The free agency frenzy's in the rearview mirror, the draft is in the books -- and the schedule is out.
The NFL in 2023 doubles as a weekly fistfight between under-center icons eyeing Super Bowl windows. Especially in the top-heavy AFC, where you and I will be spending more quality time with Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and Aaron Rodgers than we do with our actual human counterparts. In the less-shiny NFC, it largely boils down to what Football Gods, Inc. has in store for Jalen Hurts and the power-loaded Eagles.
Sure, we're still ages away from September, but what's stopping me from unfurling my Way Too Early Top 10 QB Candidates For MVP? Not my editors, that's for sure. Let's roll.
NOTE: The odds provided by Caesars Sportsbook & Casino are current as of 1 p.m. ET on Friday, May 12.
A savvier blogger would throw Dak Prescott atop this list, sit back as our social media team drops that dirty bomb onto Twitter and watch the world burn into a dark dream.
Mahomes, though, provides all the drama we need. He's the origin story, the figure NFL marketers, schedule-makers and every soul in this newsroom revolve around as we head toward the 2023 campaign. If I gained anything writing last season's QB Index, it was a newly minted, deep trust in Kansas City's polestar to deliver. No matter what. Mahomes seems to contribute his greatest heroics when banged up, spinning spells regardless of the surrounding cast.
Realistically, Mahomes is a solid candidate to top last season's feats -- leading all passers in yards (5,250) and touchdowns (41) while throwing 12 picks -- as Andy Reid continues to world-build in a post-Tyreek Hill universe.
The best quarterback on Earth will face a flock of familiar foes this season -- Joe Burrow, Josh Allen, Justin Herbert and Jalen Hurts -- while confronting Aaron Rodgers for the first time. It all starts, though, against Jared Goff and the frisky Lions in the NFL Kickoff Game.
Flip-flop a few of Madeleine L'Engle's wrinkles in time, and we're spending all offseason talking about Super Bowl MVP Jalen Hurts and an Eagles dynasty-in-the-making. Philly's quarterback dazzled on the biggest stage, accounting for 374 total yards and four touchdowns before Mahomes played king.
Hurts grew as much as any passer league-wide in 2022, refining his downfield artistry to turn A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith into a nasty pair of 1,000-yard receivers. Hurts blinds you with his lasers, then barrels through you -- breaking your will -- with his rare power as an open-field rumbler.
He'll face the league's toughest strength of schedule -- five of the past six teams who did so missed the playoffs -- but the well-built, gnarly Eagles give me '89 Niners vibes. It's not hard to picture them as an angry asteroid rolling through a milquetoast NFC.
In another reality, Burrow exists as a 1930s matinee cowboy hired out by Columbia Pictures to roam the Santa Susanas. In our time, he's arrived to save a Bengals club struggling for oxygen until he strode in. Burrow capped last season with Pro Football Focus' highest passing grade, finishing the regular season with eight straight wins and trailing only Mahomes in touchdown tosses.
With Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins at his side, Burrow's a lock for another uber-consistent campaign. It was an upset to see the Bengals not draft a pass-catching tight end -- high hopes for Irv Smith Jr. -- but the front office dialed up a coup by snagging left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. on a four-year, $64.092 million deal. Cincy's destiny might have been different a year ago had the line not crumbled into an injury-riddled apocalypse against K.C. in the AFC title game.
Burrow will get another shot at Mahomes on New Year's Eve, after tussling with Josh Allen, Trevor Lawrence and San Francisco's Nick Bosa-led defense. One additional to-do: It's time for Joe Cool to improve on his weirdish 1-4 record against the Cleveland Browns.
I plan to hear about this one: plopping Allen fourth on this list.
It comes as no slight to one of the game's most enjoyable visual feasts. He's shown MVP traits for years and takes over games in a way nobody can match. Still, I'm down on the concept of Buffalo rolling through a rugged AFC East to 14 wins.
The offense went to sleep for stretches last season. That won't work inside a schedule asking Buffalo to face the Bengals, Eagles and Chiefs -- all on the road -- over one five-game span. Allen must storm those hostile houses and go blow-for-blow with the three quarterbacks mentioned above if the race is tight. That all comes after dueling Aaron Rodgers and the Jets in the Monday night opener.
I do love the addition of first-rounder Dalton Kincaid, the 6-foot-4, 246-pound tight end who projects as a much-needed weapon out of the slot alongside Stefon Diggs, Gabe Davis and Dawson Knox. The DeAndre Hopkins trade winds have quieted, but could Bills general manager Brandon Beane eventually push for one more weapon? That Super Bowl window is still cracked open.
Fingers crossed he's MVP-worthy. Why? Aaron Rodgers is going to be a massive part of our lives all autumn into winter, with the hype-bunny Jets set for a robust five prime-time tilts along with a fight against Miami in the NFL's first-ever Black Friday game.
It's a new world for the Jets and their quarterback, who will contend against a suddenly thorny AFC East, duel the AFC West and take on Dallas, Philly and the NFC East. It lines up as the NFL's sixth-nastiest slate by strength of schedule.
If Rodgers thrives and tugs Gang Green to January, though, he's a compelling match for what the award should mean: More than just the best quarterback overseeing a powerhouse, someone who serves as a rainmaker. Taking the Jets to the playoffs for the first time in 2010 would double as a course in miracles -- especially if we get a revived, fired-up Aa-Rod in a bounceback campaign.
