Welcome the top 50% of the NFL! This is where everyone wants to be, where all the excitement is, and where all the cool parties are.
Now, let’s dive into the fringe playoff contenders, wildcard teams, and future Super Bowl participants!
Aaron Rodgers’ possibly final season in Green Bay was sort of an anticlimactic one, concluding with a season-ending loss to Detroit at Lambeau. Rodgers’ final years at Green Bay have been some of the most successful in his career, but all marred by disappointing finish in the playoffs. This year, however, both sides of the ball were stuck in the mud much of the first half of the season, with Rodgers experiencing career lows in passer rating (91.1) and adjusted yards per attempt (6.8). This sudden decline can be blamed on a lot of things, from a frequently injured offensive line, poor receiving corps, or even just worse decision making from Rodgers. The defense was never particularly good against the run, but Jaire Alexander and Rasul Douglas led a pass defense that got the team back on track by November.
By the end of the season, Rodgers was playing much cleaner, and getting plenty more production out of rookie receiver Christian Watson and from RBs Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon. Even if Rodgers ends up leaving and Jordan Love becomes the Packers QB, a rushing attack and an healthier offensive line should prevent a drop off in offensive efficiency. However, with Adrian Amos, Allen Lazard, and Robert Tonyan entering free agency, the Packers are in real risk of getting worse before they get better. Of these three, I think Tonyan would be most likely to be re-signed by Green Bay since he’d be a major aid to Jordan Love in 2023, but Amos and Lazard will likely be let go in hopes of finding better players elsewhere. But, with an upcoming draft filled to the brim with great tight end prospects, Green Bay may try to press their luck by letting Tonyan go. Players like Kenny Clark and Preston Smith could be additional cap casualties.
Key Offseason Targets: WR, TE, EDGE, OT
The Steelers may not have a lot of cap space entering 2023, but they do have an expensive defense performing near their pay-grade, along with a rookie quarterback showing promise very early. QB Kenny Pickett led a Steelers resurgence in the second half of the 2022 season, primarily relying on TE Pat Friermuth and rookie WR George Pickens to carry a spicy, albeit limited offense to dramatic last-second victories. Although, behind the glitz and glamour of an exciting rookie quarterback, this resurgence was fueled by the offensive line’s gradual improvement, as well as the return of T.J. Watt from injury. Watt is the linchpin of this defense, with the group’s worst games of the season coming between weeks 2-9, when he was unavailable. Alex Highsmith had a breakout year (14.5 sacks, 20 QB hits, 5 FFs), and CBs Cameron Sutton and Levi Wallace put in career years. Still, the amount of big plays, or 20+ yard plays, given up by this defense when Watt was gone is simply unacceptable.
Improvement along the line came primarily from OG James Daniels, OG Kevin Dotson, and OT Dan Moore Jr. These three linemen, while not being responsible for a high-scoring offense, improved down the stretch enough to turn Pittsburgh into a team better at controlling the clock and successful in running the ball. Even if those third down Pickett runs won’t happen as often in the future as defenders grow privy to his scrambling habits, his instincts coupled with RB Najee Harris’ athleticism can create a deadly backfield combination. This improvement in the final weeks likely means Pittsburgh will invest more in keeping defenders under contract, or even make a splash with a free agent signing. With CB Cameron Sutton, LB Robert Spillane, and S Terrell Edmunds entering free agency, capital will need to be used to fill in the holes they’ll leave.
Key Offseason Targets: CB, S, LB, OT
14. New York Giants
What a year for New York football! When’s the last time both the Jets and Giants were good? Brian Daboll’s first year as NYG’s HC was a remarkable success, winning a playoff game behind the legs of RB Saquon Barkely and QB Daniel Jones and the arms of OT Evan Neal. Brian Daboll must’ve carried some of the pixie dust he sprinkled on Josh Allen down to New York City, because Daniel Jones went from a liability to an asset in just one year. Giving him a significantly improved rushing attack and more opportunities to use his legs to get cheap yards worked wonders for the Giants for much of the year, even improving in the final weeks as the playoff race grew tighter. Against Minnesota’s suspect defense, it was just what the Giants needed. This kind of good fortune didn’t last against the Goliath Eagles, who were more than prepared to run all over New York’s limited rush-defense. In fact, New York’s defense wasn’t significantly better than Houston’s, except in two major categories: tackling and pass-rush. DT Dexter Lawrence and rookie DE Kayvon Thibodeaux were major elements in the latter-half of the Giants season, especially in their playoff win in Minnesota.
