Some NFL quarterbacks have had rough starts to the 2023 season -- the New York Jets' Zach Wilson and Chicago Bears' Justin Fields are two who come to mind. But they aren't the only quarterbacks who might be feeling the heat, even at this early stage of the season. As we enter Week 4, here are three starting QBs I'm putting on notice.
After the Falcons overhauled the defense and added more offensive weapons this offseason, questions about Desmond Ridder's capacity to be The Guy could be growing louder, even with Atlanta off to a 2-1 start heading into Sunday's London game against the Jaguars. The Falcons are a good team, but can Ridder lead the squad to an NFC South title?
I believe the second-year quarterback has the intangibles you want in a QB and runs Arthur Smith’s system well enough to help the Falcons contend for the division crown. With Atlanta running the ball on 54.1 percent of its plays (most in the NFL), Ridder is not asked to carry the unit. It's really an ideal setup for a young quarterback. When the run game is clicking behind the likes of Bijan Robinson and Tyler Allgeier, Ridder often looks comfortable in the pocket, is able to find his receivers and delivers accurate throws downfield. Yet, I still see Ridder working through a lot of things that have led to inconsistencies as a passer. It’s a small sample size, with Ridder having made only seven career starts, but I can't overlook the fact that he has yet to throw for more than 240 yards in a game and hasn't thrown a TD pass in four of those seven starts.
Ridder has struggled when the opposition forces him to beat them through the air (SEE: Week 3 loss to Detroit). Even in Smith’s QB-friendly scheme, there have been times when Ridder has taken some bad hits on run-pass option plays because he simply didn’t make a read and get the ball out quickly enough. There have been other instances when it seems like he doesn’t see the field well. He leads the league with seven turnover-worthy plays through three weeks, per Pro Football Focus.
This Falcons' offense is loaded with talent, from the backfield duo I already mentioned to a pair of first-round pass-catchers (Kyle Pitts, Drake London), and the offensive line has played well (outside of the Detroit game). Ridder just hasn't been able to maximize this unit's potential. He must step on the gas, from a processing standpoint, and start producing, because as a starting quarterback, you don’t want to find yourself in an uncertain situation regarding your hold on the job. Once those rumors start circling, it can feel like it’s already over. I will say I don’t really see a world where Falcons backup Taylor Heinicke is a better option, simply because he isn’t built for the system. A lot of what Atlanta does offensively involves the quarterback being part of the run game, and that's not Heinicke's strength -- though he proved he can provide a spark to an offense during his time in Washington. But, you know who would be great in Atlanta ...
Sure, Fields has struggled with the Bears this fall. I’m not saying Ridder can’t play well in Atlanta, or that Chicago would trade Fields, but I believe Fields is perfectly suited to unlock the explosive element the Falcons' offense is missing right now. After seeing the tumult in Chicago early this season, I’m seriously considering picking up the phone if I’m Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot.
This one seems pretty clear. The Titans’ offense ranks in the bottom five in scoring (15 points per game), total yards (240 per game), passing yards (149.7 per game), third-down conversion rate (27%) and red-zone TD percentage (33.3%). Ryan Tannehill has one TD pass in 2023, and there are two understudies (Will Levis and Malik Willis) waiting in the wings in Tennessee. It doesn’t help that head coach Mike Vrabel publicly called out Tannehill when asked about the QB’s three-INT performance in a Week 1 loss:
"I wish that I knew. I wish that I could tell you. We have to be better. Ryan has to be better. We have to hit guys that are open, we can't force the ball into double coverage.”
Levis missed time due to injury last month, and Willis showed improvement in the preseason. It was clear Willis wasn’t ready as a rookie -- the Titans were happy to start a QB they had just signed over Willis with the season on the line -- but he’s made strides. If Tannehill doesn’t turn things around, it might not be long before the veteran is sent to the bench.
What was Russell Wilson supposed to do? Score 71 points against the Dolphins?! He isn’t necessarily THE problem in Denver. Like my colleague James Palmer said on The Insiders this week, blaming him alone feels like a lazy opinion. Wilson is playing much better this season than he was in 2022, and his production proves it. So, you might ask, why is he on notice?
