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The Schein Nine

Kyler Murray headlines 9 NFL quarterbacks with the most to prove down the stretch of the 2023 season

Eleven weeks of the 2023 NFL season are in the books. Thanksgiving is nearly upon us. Thus, we've reached a point in the year when the game's most important position really goes under the microscope.

A number of quarterbacks are gearing up for a playoff push, aiming to burgeon a legacy by making a run at the Lombardi Trophy. Meanwhile, other signal-callers are just hoping to uphold a reputation, thus creating job security for 2024 and beyond.

With that in mind, here are the nine QBs who have the most to prove in the sprint from Thanksgiving to the new year.

Kyler Murray
Arizona Cardinals · Age 26

After tearing his ACL last December, Murray is back in the lineup -- and frankly, he has looked better than I expected in his first two starts of the season. In a tight win over Atlanta and a narrow loss at Houston, the former No. 1 overall pick looked like the old Kyler -- i.e., the most electric athlete on the field. Murray's rare explosiveness and movement skills, which are such a vital part of his game, popped off the screen once again. That massive third-down scramble in the game-winning drive against the Falcons -- when Kyler almost literally ran circles around the defense -- was a sight for sore eyes. Obviously, I want to keep seeing these wild feats of athleticism -- who doesn't?! -- but so far, so good.

Now, Murray's passing has been pretty good, with the fourth-year pro showing that vintage ability to deliver majestic deep balls off of scrambles, but he needs to show greatness as a thrower in order to be fully entrenched. He has to at least flash mastery of the offense. Remember, this is a new regime in Arizona. The head coach and general manager who drafted Kyler are gone. And Murray's work habits were questioned so much by the old regime that they inserted -- and then, after blowback, removed -- a homework clause in his $230.5 million extension. So he needs to leave no doubt, inside and outside of the building, that he is the quarterback for Arizona to continue building around. Because, as everyone knows, the Cardinals have two first-round picks in the 2024 NFL Draft. So the Cards could be in the quarterback business ... or they could look to surround Murray with more blue-chip talent. How the 26-year-old plays in these next six games could go a long way in deciding which route Arizona takes.

Tua Tagovailoa
Miami Dolphins · Age 25

I've always been a big Tua fan. And he's been healthy this year, so -- surprise, surprise -- his numbers sparkle: 69.7 completion percentage, 293.4 passing yards per game, 106.0 passer rating and on and on.

But can Tua win you a championship? Or, at least this year, simply beat an opponent with a winning record? (Miami's 0-3 in games against teams that are currently above .500.)

The AFC is wide open right now, with no team boasting fewer than three losses. And with Jalen Ramsey's return clearly giving Vic Fangio's defense a boost, the Dolphins should be ready for prime time. But the defense's resurgence has been accompanied by a bit of an offensive fade.

Tua has one year left on his rookie contract after this season, so the coming offseason could be a hinge point in the quarterback's future with the franchise. The former No. 5 overall pick has proven he can produce prolific numbers in Mike McDaniel's offense. Now he needs to show he can beat the big boys.

Joshua Dobbs
Minnesota Vikings · Age 28

I remain firmly seated on the Josh Dobbs bandwagon, even after Sunday's one-point loss in Denver. I think Dobbs and the Vikings -- who should get superstar wideout Justin Jefferson back soon -- will indeed make the playoffs.

But while I am still a believer, Dobbs is still the ultimate journeyman, currently on his seventh NFL team at age 28. So he has to constantly prove himself to the Powers That Be in this "What have you done for me lately?" league.

Vikings coach Kevin O'Connell recently told me on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein on Sports," that he hopes to have Kirk Cousins back in 2024. But with the pending free agent currently recovering from a torn Achilles, his future with the franchise is completely up in the air. This is Dobbs' team in the here and now. Will he guide the Vikes to the postseason and simultaneously cement his role as the team's starter in 2024? Or, if Minnesota doesn't ultimately work out, can Dobbs show enough to earn a starting role somewhere else?

Justin Fields
Chicago Bears · Age 24

I loved what I saw from Fields in his return to action this past Sunday at Detroit. Yeah, the Bears blew the game, but don't blame the third-year quarterback, who excelled as a thrower (16-for-23 for 169 yards, one touchdown and a 105.2 passer rating) and runner (18 rushes for 104 yards).

Now, I personally believe Fields is on borrowed time in Chicago, as the Bears currently own two of the top four picks -- including No. 1 overall -- in next April's draft. With the expected quarterback talent available in the prospect pipeline, it's not hard to imagine Chicago starting over at the position. I loved when the Bears boldly went up and snagged Fields in the 2021 draft, but the marriage just hasn't produced great results. Granted, Chicago hasn't exactly put him in the best environment to succeed in his brief NFL career -- with coaching turnover and surrounding roster questions -- but it just seems like the bloom's off the rose.

So, I think Fields is currently playing for his future as an NFL starter. At the moment, I'm skeptical another team will look to acquire him in the coming offseason as its no-doubt starter for 2024. I think a legit competition would be more likely. Or even a backup job. That said, I do believe Fields can go somewhere else and eventually succeed. How about Atlanta? Or Las Vegas? Or Tennessee? If Fields finishes this season strong and the Bears are indeed looking to move on, we could see a bidding war for the young field general's services.

Kenny Pickett
Pittsburgh Steelers · Age 25

Nobody has defended Kenny Pickett more than I have. With Pittsburgh ranking 28th in scoring and total offense, I've continually pointed to coordinator Matt Canada as the biggest problem.

