The ever-evolving (or devolving, depending on your perspective) debate over the definitive rankings of quarterbacks in the NFL picked up steam out of nowhere on Monday when ESPN dropped their quarterback rankings heading into the 2021 season. Dak Prescott came in at seventh behind the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Josh Allen, and Matthew Stafford. And the response on the interwebs was immediately divided into two camps: one group who strongly felt that he was ranked too low, and another that felt he was ranked much too high.
A large chunk of the discourse then narrowed to a battle between Prescott and Stafford, who was traded to the Rams this offseason and has been the subject of a lot of growing hype, at least partially driven by his new head coach Sean McVay.
Stafford, a former first overall pick in 2009, played 12 seasons for the Detroit Lions. His career started out with injury issues, and Stafford played in just 13 games in his first two years in the league. But things started to click for his body and he would rattle off eight consecutive seasons without missing a game. During that time, Stafford also broke nearly every franchise passing record and led the team back to the playoffs for the first time in 12 seasons.
However, Stafford’s brilliance was never really enough to elevate the Lions as a whole. He has a career record of 74-90-1 in Detroit, never had more than two consecutive winning seasons, and never made the playoffs in consecutive years. Granted, much of that was due to the Lions being a poorly run franchise in general. Stafford’s 12 seasons in Detroit saw four different general managers and four different head coaches, and that was after drafting Stafford solely because the franchise became the first in NFL history to go 0-16.
Indeed, Stafford is the best quarterback in franchise history, but only because that’s such a low bar. Throughout his career Stafford averaged 4,374 yards, 27 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions a year; he also averaged a 57.03 QBR and had just four seasons where he finished in the top ten in either/both DVOA or DYAR among quarterbacks.
Which is all a very long-winded way of saying that Stafford has performed admirably for a first overall pick, and realistically has been the most productive former first overall pick in a while now, but hasn’t changed the game or become a force to be reckoned with in the way that other quarterbacks, like Rodgers and Brady, have. That’s a pretty high bar for anyone, but is certainly the target (or at least should be) when you select a quarterback first overall.
Prescott, on the other hand, is viewed through a drastically different scope. For starters, he’s only played 42% of the games Stafford has. And as a former fourth round pick, the expectations for Prescott at his moment of drafting were significantly lower.
We discussed the Dak and Stafford subject among several others on the latest episode of The 75O with Tony Casillas. Make sure to subscribe to the Blogging The Boys podcast network (available on Apple devices here or for Spotify users right here) so you don’t miss any of our episodes!
Still, Prescott has had a much better career thus far than Stafford. He’s averaging 4,090 yards a season, which is lower than Stafford, but also averaged 30 touchdowns and just nine interceptions a season so far. And while Domonique Foxworth isn’t correct about Prescott’s worst QBR relative to Stafford’s career high, Dak’s average QBR of 70.66 is significantly higher than Stafford’s average. Additionally, Prescott has finished two of his four full seasons in the top ten in either/both DVOA or DYAR, and was in the top ten in 2020 before suffering his injury.
And while quarterback wins are far from a strong indicator of quarterback play, Prescott’s résumé in that regard certainly outshines Stafford’s. His 2-3 record in 2020 was the first time Prescott finished with a losing record on the year, and it came during a five-game stretch in which he was putting up career-best numbers while his defense was historically terrible. Furthermore, Prescott’s 1-2 record in the playoffs is marginally better than Stafford’s 0-3 playoff record, especially when you take into account the disparity in career games played.
Nobody is ever going to agree on player rankings, especially at the quarterback position, and ultimately these kinds of things don’t matter at all. But both Prescott and Stafford have put together a pretty statistically reliable sample size at this point, and the data largely suggests that Prescott has been the better quarterback. That could potentially change this year, both with Prescott coming back from injury and Stafford seeing a huge upgrade in surrounding talent going from the Lions to the Rams. But for now, it’s obvious that Prescott is better than Stafford.