2023 NFL Season Preview

“Success isn’t owned, it’s leased. And rent is due every day.” — J.J. Watt Lately, the Chiefs have taken out a long-term lease, with 2 Lombardi Trophies & reaching 5 straight AFC Championship games. But NFL stands for Not For Long and the rest of the league are out to hit the jackpot in Vegas.

David Anderson, Head of Trading

David Anderson, Head of Trading

6 months ago

As recently as 10 years ago, the NFL’s stance on gambling was pretty clear: make no reference to it and pretend no one is betting on our games. On 14 May 2018, PASPA (the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act) was repealed, paving the way for individual US states to legalise sports betting. In 2020, the Raiders franchise moved to Las Vegas, as the NFL took its most significant step to recognising sports betting, allowing one of its most storied teams to move to Sin City, for decades the place that Americans would visit to get their gambling fix. In February, the NFL will up the ante even further by bringing its showpiece, Super Bowl LVIII to Las Vegas — what a transformation in the space of a few years.

Generally, building a new state-of-the-art stadium makes an NFL team likely to get to host the big game. Opened in 2020, Allegiant Stadium has hosted the past two Pro Bowls — the NFL’s all-star game — but getting the right to host Super Sunday was what the Raiders had been building towards when they broke ground on the 71,000+ capacity stadium, back in 2017.

Super Bowl LVII saw the Kansas City Chiefs clip the Philadelphia Eagles’ wings, 38-35 in a high-scoring and highly entertaining spectacle. For the Chiefs, it was a third Super Bowl triumph, and their second Lombardi Trophy in four years. 207 days later the Chiefs will kick off the 2023 season by hosting the Detroit Lions, as the road to Vegas begins.

The NFL’s off-season has seen one of its most famous faces, Quarterback Aaron Rodgers swap Green Bay for Broadway, becoming a New York Jet. The 2023 NFL Draft also saw quarterbacks take centre stage with three of the first four picks used on passers, and a record 12 QBs came off the board in the first five rounds.

London calling

The NFL increased the number of teams included in the playoffs from 12 to 14, with effect from 2020, and a year later the number of Regular Season games that each team plays was upped from 16 to 17. Not only is the road to the Super Bowl a longer one than in the past, but for many teams, it will take a more scenic route. London will host three NFL regular season games again this season — one at Wembley and two at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, keeping hopes alive that London may one day be home to an NFL franchise. But as fans of the other type of Football know only too well, you never write off the Germans. Having not hosted a Regular Season game until last year, Germany will host two matches this season — at the Frankfurt Stadium — including a chance for fans to see the Super Bowl champion Chiefs in action.

This will be the 58th NFL season of the Super Bowl era, though the term was only introduced in the third season of the modern NFL, when the New York Jets were crowned champions. Now, as then, the champions get to lift the Lombardi Trophy, named after the legendary Head Coach who brought considerable success to the NFL’s smallest team by catchment area, the Green Bay Packers, during the 1960s.

The Miami Dolphins remains the only team in NFL history to have completed a Perfect Season, by winning every regular season game and going on to win the Super Bowl. When the 1972 Dolphins accomplished this feat, the season was comprised of only 14 regular season games. The 2007 New England Patriots went 16-0 but fell at the final hurdle when they lost Super Bowl XLII to the New York Giants.

For those teams at the other end of the spectrum, the NFL does what it can to give the previous season’s underachievers a helping hand. NFL franchises hold an annual draft at which the cream of College Football talent is on offer. Teams are allocated their spot in each round of the draft in reverse order of their records/playoff finishing position from the previous season, with the poorest team selecting first and the reigning Super Bowl champion picking last — though teams are permitted to trade draft choices for other picks, players, or both.

Caught in the draft

Kansas City played host to the 2023 NFL Draft. As the most highly-priced commodity in the NFL, it’s unsurprising that quarterbacks were among the first players off the board. Having obtained the first overall pick in the draft from Chicago, Carolina selected Alabama’s Bryce Young. The Houston Texans picked Ohio State’s triggerman, C. J. Stroud, and traded up to add Young’s college teammate —Defensive End Will Anderson — with the third pick.

As well as strengthening through the draft, NFL teams can fortify their rosters through the signing of free agent players, or via trades. Teams are somewhat wary of committing to blockbuster trades, a fear that can be traced back to the Herschel Walker trade of 1989. Then, the Minnesota Vikings appeared on the cusp of becoming Super Bowl champions and saw the game’s pre-eminent running back as the missing piece in their championship jigsaw. They mortgaged their future to sign the former Georgia Bulldog sending the Dallas Cowboys five players and six future draft picks as compensation. Walker never really hit his stride in the Twin Cities, while Dallas used the draft collateral to select several cornerstones of a dynasty that won three Super Bowls in four seasons. The Vikings are still seeking their first Super Bowl crown.

Each team must comply with the league’s salary cap and, while it might seem that an annual wage bill of $224.8M is very generous, the salaries commanded by the league’s top performers and the need to fill out a roster of 53 players means that teams are constantly battling to balance the books. The cap has been instituted to help ensure one of the NFL’s watchwords: parity. On any given Sunday — or Thursday, Saturday, or Monday in the modern NFL — any team should be capable of defeating any other on the (level playing) field. To some extent, the league has achieved its aim, given that 20 franchises have recorded at least one Super Bowl win.

The NFL has been divided into two Conferences since the merger of the AFL and NFL in 1970. Since 2002, the league has comprised 32 franchises, and both the AFC and NFC Conferences have been divided into four divisions, each containing four teams. We begin our look at each of these divisions with the AFC East, home to the Buffalo Bills — who looked to be a Super Bowl frontrunner for much of last year — and the New York Jets, now led by Aaron Rodgers.

AFC East
Outstanding Bills

The Bills’ 2022 season was put into perspective by the events of 3rd January 2022. Safety Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest during their Monday Night Football match in Cincinnati. For days he remained in a critical condition but thankfully he recovered and could even play this season. Having compiled a 47-18 regular season record over the past four years, it’s been a source of frustration for the men from western New York that they haven’t made the Super Bowl in that timespan. For the second consecutive season, the Bills were eliminated in the divisional playoffs, this time at the hands of the Cincinnati Bengals.

Each NFL franchise must comply with an annual salary cap. Though there is a maximum spend, there is no statutory minimum. With some player contracts including guaranteed money, if a team cuts or trades a player, they can still end up footing the bill for a portion of his salary. A team’s active salary cap gives a good sense of where they are in terms of building/rebuilding. The active cap is total spend minus dead money — dollars being paid to players who now ply their trade elsewhere. Buffalo’s active salary cap is estimated at $214.6M, one of the highest in the league — showing a team in win-now mode.

A helpful metric for quantifying a team’s performances beyond simple wins and losses is Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings. These Defense-adjusted Value Over Average numbers attempt to break down every play to provide comparative ratings and last year’s raw numbers put Buffalo top of the league with a DVOA of 35.0%.

Last season, Quarterback Josh Allen wasn’t the same force after a UCL elbow injury in Week 9, averaging 86 fewer passing yards per game from that point on. They then lost Linebacker Von Miller for the rest of the season in Week 12.

Buffalo lost experienced Guard Rodger Saffold and Linebacker Tremaine Edmunds in the off-season — Edmunds remains an elite performer, who’ll be particularly missed. The four-time Super Bowl runners-up drafted Tight End Dalton Kincaid in the first round of the draft — though rookie TEs don’t tend to be very impactful in year one.

The men from western New York have star Quarterback Josh Allen under center. Last season, Allen became only the sixth man in NFL history to post consecutive 4,000+ passing yards and at least 35 TDs in a season. The other names on that list read like a Mount Rushmore of NFL passers — Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, Peyton Manning, and Drew Brees. The two-time Pro Bowler will be throwing the Football to Wide Receiver Stefon Diggs, a Second-team All-Pro in 2022.

Despite Edmunds’ departure, the team’s strength is its Defense with elite players like Linebackers Von Miller— who will miss the start of the season as he rehabs after a torn ACL — and Matt Milano, who received long-overdue All-Pro recognition last year. The Secondary features shutdown Corner Tre’Davious White — twice voted to the Pro Bowl — and arguably the league’s best Safety pairing: Jordan Poyer — who was selected for his first Pro Bowl in 2022 — and Micah Hyde.

A team with no real weakness, perhaps their Offensive Line is the one unit devoid of real star quality.

There is a strong probability that after drafting Kincaid, the 2023 Bills will utilise more 12 personnel on Offense in 2023 — with two tight ends, two wide receivers, and one running back.

Coach Sean McDermott has a lot of credit in the bank after four straight playoff appearances and a lifetime record of 66–40 (62.3%). But the question remains as to whether he and his charges can deliver the first Lombardi trophy in franchise history.

The Bills face a tough slate of games from November onwards as among their nine foes are Cincinnati, NY Jets, both Super Bowl combatants, — Kansas City and Philadelphia back-to-back — Dallas, LA Chargers, and Miami. Like all the AFC teams this season, Buffalo has nine home games and eight on the road, but they lose that advantage, as one “home” fixture is against Jacksonville in London.

With one of the league’s best rosters and copious amounts of postseason experience, expectations are high in Buffalo. The Bills are long overdue.

Rodgers and hammer time at the Met?

On 24th April the league’s worst-kept secret was a secret no longer. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers had been traded from Green Bay to the New York Jets. In January, immediately after a 7-10 campaign, the Jets’ hopes for the following season were modest. With the four-time NFL MVP under center, expectations in the Big Apple are now sky-high. Just as well, as the Jets own the league’s longest streak without postseason play which runs to 12 seasons, five more than any other team.

Last season, the J-E-T-S found themselves right in playoff contention when they were 7-4, but they lost six straight games to end the season and didn’t score a touchdown in three of them, as that playoff drought continued. The men from MetLife Stadium failed to reach double figures in five games — no other team had more than three. But their young Defense was excellent, rocketing from 32nd in the league to 4th, and that was not down to the smoke and mirrors of creating a high number of turnovers. In fact, they were one of only four Defensive units to average less than one takeaway per game.

One method for assessing how well teams really played in the previous campaign is Pythagorean Wins. Adapted from Baseball, this metric uses a team’s Points Differential to decipher how many games they should have won in the previous year. This statistic suggests that the Jets should have won slightly more matches — 8.31 Pythagorean Wins — compared to their 7-10 record.

The signing of 39-year-old Rodgers grabbed all the headlines but the Jets had plenty of departures and arrivals in the off-season. Four wide receivers left but Rodgers will be throwing to some familiar faces, after being reunited with Allen Lazard and Randall Cobb, and they also added the speedy ex-Chief Mecole Hardman. Their attempts to bolster their secondary looked like they might have to be aborted, when free agent signing, Chuck Clark suffered an injury that will put him out for the year. But, while Adrian Amos may not be the ex-Packer that will garner all the headlines, he will bolster their defensive backfield. Their offensive backfield also received an upgrade in the form of Dalvin Cook, who has made the Pro Bowl in each of the past four seasons.

While Rodgers is the team’s only elite player on the offensive side, the men from MetLife Stadium boast a defense with an elite player at all three levels. Defensive Tackle Quinnen Williams was named First-Team All-Pro in 2022. Behind him, C.J. Mosley was Second-team All-Pro last year, and the wonderfully named Sauce Gardner fulfilled his high level of promise starting from day one at Cornerback. Such was his impact that he was Pro Football Focus’ top-ranked Cornerback in 2022.

Like the Bills, there isn’t a glaring weakness, but the Jets’ O-Line lacks elite quality. Former first-round pick Mekhi Becton was drafted to put this right, but the Right Tackle has only played 48 snaps in two years.

