Five Predictions for the 2023 NFL Season

With the annual Hall of Fame game just a week away, I wanted to step back and take a look at the league as a whole. What can we expect to happen this year? Will past trends re-emerge, or will new ones begin? I thought about these questions and more, and then I came up with my most interesting (in my opinion) five predictions for the 2023 NFL season, following similar topics to those I chose in 2022. Last year’s batch was a mixed bag, with some good (the Bears had the #1 pick!) and bad (Matt Ryan didn’t exactly excel), but it’s time to try again! Let me know what you think in the comments below.

Worst-to-First Candidates

Since the most recent divisional realignment took place in 2002, a team has gone from worst in their division to first the following year in every season except 2014 and 2019. Last season had a few obvious candidates, but it was the team that picked first overall, the Jacksonville Jaguars, who continued the streak. What led to their meteoric rise? A terrible division, a major HC upgrade, and an elite jump from QB Trevor Lawrence were the main factors. My choices this year both follow the QB pathway. New Orleans would have a shot in the seemingly horrific NFC South, but they actually finished third despite a tie at 7-10 with Atlanta by virtue of tiebreakers, so they aren’t eligible. In their absence, I’m going with the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns.

Admittedly, New York is low-hanging fruit. It has been well documented that Robert Saleh’s defense was excellent last year, but poor QB play held them back. Aaron Rodgers is the best signal caller the team has possessed since Joe Namath. He instantly inherits an offense with young talent like WR Garrett Wilson and RB Breece Hall, brings WRs Allen Lazard and Randall Cobb, and makes Gang Green a formidable attack. The defense should still be stout, making NYJ real contenders. Cleveland is a bit tougher to gauge. They reside in a defense with the elite Bengals and tough outs in Baltimore and Pittsburgh. However, you can argue that the Browns have as talented a roster as any of them. Their hopes hinge on a return to form by QB Deshaun Watson. If he plays like he did in his Texans days and the other 3 squads beat each other up, Cleveland COULD squeak away with a division title. I don’t favor them to do so, but it’s more realistic than a lot of other teams’ scenarios.

New Playoff Teams That Missed the Dance in 2022

Another remarkable trend demonstrating parity in the NFL is that each year, 5-7 teams who didn’t make the playoffs in a given season will earn a berth the following year. Who do we expect to exchange playoff spots this time around? Based on what I said in the previous section, I clearly have to put the Jets, Browns, and Saints here. The Jets are legitimate contenders, Cleveland is a bounce-back candidate, and New Orleans simply has to be the best team in the league’s worst division. SOMEBODY has to claim the 4 seed, and the Saints have a good defense and a QB upgrade in Derek Carr. A team with a lot of hype is the Detroit Lions. Their hot finish and near playoff berth in 2022 has their stock riding high, and they have a lot going for them. Minnesota will regress to the mean a bit, Green Bay is entering the Jordan Love era, and Chicago is trash. Finally, I’ve got a sleeper pick in Washington. Though the NFC Least was anything but last year, the Commanders still finished a respectable 8-8-1. I think new QB Sam Howell can surprise people (more on that below), and the defensive line could be the best in football.

Obviously, if I’m slotting 5 teams in the playoffs, I have to kick 5 others out. Tampa Bay won’t repeat in the NFC South. Tom Brady is the only reason they snuck into the playoffs at 8-9 last year, and he’s gone. Cap constraints also forced the Bucs to shed talent. They’re more likely to pick #1 overall than reach the postseason. The Giants are a squad that admirably overachieved with new coach Brian Daboll, but RB Saquon Barkley is threatening to hold out, and I can’t envision QB Daniel Jones taking care of the ball so well for two straight years. Their division is also rough. Seattle seemed to fade a bit down the stretch last year, and Geno Smith might come back to the pack. I consider Baltimore overrated, and QB Lamar Jackson has missed 6 games in each of the past two season. A tougher AFC North could snap their postseason streak. Finally, despite having Justin Herbert under center, I think the LA Chargers might be the odd team out. I’ve got 3 teams going from the AFC East (MIA, BUF, and NYJ), so only one other division can send 2 squads. In this scenario, that’s the north (CIN/CLE). The Bolts have the worst coaching in the NFL, they can’t stop the run, and Denver should be improved under Sean Payton. That could spell doom for the infinitely cursed Chargers.

How Will Teams’ New Veteran QBs Fare?

We only had one major QB trade this offseason (spoiler alert: it was Aaron Rodgers), but several notable veterans signed with new teams. Those players include Derek Carr, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Baker Mayfield (again). A few other teams will see returning players get their first cracks at the starting job, such as Sam Howell and Jordan Love (I’ll deal with some of the rookie QBs in the next section). So how will these new starters do? I’m rather bullish on Rodgers, as you can tell from the last two sections. He’ll have a good supporting cast, and he is far more immune to scheme limitations than Russell Wilson. Only a loaded AFC stands in the way of his Super Bowl dreams.

Carr is being labeled a middling QB, but I think he’s a tier above that. He’s better than average, and with that Saints defense, he might not need to be any better to claim the NFC South. Garoppolo is probably going to give the Raiders what they had with Carr: a quality QB who isn’t at the elite level needed to carry a horrendous defense. The Raiders are the worst team in the AFC West on paper, and Josh McDaniels is not a good head coach, so playoff games aren’t in the team’s future. Mayfield is going to struggle; without Sean McVay, he’ll be more like his Carolina version. Fans are going to be unhappy after being spoiled by Tom Brady for 3 years.

