Since the NFL is all about the quarterback now, we had Charles Robinson take a look at the top pressing questions for each franchise at the most important position in the sport. There are also some key answers, ones that can be validated or proven wrong this season by the men who lead these teams.
Here’s a look at what Robinson found among the AFC group:
Is Josh Allen’s relationship with Stefon Diggs going to require more maintenance?
Whatever occurred between Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs was not a nothingburger. I know the Bills braintrust, Allen and Diggs all want to paint it in that light, but that’s an aspect of outward management that became necessary when it was clear there was an issue. I’m willing to buy that the internal frustration has been smoothed over. For now.
But what should stick in people’s minds is how things started in Minnesota when Diggs began to have issues with the Kirk Cousins roller coaster. Back then, we were told it was an element of typical frustration that occurs between a wideout and quarterback in a competitive environment. We were told “the media” was making a bigger deal than was necessary. Eventually, the inevitable divorce between the Vikings and Diggs told us some of the truth.
While I don’t think that’s necessarily a 1-to-1 comparison to what took place in Buffalo in the offseason, I do think Diggs is extremely competitive and has high expectations for his quarterback. And when a season of destiny like 2022 fell considerably short, his frustration became hard to hide. I don’t think that’s going away, particularly if Allen can’t clean up the hero ball issues that led to some frustrating turnovers last season. The addition of tight end Dalton Kincaid could help in that respect, addressing the lingering need for a second consistent difference maker on offense. Some talent evaluators labeled Kincaid as exactly that — the type of pass-catching TE who could create mismatch problems and add significant balance to a scheme. Perhaps that helps Allen break through and set up shop on the Patrick Mahomes quarterback tier.
Until that happens and Super Bowl success follows, it’s likely we haven’t heard the last of Diggs’ frustrations.
Can Tua Tagovailoa avoid another concussion?
Yes, it’s the overwhelmingly angle. It’s also the clearest question of any quarterback in the 2023 season. That’s why we spent the offseason discussing Tua’s helmet technology, his effort to practice falling in a more beneficial way and the whole jiu-jitsu regimen. Largely because another concussion might not just change the course of the Dolphins’ season, but it might also renew considerations about whether Tua should continue playing. That’s how big the ramifications are for the answer here.
If Tagovailoa stays healthy, he’s the centerpiece of a Super Bowl-caliber roster. If he doesn’t, he becomes the loose thread that threatens to unravel everything. In an encouraging sign, we saw some exams of Tagovailoa using the techniques in the preseason when he took hits. The reality is this whole deal is going to take a village, and that requires two important things: Tua is going to have to emphasize getting the ball out quickly to avoid taking hits; and the offensive line and running backs are going to have to suck it up and galvanize the protection of their quarterback.
The upside is there is continuity on the offensive line, with left tackle, center and right guard all returning starters. Left guard is still messy with injuries muddling the picture. But the biggest key might be right tackle, where 2020 first-round draft pick Austin Jackson is going to have to stay healthy and considerably elevate his game. Because Tua is a lefty, it’s Jackson who is protecting his blindside. The same Jackson who had his fifth-year option declined by the Dolphins, a telling representation of how injuries and lack of consistency have undermined his value to the franchise. Now healthy after missing almost all of 2022, Jackson is arguably the most important player when it comes to keeping Tagovailoa healthy and on the field.
Can Mac Jones turn it around with a legitimate offensive coordinator?
Another top-five “most obvious” angle with the quarterbacks, but like Tagovailoa, there’s an element of finality that demands this be the primary question. Simply put: If Bill O’Brien can’t get Jones back on the promising track we saw during his rookie season, then Jones starts to feel like he’s slipping into the Sam Darnold groove — destined to get another shot elsewhere, but likely headed for backup status when it’s all over. That seems harsh for a player who has had only one season with a legitimate offensive coordinator, followed by a second season of enduring the ill-conceived notion of Matt Patricia replacing Josh McDaniels.