Well, the Broncos’ defense is operating far below its usual standard, upping the pressure on Wilson and amplifying his shortcomings. And he's not putting together complete games. In three contests, Wilson and the Broncos’ offense have gotten out to quick starts before fading into the night after halftime.
- Wilson in the first half: 76.5 completion percentage, 472 yards, five pass TDs, zero INTs, three sacks, 137.1 passer rating.
- Wilson in the second half: 54.7 completion percentage, 319 yards, one pass TD, two INTs, seven sacks, 63.3 passer rating.
So, what's going on here? I know offenses often come into game day with a 15-play script, and the offensive coordinator works off those formations, alignments and plays throughout the game. Once the defense has time to adjust and show different looks, it’s on the quarterback to make the right reads -- which is what we didn’t see Wilson do in 2022, leading to the worst season of his career. He’s falling victim to that a little bit this season, too, and it’s costing Denver. It certainly did in Week 1 against the Raiders.
It's still early in the season, but Denver looks to be headed in the wrong direction, which has to sting, especially after giving up so much to acquire Wilson and Payton in back-to-back offseasons. They do have a first-round pick in the 2024 draft. If the Broncos hold a high draft pick come next April, would they pass on the chance to add a quarterback they like? I doubt it -- even when you consider the money allotted to Wilson. For now, keep in mind that Sean Payton’s handpicked backup, Jarrett Stidham, is capable of stepping in and playing well.
Top 15 offensive player rankings
Former No. 1 overall pick and NFL Network analyst David Carr takes a look at all offensive players and ranks his top 15. For the first quarter of the 2023 season, the rankings are based on a combination of:
- Player accomplishments from the 2022 season.
- Weekly performances, factoring in strength of opponent.
Rankings will be solely judged on this season's efforts following Week 4. Arrow's reflect changes from Week 3's ranking. Heading into Week 4, here is Carr's list:
As talented as the 49ers’ offense is, McCaffrey seems to be taking matters into his own hands, getting it done with his rushing and pass-catching abilities. Accounting for 43.8 percent of the 49ers’ touches this season, McCaffrey has racked up at least 100 scrimmage yards and scored at least one touchdown in each of San Francisco’s games. Taking it one step further, he has scored in 12 straight games, three games shy of tying the NFL record set by Hall of Famers O.J. Simpson, John Riggins and Lenny Moore.
After scoring a combined 37 points in their first two games, the Chiefs finally looked the like explosive offense we all expected to see in 2023, racking up 456 yards en route to 41 points, 34 of which came in the first half of Sunday's win. Before sustaining an ankle injury in the second quarter and being replaced by Blaine Gabbert late in the third up 41-0, Mahomes got everyone involved in the big win. He connected with nine pass catchers for 272 yards and three touchdowns (two to Jerick McKinnon) and ran for another 28 yards.
The Bills’ defense flexed its muscle in the win over the Commanders, with Allen helping the team to a blowout victory. He completed nearly 63 percent of his passes for 218 yards, one TD, one INT and a 79.9 passer rating, while rushing for 46 yards and a touchdown on three carries. He’ll have to be better next week to keep up with a Dolphins team that put up a 70-burger on Sunday.
There isn’t a ton for the Vikings -- who have lost all three games this season by six points or fewer -- to celebrate right now. One bright spot is Jefferson, who had 149 receiving yards and his first touchdown of the season, a 52-yard catch and sprint to the end zone early in the fourth quarter against the Chargers. His 458 receiving yards tie Wes Welker (2011) for the most through three weeks of a season since 1970, per NFL Research. He has been great, but he hasn't been perfect. He had that turnover at the goal line against the Eagles and another costly penalty at the goal line on a fourth down late in Sunday’s loss. Those mistakes add up, especially for a team that keeps landing on the wrong side of the score.