The Jets were the subject of this year’s Hard Knocks series — a behind-the-scenes look at the NFL, which usually captures some pre-season turbulence. However, it seems that the players have bought into what third-year Head Coach Robert Saleh is selling. With an 11–23 (32.4%) record in his first two seasons in charge, the former 49ers’ defensive coordinator knows a winning season in 2023 is a must.

Like all the teams in the above-average AFC East, a tough schedule means there will be no chance for the Jets to be on autopilot, and there is a possibility of early turbulence, given that their first six games include Buffalo, at Dallas, Kansas City, and Philadelphia.

The move from Green Bay to Broadway, may not be without issues for Rodgers, who will have to adapt to a new offensive scheme, as he seeks to pilot the Jets back to the playoffs. Rodgers wasn’t at his best last year but even a repeat performance will be an upgrade from the quarterbacking firm of Wilson, Flacco, and White. His presence alone has been a huge boost for the franchise. Not to mix transport metaphors but the Jets will hope that Rodgers will be a rising tide that lifts all boats.

Sink or swim for Dolphins’ Tua in year four

For the first time in 30 years, the Dolphins made a big splash last year, spending the second-most of any team during the 2022 off-season. The return on that investment? A playoff berth, but a swift exit from the postseason. They started out 8-3 but found themselves treading water, losing five of their last six regular season games before being defeated by Buffalo in the playoffs.

Concussion protocol was a sadly overused phrase around South Beach last year. Twice Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa missed time after suffering head injuries, and his backup, Teddy Bridgewater also had to exit a game after receiving a bang to the head.

This off-season, Miami parted company with Tight End Mike Gesicki and cornerback Byron Jones. Jalen Ramsey, an elite cornerback, will replace Jones after he recovers from a knee injury suffered in training camp. As much as Ramsey’s arrival was headline news, the addition of Vic Fangio as defensive coordinator may be even more positive for Miami, as the former Denver head coach remains one of the game’s sharpest defensive minds.

Tyreek Hill — Pro Football Focus’s top-ranked wide receiver — and Jaylen Waddle combined for 3,066 yards last year, though a pre-season injury may mean the latter misses the start of this season. Both are elite talents, as is four-time Pro Bowl Left Tackle, Terron Armstead, who only allowed one sack in 13 games last season. Christian Wilkins is a force on the interior of their defensive line, and Ramsey was Pro Football Focus’ third-ranked cornerback last year.

Miami possesses depth at running back but lacks a game-changing talent in that area.

Mike McDaniel enters his second year as Dolphins’ head coach after the former 49ers’ offensive coordinator was hired prior to the 2022 campaign.

Along with all AFC East teams, Miami faces a tough schedule, by playing in an above-average division and facing four games against the NFC’s strongest division — the NFC East. At least their “road” game against the Super Bowl champions is in Frankfurt, rather than facing the Chiefs in front of the raucous Arrowhead faithful.

Consistency hasn’t been the Dolphins’ strong suit in recent times — if they make the playoffs for a second-straight season it will be their first back-to-back postseason appearances since 2001. But it’s in the Playoffs that DolFans are looking for improvement from their team, as they last won a Postseason game way back in 2000.

Looking for a New England

It seems very wrong to be discussing New England last in the AFC East. In the 19 seasons between 2001 and 2019, the Patriots won six Super Bowls, reached three more, made the postseason 17 times, and won the AFC East on 17 occasions. Even when Tom Brady was injured on the first drive of the first match of the season, they posted an 11-5 record. They defied all conventional wisdom in establishing an incredible dynasty in the transient NFL which usually stands for “Not For Long.”

Last year saw New England involved in several episodes of Tales of the Unexpected. Topping the list would have to be the ridiculous manner of their Week 15 loss to the Raiders. Just needing to allow themselves to be tackled to take the game into overtime, the Patriots began lateraling the pigskin, the last of which ill-judged throws ended with the ball in the hands of the Raiders’ Chandler Jones — once a fixture on the Pats roster. Jones couldn’t believe his luck as he raced to the endzone. It was only the third time in NFL history that a game had been decided by a walk-off, fumble recovery for a touchdown.

The Pats were quite fortunate with injuries last season. Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Games Lost looks to calculate not just the number of injuries a team suffers but also the importance of those on the injury list. Their AGL metric for the Patriots in 2022 was 56.5, more than 20 games below the league average. They were somewhat fortunate to benefit from five pick 6s last year, though they have consistently done well in this regard in recent seasons.

It will be interesting to see what off-season addition Ezekiel Elliott can add to the team after the running back was deemed surplus to requirements in Dallas. Tight End Mike Gesicki wasn’t best used in Miami, and he will replace the departed Jonnu Smith. JuJu Smith-Schuster was added in Free Agency, while fellow Wide Receiver Nelson Agholor’s two-year stint in Foxboro came to an end. Devin McCourty has swapped the gridiron for the FNIA studio and the three-time Second-team All-Pro safety — who played on three of New England’s Super Bowl-winning teams — will be a big loss. He was the only Patriot defensive player to play more than 1,000 snaps in 2022.

A roster shorn of star talent sees Right Guard Michael Onwenu, Linebacker Matthew Judon — who was elected to his fourth-straight Pro Bowl — and Strong Safety Kyle Dugger as the only elite performers. For a team that had Tom Brady under center for nearly two decades, neither Mac Jones nor Bailey Zappe has convinced as his heir apparent — Jones will be their Week 1 starter, while Zappe was cut at the end of August. Quarterback remains the Pats’ major concern.

Bill Belichick is arguably the greatest head coach of all time. With a lifetime record of 329-165 and eight Super Bowl rings, perhaps there is no argument. It will be interesting to see how much longer 71-year-old Belichick wants to continue prowling the side-lines. It’s safe to say the rest of the AFC East has been eagerly awaiting news of his retirement for some time.

Looking at New England’s docket of games, while things are tough, the timing of the Patriots’ game with Philadelphia in Week 1 is helpful. Teams that lose the Super Bowl have often suffered a hangover the following season, and only have a 9-14 record in the opening week of the year. However, while the Pats have nine nominal home games, one is in Germany, and the slate of games against AFC and NFC East foes looks tough.

The past three seasons have seen a team with a league-high 11 Super Bowl appearances produce a 25-25 record, as Buffalo have usurped them as the AFC East’s powerhouse. That said for all their misadventures, New England hasn’t failed to win at least seven games in a season since 2000 though that sequence may well be under threat this season.

AFC North
Safety first

If the Super Bowl hangover is real, no one told the Cincinnati Bengals. They finished the regular season with eight straight wins, and a 12-4 record (their Week 17 game against the Bills was not replayed after Damar Hamlin’s injury.) In the playoffs, they defeated divisional foes Baltimore, and won in Buffalo, before suffering a narrow 20-23 loss to Kansas City.

Cincy was perhaps a little fortunate to win 12 games last season as their Pythagorean Wins total was lower (10.88). They also faced seven backup Quarterbacks last year, due to injuries to opposing passers but avoided the injury bug themselves — Football Outsiders projects that they had only 56.4 Adjusted Games Lost.

The main off-season turnover involved the Bengals’ secondary, where Messrs Apple, Bell, Flowers, and Bates have departed. The loss of Safety Jessie Bates — a Second-team All-Pro in 2020 — is by far the most significant. On the other side of the ball, Left Tackle, Orlando Brown arrived in Free Agency. First-round pick, Cornerback Myles Murphy, out of Clemson, will have an important role to play, given the defections from their secondary.

The Bengals excel at the skill positions. Joe Burrow even topped Patrick Mahomes as Pro Football Focus’ top-rated quarterback and will be throwing to elite receivers Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins and handing off to star running back Joe Mixon. Despite losing Bates in Free Agency, the Bengals boast elite defenders in the form of Edge Rusher Trey Hendrickson, Nose Tackle D. J. Reader, and Cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, who is returning after missing much of last season through injury.

Despite a couple of makeovers, the Bengals offensive line remains porous, though on paper the group featuring Orlando Brown, Ted Karras, and Alex Cappa doesn’t look that bad.

Zac Taylor, one of the influx of younger coaches that entered the league a few years ago managed only six wins in his first two regular seasons combined. He has achieved 22 in the two years since and has plenty of credit in the bank.

After many years in the wilderness, the Bengals are now prime time. Their schedule includes four prime-time games. In common with the rest of the division, they will face four games against the NFC West — a division comprised of the haves and have-nots.

A star QB and two elite receivers on rookie contracts give Cincy a lot of salary cap flexibility, and they’ve built a roster that is in position to challenge for a title. Much will depend on how their new-look safety combination holds up.

Easy as ABC for The Jackson Five

After protracted negotiations and much speculation, Lamar Jackson is still a Raven, having put pen to paper on a five-year deal worth $260M — making him the highest-paid player in NFL history When the former Louisville quarterback started the Ravens were 8-4 last season and lost that quartet of games by a combined total of 8 points. Without him, they were 2-3 in the regular season and had their season ended by the Cincinnati Bengals.

Generally, Baltimore was unlucky with injuries last term — Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Games Lost metric came in at 102.6 compared to a league average of 79.3.

Off-season changes saw the Ravens’ passing game get stronger with the addition of Wide Receivers Odell Beckham Jr., Nelson Agholor, and first-round pick Zay Flowers, who will join 2021 first-rounder Rashod Bateman and star Tight End Mark Andrews in giving Jackson five excellent targets. On the other side of the ball, their pass defense got worse with the losses of Marcus Peters and Chuck Clark. Experienced locker room leader Defensive End, Calais Campbell also departed in free agency.

There’s plenty of stardust on the Ravens roster, headed by QB Lamar Jackson — Baltimore has won 72.2% of the games that Lamar Jackson has started over the past four years seasons. He is surrounded by elite performers. Odell Beckham Jr (wide receiver) boosts the receiving corps, while three-time Pro Bowl Tight End Mark Andrews graded as Pro Football Focus’ third-top player at his position. Left Tackle Ronnie Stanley is a former Pro Bowler, while Right Guard Kevin Zeitler is due a place in the NFL‘s all-star game. On defense, Baltimore added elite Linebacker Roquan Smith midway through last year and he significantly improved their ability to stop the run, while being highly effective in coverage. Smith was named First-team All-Pro last season. The secondary features three-time Pro Bowl Cornerback Marlon Humphrey and Safety Marcus Williams. The Ravens can also call on the league’s best special teams player, Kicker Justin Tucker, who made Second-team All-Pro in 2022.

Only Bill Belichick and Mike Tomlin have longer tenures as head coaches than the Ravens’ John Harbaugh. Under his charge, Baltimore has won at least eight games in 14 of his 15 seasons.

Schedule-wise, Baltimore has nine true home games, and only seven road matches, as their “away” fixture with Tennessee will take place at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

The Ravens were seventh in scoring before Jackson got hurt and now they have placed more weapons at his disposal. To soar back to the team’s third Super Bowl their defense will need to avoid conceding the deluge of fourth-quarter points that they allowed last season.

An Erie sense of confidence

It’s an odd situation when you know that your newly signed multi-million dollar quarterback isn’t going to play for the first dozen games of the season. But that was the place the Browns found themselves in last season, as they finished with a 7-10 mark.

To say that the Browns are due a division title would be an understatement of the size of neighbouring Lake Erie. The last time they won their division Ronald Reagan had just left the White House and it was the old AFC Central.

Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings suggest that the Browns were slightly better than their seven-win record suggests, as they actually finished with a +5.2% DVOA score — suggesting a slightly above-average team. They were unlucky in terms of recovering fumbles, and unfortunate that opposing kickers booted all four field goals from 53 yards or more against them. Their Week 2 loss to the Jets after being 13 points ahead with less than two minutes remaining was particularly galling.

Despite losing Safety John Johnson and Edge Rusher Jadeveon Clowney in the off-season, the Browns may be stronger this year with Wide Receiver Elijah Moore, Interior Defender Dalvin Tomlinson, Edge Rusher Za’Darius Smith and Safety Juan Thornhill added to their roster.

