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Mac Jones to Kenny Pickett: Assessing some of the NFL's quarterback question marks ahead of the 2023 season

From Mac Jones to Desmond Ridder - Sky Sports NFL's Cam Hogwood analyses some of the quarterback question marks ahead of the 2023 campaign; watch build-up to 49ers @ Steelers live on Sky Sports NFL from 4.30pm Sunday, with kickoff at 6pm, followed by Dolphins at Chargers.

New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones

By now NFL teams have made and laid down in their quarterback beds as they enter the 2023 season - though not without lingering uncertainty in several cases. 

Second-year quarterbacks Desmond Ridder and Kenny Pickett seek to prove their worth as long-term options in Atlanta and Pittsburgh, respectively, while elsewhere in Denver the Broncos are counting on newly-appointed head coach Sean Payton to inspire the best of Russell Wilson after his torrid first year since.

And there is a new era at Lambeau Field, where Jordan Love is under center following the departure of Aaron Rodgers.

Here is a look at some of the pressing quarterback questions scattered across the league...

What to expect in New England?

New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones
Image: Jones faced competition from Bailey Zappe last season

How you would love to infiltrate the mind of Bill Belichick in search of his true thoughts on Mac Jones. How you would love to infiltrate the mind of Mac Jones in search of his true thoughts on the New England Patriots offense.

Jones was the most efficient rookie quarterback during the 2021 season as he ranked 11th in EPA+CPOE composite (0.114) in an offense that ranked 11th in dropback EPA, recording a completion percentage of 67.6 with 3,801 passing yards and 22 touchdowns to 13 interceptions. It went as well as could have been anticipated in a unit short of talent - rather than capitalise, the Patriots ripped up what looked a neat blueprint by introducing the defensive mind of Matt Patricia and his simplified hot potato-inciting quick game to replace offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.

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New England would fall to 26th in dropback EPA while Jones, not blameless on his part for the misreads and decision-making and frailties in the face of pressure, ranked 28th in EPA+CPOE composite. An animated Jones voiced his displeasure in not-so-polite terms during December’s loss to the Buffalo Bills, ordering Patricia to “throw the f****** ball”.

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Patricia departed earlier this past offseason, with Bill O’Brien coming back across from his post as Alabama offensive coordinator to take the reins. With him likely comes the play-action bread and butter that had been chucked out at the expense of Jones, who, for all the question marks over his arm strength and limitations outside the pocket, is a skilled processor.

JuJu Smith-Schuster and Mike Gesicki were acquired to fill Jakobi Meyers and Jonnu Smith-shaped holes in free agency, but Belichick notably prioritised defense in the Draft following suggestions the Patriots might have been shipping Jones; is Bill content devoting resources to and operating behind a top-tier defense while waiting another year to address things at quarterback? Maybe. The Patriots offense will be better, the question of how much better is looming as a potentially defining implication as to their plans in the next offseason.

Is Jordan Love… good?

Green Bay Packers' Jordan Love
Image: Jordan Love is primed for his first year as starter in Green Bay

The Green Bay Packers turned the page, ultimately by way of a departing Aaron Rodgers, and handed the keys to Jordan Love this offseason. The Jordan Love they had selected with the 26th overall pick in 2020, much to the bemusement of a hacked-off Rodgers. The Jordan Love around whom they have sought to form a younger offensive model in view of the bigger picture. The Jordan Love they have been priming for this exact moment.

Green Bay brass have been waxing lyrical over their new starter under center, citing an upgrade to his instincts and the conviction with which he attacks tight avenues and dunks downfield.

Matt LaFleur’s first real in-game exhibition of what he might have on his hands came in last season’s loss against the Philadelphia Eagles when Love took over from an injured Rodgers to complete six of nine passes for 113 yards and a touchdown. He was settling his feet and allowing plays to materialise, he was making slick decisions in 3x2 spread looks that can be prone to overthinking, he was rolling out and throwing men open off-platform. It was a stark contrast to the Love that had been bombarded by a Steve Spagnuolo all-out blitz after filling in for a Covid-stricken Rodgers at the last minute against the Kansas City Chiefs during the 2021 campaign.

With back-end Christian Watson yards-after-catch zoom and a contested catch-savvy deep threat in Romeo Doubs and a smashmouth-capable Aaron Jones-AJ Dillon tandem, Love has the tools to succeed even if he doesn’t dazzle immediately. With Love, head coach LaFleur has the opportunity to restore some of his favoured offensive trends and ideologies the Packers seemingly drifted away from in keeping with Rodgers' wishes last season.

Which Russell Wilson will we get?

Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson
Image: It was a year to forget for Russell Wilson in Denver - but can Sean Payton bring out the best of the Broncos man?

The Seattle Seahawks lead the ‘who won the Russell Wilson trade?’ poll by a landslide, for now. And they strengthened their case further by nabbing a cornerstone cornerback in Devon Witherspoon with the 2023 first-round pick Denver relinquished as part of the deal.