Tua and the Dolphins’ offense could do no wrong Sunday, when Miami became the first team in NFL history with at least 350 rush yards and 350 pass yards in a game. Tagovailoa has never looked better in Mike McDaniel’s scheme, beginning the contest with 17 straight completions -- the most consecutive completions in his career. He was hitting his receivers in stride for big gains and finding his running backs on no-look flicks for touchdowns. Tagovailoa completed 88 percent of his pass attempts for 309 yards and four touchdowns and a career-high 155.8 passer rating.
Herbert’s excellent outing in Minnesota was nearly overshadowed by Brandon Staley’s iffy decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 on Los Angeles’ own 24-yard line. Luckily, the Chargers walked out of U.S. Bank Stadium with a win, thanks to a late defensive stand. Herbert’s been great this season despite having only one victory. Coming off a career-high 405 pass yards and three touchdowns Sunday, Herbert leads the NFL with a career-high 74.4 completion percentage. He’s also taking care of the ball, having thrown six touchdown passes with no picks.
The Saints’ offense was looking as good as it had all season in Week 3, building a 17-0 lead before Derek Carr’s third-quarter shoulder injury. With Derek considered week-to-week with a sprained AC joint, Olave and the rest of the offensive playmakers -- a group that gets Alvin Kamara, returning from suspension this week -- must be ready to do more. Before Sunday's late-game collapse, Olave connected with Derek for five receptions and 58 yards. With Jameis Winston under center, the receiver logged three catches for 46 yards.
Evans led the Bucs in Monday night’s loss with five receptions, 60 receiving yards and a late 1-yard touchdown. Evans left a few catches out there on the rainy evening, but there’s a reason Baker Mayfield continues to feed him. The veteran receiver has had at least five catches, 60 receiving yards and one receiving TD in all three games so far -- marking the third time in his career he’s started a season this way (2016, 2018).
Defenses may want to consider not playing single-high coverages against Adams. In Sunday night’s loss to Pittsburgh, Adams carved up the Steelers’ D with 13 receptions, 172 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns, with nine catches, 108 yards and both touchdowns coming against single-high coverages, according to Next Gen Stats. It is tough enough to stop him without giving him an advantage.
A.J. Brown had the hot hand in Philly’s prime-time win over Tampa, but I’m sticking with Smith in this space for now. Either receiver can have a huge game at any given time. Smith finished with four receptions for 28 yards in Week 3, but he could bounce back in Week 4's matchup with the Commanders, against whom he's averaged 75.5 receiving yards per game in his career.
No Brandon Aiyuk last week meant more George Kittle and Deebo Samuel. The four-time Pro Bowler paved the way for the 49ers in receptions (seven) for a season-high 90 receiving yards in the prime-time win over the New York Giants. His performance was highlighted by a 29-yard catch-and-run late in the third quarter. It was the kind of defender-dragging play we typically see from Kittle.
“Call It What You Want,” but I knew Kelce and the Chiefs were about to go off the second I saw Taylor Swift at Arrowhead Stadium. They were playing a Bears team coming off a heated week, so this lopsided victory may have happened regardless ... but still. The all-world tight end led the Chiefs in targets (eight), catches (seven) and receiving yards (69), including a 3-yard touchdown in the third quarter. Kelce’s knee injury feels like ancient history.
Allen was everywhere and then some in the Chargers’ win over the Vikings, recording a franchise-record 18 receptions for 215 yards. He even threw a touchdown pass to Mike Williams in the third quarter to give Los Angeles its biggest lead of the game. The NFL leader in catches (32) through three weeks, Allen must continue showing up for Justin Herbert, with Williams out for the season and Austin Ekeler battling an ankle injury.
Playing through flu-like symptoms, Hurts was far from his best against the Buccaneers, throwing for 277 yards and a touchdown to Olamide Zaccheaus but also tossing a pair of bad interceptions. The Eagles are 3-0, yet they are far from the team we saw representing the NFC in the Super Bowl last season. It's scary to think what they'll look like when firing on all cylinders, especially once Hurts starts to hit his stride.