A disturbing and somewhat overlooked trend in the last six years is not just how much better the AFC quarterbacks have been than their NFC counterparts, but also how much harder it seems that conference is trying in their attempt to keep the lead. There were five major quarterback transactions this week and four of them happened in the AFC.
Though the Carolina Panthers made their move in the draft to go up and get Alabama’s Bryce Young—perhaps already a top-five quarterback in the NFC just by circumstances—the next two QBs off the board were C.J. Stroud to the Texans and Anthony Richardson to the Colts. The AFC South has now added three quarterbacks picked in the top-four over the last three drafts, including the Jacksonville Jaguars and Trevor Lawrence.
The other two major moves were the Baltimore Ravens signing Lamar Jackson to a contract that pays him $52 million per season and the New York Jets plucking Aaron Rodgers out of the NFC and adding him to the AFC East.
This is not a balanced league.
Beginning in 2017, there were three first round quarterbacks: Mitchell Trubisky, Patrick Mahomes, and Deshaun Watson. Of course, Trubisky has been the bust and now he’s a backup in the AFC with the Steelers. Watson was traded, but kept in the AFC by going to the Browns.
In 2018, there were five first round quarterbacks and four of them went to the AFC: Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, and Lamar Jackson. The one NFC pick was Josh Rosen. Of the two of those still starting, Allen plays in the AFC East and Jackson plays in the AFC North. Darnold could start for the 49ers, but that’s not a victory.
The 2019 draft saw all three first round quarterbacks go to the NFC, but Kyler Murray is on the mend with a torn ACL and Dwayne Haskins was cut by Washington prior to joining the Steelers and sadly was killed in an accident last year. The third, Daniel Jones, is perhaps an average quarterback.
In 2020, Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, and Tua Tagovailoa all went to the AFC. The 26th pick, Jordan Love, will make his debut as the Green Bay Packers true number one option this year for the first time following the Rodgers trade and we’ve yet to see if he will stick there.
There was a run on quarterbacks in 2021, five in the top-15 picks, but Lawrence is the best of them by far. Zach Wilson and Trey Lance seem to be backups for now, Mac Jones is fighting to keep his job on the Patriots, and Justin Fields needs to prove that a better supporting cast will help him become a better passer.
And then 2022 only saw one first round quarterback, Kenny Pickett staying in Pittsburgh and going to the AFC.
Finally, a year before the Rodgers trade, the Seahawks traded Russell Wilson from the NFC West to the AFC West, but that hasn’t resulted in positive momentum for the Broncos other than to say they were able to fire Nathaniel Hackett and hire Sean Payton. On cue, Jimmy Garoppolo left the 49ers to join the Raiders this past offseason.
That basically sums up the AFC West, where you could argue that the top-eight quarterbacks in the entire NFL reside: Mahomes, Allen, Burrow, Herbert, Lawrence, Rodgers, Jackson, and Watson.
Certainly Jalen Hurts could have his day in court to argue his case and Matthew Stafford wants to prove himself again, but would you bet on them as top-five quarterbacks in the AFC?
In fact, the second group of eight in the AFC has an interesting case against maybe the quarterbacks ranked 3-10 in the NFC: Tua, Mac, Pickett, Stroud, Ryan Tannehill, Wilson, Garoppolo, and either Anthony Richardson or Gardner Minshew.
In the NFC, you might be looking at Dak Prescott, Geno Smith, Derek Carr, Jared Goff, Fields, Kirk Cousins, Jones, and Bryce Young.
And it IS for lack of trying.
The Panthers were the only team that gave it their all to land a quarterback this offseason, followed by the Saints signing Carr. The offseason isn’t over, more quarterbacks could be on the move...but who is to say they’ll be moving to the NFC?