Nine NFL teams have new starting QBs – How each could star – or struggle

Nine NFL teams have new starting QBs – How each could star – or struggle post thumbnail image

Two of the more intriguing Week 1 matchups in the NFL involve quarterbacks facing their old teams, including Russell Wilson‘s visit to the Seattle Seahawks on Monday night (8:15 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN/ESPN+).

Nine teams will have a new starter under center this season, and how those QBs fit in will be one of the most compelling storylines of the season.

Wilson spent his first 10 years in Seattle before being traded to the Denver Broncos on March 8 in one of the biggest deals in NFL history.

Baker Mayfield played only four seasons in Cleveland, but they were eventful. He led the Browns to their first playoff victory in 26 years in 2020, before falling out of favor in Cleveland last season. Mayfield was traded on July 6 to the Panthers, who host the Browns on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS).

There was some drama added to Mayfield’s reunion game when it was reported how badly he wanted to beat the Browns.

Not all of the QB change was based on someone switching teams. Trey Lance‘s ascension to San Francisco 49ers starter was announced when it appeared Jimmy Garoppolo would be traded, but Garoppolo ended up staying in San Francisco, and he will be Lance’s backup.

NFL Nation reporters break down the floors and ceilings of the quarterbacks in new roles, or new cities, and ESPN NFL fantasy analyst Mike Clay provides a statistical projection for the season.

The QB switch: Marcus Mariota replaces Matt Ryan

What prompted the change: The Falcons were pursuing Deshaun Watson, who was facing 22 lawsuits alleging sexual assault and inappropriate conduct during massage sessions. During that process, Atlanta allowed Ryan to pursue potential trade partners, and Ryan felt comfortable with the Colts. When Houston traded Watson to Cleveland, the Falcons then dealt Ryan to Indianapolis. The same day, the Falcons signed Mariota, who played under Atlanta coach Arthur Smith when Smith was the offensive coordinator in Tennessee. In this year’s draft, the team also selected rookie quarterback Desmond Ridder in the third round.

What’s Mariota’s ceiling: The best-case scenario for the Falcons is Mariota rediscovers what made him the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 draft and the quarterback who threw for 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 2016. If Atlanta can have an improved version of what Mariota was with the Titans, he could have a chance to be the long-term starter, giving the Falcons more flexibility in the 2023 draft.

Mariota’s floor: Mariota’s accuracy was an issue in Tennessee — he’s a career 62.8% passer — and he was eventually benched in 2019 in favor of Ryan Tannehill. If Mariota has the same precision issues in Atlanta, he could lose his job to Ridder. The floor for the Falcons: Neither Mariota nor Ridder looks like the medium- or long-term quarterback answer, and that sends the team into the 2023 offseason desperate for a quarterback. — Michael Rothstein

Clay’s projection for Mariota: 2,123 yards, 10 TDs, 7 INTs


The QB switch: Baker Mayfield replaces Sam Darnold

What prompted the change: Darnold was 4-7 and one of the lowest-rated quarterbacks in the NFL in 2021, so the Panthers went after Deshaun Watson. After the Texans traded Watson to the Browns, the Panthers drafted Matt Corral. When it was apparent Corral was a project, Carolina traded for Mayfield because Cleveland paid the majority of his 2022 salary.

What’s Mayfield’s ceiling: High if Carolina gets the 2020 version of Mayfield, 11-5 at Cleveland with a playoff win, and not the 2021 version who went 6-8 while dealing with an injury to his left (non-throwing) shoulder. If running back Christian McCaffrey can stay healthy, Mayfield has a chance to have a strong season and get a big, long-term contract.

Mayfield’s floor: Pretty low if he starts slow, but he won’t have to worry about being on a short leash. Darnold suffered a high left ankle sprain and was put on injured reserve, meaning he’ll have to miss at least four weeks. Corral suffered a Lisfranc tear in his left foot and was put on season-ending IR. That leaves PJ Walker as Mayfield’s backup. –– David Newton

Clay’s projection for Mayfield: 4,005 yards, 20 TDs, 16 INTs


The QB switch: Deshaun Watson replaces Baker Mayfield

What prompted the change: After injuring his non-throwing shoulder in Week 2, Mayfield was never the same last season, and the Browns finished 8-9. With a roster ready to contend for a Super Bowl, the Browns went all-in on Watson, who was facing 22 lawsuits alleging sexual assault and inappropriate conduct during massage sessions.

