NFL offseason priorities for 2023: Possible rules changes, safety reforms

ByKevin Seifert ESPN logo
Tuesday, February 14, 2023

The offseason hits fast in the NFL. One moment, the entire world is gathered to watch the Super Bowl, its accompanying commercials and the halftime presentation. The next day, we're already on to the way-too-early power rankings.

The good news is that there will be more football this spring and summer than we've ever experienced. It just won't be of the NFL variety. Between the XFL and the USFL, professional football games will air on national television every weekend between now and early July.

While those leagues battle for the attention of sports fans, the NFL will move through its usual array of offseason tentpole events, rule changes and off-field business. We're less than two weeks from the start of franchise tag season, which is followed quickly by the scouting combine and free agency.

These are the NFL's key dates ahead:

  • Feb. 21: First day to designate franchise and transition tags (Franchise numbers)
  • Feb. 28-March 6: Scouting combine (Indianapolis)
  • March 7: Franchise/transition tag deadline
  • March 7: College pro days begin
  • March 13-15: Negotiating period for pending unrestricted free agents
  • March 15 (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 26-29: Annual league meeting (Phoenix)
  • April 3: Teams with new head coaches can begin offseason conditioning programs
  • April 17: Remainder of teams can begin offseason conditioning programs
  • April 21: Deadline for restricted free agents to sign offer sheets
  • April 27-29: NFL draft in Kansas City, Missouri
  • May 1: Deadline for teams to pick up fifth-year options for 2020 draft class
  • May 5-8 or 12-15: Teams can stage rookie minicamps
  • May/June: Teams can stage OTAs and mandatory minicamps
  • Late July: Training camps open

Let's take a closer look at some of the most important issues and questions the NFL and its teams could address before the start of training camp this summer.

Await Aaron Rodgers' decision

The Green Bay Packers quarterback, who turned 39 in December, has not said whether he wants to play in 2023 and, if he does, whether he would entertain a trade to another team. The Packers are as prepared as they can be for his departure, having put 2020 first-round pick Jordan Love through the same three-year apprenticeship that Rodgers once served under Brett Favre.

Either way, Rodgers' decision will be the biggest turning point of what is likely to be a quieter quarterback carousel than we saw in 2022. Derek Carr and Jimmy Garoppolo are next on the list of veterans who will be available.

Three key pending free agents -- Lamar Jackson (Baltimore Ravens), Geno Smith (Seattle Seahawks) and Daniel Jones (New York Giants) all appear unlikely to hit the free agent market, because of either the franchise tag or a new contract.

The remainder of the 2023 free agent class does not appear strong at the moment. ESPN's Matt Bowenranked the top 50 free agents last month, many of whom won't ultimately hit the market because they will sign new contracts with their current teams first.

Follow up on what happened to Damar Hamlin

The NFL has celebrated the life-saving work by dozens of medical officials after the Buffalo Bills defensive back's on-field collapse in Week 17 during the Bills-Bengals game, while highlighting the critical care plan it has developed over the past decade. Hamlin has made multiple public appearances as he continues his recovery, including during Super Bowl week in Arizona. But there is an important detail missing from the public discussion of his cardiac arrest: why it happened.

There can and should be sensitivity applied to that question; the full answer might reside within a level of medical detail that Hamlin prefers to keep private. In an interview that aired Monday, Hamlin told "Good Morning America" the cause of his collapse is "something I want to stay away from." Later, he added that it is "something we're still processing and still talking through with my doctors just to see what everything was."

NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills has acknowledged the possibility of commotio cordis, a rare disruption of the heart's rhythm caused by a precisely timed blow to the chest. But ultimately doctors diagnose commotio cordis through a process of ruling out other causes, and, as Hamlin indicated, that assessment is continuing.

The answer is relevant well beyond any intrusion of privacy. Hamlin collapsed seconds after making a routine tackle. Did that routine tackle contribute to his cardiac arrest, or was it coincidental to another cause? If it did play a role, even through a one-in-a-million set of circumstances, is there a way to lower the chances of it happening to another player? The NFL and NFL Players Association have certainly been aggressive in changing, say, their concussion protocols based on new information.

At its root, football requires an assumption of risk from all players. But the NFL and the NFLPA have an obligation to protect players' health whenever possible, for their own sake and for the downstream effects in the football ecosystem. The NFL and NFLPA will continue to work to get to the bottom of what happened to Hamlin. At some point this offseason, they should apply that knowledge to their health and safety plan in a way that is publicly visible to maximize its impact.

Decide whether improving officiating is a priority

Longtime league observers shouldn't be surprised by the tenor surrounding NFL officiating. As in many previous seasons, some high-profile mistakes led to public outrage. Common misconceptions about rules led to further confusion and anger. And by the end of the season, there was a drumbeat for the league to urgently address the situation.

