The AFC has been established as the dominant conference, and a big reason why is because of the quarterbacks. Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow and Josh Allen are the three favorites to win MVP, Lamar Jackson became the highest-paid player in NFL history this offseason and the conference has a couple of rookies to keep an eye on like C.J. Stroud and Anthony Richardson.
It will be tough to make the playoffs in the loaded AFC this season, and some of these quarterbacks are under more pressure than others. Below, we will break down five AFC signal-callers that are under the most pressure in 2023 -- for one reason or another.
The world was split on Tua entering 2022. Even after a career year, you can't definitively say everyone is sold on him being the guy moving forward in Miami. The Dolphins appear to be, however, as they picked up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract.
Last year, Tagovailoa became the first Dolphins quarterback to lead the NFL in passer rating since Dan Marino did so in 1984. Miami averaged 6.5 yards per play with Tagovailoa as the starter, which were the most by any starting quarterback in the league last season (min. 10 starts). Yes, even more than Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen. So why is Tagovailoa under pressure in 2023? Well, as head coach Mike McDaniel so eloquently put it at the NFL Combine, last year he had to convince everyone Tagovailoa was good. Now, he has to convince everyone he's healthy.
Tagovailoa missed what was basically six games due to concussions last year -- including Miami's first playoff matchup since the 2016 season. There were people who wanted Tagovailoa to retire after what he went through last year, and he admitted that he Tyreek Hill predicts Tua is Let's see if he can.. This upcoming season, Tagovailoa has to prove he can stay healthy, and build on the flashes he showed in 2022.
The 2022 season was tough for Jones. After going 10-7 and making the Pro Bowl in his rookie campaign, Jones went 6-8 as the starter, regressed when it came to completion percentage, yards per attempt and passer rating and spent a considerable amount of time. How could you blame him, though? Jones' offensive coordinator was a defensive coordinator, and it showed. The Patriots offense averaged 18.2 points per game, their fewest since 2000, had a 35 percent third-down conversion rate, their worst since 1992 and a 42 percent red-zone touchdown rate. That was the worst rate by any team in the league last year.
Jones' subpar 2022 season also included the short phenomenon that was "Zappe mania," where undrafted rookie quarterback Bailey Zappe stepped in after Jones and Brian Hoyer were injured, and took the Green Bay Packers to overtime, blew out the Detroit Lions 29-0 and defeated the Cleveland Browns on the road by 23 points. That didn't exactly further endear Jones to the Patriots fan base.
The 2023 season is important for Jones because New England has to make a decision on his fifth-year option next offseason. He has to prove he's the quarterback of the future. Jones resides in an absolutely loaded division that includes the Buffalo Bills, aforementioned Dolphins and rejuvenated New York Jets. Maybe expectations nationally aren't high for the Patriots, but that fan base isn't used to losing. New England hasn't finished last in the AFC East since the division went back to four teams in 2002.
3. Deshaun Watson, Cleveland Browns
The Browns went all-in on Watson while he was going through the off-field issues that plagued his exit from the Houston Texans. The Haslams didn't just overlook those serious accusations, they gave Watson the most lucrative deal in NFL history with $230 million guaranteed. Can you imagine if he doesn't work out in Cleveland?
After serving an 11-game suspension last season for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy, Watson went 3-3 as the starter while averaging a career-low 183.7 passing yards per game with seven touchdowns and five interceptions. The Browns averaged 16.3 points per game with Watson as the starter, which ranked No. 26 in the league from Weeks 13-18.
Everyone is expecting Watson to be improved in 2023, but he is going to have to be more than just improved. He's going to have to be the guy that looks half-worthy of the monster contract he signed. The offense is set up for success. The Browns have a stud in Nick Chubb, a talented offensive line and plenty of pass-catchers including tight end David Njoku. Fans are expecting Watson to look like a legitimate star this season.
2. Aaron Rodgers, New York Jets
Rodgers is going to be a Hall of Famer no matter what happens in New York, but he definitely can add to his legacy by pulling a Tom Brady and winning a Super Bowl with his new club. Those are the expectations the Jets have entering 2023, despite having not made the playoffs since 2010.
Rodgers has evolved into ... somewhat of a polarizing star, let's say. Plant someone like that into the biggest media market in the world and you can make the case Rodgers is shouldering the most pressure of anyone in the NFL entering 2023.
What's interesting is that if Rodgers wants to accomplish what Brady did in winning a Super Bowl with his new team, he will have to defy NFL history. Of the previous eight Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks who were traded by the team they won the Super Bowl with, none of them ever made it back to the Super Bowl. Only one of them even won a single playoff game.
There is some supportive evidence for Rodgers finding success in New York as well. He is one of five quarterbacks who has won three or more MVPs. Each of the other four signal-callers played for multiple teams, and half of them won Super Bowls with their second club.
Rodgers had a career-low passer rating as a starter in 2022 (91.1), and threw 12 interceptions, which was just one shy of matching his career high. You can't say the 39 year old is regressing given that he's won two out of the last three MVPs, but the Jets' expectations are sky-high. Let's see what Rodgers can bring to this franchise.
Broncos fans are hoping Sean Payton can fix Mr. Unlimited. Denver delivered five picks and a couple players to the Seattle Seahawks for Wilson last offseason, and gifted him a lucrative deal before he even played a single snap for the franchise. Even after the Lamar Jackson and Jalen Hurts contracts this offseason, Wilson is still the fourth highest-paid quarterback in the NFL.
I'm not sure how necessary it is to recap how bad of a year Russ had since it was one of the stories of the 2022 season. He went 4-11 while setting career-worsts in completion percentage (60.5%), passing touchdowns (16) and passer rating (84.4). The Broncos also had the worst scoring offense in the NFL for the first time in franchise history (16.9 points per game). Was the Broncos' 2022 campaign all Wilson's fault? Obviously no. Denver had a first-year head coach that struggled, and the roster suffered through multiple notable injuries. However, Wilson also did not look like the quarterback he was in Seattle -- so it was the perfect storm.
The Payton-Wilson marriage is a major storyline to watch. They are the first primary QB-head coach duo in NFL history to work together after winning Super Bowls at their previous stops -- but history isn't exactly on Payton's side. No head coach has won a Super Bowl with multiple teams. There are a total of 14 Super Bowl-winning head coaches that have gone on to coach other teams. They have combined for a losing record.
Wilson is under pressure in 2023 for a couple different reasons. One, if he looks as bad as he did last year, the Broncos could Geno Smith, the former backup-turned-NFL Comeback Player of the Year. Wilson is not only looking to rebound from last year, but also avoid being the reason for one of the worst trades in recent memory.at 35 years old. How would that affect his legacy? Especially when you consider the fact that Seattle surprised the NFL world by making the playoffs last year with