Despite last year’s losing record, this is still a team with plenty of talent. Running Back Nick Chubb joined standout Guard Joel Bitonio as a First-team All-Pro last season, with the former Pro Football Focus’ third-rated RB, and the latter their second-rated guard. Right Guard Wyatt Teller is another elite talent and though less heralded, Center Ethan Pocic graded out as PFF’s third-best player at his position last year.

There are elite players on all three levels of the defense, with Myles Garrett creating nightmares for opposing quarterbacks from his defensive end spot, where he was Pro Football Focus’s top edge defender. The newly-acquired Za’Darius Smith — a three-time Pro Bowler — will headline their linebacking corps, and shutdown Corner Denzel Ward is the star of their secondary.

The Browns’ offensive line is one of the best in Football. Their linebackers and secondary are young and will improve from last year’s experience. It’s actually hard to find a weakness in the Browns’ armoury, though there is the caveat that Watson needs to return to his form of a few seasons ago.

After guiding the Ohio outfit to the Playoffs in his first season, Kevin Stefanski has overseen two sub-.500 years since then and knows a winning season is a must.

Like all AFC teams, Cleveland has nine home games and only eight matches on the road in 2023, and in common with the rest of their division has four games against the mixed-ability NFC West. The Browns have their Bye Week in Week 5 — the joint-soonest for any team — and earlier than would be ideal.

For years this moribund franchise close to Lake Erie was known as “the mistake by the lake”. However, their roster looks very robust, and it should be remembered that in 2020, Watson was Pro Football Focus’ second top-rated passer on a 4-12 team. A replication of that form would do wonders for the Browns’ chances of reaching the postseason.

Steelers hoping a flying Pickett can strike the right chord

Head Coach Mike Tomlin’s streak of 16 consecutive years without a losing season continued in 2022 — but only just. A franchise that has only had three head coaches since 1969, Pittsburgh is looking to be the first AFC team ever to have 20 consecutive non-losing seasons.

The Steelers were fortunate with injuries, losing only 32 games from starters last year (per Football Outsiders). Pythagorean Wins suggest they should have won 7 games (7.09) rather than the nine they ended up with. Nevertheless, they have a young Quarterback who is likely to see great improvement in Ryan Pickett. QBs, in common with most positions, usually make the biggest leap between years one and two, and the young passer actually went 7-5 in his twelve starts last term.

The men from the Steel City upgraded their secondary in the off-season. Former Pro Bowl Safety Keanu Neal was a free agency pick-up, as was Cornerback, Patrick Peterson. It may be that Peterson’s best days are behind him and that he benefitted from the scheme he played in during his time in Minnesota, but there is no doubting the calibre of a member of the NFL’s 2010s All-Decade Team. Second-round draft pick Joey Porter Jr. had another reason for being pleased to be drafted by Pittsburgh, as his dad, Joey Senior, spent eight years playing for the Steelers.

In many respects, Pittsburgh’s lone Offensive star is Tight End Pat Freiermuth, who has caught at least 60 passes in both his first two seasons.

While not on a par with the vaunted Steel Curtain defense of the ‘70s, based on talent alone Pittsburgh’s D should be very strong. T. J. Watt provides the pass rush — the Steelers were 8-2 with him in the line-up, 1-6 without him — while Cameron Heyward is a force inside. The secondary has added eight-time Pro Bowler Patrick Peterson to join their existing elite performer, Minkah Fitzpatrick — Pro Football Focus’ third-ranked Safety.

The Steelers’ main weaknesses are at quarterback and perhaps regarding a special teams unit that is below par.

Mike Tomlin is the second-longest serving head coach in the league, He led the Steelers to victory in Super Bowl XLIII and has posted a lifetime record of 171–102–2 (62.5%).

The six-time Super Bowl winners will need to put themselves in a strong position early on this season as their closing run of games is very tough. Week 16 sees them host Cincinnati, before a two-game road trip to face Seattle, followed by Baltimore.

Ryan Pickett showed considerable improvement as last season wore on. Between Week 4 and Week 8 his passer rating was 66.8. From Week 10 until the end of the season, that number rose to 84.0. A continuation of that upward trend would likely see a solid showing from the Steelers in 2023.

AFC South
What a difference a (bye) week makes

One thing is certain, win or lose, the Jaguars will make history this year. They will be the first team to play back-to-back regular season games in London.

Before their Bye Week last season, the Jags were 3-7 and an 11th losing season in 12 looked on the cards. After some much-needed rest, they went 6-1 the rest of the way. It was a similar story in their playoff win against the Chargers, as they trailed 0-27 but somehow, the Jaguars clawed their way back. For all their deficiencies, the 2022 Jags won a playoff game and only lost by seven points to a Kansas City team that went on to win the Super Bowl.

Jacksonville was lucky with injuries last year — Football Outsiders projected their Adjusted Starts Lost as only 39.8 last term — almost exactly half the league average.

The Jaguars added Wide Receiver Calvin Ridley during an off-season that saw Tackle Jawaan Taylor depart.

The Jaguars certainly maxed out their talent last year. Newly-signed wideout Ridley may become the best player on the team, but will at least have an elite partner in Christian Kirk. Defensively, Josh Allen may not be as famous as his namesake in Buffalo, but he is a former Pro Bowler, while Tyson Campbell is developing into a fine cornerback.

Defensive line remains an area of concern for the men from North Florida. The offensive line will also start the season without Left Tackle Cam Robinson, who will miss four games for a Performance Enhancing Drugs transgression.

After the Urban Meyer error — I mean, era — came to a premature end, Owner Shahid Khan (who is also the Chairman of Fulham Football Club) turned to former Philadelphia Head Coach, Doug Pederson. One of the game’s most original thinkers, Pederson won Super Bowl LII when in charge of Philadelphia, and owns a 56–48–1 (53.8%) lifetime record.

Asked about the Jags docket of games for the upcoming season, Pederson commented: “I thought the schedule was great.” It helps that his charges are playing in what oddsmakers feel is the league’s weakest division — the AFC South has the lowest combined win totals in the NFL. Four of their inter-conference games are against the similarly anaemic NFC South. But as much as anything the Jags are pleased to be relevant once more. Having been shunned for years, they will make their first appearance on Monday Night Football since 2011 and are back in the Sunday Night spotlight after a hiatus stretching back to 2008.

The constituents that make up the quarterback passer rating are nearly as hard to fathom as Cricket’s Duckworth Lewis, but a couple of numbers from Trevor Lawrence’s last two regular season campaigns are easy to understand. In 2022 he threw more than twice as many Touchdowns (25 against 12) as in 2021, and he threw less than half as many picks (8 versus 17). His passer rating improved more from year one to year two than any QB in history, jumping from 71.9 to 95.2 (including passers with at least 400 attempts). With the quarterback questions surrounding all three divisional opponents, the Jaguars at least seem to have this key position nailed down. Unusually, for a team that had the NFL’s poorest record between 2011 and 2021, when they went they produced 47 wins and suffered 130 losses, they start the season as favourites to lift the AFC South, and at least a prime-time audience will get to see their attempt to defend that crown.

Will Levis be thrown in if Tennessee’s season goes south?

In November the Titans were 7-3 but found themselves cut down to size when losing their seven remaining fixtures.

They suffered badly with injuries last term. Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Games Lost metric measured 122.9 and Tennessee ended the year with a league-high 23 players on Injured Reserve.

On a positive note, the arrival of DeAndre Hopkins fills a glaring need they have had since A. J. Brown departed. They may also have found the long-term man to throw him the ball, having taken Will Levis in the second round of the draft. Although they selected Northwestern’s Peter Skoronski a round earlier, they saw 60% of last year’s offensive line depart in free agency: Taylor Lewan, Ben Jones, and Nate Davis. Of these, three-time Pro Bowler, Lewan will be the biggest shoes to fill.

King Henry — Running Back, Derrick — has coped admirably with his heavy workload in recent seasons, and the team got the receiving threat they so desperately needed when adding Hopkins in the off-season. On the other side of the ball, Defensive Tackle Jeffery Simmons made First-team All-pro and Free Safety Kevin Byard has twice been elected to the Pro Bowl.

There is a clear weakness along their offensive line and, while a decent play-action passer, Ryan Tannehill’s lack of elite quality at quarterback is another concern.

Part of the Patriots’ footballing dynasty in his playing days, Head Coach Mike Vrabel has yet to add to the three Super Bowl rings he won as a player with any as a coach. Nevertheless, he has compiled a 50–37 (57.5%) lifetime mark while in charge of the Titans.

In common with the rest of their division, Tennessee’s schedule is one of the league’s easier dockets. The Titans lose something of the advantage of having nine home games, as their “home” game with the Ravens actually takes place in London.

It’s obvious where the Titans feel their weakness lies. Their offense ranked 30th in yardage last year and in April, the Titans were the only team to use every draft pick on that side of the ball. Tennessee does face some tough opponents in the first six weeks, with trips to face the Chargers, Bengals, and Ravens. They then have a bye in Week 7 and may assess their situation and throw in the Rookie QB Will Levis at that point if things haven’t started well, which could lead to a poor season. However, the signing of Hopkins suggests they are not ready to turn things in yet, and the word “tank” isn’t a term in Head Coach Mike Vrabel’s vocabulary.

For Indy, .500 looks some way off

The Colts’ off-season was thrown into confusion by the ongoing issues surrounding Running Back Jonathan Taylor. In the off-season the star requested a trade and, after the team admitted the relationship with their player was broken, he will miss at least the first four games of the season. This is a consequence of being placed on the physically unable to perform list, partly down to his continuing recovery from ankle surgery and partly to create a spot for a player who wants to suit up for the Colts. A Pro Bowler in 2021 — when he was the league’s rushing yards leader, Taylor’s days in Indy may be numbered. Even with Taylor in the backfield, the Colts ended 2022 with a 4-12-1 record.

While protecting the ball is a skill, turnovers tend to be somewhat random and results in that category aren’t replicated year-on-year. The Colts were bottom of the league with a minus-13 turnover differential. While there is an element of bad luck in this, -13 isn’t as bad as many other teams have been in other seasons. On the other hand, Football Outsiders’ metrics suggest they were fortunate with injuries last term, with only 53 Adjusted Games Lost, while their DVOA ratings put Indy bottom of the league with a raw DVOA of -36.1%, which indicates they were slightly fortunate even to get four wins and a tie in 2022.

Even aside from the Taylor situation, there were more negatives than positives during the off-season, with Stephon Gilmore — the NFL’s 2019 Defensive Player of the Year — the biggest departure. Edge Rusher Yannick Ngakoue, Linebacker Bobby Okereke, and their other starting Cornerback Brandon Facyson also left town. Having hoped that he could guide them back to the playoffs, the Colts moved on from Quarterback Matt Ryan after just one season. Indy used their first-round pick to select what they hope will be their quarterback of the future: Florida’s Anthony Richardson.

Though expectations are quite low going into the season, Indy arguably has at least as many star names as their division rivals. Whoever wins the quarterback battle will have Michael Pittman Jr. as his main target and three-time First-team All-Pro Guard Quenton Nelson leading the offensive line. The Colts have a fine interior defensive line, with Grover Stewart and DeForest Buckner, a two-time Pro Bowler. Shaquille Leonard patrols behind them from his middle linebacker spot and has been selected for the all-star game on three occasions.

Aside from Nelson, an offensive line that allowed 60 Sacks last term is a concern, along with the need to develop a Quarterback.

The Colts’ Defense plays a lot of Cover-3 — with three defensive backs each taking responsibility for patrolling one zone far down the field, with four more shallow zones in front of them — so the losses of their two starting Cornerbacks are a concern.

Indy has only seven true road games, with nine home dates and one away game in London and has 10 matches against the rest of the AFC South, and the NFC South.