But the league office -- specifically, commissioner Roger Goodell -- simply doesn't see it that way. Goodell's full-throated defense of officiating last week in his Super Bowl news conference -- "I don't think it's ever been better," he said -- reflected his long-held belief that officiating mistakes and inconsistencies are unavoidable.That viewpoint will assuredly remain the same even after a defensive holding flag played a significant role in the Kansas City Chiefs' winning drive in the Super Bowl.

There is a big gap between accepting the inevitability of some mistakes and ignoring avenues for improvement, a sentiment many teams are expressing behind the scenes, according to the reporting of ESPN's Adam Schefter. As ESPN officiating analyst John Parry has pointed out, the league's training and development process faded notably over the past decade. The league hired retired referee Walt Anderson in 2020 to revive it, in part because officials negotiated a new training-based position in their most recent collective bargaining agreement, but Anderson has since shifted to a broader role in overseeing the entire department.

It would probably require multiple team owners to cajole Goodell into addressing something like officiating training in a substantive way. Given the other issues on the NFL's offseason list, that doesn't seem likely.

Sort out the top of the draft

The Chicago Bears secured the No. 1 pick of the 2023 draft after shelving starting quarterback Justin Fields for a Week 18 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, combined with a Week 18 win by the Houston Texans. Now the Bears are in an enviable position: They can draft a quarterback if they want to move on from Fields or, much more likely, trade down and use the return to jump-start their rebuilding process.

The Texans, who have the No. 2 pick, are one of perhaps a dozen teams who can reasonably be projected into the quarterback draft market -- a list that most prominently includes the Indianapolis Colts, Las Vegas Raiders, Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. currently projects four quarterbacks as first-round material: Ohio State's C.J. Stroud, Alabama's Bryce Young, Kentucky's Will Levis and Florida's Anthony Richardson.

If the Bears don't trade down, Kiper projects them to take Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter at No. 1.

Dismiss neutral-site championship games

Amid the logistical scramble after the cancellation of the Bengals-Bills game, which left the Bills with fewer games to catch the Chiefs for the AFC's No. 1 overall seed, the NFL decided that a potential Bills-Chiefs AFC Championship Game would be held on a neutral field. Bills and Chiefs season-ticket holders reserved 50,000 tickets for that potential game on the first day they were available, prompting the NFL to issue a release noting the "extraordinary demand."

That news release made it reasonable to wonder whether the NFL was laying the groundwork for a future shift of all championship games to neutral fields, an idea that would replicate the pageantry of the college football playoffs. Since then, however, there hasn't been a single prominent official to speak in favor of such a move in private or public. Several powerful owners, including the Pittsburgh Steelers' Art Rooney, have rejected it publicly. "I hate the idea," Rooney said last month on 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh. He went on to predict it would not get enough votes if it were put in front of the league's full ownership.

As with any business, owners make decisions based on the potential for increased revenue. It's not immediately clear how a neutral-site championship game would increase league revenues enough to overcome the inevitable pushback from teams and fans. As of now, dismissing the idea is an easy and popular public stance for owners.

Resolve Lamar Jackson's status

Jackson played the 2022 season under the $23.1 million fifth-year option of his rookie contract, making him eligible for free agency next month if the Ravens don't apply the franchise tag, sign him or trade him before then. And although it is almost impossible to imagine the Ravens simply letting him walk into free agency, there is a fair bit of uncertainty about the avenue they'll take to retain him.

The franchise tag seems to be the most likely scenario, especially after Jackson was unable to finish the past two seasons because of injuries. Overall, he has missed 10 of the Ravens' past 22 games, including in the playoffs. And according to ESPN's Chris Mortensen, Jackson rejected a six-year offer worth up to $290 million last summer. That deal included $133 million in full guarantees, but it was well short of the $230 million in full guarantees the Cleveland Browns gave to Deshaun Watson in March 2022.

The Ravens should be highly motivated to make a deal with a 26-year-old former MVP, but Jackson's intentions are more difficult to project. He does not work with a conventional agent, and a series of cryptic social media posts have added more intrigue than typically surrounds these types of high-profile negotiations.

Address third-QB rule

At the very least, the NFL will remind teams there is nothing stopping them from having three quarterbacks active and available on game day. The brief history, in the wake of injuries to both of the San Francisco 49ers' active quarterbacks during the NFC Championship Game: From 1991 to 2010, NFL teams could designate a third quarterback to be in uniform for use if the other two quarterbacks became unavailable. That quarterback would not count against the team's 45-player game-day roster.

In 2011, the NFL and NFLPA negotiated away the rule and instead simply expanded the game-day active roster to 46 players. In 2020, that number expanded to 48. Most teams have chosen not to use their extra spots on a quarterback, given the relatively unlikely series of events that would require a third one, but occasionally that decision backfires.

