The 2023 NFL season has produced, in many ways, the same offseason transition as the 2022 campaign.
The Kansas City Chiefs are celebrating another Super Bowl championship, the Chicago Bears once again own the draft’s No. 1 overall pick and the league’s offseason agenda will feature some familiar issues: officiating, the kickoff, the hip-drop tackle and the potential for significant movement from veteran quarterbacks.
The Bears traded the top pick last year and now must decide whether to stay put and draft a quarterback — presumably USC’s Caleb Williams — or trade out again and recommit to incumbent Justin Fields. Meanwhile, much like Aaron Rodgers in 2022, the Minnesota Vikings‘ Kirk Cousins holds the keys to a domino effect of quarterback decisions.
The league’s competition committee is already at work looking for solutions that eluded their 2022 efforts. Can they find a way to ban the hip-drop tackle? Is there a better way to avoid concussions on kickoffs than simply limit the opportunity for returns? And are there any substantive ways to improve the league’s officiating in the short and long terms?
There isn’t much time for a post-Super Bowl breath. The NFL combine starts in two weeks. Let’s take a closer look, starting with a review of the NFL’s key dates over the next six months.
Feb. 20: First day to designate franchise and transition tags
Feb. 27-March 4: Scouting combine in Indianapolis
March 5 (4 p.m. ET): Franchise/transition tag deadline
March 11-13: Negotiating period for pending unrestricted free agents
March 14 (4 p.m. ET): Free agent deals can be signed, trades can be officially consummated, June 1 cuts can be designated and the deadline for qualifying offers to restricted free agents.
March 24-27: Annual league meeting in Orlando, Florida
April 1: Teams with new head coaches can begin offseason conditioning programs
April 15: Remaining teams can begin offseason conditioning programs
April 19: Deadline for restricted free agents to sign offer sheets
April 25-27: NFL draft in Detroit
May 2: Deadline for teams to pick up fifth-year options for 2021 draft class
May 3-6 or May 10-13: Teams can stage rookie minicamps
May/June: Teams can stage OTAs and mandatory minicamp
Late July: Training camps open
Evaluate officiating leadership and technology
One of the first questions commissioner Roger Goodell fielded at his annual Super Bowl news conference was on officiating, as it typically is. He offered his usual plaudits, saying NFL officials are “superior,” but he also said, “we have to continue to try to get better.” And that effort could start at the top.
Since 2020, the NFL officiating department has been led by former referee Walt Anderson, who assumed control after originally being hired in a training and development role. He will turn 72 in September, and the league has been doing background work for two seasons in the event he retires. But unless the NFL makes some structural and financial changes to the department, it could wind up in the same spot that led to Anderson’s original ascension: With a lack of qualified candidates who want the job.
The league quietly hired two new officiating vice presidents — George Stewart (training/development) and Jon Berger (replay) — in the past year. But whether Anderson will give way to a new hire for his job remains uncertain.
Meanwhile, Goodell offered another clue about a potential path forward, saying: “We have to work to use technology where we can to try to improve their performance. Let them use technology to make sure they get the right answer.”
In other words, the NFL will consider additional ways to either enhance its video assist program — which allows on-site replay officials to consult on a specific menu of plays for quick reversals or confirmations — or perhaps to make more plays eligible for official review. Owners prefer that approach over a formal “sky judge,” who would sit in the press box and have the same authority as an on-field official to throw flags or recommend they be picked up. Owners prefer to limit decisions that affect games to on-field officials as much as possible.
Revamp the kickoff
Multiple NFL officials, including Goodell, are promising to revamp the kickoff to ensure it is not lost forever. That will require a significant overhaul of the current rules after applying a Band-Aid in 2023 that ensured a sharp drop in the number of returns.
Only 21.8% of kickoffs were returned and, thanks to a one-year rule that spotted fair catches at the 25-yard line, nearly three-fourths of kickoffs went for touchbacks. There were 92 fair catches. Those numbers were unprecedented in league history, but the NFL did succeed in lowering concussions on kickoffs to eight from 20 in 2022. League officials stressed that the drop was only due to the reduction in returns and that the rate of concussions per return did not change.
Goodell said in a news conference ahead of Super Bowl LVIII that “we need to innovate” the kickoff and suggested it would be one of the league’s top priorities this spring. The league has studied the XFL’s approach, used in 2020 and 2023, and could adopt it as early as the 2024 season.
In that version of the kickoff, everyone but the kicker and returner are lined up across from each other at the receiving team’s 35- and 30-yard lines, and can’t move until the returner secures the ball or after three seconds pass when it hits the ground.
That design all but eliminates high-impact collisions and has led to return rates of more than 90% over two seasons. There are several obstacles to the NFL incorporating it, most notably the historic reticence of owners to adopt significant aesthetic changes to the game. It’s also worth noting that the United Football League — a merged league of XFL and USFL teams — is expected to use a kickoff that more closely resembles the NFL’s rule, with the notable exception of kicking off from the 20-yard line to essentially eliminate touchbacks.
