The NFL has built itself into a year-round eyeball magnet. The NFL offseason supposedly begins after the Super Bowl, but in reality, the pro football machine keeps right on turning. The pre-draft showcase and workout season get underway even before the Super Bowl is over, free agency begins in mid-March, the draft happens in mid-April, and then there’s only a few months of (relative) quiet before training camps open at the end of July. Even with no games on the calendar, the league has a way of generating enough drama to stay top of mind.
That said, the NFL does seem to be headed into an unusually wide-open offseason. The greatest quarterback ever just retired, as did another future Hall of Famer. Another one may or may not leave his career-long franchise, and the pecking order of QBs in this year’s NFL Draft is even harder to determine than usual.
So what’s going to happen? Below, I’ve called out four key questions that’ll shape the NFL over the next year.
NFL Offseason 2022: Quarterback Prospects, Free Agents, and More
What if the Broncos make a blockbuster trade with the Packers for Aaron Rodgers? pic.twitter.com/0ZKHFzZPMW
— PFF Fantasy Football (@PFF_Fantasy) February 21, 2022
1. What will Aaron Rodgers do, and how quickly can we stop discussing him?
I have lost interest in acquiring new information about the Green Bay Packers’ four-time MVP quarterback. At this point, everyone gets the idea: He is a preternaturally great quarterback and a preternaturally self-obsessed individual.
After his relationship with the Packers deteriorated to the point of a trade becoming a real possibility last year, Rodgers had a singular 2021 season. He won another MVP award (which is normal for him), lost another home playoff game (also normal for him), misled the public and probably the NFL about his COVID-19 vaccination status, and compared himself to Martin Luther King Jr. for not taking the shot. I learned more than I ever wanted to about his relationship with Shailene Woodley and his offseason cleansing regimen, which you should not read more about if you have a weak constitution.
As we head into the NFL offseason, Rodgers’ football future is uncertain. The Denver Broncos hired his Packers offensive coordinator, Nathaniel Hackett, as head coach, prompting speculation that Rodgers might head to the Mile High City. Maybe he’ll retire, or get traded somewhere else, or find some other path away from Green Bay. Maybe he’ll just play there again next year. He’ll single-handedly make whichever team he plays for into a title contender. Or maybe he’ll go into public health consulting.
2. Some legendary quarterbacks are retiring. Who will replace them?
Tom Brady’s NFL career is over after 22 seasons and seven Super Bowl wins, and he has cemented his status (among most observers) as the greatest to ever play the position. Ben Roethlisberger’s career is over after 18 seasons, two Super Bowl wins, and a much grimmer off-field legacy. Rodgers may or may not leave the Packers, but that’s at least two teams—if not three—who need to replace Hall of Fame passers in 2022.
Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers are coming from a position of strength: They’re just a year removed from a Lombardi Trophy and have a quality defense. This franchise spent most of the century getting mediocre QB play or worse before Brady signed ahead of the 2020 season. In his absence, the frontrunner might be 32-year-old backup Blaine Gabbert, a long-ago first-round draft bust who has a couple years’ experience playing behind the best ever and learning the system of head coach Bruce Arians.
It sounds uninspiring, but it’s hard to immediately replace a generational QB. The Steelers will likely learn that while finding Roethlisberger’s successor. The in-house frontrunner is Mason Rudolph, a backup for most of the last four years who played poorly after Roethlisberger suffered a season-ending injury early in the 2019 season. The Steelers gave him a tepid “if the season started today” vote of confidence. External faith in him is almost nonexistent.
On the other hand, finding a worthy replacement in the draft is possible. But it won’t be easy.
Kenny Pickett hit the fake-slide pic.twitter.com/8f4VoUtxV4
— PFF (@PFF) December 5, 2021
3. The quarterback class in this year’s NFL Draft is something of a mystery. How will teams handle it?
There are no sure bets at QB or in the draft, but most years have one or two quarterbacks who analysts believe are worthy of high first-round selections. Last year had several: Quarterbacks were snapped up for the first, second, third, 11th, and 15th picks.
This year’s class has a handful of passers who might turn out to be good NFL players. Pitt’s Kenny Pickett morphed into one of the most exciting and productive college QBs in 2021. Liberty’s Malik Willis has a bazooka arm and will immediately be one of the most effective running QBs in the NFL. Matt Corral from Ole Miss could thrive in an offense that’s heavy on run-pass options and deep balls. Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder gets high marks for both his leadership and athleticism. North Carolina’s Sam Howell is mobile and can throw hard, but he didn’t play well against the ACC in 2021. Nevada’s Carson Strong is, well, big and strong, but he’ll have to answer questions about the quality of competition he faced in the Mountain West. (Though Wyoming’s Josh Allen has shown that the conference can produce NFL-caliber QBs.)
It’s safe to say that a few of these players will be solid NFL quarterbacks. But I have a hard time deducing who, exactly, will break through. Pro Football Focus doesn’t rank any of them higher than No. 20 overall (Howell), and it’ll be interesting to see how high a team reaches because it needs a quarterback.
The accuracy from Packers’ QB Aaron Rodgers on this throw to WR Davante Adams is unreal.
— NFL Talk (@NFL_Talk_Sports) January 6, 2022
4. This year’s free-agent class is heavy on wideouts. Who’s going where?
By PFF’s ranking, the No. 1, 3, 7, and 10 players available in free agency this NFL offseason are wide receivers: Davante Adams (Green Bay), Chris Godwin (Tampa Bay), Mike Williams (Los Angeles Chargers), and Allen Robinson II (Chicago). A couple of them seem like obvious targets for the franchise tag, where their teams hang onto them by offering them a one-year contract for what’s likely to be about $19 million each.
If the Packers get Rodgers back, it’s hard to see them letting Adams, his longtime No. 1 target, walk away. Williams seems another likely candidate for a tag if the Chargers don’t offer him a long-term contract extension—they have cap room and a mega-valuable young quarterback, Justin Herbert, who needs capable receivers.
The Bucs might be in for a lot of hurt. They could tag or extend Godwin, but they are short on salary cap room and don’t know how Brady’s contract will affect their cap room now that he’s retired. They have two other premium free agents in center Ryan Jensen and cornerback Carlton Davis, and they still need to sort out a quarterback. So Godwin might be on the move, and if he’s not, someone else, or even a couple of his teammates, will be.
In Chicago, Robinson also seems poised to hit the open market. His departure will sting for second-year Bears quarterback Justin Fields but be a boon for whoever signs him.
There’s uncertainty in every offseason, but 2022’s uncertainty seems concentrated between those who throw the ball and those who catch it.