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NFC due for major shake-up in 2023

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By: Kenneth Arthur

Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Aaron Donald are at turning points in their careers

First, let’s talk about the four teams that won their division in the AFC last season: Bills, Chiefs, Titans, and Bengals. Three of those teams are leading their divisions today, while the Bengals have come back from an early-season slump to be one game behind first place in the AFC North.

There are surprises in the wild card race, like the Jets and Dolphins, but with the Ravens, Patriots, and Chargers also in the hunt, the AFC playoff picture may look a lot like the one we had in 2021.

Now let’s talk about the NFC.

Last season’s division winners were the Cowboys, Packers, Bucs, and Rams. Only one of those teams is in first place in their division right now, but Tampa Bay is still 4-5 as the leaders of the NFC South, and three of them have losing records. Only Dallas is playing like a contender this season and most of that success came without Dak Prescott under center.

The landscape of the NFC is changing quickly and the L.A. Rams are not immune from being on the losing end of that transition.

Something that I wrote one day after the trade for Matthew Stafford was that the Rams had acquired a quarterback who could soon be a top-three QB in the NFC. The logic behind that wasn’t just that “Stafford is really good,” but also that there was bound to be movement with his competition as the AFC started to build a clear talent lead over the NFC.

Drew Brees was set to retire, Tom Brady might not be far behind him on the way out. Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers were entering contract disputes based on general unhappiness with their organizations. Matt Ryan and Kirk Cousins weren’t pushing the needle very far. And at the time, Washington, San Francisco, Carolina, Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago didn’t have much of anything settled at quarterback.

So given a year or two, why couldn’t Stafford being looking at a conference in which perhaps the only players standing between him and “Best QB in the NFC” was maybe Dak Prescott and Kyler Murray, if not some hot shot rookie?

But even without an immense breakout from Prescott or Murray, Stafford isn’t looking very “top-3 like” this year. Neither are Rodgers, Brady, or Murray.

No, instead the top three quarterbacks in the NFC today seems to be—brace yourselves for this one—Geno Smith, Jalen Hurts, and…. and… I don’t know, Marcus Mariota? Jimmy Garoppolo?

Packers-Aaron Rodgers

Rodgers won MVP in 2020 and 2021, but should the award have gone to Davante Adams? Without his top wide receiver, Rodgers has seen his numbers (and the Packers) plummet: Green Bay has lost five in a row. Rodgers had two games last season in which he had a passer rating below 95. This year, Rodgers has had five games with a passer rating under 95 and only two games over 100.

If Rodgers doesn’t decide to retire in 2023, then the Packers may choose to trade him and his $50+ million roster bonus to a team willing to spend that kind of cash on a 40-year-old quarterback. With Jordan Love under contract in Green Bay for another two years (if the team picks up his fifth-year option), the Packers may choose to give the younger player a shot and to see if they can recoup draft capital by trading Rodgers in 2023.

It would seem likely that Green Bay deals Rodgers to an AFC team and the team that probably stands out the most is the Indianapolis Colts. Owner Jim Irsay hasn’t been shy about Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan, and Carson Wentz, so why not Rodgers?

Bucs-Tom Brady

After leading a comeback over the Rams in Week 9, Tampa Tom might be heating up again. Or not. The Bucs had lost five of six prior to beating L.A. and the Bucs are still 25th in scoring; it’s been a struggle for Brady to find the end zone, including against the Rams this past weekend.

Brady leads the NFL in TD:INT ratio and INT rate, but he’s on pace for only 19 touchdowns. That would be his lowest total since throwing 18 touchdowns in 15 games as a rookie in 2001. This is in spite of the fact that Brady leads the NFL in attempts and completions.

Even though Brady doesn’t have Rob Gronkowski or Antonio Brown anymore, he still has Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, but those two receivers have combined for only three touchdowns. All of them by Evans.

NFL: NOV 06 Rams at Buccaneers
Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Tampa Bay is headed for salary cap hell in 2023, including a $35 million cap hit for Tom Brady even though he’s going to be a free agent and he’s almost certainly going to leave the Bucs. That’s a $35 million VOID YEAR for the Bucs and Brady. And Tampa Bay is still set to be more than $40 million OVER the projected salary cap. But 2021 second round pick Kyle Trask is still the third string quarterback.

Not a good sign.

Rams-Aaron Donald

Questions of Donald’s retirement plans have been abound all year, from the morning of the Super Bowl right down to today. The fact that the Rams are 3-5 and headed for a salary cap nightmare without incoming help from first round draft picks may weigh even heavier on the greatest defensive player of his generation.

Is 2022 going to be Aaron Donald’s final season?

If Donald retires, is that just the first domino to fall?

