By Ben Linsey
Any time you get a group of starting quarterbacks from the same draft class, comparisons will follow. Debates get more heated when two of those quarterbacks go in the first two picks of the draft — something we saw in 2016 with Jared Goff and Carson Wentz heading to the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles, respectively.
Throw in a division rivalry between two fanbases that don’t hold a whole lot of love for each other (the Eagles with Wentz and the Dallas Cowboys with fourth-rounder Dak Prescott), and the debate can get out of hand, especially given that Wentz and Prescott have been relatively evenly matched to this point in their careers.
All quarterback comparisons aren’t the same — no rational Pittsburgh Steelers fan is out there arguing that Mason Rudolph is better than Lamar Jackson. But the debate between Prescott and Wentz is legitimate, which serves as an embodiment of the rivalry between their respective teams. Goff doesn’t factor into the NFC East rivalry, but he is still a part of the larger conversation: Who is the best quarterback from the 2016 draft class?
Minimal separation in passing grade
Just looking at the PFF passing grade over the last four seasons, these three quarterbacks aren’t separated by much.
Jared Goff, 77.5 (18th among 32 QBs)
Carson Wentz, 82.0 (13th)
Dak Prescott, 80.3 (15th)
PFF’s Kevin Cole looked at Wentz, Prescott and Goff through the lens of Bayesian updating late last season, and it shows that at various points in their careers, each of the three has looked like the best quarterback of the group. It’s something that is reflected in PFF’s 0-100 grading, as well.
Highest-graded QB from 2016 class by year— PFF (@PFF) May 22, 2020
2016: Dak Prescott
2017: Carson Wentz
2018: Jared Goff
2019: Dak Prescott
2020: ________ pic.twitter.com/ThS24rsZe0
Prescott came into the league guns-blazing as a rookie in 2016, ending the season as the NFL’s seventh-highest graded quarterback, before falling back to earth in 2017 and 2018. He turned things back around this past season, ranking as the third-most valuable quarterback in the NFL in 2019.
It took Wentz a little longer to break through, but when he did in 2017 — a year that ultimately ended in injury and gave way to a legendary Super Bowl run from Nick Foles — there was real MVP talk. Unfortunately, things have gone downhill since that point, with Wentz seeing his PFF grade drop from 84.9 to 79.4 to 75.6 in the last three years.
Goff, meanwhile, didn’t see the field until Week 11 in 2016, and he probably wishes he hadn’t seen the field at all as part of a disastrous Rams offense. Goff finished his rookie season with just a 42.9 overall grade on nearly 400 snaps — a number that still drags down his overall resume. He improved mightily in 2017 under first-year head coach Sean McVay and then again in his second year in the system in 2018, leading the Rams to a Super Bowl and putting up an 84.3 grade in the process (eighth in NFL). As the Rams’ offense fell back down to earth in 2019, though, so did Goff.
How offensive situation affects QBs
When going back and looking at those peaks and valleys, a trend starts to emerge. Each quarterback has looked like the best player in the class when he has had the best situation around him in the class.
The chart above takes all the non-quarterbacks on offense for the Cowboys, Eagles and Rams from 2016 to 2019 (RB, WR, TE and OL) and tallies the wins above replacement (WAR) from those players each season. It’s one way to measure each quarterback’s supporting cast — in essence, the value added around Prescott, Wentz and Goff by season. The quarterback with the most talent around him, per PFF WAR, has ended the season as the highest-graded quarterback by our metrics all four years.
Having a talented offensive line and receiving corps puts a quarterback in a better position to play well. That’s not exactly a novel concept, but it is an important one to note. PFF’s grading system does its best to isolate quarterback performance relative to the rest of the offense. It dings quarterbacks for bad throws that are bailed out by the receiver and gives them credit for dimes that end up falling incomplete. An offense that continuously puts a quarterback in position to make plays is going to yield more opportunities for a higher grade, though.
It’s what allows Goff — a quarterback who has struggled to deal with pressure to this point in his career — to look so good for much of the 2018 season while plummeting to earth behind an offensive line that was reduced to shambles in 2019.
It’s what allows Wentz to ascend to near MVP status in 2017, as the team’s overall receiving grade shot up from 29th in 2016 to eighth in Wentz’s second season with the addition of Alshon Jeffery and massive improvements from Nelson Agholor.
It’s what allows Prescott to make a leap this past season, with a new offensive coordinator letting him look further downfield in his first full season with Amari Cooper and an emerging Michael Gallup.
It’s much too easy to look at the most recent season and ignore the larger body of work. Situation matters for a quarterback. Only the game’s truly elite can consistently overcome bad situations, and Goff, Wentz and Prescott don’t fall into that category. While they may not be in that elite tier, they belong to the same tier — franchise quarterbacks who can lead their teams to a Super Bowl in the right situation.
Health, offensive talent and coaching will once again go a long way toward determining who looks the best in 2020. If that’s the case, my money is on Prescott playing the best for the second straight year.
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