A Simple Way to Rank NFL Teams

The NFL is all about the quarterback. The quarterback is by far the most important position on a team. It’s extremely rare for a team with a poor quarterback to win a Super Bowl. Everybody likes to mention Trent Dilfer on the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, but I like to think of that as the exception that proves the rule. The 2000 Ravens had one of the best defenses of all time.

My simple way of ranking NFL teams is mostly about the quarterback. First, I rank the 32 starting quarterbacks, then I adjust teams with strong defenses upward, and adjust teams with weak defenses downward.

How should I rank the quarterbacks? I decided to combine three statistics: traditional passer rating, DVOA, and Total QBR. Then I decided to nudge old quarterbacks down a little, and give quarterbacks who were rookies last year a slight boost.

The result is the following ranking of quarterbacks:

  1. Aaron Rodgers
  2. Peyton Manning
  3. Tom Brady
  4. Robert Griffin III
  5. Russell Wilson
  6. Colin Kaepernick
  7. Drew Brees
  8. Ben Roethlisberger
  9. Matt Ryan
  10. Tony Romo
  11. Matt Schaub
  12. Alex Smith
  13. Andrew Luck
  14. Eli Manning
  15. Cam Newton
  16. Matthew Stafford
  17. Joe Flacco
  18. Sam Bradford
  19. Andy Dalton
  20. Christian Ponder
  21. Josh Freeman
  22. Carson Palmer
  23. Ryan Tannehill
  24. Philip Rivers
  25. Jay Cutler
  26. Michael Vick
  27. Brandon Weeden
  28. Jake Locker
  29. Blaine Gabbert
  30. Mark Sanchez
  31. E.J. Manuel
  32. Matt Flynn

I’m assuming Mark Sanchez, E.J. Manuel, and Matt Flynn will win their respective position battles. If it’s Geno Smith instead of Mark Sanchez and Terrelle Pryor instead of Matt Flynn, nothing changes for me. If it’s Kevin Kolb instead of E.J. Manuel then I would upgrade Buffalo.

Manuel and Flynn didn’t play last year, but I’m ranking them at the bottom because that’s my best guess for how good they will be.

I like to think of NFL teams as being on one of nine tiers. Before adjusting for defenses, here’s what those tiers look like based on the above rankings:

Tier 1: None

Tier 2: Green Bay, Denver, New England, Washington

Tier 3: Seattle, San Francisco, New Orleans, Pittsburgh

Tier 4: Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Kansas City

Tier 5: Indianapolis, NY Giants, Carolina, Detroit, Baltimore, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Minnesota

Tier 6: Tampa Bay, Arizona, Miami, San Diego

Tier 7: Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Tennessee

Tier 8: Jacksonville, NY Jets, Buffalo, Oakland

Tier 9: None

Adjusting for defenses is simple. If a team finished in the top 10 of weighted defensive DVOA last year, they move up a tier. If a team finished in the bottom 10, they move down a tier.

That results in the following tiers:

Tier 1: Denver

Tier 2: Green Bay, New England, Washington, Seattle, San Francisco, Pittsburgh

Tier 3: Houston

Tier 4: New Orleans, Atlanta, St. Louis, Cincinnati

Tier 5: Dallas, Kansas City, NY Giants, Carolina, Baltimore, Arizona

Tier 6: Indianapolis, Detroit, Minnesota, Miami, San Diego, Chicago

Tier 7: Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Tennessee, NY Jets

Tier 8: Philadelphia, Buffalo

Tier 9: Jacksonville, Oakland

So based on those tiers, here are my preseason NFL team rankings:

  1. Denver
  2. Green Bay
  3. New England
  4. Washington
  5. Seattle
  6. San Francisco
  7. Pittsburgh
  8. Houston
  9. New Orleans
  10. Atlanta
  11. St. Louis
  12. Cincinnati
  13. Dallas
  14. Kansas City
  15. NY Giants
  16. Carolina
  17. Baltimore
  18. Arizona
  19. Indianapolis
  20. Detroit
  21. Minnesota
  22. Miami
  23. San Diego
  24. Chicago
  25. Tampa Bay
  26. Cleveland
  27. Tennessee
  28. NY Jets
  29. Philadelphia
  30. Buffalo
  31. Jacksonville
  32. Oakland

Over the course of a season, I’ll move teams to different tiers based on actual game results.


Chicago: If Marc Trestman can make Jay Cutler an above-average NFL quarterback, my hat’s off to him. For now, I have to assume that Cutler will play at the same level, and that means a disappointing season for the Bears.

Detroit: Nobody respects/fears the Matthew Stafford to Calvin Johnson connection more than I do. Are the Lions ready to stop opponents on defense?

Miami: This one boggles my mind. Why exactly do people think Miami will have a winning record this year? Is Ryan Tannehill that inspiring?

Philadelphia: I acknowledge the chance that Chip Kelly’s offense/strategy will revolutionize the NFL. I also recognize that Michael Vick is once again the starting QB and the defense remains miserable.


Washington: Am I the only one who noticed that Robert Griffin III had by far the best season of any 22-year-old quarterback ever? Or do people think his bones are made out of glass and he’ll get injured as soon as somebody touches him?

St. Louis: Last year’s most underrated NFL team remains underrated. Sam Bradford quietly had a solid season and the Rams defense was quietly very good. St. Louis is my choice for potential “shock” playoff team of 2013.

Carolina: I didn’t think I’d be saying this, but the Panthers might be a bit underrated. I see them as league-average and a fringe playoff contender, which is a notch above the predictions I’ve seen floating around out there.

Arizona: The Cardinals defense was awesome last year, and undone by having John Skelton at QB. Now they have Carson Palmer, who is not great but is worthy of starting in the NFL. Their over-under win total should not be the same as Jacksonville and Oakland.

Minnesota: I know, I know… Vikings fan thinks Lions and Bears are overrated and Vikings are underrated. It seems people think the Vikings will suck because of Christian Ponder, but Ponder wasn’t nearly as bad as people think he was last year.


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