Assumptions can be a dangerous thing. Take the preseason conversation surrounding Tua Tagovailoa last season. There were signs that the Miami Dolphins’ third-year quarterback was about to make a quantum leap, but he was mostly ignored in lieu of cheapshots at his arm strength. The same is true for 2023. This season’s “Tua” may be one of the aging quarterbacks who bottomed out in 2022 or a dynamic mobile threat. Here are 10 units and players from 10 teams that will be much better than most suspect they’d be in 2023.
L.A. Rams Offense
The Rams have been in dire straits before under Sean McVay. Throughout the season following their first Super Bowl LIII loss to the New England Patriots, the Rams stank and overreaction artists like Stephen A. Smith openly posited that the Rams offensive savant had been figured out. Half a decade later, there’s a bit of that sentiment floating around after the Rams stumbled through an injury-riddled season in which they never seemed poised to defend their title and McVay was being linked to reports that he’d join the broadcasting arena.
Rams offense (cont’d)
Cooper Kupp is fully recovered from a high ankle that limited him to nine games last season. Matthew Stafford underwent elbow surgery prior to the 2022 season and threw only 10 touchdowns to eight interceptions behind an offensive line that was fractured at a historic level by injuries. Even Stafford’s season ended after a sack by the New Orleans Saints resulted in a spinal contusion and concussion. Given the plague of injuries L.A. suffered on the offensive line, it’s not a surprise the Rams were near the bottom of nearly every offensive metric last season Each of those players will return with a clean bill of health this season, along with Cam Akers, who was disgruntled at the start of last season.
Justin Fields opening up the passing attack
Justin Fields’ speed made him one of the most scintillating young quarterbacks in the NFL. He dissected opposing defenses on the run at a record-breaking pace, but it was the scrambled passing attack and inconsistent accuracy that held Chicago back. The Bears averaged a meager 130 passing yards per game, a league-low en route to the NFL’s worst record. On deep throws though, Fields was a menace, connected on the league’s highest percentage of passes between 30 and 40 yards. Unfortunately, the Bears receivers ranked last in the league when it came to accumulating yards after catch. In their preseason debut, a majority of Fields’ yards stemmed from bubble screens and short dump offs which resulted in huge gains.
Chicago has gone a century of football without a 4,000-yard passing season. That could end this season. Chase Claypool has a full training camp under his belt to get acclimated after being reduced to a non-factor following his midseason trade from Pittsburgh. The Bears also acquired receiver D.J. Moore from the Panthers as Fields’ No. 1 target.
Arizona Cardinals pass rush
The Arizona Cardinals are widely expected to be one of the NFL’s most underwhelming teams. The one phase of the game they won’t struggle in, however, is pressuring opposing quarterbacks. New head coach Jonathan Gannon spent last season as the conductor of the NFL’s most high-pressure front sevens.
Last season, their unit ranked fourth in defensive team pass rush win rate. Even after the retirement of JJ Watt, and despite passing on Will Anderson Jr. with their third overall pick, the Cards’ pass rush had the league’s best pressure rate in the league Week 1 of the preseason.
J.C. Jackson and the Chargers secondary
The Chargers yanked J.C. Jackson away from New England to help lock down their secondary. During his final two seasons in New England, Jackson picked off 17 passes and burnished a reputation as one of the league’s top man corners. Not only did Jackson fail to intercept a single pass in year one, but he started the season recovering from ankle surgery, ending it with a ruptured patellar tendon. When he was healthy, Jackson was consistently being burned, out of position in zone coverages, and ultimately benched for the second half of a Monday Night Football win over the Denver Broncos. The last time we saw the Chargers, Trevor Lawrence was dog-walking their secondary up and down the field. So why should you believe in a J.C. Jackson renaissance? For the first time he’ll be healthy and you’ve got to believe Brandon Staley has enough common sense to put Jackson in a position to succeed.
New York Jets O-Line (and their ability to keep Aaron Rodgers upright)
Rodgers remaining upright behind a porous offensive line, and bouncing back from rigor mortis at age 39 is what this season hinges on. Early returns have been troubling enough to prompt Robert Saleh to blast his offensive line in a team meeting captured on Hard Knocks. The recent addition of Dalvin Cook gives him another safety valve to throw to and Garrett Wilson is due to become one of the NFL’s greats.
Jets O-line (cont’d)
I’m fully onboard the Rodgers Express.