Getting production out of S Julian Love shored up the defense even more so, but he represents a large cast of Giants starters looking for a new deal. They have plenty of cap space entering the offseason, but with RB Saquon Barkley, QB Daniel Jones, C Jon Feliciano, WR Richie James, WR Sterling Shepard, WR Darius Slayton, CB Fabian Moreau, and S Julian Love all entering the free market, it’ll be inevitable that many of these players will be gone. Keeping Barkley, Jones, and Love will be high priority, but all other players on this list are likely to sign with another team in 2023. With nine picks in the upcoming draft, five of which being in the first four rounds, the Giants will have more than a few shots to paste the gaps both on defense (where there’s holes everywhere) and on offense (where there’s also holes everywhere).
Key Offseason Targets: OG, LB, WR, CB
13. Miami Dolphins
Mike McDaniel’s first season as HC of the Miami Dolphins was, for the most part, a resounding success. WR Tyreek Hill and LT Terron Armstead were impact signings that changed the face of this offense practically overnight, transforming QB Tua Tagovailoa’s outlook from a middling starter to potential MVP contender. DT Christian Wilkins was a fantastic run-stopper, ranking first in ESPN’s Top 10 DT run stop win rate (46%). They even got improved play from the interior offensive line, primarily behind C Connor Williams and G Robert Hunt. Although, this remarkable production under McDaniel came in spurts and accompanied with a three-game losing streak early in the season, then a season killing five-game losing streak towards the end. Injuries to Tagovailoa and Armstead sent the offense plummeting, but behind rookie QB Skylar Thompson was barely able to eke out a victory against the Jets in the season finale to secure a playoff spot. Thompson played admirably in that wildcard game against the Bills, so well in fact that many assumed Miami would have won if they were fully healthy. It’s an anticlimactic end to a raucous season for Miami fans, but an encouraging last game nonetheless. The pass-defense, however? Bad all season long.
In the offseason, Miami will look to fill in the gaps of their top-heavy roster, meaning more investment in both lines and at linebacker. They have practically no cap space, but when has that stopped a team before? G Michael Deiter, OT Eric Fisher, OT Brandon Shell, TE Mike Gesicki, TE Adam Shaheen, RB Raheem Mostert, RB Jeff Wilson Jr., WR Trent Sherfield, and QB Teddy Bridgewater make up a busy list of notable free agents on offense. DE Melvin Ingram, LB Elandon Roberts, LB Andrew Van Ginkel, and S Eric Rowe are notable free agents on defense. Ingram and Van Ginkel were both pretty important rotational players for the Miami defense, Roberts got beat in the flat a little too often, and both running backs were a major element to McDaniel’s offense. You can find good running backs everywhere, so if the money can’t be found to keep Mostert and/or Wilson, it wouldn’t be wild to see them leave. But, since they’re both McDaniel disciples, I imagine at least one will stay.
Key Offseason Targets: OT, OG, CB, LB
12. Seattle Seahawks
After trading QB Russell Wilson to the Denver Broncos for a king’s ransom, the majority of analysts and sports pundits penciled Seattle in as one of the worst teams in the NFL. With journeyman QB Geno Smith becoming the new starter behind a very suspect offensive line, there wasn’t much expected beyond mediocrity. Instead, Smith gave us one of the best passing performances of any quarterback in the league, passing for 4,282 yards, 30 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. At age 32, becoming the first string quarterback on a team for the first time since 2014, Smith made the pro-bowl for the first time in his career. WR D.K. Metcalf and WR Tyler Lockett had 1,000+ receiving seasons, leading a passing offense that ended fourth in the league in touchdowns. Rookie RB Kenneth Walker III was an immediate star on the offense after RB Rashaad Penny suffered a season-ending injury in Week 5. Seattle even got two starting tackles in this year’s draft, with third rounder Abraham Lucas outperforming first rounder Charles Cross. This isn’t even mentioning rookie CB Tariq Woolen, who paired with S Quandre Diggs to make a surprisingly strong pass-defense. Although, the run-defense was terrible, and CB Michael Jackson was a bit of a weak spot.
