The Bills, Bengals and Chiefs all fail to win their divisions
This one might paint me as a hater, but it’s really more about the fact that I like each of the teams projected to finish 2nd in these divisions.
The Jets’ offseason did not unfold the way it did only for them to finish behind a Bills team that I’m not sure markedly improved anywhere. It’s not a two-year project because Aaron Rodgers has a two-year contract. It’s an immediate home run swing (see: Dalvin Cook). They have the horses to do it up and down the roster, and I’m buying the hype.
In the AFC North, it’s the Ravens for me. Todd Monken is going to unlock a part of Lamar Jackson’s game (passing!) that wasn’t really deficient to begin with. JK Dobbins appears to be healthy. Zay Flowers was a 1st round addition. Odell Beckham Jr. was an… expensive addition. John Harbaugh has been there before. I like the upward trajectory compared to a Bengals team that may also be leveling off.
Finally: I’m a big Chargers guy this year, and I’ll buy into a Chiefs Super Bowl hangover too. Kellen Moore’s arrival can only improve this offense, which last year simply refused to allow Justin Herbert to throw the ball down the field (we’re talking historically shallow throws). Whatever you liked about the 2022 Cowboys system under Moore, drop Herbert, Austin Ekeler, Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and Quentin Johnston into it and count your money.
Darren Waller re-emerges as an elite tight end
To put a finer point on this: Behind the Mahomes-Travis Kelce and Lamar-Mark Andrews connections, the most prolific QB-TE hookup this season will be Daniel Jones and Darren Waller. The Giants’ wide receiver room is frankly a mess, but in the kind of way where maybe six different pretty decent guys could realistically lead the team in WR targets. All that says to me is the TE pulling in roughly $17 million per year is the one who’s actually going to get the work.Embed from Getty Images
In his last fully healthy season in 2020, Waller’s 17-game pace was 156 targets, 113 receptions, 1,270 yards and 10 TD. This would have put him just 17 fantasy points behind Kelce last season for the TE1. Jones also took the 5th most sacks in the league last year, and I think Waller will serve as just as much of a bailout in pressure situations as Saquon Barkley does. He’ll turn 31 when the seasons starts, but I just do not worry myself over longevity at this position anymore thanks to guys like Kelce.
The Saints host two playoff games
I’m sure the primary criticism this will draw is an implication that I’m too bullish on Derek Carr saving this offense from whatever middling quality it was last season. Really this is just a math problem for me. New Orleans is the favorite in the weakest division in the NFL, with the league’s easiest strength of schedule. Yes, those things typically do correlate, but the schedule outside of the division also lines up for the Saints to rack up a lot of wins (a few oddsmakers have implied they would only be an underdog in three games this season, none of them by more than 2.5 points).
As a division favorite with a win total at 9.5, New Orleans is already projected to be the 3- or 4-seed in the NFC. With those playoff expectations, a high-floor veteran QB like Carr, a stacked RB room that will be healthy toward the back half of the season with Alvin Kamara, Jamaal Williams, and Kendre Miller, a healthy Michael Thomas, and Chris Olave on the verge of leveling up to an elite WR, a deep playoff run is well within the range of outcomes.
And to give some love to a defense that appears to have reloaded: The Saints finished 4th in the league in yards per play allowed last season. Run a similar group back out there against the aforementioned schedule that includes seven games against Baker Mayfield/Kyle Trask, Bryce Young, Desmond Ridder, and CJ Stroud, and they will, without question, be in every single game.
Anthony Richardson wins Offensive Rookie of the Year
Anthony Richardson is one of just two rookie quarterbacks who have been announced as the Week 1 starter for their team, alongside Bryce Young. It’s no secret that what differentiates Richardson’s game as a QB is his dual-threat capability, and I’m projecting that Shane Steichen — who spent the past two seasons installing Jalen Hurts as among the best in the NFL to do it — is simply going to let Richardson cook.Embed from Getty Images
Richardson will undoubtedly have plenty of questionable in-game decisions, turnovers, and all the things that make rookie QBs look like rookie QBs, but I think the arm talent and mobility will win out often enough to stuff plenty of box scores. His obvious competition for OROY is going to be Bijan Robinson, who will get a ton of work thanks to the Falcons’ insanely high run play rate and easy schedule. I’ll go with my gut on this one though and say Richardson will be even more prolific at his position.
