There has been a ton of quarterback news in the NFL this week, and even that feels like an understatement. First came the injuries with Minnesota losing Kirk Cousins for the season and Los Angeles Rams' Matthew Stafford sustaining a UCL sprain in his right thumb. Then the trades, with the Arizona Cardinals shipping Joshua Dobbs to a Vikings team not yet ready to throw in the towel. And teams made some other interesting quarterback decisions, too.
On Monday, one day after Will Levis' impressive debut for the Tennessee Titans, head coach Mike Vrabel told reporters that Levis will likely remain the starter at least as long as Ryan Tannehill remains out with an ankle injury. Vrabel indicated the QB1 gig will be re-evaluated once the veteran is healthy. On Wednesday, the Atlanta Falcons and Las Vegas Raiders both announced changes to their starting quarterbacks. Veteran Taylor Heinicke will get the start over Desmond Ridder for the NFC South-leading Falcons against the Vikings on Sunday, while rookie Aidan O’Connell will supplant Jimmy Garoppolo as the starter for the Raiders, who fired GM Dave Ziegler and head coach Josh McDaniels late Tuesday night, ahead of their Week 9 clash with the New York Giants.
Today, I'm evaluating these three quarterback situations ahead of Week 9 and revealing whether I agree or disagree with the decisions. Let's get right to it.
Missing open receivers and being too inconsistent without showing gradual improvement is the quickest way off the field for an NFL quarterback. That’s what we’ve seen from Desmond Ridder, whom I put on notice back in September, when he had yet to throw for 240 yards in a game and led the league in turnover-worthy plays (seven) through three weeks, per Pro Football Focus. In the five weeks since, Ridder found some chemistry with his top pass-catchers (Drake London and Kyle Pitts) but his inability to get into the end zone on a regular basis and take care of the ball became too glaring to ignore. In fact, his stats through the first eight games of the season are worse than what we’ve seen in the past two seasons from Atlanta starters:
|Matt Ryan in 2021
|Marcus Mariota in 2022
|Desmond Ridder in 2023
Handing the keys to Taylor Heinicke was absolutely the right move at this point in the season. The Falcons hold the top spot in the division despite poor quarterback play, and Heinicke showed promise in relief against Tennessee last week, throwing for 175 yards and a touchdown in one half of work. Heinicke isn't going to gain many yards with his legs, but he'll give his weapons chances to make plays in the pass game. Atlanta has no shortage of talent at its skill positions. It just needs a quarterback who'll provide a boost, and the coaching staff is hoping the veteran will play some of his best football in 2023.
The Raiders’ news frenzy this week began with Jimmy Garoppolo’s "bad day" in Monday night’s loss to the Detroit Lions. It escalated late Tuesday night when the Raiders fired GM Dave Ziegler and head coach Josh McDaniels. With the big picture in mind, the decision to turn from Garoppolo to O’Connell wasn’t far behind. And it was the right move with the Raiders quickly falling out of contention. It’s no secret that Garoppolo wasn’t playing his best in 2023. He's dealt with injuries and though he’s historically thrown the ball down the field well, I always viewed his numbers as inflated due to playing in Kyle Shanahan’s offense, which expects receivers to rack up yards after the catch. We know what Garoppolo is; now it's time to see if O'Connell has what it takes to lead the franchise.
Now, no one really knows just what the Raiders’ offense will look like following the coaching staff shakeup, which included the firing of OC Mike Lombardi, per NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport. O’Connell has made one start this season, completing 24-of-29 passes for 238 yards with an INT while taking seven sacks in a 24-17 loss to the Chargers. With Bo Hardegree being promoted from QBs coach to offensive coordinator, per Rapoport, Las Vegas has to put O'Connell in a position to succeed. Using a lot of Josh Jacobs in the run game and getting a frustrated Davante Adams involved is a good place to start. The rookie has shown he's not afraid to throw into coverage and push the ball downfield.