The Colts begin the season with a rookie Head Coach: Shane Steichen. While the record of coaches in their first NFL Head Coaching role isn’t terrible, since 2008, teams in that situation finished the season with a combined 512-633-1 mark (44.7%), so expectations should be tempered. Nevertheless, Steichen is one of the league’s brightest young minds.

The Colts had 12 draft picks this year, and it feels like the franchise is hitting the reset button. A record better than .500 will be a tall order. However, given the paucity of quality teams in their division, winning the AFC South can’t be entirely discounted.

Houston, we have a problem

Do NFL teams try hard each week? Well, all the Texans had to do was lose their season finale and they would get the first overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. Instead, they converted a last-minute 4th and 20 for a game-winning touchdown and had to settle for the second overall pick. Yep, NFL teams always play hard. Few could quibble about using that pick on Quarterback C. J. Stroud, but they gave up a lot to move up for Edge Rusher Will Anderson Jr.

A rookie head coach, a rookie quarterback likely to see action at some stage, and a coach taking the reins as offensive coordinator for the first time, doesn’t sound like a recipe for success.

With a roster full of holes, Houston did add some useful free agents. Guard Shaq Mason is an upgrade, while former 49ers Safety, Jimmie Ward will help the Secondary. Arguably, the most significant newcomer will be Linebacker Denzel Perryman. The Raiders were 6-6 in the games Perryman started but lost all 5 of the games he missed and he’s well above average at his position.

Arguably only Arizona possesses fewer elite players than the Texans. Elected to the Pro Bowl three times, Left Tackle Laremy Tunsil is the lone bright spot on this Lone Star State offense, while Jimmie Ward will be the star of a solid secondary, at his strong safety spot.
As well as the need to develop a star quarterback, the Texans’ defensive line is a weak point, though rookie Will Anderson Jr will get an immediate chance to have an impact in that area.

One scheduling change this season is that there is no commitment from the league to give every team a prime-time game. As a result, the Texans won’t find themselves in the nationwide spotlight in 2023. As tough as things look, they play six games against divisional foes from a weak section, and four games against the less-than-formidable NFC South. If the Titans end up struggling, Houston might benefit from playing them in Week 15 and Week 17, when Tennessee could throw rookie Will Levis into the line-up.

DeMeco Ryans was one of the more sought-after coaching assistants over the past few years and takes the reins of the Texans, as he looks to steer them back to being competitive.

After dealing franchise Quarterback, Deshaun Watson to the Browns last year, it was obvious that the Texans were looking at a rebuild. For all their effort, in 2022 the Texans failed to win more than four games for the third straight season and didn’t win a game by more than one score. Last season they ranked 31st in offense and only one spot better on defense.

Since 2013, rookie Quarterbacks have only won 35.9% of games and Stroud is likely to be thrown into the action sooner rather than later. Although they have a herd of high draft picks, rustling up more than a handful of wins will be tough for the Texans. One thing is for sure, with no first-round pick next year, there is no value in the Texans tanking towards the end of the season — not that they did last year.

AFC West
It’s hard to have reservations about the Chiefs

In recent seasons, the Chiefs have been all-conquering. They have turned the AFC Championship into an annual Arrowhead fixture, having hosted the battle for the Lamar Hunt Trophy in each of the past five seasons. They won the franchise’s third Super Bowl, in February, hoisting the Lombardi Trophy for the second time in four years. Messrs Mahomes and Kelce even beat Steph Curry and Klay Thompson in the eighth edition of The Match charity Golf event during the summer.

The Chiefs were fortunate with injuries twelve months ago. Football Outsiders’ projected their Adjusted Games Lost to be just 48.1 — over 30 fewer than the league average. One curious anomaly was that a cluster of injuries to kickers meant that they had four different players attempt kicks, including a defensive back.

They have lost Wide Receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Mecole Hardman but advanced metrics suggest off-season signing Richie James is better than most people realise. Starting Left Tackle Orlando Brown and Safety Juan Thornhill will both need replacing after leaving in free agency.
Twice NFL MVP and twice the Super Bowl’s Most Valuable Player, Patrick Mahomes is the rarest of NFL players — one who can boast a 99 rating in the Madden computer game. The hugely successful game franchise has become so advanced that the highly intricate metrics used to compile these ratings would put some of the teams’ scouting departments to shame. Joining him in the 99 club is Tight End, Travis Kelce, the league’s best in that position in 2022 according to Pro Football Focus — though the Chiefs will be monitoring a knee injury he suffered on the eve of the season. Center Creed Humphrey also topped PFF’s numbers as the league’s best pivot, while Left Guard, Joe Thuney was voted Second-team All-Pro last year. Chris Jones showed once again that he is a destructive force along the Chiefs’ d-line and was PFF’s top interior defender — ahead of Aaron Donald — while Linebacker Nick Bolton got well-deserved plaudits for his play.

With Joe Pacheco‘s emergence at running back, one of Kansas City’s chief concerns is no longer an issue.

Though the AFC West is strong, in common with their divisional foes, KC will face four games against the less powerful NFC North this season. For the first time since 1997, there will be a rematch of the previous year’s Super Bowl on Monday Night Football, as the Chiefs face Philadelphia in Week 11.

Andy Reid’s decade as Kansas City’s head coach has seen the team never fail to win at least nine games. Having presided over a second Super Bowl triumph last season it now seems ridiculous to reflect that there was a time when it was thought that Big Red couldn’t win the big games.

Once again Kansas City start the season with a big target on their back. While they have Reid, Mahomes, and Kelce, the rest of the league is in catch-up mode.

Chargers suffer playoff short-circuit

In the dying embers of the first half, the scoreboard at TIAA Stadium read: Chargers 27 Jaguars 0. Somehow, the Chargers found a way to lose that super wildcard weekend game. They became the first team in playoff history to lose a game despite a +5 or better turnover differential. American sports doyen Bill Simmons commented: “It didn’t feel like it as it was happening and then…(the Chargers) missed the Field Goal at 30-20 and the blood started coming out of the walls of the Chargers’ Amityville Horror house.”

While they have trended in the right direction, moving from seven wins in 2020 to a 9-8 record a year later, and 10 wins in 2022, a Postseason victory has alluded them.

Pythagorean Wins suggest they were slightly fortunate to finish 10-7, projecting just 8.42 victories last term. Football Outsiders’ raw DVOA ratings concur with this idea, as the Chargers finished with a below-average raw DVOA of -0.8%. That said, with only just over $3M in dead cap space it looks as though the Chargers are in win-now mode.

The Bolts will plug in Linebacker Eric Kendricks, a free agent signing who has seven straight seasons with 100+ tackles. The addition of Kellen Moore as offensive coordinator should see more lightning strikes from the Chargers’ offense.

For all their occasional flakiness, the Chargers have arguably more elite players than anyone in the AFC. Quarterback Justin Herbert became the first player in NFL history to pass for at least 4,000 yards in each of his first three seasons. An offense with Herbert throwing to Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, as well as dual-threat Running Back Austin Ekeler, and an offensive line featuring Left Tackle Rashawn Slater and Center Corey Linsley has the sort of strong supporting cast you’d expect in Los Angeles. Opposing Quarterbacks have the twin terror of Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack zeroing in on them from opposite sides, with Kendricks at inside linebacker and Second-team All-Pro, Derwin James a force at strong safety.

The Bolts have their Bye Week in Week 5 — the earliest possible break a team can have and not the optimum time to derive the most benefit. They have six prime-time games — the full allocation for any team. In addition, it doesn’t get much more prime-time than their huge, and potentially decisive, game, in the final week of the regular season, when they host the Super Bowl champs.

Another of the NFL’s brightest young minds, Head Coach Brandon Staley enters his third season in charge with a 19–16 record (54.3%).
With this being the last year of Justin Herbert’s (relatively) cheap rookie contract, now is the time for the Bolts, whose biggest flaw is their defensive line.

Restricted by a rib injury and cautious playcalling, Herbert was forced to dink and dunk down the field, averaging less than 6.8 yards per attempt but still racked up over 4,500 yards last term. Fully healed, and with Moore calling the plays, Herbert should be able to cut loose once more in 2023.

To fulfil their potential the Chargers need to end a run of nine home losses against the Chiefs. Either way, they would love the chance to put last season’s playoff horror show behind them.

Broncos looking to buck the recent trend

Opening night against Seattle was a sign of things to come for the 2022 Broncos. Twice Denver fumbled on the goal line and was forced to kick two field goals from inside the 15-yard line in what was to be a portent of offensive miscues to come. In fact, if it hadn’t been for Denver’s bad luck last season, they’d have had no luck at all.

The Broncos finished 5-12 in 2022 but Pythagorean Wins suggests they should have done better (6.36), as they went 4-9 in one-score games. No one suffered more at the hands of the injury bug than Denver last year. Per Football Outsiders, the Broncos lost starters for 148.6 games, with 22 players ending the year on injured reserve. While the altitude that Denver plays at helps kickers boot the ball greater distances, opposing kickers were successful on a league-high 95.1% of their kicks last year, which was unlucky for Denver.

The Broncos’ 5-12 record last year meant that they went under their pre-season expected win total by five wins. Per Clevanalytics, since the turn of the century, all 27 of the teams who underperformed like that in the previous campaign won more games the following year. On average, they improved by four wins.

No one spent more money in the off-season than the men from the Mile High City. $235M was splurged on free-agent signings. But their biggest addition may be someone who won’t play a down: Head Coach Sean Payton. One of the game’s sharpest offensive minds, he is set to be a big upgrade from Nathaniel Hackett. Elsewhere, Mike McGlinchey, an above-average right tackle joined in free agency, with Edge Rusher Frank Clark also added.

It’s clear that the Secondary is Denver’s strongest suit. Corner Patrick Surtain II graded behind only Sauce Gardner in Pro Football Focus’ cornerback ratings, on his way to becoming a First-team All-Pro. Free Safety Justin Simmons made Second-team All-Pro and the two headlined a secondary which allowed the fewest yards per pass attempt in the NFL in 2022.

The biggest concerns are whether Russell Wilson can return to form under center, and with a below-par defensive line.

Schedule-wise, Denver faces a three-game road trip from Week 13 onwards, duelling with Houston, the Chargers, and Detroit. Games against their divisional rivals will be tough, but inter-conference matchups with the NFC North, as well as a Washington team in Week 2 with young Sam Howell under center, look more forgiving.

Sean Payton brings with him a CV that includes winning Super Bowl XLIV with the Saints and a career mark of 161–97 (62.4%).

For all Russell Wilson’s issues last year, he still became only the second Quarterback in NFL history with at least 3,000 passing yards in each of his first 11 years, after Peyton Manning. The Broncos surrendered three first-round picks and three picks in the second round to acquire Wilson and Payton. It’s a gamble, but whether that gamble leads to Vegas remains to be seen.

Raiders of the lost art?

For 54 years no team had played at home in the Super Bowl. Then two teams played at home on Super Sunday in a row. Last season, the Cardinals were never really in with a chance of making it a hat-trick. This year, it’s the Raiders’ turn to try, following a six-win season last term.

In 2021 Pythagorean Wins suggested that the Raiders were fortunate to finish 10-7, projecting only 6.9 Pythagorean Wins. The Raiders face the opposite situation this year, as they were a little unlucky to only win six games last year, while Pythagorean Wins were 8.32 after they went 4-9 in one-score contests.

Long-time Quarterback, Derek Carr has moved on to New Orleans and has been replaced by ex-49er, Jimmy Garoppolo. Tight End Darren Waller was traded to the Giants, while the Raiders also parted company with excellent Linebacker Denzel Perryman during the off-season. Las Vegas did add Cornerback Marcus Peters — a three-time Pro Bowler.

