We’re roughly a month away from the start of training camps, where preparations for the 2023 NFL season begin in earnest.
Prediction and projection debates have dominated the offseason, but how accurate are these assessments? Are the expectations too high for some teams to live up to? And who is flying under the radar, perhaps ready to surprise as division or conference contenders?
Here’s a look at some of the overhyped and overlooked teams of the offseason.
New York Jets
It feels like everyone is jumping on the JETS, Jets, Jets, Jets bandwagon. The buzz is understandable, as Aaron Rodgers is the most talented quarterback the Jets have had in a generation. But did the acquisition of the 39-year-old, four-time league MVP really make the Jets a Super Bowl contender? Simple answer: probably not. While many around the league believe he certainly gives the Jets a legitimate shot, that’s quite an accomplishment. The instant success Tom Brady and the Buccaneers experienced in 2020 is rare.
It’s true that Rodgers, who turns 40 in December, is making the Jets better. Under his leadership of the offense, New York should now become more balanced, and it is not quite just as much pressure on the talented, but young, defense. Rodgers knows the playbook that Nathaniel Hackett brought with him from Green Bay after a short detour in Denver. But chemistry can take time to develop, and Father Time is undefeated. Is Rodgers still physically and mentally at a level where he can take over games? That is the great unknown. And are the Jets and Rodgers really better top to bottom than the elite teams in the conference (Chiefs, Bengals, Bills, etc.)? Not likely.
NFL 2023 offseason winners and losers: Be careful what you wish for, Aaron Rodgers
Props to rookie head coach Mike McDaniel for getting the Dolphins into the playoffs last season for the first time in six years. And this offseason, the Dolphins continued to swing for the fences, bringing in defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and then landing Jalen Ramsey in a trade a year after a stunning acquisition of Tyreek Hill. Miami is now considered a Super Bowl contender, but the hype feels a bit overblown here as well.
Rival talent evaluators agree the Dolphins have plenty to work with, but they still have questions. There isn’t a lot of homegrown talent on this roster, they warn, and that can make locker room chemistry a bit of a challenge. And of course, the biggest question mark hangs over quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who is looking to bounce back from a concussion-plagued season and prove he can stay on the field after dealing with serious injuries both in college and in the pros. If healthy, Tagovailoa could make a significant impact. He got off to an 8-1 start in 2022, but wasn’t the same during the season, losing four straight and missing the final two games after returning to concussion protocol.
Jerry Jones and the fans of his team always believe that this is their year. There is always an apology for the previous season’s shortcomings and a declaration that they are finally ready to make a run in the Super Bowl.
This year’s scapegoat is departed offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. Coach Mike McCarthy believes the offense will improve under his leadership. However, McCarthy’s demise in Green Bay came amid criticism that his offense was unimaginative, stale and predictable. Is this the year he gets his groove back? The acquisition of Brandin Cooks could help, but the Cowboys will likely miss Ezekiel Elliott, at least as a goal-line threat. (He had 12 rushing touchdowns last season.) They could also miss tight end Dalton Schultz. The defense should once again thrive under Dan Quinn’s leadership, but it’s debatable whether Dak Prescott has enough support to take the Cowboys on a deep playoff run.
Los Angeles Chargers
Desperate to take his prized quarterback and offense to another level, coach Brandon Staley went out and lured Kellen Moore to LA. The Chargers believe Moore will be the difference maker and Justin Herbert will take them on a deep playoff run. NFL schedulers are also buying in, giving the Chargers six primetime games this season. But expectations must probably be tempered. Moore could very well help Herbert and the offense in some respects. However, the play caller was pretty inconsistent in Dallas (was that his fault, or McCarthy’s?), so he needs to prove himself first. And on top of that, Staley and his players must prove they can do better in these crucial, high-pressure situations.
There is a lot of buzz surrounding the Lions, who last season came back from 1-6 to flirt with a playoff spot before falling just short at 9-8. Now, after another busy free agency and draft (including two first-round picks), the Lions are a popular pick to contend this season. The exposure from “Hard Knocks” probably helps, as does trainer Dan Campbell’s colorful personality. And the lovable loser to fight for transformation is always popular.
