AFC dominates list of elite QB’s heading into 2023 NFL season


As the 2023 season draws near, a bit of reflection about the relative state of the conferences may be required to fully understand the challenges and opportunities presented to each franchise as they seek to become Super Bowl champions in February of 2024. Ironically, the crowning contest of the 2023 season will be contested in Las Vegas for the first time in league history, as Allegiant Stadium hosts the myriad of media festivities and the championship game. In 2023, the path to the Super Bowl would appear to be far more difficult for those that play in the AFC than the NFC. That statement is made primarily based upon the distribution of quarterback talent in the NFL, which may be more lopsided than at any point in the recent history of the league.

The quarterback position is the most influential and impactful position on the field, and the performance that a team gets from their QB has more of an impact on the outcome of the game than any other single position on the roster. The oddsmakers in Las Vegas agree, and the point spread offered on NFL contests can vary dramatically based on who is projected to start that game at quarterback. For instance, when the Packers played in recent seasons, the difference between the line for the game with Aaron Rodgers under center versus his backup was as many as 10 points. In his prime, similar fluctuations were made when Tom Brady would be unable to start. Patrick Mahomes provides a similar impact on the projected point spread when he’s unable to answer the bell for the Super Bowl champion Chiefs. Elite running backs, defensive lineman or wide receivers rarely impact the line more than 1-2 points, according to most Las Vegas oddsmakers.

Accepting that premise, the strength of a team in the NFL would be significantly impacted by the quality of their starting quarterback. When assessing where the top signal callers will ply their trade for the 2023 season, a curious trend emerges: The vast majority of very good and elite quarterbacks play in the AFC.

Entering his seventh season out of Texas Tech, Patrick Mahomes has quickly established himself as the best quarterback in the NFL, leading the Chiefs to three Super Bowls and two championships.

Using the passer rating statistic that attempts to quantify all aspects of quarterback play, the career leaders are: Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson, Joe Burrow, Russell Wilson and Jimmy Garoppolo. All of them will start for an AFC team in 2023.

If we wanted to use that same metric to assess the more recent performances of NFL quarterback play, here are the top 10 for the 2022 season; (Of those projected to start in 2023): Tua Tagovailoa, Patrick Mahomes, Jimmy Garoppolo, Jalen Hurts, Geno Smith, Joe Burrow, Jared Goff, Josh Allen, Trevor Lawrence and Ryan Tannehill. Seven of the ten will suit up for an AFC team this season.

Even if we look into more advanced measures, such as the Adjusted Net Yards per Pass Attempt (ANY/A), a similar leaderboard emerges, where seven of the top 10 performers (and six of the top 8) from 2022 all start for AFC franchises.

If we were to start an NFL franchise to play for the 2023 season alone, with no regard for the future performance of the player or his age, it’s reasonable to presume that aside from Jalen Hurts (who has had a single outstanding season for the Eagles, as opposed to the lengthier resumes of players like Mahomes, Allen and Burrow), the quarterbacks chosen to play for the new, fictional team would all come from AFC teams. Hurts would certainly warrant consideration, but would NFL GM’s take him before more established stars like Mahomes, Allen, Rodgers, Burrow or Justin Herbert? Arguments could be made that Lawrence, Tagovailoa and even Lamar Jackson might be chosen before Hurts. Hurts may well continue to play at MVP caliber levels going forward, and the surprisingly excellent seasons that veterans Jared Goff and Geno Smith provided for the Lions and Seahawks, respectively, can’t be dismissed out of hand as flukes. The Eagles believe Hurts is worth investing in, having signed him to a five-year, $255 million dollar deal. Seattle also sees Smith as a longer term solution to their quarterback position, handing him a three-year, $105 million contract to lead them into the post-Russell Wilson era. Despite those deals, six of the top eight 2023 quarterback salaries will go to AFC players, with Hurts and Kyler Murray the only NFC players to crack the list. Joe Burrow, the Bengals superstar quarterback, has yet to sign a contract extension that will surely push him into the top 3 on the list. The best quarterbacks get paid to stay with the teams that drafted them, and the vast majority of “franchise caliber” quarterbacks now compete in the AFC.

Tua Tagovailoa helped Miami secure their first playoff berth in six seasons, throwing 25 touchdowns with only 8 interceptions, but concussions and other injuries caused the 24-year old to miss five games, including their first round loss to Buffalo.