The Ravens have long struggled to cultivate wideouts. Beyond the fascinations of tight end Mark Andrews, Baltimore's leading receiver a year ago was Demarcus Robinson, who punctured defenses for a whopping 458 yards and two scores.
Since Lamar Jackson was drafted half a decade ago, Marquise Brown is the only Ravens WR to cross 1,000 yards, barely doing so in 2021 with 1,008. The parlor game becomes: Who Do You Blame? Greg Roman's (since-jettisoned) grind-it-out attack? An otherwise-spotless front office? Jackson himself? The debate comes to a head this September, when Lamar returns in the flesh with Odell Beckham Jr., first-rounder Zay Flowers and Nelson Agholor added to the mix alongside Rashod Bateman and alpha-dog Andrews.
"I want to throw for 6,000 yards with the weapons we have," a freshly motivated Jackson said earlier this month after landing his five-year, $260 million deal. To follow through -- blowing past Peyton Manning's record 5,477 yards from 2013 -- Jackson must simply pass for 353 yards per game. His best single-season total to this point: 3,127 yards in his 2019 MVP campaign.
New play caller Todd Monken must love the moxie, but Lamar's path toward a second MVP requires that he display heightened durability after missing 10 games over the past two seasons. Who on this list has more to prove out of the gate?
I'm sticking with what I wrote in my end-of-the-regular-season Index about L.A.'s centerpiece:
I see -- like so many of us do -- a player who throws one of the prettiest balls in all the land. A selfless centerpiece who played through the pain of a rib cartilage fracture. A guy whose numbers suffered with Keenan Allen and Mike Williams -- plus a rash of linemen -- ripped from the lineup. A physical specimen baked into a scheme that too often holds him back. I feel as strongly about Herbert as a top-five quarterback as I do about anything happening in the sport today.
The roster has very few holes. Last year's problematic scheme has been swept out the door for a Kellen Moore-led attack that promises to make the most of Herbert through the air. Added to the mix: first-rounder Quentin Johnston out of TCU, the brand of big-bodied wideout who can author headaches for secondaries alongside Allen and Williams.
Winning MVP, though, will require felling Mahomes -- arguably twice -- and turning the Chargers into a consistent heartthrob after years of dark comedy. Is this a sneaky Super Bowl squad ready to rise -- or just another cursed Bolts team destined to disappoint?
Lawrence's leap was one of football's most exciting events a season ago. Per NFL Research, he became just the second quarterback since 1950 (with 10-plus starts) to double his passing touchdowns and halve his picks from the previous year. He trimmed off-target throws in real time and showed a knack for putting the offense on his shoulders. The attack finished with the league's ninth-best DVOA -- sixth overall in passing -- and gave the Chiefs a fight in the playoffs.
P.S.: Jacksonville added Calvin Ridley to the mix.
The Jaguars will become the first team in history to play back-to-back tilts in London, confronting the Falcons in Week 4 and the Bills in Week 5. It was last year's loss to the Broncos at Wembley that served as Lawrence's career-altering wakeup call.
Back home, the AFC South looms as less of a punching bag, with C.J. Stroud in Houston and Anthony Richardson in Indy, but Jacksonville's fate boils down to Lawrence picking up where he left off. With 15 touchdowns to just two picks over his final nine regular-season games last season, we're staring at something special in the works.
Tagovailoa's 2022 campaign produced the second-highest passer rating (105.5) in Dolphins history, behind only Dan Marino's season-long romp in '84 (108.9). That came after the team explored Tom Brady and Deshaun Watson as potential replacements -- and before Tua talked openly about pondering retirement in the wake of multiple head injuries.
Tagovailoa clicked with Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, but he missed four starts and a playoff game because of the concussions. This might be the fastest offense in football -- there's plenty to love, starting with the mind of Mike McDaniel -- setting up Tua for success. One of the league's toughest schedules won't help, but the key is staying on the field.
Seventeen weeks of Prescott's finest football would trigger plenty of MVP talk. In real life, durability concerns -- he's missed 17 games over the past three seasons -- and pockets of problematic play are part of the mix.
Drive-time talking heads turned radioactive as Prescott squeezed out a 15:11 touchdown-to-pick ratio over the final seven games of the regular season. A chunk of the interceptions weren't his fault, but Prescott has thrown 10-plus picks in three of his past four campaigns (the outlier saw him lost after five games to injury in 2020).
His highs are tremendous. The addition of veteran WR Brandin Cooks and rookie TE Luke Schoonmaker should help. If we're talking MVP odds, though, it's tough to trust Prescott to vibe pristine from wire to wire.
Tidbits on arms from beyond
Jared Goff deserves mention here after a brilliant close to last season. He's an asset and quality fit inside a high-flying Lions scheme and can promptly blow this column up by knocking off Kansas City in the opener. ... Kirk Cousins has produced quality numbers year after year, but I'm not sure I understand where we rest as a society if he winds up as the finest player league-wide in 2023. ... Here I go, underrating Geno Smith all over again. What could go awry? ... I'm interested to see where we are with Justin Fields a year from now. Nobody last May had Jalen Hurts in the MVP conversation. ... I trust Brian Daboll to coach up Daniel Jones. I don't trust anyone to make Mr. Dimes the MVP.