The draft dust has settled. Free agency has come to a slow crawl. Let’s now shift to players on existing deals. Specifically, we’ll examine QBs because they’re so interesting. Among these players, who has the most on the line this upcoming NFL season? That’s what I’m here to talk about in this post. Many of these signal callers are in contract years or signed prove-it deals. Those players have so much to gain because they are literally playing for their next contract. Others are deep into their rookie contracts, hoping for a big payday. Therefore, in no particular order, here are the 10 QBs who have the most to gain…and lose…in 2023.
1. Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys
Being the quarterback of America’s Team isn’t easy. For all of Prescott’s regular-season success, he hasn’t fared nearly as well in the playoffs. His last effort was his worst, when he threw for just 202 yards, 1 TD, and 2 INTs and put up a mere 12 points against San Francisco. The turnovers were a theme throughout the 2022 season, as Prescott tied for the league lead with 15 picks. This is unfortunate timing; his salary for 2023 ($31M) is fully guarantees, but Dallas can escape the contract following this season. His $59.4M cap hit for 2024 must be addressed.
Whether that occurs through an extension or by the Cowboys moving on remains to be seen. This upcoming season will play a large role in that decision. As things stand, Prescott should not get $50M+ per season; he simply hasn’t been a top-5 QB since he signed this deal. We know though that Jerry Jones is a sentimental owner/GM. He LOVES to reward players he picked because doing so makes him look smart for hitting on them. A big statistical season and a playoff win might be all it takes to earn another fat contract. But another clunker like 2022? Dallas might have no choice but to look at their options.
2. Ryan Tannehill, Tennessee Titans
Tannehill looks like a man who is on borrowed time with his squad. Ever since his playoff debacle against Cincinnati in 2022, fans have soured on Tannehill. The front office seems to have done so as well. They drafted Malik Willis last year in the 3rd round to groom as a successor. Although that plan failed miserably, the Titans doubled down, trading up in the 2nd round of this year’s draft to select Will Levis. The team has undoubtedly been better with Tannehill on the field, but they appear to want to move on.
Pushing this situation to its conclusion is the fact that Tannehill’s contract automatically voids at the end of the 2023 season. His current $27M salary and $36M cap hit aren’t tenable for long, but they can be absorbed for one last season while he mentors Levis. Should Tannehill return to his 2019-2020 level, he’ll make Tennessee’s decision much harder and virtually guarantee himself a high-paying starting job. His recent, more injury-prone form would leave him as a premium backup. He’d make far less in that scenario and see the field much less often as well.
3. Tua Tagovailoa, Miami Dolphins
Unlike most people, I have no reservations about Tagovailoa’s play. Like most people, I do worry about his durability. Last season was particularly concerning, as he suffered 3 concussions. I’m willing to operate as if that was a fluke and not a pattern; the team agrees, having picked up Tagovailoa’s 5th-year guaranteed option. This is the most accurate QB in the league, and with weapons around him, he was playing like an MVP in 2022 and was on his way to a $250M extension. The Dolphins were drastically different when he was off the field. Sadly, he has been off the field quite a bit due to injuries.
These next two years are critical to his future, especially 2023. If Tagovailoa puts together a full season of good health, the team will likely extend him before the final year of his contract. Otherwise, his status as the future of the franchise will be seriously called into question. Remaining in the lineup would allow him to put up more monster numbers throwing to Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. In good news, Tagovailoa has been learning to fall. Poor falling led to some of his head injuries when he banged his head against the turf. Some players just can’t shake the injury bug, but I truly hope that Tagovailoa can.
4. Russell Wilson, Denver Broncos
To say that Wilson’s debut season with Denver was a disaster would be the understatement of the century. After giving up a pile of assets to go get him, the Broncos foolishly extended him without first seeing how he fit their team. Wilson responded with the worst season of his career. However, his fans will (correctly) note that he showed signs of life after Nathaniel Hackett was fired, posting the best stretch of his Bronco career. That means he now has a tremendous opportunity to rebound with Sean Payton as his head coach. The question is whether he can do it.
From my vantage point, switching teams and bad coaching can’t be completely blamed for Wilson’s struggles. Starting from his final season in Seattle, Wilson appeared to be declining ever so slightly. Was his late-season flash a mirage, or can Wilson really get back to normal with a better offensive mind helping him? If he has another poor showing, Denver would want to offload his contract. I just don’t see an out before 2026 without the team eating a ton of money. Cutting him after 2024 would involve over $80M in dead cap. However, if Wilson is awful once again, Denver may bite the bullet and designate him as a post-June 1 release.
5. Kyler Murray, Arizona Cardinals
Based on his contract, Murray doesn’t appear to be in any danger. Like Russell Wilson above, I don’t think Murray can be cut this year. In fact, he’s probably safe next year as well given that it would cost $81.5M in dead salary to release or trade him before 2025. However, the team’s performance and upcoming draft picks tell a different story. Arizona is not going to be competitive this season since Murray is injured and the team lost a bunch of high-end talent. That sets them up for a likely top-10 pick, perhaps even #1 overall. They also have Houston’s 1st-rounder next year, which will be very good as well.