I think Howell is going to impress more than expected. He was my top QB in the 2022 draft class, and his gunslinger style should earn him some fans. With Washington’s defensive front, this team can squeak into a wild card spot. As for Love, I have to apologize. He got stuck in an awful situation, being drafted against the incumbent QB’s will and then having to replace that legendary player. Love was not a first-round talent, and despite GB’s protests, I don’t have high hopes. The Packers are one of the worst teams in the NFC, and they no longer have a QB who can carry them. Love has shown me no indication that he can be a franchise QB, and fans graced with three decades of elite play at the position might not have too much patience.

Rookies That Will Make an Immediate Impact

Rookies are tough to project. Many need time to adapt to the speed and technique of the NFL, whereas others hit the ground running and produce right away. In terms of QBs, all eyes are on Panthers #1 overall pick Bryce Young. He’s the most pro-ready QB, will start week 1, and can’t possibly do worse than Baker Mayfield did last season. CJ Stroud, the #2 pick for Houston, is set up to succeed with a good offensive line and a couple of weapons. Again, his predecessor (Davis Mills) set a low bar, so he’ll likely do well relative to expectations. I think Anthony Richardson is going to have a bumpy ride if he starts (he shouldn’t, but Colts owner Jim Irsay likes rookies to learn on the field), but he was always a long-term project.

At RB, Bijan Robinson is going to be a stud. He was overdrafted by Atlanta solely due to his position, but he’s an elite prospect who will be a 3-down starter right away. The other first-round RB, Jahmyr Gibbs, will be fine, but I think his selection by Detroit was more egregious. He’s not build to handle bulk touches, so his role may be more limited than Robinson’s. Think of an Alvin Kamara-like rookie season as the best-case scenario here (which would still be great). Speaking of Kamara, if he ends up suspended for his offseason assault case, NO’s Kendre Miller could find success. A jack of all trades, Miller’s solid skill set could push him into a starting role in Kamara’s absence, and he’ll earn quality touches regardless.

My favorite WR is LAC’s Quentin Johnston, but his impact won’t be great in year 1 with Mike Williams and Keenan Allen around. The same is true for Seattle’s Jaxon Smith-Njigba given the presence of DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. Instead, look for the TEs to have strong seasons. This was the best rookie TE class in a while, and several players are in line to produce right away. The top 3 players drafted, BUF’s Dalton Kincaid, DET’s Sam LaPorta, and LV’s Michael Mayer, will all hit the ground running for teams that like to use big-bodied pass catchers. Paris Johnson should be the best OL from the 2023 class this year or next, but it’s a shame that he’ll be toiling for a bad Cardinals team.

Defensively, it’s hard to argue against Houston’s Will Anderson having a major impact. He was a dominant edge rusher in the SEC, and that should continue in the NFL. DT Jalen Carter is a hot pick to be a monster as a rookie, but the Eagles line is too deep (in fact, last year’s first-round DT Jordan Davis is better). Keep an eye on TB’s Calijah Kancey, whose explosiveness could make him a poor man’s Aaron Donald. ILBs Jack Campbell (DET) and Drew Sanders (DEN) are undervalued because of their position, but they shouldn’t be. They have run stuffing and coverage skills, and both should be rock-solid 3-down starters for years to come.

In the secondary, two undersized players, Clark Phillips III of Atlanta and Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson of LAC, didn’t test well due to physical limitations but are simply good football players. Protect them in the slot, and they’ll give you a great return with their instincts and scrappy style of play. My two top safeties are both Alabama players, with FS Brian Branch (DET) and SS Jordan Battle (CIN) both going to needy secondaries. The Lions had nobody last year and need a playmaker like Branch, while the Bengals lost both Von Bell and Jessie Bates. These two players have excellent range and instincts, earned by starting for multiple years under Nick Saban. I don’t really have an elite special teamer from this class yet, but K Jake Moody (SF) should do well replacing Robbie Gould.

Race for the #1 Overall Draft Pick

Certain teams’ fans will need to avert their eyes. We haven’t even started the preseason yet, and I’m already talking about teams that are going to be so awful that they might pick first in 2024. Cheer up though! For the first time in 3 years, a potentially generational QB prospect is one lucky (unlucky maybe?) team’s prize! USC’s Caleb Williams is considered a generational prospect much like Trevor Lawrence was in 2021, and my favored team right now to acquire the right to draft him is the Arizona Cardinals. Some may argue that the team would trade the pick due to the presence of Kyler Murray, but I think Murray is the reason WHY they’ll “earn” the pick. First off, he probably won’t play until some time in the middle of the season due to ACL rehab. Second, he hasn’t been a franchise QB despite his misguided contract.

Aside from Murray, the Cardinals are also a team that has lost a boatload of talent. JJ Watt and AJ Green retired. Byron Murphy, DeAndre Hopkins, and Zach Allen went to other teams in free agency. Their new coach, former Eagles DC Jonathan Gannon, may have been exposed a bit by KC in the Super Bowl. Given that Arizona went 4-13 last year and had the 3rd pick (before trading it), this many downgrades across the roster could lead to an even worse result. The Colts, Buccaneers, and Packers also look like they could be terrible, but the former two teams play in awful divisions where they could steal wins, and the latter has just a bit more talent than the rest. Those teams all have a chance, but as of now, the Cardinals are my “favorites” to make the first selection in next April’s draft.

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