Well, Mike Tomlin relieved Canada of his duties on Tuesday, sharpening the focus on Pittsburgh's 2022 first-round pick.

Pickett entered this season with great expectations to make a substantial leap in Year 2, especially after his pristine work throughout training camp and the preseason. But that just hasn't been the case -- at all. Pickett's completion percentage and yards per attempt have actually dropped from his rookie campaign, and he's managed just six touchdown passes in 10 starts. With such meager production from the quarterback position, the Steelers have been outgained in every single game. It's a miracle this team is 6-4. With that in mind, I applaud Najee Harris for refusing to rest on the record following Sunday's 13-10 loss at Cleveland; instead, the running back understandably ranted about how "tired" he is of Pittsburgh's offensive ineptitude. Maybe Canada's ouster was the move Najee and Co. needed to get right.

I'm not remotely ready to pull the plug on Pickett. But I do acknowledge that his performance over the rest of this season is vital. Pickett needs to prove he's at least part of the solution.

Russell Wilson
Denver Broncos · Age 34

Are we seeing shades of Russ' glorious Seattle days?? Could the nine-time Pro Bowler find himself back in the playoffs for the first time since 2020? Things are certainly looking up in Denver.

The Broncos, of course, got off to a horrendous start in Sean Payton's debut season: losing to Josh McDaniels' Raiders, blowing an 18-point lead to the Commanders, giving up 70 points to the Dolphins and dropping the Nathaniel Hackett revenge game. But since that 1-4 start, Payton has done an admirable job of rallying the Broncos to four straight wins, getting them right back into the playoff race. And Wilson's solid play hasn't gone unnoticed.

Russ' rapport with Courtland Sutton has been gold, as evidenced by crucial, highlight-reel connections in each of the past two weeks. On the season, Wilson has completed 69 percent of his passes while producing a 19:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 104.3 passer rating. Clearly, a huge step up from his disastrous Denver debut in 2022. But is Wilson truly earning Payton's trust as his QB for the foreseeable future? Can Russ guide the Broncos to the playoffs for the first time since the team's Super Bowl-winning campaign of 2015? These questions linger as we hit the stretch run.

Sam Howell
Washington Commanders · Age 23

The Commanders' 2-0 start is a distant memory. Washington just lost a home game to the lowly Giants, dropping the team to 4-7. Consequently, head coach Ron Rivera is now forced to answer questions about his job security. No surprise there, as this franchise is under new ownership and clearly looking to turn over a new leaf. So, where does that leave Howell, the 2022 fifth-rounder who surprised many by entering this season as Washington's starting quarterback.

On the plus side, Howell leads the NFL in passing yards (3,038). On the negative side, he also owns league highs in interceptions (12) and sacks taken (51). It's a mixed bag, to say the least. So, do you applaud the good or stress over the bad? Has the first-year starter shown enough to be the Commanders' unquestioned GUY going forward, whether or not Rivera remains the coach beyond this season?

Howell's finish will determine his future as a starter -- in Washington or elsewhere.

Will Levis
Tennessee Titans · Age 24

Levis looked pretty darn good in his first two NFL starts, but he's crashed back to earth in his last two. Not surprising for a second-round rookie quarterback. That said, with Mike Vrabel having named him the starter for the rest of the season, the kid needs to continue showing growth. With Tennessee at 3-7, the Titans are essentially out of the playoff mix for this season. But the next seven games carry significant implications for the future of this football team.

First-year general manager Ran Carthon made six selections in the 2023 draft -- and all six were used on offensive players. Clearly, the new guy was looking to make his mark on that side of the ball -- which made sense, considering the Titans haven't exactly been an offensive juggernaut of late. But do Carthon, Vrabel and Co. have a quarterback to continue building around in 2024 and beyond?

Levis has shown plenty of natural arm talent, boasting the ability to deliver off-platform throws with velocity, but consistency has been an issue. You'd love to see the 24-year-old finish off his rookie season on the upswing, sending Tennessee into 2024 with a viable plan at the game's most important position.

Jared Goff
Detroit Lions · Age 29

I dig Goff. And I went on record last week predicting the Lions will ultimately end up with the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs. But the quarterback's performance in the first three quarters this past Sunday -- when he threw three interceptions -- was a little scary. Granted, Goff turned it around at winning time, allowing Detroit to overcome a 12-point deficit in the final four minutes and shock Chicago. But still, we had a flashback to the version of Goff who fizzled out in Los Angeles. It very well might have been a blip, but it was concerning -- especially given how much promise this rising Lions team has, particularly on the offensive side of the ball.

Detroit's offensive line is elite, and I love the two-headed backfield monster of David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs. In the passing game, Amon-Ra St. Brown's a stud WR1, while tight end Sam LaPorta is a mismatch playmaker. On top of it all, offensive coordinator Ben Johnson calls a great game. Now, rank Goff among NFC quarterbacks -- or simply against the QBs of the Big Four NFC teams: Philadelphia's Jalen Hurts, Dallas' Dak Prescott and San Francisco's Brock Purdy. Because ultimately, those are the guys he needs to beat.

None of that is meant to disparage Goff. He's long been better than people have given him credit for -- shoot, he already led a team to the Super Bowl. But can he be the guy who truly gets Detroit over the hump? I believe in him, but we'll have to see how the season plays out. Goff must deliver in the big spots, against the most talented quarterbacks and best overall teams.

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