The Silver and Black rode Josh Jacobs’ talent last year, as the Alabama product churned out 2,053 scrimmage yards. He and Wide Receiver Davante Adams remain elite talents. Left Tackle Kolton Miller is the Raiders’ other offensive standout. Twice a Pro Bowler, Maxx Crosby provides a consistent pass rush from his defensive end spot.

While there is no easy part to the Raiders’ schedule, the trio of games from Week 5 onwards, against Green Bay, New England, and Chicago looks to be an opportunity to loot a few wins.

Josh McDaniels won six Super Bowls as part of the Patriots’ staff but has found life tougher as a head coach, with a combined 17–28 (37.8%) record to date.

The Raiders had a 1,500-yard rusher and a wide receiver who racked up 1,500 Yards last year, and yet they missed the playoffs — the first time that has happened. Garoppolo underwent foot surgery during the off-season and replacing Carr with the oft-injured passer is a gamble, but what else would you expect in Vegas?

NFC East
High flying birds still seeking to reach oasis

Last season was a historic campaign for the Eagles. They soared to an 8-0 mark early in the season — becoming the 28th team in league history to start a season in that way — but narrowly failed to deliver a second Super Bowl, as the Eagles were downed by Kansas City in Super Bowl LVII

In 2022, on Offense they broke a 99-year-old record for scoring the most rushing touchdowns in a season. On the other side of the ball, they had the third-most sacks by a team in league history.

Sometimes dominant teams look less impressive as they ease up and safeguard wins in the second half. So first-half performance can be indicative of their true superiority. Philly outscored their combined opponents by 121 points during the first half of games, which topped the league in that regard (per Sharpfootballanalysis.com). Football Outsiders’ raw DVOA ratings suggest Philadelphia deserved their 14-3 record last season, as they finished second in the league with a DVOA of 27.6%.

On the flip side, the Eagles rode their luck somewhat with a 7-1 record in one-score games. Teams that overachieved compared to their pre-season win total by 4.5 or more games, tend to regress backwards the following year, and after being projected to win 9.5 games last year, a 14-3 mark in 2022 makes the Eagles a prime candidate for regression. Philly was also lucky with injuries last year — Football Outsiders Adjusted Games Lost metric pegged them at 42.4, the second-lowest number in the league, behind their Pennsylvania rivals Pittsburgh. Things fell kindly for them regarding last year’s schedule as by some metrics their slate of games was the easiest of any Super Bowl team over the past 15 years.

There is usually a certain amount of attrition to the roster of a team that makes the Super Bowl. However, even though the Eagles lost Running Back Miles Sanders, they were able to bring in Rashaad Penny from Seattle, and pull off a trade for D’Andre Swift. Javon Hargrave left in the off-season, but they added first-round pick Jalen Carter, who some draftniks projected to be the best player available among this year’s college intake. The loss of C.J. Gardner-Johnson reduces the depth in their secondary.

How special was Jalen Hurts in 2022? He was the first quarterback in NFL history to record 10+ rushing Touchdowns and a 100+ passer rating. Wide Receiver A. J. Brown became the wideout Philly desperately needed, and won Second-team All-Pro honours, while former first round pick DeVonta Smith gives opposing defenses something else to worry about. Offensive linemen, Center Jason Kelce and Right Tackle, Lane Johnson went one better, earning places as First-team All-Pros. Jason might have lost the Kelce Bowl against brother Travis, last year, but he was Pro Football Focus’ second-top center. Tight End Dallas Goedert and Left Tackle Jordan Mailata are also elite players.

Few Free Agents had the impact that Haason Reddick did last season. His 16-sack campaign led to him being named Second-team All-Pro. Among Philadelphia’s 70 sacks, four players ended the year with at least 11 quarterback takedowns. No other team had more than 55 team sacks. The Eagles have arguably the best cornerback tandem in the league. Darius Slay was elected to his fifth Pro Bowl last season, while on the other side, James Bradberry was voted Second-team All-Pro.

Philadelphia lost both offensive and defensive Coordinators, though the loss of OC Shane Steichen is likely to be more impactful.

The Eagles will need to get off to a flying start as November and early December brings a stretch of games against Dallas, Kansas City, Buffalo, San Francisco, Dallas again, Seattle, and the NY Giants — all playoff teams from a year ago.

The man in charge is Nick Sirianni, one of the league’s best young coaches who is off to a 25–13 (65.8%) start to his career.

The Eagles ranked third in offense and second on defense last year and they had two first-round picks this year, and four draft picks in the top 66. However, history is against them, as only two teams in the past 50 years have won the Super Bowl having lost the previous year’s title game.

Make America’s Team Great Again

The Cowboys won three Lombardi Trophies in four seasons in the Nineties, but it has been 28 years since America’s Team last played in a Super Bowl. Last year’s attempt to put that right saw Dallas match their 12-5 mark from the previous year, win in Tampa on super wildcard weekend, but fall short in the divisional round at the hands of San Francisco, who ended their Super Bowl bid for the second straight season.

Last season, Dallas was a prolific red zone offense last year with 71.4% of their trips inside their opponents’ 20-yard line resulting in touchdowns. While this is undeniably impressive, it is also tough to maintain. The Pokes were slightly fortunate in benefitting from being +10 in turnover differential but that isn’t particularly extreme — some teams in recent years have been plus or minus 20 in turnover differential. That said, the recovery of 22 of a possible 34 fumbles will be hard to replicate.

The off-season saw the Cowboys add marquee free agent Cornerback Stephon Gilmore, but part ways with former top-five pick, Running Back, Ezekiel Elliott.

The Cowboys stack up better than most in their arms race with Philadelphia. Quarterback Dak Prescott is a two-time Pro Bowler. But Prescott is far from the lone star on the Dallas offense. The Cowboys chose right among three highly touted Receivers in the 2020 NFL Draft, selecting CeeDee Lamb, who was Secomd-team All-Pro in 2022. Running Back Tony Pollard’s form has made Ezekiel Elliott expendable. Opening running lanes for Pollard will be eight-time Pro Bowl Left Tackle Tyron Smith and Right Guard Zack Martin — one of the five members of the Madden 99 club, this season.

The Cowboys have plenty of stars on defense. Micah Parsons is a freakish athlete, who ranked second among Pro Football Focus’ edge defenders and finished 2022 with a league-high 90 pressures, and DeMarcus Lawrence filled the same position among interior defenders. The addition of Stephon Gilmore gives the Pokes an elite pair of Cornerbacks, opposite Trevon Diggs.

Look for Big D to remain aggressive on defense. Taking into account every defensive unit since 2012, the 2022 Cowboys had the second-highest pressure rate on opposing Quarterbacks.

In common with the rest of the NFC East, Dallas will face inter-conference games against teams from a powerful-looking AFC East. The toughest portion of their schedule looks to be from Week 13 to Week 17 when 2022 playoff teams, Seattle, Philadelphia, Buffalo, and Miami hove into view, along with the Detroit Lions, who are the uneasy favourites in the NFC North.

A Super Bowl winner as Head Coach of the Green Bay Packers, Head Coach Mike McCarthy has been in charge in Dallas since 2020 and boasts a lifetime 166–107–2 (60.7%) record.

A team with eight previous Super Bowl appearances, last season the Cowboys remained in contention despite Dak Prescott being out from Week 2 to Week 7. Who will emerge from the pack to be the NFC’s Super Bowl representative? “How ‘bout ‘dem Cowboys?”

The Giants still banking on Barkley but are less sure about the Jones boy

At the start of last year, expectations for the Giants were pretty low, but they made big strides, by starting the year 6-1. An eventual 9-7-1 record was good enough to grant them a playoff berth. On super wildcard weekend, they disposed of the Vikings, before being cut down to size by the Philadelphia Eagles.

Rather like the Minnesota team they beat in the Playoffs, there is a feeling that the Giants were somewhat fortunate to compile a winning record last season. Football Outsiders’ DVOA Rating was -4.3 % and their Pythagorean Wins total (8.16) was lower than the nine and a half wins they recorded. The G-men did have to battle an above-average list of injuries. Football Outsiders calculated their Adjusted Starts Lost to be 102.8 — more than 20 above the league average.

Having spent big bucks on Kenny Golladay a few years ago, the Giants cut their losses and let the wideout leave as a free agent. They did trade for the Giants’ Tight End, Darren Waller, who had over 100 Catches, back in 2020.

A few years ago, the Giants made a point of bringing in the building blocks of their offense, via the draft. Although Quarterback Daniel Jones falls into the work-in-progress category, the G-men hit the jackpot with a couple of their other choices. Running Back Saquon Barkley was named First-team All-Pro last year, while Offensive Tackle, Andrew Thomas won second-team honours and was graded as Pro Football Focus’ third-top tackle. On the other side of the ball, Dexter Lawrence was PFF’s second-top-rated interior defender and joined Thomas as Second-team All-Pro.

The men from MetLife Stadium will soon get an indication of whether they are an improved outfit or not. In their opening six games, they face the Cowboys, travel to San Francisco, host the Seahawks, and have road games against Miami and Buffalo, with only a Week 2 match-up against the unfancied Cardinals providing any respite.

Former Bills’ Offensive Coordinator, Brian Daboll, worked wonders in his first season at the helm in New York, but a repeat playoff performance would be another huge feather in his cap.

There is a Celtic flavour to the Giants’ kicking game, with both kicker Graham Gano and punter Jamie Gillan hailing from Scotland — coincidentally both from the town of Arbroath.

Daniel Jones had the second-highest passer rating when throwing off play-action of any Quarterback last season — meaning that he often faked to hand off to a running back as a means of deceiving the defense and creating an opportunity in the passing game. Opposing teams may well get wise to this, and he might see his numbers drop as a consequence. It’s worth noting that despite Jones inking a new deal with the G-Men, New York can get out of his contract at the end of 2024, should things not pan out.

As well as a competitive NFC East, the Giants now have noisy neighbours to worry about. However bad things have been for the Giants, the four-time Super Bowl winners have usually been better than the cross-town Jets over the past 20 years. That may no longer be the case in 2023.

2022 brought an end to Capital punishment

In common with the Giants, the Commanders surprised most observers last year, ending the season with an 8-8-1 mark, bringing an end to a run of five straight losing seasons. Over that period, the team from the nation’s capital had made plenty of headlines for the wrong reasons. Twice the subject of NFL investigations into sexual harassment and workplace misconduct, the team went through a name change from their culturally insensitive old moniker to the uninspired Washington Football Team, or WFT. Given all their off-season issues, you could be forgiven for thinking those three letters were in the wrong order.

Few teams made less of a splash in free agency than the team that has now settled on the name Commanders, who opted to stand pat with what they had last season, though they added Mississippi State’s Cornerback Emmanuel Forbes in the first round of the draft. The three-time winners of the Lombardi Trophy brought Jacoby Brissett in over the off-season, and either the ex-Cleveland passer or Sam Howell will be under center this season, with the latter looking to have the inside track heading into Week 1.

On Offense, “Scary” Terry McLaurin was elected to his first Pro Bowl in 2022. However, most of the Washington players who command attention are on the other side of the ball. 2017 first-round pick Jonathan Allen is an elite defensive tackle, while Chase Young has been giving opposing passers nightmares since being drafted second overall in 2020. Kendall Fuller blankets receivers from his cornerback spot, but the Commanders have another less-heralded name in their secondary. Strong safety, Kamren Curl was only a seventh-round pick but last season he graded as Pro Football Focus’ second top safety.

As well as the absence of a star quarterback, Washington lacks strength at linebacker.

Although their division is strong, and they have four games against AFC East teams, at least Washington has a reasonable net rest advantage against opponents — i.e., they have more days to prepare for games than their opponents. The Commanders won’t be playing any teams that are coming off their Bye Week this season.

