Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. In today's installment, he explores a group of quarterbacks with EVERYTHING at stake in the 2023 campaign.
The NFL is a "What have you done for me lately?" league. Quarterbacks, in particular, are subject to year-to-year (even week-to-week) evaluations, with observers painstakingly critiquing their every move.
Take Russell Wilson, for instance. After a spectacular decade in Seattle that saw him earn nine Pro Bowl bids and win a Super Bowl, Russ' play dropped off in a disappointing Denver debut. Now there are serious concerns about his age, athleticism and playmaking potential. Moreover, his subpar performance in 2022 has led people to ask if the Broncos would cut bait should he continue to struggle in 2023. Not so fast. Considering the five-year, $245 million extension Wilson signed last September carries $85 million in dead cap next year, he'll be wearing a Broncos uniform for the foreseeable future.
Tua Tagovailoa has also been thrown into conversations as a potential quarterback on the spot, largely because a series of head injuries spawned concerns about his durability. But the Dolphins' decision to pick up his fifth-year option -- which pays the quarterback a guaranteed $23.2 million for the 2024 season -- precludes this season from being a now-or-never situation.
But a number of projected starters don't have the financial safety net enjoyed by those two. In fact, for nine of them, the 2023 season figures to be an absolutely critical hinge point in their respective careers. Who's in position to ball out and keep the good times rolling -- either with the current team or a motivated suitor in free agency? Whose days could be numbered in a starting role?
Given some time to assess the situations and project future performance, here are my confidence rankings on 2023's make-or-break quarterbacks, starting with the signal-caller I'm most confident in ...
The buzz surrounding the Lions can be attributed to Goff's ability to direct what was one of the league's most explosive offenses in 2022. The former No. 1 overall pick shredded opponents ill-equipped to handle the pace, timing and rhythm of Detroit's attack. Defensive coordinators were not able to counter Goff's ability to operate like a pass-first point guard running a fast break from the pocket. The veteran has two years remaining on his current contract, but the Lions could conceivably move on from the veteran sooner than that, since he's owed no more guaranteed money after this season, per Over The Cap. They did also just draft a quarterback (Hendon Hooker). But there are indicators -- glowing public comments by coach Dan Campbell and general manager Brad Holmes, along with Holmes' acknowledgment earlier this month that the team and Goff's agent have discussed an extension -- that the team is high on him. As the Lions continue to upgrade the playmakers on the perimeter, Goff can cement his place in Detroit's plans for the future by sparking a playoff run and, perhaps, unlikely Super Bowl appearance.
Around a year ago at this time, the 49ers were failing to find a trade partner for Jimmy G, who was coming off shoulder surgery, as they tried to clear the way for former first-round pick Trey Lance. And while Garoppolo did land a three-year deal in Las Vegas this offseason, it would cost the Raiders just $11.25 million in dead money to move on from him after 2023. But whatever one might say about Jimmy G's shortcomings, the veteran wins whenever he steps onto the field, as evidenced by his 40-17 career record as a starter. Joining a Raiders squad directed by his former Patriots offensive coordinator (Josh McDaniels), Garoppolo should flourish in a system that features a collection of plays that suit his skills as a quick-rhythm passer. With Davante Adams, Hunter Renfrow and Jakobi Meyers forming a formidable trio on the perimeter, the Raiders could pick apart opponents behind Garoppolo's efficient play from the pocket.
Like it or not, Cousins has played quality football for the Vikings since he arrived in 2018, logging three of his four career Pro Bowl nods and 46 wins in that span while posting strong numbers as a passer. But some prime-time failures by the team have led to concerns about Cousins' ability to get Minnesota to the next level. In addition, the veteran's performance in head coach Kevin O'Connell's debut season (his 4.5% TD rate and 92.5 passer rating in 2022 were easily the worst of his time with the team thus far) makes him vulnerable if he cannot up the ante in the final year of his contract. Still, with the weapons around him (Justin Jefferson, Jordan Addison and T.J. Hockenson), the Vikings' QB1 could play himself into another fat deal by the end of the 2023 campaign.