Vrabel said Will Levis is likely to be the team’s starter at least until Ryan Tannehill returns from an ankle injury. After a great first start, there are undoubtedly some fans who want the Titans to be Levis’ team moving forward whether Tannehill is healthy or not, but I agree with Vrabel on this one. I realize Tannehill had thrown a total of two(!) TD passes in six starts in 2023. And I realize the rookie quarterback put on an absolute show in his NFL debut, separating himself from second-year signal-caller Malik Willis, who fumbled his first snap under center in the win over Atlanta. Levis provided a spark for an offense that was playing without one for most of the season. It's just not that simple.
It’s very possible that Levis gets a reality check on Thursday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are a better team than Atlanta and have an entire game of tape to study and use to prepare on the short week. Levis isn’t going to be able to just chuck it up to DeAndre Hopkins every week. But he will have a decent chance to continue playing well if Derrick Henry’s presence creates one-on-one opportunities in the pass game and manageable down-and-distance situations. There will come a time, though, where Levis will be forced to make accurate throws from the pocket. He’ll need to go through his progressions and dissect exotic looks from the defense. It takes time for players to get up to speed and having experience is invaluable at the position. So even though Tannehill isn't playing his best football in 2023, the safe route for a team still in the thick of the playoff race is to take it week by week.
EDITOR’S UPDATE: In Tennessee’s 20-16 loss to the Steelers on Thursday night, Will Levis nearly pulled off a game-winning drive in his debut as an NFL starter but an interception in the red zone with 16 seconds remaining in the game ended the potential comeback. Levis finished the game by completing 56.4 percent of his pass attempts for 262 yards with zero touchdowns and four sacks. On Tuesday morning, coach Mike Vrabel told reporters was not ready to name Levis the starter moving forward.
Top 15 offensive player rankings
Each week in the 2023 campaign, former No. 1 overall pick and NFL Network analyst David Carr will take a look at all offensive players and rank his top 15. Rankings are based solely on this season's efforts. The Week 9 pecking order is below.
NOTE: Arrows reflect changes from Week 7's rankings.
Tyreek Hill continues to put up incredible performances. It was the same story in Sunday's win, when he had eight catches for 112 yards, including a 42-yard touchdown reception in which he dashed by a pair of defenders to catch an over-the-shoulder pass from Tua Tagovailoa. The speedster leads the league with eight receiving touchdowns and 1,014 receiving yards, making him the first player in the Super Bowl era to reach 1,000 receiving yards in the first eight games of a season, per NFL Research. Will Hill win the MVP award this year? He seems to strengthen his case with each week.
While Brock Purdy has been entirely unpredictable over the last few weeks, Christian McCaffrey has been the opposite. He’s been a steady, reliable presence for Kyle Shanahan since arriving in San Francisco. With 118 scrimmage yards and a pair of touchdowns (one rush, one receiving) in Sunday’s loss to Cincinnati, CMC has now scored a scrimmage touchdown in 17 straight games, including the playoffs, tying Hall of Famer Lenny Moore for the longest such streak in NFL history, according to NFL Research.
Tua Tagovailoa started out hot with a 42-yard touchdown heave to Tyreek Hill in the first quarter against New England. He followed it with a quick 1-yard passing score to Cedrick Wilson and finally a 31-yard TD connection with Jaylen Waddle to help secure the Dolphins’ sixth win. Tagovailoa’s six-game win streak against the Patriots is the longest by a starting QB vs. Bill Belichick in his career as a head coach.
A.J. Brown’s on-field bond with Jalen Hurts is growing stronger by the day. The pair connected eight times (on eight targets) for 130 yards and a pair of remarkable touchdowns in Sunday’s division win over Washington. With the performance, Brown set an NFL record with his sixth straight game of at least 125 receiving yards. He also leads the league with 831 receiving yards since Week 3.
Patrick Mahomes has given us quite opposite performances in the two weeks since we last did these rankings. The two-time MVP threw for 424 yards – 321 in the first half – and four touchdowns to just one interception in a Week 7 win over the Los Angeles Chargers. Then came Sunday, when many thought the Chiefs would routinely defeat the Broncos. Instead, Mahomes, who played despite battling an illness, looked out of sorts throwing for 241 yards and two interceptions in a 24-9 loss. Denver snapped a 16-game losing streak to Mahomes, who still holds a 29-4 record against AFC West opponents in his career.