The Cardinals have plenty of ammunition to grab the QB of their choice in the 2024 draft, particularly Caleb Williams. If Murray looks poor in his return during the second half of the 2023 season, the team could very well decide to move on. New GM Monti Ossenfort didn’t draft Murray but could select his replacement. That would leave Murray as a lame duck in 2024 while the team grooms the new QB. The price to cut Murray after that season would be a more palatable $33M, and Murray’s leadership and work ethic issues, combined with his injury history and mediocre play, would make that option look even better.
6. Sam Howell, Washington Commanders
Why is a guy who has 1 career start on this list? Because he’s a 5th-round pick. Fair or not, late-round selections with low guarantees don’t have nearly the same leash that first-round QBs get. Howell was my top QB in the 2022 draft, and Washington appears to view him as a steal, not as someone who truly belonged in the 5th round. However, that has only given him this season to prove his worth. Next year’s QB class is very good, and the team might want to reset if Howell doesn’t light it up.
Critically, the team will be under new ownership when that decision will need to be made. A new owner often means a new coach and GM, though that would be more likely if Howell struggles and the team falters. A regime that didn’t draft a QB is far less beholden to him. Even if Ron Rivera remains in Washington, he is tired of replacing QBs every season. Whoever is in charge will want to draft their own guy to groom unless Howell proves that he can be such a player. This upcoming season is the difference between Howell bouncing around the league as a backup and possibly being viewed as a franchise QB.
7. Aaron Rodgers, New York Jets
Different from every other player on this list, Rodgers has an extremely secure financial future. He’s also a future first-ballot hall of famer. What, then, is he missing? Legacy. Despite his illustrious career and 4 MVP awards, he has earned just 1 Super Bowl ring. As a player, he can make an argument that he’s the best QB of all time, including against Tom Brady. However, that argument always falls flat once you compare Rodgers’ one ring with Brady’s seven.
Without a doubt, Rodgers makes the Jets better. In fact, the team will be a true contender for the first time since perhaps Joe Namath was under center. That only adds to the pressure though, as he’s got the hopes of NY on his shoulders. Fans in the Big Apple aren’t very forgiving, and early struggles wouldn’t make them too happy with Rodgers, especially after Brady won a Super Bowl in his first year with TB. For a QB with his credentials and a salary in excess of $50M, Rodgers needs to make a deep playoff run if he wants to defeat the naysayers once and for all.
8. Jordan Love, Green Bay Packers
It’s difficult to replace a legend. That task becomes even more daunting when you’ve had nearly zero playing time in your first 3 NFL seasons. This is the situation Love finds himself in, with just 2 career starts and little production. Nobody has any idea what he is. The Packers, who obviously know the most, can’t even claim to know. We just haven’t seen him in action. Love and the team agreed on a creative and unique extension in lieu of his 5th-year option due to this uncertainty.
Green Bay obviously believed in his talent enough to trade up for him in round 1 of the 2020 draft. Their willingness to trade Aaron Rodgers suggests that they still do. At the very least, they’re saying so publicly. I can’t forget his final poor year at Utah State though, nor can I forget how bad he looked in his few NFL appearances. It’s possible that he wasn’t ready and has developed since then. Whatever you believe about him, one thing is true: he’s either going to make a fortune for himself as GB’s next franchise QB or he’s going to play himself out of Lambeau in 2023.
9. Mac Jones, New England Patriots
Coming off a promising rookie campaign, Jones was expected to take a big leap in 2022. That didn’t happen. Whether it was the lack of a real OC, the dearth of weapons on the Patriots, or his own failures, year 2 did not go as planned. Jones was so ineffective that fans chanted for rookie backup Bailey Zappe to replace him. There are reasons to be hopeful, such as the signings of WR JuJu Smith-Schuster and RT Riley Reiff, but none are bigger than the hiring of new OC Bill O’Brien. Having a DC (Matt Patricia) and an ST coordinator (Joe Judge) run the offense was a doomed idea from the start, but O’Brien is at least competent.
The rest is up to Jones. Even though he had a great year at Alabama, we knew he was limited from a physical standpoint. His ceiling isn’t extremely high, but the floor appears lower than we expected. Jones needs to flip those two judgments. If he shows that he has another gear, New England will continue to build around him. Another pedestrian season would have the Patriots looking elsewhere to try and compete with the 3 other stellar teams in their division. Bill Belichick is showing more patience with Jones than most would. Year 3 is the time where a decision must be made though, and the choices are far apart.
10. Jared Goff, Detroit Lions
By all accounts (including mine), Goff had the best season of his career by far in 2022. He went from a bridge QB that the team took on to facilitate the Matthew Stafford trade to a real franchise QB option for the Lions. With that success comes new expectations, and many now view Detroit as the favorite to win the NFC North. Goff will need a repeat performance to retain his job despite how well last season went for a few reasons.
First, his successor may be waiting in the wings. Hendon Hooker was taken in the 3rd round of this year’s draft, and though this is a red-shirt year for him due to his ACL tear, if he looks good, the team might hand the job to him in 2024. That would clearly only happen if Goff struggles, but he has done so in the past. The other complicating factor is Goff’s contract. The guaranteed money that the Lions took on has run out, so Goff could be cut with ease. His performance will determine whether he earns a big extension (and Hooker is treated as the backup) or if he’s out of Detroit altogether.