Jones showed as a rookie that he can play at a high level in a structured offense tailored to his strengths, but last season, he struggled under a play-caller who lacked experience and expertise. New offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien will help Jones regain his form as a standout player with a more organized system that accentuates Jones' game. With a better structure to help him grow as a player, the third-year pro should re-emerge as an exceptional game manager for a team that could creep back into contention this season. Around this time next year, the Patriots will have to decide whether to pick up Jones' fifth-year option; a bounceback campaign could secure his future in Foxborough.
The Packers' breakup with four-time MVP Aaron Rodgers has put Love squarely in the spotlight as Green Bay's new QB1. The 2020 first-round pick has shown promise as he has developed over the years, but the standard is high in Lambeau, where fans watched gold jacket-caliber players (Brett Favre and Rodgers) man the position over the past 31 seasons. Earlier this month, the team signed Love to an extension through 2024 in lieu of picking up his fifth-year option. No one expects Love, who has appeared in just 10 games (one start) and thrown 83 passes in the NFL so far, to play at the level of Favre and Rodgers right away, but he needs to flash elite potential to keep the Packers from dipping into a prospect pool that could be loaded with premier quarterback talent in the 2024 NFL Draft. If Love handles his business while developing chemistry and continuity with a young collection of explosive wideouts, he can establish a foothold as Rodgers' long-term successor.
The writing is on the wall when a team selects a potential quarterback of the future in back-to-back drafts. While Mike Vrabel has downplayed the suggestion at every turn, the recent drafting of Malik Willis (2022 third-round pick) and Will Levis (2023 second-rounder) has undoubtedly put Tannehill on notice that he must play well to continue to remain the QB1 in Tennessee. Tannehill will turn 35 years old at the start of training camp, lost five games to injury last season and is coming up on the final year of his contract. The Titans must see him turn back the clock; otherwise, they could hand the keys to one of the young gunslingers in the stable.
Despite the flashes that have kept evaluators enamored with the former No. 1 overall pick, Mayfield's résumé has been littered with inconsistent performances -- a reason he's landed on four teams over the last two years, covering his time in Cleveland plus stints with the Carolina Panthers, the Los Angeles Rams and now the Bucs. With a 31-38 record as a starter, Mayfield has shown he can win with a stellar supporting cast, but the Buccaneers' remade offense could expose his biggest flaws as a playmaker. Even with two of the best wideouts in the game (Mike Evans and Chris Godwin), the Buccaneers' leaky offensive line could lead to a turnover party if the veteran spends most of his time running for his life outside of the pocket. Mayfield's first order of business, though, will be winning the starting job in training camp, when he'll compete against third-year pro Kyle Trask, who's thrown just nine NFL passes.
Head coach Arthur Smith has attempted to put his young quarterback in a cocoon by beefing up the Falcons' supporting cast with young, dynamic playmakers (running backs Bijan Robinson and Tyler Allgeier) and super-sized pass catchers (wideout Drake London and tight end Kyle Pitts) on the perimeter. Although the surrounding talent will alleviate some of the pressure Ridder faces to carry the offense, the second-year pro must prove to opponents he can make the big-time throws when the game hangs in the balance. Most importantly, Ridder needs to show he can play with maturity beyond his four games of starting experience. He was 2-2 in those contests, completing 63.5 percent of his pass attempts for two touchdowns against zero picks while being sacked nine times.
Credit Ron Rivera and Co. for putting their fate in the hands of a second-year pro with a single start on his résumé. Howell certainly flashed solid skills as a game manager in that start, a Week 18 win over division-foe Dallas Cowboys (completed 11 of 19 passes for 169 yards with a touchdown and an interception), but it is impossible to know if the North Carolina product is going to be the guy until he plays a full slate of games. Yet, the two-time NFL Coach of the Year believes in the former fifth-rounder and is willing to give him a chance to earn the job as the long-term answer, with free-agent signee Jacoby Brissett in place as QB2. With new offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy coming over from Kansas City after helping the NFL's QB1 claim his second ring in four seasons, the pressure is on Howell to show up and show out with a supporting cast that includes talented receiving trio Terry McLaurin, Jahan Dotson and Curtis Samuel.