Thursday Night Football got out to a slow start in the first quarter, but Josh Allen got the ball rolling early in the second with a 13-yard touchdown run. He also connected with rookie tight end Dalton Kincaid for a 22-yard score before halftime and Gabe Davis on a 4-yard TD to put the Bills up by two scores in the second half. Despite tossing his eighth pick of the season in the win, he logged his third 300-yard passing game of the year and played well enough to keep the Bills within one game of first-place Miami.
The Bengals looked extremely solid out of the bye week, handing the stumbling 49ers their third consecutive loss on Sunday. Ja'Marr Chase led the Bengals with 10 receptions for 100 yards, including a 17-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter. The all-world wideout is hitting his stride as the season enters November, averaging 13.6 targets, 10 receptions and 117.2 receiving yards per game since Week 3. A huge prime-time clash against Buffalo awaits.
After a bye week to rest his calf, Joe Burrow had his best game of the season in a big road win against the 49ers, completing a whopping 87.5 percent of his passes for 283 yards and three touchdowns. Burrow has been steadily raising his level of play with each week and cracks the rankings after utterly dominating defenses since Week 5.
In the Chiefs’ poor offensive outing in their loss to the Broncos, Travis Kelce was the unit’s best player (to no one’s surprise) with a team-high six catches and 58 receiving yards. The performance was a huge letdown from his Week 6 and 7 outings, when he posted 124 and 179 receiving yards, respectively. It won’t get easier this week as Kansas City takes on the red-hot Dolphins in Germany.
The Bills’ offense got its groove back in the win over Tampa, but despite its struggles over the last month, Diggs has remained a consistent playmaker for Josh Allen, earning double-digit targets in each of the last four games, and in six of eight games this season. The high volume has Diggs on pace for 136 receptions, 1,590 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns by season’s end, which would all be career highs.
Addison has been instrumental for the Vikings since Justin Jefferson went on IR. In the last three games, the rookie has registered 17 receptions, 233 yards and four touchdowns, including two in Minnesota’s Week 7 statement win over San Francisco in prime time. Furthermore, he joined Hall of Famer Randy Moss as the only Vikings rookies since 1970 to have a receiving TD in four consecutive games, according to NFL Research. Moss had a seven-game streak in 1998; it’ll be tough for Addison to keep it going with a new quarterback taking the field after Kirk Cousins’ season-ending injury.
Since dropping out of my rankings after a string of poor outings that culminated in the Eagles’ first loss of the season in Week 6, Hurts has elevated his play in the last two games. He completed 75.4 percent of his passes for nearly 600 yards with six pass touchdowns to just one INT while rushing for 72 yards and a pair of TDs in victories over Miami and Washington. He’s playing his best football of the 2023 season and he’s not even close to reaching his ceiling.
Has Justin Herbert turned a corner? After struggling with some accuracy issues, he went on a tear against the Chicago Bears, completing his first 14 pass attempts and finishing with nearly 300 yards and a trio of touchdowns. In prime-time games in his career, Herbert has averaged 284 pass yards per contest and has 29 pass TDs to nine INTs but is just 7-7 in those starts. He has a chance to get above .500 against the Jets on Monday night.
Despite losses in Weeks 7 and 8, the star tight end has shown up for the 49ers’ offense. He hauled in five catches for 78 yards against the Vikings before leading all players in the loss to the Bengals with 149 receiving yards (a season high) on nine catches. Then there’s the blocking he does for Christian McCaffrey, who is on a scoring tear.
Mike Evans might not be the most popular pick for the final spot in this week’s rankings, but the guy never fails to show up. Leading the Buccaneers with 507 receiving yards and five receiving touchdowns, Evans is one of six players league-wide to account for at least 50 percent of his team’s receiving yards this season.