Entering the offseason, the Seahawks have over $50 million in cap space, nine picks in the NFL Draft (five of which are in the top 100), and a Pro-Bowl caliber quarterback that wants to come back on a new deal. Seattle can’t really mess up an offseason this perfect, but the pile of impending free agents will give them a chance to make it bittersweet. On defense, DE Poona Ford, LB Cody Barton, and S Ryan Neal make up the only notable defenders entering free agency. Both Ford and Neal were major contributors to the defender, making each likely candidates for an extension. QB Geno Smith, G Austin Blythe, RB Rashaad Penny, and RB Travis Homer make up the list of notable offensive players. Seattle is absolutely going to spend whatever amount needed to keep Smith around and will probably offer Blythe a modest deal, but both RBs will probably end up on other teams. In the draft, Seattle can target whatever Pete Carroll and Geno Smith need most (probably another EDGE and WR) in order to maintain their trajectory upwards. It’s a good time to be a Seahawks fan, something I can’t imagine anyone was saying just a single year ago.
Key Off-season Targets: EDGE, G, WR, CB
Besides the New York Giants, the Minnesota Vikings were probably the most fortunate team in the NFL. Having one the worst defenses in the NFL didn’t mean a darn thing as Minnesota racked up 13 wins in the regular season, eight of which won by just four points or less! This was the year Kirk Cousins just started firing the ball towards WR Justin Jefferson every game, which worked so well that Jefferson won Offensive Player of the Year. The mid-season trade for TE T.J. Hockenson turned out to be a fantastic pickup, taking the Vikings pass-happy offense to another level and tallying almost 1,000 yards himself. OTs Christian Darrisaw and Brian O’Neil had career years, anchoring one of the best offensive line groups in the NFL. The only element of the offseason that took a major step backwards (besides interceptions) was the rush-attack, which ranked 27th in the league. This is less because of RB Dalvin Cook or the offensive line failing to perform, but more of HC Kevin O’Connell leaning heavily into the pass, especially the short pass. The defense, however, was a bit of a disaster. You could pass to your heart’s content against this defense, and when DEs Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith weren’t getting pressure, it was too easy for opposing quarterbacks. This, ultimately, is how Daniel Jones and Saquon Barkley killed them in the wildcard round.
Although, getting a full season out S Camryn Bynum will give Vikings fans something to look forward to in upcoming seasons. Harrison Phillips had a solid first season at Minnesota, meaning the run-defense shouldn’t bottom out anytime soon. Entering the offseason, CB Patrick Peterson, CB Chandon Sullivan, OT Oli Udoh, C Garrett Bradbury, TE Irv Smith, and RB Alexander Mattison will all have expiring contracts. With Minnesota already over the cap, it’ll be difficult trying to justify keeping any of these players besides Bradbury. Bradbury had a career year, and deserves to get a new contract. The Vikings will only have five picks entering draft night, with none in the second round. A limited selection like this means it could be a transition year for Minnesota as it tries to regain some cap space in order to rebuild the defense. But if they find a superstar CB or LB with their first round pick, a transitory year might not be needed.
Key Offseason Targets: CB, LB, WR, QB
10. Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens had a remarkably similar season this year as they did last year, starting off hot, losing QB Lamar Jackson halfway through the season, and then limping into the playoffs primarily off of rushing the ball and good defense. This year’s flavors are RB J.K. Dobbins and former Bear LB Roquan Smith, whom Baltimore traded for during the season in order to bolster their run-defense. It worked, and J.K. Dobbins’ return to the starting lineup kept the Ravens’ ground-game churning as Jackson got replaced by QB Tyler Huntley. Led by C Tyler Linderbaum and G Morgan Moses, the Ravens were able to control the football in most of their contests, keeping the score low and K Justin Tucker’s impact on the game high. It wasn’t a pretty picture as the regular season came to a close, but Huntley saved his best game for last, lighting up the Bengals in the wildcard round. If it weren’t for the infamous 99-yard fumble return touchdown, we could’ve been talking about how Tyler Huntley smashed the dreams of Cincinnati fans across the world. But, instead, we just get a questionable pro-bowl appearance.
