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Quarterback Tiers and the Path for Justin Fields

A thorough examination of Mike Sando’s QB Tiers and what they could mean for Justin Fields and the Chicago Bears

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Buffalo Bills v Chicago Bears Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

One of my favorite articles every year is the Quarterback Tiers piece, authored by Mike Sando, now of The Athletic. The project started in 2014 with Sando polling 50 coaches and executives in the league to rank the projected starters (or multiple options for a team if there’s uncertainty) for the upcoming year into one of five tiers. Tier 1 signifies a quarterback can carry his team each week. A Tier 2 quarterback is a guy that can carry his team sometimes but is not as consistent and may have a flaw or two to his game. Tier 3 quarterbacks are legitimate starters but need help in the form of a good defense and/or a good running game to win consistently. Tier 4 quarterbacks are either unproven players (a way for respondents to say they need more information) or a veteran with severe limitations, ideally in a backup / spot starter role. A Tier 5 quarterback is someone best suited to a backup role. The votes from all respondents are tallied up and rankings are established from the composite score. That score then determines the “tier” for that potential starter for the season (Tier 1 1.0-1.5, Tier 2 1.51-2.50, Tier 3 2.51-3.5, Tier 4 3.5-4.5, Tier 5 4.51-5.0).

Most of these articles are behind an ESPN or Athletic paywall and I’d encourage you to read them if you have those subscriptions (2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022). If you do not have either of those subscriptions but do want to read a full breakdown, the 2015 and 2016 links are open access. The 2023 version will drop later this summer.

I like this series because it uses the same methodology every year. I like it even more because Sando mixes up who he asks, so it is not the same individuals influencing the list each and every year. I really like how he interviews at least fifty coaches and executives for the piece, which prevents one person or people from one organization to bias the score. I wanted to map out the year to year variations of scores to see if we can learn anything in general and specifically to the path that Justin Fields could potentially follow if he is to finally break this curse on Chicago Bears quarterbacks.


Let’s take a look at the...oh wow...

QB Tiers 2014-2022

So...this will need to be broken out into multiple charts. The above shows all of the QBs, with each data point as a year that QB was included in the survey with the line between the dots linking that QB to their scores. If you see a dot without a line or a space between, that means the QB didn’t have multiple starting years or had a gap between starting seasons where they would be included in the survey. In the charts below, you may notice a dotted line - I added those to connect those spaces in careers in order for you to pick up the line for that player. The colors correspond to the tier structure for an easy reference (Tier 1 blue, Tier 2 green, Tier 3 yellow, Tier 4 red). I chose to not include Tier 5 as it rarely registered. The red line running near the middle of the chart is the average (mean) of the scores for all QBs in the survey that given year. Consider this the Kirk Cousins proxy line.

One thing I noticed is that most quarterbacks start off as first year starters in Tier 4, as most respondents want more information before assigning a tier. In order to separate the rookie classes from those already established, let’s break out the quarterbacks who entered the 2014 season as veterans. The chart below are 2013 veterans that are now retired for the 2023 season.

QB Tiers 2013 Vets, Now Retired

It’s interesting to see many of these scores and just how many of them start to dive in their last season. Did Eli Manning and Big Ben stay a year too long? Obviously. Did everyone know it? Yes, yes they did (although I’d argue they were still too kind to Ben). It’s really just another testament to Brady (and Brees) that he could keep his perception elevated to the end. I low-key love the Ryan Fitzpatrick career track.

The chart below takes veterans in 2013 that are still active. It’s more than I would have thought coming into this exercise but the number of QBs from that time are dwindling. The aforementioned Kirk Cousins hugs close to the Average QB line while Rodgers paces the group, dropping below only Russell Wilson in 2020. Wilson experiences some of the biggest swings while Matthew Stafford bops up and down in Tier 2. I think it’s also interesting how some of these solid to above starters have lost a few miles off their fastball and stuck in the league as veteran spot starters / high-end backups like Joe Flacco and Andy Dalton.

2013 Vets, Still Active

That sets the table of the world of quarterbacking as it looked in 2013 and how it’s been perceived by this survey over the years, but we want to know if there are any good examples that Justin Fields can follow. I broke out each rookie class in its own graph to see if we can learn anything. First up, 2013 rookies and wow, this is depressing. Arguably one of the worst quarterback classes has never had a starter with an above average score and only 2018 Case Keenum (!) had a Tier 3 score in this sample. Until last year’s Geno Smith emerged in the Pacific Northwest, you could’ve argued Keenum was the prize from the 2013 class. Geno is actually the only player to score as a Tier 5 in the data I collected as the league sources surveyed had absolutely moved on from him. It will be interesting to see just how well he scores in the 2023 survey. Nothing of value to compare to Fields here.

2013 Rookies

You can be forgiven if you forgot the order of the 2014 class as Jacksonville took Blake Bortles 3rd overall, the Browns took Johnny Manziel at 22, and the Vikings jumped up to the end of the first round to grab Teddy “Two Gloves” Bridgewater. Derek Carr went in the early second round and has been the best of the bunch, flashing Tier 2 ability at times but mostly settling in as an above average QB. Jimmy Garoppolo rates in as a slightly below average guy over his career. Carr’s game is nothing like Justin Fields, but I find that player arc interesting as he steadily improved to a 2017 peak (2016 playing year) before a multi-year dip.