That harsh vantage also illustrates how bad 2022 was for Jones, who descended to the level of player who nearly lost head coach Bill Belichick forever in the process. Despite Jones’ status still being wobbly in the offseason, he hung onto his job and will get one more opportunity to show that there was no permanent damage done to his psyche in 2022. And he should have some leash on this one, too, even with the Patriots claiming Matt Corral off waivers and Bailey Zappe remaining on the practice squad. It’s not so much that neither of those players could supplant Jones. It’s more a matter of Jones’ next benching for the Patriots being his final one.
Can Aaron Rodgers live up to the expectations of this offseason love affair with the Jets?
No quarterback in the NFL was a recipient of more hype, publicity and general grandiosity as Rodgers. The “Hard Knocks” cameras that he claimed were “jammed down” the team’s throat added only more coal to the furnace in the hype train. Almost to the point that the Jets not getting to a Super Bowl would now be considered a huge letdown. Frankly, those are fair expectations based on just the overall talent around Rodgers. He’s going to have an elite defense, a top-tier head coach and arguably the best 1-2 running back punch in the league. Then there’s the wide receiver group, which is deep, experienced and led by a potential superstar in Garrett Wilson.
That’s not to mention Rodgers’ handpicked offensive coordinator in Nathaniel Hackett (and no, I don’t care about Hackett getting to the Jets first; that whole thing was cooked from the start). Perhaps an even crazier part of all this, I have little doubt the Jets will be open to adding another offensive piece for Rodgers at the trade deadline, too. Maybe it’s a run at Davante Adams or a tight end. We’ll check back on that in late October.
Perhaps the only thing that could scuttle all of this is an offensive line that has to show an ability to stay healthy and keep Rodgers from getting plowed under. If that line is moderately successful at that, the only thing that could be blamed for a Rodgers shortfall would be his own limitations. With him rolling toward his 40th birthday in December, those could be more real than we know.
Will the offensive line undercut Sean Payton’s plans for a Russell Wilson reboot?
One of the underrated subplots of Wilson falling off a cliff last season was the abysmal offensive line — both from the injuries that devastated the unit and the litany of costly flags over the course of the season. There were times last season when it looked like Wilson was playing like he expected to get hit. That can’t happen this season, especially if new head coach Sean Payton’s plans for Wilson are going to be effective.
So much of what Payton wants to do is getting Wilson moving swiftly, establishing a tempo, getting into a rhythm with the clock and generally being a few beats ahead of where he was last season. That’s going to be extremely hard to do if the offensive line suffers through another spate of injuries, can’t protect Wilson and/or commits penalties that put everything behind schedule in down and distance. Indeed, fixing that issue was one of the earliest plans the Broncos tried to address, signing guard Ben Powers and tackle Mike McGlinchey to huge deals, in hopes that the tandem would settle in with tackle Garrett Bolles and guard Quinn Meinerz to anchor a talented starting unit.
All of that was well intentioned, but then McGlinchey went down with a knee sprain early in camp and threw the group’s chemistry into a bit of a spin. The potential problems were more pronounced earlier in camp and the group improved over the course of the summer despite McGlinchey’s absence. But it’s fair to question whether preseason “solid” will eventually translate in good or great over the course of the regular season. McGlinchey eventually got back to practice and should be in the starting lineup to face the Las Vegas Raiders in the opener. But we may not know enough about this group until midseason — and whether all that money and offseason effort is going to pay off in keeping Wilson’s eyes downfield rather than anticipating breakdowns in protection.
Could Patrick Mahomes elevate the offense if Travis Kelce’s knee injury lingers?
At some point, you have to question how much Mahomes can carry on his shoulders. His wide receivers have been stripped down to the point of becoming a merry-go-round of average journeymen or young guys with little experience. Mahomes weathered that reality nicely in the 2022 season, but that was largely accomplished on the considerable strength of Kelce, who has been one of the most special skill position mismatches in the NFL for the past seven years. That was most evident last season, when the Mahomes to Kelce matchup dominated several games. But there might be a lesson to be learned with Kelce’s hyperextended knee. That’s an injury that can linger an entire season depending on what the nature of the damage is to the joint tissue. Some players can push through the pain, swelling and maintenance, but they often do as lesser versions of themselves. If that becomes the case with Kelce this season, we’re going to get a window into what is coming for the Chiefs if they can’t find a way to start grooming the next highly impactful player for Mahomes.
