookies, albeit in smallish sample sizes.

Richardson started four games but played every snap in only one. He suffered a concussion and later a season-ending shoulder injury, one that he's still rehabbing. Richardson also had some leg injuries in college. He's a physical marvel and looked extremely dangerous in doses last year, but we just need to see a full season out of him to make a proper judgment.

Levis threw four TD passes in his NFL debut, but leveled off quickly thereafter, suffering from scattershot accuracy at times and poor ball security before a foot injury ended his rookie season. But the Titans made major OL and WR upgrades this offseason, and Levis now has two stud receivers as targets. Can he stay healthy and thrive in this new offense under Brian Callahan? Sure. But we're going to slow play his projection until we see more.

8) NFC South

The NFC South has been down a bit, with the Buccaneers extending their divisional reign by going 9-8 and 8-9 over the past two seasons, but the QB names don't look horrible on the surface.

Granted, Young had a rough rookie season, and as solid as Carr and Mayfield were statistically, they'll always have their share of doubters. Plenty of haters even scowled at the Falcons for dishing out $45 million per year (and $100 million in guarantees) for Cousins, who is coming off an Achilles injury. But you can't say that there aren't capable (or potentially capable) quarterbacks here.

If Cousins is healthy, he'll thrive with Atlanta's skill-position talent. The Falcons haven't had this accurate a passer since Matt Ryan's heyday. Is Captain Kirk a true game changer, though? We shall see, but he's at least as close to one as exists in the division -- a big reason why the South slots last.

The addition of first-rounder Michael Penix Jr. was a highly controversial move by Atlanta. But it's not as if Penix isn't a gifted slinger with big-game experience. The Falcons must get him ready if Cousins suffers a setback or is hurt again, and don't get it twisted: Penix is enviable insurance in this aspect.

Carr had a bit of a strange first season in New Orleans, although he limited his fumbles and finished up with his best TD and INT numbers in several years. A hot December/January (74.4% completions, 1,343 yards, 15 TDs, 3 INTs) really helped. Can new offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak roll that kind of play over to the 2024 campaign?

Mayfield loses Dave Canales to the Panthers, which surely will help Young. But can Mayfield break out of his good-season/bad-season career track? 2023 was arguably his most well-rounded NFL campaign, and the Bucs bring everyone back.

Young surely has a lot of work to do, but the offensive talent has improved a decent amount. If Canales can unlock the winning pedigree Young established in high school and college, the 2023 No. 1 overall pick might never be an elite quarterback but can win the same way Alex Smith did for years.

Is this a terrific QB division? No. But there are some redeemable elements for sure.

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