What’s Watson’s ceiling: When Watson was last on the field in 2020, he performed like a top-five QB. To regain that level, Watson will have a lot of rust to shake off after sitting out last season and serving an 11-game suspension to start this season. Jacoby Brissett will begin the season as the starter, and while he has been a backup much of his career, he has a 14-23 record as a starter. His best season was in 2019 with the Indianapolis Colts after Andrew Luck’s surprise retirement. Brissett passed for 2,942 yards and 18 touchdowns with six interceptions that season.

Watson’s floor: Watson has never finished outside the top 15 in QBR. Even after missing so much time, it’s hard to see Watson not being in the top half of passers in the league once he does return. — Jake Trotter

Clay’s projection for Watson: 1,386 yards, 9 TDs, 4 INTs | Brissett: 2,117 yards, 12 TDs, 6 INTs


Denver Broncos

The QB switch: Russell Wilson replaces Teddy Bridgewater/Drew Lock

What prompted the change: The Broncos have missed the playoffs for six consecutive years — since winning Super Bowl 50 — and haven’t averaged more than 21 points per game in any of the past five seasons. So when the Seahawks told the Broncos that Wilson was available, Broncos general manager George Paton pounced with a massive package of players and draft picks, including two first- and two second-round picks. And the Broncos quickly moved to lock Wilson up long term with a five-year extension worth $245 million, including $165 million guaranteed, sources say.

What’s Wilson’s ceiling: If the Broncos can find their timing quickly this season with a first-year head coach in Nathaniel Hackett, the ceiling is a Pro Bowl-caliber year with Wilson throwing for more yards, touchdowns and creating more big plays than anyone in Denver since Peyton Manning in 2014.

Wilson’s floor: Because of the Broncos’ woes on offense in recent years, it might still be a season in which Wilson throws for more yards and touchdowns than anybody in Denver since a healthy Manning. But if things don’t go well, it could be because the Broncos didn’t protect Wilson well enough, and he didn’t do his part to get the ball out quicker when he had the chance. –– Jeff Legwold

Clay’s projection for Wilson: 4,081 yards, 30 TDs, 10 INTs


The QB switch: Matt Ryan replaces Carson Wentz

What prompted the change: The Colts’ passing game became heavily restricted by the coaching staff’s lack of trust in Wentz late in the 2021 season. The Colts adopted primarily a power-run offense behind running back Jonathan Taylor, but they decided they needed more from their passing game. The Colts were 26th in passing yards last season.

What’s Ryan’s ceiling: Ryan could inject more big plays into the offense with his ability to throw to receivers with timing, enabling more yards after the catch. His timing is also a good fit for Colts coach Frank Reich’s offense, which emphasizes timing and rhythmic throws.

Ryan’s floor: At minimum, Ryan gives the Colts a more efficient passing game, given his career numbers in completion percentage and yards per attempt, to say nothing of the improved talent around him. Ryan is also more apt to utilize checkdown throws to his running backs. It’s never a bad idea to get the ball into the hands of Taylor and Nyheim Hines in space. –– Stephen Holder

Clay’s projection for Ryan: 3,878 yards, 24 TDs, 12 INTs


The QB switch: Mitch Trubisky replaces Ben Roethlisberger

What prompted the change: Roethlisberger retired, officially beginning a new era in Pittsburgh. The team acquired Trubisky through free agency and drafted Kenny Pickett in the first round, but the veteran held the edge on the rookie throughout camp. Still, even though Trubisky initially won the starting job — he was listed as the starter on the depth chart and also named one of the captains on Monday — Pickett will be nipping at his heels through the regular season.

What’s Trubisky’s ceiling: Even if he performs well for the Steelers in 2022 and showcases his mobility and arm, Trubisky isn’t the long-term answer in Pittsburgh. Pickett is the future, and Trubisky’s best hope is leading the team to the playoffs and using that to springboard to another spot — similar to Kurt Warner’s year with the N.Y. Giants after the organization drafted Eli Manning.

