2023 NFL offseason AFC questions: Will Mac Jones become a star for Patriots?
Go here for the top offseason questions facing NFC teams.
Houston Texans: “Who is the future at quarterback?”
The Texans pulled off a coup when they got DeMeco Ryans to take their head-coaching job. Ryans was one of the hottest candidates on the market, and the former Texans star will effectively end a cycle of pure, unabated chaos for the franchise.
Houston's next and most critical step is to identify its future franchise quarterback and begin the developmental process.
Whoever the quarterback is will have at least some talent to work with in Year 1. The offensive tackle spots are well-anchored by Laremy Tunsil and Tytus Howard. Running back Dameon Pierce was a fantasy football revelation as a rookie, and I still believe the best is yet to come for Nico Collins. The Texans have a second first-rounder and plenty of cap space to add another playmaker to the mix as well.
Indianapolis Colts: “Do we need to trade up for our guy?”
Jim Irsay let the cat out of the bag in a recent news conference, letting everyone know he wants to start over with a young quarterback. The Colts have the fourth overall pick, so the owner should be able to get his wish.
The only standing question for Indy is: Do they sit back and let a guy come to them at No. 4, or do they need to make a move up? If Irsay, Chris Ballard and Shane Steichen identify one of the top four guys who stand above the rest, they have every reason to part with picks and leapfrog Houston at the second overall pick. Either you get aggressive for your guy or you risk watching him play against you twice a season.
Michael Pittman and Jonathan Taylor established themselves as quality players in their first two seasons but got stuck in the mud that was the 2022 Colts offense. Getting the quarterback spot right is step one in getting these two young guys back on track.
Denver Broncos: “Will we get a better version of Russell Wilson in 2023?”
To be clear, it would be difficult to get a much worse version of the quarterback who captained a Denver offense that averaged 16.9 points per game.
In an ideal world, the hiring of Sean Payton resets a disastrous hierarchy that was far too Wilson-centric last year and goes a long way toward fixing the on-field product. Payton is a meticulous coach who built some of the best offenses of the past two decades. If anyone is getting Wilson back on track, it’s him.
However, there’s no way the Broncos hired Payton with a “Wilson or the highway” demand. If Wilson is too far gone, Payton will be on the lookout for his own passer to groom this time in 2024.
Las Vegas Raiders: “How do we out-kick our 2022 quarterback output?”
I struggle to map out the Raiders' logic at the quarterback position for a variety of reasons. I understand you have a bit of a capped ceiling with Derek Carr, but there isn’t anyone on the free-agent market who is for sure better than him.
Are you going to surrender major draft capital for the second year in a row to get a disgruntled Packer? An Aaron Rodgers trade is probably the one path I see for the Raiders to do better than Carr in 2023, but that comes with many future complications.
Las Vegas could very well be on the "placeholder veteran along with a rookie quarterback" plan. That’s probably the best way to eventually get better play under center, but it might come with a small offensive step back for Josh McDaniels & Co. in Year 2 of this regime.
Cleveland Browns: “Do we need more playmakers?”
No one can deny that Deshaun Watson’s play in the back half of his first season with Cleveland was well below the team's hopes. He ranked 41st in EPA per dropback (minimum 100 pass attempts), trailing luminaries such as Carson Wentz, Zach Wilson and Davis Mills. The guy he replaced, Jacoby Brissett, checked in at 12th.
Watson has to shoulder most, if not all, the blame, especially considering Brissett’s results. However, the Browns must still ask themselves if they can get better results from Watson if they beef up the pass-catching corps. Amari Cooper is great, but they could absolutely get better results from WR2 and 3.
Tennessee Titans: “Are we fully committing to the new era?”
It's perhaps unwittingly, but the Titans started a transition to a new era when they traded A.J. Brown last year. Now they must decide exactly how hard they’re ready to pivot. Tennessee already set loose big names well into the back nine of their careers, such as Taylor Lewan and Robert Woods. Their decision on Ryan Tannehill could be the key to unlocking Tennessee’s intentions.
