Bill BarnwellESPN staff writer4 minute reading
It’s time for one of my favorite annual offseason features. I’ve taken a closer look at the playmakers for each of the NFL’s 32 teams and ranked them, worst to first, for what they could do in the 2023 campaign, all else being equal.
I say “could” and not “will”, of course, because this is a thought exercise. I’m not trying to project which team will have the best offense this season. Instead, I try to separate a team’s playmakers — its running backs, wide receivers and tight ends exclusively — to assess how they would perform outside of their current offense. In other words, if we gave each team an average quarterback, offensive line and playcaller and made them play at an average pace, which would have the league’s best offense?
This is a long article so I won’t belabor the point. What I need to do before we start, though, is review the rules I used when formulating these rankings:
This is only about on-field performance for the 2023 season. While I might bring up contractual information or where a player was drafted, the only factors that matter are how we would expect a player to perform this season alongside his current teammates. There are no concerns about how much it will cost to acquire that player or how he will fare in 2024 and beyond.
Obviously, I want to use the players’ recent performances to help gauge how they would fare regardless of their surroundings, but that’s an inexact science. It’s also hard to do for the rookie draft picks who have yet to play an NFL snap, so I’m leaning more towards prior projections and the round where a player landed to assess how they will fare in 2023.
Injury history and suspensions matter. While it’s impossible to reliably project an individual player’s chances of getting injured over a 17-game season, it seems fair enough to use a player’s history as a gauge of their potential availability in 2023. I’m not writing anyone off completely, but it’s only realistically project Michael Thomas to miss more time than Travis Kelce.
For players recovering from injuries expected to affect them heading into the season — such as Breece Hall or Zach Ertz — I’ve tried to factor in reports of when they’re expected to return and an element of ramp-up time in my estimates. I have also suspended players who are suspended – Jameson Williams is a notable example – and made minor adjustments for players who may face disciplinary action. Since we don’t have any concrete information on who may or may not hold out during training camp, I’m treating all holdout candidates as likely to show up to camp and play.
Wide receivers are weighted more heavily than running backs or tight ends. This one is the key. The top of the running back market on extensions of three years or more is Christian McCaffrey, who makes $16 million a year. At tight end, it’s Darren Waller, whose extension with the Raiders was worth $17 million per year.
Both numbers are less than Christian Kirk averaged on his deal. Sixteen wide receivers make more than $17 million a year, and while there is some fuzzy math at the end of his contract, Tyreek Hill is on 30 million dollars Per year.
Wide receivers are valued accordingly as a result in this stretch, with the most valuable playmakers being guys like Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase. I ran into superstars like Kelce and Nick Chubb a bit, but there are a handful of wide receivers who are valued before any running back or tight end. As a result, you’ll find that teams that have a superstar receiver (or two) rank ahead of teams that have good running backs or tight ends but lack top-tier wideouts.
The focus is on elite players and a team’s top five contributors. While I considered hundreds of players, this article will already be long enough without mentioning every backup running back, fourth wide receiver, and second tight end. Most teams can find competent players to fill out their roster, but it’s harder to find superstars who can win you games on their own. These players are valued accordingly.
While I generally focused my rankings by considering the top five contributors for each team, where the rankings were close, I usually broke the ties by considering depth and what a team has in the sixth through eighth spots.
Efficiency matters. I’ve done my best to try and normalize the differences between what players can do and how their team played, which isn’t always the same. Pace is a key factor. Consider that the Vikings ran a league-high 1,118 plays last season, while the Bengals ranked 31st with 996. At Cincinnati’s pace, it would be like the Vikings would have to play nearly four extra games to get more numbers. That’s a product of how Cincinnati’s coaches choose to play and the disaster that was Minnesota’s 2022 defense, not player skill.
As a result, you’ll see a lot of metrics that use averages as opposed to cumulative performance. Two that often come up for receivers are yards per route and target share. Yards per route is the average number of yards a receiver gained when running an eligible route, regardless of whether he caught the ball or was even targeted on the play. Target rate is the percentage of time a pass-catcher was targeted when running a route. Neither statistic is perfect, but each will help us get a feel for whether a receiver was able to create opportunities when he was on the field.
With that out of the way, let’s get to the rankings. If you’ve been reading the past few years, you’ve noticed that one team consistently finishes at the bottom of the charts. Well, if you were looking for something new in #32, you will be disappointed…
ARI | ATL | BALL | BUF | CAR | CHI | CIN
CLE | VALLEY | THE | THAT | GB | HOU | IN
JAX | KC | LAC | LAR | LV | MIA | MINE
NE | NO | NEW | NEW | PHI | PIT | SF
SE | TB | TI | WSH
2022 rank: 32 | 2021 rank: 32