2014 Rookies

The 2015 class is interesting in that the big debate between Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota that spilled a few metric tons of virtual ink leading up the draft turned out to be nothing of interest. Both players had a rough start, improved to around average in 2016 and 2017 before steadily dropping off and losing starting jobs. Both guys will enter 2023 in a backup role. These paths are so similar and we have to acknowledge that this is a potential outcome for Fields. Getting at or near that red “Average QB” line may be enough to hold onto a job for awhile, but these two both got progressively worse before hitting that mercenary starter / high end backup path. Neither of them peaked into Tier 2, which I think is important. Oh, and Trevor Siemian is in this class!

2015 Rookies

Remember how good Carson Wentz was for awhile? Early on it sure looked like Wentz would be the star of this class only for a giant contract extension from Philly to get shipped around multiple times. The case study on what went wrong for Wentz will be fascinating. He remained in Tier 2 for awhile despite evidence that he was trending in the wrong direction before nose diving. Dak Prescott turned into the star from this class and his arc has been more of a grinder than anything, steadily improving year to year to be a solid Tier 2 guy. Jared Goff was bad bad, then overrated good, and now back to being kind of bad. I’d imagine it will level out near the average line for 2023. Once again, I don’t see a comp for Fields but Prescott improving his station in his fourth season as the starter is encouraging.

2016 Rookies

This one just hurts and this has been beat to death everywhere but woof.

2017 Rookies

Finally, we get a good potential Justin Fields comparison. Josh Allen started his QB Tiers life with a Tier 4 mark, like most rookies do. He improved into a middle-of-the-road Tier 3 mark in his second year on the survey before exploding in his third year. The fourth year confirmed it for the skeptics, raising him up to a bona fide Tier 1 dude. It’s a gigantic leap but when you show it, you show it. This right here is what people are talking about when they say Fields could follow the Allen path. Lamar Jackson exploded earlier with the Ravens catering to his playing style in his first year as a full-time starter as he set the QB record for rushing yards, led the Ravens to a 13-2 record as a starter, and won the MVP. Allen’s jump came after a 13-3 record as a starter in 2020 and finishing second in MVP voting. These are not easy jumps to make, obviously, but there are recent examples.

2018 Rookies

Nothing to really see in the 2019 class except that I will be very curious where Daniel Jones sits in this year’s update. He had a nice year for the Giants including a road playoff win. He had dipped firmly into Tier 4 for the 2022 season. Do respondents change course now that he’s in a system that can get something out of him or do they still keep him as a lower end starter?

2019 Rookies

The 2020 class is all very encouraging from a Fields perspective. All four guys charted below have experienced upward growth. Herbert got onto the field earlier than anticipated and just never let go, but he elevated from Tier 2 to Tier 1 after showing his rates of success were sustainable. Joe Burrow bounced back from his knee injury to prove his ultra-processor was Tier 1 worthy (a Super Bowl appearance helps). Jalen Hurts made steady gains and will undoubtedly make a similar giant leap like Mahomes, Allen, and Jackson above. Hurts led his team to a 14-1 record, a Super Bowl appearance, and a second-place MVP showing. Even Tua Tagovailoa’s arrow is pointing up as I anticipate his score will be higher in the 2023 survey. Hurts is the comparison here as he’s improved every year he’s been given a chance. I’d be shocked if he isn’t a high-end Tier 2 guy at a minimum in this year’s list.

2020 Rookies

As we look at the 2021 rookies and where they start this journey, it’s important to note that while Mac Jones starts at the highest mark, few believe he’ll finish as the leader of this class. Trevor Lawrence showed enough high-end quarterbacking skills to likely make the leap above Jones while Trey Lance, Zach Wilson and most likely Davis Mills will not start the majority of games for their respective franchises in 2023.

That leaves Fields, who will likely see a modest bump to his score after his first full season as a starter. He showed one superstar ability and kept his team in games they otherwise should’ve lost by multiple scores. He had a good offseason in that his general manager found a legitimate number 1 wide receiver and added two starters along the offensive line. Will it be enough to make the leap for the 2024 list?

2021 Rookies

I don’t know that the Bears are good enough to compete like the Chiefs, Ravens, Bills, and Eagles did when those aforementioned quarterbacks made their mega-leaps. Scratch that - I do know that the Bears are not good enough to compete like those teams. At least not this year. If Fields can have a high level of success with this squad, it may look more like 8-10 wins with Justin playing various shades of superman each week. Still, I think it’s more than possible. Year 3 is a make or break year for many quarterbacks. What most of the quarterbacks above that made it have in common is that they jumped to Tier 2 early in their career to show that they can be at least that caliber of QB. That has to be the floor for Justin Fields if he’s going to break the curse. He needs to jump into Tier 2 with this season’s play or the nightmare may continue, as shown below...

Bears QBs

Follow me on Twitter @gridironborn and check out my podcasts on the Windy City Gridiron Podcast Channel and 2nd City Gridiron YouTube page.

A quick statistical note: some of you know may know my longstanding issues with player grades for games given that the methodology isn’t publicly shared, there is unknown information that the reviewer likely does not or cannot know, and it can’t be reasonably replicated. This data is different in my opinion because the methodology is known and we just need to keep in mind that this is a survey. I may not be able to replicate this due to lack of contacts in the industry, but the methodology is there if I had Sando’s rolodex, and I’d imagine one of his colleagues could replicate this work and get similar results.