Aditi Kinkhabwala is one of our NFL on CBS sideline reporters, and will be roaming fields across the league on Sundays this season. She's covered the NFL for more than a dozen years prior to her time at CBS, first at The Wall Street Journal and then for NFL Network, and she's here to answer the questions you throw her way. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or find her here on X.
Deshaun Watson looked pretty ordinary last year. How much better can we really expect him to be?
(Brett from Indiana)
Deshaun Watson is significantly more comfortable - and tangibly more confident - than he was a year ago. And you don't need to take my word for it; he'll tell you the same.
The key here is that Watson is operating in an offense designed for him, that plays to his strengths and that he has full input on. Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski likes to say his favorite plays are the plays his quarterback wants to run, and that's not just lip service. But it's even more than that. The team around Watson is playing to his style too. (Here's an example: A year ago, the Browns line was trained through the first 11 games to block for a quarterback, in Jacoby Brissett, who had a very consistent drop. Then Watson comes in. He can take as much as a 10-step drop. He likes to move around. He's going to hold on to that ball and try and extend a play and that demands a different style of blocking. That's what the Browns line is doing now.) Watson has had time to build exceptional chemistry with his receivers. (Fantasy alert: Look out for Elijah Moore.) And Watson is at ease in demanding more of his teammates. He's been very specific with players like David Njoku, for instance telling the tight end that when he reads a certain defense, and sees a defender playing a certain X leverage, he should expect a throw to Y spot. (I can't give away all the Xs and Ys!)
Add that to all the obvious changes: instead of coming off a long layoff, Watson is coming off having played the final six games of last season. Instead of spending the offseason and preseason sharing snaps, he's been the unequivocal QB1. And, of course, he has the weight of his suspension and the lion's share of his legal troubles behind him.
The tell Sunday will be in how aggressive Watson can be. He very openly told me that a year ago, Stefanski told him not to press, that he should take the five-yard chunks and the underneath stuff when he had it, and just focus on moving the chains. This year, Watson looks ready – and eager – to let the ball fly.
Is the new kickoff rule going to change the game?
(Kelli from North Carolina)
Beginning this week, on kickoffs, any player on the receiving team can signal for a fair catch anywhere between the goal line and the 25-yard line, and the ball will be placed on the 25. The rule was instituted in the name of player safety, and seemingly is meant to disincentivize returning kicks.
I'm not so sure about that. Every special teams coach I spoke to before the rule was adopted despised it, and every one I've spoken to since doesn't seem to think it will mean significantly fewer kicks returned. Returners are returners because they think every return is a chance to make a big play. That doesn't change.
It feels like every year one team goes from worst to first in their division, who's doing that this year?
(Joel from Florida)
You are indeed correct: in 18 of the last 20 NFL seasons, at least one team won its division the year after it finished last – or tied for last. In 2022, it was the young and Doug Pederson-revived Jaguars. The year before, it was the Joe Burrow-led Bengals.
Scan last year's standings of division 'dogs and we have to say the Jets, right? (Overheard on a sideline this preseason: One general manager to another long, long, longtime NFL exec, "Why are we even playing? If you watch Hard Knocks, the Jets are already winning the Super Bowl." Yes, both men laughed but also yes, even the Jets know the hype is a little insane.)
At 7-10, the Jets were at the bottom of the AFC East, but they did have the no. 4 defense in the NFL. And they do return eight of their 11 starters on that side of the ball. Adding future Hall of Famer Aaron Rodgers completely changes the face of the quarterback play that sunk the Jets – and he's consciously changed the demeanor in the building too. Rodgers has been very intentional in his leadership. He's talked about visualizing goals, and manifestation and he's not shying away from talking Super Bowl with his teammates. Is all that – and a boatload of talent – enough to unseat the Bills and make the jump? We'll get a first look Monday.
What's a reasonable expectation for the rookie quarterbacks in their debuts?
(Colin from New Jersey)
This takes me back to a conversation I had with Darrell Bevell, who coached Brett Favre forever, was Russell Wilson and Trevor Lawrence's first coach, and was brought in last year to resuscitate Tua Tagovailoa. Bevell said we (fans, reporters, the football-watching world at large) do a fairly good job remembering that a rookie QB has a transition to make in going from mostly (sometimes exclusively) playing in shotgun in college to under center in the NFL. He said we acknowledge that reading defenses in the NFL is also something new and potentially challenging for rookie QBs. And then he said what we underestimate is how difficult simply commanding a huddle can be.
A rookie QB might be 21 with just 13 college starts under his belt (see Anthony Richardson) and he's suddenly staring across the huddle at 30-year center Ryan Kelly, a three-time Pro Bowler who's seen just about everything there is to see. Can a rookie QB speak with confidence? Can he settle the bench when necessary? Does he talk to his teammates after drives, good or bad? Is he decisive? These are the little things to watch for, and it's part of why Bryce Young's immediate leadership and quiet assertiveness were such a storyline in the spring. It's why the first thing Jalen Pitre wanted to tell me about CJ Stroud this week is that he's "wise beyond his years."
So no, it's not easy for rookie quarterbacks to win their debuts (3-14-1 since 2018). Young's line didn't invoke tons of confidence during the preseason. Stroud is playing behind an offensive line in flux too, and with a largely unheralded wide receiver corps. Richardson is playing without his superstar running back. All of these things affect what these rookie quarterbacks will produce, but if you pay attention to how they carry themselves in between snaps, you could find signs of encouragement regardless of stats.