As they journey through the official 2023 NFL schedule, the Cincinnati Bengals will encounter the very best quarterbacks the league has to offer—and some of the worst.
Pro Football Focus ranked every starting quarterback recently and Bengals superstar Joe Burrow came in third place, with the writeup citing his 77.1 percent adjusted completion rate as one of the major highlights of his game.
Being Super Bowl contenders two years in a row, the Bengals will actually play the two quarterbacks ranked ahead of Burrow next season — at least once.
Here’s a look at how the quarterbacks the Bengals will play next year stack up on PFF’s list, starting with the lower end first.
No. 32: Anthony Richardson, Indianapolis Colts
Richardson wasn’t even a particularly good college quarterback last season in the SEC. His overall PFF grade came in at 80.3, which ranked 38th in the nation and was being propped up by his rushing ability — something that will need to continue in the NFL. The good news for him is that he landed with a head coach who just executed this development arc with Jalen Hurts. Richardson will need to rely on the limitless athleticism that saw him average 7.4 yards per carry last season while he develops as a passer.
No. 30: C.J. Stroud, Houston Texans
There were a lot of Stroud fans throughout the pre-draft process, but I was always a little lower on him than most. He has NFL stature and elite accuracy, but outside of the Georgia game in the college football playoffs, he had some real issues under pressure or after the play had broken down. His PFF grade under pressure last season placed him in the 18th percentile, and that only improves to the 34th percentile if you look at a two-year sample size.
With Kyler Murray not likely to be ready until late in the season, if at all, McCoy will helm the Cardinals’ offense for most of the season. It would be easy to assume that’s the worst quarterback situation in the league, but the chances are that one of the better backups in the game performs better than some of the young starters. McCoy has handled more than 100 dropbacks in each of the past two seasons, completing 71% of his passes at 6.6 yards per attempt over that time.
Purdy passed for 8.3 yards per attempt last season in his run as the starter — more than Patrick Mahomes and every quarterback in the league other than Tua Tagovailoa — but he attempted just 233 passes in an offense we know to be a virtual cheat code for production. It would be wrong to dismiss his success altogether — he was better than players like Nick Mullens who also had success in that offense — but it would also be crazy to overreact to such a small sample size, even outside of the risk associated with the UCL surgery Purdy had on his elbow.
The best quarterback in what was deemed an awful quarterback class, Pickett performed admirably in his rookie season even though the statistics weren’t necessarily pretty. His PFF passing grade was good enough to rank 16th in the league, but he finished the season with more interceptions (nine) than touchdowns (seven). Pittsburgh’s scheme was toothless and predictable in 2022, and that might be the biggest obstacle standing between Pickett and real improvement in these rankings.
Tannehill is very much in the decline of his career at this point, but he is being made to look worse by the collapse of talent around him in Tennessee. The Titans ended last season with the league’s worst offensive line, and they may be entering this one with the league’s worst receiving corps. Tannehill has little chance to prove he is still capable of his best play and is coming off a 75.9% adjusted completion rate and a 2.5% turnover-worthy play rate in 2022.
Another difficult quarterback to rank, Smith improbably ranked as a top-five quarterback for much of last season before the wheels fell off a little late in the year. Was that the inevitable regression back to the mean, or was it a product of his pass protection suffering a similar late-season collapse? Smith had flashed before in his NFL career, but we hadn’t seen the heights he hit last season. He earned three single-game PFF grades north of 90.0 and posted a 5.4% big-time throw rate.
Maybe the hardest player to rank on the list, Watson has one of the widest ranges of outcomes in the NFL. He finished 2022 with just a 55.3 overall PFF grade after returning from suspension and didn’t noticeably improve as one does if they are just shaking off the rust. In his last full season with Houston (2020), he earned a 92.5 PFF grade and was one of the best quarterbacks in the game. I have no earthly idea how good Watson will be in 2023, and neither does anybody else.
No. 12: Matthew Stafford, Los Angeles Rams
Is Stafford physically able to be the player he once was? Last season was a nightmare for the Rams from start to finish, and Stafford wasn’t far different on an individual level. He went from throwing 50 touchdowns including the playoffs the season before to just 10 across nine games before being shut down for the year. The Rams and Stafford are likely on the far side of their Super Bowl window, but how much he has left in the tank is a big unknown.
Cousins is probably at the top of the second tier of quarterbacks — those who you can win with but are unlikely to transform a team into a contender simply by their presence. Cousins has earned a PFF passing grade of at least 77.7 every season in Minnesota. He is an exceptionally accurate passer with plenty of big plays in his arsenal who maybe lacks that transcendent, intangible talent that every team chases at the position.
Lawrence arrived last season. It took him half the year to get the Urban Meyer residue off, but from Week 9 onward, only Burrow and Mahomes earned a higher PFF grade. Billed as a truly generational talent when he was drafted, Lawrence showed that ability in 2022, and the Jaguars have continued to surround him with talent this offseason.
Jackson is a former league MVP. He’s also coming off consecutive injury-marred seasons and is changing offensive systems for the first time in his NFL career. Greg Roman built a bespoke offense around Jackson, but now Jackson has to adapt his game to a more conventional offense under Todd Monken. How Jackson fares this season will go a long way toward cementing his position in rankings like these, one way or another.
If Mahomes is the obvious starting point, the next two spots are a toss-up between Buffalo’s Josh Allen and Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow. Each player is capable of elite play and outstanding levels, but the tiebreaker is Allen’s rushing ability. It may not be a deal-breaker in every game, but there will be gotta-have-it situations where Allen is virtually unstoppable because of how many different ways he can beat a defense. Burrow can’t bring that to the table.
Mahomes is the standard by which all NFL quarterbacks are now measured. With Manning and Brady now names of the past, Mahomes is the new benchmark pushing the boundaries of what we have seen previously. Since coming into the league, he has 191 big-time throws including the postseason, the most in the NFL. He has also passed for 8.1 yards per attempt, a figure only quarterbacks playing for Kyle Shanahan have surpassed over the same span.