In the offseason, the Ravens will finally no longer be able to kick the can down the road on Lamar Jackson. Finally, after digging themselves into a hole by repeatedly refusing to re-sign him earlier, they will likely give him a multi-year extension that is certainly higher now than it was ever before. Franchise tagging him this year is very possible, but would end up costing the Ravens more in the long run. Besides him, QB Tyler Huntley, OG Ben Powers, RB Kenyan Drake, RB Justice Hill, and WR Demarcus Robinson make up the notable free agents on offense. With ~$50 million in cap space, Baltimore should be able to afford both quarterback’s extensions along with a deal for Powers, but moving on from him and/or both running backs is a real option since there’ll always be good RBs and OGs in the draft. On Defense, DE Justin Houston, DE Brent Urban, CB Kyle Fuller, and CB Marcus Peters make up the list of important defenders entering free agency. Peters has the potential of getting a lucrative, short-term extension, Fuller may return on a one-year deal, but Houston and Urban are probably gone. In the draft, the Ravens have five picks, only two being in the top 100. WR is still a priority, but Baltimore will probably use this draft to get defensive linemen and maybe even a cornerback.
Key Offseason Targets: WR, CB, DT, G
I don’t think there’ll ever be a NFL franchise to launch themselves out of the pits of despair quite as quickly as the Jacksonville Jaguars. Just this time one year ago, Jacksonville was reeling off of the Urban Meyer disaster, hiring former Eagles’ HC Doug Pederson as his replacement. With the first overall pick for the second year in a row, brighter pastures felt miles away for the Jaguars. But, throughout just a single season, QB Trevor Lawrence went from one of the worst NFL quarterbacks to one of the best. Spending lavishly on WR Christian Kirk and WR Zay Jones appeared to finally start paying off in November, when Jacksonville defeated the Ravens by the skin of their teeth thanks to perfection from Lawrence and Jones. Lawrence had been suffering for most of the season up until that point, but after the Ravens comeback, he was a fundamentally different quarterback. After the bye week, the Jaguars went 6-1 en route to stealing the AFC South crown from the reeling Tennessee Titans. Jacksonville’s trenches on both lines, led by OT Cam Robinson on offense and DE Josh Allen on defense, created havoc on opposing lines, eventually culminating in a masterpiece of a playoff comeback against the Los Angeles Chargers. By the second quarter of that playoff game, Jacksonville had to play absolutely perfect every snap on both sides of the ball in order to win, and by some miracle, they did it.
Besides Josh Allen, CB Tyson Campbell, S Rayshawn Jenkins, and rookie LB Devin Lloyd all had breakout seasons. Suddenly, Jacksonville has a foundation for the defense to build upon. In the offseason, they will try to add the final key-pieces to the team that will launch them into Super Bowl contention, likely looking for another CB in free agency or the draft. Unfortunately, the Jaguars are ~$15 million over the cap, meaning most of their moves will probably come in the draft. RT Jawaan Taylor, TE Chris Manhertz, TE Evan Engram, and WR Marvin Jones are the most notable offensive free agents, all of which took 400+ snaps for the Jaguars this past year. Taylor, Jones, and Engram were all massive elements to the Trevor Lawrence offense, but with so little money to spend, they’ll likely only be able to afford one. My money is on Taylor! DE Dawuane Smoot, DE Arden Key, CB Tre Herndon, and S Andrew Wingard make up the notable free agents on defense. Out of all of these players, Smoot is by far the most valuable, but his Achilles injury to end the season throws everything about his future up in the air. This could be a position they end up addressing by signing a new player in free agency. In the draft, the Jaguars will have nine selections, with at least one pick in every round. With this amount of the draft capital, Jacksonville can really take the leap into championship contention with a few good picks at a few skill positions. This isn’t good news for us Houston Texans fans, but I’m sure the Jaguars will find a way to goof up this opportunity.
Key Offseason Targets: CB, G, WR, S
Now, we’re into the top 10. The Jaguars, Ravens, and Dolphins feel like a few teams that are just 2-3 star players and a healthy roster away from competing from a championship, so they get to hang right on the periphery of the elite teams.
In my next and final post for the end of season power rankings, we go through the final 8, the true elite of the NFL. All of those teams are either in their Super Bowl window or are just entering it, so stay tuned!