One additional nugget: Richardson was among the best QBs in college football last season at sack avoidance, and by association, had the 3rd longest average time to throw in the nation. The ability to avoid sacks and extend plays cannot be overstated for a rookie QB. This is especially exciting for Richardson who is excellent at capitalizing on extra time either with his legs or his patented deep ball that garnered so much praise in his time at Florida (there’s a good summary of those stats here). Not to mention, Jonathan Taylor and a solid offensive line both provide a great safety net.
Geno Smith runs it back as the class of the NFC West and finishes top-10 in MVP voting
To the extent that any of the predictions in this post are “bold,” this one really isn’t to me. I don’t think we need to do a top-to-bottom evaluation of Matthew Stafford, Brock Purdy (love you forever) or the Clayton Tune-Colt McCoy-Kyler Murray situation in Arizona to understand that Geno Smith is the best quarterback in his division. Where I’m planting my flag is that I actually don’t believe it’s particularly close, nor was last season a flash in the pan for Smith.
There is remarkable continuity on this Seahawks offense, which finished T-7th in the NFL in yards per play on the back of Smith’s 4,282 passing yards, a 30-11 TD-INT ratio, a 60.8 QBR (6th best) and league-leading 69.8% completion rate. It’s also hard to think of two more different yet equally as reliable wideouts than DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, and all the front office did was bring arguably the best WR prospect in this year’s draft, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, into the fold. This is a reload job for Seattle.
With a new three-year, $105 million commitment from the organization, the vibes are just good. And at age 32 with only 51 career starts, the Seahawks benefit from the rare combination of having a upper-tier veteran QB with a ton of tread still on the tires (read: he still pretty much has a young man’s body) and last season as a proof of concept.
Vegas says 1. Lions, 2. Vikings, 3. Bears, 4. Packers… None of these projections will be correct
I could write a dissertation on the NFC North as a Vikings fan. For this breakdown, I will spare you. Below is how I see it playing out, and you’ll notice pretty quickly based on records — divisional play will make all the difference.
- Vikings (10-7). Best QB in the division. Best WR in the NFL. Defending North champions. The only real deficiency last season was their defense, which is vastly improved and now being led by Brian Flores. Regression has been a popular topic this offseason with the 11 one-score wins in 2022, but people are yanking the rope much too hard in the other direction here. Don’t overthink it.
- Bears (9-8). I’m just as surprised as you are that I got myself here, but I’m buying in. I’m buying a Justin Fields level-up. I’m buying a DJ Moore rebirth. I’m buying Khalil Herbert having a better skillset for this offense than David Montgomery (also love you forever). Chicago has the 6th easiest strength of schedule in the NFL, and based on how it’s set up, I’ll go a step further: They will be in 1st place in the North entering Week 8.
- Packers (9-8). At 9-8 — and only in 3rd place due to the misfortune of tiebreak procedures — it’s not a taxing mental exercise to picture this happening. Vegas says 8-9. Where does the additional win come from? I’m not sure, but I think we’ll look back on the 2023 season and be forced to admit we underestimated Jordan Love and the extent to which he was set up for success.
- Lions (8-9). D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams vacated 25 total TDs. Jameson Williams is suspended six games. Immediately behind Amon-Ra St. Brown on the WR depth chart is a 33-year-old Marvin Jones. The defense made no exciting improvements to a unit that was dead last in yards per play allowed last season. I think much of the offseason hype was sparked by that Week 18 win in Green Bay, a game in which approximately 99.9% of viewers were pulling for the darlings in blue. My gut tells me we’re underestimating how different this season will feel in a lot of ways.