In the second half of a volatile 2022 season, Rodgers won five of his final eight games, inflated the Packers’ scoring output from 17.1 points per Sunday to 27 over that 5-3 span, and threw 12 touchdowns against two interceptions.
Rodgers doesn’t have to be his MVP self, but playing at approximately 80 percent of his peak will put the Jets in contention.
Rodgers doesn’t move like a mummy yet, but if this offensive line allows too many pass rushers to collect free shots at him, he could wind up covered in more bandages than King Tut. A healthy Mekhi Becton at right tackle returning to the front lines should help.
Houston Texans secondary
Pro Football Focus recently ranked Houston’s secondary as the 28th best in the entire NFL. With that much room for upside, there’s no direction to go but up. Derek Stingley Jr.’s rookie year was the exact opposite of fellow top-five defensive back Sauce Gardner’s. Gardner burst onto the scene as one of the NFL’s best while Stingley isn’t even the top dog in his own secondary. 2022 second-round pick Jalen Pitre is coming into his own after registering five interceptions, one sack, one fumble recovery, and eight pass breakups as a rookie safety and recent addition Jimmy Ward is following head coach DeMeco Ryans from San Francisco to form an intimidating defensive back tandem with Pitre. However, rookies pick up the nuances of pro football at different paces. Don’t bet against Derek Stingley Jr. pulling himself up from the dregs.
Desmond Ridder and the Falcons passing attack
Accuracy was the primary knock on Ridder through his senior season and through the draft evaluation period, but the Falcons have assembled a team designed to mitigate those shortcomings. The Falcons are sitting him out this preseason as if he’s a returning All-Pro and not some third-round pick with four starts under his belt. You can deduce that they must be confident in his ability. He probably won’t be the quarterback to lead them for the long haul, but he’ll improve upon the low bar Marcus Mariota set and in the NFC South, they may have enough juice to win a divisional title.
Kansas City Chiefs receivers
Juu Smith-Schuster skipped town to collect a more lucrative money bag from the New England Patriots. The Chiefs relied on JuJu in the passing game, and Mecole Hardman departed for the New York Jets. Kadarius Toney is the world’s greatest flag football player. He’s shifty in space, and impossible to touch, but one false move or contact with a defender and he’ll wind up missing six weeks of action. Queue up Justyn Ross. The 23-year-old went undrafted in 2022 due to worries over his surgically repaired spine and not his talent. At 6-foot-4, he’s a big target and has loads of upside. However, wide receiver 1 is shaping up to be Skyy Moore. Moore only recorded 22 catches for 350 yards. This year’s iteration of Mahomes receivers aren’t retreads, they’re just young. Patrick Mahomes has shown he can make wine out of water. The bar is low in the field and high in terms of conduct.
Denver Broncos passing attack
In 2022, Nathaniel Hackett and Russell Wilson produced a big ole turd of a season. The Broncos had the NFL’s lowest-scoring offense and allowed the 30th most sacks per dropback, but welcome back Garrett Boles, who broke his leg in Week 5. Oh, and they also splurged for one of the brightest offensive coaches of this millennium. Sean Payton was hired in the summer as the Broncos’ plumber. His objective was to clean out the gunk that clogged the Broncos’ rusty offense. Wilson’s hefty price tag prevented him from being moved, but Payton has experience in reparation projects. Nearly 20 years ago, he turned a damaged Drew Brees into the all-time passing touchdowns and yardage king (briefly).
Broncos passing attack (cont’d)
Wilson’s ability to know when to follow Sean Payton’s offensive script while balancing his own improvisational skills outside the pocket is a major key to his rediscovering his mojo. For his part, Wilson cut out the DangerRuss Subway sandwich diet, including high-carb breads, and showed up to training camp slimmer and svelter than we’ve seen him in years. Payton is preaching tempo and loudly criticizing the job his predecessor did last season. They’re on the right path.
Indianapolis Colts offense
Anthony Richardson is a work-in-progress but might be further along than we realized. Meanwhile, Jonathan Taylor has returned to the Colts after a contentious bickering over his contract demands irradiated the locker room. Will the Colts make the postseason? Probably not, but in a division with Tennessee, Jacksonville, and Houston, nothing is set in stone. Shane Steichen felt so confident in what he saw from Richardson, that he elected to name him the starter over Gardner Minshew after only one week of action. If Steichen can work his magic again and the Colts’ impressive offensive line can master his scheme, the Colts could be an AFC South surprise.