Here is a partial list of the AFC QBs who would likely be considered “franchise” caliber players-and who are now, or will soon be, paid at or near the top of the scale for NFL signal callers:

Miami- Tagovailoa (still on rookie deal)
New York Jets-Rodgers ($37.5 million)
Buffalo-Allen ($43 million)

Cincinnati-Burrow (still on rookie deal)
Baltimore-Lamar Jackson ($52 million, 2nd biggest contract in NFL by average annual value)
Cleveland-Deshaun Watson ($46 million)

Jacksonville-Trevor Lawrence (still on rookie deal)
Houston-C.J. Stroud (still on rookie deal)
Indianapolis-Anthony Richardson (still on rookie deal)
Tennessee-Ryan Tannehill ($29.5 million)

Los Vegas Raiders-Garoppolo ($24.5 million)
Los Angeles Chargers-Justin Herbert ($52.5 million, largest contract in NFL by average annual value)
Denver-Russell Wilson ($49 million)
Kansas City-Patrick Mahomes ($45 million)

Only two AFC teams, Pittsburgh and New England, have a quarterback situation that would be defined as being less then optimal, as both Kenny Pickett and Mac Jones finished outside the top 25 in the 2022 passer ratings. Everyone else has either recently drafted the player they hope will be their franchise quarterback, as the Texans and Colts did in the 2023 draft, nabbing C.J Stroud (second overall pick) and Anthony Richardson (fourth overall pick) respectively, or they’ve signed their solution at the position long term. In situations where an established QB is still on his rookie deal (Tagovailoa and Burrow), those teams are expected to extend those players at rates that meet or exceed the highest annual values earned by the current leaders (Herbert and Jackson at $52.5 and $52 million).

Three time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald is the highest paid defensive player in the league at just over $33M, but his contract is dwarfed by the salaries of 15 quarterbacks.

Teams know where their salary cap revenue needs to be invested to have maximum impact. For the 2023 season, the top 15 salaried players are all quarterbacks. It isn’t until the 16th highest salary slot, earned by Aaron Donald at $33.167 million, that a non-quarterback appears on the rankings. Donald has been considered the best defensive player in the league for several seasons, yet he’ll make only 60% of what the top quarterbacks are earning this upcoming season.

When the road to the Super Bowl is contemplated, AFC teams will almost certainly have to face a gauntlet of superstar quarterbacks to win the conference title. Last year’s AFC quarterback group included Mahomes, Allen, Burrow, Lawrence, Herbert, Jackson (who was injured and did not play) and Tagovailoa. It would surprise nobody if most of those players were back in the postseason following the 2023 season. The 2022 NFC playoff quarterbacks included Hurts, Brock Purdy, Tom Brady, Kirk Cousins, Dak Prescott, Daniel Jones and Geno Smith. Brady’s presence on that list demands respect, but he has since retired, and won’t be able to reprise his quest for another ring, leaving Tampa Bay’s quarterbacking hopes to the 2018 NFL draft’s top overall pick, Baker Mayfield. Hurts has certainly announced his stardom emphatically in Philadelphia, and Cousins and Prescott have both had excellent NFL careers, though both have faltered in the playoffs on multiple occasions. Purdy and Jones are also young players who are improving, but aside from Hurts, none of those quarterbacks would appear on a list of QB’s capable of winning the Super Bowl before any of the seven from the AFC playoff bracket.

The relative concentration of talent at the quarterback position in the AFC entering the 2023 season may provide an opportunity for an NFC franchise to earn their way to the championship game without having to unseat a stellar QB along the way. That fact alone probably makes the battle to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl a study in roster construction and the investment of salary cap space on impact talent elsewhere on the field. Teams without superstar quarterbacks have won the Super Bowl before, as names like Jeff Hostetler, Trent Dilfer, Joe Flacco and Nick Foles have all earned rings without having had above average careers in the league, but they are the exception that proves the rule: In the 57 previous Super Bowls, the winning team almost always features an elite quarterback. If 2023 is going to follow that same blueprint for success, the odds say that the AFC will likely emerge victorious in Las Vegas this February.

About J.A. Schwartz

J.A. Schwartz is a reporter and columnist for the Martinez Tribune. He's also a licensed professional in the health care field when he's not opining on the world of sports and culture for the benefit of our readers.

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