The NFL has long adjusted its rulebook to assist and protect superstar quarterbacks. The rules are working.
Combined with an influx of aggressive, pass-happy offenses and increasing fourth-down attempts, it feels like most games now have a true headliner at the top of the marquee.
The depth of excellence in this 2021 season is preposterous and young. Tom Brady's presence near the top of my rankings covers up how complete a shift there's been at the position. Derek Carr is the next-oldest quarterback in the top eight at age 30. Five of the top eight are 26 years old or younger.
Kirk Cousins is playing some of the freest ball of his lucrative career. If he started this hot back in, say, 2015, he would likely be ranked as a top-five quarterback through six weeks. Now he can't quite crack the top 10. I find MVP conversations this early in the season silly -- especially this year, because there is so little separating these guys thus far. You could shake up my top eight quarterbacks in virtually any order and construct a viable argument for it.
History says they can't all stay this good and defenses will improve as the weather turns. But history also would indicate that such a high number of quarterbacks couldn't be playing at this dominant level for a six-week period. History is changing -- by design.
NOTE: Up/down arrows illustrate movement from the Week 6 QB Index. Rankings reflect each quarterback's standing heading into Week 7, based solely on 2021 play.
2021 stats: 6 games | 73.1 pct | 1,813 pass yds | 8.4 ypa | 16 pass TD | 4 INT | 70 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 6 fumbles
It's the decision making under pressure that does it for me. The Patriots threw every post-snap coverage change possible at Dak, and he digested it all, spitting out Bill Belichick's game plan any time extra pressure was sent. Pro Football Focus' numbers back up the eye test, with Dak hitting seven passes (with two big-time throws) on 13 attempts against pressure, including many of the game's decisive plays. There's a long way to go in this season, but if I need one quarterback to make one play in any situation right now, that quarterback is Rayne Dakota Prescott.
2021 stats: 6 games | 68.5 pct | 2,064 pass yds | 7.7 ypa | 17 pass TD | 3 INT | 37 rush yds | 1 rush TD | 2 fumbles
These Buccaneers remind me of the old Peyton Manning Colts because they aren't trying to fool anyone. Defenses know what's coming from Brady because Tampa runs the same concepts week after week; the Bucs just run them so well that no one can stop them. In games like the Thursday night win over the Eagles, when it gets close late in the fourth quarter, Brady appears to choose from a wide menu of ways he can break an opponent's heart.
2021 stats: 6 games | 73.8 pct | 1,741 pass yds | 8.9 ypa | 14 pass TD | 4 INT | 116 rush yds | 3 rush TD | 6 fumbles
His defense is handing him points. His running game is improving. His offensive line remains underrated. This is a symbiotic Arizona attack, with Murray making his three receivers with at least 340 yards better. It says a lot that Rondale Moore is the team's WR4, and Murray is now a distant third in rushing.
2021 stats: 6 games | 67.5 pct | 1,686 pass yds | 8.7 ypa | 9 pass TD | 5 INT | 392 rush yds | 2 rush TD | 5 fumbles
Lamar continues to win from the pocket. While he had one ugly interception and a few more misses than usual against the Chargers, Jackson's blitz recognition stood out. The Ravens' improved running game (and general O-line performance) bodes very well for Jackson's excellent season to keep getting better.
2021 stats: 6 games | 64.2 pct | 1,946 pass yds | 8.4 ypa | 10 pass TD | 4 INT | 28 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 5 fumbles
Carr's back-to-back throws to Darren Waller and Kenyan Drake just before halftime was Carr at his best. He hit a deep ball to Waller with pressure approaching, one of the Raiders' seven(!) plays that went for over 25 yards in the game. The touchdown throw to Drake displayed uncanny touch and timing. Carr's best this season rivals any quarterback's best.
2021 stats: 6 games | 69.0 pct | 1,887 pass yds | 7.8 ypa | 18 pass TD | 8 INT | 184 rush yds | 1 rush TD | 2 fumbles
Anyone tweeting recklessly about Mahomes should probably wait until after halftime -- or better yet, wait until never. Reactions like that are a reminder that there will always be someone rooting for greatness to fail.
Two things can be simultaneously true: Mahomes is finding more obstacles and making more mistakes than in previous years and he's still been ridiculously productive and unlucky with some fluky turnovers. The Chiefs continue to lead the NFL in yards per drive and points per drive. Rather than dialing it back, Mahomes went big-play hunting against Washington with five gains of 20 yards or more after recording 15 in the previous five weeks combined. He hit WFT with a jump pass, a shovel pass against his body and a sidearm whip that has to be seen to be believed. No one in history has routinely made throws like these.