For lovers of Wilson-ball, the 2022 season was a gruesome watch as the Broncos quarterback posted a career-low completion percentage while ranking 26th in EPA+CPOE composite and throwing a career-worst 16 touchdowns to 11 interceptions in Nathaniel Hackett’s flatlining offense. Clunky play littered with inaccuracy and ill-guided decision-making was coupled with uncomplimentary opinions from former Seahawks team-mates who, perhaps unjustly, began to criticise his actions during his time in Seattle, all of the above culminating in an outburst of support from Broncos players on social media and in media interviews.

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Wilson was missing receivers or gift-wrapping misplaced balls in a faltering quick-game from shotgun, the intention to which was to put the offense in the quarterback’s hands and let him zip short, snappy drive-movers as something of an answer to ‘Let Russ cook’ campaigns. Within that, the Broncos failed to strike a necessary balance that would offer any notion of mystery, their rushing attack ranking 28th in EPA and moving away from the play-action that had served Wilson so kindly in years gone by.

A dropback-orientated offense negated what Wilson has done best throughout his career, and even then his renowned artistry as an outer-pocket off-script sledgehammer looked a shadow of its former self.

Having Javonte Williams - notably coming off a knee injury - and Samaje Perine in the backfield restores the notion of a run game. Having Sean Payton on the sideline introduces a ‘well, look what he did with Drew Brees in play-action’ reassurance. A more Wilson-friendly offense is expected in Denver, and perhaps something not too dissimilar to the Wilson-in-Seattle offense.

Is Desmond Ridder the man?

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Desmond Ridder
Image: Atlanta Falcons second-year quarterback Desmond Ridder finds himself armed with a star-studded offense

Arthur Smith’s Atlanta Falcons run some funky stuff, packed with misdirection and square-peg-into-round-hole personnel shape-shifting. They make for a fun watch with dynamic playmakers and offensive invention, but how much faith do they have in Desmond Ridder as their long-term starter?

The 2022 third-round pick took over from Marcus Mariota in the latter stages of last season, cobbling together a truncated passing portfolio in his early NFL career as Smith sought to function primarily off his ground game. And why not? The Falcons were pretty good on the ground. Ridder went 73 of 115 passing for 708 yards and two touchdowns in four starters, while also rushing for 64 yards off 16 carries. It was regular heavy-set action with smashmouth run design and the odd sprinkling of some play-action meets Drake London deep shot.

Ridder’s downfield dunking wasn’t spectacular, nor was it asked to be; his tight window dissection wasn’t spectacular, nor was it asked to be. Smith, with due respect to one the winningest quarterbacks in college football history, stripped Ridder of pressure and bit down on the production of Tyler Allgeier to tee up simple crossers and the occasional play action-into-deep shot for London. So to downplay Ridder’s credentials right now would be unfair, because nobody has seen enough.

Spending the eighth overall pick on Texas running back Bijan Robinson jazzes up a standout run game further and points towards ‘sell the run to set up the pass’ support for Ridder, who will have a fit-again Kyle Pitts on hand to work with London.

Is Kenny Pickett also the man?

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett
Image: Will we see a leap from Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett?

Question marks had their own question marks when it came to a 2022 quarterback Draft class that struggled to enamour, of which Kenny Pickett became the sole first-round pick as he stayed put in the city where he had played college football and where he had likely brushed shoulders with Mike Tomlin on more than one occasion.

By the second half of the Week Four loss to the New York Jets, he had taken over as starter for Mitchell Trubisky, awaiting him a gyrating yet stagnant Matt Canada offense and early teething issues amounting to turnover trouble and uneasy decision-making. Pickett grew in unison with Tomlin's 'we shall not own a losing record' inevitability over the second half of the season, squeezing himself into the top 10 in quarterback EPA/play after the Week Nine bye as Pittsburgh won seven of their final nine games while ranking fourth in EPA, in which they had ranked 28th across the first nine games.

The Canada factor will be defining in Pickett's sophomore development as the offensive coordinator fights to swat away doubts over his long-term credentials, social media consensus among Steelers fans seemingly being that he was fortunate to retain his post. His faults had entailed mismatched blocking assignments, self-imposed numerical disadvantages at the line of scrimmage, a continued commitment to cramming in pre-snap motion that was having little effect on defensive alignment and a shortage of downfield aggression. But by the close of the season Pittsburgh began to offer the traits of a well-drilled split zone offense with linebacker-displacing jet sweep motions. Derek Watt and Connor Heyward-led wham blocking and a confident Najee Harris punching gaps cleared by interior double-teams or bang-and-bouncing to secondary lanes. Finally, there was a run to sell that would help prop up a rookie Pickett.

As for Pickett himself, reminders of the out-of-structure prowess and precision evident in college were there after some early season struggles. Skedaddling from the pocket and zinging passes on the move is customary to the modern NFL and the modern quarterback job specification, but year two will involve finding out how efficient he can be as a drop-back-in-structure sucker for convention who can make things happen from the pocket.

In Calvin Austin III he gets a legitimate downfield flyer with which to complement George Pickens after the 2022 draft pick missed his rookie year through injury, while the arrival of tight end behemoth Darnell Washington to partner Pat Freiermuth along with former Philadelphia Eagles guard Isaac Seumalo and rookie tackle Broderick Jones reinforces a meaty blockade in aid of supporting both him and Harris. The Steelers are an interesting one this season.

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