NFL: What each starting AFC QB needs to do to be successful in 2023
Nothing is perfect. And as such, there is always a pathway toward improvement, even if it’s minimal.
NFL quarterbacks understand that more than most. After he won his second Super Bowl MVP, Patrick Mahomes mentioned in multiple interviewshis desire to get better. Joe Burrow said something similar this offseason. Jalen Hurts also spoke of “a thrill in not being satisfied” and looking for ways to grow his game.
If three of the best quarterbacks in the NFL believe in improvement, it should apply to the rest of the league’s passers as well.
So, here is some unsolicited advice for all 16 AFC quarterbacks to have a successful 2023 season (asterisk denotes projected starter).
Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens: Utilize entire toolkit
Jackson is a good runner: He has the most quarterback rushing yards since 2018 by a wide margin. But now, Jackson has two new weapons in Odell Beckham Jr. and first-round rookie Zay Flowers. Those two, plus receiver Rashod Bateman, tight end Mark Andrews and running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards, figure to give Jackson his best collection of skill position players since he’s been the Ravens’ starter. Jackson has no excuse to rely solely on his legs anymore, and surely new offensive coordinator Todd Monken can design a system that maximizes all of the Ravens’ talent.
Aaron Rodgers, New York Jets: Prove the doubters wrong
Rodgers had a 2022 to forget only a year after he became the fifth player to win consecutive MVPs. He was injured, his receivers were young and the Packers as a whole fell out of sync, which led to a sharp decline in production for the 10-time Pro Bowler. Naturally, questions about Rodgers emerged as he approaches 40 entering his first year with the Jets. A big rebound from Rodgers in New York — either statistically or ending in a playoff run — would silence any doubts about his staying power … at least for the time being.
Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills: Be smart with your arm
Allen is arguably the second-best quarterback in the NFL, yet his 63.3 completion percentage ranked 22nd among QBs with at least 300 passing attempts in 2022. That needs to improve if the Bills want to ascend from contender to Super Bowl winner. Buffalo was boom-or-bust with Allen’s arm in 2022, which is partially why he had the most big-time throws (perfect ball location and timing on deep passes) as well as the most turnover-worthy throws, according to Pro Football Focus. He also tied for the third-most interceptions with 14.
Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals: Don’t slow down
There isn’t much Burrow needs to improve fundamentally. He went from a quality quarterback to a bona fide franchise guy in 2022 by shedding the flaws early in his career; namely, taking fewer sacks and getting the ball out quicker. Burrow needs to continue on his upward trajectory, build on his strengths and not fall backward if he wants to take the Bengals back to the Super Bowl — and win.
Deshaun Watson, Cleveland Browns: Shake off the rust
Watson wasn’t good in his first season with the Browns, which lasted only six games. He completed fewer than 59% of his passes, averaged less than 185 passing yards per game and threw only seven touchdowns to five interceptions. Part of that can be blamed on the 11-game suspension stemming from his sexual assault/misconduct allegations, but Watson certainly didn’t look like the quarterback to whom the Browns handed a massive, fully guaranteed contract. Watson needs to return to his former self — the one that completed 70.2% of his passes for a league-leading 4,823 yards with 33 touchdowns in 2020 — if Cleveland wants a chance at the playoffs.
Russell Wilson, Denver Broncos: Stay out of the kitchen and let Payton cook
The Broncos hired Sean Payton as head coach to fix whatever went wrong for Wilson in 2022. New team acclimation issues? Wilson will have another full offseason with his skill position players. Offensive line concerns? Denver signed tackle Mike McGlinchey and guard Ben Powers. Bad play-calling? Payton coached a top-10 offense in 11 of his 15 years with the New Orleans Saints. The signs are there for Wilson to have a bounce-back season, so long as he follows his coach.
*C.J. Stroud. Houston Texans: Don’t force things
One of the biggest issues that plagues rookie passers is trying to do too much too soon. Stroud was fundamentally one of the better quarterbacks in college football in 2022, but he’ll now play against bigger and better defenses with a worse team relative to the competition than the one he enjoyed at Ohio State. New Texans offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik should incorporate some of the strategies the San Francisco 49ers used with Brock Purdy for Stroud’s early development.
*Anthony Richardson, Indianapolis Colts: Lean on athleticism
Richardson’s speed, agility and body composition helped him on his path to become the Colts’ No. 4 overall draft pick — there’s no reason for him to shy away from that now. And he likely won’t with new head coach Shane Steichen at the helm. Steichen helped mold Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts into an MVP candidate in 2022 and he could do the same for Richardson. That means maintaining the physical gifts Richardson already possesses and not trying to make him something he’s not. The results may not always be positive, but Richardson’s 2023 goals should be about refinement and development, not necessarily production and wins.
Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars: Play with a lead
Lawrence improved dramatically from his rookie to his sophomore season and is on the cusp of flipping the narrative around the Jaguars in 2023. Jacksonville went 7-2 in the second half of the 2022 season to win the AFC South and make the playoffs, but did so mostly while playing from behind. Four of those wins were after the Jaguars trailed by two or more scores at some point in the game, and that’s before the improbable 27-point comeback win over the Chargers in the playoffs. Lawrence needs to get the offense going early, build a lead and then learn how to maintain that lead rather than sling the ball during a deficit. The retention of core offensive players and the addition of wideout Calvin Ridley should help in Year 2 of Doug Pederson’s offense.
Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs: Develop secondary pass-catchers
There isn’t much more Mahomes needs to do with his already prolific capabilities. Perhaps he could establish a true No. 2 pass-catching option. Apart from tight end Travis Kelce, the Chiefs have had a revolving door at wide receiver since they traded Tyreek Hill to the Miami Dolphins. And even the pass-catching group behind Hill was inconsistent. Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Skyy Moore and Kadarius Toney will seemingly replace JuJu Smith-Schuster and Mecole Hardman this year, but none offer the same experience and reliability. Justyn Ross, a 2022 undrafted receiver out of Clemson, is also gaining momentum during training camp. Perhaps that won’t matter for Andy Reid and Mahomes. Maybe a healthy Kelce is all they need.
Jimmy Garoppolo, Las Vegas Raiders: Reignite spark with Josh McDaniels
This will be Garoppolo’s first foray in a non-Shanahan system since he was traded to the San Francisco 49ers in 2017. Prior to that, Garoppolo played three seasons under McDaniels with the New England Patriots, although he saw extended action in only three games — once at the end of his rookie season and twice in 2016 during Tom Brady’s Deflategate suspension. Garoppolo was solid in McDaniels’ offense, but that was seven years ago. The system should be similar and he’ll have better weapons this time around.
Justin Herbert, Los Angeles Chargers: Throw the long ball
Herbert didn’t air out the ball much in 2022. His air yards per attempt dropped by more than a yard — from 7.6 in 2021 to 6.4 last season — and his air yards per completion dropped by 0.7 yards. That looks like it’ll change quickly after Los Angeles replaced offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi with Kellen Moore. In Moore’s offense, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott’s air yards per attempt never dropped below 7.5 over the past five years and reached as high as 9.3 in 2019. First-round rookie wideout Quentin Johnston should also give Herbert more options to expand the offense.
Tua Tagovailoa, Miami Dolphins: Use running backs more
This is less about Tagovailoa and more about the Dolphins as a whole. The Dolphins’ lack of a counterpunch in 2022 played a role in Miami’s midseason slide, but it bears repeating if the Dolphins want to realize their full potential. And it comes down to utilizing running backs more, especially in the passing game. Tagovailoa targeted running backs only 12% of the time this past season, among the fewest in the league. Incorporating running backs should open up the offense a bit for receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle.
Mac Jones, New England Patriots: Score touchdowns in the red zone
One of the biggest failures of the Patriots’ 2022 season was the team’s inability to put points on the board in scoring situations. New England ranked last in red zone touchdown conversion percentage with 19 on 42 attempts. Part of that can be blamed on Jones, who threw just eight red zone TDs in 2022 after he had 18 as a rookie. The Patriots hope Bill O’Brien’s offense will change that, or Bill Belichick may be looking at another down season.
Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh Steelers: Develop better rapport with pass-catchers
The Steelers quietly have a nice young core with Pickett, running back Najee Harris, tight end Pat Freiermuth, and receivers George Pickens and Diontae Johnson. They also signed veteran wideout Allen Robinson. The next stage in Pickett’s development after his rookie season is to continue to build chemistry with Pittsburgh’s franchise players after he tied for the sixth-highest percentage of bad throws among quarterbacks with at least 300 passing attempts last season. Otherwise it will be tough for the Steelers to hang with the Ravens and Bengals in the AFC North.
Ryan Tannehill, Tennessee Titans: Don’t give Will Levis a chance to take over
Tannehill is entering a critical year in his career. Not only did the Titans draft Levis in the second round as a potential starter, but Tannehill is also in the final year of his contract on a team that shed lots of money this offseason. Tannehill remains a competent player who hasn’t been great since the Titans traded away wideout A.J. Brown. The signing of DeAndre Hopkins could help Tannehill maintain his role and stave off the rookie.