Plan international build-out
NFL owners voted in December to increase the maximum amount of international games it plays per season from four to eight for the 2025 season. That plan coincides with an expansion into new countries for those games. The NFL has already announced a 2024 game in Brazil, to be hosted by the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 1, and another game in Spain during the 2025 season.
The upshot is that the NFL is on the verge of sending half its teams to play an international game each season, a big shift from an occasional season interruption to one that is embedded in the fabric of every year. It’s also the logical stepping stone to eventually having an international game every week of the season, a structure that seems more realistic than relocating (or expanding) a single franchise overseas.
Cousins is arguably the biggest single domino in determining the direction of the 2024 free agent market. His contract with the Minnesota Vikings is scheduled to void on March 13, making him ineligible for the franchise tag. Even as he approaches his 36th birthday and is rehabilitating a torn right Achilles tendon, Cousins would be the top passer available on the market.
He has said he hopes to finish his career in Minnesota, and the team’s decision-makers have said they will try to re-sign him. He won’t be cheap, however, and the negotiations will likely come down to how many fully guaranteed years the Vikings are willing to give him. If he hits the market, multiple teams could wind up bidding for his services.
ESPN’s Matt Bowen ranked Cousins as the NFL’s No. 3 free agent. Other potentially available quarterbacks include Baker Mayfield, Ryan Tannehill and Russell Wilson, if he and the Denver Broncos part ways as expected.
Free agency could also feature a group of high-end defensive players: defensive tackles Chris Jones, Justin Madubuike and Christian Wilkins; along with edge rushers Josh Allen, Brian Burns and Danielle Hunter.
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Define (and maybe ban) hip-drop tackles
The NFL has been studying a rise in a particular tackling style that arose from restrictions to hitting players in the head and neck area. In short, defenders grab ball carriers and use their body weight to pull down the opponent, sometimes by leaving their feet. The ball carrier’s legs can twist awkwardly from the force, causing injuries from high ankle sprains to broken bones.
The rate of injuries on such tackles over the past few seasons is 25 times the rate of a typical tackle, according to the league. “It is an unforgiving behavior and one that we need to try to define and get out of the game,” said Jeff Miller, the NFL’s executive vice president of communications, public affairs and policy.
Defining the play in a way that can be officiated, and thus penalized, could prove difficult. But it’s worth noting the NFL has other health and safety rules on the books that are largely unenforced during games, most notably the “helmet rule” established in 2018 to prohibit players from lowering their heads while contacting opponents. That rule is rarely penalized, and when it is, NFL officials do not specify it, but results in hundreds of postgame warning letters and fines per season.
Another potential rule change the NFL will consider: Eliminating the mandatory touchback after a fumble into (and out of) the end zone, something the XFL and the USFL both experimenting with.
Await the Bears’ decision atop the 2024 draft
The Chicago Bears have the No. 1 overall pick in the draft for the second consecutive year. The extended NFL world is waiting to see if they will use it on a franchise quarterback — and thus move on from Justin Fields — or repeat their 2023 decision and trade down.
Their decision presumably will dictate the future home of USC quarterback Caleb Williams, and eventually the two other top passers in the draft: North Carolina’s Drake Maye and LSU’s Jayden Daniels. It could also impact where Ohio State receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. lands.
Fields has made incremental improvement over three seasons with the Bears, but over that period he still ranks No. 28 in QBR among qualified passers. He’s now eligible for a contract extension, and the Bears’ days of having him locked into the low salaries of a rookie contract are numbered. Trading him, drafting Williams and locking into another rookie contract would extend one of the most valuable roster advantages in the NFL.
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Accelerate position-specific helmets
As part of the NFL’s program to encourage private-industry innovation, three position groups had the option to use helmets in 2023 that were designed to protect against the type of injurious contact they typically encounter. They have existed for offensive and defensive linemen since 2021, providing extra support for the helmet-to-helmet contact they receive just after the snap. A quarterback model was introduced last season, focused on adding protection to the back of the head when it hits the ground.
There are expected to be as many as eight different helmet models for other positions in 2024, NFL officials said. Future studies will focus on receivers, cornerbacks and safeties.
Position-specific helmets are not game-changers in the violent sport, but along with the use of Guardian Cap helmet coverings and other mitigation tools, they help chip away at the larger problem of brain injuries in the NFL.
Study the drop in scoring
The NFL closely monitors its offensive numbers, and in recent decades, owners haven’t hesitated to tweak rules in ways that lock in a certain level of scoring. So it’s worth noting that points and yards per game have dropped in each of the past three seasons, a time period that is longer than a blip and one that will prompt a reaction at some point if the numbers don’t level off organically.
To be fair, the league’s historical highs came during the COVID-affected 2020 season, in part because the league’s on-field officials executed a sharp drop in penalties. But the drop since then has been precipitous and hasn’t simply returned to pre-2020 numbers.
The average game in 2023 had a combined 43.5 points and 663.2 yards, down 12% and 7.8% since 2020, respectively. Points per game were at their second-lowest since 2009, while yards per game were at a 15-year low. And even with teams increasing their rate of fourth-down attempts, punts per game have increased in each of the past three seasons.
It’s not yet clear whether the NFL will be sufficiently motivated to take action this offseason, but the trendlines are clear.