QB offseason storylines: Lamar Jackson uncertainty and Zach Wilson in the spotlight
With this year’s draft in the rearview mirror, we have a chance to look at the most intriguing quarterback situations heading into the new season
Bubbling away in the background this offseason are Lamar Jackson’s protracted contract negotiations with the Ravens. Jackson has still not signed a long-term deal. While the Ravens’ AFC rivals have locked their young quarterbacks into record-shattering extensions, Jackson has continued to run his contract down.
The former MVP is set to play out the 2022 season on the final year of his rookie deal. The Ravens remain confident they can get a deal done prior to the season – a deal that Jackson is negotiating himself without an agent. But that was before they traded away Jackson’s running mate, receiver Hollywood Brown. And with each passing week that the two sides do not reach a compromise, the more likely it is that Jackson could play elsewhere in 2023.
Jackson is reported to be looking for a deal that would guarantee him $45m per season. The Deshaun Watson contract in Cleveland looms large, too. Watson signed a fully guaranteed deal with the Browns, and it’s likely that Jackson wants a deal with a similar structure – a fully guaranteed contract that will allow him to re-enter free agency before he hits 30.
The Ravens may be queasy about ponying up $250m in guaranteed money for a quarterback whose ability to run leaves him more vulnerable to injury. Yet given the shift across the sport (and sports in general) towards player (read: quarterback) empowerment, the decision is most likely out of the Ravens’ hands anyway.
Does Jackson want to stay in Baltimore long-term? Would he prefer to move back home to Miami? The quarterback-franchise relationship is increasingly taking on the role of a partnership rather than the top-down employer-to-employee dynamic. The Arizona Cardinals essentially overpaid to acquire Brown from Baltimore in order to appease their own disgruntled quarterback, Kyler Murray.
The Ravens can threaten Jackson with the franchise tag; Jackson can threaten to sit out a year. It’s not too difficult to imagine a world in which Jackson is moved to another team next offseason in a tag-and-trade, with the quarterback then signing a record-breaking deal with a new franchise.
Philly and Miami’s plans for 2023
You can bundle these two franchises together. Both are following a similar plan: Loading up on talent for the upcoming season while also adding a hefty insurance policy for 2023. The Dolphins shipped the bulk of their 2022 draft class in order to acquire Tyreek Hill. Meanwhile, on draft night Howie Roseman and the Eagles’ brain-trust followed suit, turning one of their first-round picks into AJ Brown.
The plan is clear. The Dolphins and Eagles are handing starting quarterbacks Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts the tools to succeed – all while gathering acorns if their quarterback fails to impress with an improved supporting cast. The Dolphins spent heavily in the offseason to hand Tagovailoa as much offensive firepower as possible. They also have the facility to open cap room next offseason, and will be armed with two first-round picks heading into the 2023 draft. Ditto for the Eagles, who have the ability to open up $30m in cap room before they look at restructuring contracts.
It’s one of the new models of team building: Surrounding a young quarterback with as much help as possible as early as possible to figure out as quickly as possible whether they can play or not, while gathering future assets to allow the franchise to acquire another quarterback if things don’t pan out. That could mean tempting a veteran to Miami or Philly – the kind of logic the Bucs used to woo Tom Brady in free agency – or using a pile of draft picks to move up in the draft to select their college prospect of choice.
New York Jets
The Jets have done everything to surround second-year quarterback Zach Wilson with as much talent as possible over the offseason. They’ve added playmakers at receiver and running back, beefed up their offensive line, and brought in a pair of versatile tight ends who will allow them to diversify what was a plodding offense a year ago. And they could add even more over the coming weeks. If Deebo Samuel pushes through a trade away from the 49ers, the price tag will now be built around 2023 draft choices. The Jets reportedly chased a Samuel trade right up until they selected Ohio State receiver Garrett Wilson 10th overall last Thursday. If Samuel is on the move, it stands to reason that the Jets will be in on any discussions.
General manager Joe Douglas could have done little more – aside from possibly strengthening the offensive line in the draft – to put Wilson in a better position to make a second-year leap. And yet the deck is still stacked against the quarterback heading into his sophomore year. Here is a list of the quarterbacks who have had a lower adjusted net yards per attempt in a season than Wilson had in 2021: Josh Rosen, Brett Hundley, DeShone Kizer, Jared Goff, Blake Bortles, Blaine Gabbert and Jimmy Clausen. Gulp.
The evaluation clock for young quarterbacks is now sped up to the extent that if Wilson doesn’t show considerable improvement in his second year, the Jets will start considering alternatives.
You have to hand it to Titans GM Jon Robinson and head coach Mike Vrabel. They locked up their new contracts and then used that leverage to take some major swings in the draft: Trading AJ Brown and then betting all on athletic upside with their selections. The most interesting pick: Grabbing Liberty quarterback Malik Willis in the third round.
Throughout the pre-draft process Willis was in the discussion as a first-round pick, with some projections slating him to go sixth overall to the Carolina Panthers. Instead, he slipped into the third round, where the Titans were able to take a punt on a raw quarterback prospect with a rare skill-set.
The timeline appears to marry up perfectly for Tennessee. To draft Willis is to open up the possibility a wholesale reshuffling of a roster and its offensive (cliché warning) identity. The system the Titans run with the axis of Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry will be markedly different when – or if – Willis takes over the starting spot. Tannehill’s contract has an easy out for the Titans after the 2022 season. If the franchise believes Willis is ready, it can move on from the Tannehill pain-free.
If a team isn’t sure it has a franchise quarterback, the best thing it can do is throw as many darts at the dartboard as possible. Now, Tannehill has one final year to prove he can be the quarterback who pushes Tennessee over the postseason hump. If not, waiting in the wings is a player with game-breaking potential. The timeline suggests that will come after the season. But if Tannehill falters and Willis absorbs NFL concepts in double-time, the Titans could make a change mid-year in order to spark their season.
The Falcons will feature one of the league’s true quarterback competitions this preseason. Marcus Mariota was brought in during free agency to be a stabilizing force between the Matt Ryan era and whatever comes next. That new era could belong to Desmond Ridder.
Landing Ridder in the third round represented great value. Maybe it works out for him long-term. Maybe it doesn’t. Either way, it was worth the directionless Falcons taking a punt on a mid-round quarterback prospect – particularly one who was expected to go at the foot of the first round.
Ridder has a shot to play in week one. His game is built around speed: Processing speed, and then the ability to break the pocket as a runner – a skill not fully maximized in college. In many ways, Ridder’s traits echo Mariota’s, which will allow coach Arthur Smith to build a cohesive structure if he opts to move from one quarterback to the other.
The Falcons will probably have another losing season in 2022, but with a combination of Mariota and Ridder, tight end Kyle Pitts, first-round pick Drake London, and Cordarrelle Patterson, the offense should at least be fun.