Kelce turns 34 in October. He’s in the back nine of his career. And it’s not realistic to look at Mahomes and suggest that he can continue forward into his prime with a rotating cast of nondescript supporting actors. In the years Tom Brady was most responsible for the Patriots winning Super Bowls (titles No. 4 through 6) he always had at least one one of his talented “trust” guys — Rob Gronkowski or Julian Edelman — playing pivotal roles. And before that, he had Wes Welker for a long stretch. If Kelce had suffered a season-ending injury rather than something more manageable, the reality is this would have been Mahomes’ first season without a “trust” guy. That should be a thought turning over throughout the season for head coach Andy Reid and the front office.
Las Vegas Raiders
Does Jimmy Garoppolo’s contract restructure hint at a “win now” commitment in Las Vegas?
The easy question here would center on whether Garoppolo is anything more than a bridge quarterback or whether he can start a full slate of games for the first time since 2019. And one of those queries would have led off this space, had it not been for the contract restructure that Garoppolo agreed to this week, freeing up an additional $17 million in salary-cap space for the Raiders. The interesting twist here, according to a source with knowledge of the deal as of late Tuesday, was that the Raiders took the vast majority of Garoppolo’s 2023 salary and converted it into a signing bonus that could be spread out over multiple years. The significance of that move is two fold.
First, it’s suggestive that the franchise is willing to be tied to Garoppolo as a starter beyond 2023. Second, it’s a move that makes the Raiders cap compliant heading into 2023 and gives the team more breathing room to make a trade deadline addition in 2023.
Until that extension, other general managers were looking at the Raiders like they were a team in the midst of a soft rebuild that would likely be listening to offers for some veterans by the end of October. But as one GM said Wednesday, “That [Garoppolo restructure] is — it looks like they’re in it to compete now and make a little longer commitment to [Garoppolo]. It certainly look like a team that’s bracing to trade off pieces at the deadline.”
For all intents and purposes, the Garoppolo restructure was a throwaway news item that was based on getting in line with the salary cap. That’s definitely not the way it’s being interpreted to some other AFC West teams — or some franchises who were already thinking about what players they could field calls about heading into the trade deadline of Oct. 31.
Los Angeles Chargers
Will Justin Herbert finally step onto an MVP and Super Bowl track?
When you talk to front offices, the NFL’s quarterback hierarchy currently has one “killer” for lack of a better term: the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes. A player whose mere presence at QB makes you a threat to play in the Super Bowl annually and who will do anything to secure a title. It’s the stuff of Tom Brady. It’s akin to being held in historic awe while you’re still playing.
Outside of Mahomes, the Cincinnati Bengals’ Joe Burrow and the Philadelphia Eagles’ Jalen Hurts are both strong candidates for entry into that fraternity. But after those two “next tier” players, there is a third shelf that includes special talents that boast some combination of stats, wins or special leadership traits. Josh Allen is there. Lamar Jackson — when healthy — is there. Trevor Lawrence is a popular pick to ascend into this group. And then you have Herbert, who is arguably one of the finest pure passers in the game today.
Despite that respectable perch, he’s also a player who hasn’t been able to replicate the ability of either Mahomes or Burrow to refuse to lose the most important games on the slate during their first three seasons as a starter. Nor has he racked up the playoff success of Allen or Hurts in their first three seasons. Statistically, Herbert has been everything an NFL team could ask for. But there remains a question of whether he can be the kind of “raise all boats all the time” leader required to unseat Mahomes … or even mount an extensive playoff run.
Last season, given the injury Herbert was nursing, can’t be held against him. But it’s clear that 2023 is going to be a different animal. Few rosters feature the totality of assets surrounding Herbert, from an offensive line that features talent and continuity, to a skill position collection that is easily far more stacked than the collection Mahomes won a Super Bowl with last season. And none of this takes into account the arrival of offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, who (despite the scheme gripes of Mike McCarthy) turned Dak Prescott and the Dallas offense into a prolific passing team over his time with the Cowboys. Herbert is immensely more talented than Prescott and also has a better skill position cast.
There’s little reason to suggest Moore can’t help Herbert take his game into the rare air of the league’s top two quarterback tiers.