2021 stats: 6 games | 64.8 pct | 1,723 pass yds | 7.5 ypa | 15 pass TD | 3 INT | 214 rush yds | 2 rush TD | 3 fumbles
The further that Allen's first two sluggish games get in the rearview mirror, the clearer it becomes that he's playing at (or close enough to) his 2020 level again. Monday night's loss in Tennessee felt fluky in many ways, and it finished as one of my highest-graded Allen games of the year, with just a few throws and that unfortunate slip near the goal line marring an otherwise-perfect evening.
2021 stats: 6 games | 65.4 pct | 1,771 pass yds | 7.2 ypa | 14 pass TD | 4 INT | 72 rush yds | 1 rush TD | 1 fumble
Herbert was overdue for regression on third and fourth down and it all came crashing down in an avalanche of misfires, drops and Ravens blitzes. Every Chargers position was dominated for 60 minutes on Sunday, so perhaps it was a good thing for Herbert to concentrate so many of his worst reps of the season into a game Los Angeles wasn't going to win no matter how well he played.
2021 stats: 6 games | 69.5 pct | 1,838 pass yds | 9.2 ypa | 16 pass TD | 4 INT | 26 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 1 fumble
Sometimes I hate trying to divvy up credit. Stafford has fit in perfectly with the Rams, helping raise the levels of those around him, even Sean McVay. It's a codependent relationship, though, with the quarterback also benefiting enormously from his surroundings. This team would also rank high in the Offensive Line Index, Play Caller Index or Receiver Group Index. Rams fans should be excited that Stafford has numbers like these before he's even truly at home in this offense.
2021 stats: 6 games | 66.7 pct | 1,436 pass yds | 7.7 ypa | 12 pass TD | 3 INT | 27 rush yds | 2 rush TD | 0 fumbles
I can't remember such a quiet Rodgers season. While his glorious taunts to Bears fans and the inherent stakes of his future provide drama, his efficient play has shown a different side of the reigning MVP. He is operating in the mode of some late-career Brady or Brees seasons, picking his spots and playing more conservatively to compensate for some declining play around him. He is managing the season and knows the Packers can improve as they go offensively, especially when left tackle David Bakhtiari returns.
2021 stats: 6 games | 69.5 pct | 1,769 pass yds | 7.4 ypa | 13 pass TD | 2 INT | 57 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 3 fumbles
Asked four times this year to set up a game-tying or game-winning field goal try in the closing seconds of regulation, Cousins has delivered all four times. After kicker Greg Joseph missed in regulation, Cousins finished the job himself. His touchdown toss in overtime to K.J. Osborn was a perfect example of the improved, free-flowing Kid Cuzi. He had a receiver underneath, but he knew just the moment to go for the kill shot and trusted his talented receiver. I feel guilty that he's ranked so low here.
2021 stats: 6 games | 63.4 pct | 1,467 pass yds | 7.3 ypa | 6 pass TD | 4 INT | 133 rush yds | 2 rush TD | 3 fumbles
I was happy to see Tannehill bounce back from a rough first half against the Bills so that the Monday night audience could see that he's performed well this season despite a collapsing offensive line and receiver injuries. It would be great to see the Titans get a prolonged stretch with A.J. Brown and Julio Jones on the field together healthy, but it might just not happen.
2021 stats: 6 games | 70.7 pct | 1,540 pass yds | 8.9 ypa | 14 pass TD | 7 INT | 44 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 0 fumbles
Burrow has now made 16 career starts, with 4,228 yards, 27 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, a 7.3 YPA and 48 sacks taken. Ten years ago, those numbers would already make him a top-10 quarterback. In today's era, he already looks like a rock-solid mid-level starter, which is an incredible accomplishment for a second-year player coming off a torn ACL in Cincinnati. What a baseline to work from.
2021 stats: 5 games | 69.1 pct | 1,332 pass yds | 6.5 ypa | 10 pass TD | 3 INT | 26 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 2 fumbles
The league and the offensive systems around him change, but Matt Ryan stays mostly the same. If Ryan can replicate his level of play from the two weeks before the bye for the rest of the season, he will finish the year ranked even higher than this.
2021 stats: 6 games | 64.2 pct | 1,545 pass yds | 8.0 ypa | 9 pass TD | 1 INT | 74 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 2 fumbles
QB Index's Favorite Lukewarm Take of the season that Carson Wentz is playing just fine is starting to take off! In Week 6, he was better than fine. The wow throws and big plays were back. There will always be a few sacks Wentz could have avoided or a throw he missed, but the Colts will gladly take this tradeoff if Wentz keeps bringing rain on throws to T.Y. Hilton. Wentz knows where the answers are in Frank Reich's system.