Washington is coached by Ron Rivera — a man who likes to roll the dice. The last time Riverboat Ron coached a team to a winning season was in 2017, though he does possess a 101–95–2 (51.5%) lifetime record as a head coach and took the Carolina Panthers to Super Bowl L.

At the time of writing, it seems as though, Washington is leaning towards starting Howell at quarterback — a former fifth-round draft pick with only one regular season start under his belt. If that proves to be the case, it could be tough sledging for the Commanders but at least they should be featured on this season’s back pages, rather than the front pages.

NFC North
Lions looking to restore pride

Something looks very odd about the NFC North. The Green Bay Packers are the outsiders in the division and the Detroit Lions — of all teams — are supposedly the division’s front-runners. No one does playoff-win droughts like the boys from the Motor City. It was 34 years between their last NFL Championship win in 1957 and their next victory in a playoff game during the Super Bowl era was in 1991. It has now been another 32 barren years without a playoff success. To say last year was a season of two halves would be a massive understatement. The Lions started 1-6 before roaring back with an 8-2 closing run, though they narrowly missed out on a playoff berth.

Detroit’s 2022 campaign wasn’t without its problems. Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Starts Lost metric projects that they lost 108.7 starts to injury — nearly 30 above the league average.

In the off-season, Detroit elected to allow Running Backs Jamaal Williams and D’Andre Swift to leave the team, even though they delivered 22 Touchdowns last year. The decision to trade D’Andre Swift was a real head-scratcher. A young player, without a huge contract, the Lions won nine of the 14 games he played in last year, and none of the three he didn’t.

The Lions’ offense features three elite-level performers. Amon-Ra St. Brown ended 2022 as Pro Football Focus’ second-highest-rated wide receiver, while Left Tackle Penei Sewell and Center Frank Ragnow were both elected to the Pro Bowl.

Defensively, it’s a different story, though last year’s first overall pick, Defensive Tackle, Aidan Hutchinson, made a promising start to his NFL career, and free agent pick-up C.J. Gardner-Johnson will improve a porous Secondary.

This year, Detroit will play in the first nationally televised game of the season, as they attempt to crash the Chiefs’ Super Bowl homecoming party. Although they face inter-conference matches against a very solid AFC West, their own division looks to be one of the league’s poorest sections.

The man behind last year’s revival was Head Coach Dan Campbell, who will be entering his third season at the helm, with a 17–28–1 (38%) lifetime mark.

The Lions lucked out with their 2022 draft class, with two of their picks — Aidan Hutchinson and James Houston — becoming the first teammates with 7+ sacks in their rookie seasons since that statistic was first recorded. The Motor City men’s second-half improvement last year was driven by progress on the defensive side of the ball. From Week 9 onwards after making changes, including parting company with their defensive backs coach, the Lions conceded 20.2 points per game, having allowed 32.1 up to that point.

A strong run of form at the end of the previous season doesn’t always carry over to the following year but most bookmakers seem to believe that last year’s strong finish leaves the men from the Motor City in the driver’s seat in the NFC North.

Bookmakers reluctant to row in with the Vikings

Someone was looking out for the Vikings in the 2022 season. They became the first team in league history to win 11 games by just one score, and the first franchise to record at least 13 wins despite having been outscored by their opponents over the season. In Week 15, they even turned around a 33-point deficit against Indianapolis — the largest comeback in NFL history. Something had to give and, sure enough, the Vikings capsized in a first-round playoff loss to the Giants.

The Vikes won 13 games last season, but Pythagorean Wins suggest they should have had a losing record (8.32 wins). That is the biggest discrepancy between actual wins and Pythagorean Wins of any team last year and one of the highest in recent times. The idea that the 2022 Vikings lived a charmed life is also supported by Minnesota finishing with a below-average raw DVOA of -13.8% (per Football Outsiders).
In short, Minnesota was lucky and shouldn’t count on lady luck to come to their rescue in the coming season.

The Vikings parted company with some of their best-known faces in the off-season. Running Back Dalvin Cook, Wide Receiver Adam Thielen, Edge Rusher Za’Darius Smith, and Cornerback Patrick Peterson will not be suiting up for the Vikes this season. Their run defense will also be weakened by Linebacker Eric Kendricks and Defensive Tackle Dalvin Tomlinson leaving as free agents. They did bring in a useful pass rusher in Marcus Davenport from New Orleans and added cornerback Byron Murphy from the Cardinals.

Nevertheless, Thielen’s departure has been made more palatable by the emergence of star Wide Receiver, Justin Jefferson. One of only five players to start the 2023 season with a Madden Rating of 99, the LSU product was a First-team All-Pro in 2022. The Vikes’ offensive line features Pro Football Focus’ second top-rated Tackle, Christian Darrisaw, and another elite performer in their opposite Tackle Brian O’Neill.

While many of Minnesota’s core of veterans have departed, two Defensive standouts remain. Left Outside Linebacker Danielle Hunter made the Pro Bowl for the third time last year, while the venerable, Strong Safety Harrison Smith has been voted to the all-star game on six previous occasions.

Running Back and the Defensive Line look to be the biggest flaws in the Vikings’ makeup.

Kevin O’Connell is another of the NFL’s head coaches who is yet to reach the age of 40. The former Rams’ offensive coordinator compiled a 13–5 (72.2%) record in year one of his tenure.

When the NFL switched to a 17-game schedule, the extra game was an additional inter-conference match. As a result, the Vikings’ slate of games for the coming season includes matchups with all four conference finalists from a year ago. They face the Eagles in Week 2 and the 49ers in Week 7. They play the Chiefs as part of facing all four AFC West teams, but their extra game is against the Bengals. At least the division is more forgiving, and much may depend on their two games with the Lions during the final three weeks of the season.

Byron Murphy should be a good fit in the Vikes’ defensive system as he is better suited to a zone scheme than playing man-to-man and Minnesota uses more zone coverage than almost anyone else. Last term, the Vikings had issues protecting Quarterback Kirk Cousins up the middle, indeed they were the worst in the league in this regard and will need to improve if they want to make the playoffs and advance through them.

No one is ever likely to give Cousins the nickname prime-time. His much-maligned efforts in the playoffs, or Sunday and Monday Night Football have resulted in a 12-20 win record in those games — in stark contrast to his strong efforts in less high-profile matches. The ex-Washington passer is going to need to change this narrative if the Vikings are going to reach a first Super Bowl in 47 years.

Minnesota is not the favourite to lift the NFC North crown despite comfortably winning the title last year, and now their nemesis — the Green Bay Packers — no longer have Aaron Rodgers at the helm. The Vikings were unbelievably lucky last season but, that said, the bookmakers seem all too well aware of this fact. Given that Minnesota — who won 13 games in 2022 — are a similar price to win the NFC North as the three-win Chicago Bears — it looks as though this is already baked into the prices.

Even the Bears are feeling bullish

The Bears struggled to a 3-14 record last season and ended up with the first overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft — courtesy of Houston’s heroics. In a quarterback-heavy draft, Chicago decided that they would stay with incumbent triggerman Justin Fields and instead dealt the first overall pick to Carolina. In doing so, in addition to a raft of picks, they received wideout D. J. Moore.

Pythagorean Wins aren’t too useful at the extremes of performance, as teams with three wins or less almost always comfortably exceed their actual wins, and teams with 14 or more wins almost always come off worse. And so it is with Da Bears whose Pythagorean Wins total was closer to a 5-12 mark (5.09). The Bears entered the off-season with approximately $118.1M in cap space and look to have invested it wisely.

Chicago was very active during the off-season. Guard Nate Davis was brought over from Tennessee and the Bears also secured the services of Linebacker Tremaine Edmunds — one of the best LBs in the league in coverage. Twice a Pro Bowler, he will now man the middle linebacker role for the Bears which has been inhabited in the past by the likes of Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary, and Brian Urlacher.

Receiver Moore will immediately become the Offense’s marquee player. As well as Edmunds, the Defense will feature Free Safety, Eddie Jackson, who also has two Pro Bowl nods to his name and headlines the secondary.

Until Fields can finally display the passing ability to go with his running skills, quarterback remains a question mark. Surprisingly, for a blue-collar outfit like the former Monsters of the Midway, the Bears lack quality in the trenches, with their defensive line packed with solid, unspectacular performers. Also, within their secondary, Chicago’s cornerbacks remain a big question mark, and the Bears’ special teams unit is anything but.

The schedule looks friendly, with several contests against modest opposition, both within the NFC North and outside it. They also don’t have a game where they will be on less rest than their opponents all season.

Matt Eberflus faced a baptism of fire in his first year in an NFL head coaching role but is projected to find things a bit easier in year two.

There has been nothing wrong with Fields as a running threat, evinced by his 1,000 rushing yards. But he is a work in progress as a pocket passer. With the success-starved Lions installed as divisional favourites, the Vikings highly fortunate to win as many games as they did in 2022, the Packers no longer boasting Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, and with the Bears’ strong offseason, there are reasons for optimism even among the most bearish of Chicago sports fans.

You can’t hurry Love

83 passes.

That is the sum total of regular season throws made by Green Bay’s Jordan Love during his first three years in the NFL. The Packers didn’t want to rush him along, but they knew from the minute they drafted him in the 2020 first round — putting incumbent Quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ nose right out of joint — that this day would come. For the first time since 2007, the Packers will begin the season with a quarterback not named Aaron Rodgers under center.

The Rodgers era came to an ignominious end. At one point last season the Packers seemed to need an act of God/miracle Double to reach the playoffs. Having seemingly done the difficult bit they hosted Detroit knowing a win on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field against a Lions team used to playing in a dome and who were only playing for pride — no pun intended — and still lost.

Rodgers was the main departure but not the only one over the off-season. Safety Adrian Amos is a significant loss, and the receiving corps, already thin — much to Rodgers’ chagrin — was decimated, as Wide Receivers Allen Lazard and Randall Cobb left in free agency, along with Tight Ends Robert Tonyan and Marcedes Lewis. The Pack used the 13th pick in the draft to select Iowa Linebacker Lukas Van Ness.

A Pro Bowler in 2020, Running Back Aaron Jones had another fine season last term. The Packers had to do without outstanding Left Tackle David Bakhtiari last year. The three-time Pro Bowler will be back this term and will again line up next to Elgton Jenkins, who made his second Pro Bowl in 2022.

All three levels of the Packers’ Defense feature standouts. Defensive End Kenny Clark has been a top performer since the Pack used a first-round pick on him, in 2016. The linebacking core is a strength, thanks to De’Vondre Campbell and Rashan Gary. In the secondary, Corner Jaire Alexander made Second-team All-Pro after another standout campaign.

The question marks for the Pack revolve around where Love is at, and their kicking game.

A docket of games that sees the Cheeseheads Bay face Denver, Las Vegas, Carolina, and Arizona gives grounds for optimism. The four-time Super Bowl winners face four matches against the solid AFC West, but the NFC North is no powerhouse division, and their extra AFC opponent is the Steelers.

Matt LaFleur was the first Head Coach in NFL history to win at least 13 games in each of his first three seasons. That streak came to an end last season and, while an improvement is very possible this year, 13 wins would be pushing it.

If Love is green, so are his receivers — likely top two wideouts Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs also coincidentally have just 83 regular season-catches between them. It seems strange to see Green Bay expected to finish at the back of the pack — they haven’t finished bottom of the NFC North since 2005. For years it seemed that the hardy perennials, Green Bay found ways to win the division while their flaky divisional rivals found ways to throw it away. Last year suggested that may no longer be the case. Packers fans will be hoping that Love conquers all.

NFC South
Dome sweet dome

Maybe the Saints’ prayers have finally been answered. Often overlooked, the schedules that NFL teams face are a significant part of deciding a team’s performance each season. New Orleans potentially faces the easiest schedule of opponents this season — the Saints won’t be playing any of the top five teams in the Super Bowl betting, their division is one of the league’s poorest, and like the other NFC South teams, the AFC division they are slated to play against is arguably the league’s weakest: the AFC South. A team that plays under a roof — and is unused to brutal weather conditions — New Orleans has 13 games in a dome this year and no cold weather matches.