Matthew Stafford’s recently-signed contract makes him impossible to get off the books until 2025 at the earliest. Unless he retires and gives back some of his $60 million signing bonus, Stafford’s going to be collecting checks from L.A. for a couple more years, to say the least. Really, Stafford is signed through 2026 and he’s going to be on the books until 2025 or 2026.

Cooper Kupp turns 30 next year. Jalen Ramsey turns 30 in 2024. Leonard Floyd and Rob Havenstein are already 30. Bobby Wagner is 32. Stafford is 34. Donald is 31. Hell, the youngest career on the team is still Sean McVay’s.

But if McVay ties his career to Donald, Stafford, Kupp, and Ramsey, then he’s only got a couple of years left with the Rams.

Those are three players on three NFC teams that have gone from Super Bowl contending to having a losing record at midseason. But the current NFC contenders also have some big questions to answer:

Eagles-Is Jalen Hurts the long-term answer?

Hurts is one of the least expensive players on the Eagles today, earning a $1 million base salary in 2022, and a $1.3 million salary in 2023. Even if he gets a performance raise, Hurts’ low cost as a second round pick on his rookie contract is what’s helping the 8-0 Eagles be 8-0. What’s he worth on his next contract, which is a question that will come up next offseason and given that the Cardinals just gave into Kyler Murray’s demands, Philadelphia is going to be pressured into making a decision on Hurts by 2023.

He won’t be cheap after this season.

Hurts is second in the NFL in passer rating (107.8), sixth in completion percentage (68%), and second in interception rate (0.8%). He has also rushed for six touchdowns. An endorsement of those stats by Philadelphia will cost the Eagles at least $46 million per year.

Giants-Who replaces Daniel Jones?

New York is 6-2 under first-year head coach Brian Daboll, but Jones only has six touchdowns in eight games and only three scores in his last six starts. This muted version of a good quarterback can’t go on past 2022, even if the Giants win the Super Bowl.

Maybe the Giants want to make a push for Rodgers or Lamar Jackson, but New York has so far proven incapable of building a good supporting cast. The current GM may not have drafted Kadarius Toney or signed Kenny Golladay, but the Giants had chances to get better at receiver this past offseason and didn’t do it.

Vikings-So they’re going to pay Cousins…again?

Kevin O’Connell has the Vikings at 7-1 and virtually guaranteed to win the NFC North barring a major collapse. You’d think that means Kirk Cousins is going off with Justin Jefferson (and now T.J. Hockenson) but I’d say it’s more like he’s continuing to play fine. Cousins is signed through 2023, so Minnesota has to either pay him a boatload of money again (we saw where that got the Raiders and Derek Carr this year) or find a replacement who doesn’t need to be carried by Jefferson.

Seahawks-What’s Geno Smith worth?

Seattle is getting away with highway robbery, as they avoided all the Baker Mayfield/Matt Ryan/Carson Wentz/Jimmy Garoppolo trade hype and instead signed Geno Smith for $3.5 million. That’s way less than even what Marcus Mariota, Mitchell Trubisky and Jameis Winston got as free agents. The Seahawks are elated with how well Smith is playing, but he’s also a free agent in 2023. Seattle’s going to have to come to an agreement or give him the franchise tag, meaning that GENO SMITH could be making over $30 million next season. That eats up almost all of the Seahawks cap space.

49ers-What the hell are they going to do?

The trade up for Trey Lance is the worst draft trade since the Saints-Ricky Williams. Jimmy Garoppolo is a free agent and Lance is still the guy that San Francisco invested three first round picks in. It seems like the 49ers are either due for a repeat of their 2022 offseason or they’re going to finally sign Tom Brady.

Cardinals-They gotta fire Kliff

They have to fire Kliff Kingsbury. You just gave him an extension? Too bad.

NFC Teams without Quarterbacks

The last remaining teams here are the Panthers, Saints, Falcons, Bears, Lions, Commanders, and Cowboys.

Chicago is going to hold with Justin Fields and try to get more help on the offensive line and receiving corps. Look for their top-10 pick to be used on a left tackle.

The Panthers and Lions are fighting for a high enough draft pick to select Bryce Young.

The Falcons and Commanders are both 4-5 and likely back on the market for quarterbacks in 2023, if not also conducting a search for a new head coach.

The Saints will probably also fire Dennis Allen and be on the lookout for another Sean Payton-Drew Brees marriage like they had in 2006. Good luck.

Strangely, the Dallas Cowboys could be the NFC team with the least amount to figure out. The Cowboys are 6-2, Dak Prescott is signed long-term, the cap situation is fine, the defense is great, and they’ve got their draft picks intact. It doesn’t mean that the Cowboys are the best team in the NFC, now or next year, but at least they seem to know who they are.

The rest of the NFC isn’t quite that lucky.