2021 stats: 6 games | 67.1 pct | 1,474 pass yds | 8.5 ypa | 6 pass TD | 3 INT | 75 rush yds | 1 rush TD | 4 fumbles
Baker learned how the other half lives against the Cardinals, trying to compensate for a lack of running game and pass protection. He made some big-time plays -- that Hail Mary was one of the throws of the year -- and just as many big-time mistakes. He needs to get rid of the ball faster. And now, he just needs to get back on the field, as an aggravated injury to his non-throwing shoulder will have Case Keenum starting in his place on Thursday night. While the Browns have to get healthier soon, it's not the worst thing long-term for Kevin Stefanski and Mayfield to go through some adversity together. I'm fascinated to see how they respond.
2021 stats: 6 games | 62.5 pct | 1,524 pass yds | 7.3 ypa | 4 pass TD | 4 INT | 201 rush yds | 2 rush TD | 5 fumbles
Jones did a laudable job carrying the weight of an offense lacking any continuity until his concussion in Dallas. Whether a brutal outing this past Sunday vs. the Rams behind an offensive line that played even worse was simply a bad game or a bad omen for the rest of the season remains to be seen. Jones deserves some benefit of the doubt after his improved start, but Kadarius Toney's injury felt like the moment the Giants had officially lost too much.
2021 stats: 6 games | 70.2 pct | 1,514 pass yds | 7.6 ypa | 10 pass TD | 4 INT | 66 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 1 fumble
The strain is starting to show. The Raiders racked up 15 QB hits and five sacks on Bridgewater in a dominant performance that distilled the Broncos' slump. Teddy missed his share of throws early, but he's also starting to force passes in an effort to make up for a defense that isn't nearly as good as advertised. After all the injuries to Broncos pass catchers, Bridgewater isn't finding as many open receivers. He's not built to carry a team on his own.
UPDATE: Bridgewater completed 23 of 33 passes for 187 yards, with two touchdowns and a pick, in Denver's 17-14 loss to Cleveland on Thursday.
2021 stats: 5 games | 60.3 pct | 892 pass yds | 7.7 ypa | 12 pass TD | 3 INT | 86 rush yds | 1 rush TD | 1 fumble
I'm going to assume Sean Payton's aggressive approach with Winston in Washington before the bye was not a one-game blip. For Winston and the Saints to matter this year, Payton knows he has to ride the JameisCoaster -- even if not at full speed -- and hope the highs are worth it, because the Saints have no other options.
2021 stats: 6 games | 71.1 pct | 1,472 pass yds | 7.0 ypa | 7 pass TD | 6 INT | 26 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 3 fumbles
The Cowboys game was Jones' best throw-for-throw performance of the season, with more vertical tosses than horizontal ones for once. At some point, Bill Belichick has to recognize that Jones is one of his better players. The Patriots passed up on four(!) short-yardage opportunities on fourth down and didn't even try to score with 90 seconds left in the first half. Belichick is making decisions as if his defense is better and his quarterback is worse than they really are.
2021 stats: 6 games | 62.5 pct | 1,480 pass yds | 7.1 ypa | 8 pass TD | 4 INT | 300 rush yds | 5 rush TD | 4 fumbles
The Eagles rarely sustain offense for long, a trait that reflects poorly on Hurts, coach Nick Sirianni and the injury-plagued offensive line. Hurts can run, but it's not integrated into the running game. Philly barely has a ground attack, and Hurts' lack of touch on intermediate throws leaves the Eagles with a bunch of screens, deep shots and little in between.
2021 stats: 6 games | 61.2 pct | 1,573 pass yds | 7.0 ypa | 7 pass TD | 7 INT | 110 rush yds | 5 rush TD | 5 fumbles
Darnold hesitated on his very first snap last week when his first read was taken away, started running around the pocket frantically despite no pass rush and then was late throwing across the field to his third read. He was picked off. The day got worse from there, and while drops were a part of the story, many of those passes lacked ball placement or led receivers into big hits. Two gorgeous throws on the Panthers' game-tying touchdown drive were reminders of the good times of Weeks 1-3, but Darnold's not seeing the field clearly right now.
2021 stats: 4 games | 66.1 pct | 925 pass yds | 7.8 ypa | 5 pass TD | 2 INT | 26 rush yds | 1 rush TD | 3 fumbles
I am so surprised that the 49ers are turning back to Jimmy G that a part of me doesn't believe Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch. It wouldn't be the first time they successfully obfuscated about their quarterback position. Assuming they are telling the truth, Garoppolo has to play better quickly with this last chance. If he continues to miss throws and exhibit a lack of clarity as he did during the first month of the season, Trey Lance is likely to come in for good sooner than later.
