• Where does the running back market go from here? A bevy of talented veteran backs remain free agents, and a handful of contracted backs are holding out of training camp.
• Aaron Rodgers is set to embark on a new chapter: The New York Jets have postseason aspirations with a new team leader and future Hall of Famer in the building.
• A tight Buccaneers quarterback battle: Baker Mayfield and Kyle Trask are dueling to take over Tom Brady's vacated spot as the Buccaneers' QB1.
Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes
With the Cleveland Browns’ 21-16 victory over the New York Jets in the Hall of Fame Game, the 2023 NFL preseason is officially underway.
While the games and stats don’t technically count, these contests serve as warmups for teams ahead of the regular season, showcases for camp battles and first looks at some big-name players with new teams. With that in mind, here are some storylines to look out for this August.
49ers QB Battle
Ahead of the 2021 NFL Draft, the 49ers traded up from the 12th overall pick to No. 3, sending a haul of picks to the Dolphins to select North Dakota State’s Trey Lance to be their quarterback of the future. As a raw prospect with limited experience in college, Lance sat for most of his rookie season behind Jimmy Garoppolo to develop his skills. When he finally earned the starting job at the start of the 2022 season, things were looking up for the young signal-caller’s career.
However, a broken ankle in Week 2 against Seattle prematurely ended his season and he was forced to hand the reins back to Garoppolo. When Garoppolo himself was lost for the season in Week 13, it was up to Mr. Irrelevant Brock Purdy to keep the 49ers’ Super Bowl aspirations alive. Purdy proved to be more than up to the task, as he led the 49ers to the NFC Championship game against the Eagles behind a 76.3 passing grade after taking over for Garoppolo.
Unfortunately, Purdy tore the UCL in his throwing arm during the game, an injury that typically knocks a baseball player out for an entire calendar year. NFL quarterbacks don’t put as much strain on their arms as baseball players do, though, so Purdy was expected to miss six months. He has recovered in five and is now a full participant in training camp.
There’s also a potential dark-horse candidate that could emerge as the Week 1 starter for the 49ers: former Jets and Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold. The former third overall pick in the 2018 draft is on his third team in four years as he looks for a fresh start in San Francisco. While most of the focus will be on Lance and Purdy, Darnold’s experience could give him a potential leg up.
So, do the 49ers go with the uber-talented-but-inexperienced Lance, whom they’ve invested numerous assets into? Or do they go with the last pick in the draft who guided them all the way to an NFC Championship game appearance? Could they surprise us all and go with the experienced journeyman? With the 49ers’ Super Bowl window wide open, getting this camp battle right could go a long way toward improving their chances to hoist their sixth Lombardi Trophy.
Possibly the biggest NFL storyline right now is the public frustrations among running backs over their lack of a market. Josh Jacobs is holding out of Raiders camp in search of a new deal after leading the league in rushing in 2022, Jonathan Taylor has requested a trade from the Colts, Tony Pollard is playing on the franchise tag and several high-profile running backs remain free agents, including Dalvin Cook, Ezekiel Elliott, Kareem Hunt and Leonard Fournette. Other backs such as Austin Ekeler, Saquon Barkley and Christian McCaffrey have also publicly condemned the valuation of their position.
While the market for veteran running backs has certainly soured over the past several years, it will still be interesting to keep track of how things develop now that players have publicly spoken out against it. Do we see these players miss large chunks of time because teams won’t budge on their contract offers? Or do we see a compromise resulting in a flurry of moves reshaping the running back market?
Aaron Rodgers Takes Flight
After 18 years and a complex relationship, Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers parted ways this offseason, as Rodgers was dealt to the New York Jets prior to the 2023 NFL Draft. With the four-time MVP at the helm in New York, the Jets may have the missing piece that could not only get them to the postseason for the first time since 2010, but to a Super Bowl for the first time since Joe Namath guaranteed a win over the Baltimore Colts. We’ll be getting a first-hand look at Rodgers’ acclimation to New York on HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” as the Jets are the subject for the 2023 preseason.
On the other end of the spectrum, this preseason will also be our first look at how the Packers adjust to life without Rodgers. Jordan Love has played sparingly since Green Bay made him a first-round pick in 2020, but this preseason we’ll get a look at whether he’s up to the challenge of replacing a future Hall of Famer, something Rodgers more than succeeded in.
The NFC North is expected to be very competitive this season, and if Love is able to respond to being thrust into the starting job the way Rodgers did in 2008, the Packers could be back in the driver’s seat of the division for the foreseeable future.
Replacing Brady 2.0
After 23 NFL seasons, the last three of which were spent in Tampa Bay, Tom Brady has finally retired and the Buccaneers are filling the void with a quarterback competition between a former Heisman Trophy-winning No. 1 overall pick in Baker Mayfield and an intriguing developmental project in Kyle Trask. If this sounds familiar, it’s because the Patriots employed a very similar strategy to try and replace Brady in 2020 when they brought in former Heisman Trophy-winning, No. 1 overall pick Cam Newton to compete with intriguing developmental project Jarrett Stidham.
It didn’t go well for the Patriots, as they went 7-9 in 2020, their first losing season in 20 years, and they missed the postseason for the first time in 18 years. The Buccaneers are going to try and avoid the Patriots’ struggles as Mayfield and Trask compete for the chance to replace Brady at the helm of Tampa’s offense. The NFC South is wide open this season and the Buccaneers still have a lot of talent, so a run at a third straight division title isn’t out of the question. But how this quarterback battle plays out will go a long way toward determining how realistic their chances are.
While training camp battles and getting first looks at old faces in new places are some of the more intriguing aspects of the NFL preseason, a less positive element that makes a yearly appearance in several training camps is big-name players holding out. Not only is Josh Jacobs holding out of Raiders camp, but Nick Bosa, Chris Jones and Zack Martin are also not reporting to camp in search of new deals. Bosa is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year after racking up a career-high 90 pressures with 19 sacks to go along with a 90.9 pass-rush grade.
Jones is coming off his second Super Bowl win with the Chiefs after a dominant season that saw him become the first player since 2014 not named Aaron Donald to lead all interior defenders in PFF grade. Jones also recorded 77 pressures and 15 sacks despite mostly aligning between the tackles.
As for Martin, 2022 was the first year where he didn’t record a PFF grade of at least 80.0, though that is due in large part to a career-low 64.8 run-blocking grade. However, his pass blocking has not dipped in the slightest, as he put up an 81.2 grade in that regard on 628 such snaps, allowing zero sacks and just two hits.