2023 NFL QB tiers: How far can Mac Jones climb during pivotal Year 3?

2023 NFL QB tiers: How far can Mac Jones climb during pivotal Year 3? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

This is a fun exercise every year. Even if it's an exercise that makes me look like a fool.

Last year, Jalen Hurts was listed as "average." Same for Trevor Lawrence. Russell Wilson came in as "very good." Not my best calls.

But we make those calls anyway knowing this is only a snapshot in time. And looking back at the previous season serves as a reminder that anyone listed here in the "above average" category -- say, for instance, a certain local quarterback -- has room to exceed those expectations. Same goes for someone in the "good" tier -- say, for instance, a certain 40-something future Hall of Famer who liked the dark -- who could land somewhere lower than that.

It's not that we don't know anything. But there's a lot that we don't know. Here's what we think we know about this year's crop of starting quarterbacks, and how we'd rank 'em, before we get to Week 1.

Mahomes: Patrick Mahomes

He'll be challenged this year with perhaps the worst receiving corps of his career. But he'll remain one of the game's most efficient passers because that's... just... what he does. He's never ranked lower than third in the NFL in EPA per play. Last season -- with JuJu Smith-Schuster as his leading receiver -- he was No. 1.

The man rightfully belongs in his own tier. Everyone else is playing for second.

Elite: Josh Allen, Joe Burrow

While Mahomes looks like he'll be an MVP favorite between now and whenever he decides to hang 'em up, this next tier is made up of the two names who feel like they will be legitimate contenders to be considered the league's best player on an annual basis.

They get there in very different ways, and both are fortunate to be surrounded by true No. 1 receivers. (Burrow has two in Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins.) But their playmaking skill sets are elite. Hence their placement here.

Very good: Justin Herbert, Lamar Jackson, Jalen Hurts, Trevor Lawrence

Consider this the tier of players who, if things break right for them, could realistically make their way into the MVP conversation. They all have that level of talent. Only one (Jackson) has shown it consistently enough over the course of an entire season to earn the award, and he now has enough in the way of injury questions that he lands in this just-below-the-best-of-the-best category.

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Perhaps it's a year too early for Lawrence to be in this category, but I don't think so. He was ninth in EPA per play (despite landing in the top-10 in turnover-worthy-play percentage last season, per Pro Football Focus), fourth in success rate and seventh in completion percentage over expected... in his first year in a new offense and with middling offensive talent around him. He belongs.

Good: Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun WatsonDak Prescott, Kirk CousinsMatthew Stafford, Geno Smith

These are the imperfect passers with whom you can win at a high level. Unlike those who reside in higher tiers here, it'd be surprising to see any of them -- save for one, and we'll get to him in a second -- land in the MVP conversation. The quarterback who may not be getting enough credit here is actually Smith. The reason he's not elevated is simply that we've never seen him do what he did last year. (You could say the same is true for Lawrence, but he's 23. Smith is about to be 33).

Rodgers could certainly end up being bandied about as the best player in football. He's only a couple years removed from winning the thing in 2021. And if he were to vault the Jets into Super Bowl contention, he'd be deserving. But at this stage of his career, and based on what he showed in Green Bay last year, it's hard to bump him up to the very good category.

Above average: Jared Goff, Mac Jones, Tua Tagovailoa, Kenny Pickett

You can win with this tier. But based on what they've shown to this point, the passers here likely won't be the engines to high-end success. They need help. They need a supporting cast of talented playmakers. They need competent play-callers. They need to be protected. Goff was aided by one of the best running games in football last year and the Lions ended up as one of the most efficient attacks in the league.

Tagovailoa had a rocky end to the season when defenses seemed to get a bead on Mike McDaniel's plan, but when he was healthy earlier in the year, he was the director of one of the most explosive attacks in the game -- and despite an average arm, he was one of the most effective deep-ball throwers in the game. Pickett might be the most athletic of the bunch, but he still has room to grow before inching up this list.

Jones, meanwhile, has been discussed in this space at length. In my opinion, and in the opinions of those who were close to the offensive situation for the Patriots last year, his 2022 performance has to be thrown out. The coaching setup was too dysfunctional to try to make a meaningful evaluation. He showed enough as a rookie to warrant placement inside the top half of the league, and it wouldn't stun me if he was sniffing a top-10 ranking by the end of his third year.

Average: Brock Purdy, Justin Fields, Derek Carr, Ryan Tannehill, Jimmy Garoppolo, Daniel Jones, Jordan Love

All kinds of question marks here, for a variety of reasons. Players coming off of injury. Players with new teams. Players who haven't played extensive meaningful snaps. This is, in essence, the group of quarterbacks who have either established themselves as average -- Carr, Jones and Garoppolo, for instance -- or for whom it's too early to call.

Purdy is the most difficult addition here because his first crack at the starter gig was so impressive. But in that San Francisco system, with that talent around him, it's hard to bump him up beyond this. For now. Readily acknowledging he may make me vulnerable to Cold Takes Exposed here.

Below average: Russell Wilson, Anthony Richardson, Baker Mayfield, Bryce Young, Desmond Ridder, CJ Stroud, Sam Howell, Josh Dobbs

Not worth spending too much time here. You see how it shaped up. Rookies -- even the highly-touted ones -- look like they could be set up for rocky first seasons. And that's OK.

The veterans here are quarterbacks that even their own teams would readily move on from if they could. Wilson's too expensive to bench for Sean Payton (for now). The Bucs don't have a better option than Mayfield as they reset in the aftermath of the Tom Brady Era. Dobbs is a placeholder for the worst team in the league.