The 49ers are among the teams that want the rule reinstated. "We were scared to death when that rule ended," coach Kyle Shanahan said. "But you kind of forget about it, since you don't see anyone have to go through it, but then you get reminded of how quickly the football game is over once that happens."

The NFL could consider an amended rule that adds a third quarterback for postseason games only to avoid the aesthetic mess of staging such a high-profile game without a fully functional quarterback, a point made recently by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

Lower QB and special teams injury rates

The NFL acknowledged that concussions in regular-season games rose 18% in 2022 compared with 2021 and 14% over the previous three-year average. About 60% of that increase could be traced to quarterbacks or special teams play, according to NFL executive vice president Jeff Miller, and that subset will comprise much of the league's focus this spring.

An NFL-record 66 quarterbacks made at least one start during the 2022 regular season. It's possible the NFL could change its enforcement of roughing the passer after flags for that foul dropped 32% in 2022 from 2021. But that reduction was based on an effort to avoid flags for incidental contact that wouldn't cause injuries in the first place. A more likely long-term avenue is a yearslong push for quarterback-specific helmets to better protect their heads when they hit the ground.

Sills made what he called a "significant call to action" about the health risks of special teams, especially on punts, last spring. The competition committee decided against any rule changes after several coaches voiced strong opposition. But the high numbers Sills cited after the 2021 season have continued. About one of five concussions occur on special teams, despite the relatively small number of special teams plays overall. And the rates for all injuries on punts and kickoffs are 1 to two times greater than on other plays from scrimmage, per league data.

Get Commanders settled

It's possible the NFL is entering its final months with Washington Commanders owner Dan Snyder, who hired Bank of America in November to explore a full or partial sale of the franchise. Among the list of issues Snyder is facing is a yearlong investigation into new allegations of workplace misconduct and on-the-record evidence that at least one team owner might be ready for him to move on.

The next move is up to Snyder. Will Bank of America deliver him a prospective new owner at a purchase price he's willing to accept? If not, would NFL owners move to the unprecedented space of trying to force him out? Everyone involved hopes it doesn't come to that. Based on the timetable of recent franchise sales, Snyder should be close to getting the information he needs to make an initial decision.

Expand use of Guardian Caps

They look odd and some players have said they feel uncomfortable, but the introduction of the Guardian Cap device during 2022 training camp corresponded with a significant reduction in preseason concussion numbers compared with previous years. Whether or not the numbers were coincidental, the NFL's health and safety group wants to expand use of the caps in 2023.

Tight ends, linebackers and linemen on both sides of the ball were required to wear Guardian Caps for every preseason practice from the start of training camp until the second preseason game. According to NFL data, concussions for players at those positions dropped 52% compared with the previous three-year average. According to Sills, half of the concussions that did occur to players at those positions during preseason practices were the result of hits to face masks, which are not protected by Guardian Caps. Overall, preseason concussions at all positions dropped to an eight-year low.

Anecdotally, Guardian Caps' soft padding also saved several quarterbacks from injuries when their hands or fingers hit another player's helmet on the follow-through after passing. Details are still being discussed, but Guardian Caps could be mandated for a longer duration of training camp and/or for additional positions.

Examine tackling techniques

When asked during his Super Bowl news conference about where the NFL could improve, Goodell cited two avenues: lowering injury rates on special teams and eliminating tackling techniques that could lead to injuries.

One of those techniques, known as the "hip drop," contributed to a high ankle sprain suffered by Cowboys tailback Tony Pollard during the divisional playoff round.

The NFL often tries to combat what it views as dangerous player behavior through new rules. But its 2018 introduction of the "helmet rule," which prohibited players from lowering their helmets to initiate contact with an opponent, demonstrated how difficult rules can be to officiate and therefore enforce. Defensive players already have significant restrictions on where and how they can legally hit opponents to make a tackle. But if nothing else, Goodell's unprompted mention of the issue portends significant offseason discussion.

Get on same page with turf and grass fields

The NFL acknowledged a counterintuitive reality in November: The recent rate of noncontact injuries to the knee, ankle and foot is roughly the same on natural and artificial playing surfaces. Miller, the NFL's executive vice president, said that revelation had changed the scope of a discussion that has otherwise assumed that all grass fields are better than all turf fields.

"What we're trying to do is decrease injuries on both," Miller said.

Players pushed back hard on that conclusion, even though the data was developed through a joint NFL-NFLPA surfaces committee. NFLPA president J.C. Tretter noted that a subset of artificial turf, known as "slit film" fields, have produced higher injury rates. And many other players insisted that, regardless of data, their bodies feel better after games on grass.

Cooler heads from both sides know that semantic fights will impede actual progress. There are plenty of reasonable discussions underway behind the scenes, including an effort to better match shoe styles with the various playing surfaces as well as developing more robust pregame field inspections.

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