If Tannehill sticks around, we might see this team add a mid-level, veteran receiver in free agency and squeeze yet another year out of the Derrick Henry-led core. Should Tannehill get moved via release or trade, then the door is open to a new look for a Titans offense that has held a singular identity the past few years.
New York Jets: “What do we add at quarterback?”
No need to belabor the point. We’ve known this would be the Jets’ offseason question since about November. Despite what they say about Zach Wilson this offseason, we know the Jets are laser-focused on improving the quarterback position by adding a veteran starter. It will happen sometime in the next few weeks.
Once that veteran is in place, we can begin to raise fantasy projections for budding young players such as Garrett Wilson and Elijah Moore, along with Breece Hall once he’s healthy.
New England Patriots: “Can we get Mac Jones back on track?”
It’s hard to imagine Bill Belichick flat-out admitting it — especially when you consider some of Jones’ on-field histrionics throughout the season — but if you gave the Patriots brass truth serum, they’d likely tell you they failed Jones in his second season. The coaching staff they rolled out on offense last year was simply unserious.
Bill O’Brien is still in the New England “friends and family” program, but he’s at least someone qualified for the job of NFL offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. It’ll be up to O’Brien to get Jones back on the developmental curve he appeared to be walking after a solid rookie campaign.
The Patriots' next steps after that will be even more intriguing.
Jakobi Meyers’ is going to get a big bag elsewhere in free agency because he’s the best available wide receiver. He has also consistently outproduced and out-played everyone the Patriots brought into the building to play ahead of him the past three years. How New England attacks the receiver corps, long a blindspot in Belichick’s scouting eye, will be the key factor in fielding a watchable offense in 2023.
Pittsburgh Steelers: “What can we do to help Kenny Pickett?”
I’d argue they already have a misstep in this pursuit by deciding to run back the Matt Canada offense for another season. But I won’t get on my soapbox about the worst-designed offense in the NFL in this space.
The Steelers have enough at WR1, WR2, running back and tight end to field a competent skill-position crew around their second-year passer. That means it’s time for the Steelers to sell out to improve their offensive line. We can get more out of Diontae Johnson and George Pickens as vertical receivers if there is more time for Pickett. Najee Harris can be more efficient with superior run-blocking.
We saw enough in Year 1 to say Pickett can play in the NFL. Now we need to see if he’s more of the truck or trailer in terms of how much he can lead this offense or if other guys need to elevate him.
Miami Dolphins: “How can this offense evolve?”
The Dolphins offense was a revelation in certain chapters of the season. When healthy and available, Tua Tagovailoa was one of the most efficient passers in the NFL. With Tua coming back into the fold despite concussion concerns, the Dolphins can likely scheme around some issues that popped up against defenses such as the 49ers' and Chargers' later in the season.
One area they might look to beef up from a personnel standpoint is the running back room. There were times Miami was the great rushing team I expected they’d be with Mike McDaniel calling plays, but those moments were few and far between.
Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson don’t have contracts for 2023. The value of fantasy running backs is about to experience a massive shakeup with a crowded free-agency crop. The Dolphins aren’t flush with cap space or draft picks, but if they manage to reel in one of the big fish, that player would be an instant offseason winner.
Jacksonville Jaguars: “Is Calvin Ridley enough?”
The Jaguars know they will have one new piece on offense in 2023, as long as Ridley’s reinstatement goes through following a year-long gambling ban. I’m already trying to not get too excited about Ridley as a Jag, but it’s hard when you watch his route-running chops with the Falcons. He was becoming one of the best separators in the NFL prior to his career going off the rails in 2021.
A player with Ridley’s strengths is exactly what this team needed in Trevor Lawrence’s second season.
Jacksonville structured its trade for the once-ascending receiver as a “gravy” type of addition. So it will be interesting to see if they further hedge their bets by adding a big-body, X-receiver type in the draft. A player like that would complete a corps featuring Ridley and Christian Kirk.