But before we start the carnival on Bourbon Street and award the Saints a second Super Bowl title to go with their Super Bowl XLIV triumph, the Saints did finish with a 7-10 record last year, though it should be said that 2022 was their first losing season since 2016.

There were some extenuating circumstances last season. They were -11 in turnover differential — the second-worst mark in the league — and were slightly unfortunate to only win seven games last season as their Pythagorean Wins total was higher (8.71).

How the Saints have needed salvation at Quarterback. For a franchise where Drew Brees started all but two games between 2006 and 2017, mediocre talents like Jameis Winston, Andy Dalton, Taysom Hill, Trevor Siemian, and Ian Book have all taken at least 100 snaps under center in recent years. While off-season addition, Derek Carr, may not be the messiah, he is a starting-calibre NFL quarterback. Running Back Jamaal Williams is a decent addition, but the defense lost accomplished Edge Rusher Marcus Davenport.

The Saints have two elite skill position players, but one will miss the start of the season, while the other hasn’t been on the field as much as New Orleans would have liked. Running Back Alvin Kamara will miss three games after violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy. Standout wideout, Michael Thomas has played less than 500 snaps over the past three years combined. Nevertheless, NOLA can call on Williams, who surpassed the great Barry Sanders’ Detroit Lions single-season touchdown scoring record last season. Ryan Ramczyk anchors the Saints’ offensive line from his right tackle spot.

Defensively, Cam Jordan has been selected to the Pro Bowl for six straight years. Linebacker Demario Davis finally got his long-awaited Pro Bowl acknowledgement last year and was named Second-team All-Pro, while the Saints have two elite players in their secondary. The Saints excelled with their 2017 draft class. As well as selecting Ramczyk, they drafted Marshon Lattimore, who has become one of the NFL’s premier cornerbacks. Kamara was also selected that year, as well as Marcus Williams, Trey Hendrickson, and Alex Anzalone, who all now star for other teams. The Honey Badger, Tyrann Mathieu is a three-time Pro Bowler at free safety.

Despite being an upgrade over the busted flushes and never-wozzers he replaces, the main doubt about the Saints rests on whether Derek Carr can deliver at quarterback.

Their schedule should prove more hospitable than it did 12 months ago. Last year, the teams they played won 145 games. This year their opponents are predicted to win just 128.5.

The jury is out on Head Coach, Dennis Allen. After an unsuccessful stint with the Raiders, and a losing season in The Big Easy last year, he possesses a lacklustre 15–38 (28.3%) record as a head coach.

With their new Quarterback, it’s likely the Saints will run a lot of screens and short passing plays this season. How far NOLA can progress on the road to Super Bowl LVIII, will have a lot to do with their new Carr.

Competitive Falcons still flying under the radar

Three teams either won — or lost by only one score — in at least 15 regular season games last year. No surprise that one was the Super Bowl champion, Kansas City. The second was the Buffalo Bills, who were arguably the most impressive team for much of last season. The third? The Atlanta Falcons. For full disclosure, they were trailing by three scores until the fourth quarter of a couple of those games. But, by and large, the Falcons were competitive.

For the second year, the Falcs ended up with a 7-10 record but 2022 was the Falcons’ first year since 2007 without Matt Ryan under center.
Jessie Bates was arguably one of the marquee free agents this off-season, and the Falcons landed the signature of one of the league’s finest safeties. Cornerback Casey Hayward has parted ways with the team, but there have been several other additions to the defense. Calais Campbell will bring leadership to that group, while Defensive End David Onyemata and Linebacker Bud Dupree are solid additions.

Swiss-army knife Cordarrelle Patterson might be listed as a running back but can count wide receiver and return specialist as other specialities on his CV. Kyle Pitts is a wide receiver masquerading as a tight end and a huge matchup problem for opposing defenses. The Falcons’ third elite offensive player is Right Guard Chris Lindstrom, who was named Second-team All-Pro, and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ top player at his position in 2022.

Twice a Pro Bowler, Grady Jarrett has long been the shining light on Atlanta’s defense, however, he now has a supporting cast of elite performers. 2020 Second-team All-Pro, Jessie Bates will hugely upgrade their secondary and, as well as having been elected to six Pro Bowls, the venerable Calais Campbell will bring a great locker room presence to Atlanta. The Falcons’ other existing defensive star, along with Jarrett, Cornerback A.J. Terrell, has been an impact player since Atlanta used the 16th pick of the 2020 NFL Draft to acquire him.

As well as the uncertainty at quarterback, Atlanta’s linebacking corps remains its greatest area of concern.

Head Coach, Arthur Smith enters his third year in charge with a 14–20 (41.2%) record achieved during his first two seasons.

Potentially, Atlanta has as easy a schedule as anyone in the NFL, with AFC and NFC South opponents making up most of the opposition. As an NFC team, Atlanta has only eight home games this year, with nine road matches, but one of those away fixtures is at a neutral site, as they face Jacksonville at Wembley. One issue for a dome team is the pair of potentially cold weather games that they face in December, with road trips to face Chicago and the New York Jets.

The Falcons were 80/1 outsiders at the start of the 1998 season, which ended with their only Super Bowl appearance to date, and are a similar price this season. A repeat performance might be pushing it, but — like all four teams in the NFC South — a divisional pennant is not out of the question.

Oh, Carolina

The Carolina Panthers finished with a 7-10 record last year. Since their Super Bowl appearance in the 2015 season, they have only managed one winning season.

There were no excuses last year, the Panthers’ Adjusted Games Lost to injury were only 54 — over 20 below the league average (per Football Outsiders). They were also fortunate with fumble recoveries, with the Panthers recovering more than they had a right to expect.

Carolina did add some well-known faces to their Offense over the past few months with Miles Sanders projected to be their new starting running back and Adam Thielen and D. J. Chark joining the receiving corps.

The Panthers lack the star quality to even match the have-nots in their division. Former Eagle Miles Sanders is an elite running back, while Brian Burns is their defensive leader. Twice elected to the Pro Bowl, Burns was the Panthers’ first-round pick in 2019.

Their schedule pits them against some similarly underpowered teams, meaning a similar record to last year is quite likely. In common with all their division rivals — bar the Saints — quarterback is the big question mark for Carolina.

Frank Reich’s career as an NFL head coach began well in Indianapolis but he paid the penalty for a 3-5-1 start in the role last year. Nevertheless, he owns a 41–35–1 (53.9%) record as a head coach.

It will be interesting to see at what stage Carolina opts to throw Bryce Young into the action. The last time the Panthers took a quarterback with the first overall pick was Cam Newton — in 2011 — who led them to their second Super Bowl appearance. For the Young Quarterback, the journey starts here.

NFC South rivals looking to pass the Buccs

Three years after winning their second Lombardi Trophy, the Buccs find themselves sans Tom Brady, and outsiders within the NFC South. 2022 saw Tampa finish with the worst points differential in the NFC South, and yet they won the division.

Tampa was quite unlucky with injuries last term. Football Outsiders put their Adjusted Games Lost at 113.9, well above the league average. However, the Buccs have more than $76M in dead cap money, sunken treasure that encumbers their efforts to return to the Playoffs.

While Running Back Leonard Fournette, Wide Receiver Julio Jones, and Safety Keanu Neal are all somewhat past their prime, all have at one time, or another been top performers and all departed in the off-season

For all that Tampa will be without TB12 this season, they still possess several superstars on their roster. The wide receiving group features elite players Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. Up front, Right Tackle Tristan Wirfs was named Second-team All-Pro. Center Ryan Jensen made the Pro Bowl in 2021, however he won’t play in 2023 as he had ongoing issues with a knee problem dating back to last year’s training camp.

On the other side of the ball, Vita Vea lines up at nose tackle and is another former Pro Bowler. The venerable Lavonte David enters his twelfth season and has maintained his excellent form at inside linebacker. The secondary is headlined by Cornerback Jamel Dean and free safety Antoine Winfield Jr.

Like the Saints, the Buccs weaknesses lie in their quarterback uncertainty and on special teams.

The schedule looks very manageable in terms of the quality of their opponents. One scheduling anomaly sees Tampa playing six road games in eight weeks from Week 8 onwards. Tampa also has its Bye Week in Week 5 — the earliest possible break a team can have and not the optimum time to derive the most benefit. The flip side is that they gain a slight edge from having four home games — in the hot Florida weather — in the opening seven weeks.

Todd Bowles’ two previous head coaching stints — one a brief interim role in Miami — produced an overall losing record prior to taking over at the Buccs last season. His lifetime record now stands at 34–51 (40%

Tampa was the worst rushing team in the league last year and, even in the pass-happy modern NFL that is a problem. They would have been happy to pass if Tom Brady was still under center but replacing TB12 with Baker Mayfield or Kyle Trask is obviously a huge downgrade — the Buccs are 2018 first overall pick Mayfield’s fourth team in three years.

Pundits can dust down all the clichés about no one player being bigger than the club, but not having Tom Brady this season seriously reduces Tampa’s postseason potential. Whether the two-time Super Bowl champs can steady the ship in his absence remains to be seen.

NFC West
Purdy set to lead The New Avengers

Next man up. The Baseball phrase is more often used about the cross-town Giants, but San Francisco’s Football team had to display that ethos as one after another of their triggermen succumbed to the injury bug last season. Trey Lance only made it to Week 2. Jimmy Garoppolo stepped up to the plate until he got hurt, which meant an opportunity for Mr Irrelevant. That is not meant disrespectfully to Jimmy G’s replacement, Brock Purdy, but is the name given to the last player selected in the final round of the NFL draft each year. In 2022, Purdy was the footnote to the draft, but he quickly belied his lowly position and guided the Niners to the NFC championship game. Then he got hurt, which meant, San Fran had to turn to Josh Johnson — a man who has had more clubs than Tiger Woods. Finally, the 49ers ran out of quarterbacks and ran out of road, losing to the Eagles. San Francisco owned the NFC West last year, running the table against division foes.

While protecting the ball is a skill, turnovers tend to be somewhat random and results in that category aren’t replicated year-on-year. The Niners benefitted from a +13 turnover differential in 2022 — the highest in the league. However, Football Outsiders’ raw DVOA ratings suggest that San Fran merited their 13-4 record last season, as they finished second in the league with a DVOA of 27.6%.

The Niners suffered some attrition to their roster over the off-season. Jimmy Garoppolo has crossed the state line to become a Raider, while solid Right Tackle Mike McGlinchey signed with Denver. Former first-round pick, Safety Jimmie Ward left in free agency, while old reliable — kicker Robbie Gould — has also departed. San Fran has prioritised their defensive line in recent seasons and the addition of excellent Defensive Tackle Javon Hargrave confirms their commitment to the trenches.

No one has more elite players than the 49ers, with 11 of their number among the game’s top players. They traded for Christian McCaffrey, mid-season, and he was graded as the league’s second-best running back by Pro Football Focus. Run CMC is joined in the backfield by the man who has perennially been the answer to the question: why do some teams still keep a fullback on their roster: Kyle Juszczyk. San Fran possesses three elite receiving threats. Deebo Samuel made the 2021 Pro Bowl, while Brandon Aiyuk can’t be far away from receiving the same recognition. Second only to Travis Kelce among Pro Football Focus’ tight ends, George Kittle was named Second-team All-Pro last year. PFF’s number one player at his position, Trent Williams is the (red and) Gold standard when it comes to offensive tackles and was a First-team All-Pro in 2022.

