National Football League
For NFC South, historically high QB turnover creates uncertainty
National Football League

For NFC South, historically high QB turnover creates uncertainty

Published Jul. 11, 2023 5:46 p.m. ET

If the NFC South seems difficult to predict this fall, it's at least in part because the division has the most quarterback turnover of any division in any year since the NFL went to eight divisions in 2002.

Tom Brady retired after his final season with the Buccaneers. The Saints signed Derek Carr. The Panthers drafted Bryce Young with the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft. That left Atlanta's Desmond Ridder, with four career starts at age 23 — the longest-tenured of the quarterbacks likely to be starting.

Add in three starts from Saints' backup Jameis Winston, and the division has a total of only seven 2022 starts from returning quarterbacks. That's seven out of a possible 68 — much, much less than any other division in any year since 2002. The league average for a four-team division in that timeframe is 49.2 returning starts from the previous year (76 percent).

The other seven divisions in the NFL this season are at or above that average, with returning quarterbacks having at least 49 starts with the same teams in 2022 in all of them. There are basically three returning starting quarterbacks in every other division, while the NFC South hardly has one.


Prior to this year and over the last two decades, the NFC South had been the NFL division with the least quarterback turnover, thanks to extended successful runs from the Saints' Drew Brees, the Falcons' Matt Ryan and the Panthers' Cam Newton. Over a span of nine years (from 2011-19), the division had at least three teams every year whose quarterbacks not only were back, but hadn't missed a single start the previous season. It has occurred three times now that every single start in the division was from a returning quarterback.

Now the NFC South is at the opposite extreme, with three teams starting from scratch at quarterback and a fourth in Atlanta giving the keys to Ridder, who has two career touchdown passes. Tampa Bay will likely turn to Baker Mayfield, giving the division another established starting quarterback. So, the division shouldn't be as young as say the AFC South, which will quickly have two rookies starting in the Texans' C.J. Stroud and the Colts' Anthony Richardson, leaving Tennessee's Ryan Tannehill as the only likely starter older than 23.

Such high churn at a crucial position is rare in the NFL, which values familiarity in leadership positions. There are only four instances since 2002 where a division had returning quarterbacks with less than 30 starts the previous year — compare that to 16 instances with all four starting quarterbacks back without missing a single start the year before.

Is there anything to be learned from those four? We look back on them now, seeing the circumstances that led to higher rates of change in the same division and how hard it normally is to find success with new quarterbacks.

Is Baker Mayfield still a starting QB in the NFL?

2011 AFC South (16)

This is another rare example of a division with three entirely new starting quarterbacks — and all it takes is a legend like Peyton Manning missing the season with a neck injury and the Jaguars waiting until five days before their season opener before cutting returning starter David Garrard. The Texans, with the division's only returning quarterback in Matt Schaub, won the South (10-6), edging the Titans, who turned to Matt Hasselbeck at 36 and still went 9-7, just missing the playoffs.

2021 AFC South (16)

Jacksonville had a No. 1 overall pick in Trevor Lawrence but only went 3-14 with Urban Meyer as head coach. Jacksonville also had eight returning starts from Gardner Minshew but traded him to the Eagles in late August. Houston, dealing with Deshaun Watson's off-field complications, gave 11 starts to rookie Davis Mills and finished 4-13. The Colts swapped out Philip Rivers for Carson Wentz and took a step back to 9-8 with Frank Reich as their coach. Tennessee, the only team with a full-year starter returning, easily won the division (11-5) despite a mediocre year from Tannehill. Two years later, only the Titans' Mike Vrabel remains of the four head coaches.

2010 NFC West (24)

This isn't a promising callback, because the division — like last year's NFC South — did not have a team with a winning record. The Seahawks instead won the division at 7-9. It does feel a bit like this year's South — the Rams turned to Sam Bradford as a No. 1 overall pick, Kurt Warner retired and Arizona went from first to last, and Seattle won the division sticking with Hasselbeck at age 35 — having already won a playoff game. San Francisco hired Jim Harbaugh after the 2010 season and went 13-3 the following year. This seems to me like the glass half-full consolation. 

2019 AFC South (29)

Another example of how such a high level of quarterback turnover is rarely by design is when the Colts lost Andrew Luck to a surprise retirement in last August, just before the season was to start, and the Jaguars moved on from Blake Bortles after five seasons. That's all it takes — Houston had Watson back from a Pro Bowl season and he earned another, leading the Texans to a 10-6 record and a division title. The Titans, transitioning from Marcus Mariota to Tannehill, also made the playoffs at 9-7.

Going back to 2002, you have eight NFL divisions spanning 21 offseasons, and only 11 times out of 168 chances were there divisions with returning quarterbacks totaling less than half the previous year's starts. There are success stories in those few however — the 2020 NFC South had a Super Bowl champ in the Bucs in Brady's first year there, and five of those 11 divisions were still able to produce a wild card despite the turnover.

Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.

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