Baltimore Ravens: “What happens with Lamar Jackson?”
The Ravens have to figure this one out — and fast. Almost nothing else matters until they can decide on Jackson’s future with the team.
It sounds like Baltimore is more than ready to give Jackson a long-term contract, but they’re not on the same page with his desire for a fully guaranteed one, if reports are to be believed. The thing is, if Jackson wants that deal and the Ravens don’t want to give him that type of deal, someone else will. When players such as Deshaun Watson and Kirk Cousins were freely available to the entire NFL via trade and free agency, respectively, they commanded that contract structure. Jackson’s résumé trumps that of both of those guys.
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If the Ravens aren't able to make it work with their former MVP quarterback, they can do the unthinkable; cash him in for a boatload of picks and start over at the position while letting Jackson get his wish elsewhere.
That would be a bummer because I love the hire of Todd Monken. He’s the perfect candidate to continue to build around the offensive unit’s strengths as a run game while evolving the ultra-stale pass concepts. In my mind, we’re one receiver addition from seeing the best passing offense in Baltimore since Jackson arrived in 2018. But the quarterback needs to be in the building for all that to happen.
Los Angeles Chargers: “How do we add more juice on offense?”
The Chargers made the first step in getting the most out of Justin Herbert’s skill set by moving on from offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi. The offense became too centered around quick-game concepts, but there’s no doubt that issue was compounded by personnel.
The Chargers have some good names at the wide receiver position in Mike Williams and Keenan Allen. However, Allen might be a cap casualty, and either way, they desperately lack speed. The Chargers are a prime candidate to draft a wide receiver in the first two rounds of the draft and should be after a specific type: Someone who can get open at all levels and stretch the field vertically.
Cincinnati Bengals: “What tweaks are we making?”
For the most part, the Bengals of last year should be the same crew we see in 2023. Cincinnati has contract extensions to juggle, but Joe Burrow, Tee Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase will play for this team. That’s a great starting point.
The questions start with some of the ancillary pieces. Joe Mixon might be on the outs, as the Bengals could stand to trend younger and cheaper at the position. Hayden Hurst had nice moments at tight end but is set to hit free agency. They might save a little bit of money by trading Tyler Boyd, but it doesn’t make much sense to break up their receiver trio unless the Burrow or Higgins deals force their hand.
The Bengals are lucky to have a great, young core, but it’s about time to pay these stars. This team is about to enter the phase in which it makes cheaper cosmetic changes around the stars on a near-annual basis.
Buffalo Bills: “Who will step up beyond Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs?”
Forget what you thought about these guys heading into fantasy football drafts last year: The non-Diggs receivers were a problem for the Bills.
The Bills will almost certainly add a receiver — likely in the draft — to push Gabe Davis at outside receiver or Isaiah McKenzie in the slot. Perhaps Khalil Shakir can step into the latter role in his second season, but the Bills can’t just cross their fingers and hope for flashes to foreshadow real progression in the receiver room. That’s what got them into their 2022 mess.
There’s also an argument to be made that their true focus should be on finally developing a running game to go with Josh Allen. Part of it is playcalling philosophy and a lack of commitment to the ground attack, but better blockers upfront and a more consistent banger back would incentivize the team to be more balanced in run-first situations.
Kansas City Chiefs: “Can we pull off a WR room like that again?”
The Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes proved they do not need a big-time wideout to be the best offense in football and win the Super Bowl. As long as Travis Kelce is in the mix, I don’t think you see them take a big swing at any top-tier veteran receivers.
Instead, I bet you see the Chiefs make additions much like their 2022 swings. They should continue to draft and develop rookies on Day 2 like they did with Skyy Moore and complement the current crew with low-risk veteran acquisitions in the JuJu Smith-Schuster and Kadarius Toney mold.
There will be new faces in the 2023 Chiefs receiver room, in addition to guys such as Moore perhaps seeing an expanded role. However, the Chiefs showed they don’t need a universally recognized face at WR for the offense to work.