Can Lamar Jackson be an MVP again without overexposing himself in the run game?
Lamar Jackson secured the bag … and a new offensive coordinator … and two new starting wideouts. If that significant change — and it is significant — doesn’t unlock something close to Jackson’s MVP ceiling, I’m not sure what will.
New offensive coordinator Todd Monken arrives with a purpose: to meaningfully streamline the Baltimore offense into a vehicle that doesn’t rely so much on Jackson exposing himself as a runner. That makes sense, given that Jackson has accrued five years of hits on his body while playing dual roles that have amounted to being a starting quarterback and starting running back. Sound like hyperbole? It isn’t.
Since 2018, Jackson has had the eighth most rushing yards of any player in the NFL (including all running backs) and 20th most carries. That element of his game has lended to him being the dynamic playmaker that he is, but it also became a significant depreciating asset last season, particularly when he sprained his PCL and missed six games, including a playoff loss. Replacing Greg Roman as the offensive coordinator and inserting Monken was geared toward tamping down Jackson’s running exposure, along with spending significant free-agent dollars on wideout Odell Beckham Jr. and a first-round draft pick on wideout Zay Flowers. Alongside tight end Mark Andrews and a healthy Rashod Bateman, this is the best set of receiving assets Jackson has worked with. If that doesn’t help open his game as a passer in Monken’s scheme, there’s little else the Ravens can do.
What the heck is going on with the Joe Burrow extension?
Everyone needs to chill and take a breath on this one. Both the Bengals’ and Burrow’s camp are far too relaxed right now for this extension to not be close — and neither was raising red flags about him getting back onto the practice field without a deal in place. And while reading into negotiating posture can be dangerous when the finish line is close on big contracts, I think this is one of the safer ones to call.
I believe it’s going to get done and likely announced Friday or Saturday, getting a beat away from the massive Nick Bosa extension and the celebration of Thursday’s season opener (although an announcement during Thursday’s game shouldn’t be a surprise). I think this extension has been close for a while now, with the finishing touches being a matter of sweeping up some structural details. It’s also worth noting that Burrow’s agent, Brian Ayrault, also represents Bosa. When you’re an agent reeling in two historic deals, you don’t drop them right on top of each other. Spacing them out a bit for full effect, giving clients a chance to have their own day in the sun, is marketing 101.
The bigger mystery here is what the Burrow structure will look like. Typically, it would stand on the shoulders of the previous precedent-setting contract (Justin Herbert’s five-year $262.5 million extension). But with Burrow and ownership having suggested an effort to keep the triumvirate of Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins together, a typical “beat the last record-setter” deal would seem to be an impediment. Whether or not Burrow ends up having that kind of deal will say a lot about Cincinnati’s future.
Will a full (and quiet) offseason with the Browns get Deshaun Watson back onto an All-Pro track?
The team thinks it will.
It was interesting to hear from people inside Browns headquarters say that there isn’t a mindset of a single addition or change being the thing that unlocks Watson’s star power again. Instead, people point to an offseason when Watson got an opportunity to pour all of himself into football again, not the legal issues over sexual assault and misconduct allegations that resulted in an 11-game suspension. He got to fine-tune his understanding of the offense; got to know his teammates around him; and perhaps most important, he had other offensive players get a better feel for how their play best suits Watson’s style.
Watson brought some of his teammates to Houston in the offseason to help speed that effort along. One source said that the receivers got a chance to understand that on any given play the ball could be coming their way, even when it might not be drawn up that way. That type of understanding and then actually repping it out on the field should help open up the off-script part of Watson’s skills.
Between that and getting a normal offseason in the team’s passing program, offseason workouts and camps, everyone in Cleveland thinks Watson is light years ahead of where he was when camp ended in 2022.
Can Kenny Pickett take the step necessary to compete in a division loaded with top-end quarterbacks?
The preseason was excellent for Pickett, but it’s hard to know whether it’s going to translate into the big jump the Steelers are hoping for as their 2022 first-round draft pick goes from Year 1 to 2. If you add up his three preseason appearances and compact them into one game line, he was exquisite, completing 29 of 36 passes for 261 yards and three touchdowns (with no interceptions). In limited frame snapshots, the Steelers couldn’t have asked for much more. Pickett looked like he’s settled into an element of comfortability that makes a world of difference for players heading into their second season as a starter, and he did it by illustrating a rhythm with other potential starts on offense — most notable uber-talent wideout George Pickens and tight end Pat Freiermuth.