Trubisky’s floor: Both Trubisky and Pickett have relatively high floors — that’s what drew the Steelers to each quarterback in the offseason. The biggest factor in determining their floors this year is the offensive line play. The quarterbacks will go as the line goes, and if they can’t get time to throw or room to work, the floor gets a lot lower. — Brooke Pryor

Clay’s projection for: Trubisky: 2,007 yards, 9 TDs, 7 INTs | Pickett: 2,135 yards, 11 TDs, 8 INTs


The QB switch: Trey Lance replaces Jimmy Garoppolo

What prompted the change: Garoppolo’s inability to stay healthy — he missed 23 games over three seasons — spurred the Niners to trade up to select Lance with the No. 3 overall pick in 2021. After letting Lance sit for a year behind Garoppolo, the Niners are ready to see what their handpicked franchise quarterback can do. But in a move that surprised all involved, the Niners held on to Garoppolo, who will now be Lance’s backup.

What’s Lance’s ceiling: Lance’s physical skills (strong arm, fast legs) have drawn Josh Allen comparisons from teammates such as tight end George Kittle. But more than that, the Niners believe in Lance’s ability to process information and get through progressions quickly. If Lance can improve at a similar rate to Allen, the Niners believe they could have the franchise quarterback they’ve longed for since the days of Steve Young.

Lance’s floor: Like Allen, who played collegiately at Wyoming, Lance also comes with some questions about accuracy and the level of college competition (Lance played at North Dakota State). For example, Lance’s completion percentage will likely be much lower than Garoppolo’s, but the 49ers hope that is offset by more big plays down the field and his running ability. Because of the unknowns, Lance’s ceiling and floor come with significant variance. –– Nick Wagoner

Clay’s projection for Lance: 3,506 yards, 22 TDs, 12 INTs, 517 yards rushing, 4 rushing TDs


Seattle Seahawks

The QB switch: Geno Smith/Drew Lock replace Russell Wilson

What prompted the change: The Seahawks sent Wilson to the Broncos in March in one of the biggest trades in NFL history, the result of the quarterback wanting out and the organization’s wariness about how his game will continue to age. Seattle acquired Drew Lock as part of the return package, then didn’t draft a quarterback in April, setting up a two-man competition that the 31-year-old Smith won.

What’s Smith’s ceiling: The Seahawks hope Smith can be an effective game manager who avoids mistakes and lets their strong run game do most of the heavy lifting. It’s hard to expect much beyond that given that he has a 13-21 career record as a starter and hasn’t been a full-time QB1 since 2014.

What’s Smith’s floor: The case to start Lock argues that, as the younger and more talented player, he has the higher ceiling. But coach Pete Carroll is going with Smith (at least for now) because in his view, the 10-year veteran has demonstrated a stronger grasp of the offense and the ability to protect the football, which means he has the higher floor. Smith played well enough to keep the Seahawks in the first two games that he started last year, narrow losses to the Steelers and Saints. He was terrific in his third and final start, a blowout win over Jacksonville. — Brady Henderson

Clay’s projection for: Smith: 2,481 yards, 12 TDs, 7 INTs | Lock: 1,740 yards, 9 TDs, 6 INTs


The QB switch: Carson Wentz replaces Taylor Heinicke

What prompted the change: Since the 2018 season, Washington has started 10 different quarterbacks and owns the NFL’s worst total QBR at 36.7. The Commanders consider Heinicke a high-end backup; he’s an excellent competitor but is smaller and lacks optimal arm strength. Also, without a winning season since 2016, the Commanders needed to upgrade.

What’s Wentz’s ceiling: A few years ago, his ceiling was NFL MVP. Injuries and inconsistent play have lowered the ceiling. His talent, plus the surrounding skill players, can make him a top-half quarterback who has some games in which he resembles a top-10 passer and others in which he’ll struggle. Washington hasn’t had a QB like that since Kirk Cousins.

Wentz’s floor: Probably bottom 10; he ranked ninth in total QBR last year (54.7) but was benched in 2020. While the talent is good, he needs a good O-line so his tendency to hold the ball too long doesn’t get him in trouble, and his accuracy becomes an issue under duress. — John Keim

Clay’s projection for Wentz: 3,760 yards, 24 TDs, 10 INTs



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