2021 stats: 3 games | 64.1 pct | 544 pass yds | 7.0 ypa | 3 pass TD | 2 INT | 23 rush yd | 1 rush TD | 0 fumbles
It's hard to complain about 329 yards in Tua's first start back when he was missing three of his top receivers. He largely threw it well under duress. Then again, scoring 20 points against the worst defense in football isn't a big win, especially when the performance includes some missed throws on potential big plays and an ugly second-half interception. The Dolphins had many chances to put the game away in London and couldn't capitalize, with coach Brian Flores' conservative approach feeling like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
2021 stats: 6 games | 65.1 pct | 1,515 pass yds | 6.4 ypa | 7 pass TD | 4 INT | 6 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 5 fumbles
Sunday night was an example of this Steelers passing game working well, which is a sign of its lowered ceiling. Big Ben threw a handful of good balls to Diontae Johnson and had only one killer mistake, yet the team needed overtime to put up 23 points and 345 yards against a slumping defense. Once a YPA king, Roethlisberger averaged 5.7 yards per throw and now ranks 29th out of 32 qualifiers this season. If T.J. Watt didn't win the game for the Steelers, a tie felt inevitable.
2021 stats: 6 games | 63.6 pct | 1,390 pass yds | 7.0 ypa | 9 pass TD | 6 INT | 127 rush yds | 1 rush TD | 0 fumbles
It's hard to be too tough on Heinicke, given his inexperience and the fact that his conventional stats don't quite reflect his play. He's absolutely been solid for a first-time starter. It's not fair to expect him to be a finished product, but even if he is, this is a baseline of an above-average backup. To say it another way: I spent too long debating Big Ben vs. Heinicke this week, comparing a bevy of advanced stats and notes, ending in a virtual tie accomplished with very different styles. It just feels different when it's a 39-year-old Hall of Famer on the way down, as opposed to a 28-year-old first-time starter.
2021 stats: 6 games | 66.8 pct | 1,505 pass yds | 6.3 ypa | 7 pass TD | 4 INT | 73 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 6 fumbles
Dan Campbell saying that Goff "needs to step up more than he has" makes me wonder exactly what he's talking about. If it's Goff's play, what did Campbell expect with this situation? If it's Goff's leadership style, that's another matter. The decimated Lions passing attack looks a little worse each week, and Campbell must know he's not going to transform Goff as a player or as a man.
2021 stats: 2 games | 67.3 pct | 340 pass yds | 6.9 ypa | 2 pass TD | 1 INT | 22 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 1 fumble
Hearing Cris Collinsworth wonder if Geno could have one of those "late-blooming careers" was a personal thrill, but then he had to face one of the better defensive fronts in football. The Seahawks' offensive game plan seemed designed primarily to avoid the type of mistake Smith made in overtime when T.J. Watt strip-sacked him. It made some sense, considering how much better the team is at run-blocking, and it nearly worked. Despite facing a two-touchdown deficit at halftime, Geno got the 'Hawks to overtime by orchestrating a 90-second, game-tying field goal drive. But then Watt struck. It doesn't get easier with the Saints secondary coming up next in another prime-time tilt.
2021 stats: 6 games | 53.5 pct | 632 pass yds | 6.4 ypa | 2 pass TD | 3 INT | 102 rush yds | 1 rush TD | 3 fumbles
Following the nightmare starting debut, Fields has played consistently over the last few weeks. He hits a handful of great throws from the pocket each week. He largely limits mistakes, aside from taking too many avoidable sacks. He often doesn't know when to be patient and when to be aggressive, something you can only learn by playing. His running ability is becoming an increasing problem for defenses. I'm excited to watch him each week with cautious optimism about what this season can be.
2021 stats: 6 games | 59.7 pct | 1,465 pass yds | 6.8 ypa | 7 pass TD | 8 INT | 121 rush yds | 2 rush TD | 3 fumbles
After an ugly start, there is no question that Lawrence's play has improved over the last three weeks. That is especially encouraging because his surroundings -- from an injured offensive line to pass catchers plagued by drops and inability to uncover -- have probably grown worse. He hits his first bye week having already shown development and lessons learned in the first six games. It absolutely matters that he makes a few throws every week that most of the guys in the spots above him on this list simply can't make.
2021 stats: 5 games | 63.3 pct | 912 pass yds | 6.6 ypa | 5 pass TD | 7 INT | 8 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 2 fumbles
It's difficult to grade Mills through four starts. He's possibly made more plus throws per snap than his rookie counterparts. His arm and ability to throw on the move are impressive. The Texans moved the ball against the Colts. There is the knotty reality, however, that three of Mills' four starts have resulted in 12 points combined.
2021 stats: 5 games | 57.3 pct | 1,117 pass yds | 6.5 ypa | 4 pass TD | 9 INT | 22 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 2 fumbles
The bye week came at a good time for Wilson. Offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur and Wilson got extra time to prepare for a rematch with Bill Belichick, one that provides an early opportunity to show tangible progress. Wilson melted down in the Week 2 loss to New England, like he did in two other games during the Jets' 1-4 start. His top goal for the rest of the season should be preventing games like those from happening again, games in which he didn't allow his team a chance to win.