A source inside the Steelers said one vastly underrated asset for Pickett this preseason was 30-year-old wideout Allen Robinson II, who has brought an element of veteran professionalism and preparedness to the wide receivers room. While it’s difficult to project what Robinson will contribute on the field after back-to-back down seasons, the Steelers sure seem to have a lot of confidence in him playing a significant role that will help along Pickett’s learning curve.
Time will tell if it’s enough to elevate Pickett to something other than the fourth-best quarterback in a loaded QB division.
How much will C.J. Stroud struggle without elite protection?
This offensive line was designed by the front office to be one of the better units in the NFL. And at the outset of training camp, it seemed like it would be. Pro Bowl left tackle Laremy Tunsil is considered one of the best in the league when he’s playing to his full capability; right tackle Tytus Howard was an athletic former first-round draft pick developing into a good player and heading toward an extension; right guard Shaq Mason was a solid Super Bowl-winning veteran acquired in a trade and signed to an extension; left guard Kenyon Green was a promising 15th overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft trying to dodge another year of injuries; and the plan at center was to eventually groom 2023 second-round pick Juice Scruggs into the starting role.
This was the kind of asset-laden unit built to protect an elite rookie quarterback. More specifically, an elite rookie QB who spent the majority of his college days exploiting clean passing pockets. This unit was made for C.J. Stroud.
So imagine the surprise when following joint practices against the Miami Dolphins, a Miami source opined that Stroud was going to have his hands full dealing with offensive line problems. Maybe it was just a flat two days of practice or some typical early chemistry problems, but this Dolphins source was surprised at some of the struggles of a Texans line that had talent. The critic’s message: Stroud was going get hit more in the early portion of the 2023 season than the totality of his time at Ohio State.
What’s remarkable is that this was an opinion shared in mid-August. Before Howard and Scruggs both landed on injured reserve for at least the first four games of the season. In totality, it was not exactly the kind of preseason the Texans hoped for after the investment in Stroud’s protection. And while you can say that for a multitude of NFL teams this preseason, they aren’t all facing chemistry and injury issues on top of fielding a rookie quarterback during the first month of his career.
The bottom line: There’s a good chance Stroud takes a lot of punishment early, putting him in a tough transition phase mentally and physically. It’s hard enough starting as a rookie quarterback when you don’t have protection issues on the doorstep of your first season. It’s worth keeping an eye on how Stroud responds to it.
What is the plan for helping Anthony Richardson overcome struggles in his passing development?
A general manager who has been watching Richardson from afar in the preseason had this to say about the rookie quarterback: “I watched him go 6-for-17 [against the Philadelphia Eagles] and it was the most entertaining 6-for-17 I’ve ever seen. He’s just got so much talent. But I get the feeling we’re going to be watching a lot of 6-for-17s [this season] and I hope he can make it through that.”
The presumption in the statement was that Richardson was going to have a significant mental load dealing with a lot of scintillating moments sandwiched in failure. A bit like Josh Allen’s first year with the Buffalo Bills, which most have forgotten was an atrocious start — a 5-6 record as a starter; a 52.8 completion percentage and a negative touchdown to interception ratio (10 to 12). A lot of that failure was buoyed by Allen’s legs and reckless abandon, resulting in 631 rushing yards and eight touchdowns in only 12 games (11 starts).
That could be a very real stat comparison for Richardson when this season is over, albeit adjusted for more games if Richardson starts all 17. The key for Allen, though, will be the same as the key for Richardson: Keeping him focused on small window victories rather than large window failures.
Yes, his passing stats are likely going to look terrible at times. But one of the great things the Bills did with Allen was constantly bombard him with examples of his growth. When he made a mistake but bounced back on the following series, there was an emphasis on getting him to focus in on that as a victory. And always, a constant reminder to stack small victories on top of each other until other parts of Allen’s game caught up. That was how the Bills and former offensive coordinator Brian Daboll helped Allen take a step in each of seasons 1, 2 and 3.