San Francisco possesses elite players on all three levels of their defense, with three players making First-team All-Pro. Up front, the Niners have never regretted using the second overall pick in 2019 on Nick Bosa, Pro Football Focus’ third top-rated edge defender. Fred Warner ranked behind only Bobby Wanger among PFF’s inside linebackers, while Talanoa Hufanga belied his fifth-round pick status to become a star in his second season. Warner is joined in the linebacking corps by Dre Greenlaw, for whom Pro Bowl recognition can’t be far away, and the same could be said for Cornerback Charvarius Ward.

Kyle Shanahan enters his seventh season as the Niners’ Head Coach with a 58–49 (54.2%) overall record and remains a sharp offensive mind.

The 49ers will have the date of 3rd December circled, as they will have a chance to avenge their conference game defeat to the Philadelphia Eagles. Like the rest of the NFC West, the five-time Super Bowl Champions face the AFC North for their interconference games. Although their additional AFC opponent is a division winner, the fact that it’s the Jaguars isn’t as tough as it might have been. A five-week stretch that includes both games with nearest rivals Seattle, the Philadelphia team who ended their season last time around, and at a powerful Baltimore squad, from Week 12 onwards, is likely to be pivotal to their season. One noteworthy scheduling wrinkle is that, according to Sharpfootballanalysis.com, San Fran’s combined opponents will have an extra 20 days of rest heading into playing the Niners — four of their opponents will meet San Fran after a Bye Week.

There will be an adjustment on defense, where Defensive Coordinator Steve Wilks likes to blitz much more than his two predecessors. That unit finished first in both yards and points allowed in 2022.

San Fran’s trade for Running Back Christian McCaffrey confirmed that they are clearly in “win now” mode. Run CMC was the dual rushing/receiving threat they expected and the Niners were 12-2 in the games he played in the red and gold. Their only losses came to the Super Bowl champion Chiefs, and when they ran out of viable Quarterback options in Philadelphia.

With no other obvious weakness, whether the 49ers can strike gold and add a sixth Lombardi Trophy is likely to be determined by quarterback play. Who would start under center was a big question mark entering the off-season. With Jimmy Garoppolo having moved on, the Niners also traded Trey Lance to Dallas. Sam Darnold — like Lance a former top-five pick — has experience, but a chequered track record. So, this is now the Brock Purdy show and the 49ers’ hopes of a sixth gold rush rest on his shoulders.

Seahawks ready to swoop if 49ers’ Gold Rush fails to pan out

If you draft well, you do well. With a solid bank of recent draft picks, the sky should be the limit for the Seahawks. They stockpiled selections from trading Quarterback Russell Wilson and have parlayed those picks into a solid roster. Young players played a big role in the Seahawks making the Playoffs with a 9-8 record last season, before they were downed 41-23 by San Francisco on super wildcard weekend.

The men from the Pacific Northwest were somewhat fortunate with injuries last season. Football Outsiders pegged their Adjusted Starts Lost at 53 — over 25 fewer than the league average. Seattle aired it out more last year — they will probably regress from the situation where they were the only team to hit on over 50% of their passes of at least 20 yards.

Free agency saw the return of a Seattle legend, as Linebacker Bobby Wagner re-joined the team after one season with divisional rivals the LA Rams. An already powerful receiving corps was further augmented by the drafting of Ohio State’s Jaxon Smith-Njigba. Running Back Rashaad Penny, who has helped carry the load in recent seasons, signed with Philadelphia.

In terms of elite performers, Kenneth Walker III topped 1,000 rushing yards as a rookie, while DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett form one of the NFL’s top receiving tandems.

For all the critics ready to write Bobby Wagner off as being passed his best, the middle linebacker graded out as Pro Football Focus’ top inside ‘backer, and he made Second-team All-Pro as part of an underperforming Rams team last year. Jamal Adams missed almost all last season through injury but will return to form an exceptional safety pairing with Quandre Diggs, who has been named to the past three Pro Bowls.

Defensive line is probably the weakest area of an otherwise highly competitive Seahawks’ roster.

The addition of Smith-Njigba should allow Offensive Coordinator Shane Waldron to employ more of the 11 personnel packages that he prefers (3 wide receivers, 1 tight end, and 1 running back.)

One of the most experienced head coaches in the league, Pete Carroll will turn 72 during the season. He has always won at least seven games each year since taking over in the Pacific Northwest and owns a 172–123–1 (58.3%) lifetime record.

The received wisdom used to be that West Coast teams struggle when forced to play in an early kick-off in the Eastern Time Zone — essentially a 10 A.M. start time as far as their body clocks are concerned. The Seahawks have had no such problems in recent years. Including a game in London, they have won 14 of 17 such matches, so there won’t be any excuses for underperforming in their four EST games in 2023. That said, Seattle has their Bye Week in Week 5 — the earliest possible break a team can have, and not the optimum time to derive the most benefit. Seattle’s pivotal stretch of games looks to be from around Week 12 onwards. The Seahawks face the Niners twice, as well as contests with NFC East heavyweights Philadelphia and Dallas.

There are certain key positions in the NFL. As well as quarterback, wide receiver, left tackle, edge rusher, and cornerback are all hugely valuable. Seattle started two rookie tackles and two rookie Corners last year, so a huge improvement can be expected in these key positions. One area which saw a drop-off as 2022 progressed, was the performance of Quarterback Geno Smith. Through nine games, Smith’s passer eating of 107.2 was a pleasant surprise. Over the following eight weeks, that number dropped to 94.2. Whether the Seahawks can soar again this season will have much to do with whether Smith’s 2023 campaign looks more like the first half of his 2022 season, or the second.

Rams to the slaughter?

In LA, the sequel is rarely as good as the original. So it was with the Rams, who fell from Super Bowl champions to a 5-12 record. The Rams went all in on winning a Lombardi Trophy and triumphed in Super Bowl LVI. However, as a consequence, their salary cap situation is such that they have a handful of stars, and the rest of the roster are replacement-level players. LA has close to $75M tied up in dead money. Having sent their top draft picks to other teams over recent seasons in return for elite players, while in win-now mode, this year was the first time they’d had a first round pick since 2016.

Last season, the Rams’ Offensive Line was a revolving door with an incredible 14 different linemen getting work on that unit last year. OL? More like ER. Injuries to Quarterback Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp saw the Offense finish last in yards per game. According to Football Outsiders, they had the second-most severe injury list of any team — 146.6 Adjusted Starts Lost.

Jalen Ramsey was the biggest defection from the Rams during the off-season, with the star cornerback signing with Miami. Edge Rusher Leonard Floyd and Kicker Matt Gay are also among the departed.

In recent years, the Rams have had a star-studded roster. Now their remaining elite players are Cooper Kupp and Aaron Donald. Kupp suffered a season-ending injury in 2022 after having secured the receiving Triple Crown the previous season — leading the league in catches, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. Put simply, Aaron Donald is the most valuable non-quarterback in the NFL and was a First-team All-Pro last season.

When people hear the name the LA Rams, it conjures images of the winners of Super Bowl LVI. The reality is that there are doubts about Matthew Stafford’s health while areas like linebacker, the defensive secondary, and the Rams’ kicking game are sub-standard.

Still only 37, Head Coach, Sean McVay has amassed a 67–41 (62%) career mark. One of the game’s brightest offensive minds, his play calling is likely to be severely tested by the meagre resources at his disposal this season.

When it comes to scheduling, first and foremost, the Rams will be much less rested than their opponents in 2023. The teams they face will have a combined 17 extra days of preparation time before facing LA. Although the Rams get matches against some of their fellow third-place finishers from last year, that might not be quite the advantage you would expect, as last year’s third-placed finishers, the Saints are actually the favourites to win their division this year. Eight matches against NFC East and AFC North foes also make for a tough docket of games.

This year’s LA Story will be a budget production, with the Rams likely to field the league’s cheapest defense. They rolled the dice and came up with double sixes with a Super Bowl triumph. A sequel looks unlikely as many former understudies will be pushed into the spotlight this season.

The Cards stacked against them

Arizona finished last season with a 4-13 record, and their starting Quarterback, Kyler Murray will not be fit to start the season, following an ACL tear — and there is no definitive date for his return. Two of their divisional opponents made the playoffs last year, and the third were the 2021 Super Bowl champions. As recently as October 2021, Arizona was 7-0 and among the Super Bowl front-runners, but their roster has been denuded, including losing a future Hall of Fame defensive lineman and one of the league’s leading receivers in the off-season.

As well as Murray’s injury, Football Outsiders’ analysis puts their Adjusted Games Lost at 113.9, nearly 35 games above the league average. Prior to last season, Arizona’s expected win total sat at 8.5 games, and teams that underachieved in one season as Arizona did, usually improve the following year. However, the redbirds face a tough task to continue this trend.

JJ Watt will be in Canton one day, but for this season the former three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year’s only involvement in Football will be as an investor in Burnley F.C. Another Defensive End Zach Allen left in free agency, along with Cornerback Byron Murphy. Three-time First-team All-Pro Wide Receiver DeAndre Hopkins also parted company with the team, as did fellow wideout A. J. Green, who has made seven Pro Bowl appearances.

It’s a sad reflection of the Redbirds’ issues that their only elite player, Strong Safety Budda Baker handed in a trade request in the off-season. Still a Cardinal, the five-time Pro Bowler is the only bright spot on a roster that looks to be the league’s weakest, at least until Kyler Murray returns. Quarterback, running back, the offensive and defensive lines, and the linebacking corps are all sub-standard. The O-Line may be the team’s chief concern — Danish-born starting center, Hjalte Froholdt allowed seven sacks in six starts last season.

Jonathan Gannon was the Eagles’ defensive coordinator last year and now gets his first taste of a head coaching position in Arizona. The Cardinals will have the youngest coaching staff in league history — the team has several defensive players older than 30-year-old Defensive Coordinator Nick Rallis.

The first thing to say in regard to Arizona’s schedule is that, at the time of writing, they are underdogs for each of their 17 games. A three-game stretch from Week 3 onwards pits them against a trio of teams that won playoff games in 2022. They entertain the much-fancied Cowboys, then fly to San Francisco, before hosting Cincinnati. The Cards will have to wait until Week 14 for their Bye Week — later than ideal — and this warm weather team will be travelling to the cold environments of both Pennsylvania franchises and Chicago, in December.

During the off-season, NFL Futures bettors look for indications from each team’s front office, little tells that indicates the current mindset of the franchise. By opting to drop down the pecking order during this year’s draft and, in doing so, acquiring an extra first round [ick in 2024, while the Cards aren’t folding, they don’t appear to be going all in this year. The release of Hopkins early in the off-season means they take the short-term hit of $21M but have more cap space next year.

With several high-profile departures, the Cards have decided to shuffle the pack. The Super Bowl will take place at the home of high stakes Poker, Las Vegas. Whether Arizona has enough aces to take a hand in the playoffs remains doubtful. Far from flush with talent, perhaps their fortunes are on the turn, but a flop is most likely.

At the time of writing, Kansas City heads the Super Bowl Outright Winner market betting, at 6/1, ahead of the team they beat to clinch Super Bowl LVII, the Philadelphia Eagles. Cincinnati and San Francisco — who have fallen one game short of reaching the big game in back-to-back seasons —come next in the betting, along with a Buffalo Bills team who looked Super Bowl-bound for much of last year.

Whatever the form book and the betting markets tell us, each NFL season sees surprising teams make the playoffs. In 33 consecutive seasons since 1990, at least four teams have made the postseason having missed out the year before.

Predicting who’ll make the final table in Vegas come February is far from straightforward. But two teams will earn the right to contest the Super Bowl in the Las Vegas stadium known as The Death Star. In the early hours of Friday morning, the adventure begins, in a galaxy not so far, far away. The intended destination for all 32 teams will be Allegiant Stadium in Paradise, Nevada for Super Bowl LVIII — for fans of the NFL, it’s Football heaven.