While some rival scouts believe the Lions are legit, others classify them as yet another overhyped team, and you can see why. It’s true that the NFC North is wide open and that 9-8 finish represents an improvement after four straight double-digit losing seasons. However, the Lions still have more to do before they can truly contend. A good bit of change in the skill position groups and in the secondary translates into a reset in key areas. As we’ve seen with many teams, strong chemistry doesn’t develop overnight. And last year’s success translates into a tougher schedule: After entering 2022 with the fifth-easiest schedule, in 2023 the Lions will play what projects to be the 13th-easiest schedule.
Should we blame the weak division? The small media market? Either way, the Jaguars continue to fly largely under the radar despite last season’s performance. Not only did Jacksonville rise from 3-7 to 9-8 and reach the postseason for the first time in six seasons, the Jaguars won a playoff game behind an impressive comeback performance by Trevor Lawrence, and then the Chiefs were roughed up in a 27-20 loss in the AFC Divisional Round. Now with one season in Doug Pederson’s offense under his belt, look for the young quarterback and his offense to take another step forward. The Jaguars should win the AFC South again and position themselves to build on last year’s postseason success.
The Browns didn’t get the performance they wanted from Deshaun Watson in his first season as the Browns quarterback. Watson, who was signed to a $230 million guaranteed deal, went 3-3 as a starter and looked like a shell of himself. He hadn’t played in 700 days, so rust should have been expected. But now that he’s reacclimated to the game, the Browns appear to have a good chance to improve on last season’s 7-10 record. Watson should show improved efficiency and chemistry with his wide receivers. And the offseason additions of defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and pass rusher Za’Darius Smith should translate into improvements on that side of the ball as well. If all goes according to plan and everyone performs up to their potential, Cleveland could challenge for the AFC North crown.
Los Angeles Rams
After finishing the 2021 season with a Super Bowl victory, the Rams were disappointing last year after injuries and a lack of depth ravaged Sean McVay’s team. The Rams also paid the price for trading so many prime draft picks for aging veteran stars. But a year later, they may be ready for a rebound.
Rival talent evaluators disagree about the Rams’ potential, but their three main stars — Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp and Aaron Donald — remain front and center. If healthy, they should be able to lead a turnaround. The Rams didn’t have the cap space to make significant moves in free agency, but the experience gained by players forced into action by injuries last season and an infusion of youth from 14 draft picks should translate into improvement. The NFC West is a total mystery, largely due to the 49ers’ dire quarterback situation. The Seahawks hope to return to the playoffs after last season’s surprising success. But the Rams could certainly return to contention if health is on their side.
Green Bay Packers
Rodgers’ departure seemingly opens the door for anyone to win the NFC North, a division the Packers had won for three straight seasons until the Vikings ended the streak last year. But if Jordan Love is as good as the Green Bay brass thinks, it’s very possible that this team avoids regression. Love knows Matt LaFleur’s offense well. With a year of experience, the Packers’ young wide receivers should perform more efficiently and consistently this season. And the Packers are loaded on defense and boast seven first-round picks. Green Bay also has what looks like a soft schedule, with only six of its games coming against 2022 playoff teams. The Packers are hungry to defy expectations that they will experience a significant drop-off with Rodgers now in New York.
They may not make a dramatic leap from a double-digit losing team (for three straight years) to Super Bowl contender. But the Falcons could end up challenging for a wide-open NFC South. They have a talented defense that should be even stronger after offseason investments in the trenches. And Arthur Smith runs an unconventional offense that presents challenges for opposing defenses. The big question mark is quarterback Desmond Ridder. The Falcons believe in the 2022 third-round pick, who in four games completed 63 percent of his passes while throwing two touchdowns and no interceptions. Unlike the other three quarterbacks in the division (all new), Ridder has comfort in the offense, and there is a belief both inside and outside the organization that if he can play at a high level, the Falcons can surprise in 2023.
(Illustration: John Bradford / Athletics; photos of Dak Prescott, Trevor Lawrence and Dan Campbell: Cooper Neill, Tim Warner, Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
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