The persistence on mental health with young quarterbacks has never been a bigger focus than it is now. Doing it right and managing expectations — or even being willing to sit a player down at the point of damaging returns — can be the difference between growing a player (Allen) or rebooting a player entirely (Zach Wilson with the New York Jets). Unquestionably, how the Colts navigate that with Richardson will have a lasting impact on this year and beyond.
Is Trevor Lawrence ready to consistently beat elite quarterbacks?
Yes, I know: The quarterbacks don’t play each other — the teams play each other. But quarterbacks most certainly duel one another. They most certainly respond. History is thick with NFL Films footage of Tom Brady or Peyton Manning or (name an elite quarterback in history) watching an opposing offense score and then strapping on their helmet, knowing it’s their job to land a counterpunch on the next series. A general manager once told me years ago that he wished there was a Super Bowl-era statistic that showed a percentage of how often the best quarterbacks in history responded to an opponent’s touchdown by leading their own team to a touchdown on an ensuing drive. I remarked that it would be hard to attach value to it, given that drives are often dictated by time, distance and a multitude of other variables that can stretch as far as the weather. The GM pressed back, stating that he’d wager the best quarterbacks in history would have the highest percentages of responding to a touchdown with a touchdown. And he didn’t think that would be a coincidence. I bring that up with Lawrence because there’s a palpable belief that he won’t ascend into the “elite” echelon of quarterbacks until he can consistently be a centerpiece in beating the best in the regular season and postseason.
There’s a reason why Joe Burrow is considered by many to be the second-best quarterback in the league. And it’s because he has found a way to get into the Super Bowl when the road required going through Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead. Not only that, but Burrow has had a penchant of showing up big nearly every time he has dueled Mahomes and other top quarterbacks.
This is Lawrence’s hurdle now. He has a quality, Super Bowl-winning head coach in Doug Pederson. He presumably has a No. 1 wide receiver in Calvin Ridley. And he has an offense that continues to get more talented from one year to the next. The natural leap now is showing an ability to meet Mahomes, Burrow and Josh Allen, and respond with wins. All three of those players are on the schedule this season, along with Lamar Jackson. If Lawrence wins those four games and follows up with similar playoff success, nobody will be asking if he’s in the elite category anymore.
Will Ryan Tannehill’s (presumed) last season with the Titans get undercut by the offensive line?
It seems most everyone is writing the Titans off as contenders in this division. This despite a defense that is solid if not good across the depth chart, and arguably one of the better overall group of skill position players on offense since Mike Vrabel took over as head coach. A lot of that disbelief is rooted in Tannehill, who had a rough and injury-curtailed season in 2022.
At 35 years old and with the Titans having taken quarterbacks with valuable picks in the past two drafts, the writing appears to be on the wall, if not screaming from a loudspeaker, that Tannehill is on the downslope and the Titans are going with him. Of course, few outside the Titans’ orbit fully understood the frustrations at the offensive coordinator position last season, or the potential of incoming coordinator Tim Kelly to make a significant impact on a Tennessee rebound this season.
Now add in the development of wideout Treylon Burks alongside the addition of DeAndre Hopkins. Consider the drafting of running back Tyjae Spears (who will get a lot of change of pace use next to Derrick Henry). And spend some time learning why they’re so excited about young tight end Chig Okonkwo. The cupboard around a now-healthy Tannehill is not bare.
Unfortunately, the offensive line that will set the table for each play still feels messy. There are three “clean the slate” starters in left tackle Andre Dillard, right tackle Chris Hubbard and right guard Daniel Brunskill — all of whom failed when given ample opportunities to entrench themselves as starters with previous teams. Then you have a player switching positions in Aaron Brewer, who is a returning starter moving from guard to center. And finally, there is celebrated rookie offensive line addition Peter Skoronksi at left guard, who might already be the best player in the unit after being selected with the 11th pick in the draft.
That’s a lot of unknowns starting in front of Tannehill. And when I passed through camp, it felt like the one player the Titans were least worried about on the unit was the rookie. This is usually not a great sign. If it sounds like a significant portion of the season is balancing on whether the line can hold it together, that’s because it is.