Football is a team sport, we all know this, it’s not like it’s a mystery — but every year a handful of people help define the sport for the upcoming season. A year ago that was Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce, proving the Chiefs still have it, while Mike McDaniel in Miami showed he was more than smoke and mirrors as a head coach.
This year we’ve identified the 25 people who will make 2023 tick, and when the dust settles their performance will decide the season.
Kellen Moore, Offensive Coordinator,
Once considered their heir apparent in Dallas, Kellen Moore jumped ship this offseason to head to Los Angeles where he could very well be the coach in waiting if Brandon Staley flounders again. More importantly, it will be on Moore to get the Chargers over the hump offensively and ensure Justin Herbert doesn’t fall into the same trap as Philip Rivers, relegated to the land of “very good” rather than great.
If Moore can get this offense cooking a playoff run is attainable for the Chargers, if not it will be another wasted year.
Ben Johnson, Offensive Coordinator,
The Detroit Lions knocked on the playoff door a season ago, and the performance from quarterback Jared Goff was a big reason why. Goff posted perhaps his best season since the 2018 campaign with the Los Angeles Rams, with a QBR of 61.6 (second only to that 2018 season) and an Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt (ANY/A) of 7.45.
A reason for Goff’s success? Offensive Coordinator Ben Johnson. Johnson did a masterful job at putting Goff in familiar settings, including dialing up concepts that Goff ran while he was still in college. That led to Goff’s successful year, and opened the door to some head coaching opportunities for Johnson.
While he took some interviews, Johnson decided to shut down the process, declaring his intent to stay in Detroit, and win.
If he does that, helping the Lions meet their huge expectations, he can probably write his own ticket next winter.
Brian Johnson, Offensive Coordinator,
All eyes will be on the Eagles in the NFC considering there don’t appear to be many Super Bowl caliber teams in the conference heading into the season. Enter Brian Johnson, who perhaps has one of the most difficult jobs in the NFL this season as he tries to live up to lofty expectations.
Johnson was a stellar coach for Jalen Hurts, helping to mold him into one of the best young quarterbacks in the league. Now he’s tasked with taking over for Shane Steichen (now in Indianapolis) and trying to build sustained success, rather than a one-year wonder. If Johnson can keep the Eagles rolling his name will be in the mix for head coaching jobs, and Philly could return to the big one. If not, it’s going to be a rough year in Philadelphia.
Todd Monken, Offensive Coordinator,
The Baltimore Ravens and Lamar Jackson put to rest their ongoing contract negotiations this offseason, with the quarterback signing a five-year contract extension this spring.
The next item on their to-do list? Improving Baltimore’s passing game, which had gotten stagnant in recent years under previous Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman.
Enter Todd Monken. The long-time coach went back to school a few years ago, taking over as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Georgia. But he is back in the NFL, facing the task of improving Baltimore’s passing attack. His approach seems to be putting more on Jackson’s plate, giving the quarterback the “keys” to the offense at the line of scrimmage.
If the offense does take a step forward, and Jackson shines this season, it might be the story of the NFL year.
Orlando Brown Jr., Offensive Tackle,
One of the biggest tasks ahead of the Cincinnati Bengals the past two offseasons?
Making sure they have the right five linemen in front of Joe Burrow.
This past March the team signed Orlando Brown Jr. to a four-year deal worth up to $64 million to make sure they can protect the franchise quarterback. Now, with Burrow recovering from a calf strain, you can be sure that all eyes will be on Cincinnati’s new left tackle to see if he can hold up his end of the bargain.
Russell Wilson, Quarterback,
Is this going to be the most monumental mistake in franchise history? Year one of Russ in Denver went from Super Bowl hype to abject despair, with the team mortgaging its future on the belief that Wilson could be “the guy” to win a championship in Denver.
In 2022 he played the worst football of his career, while Geno Smith soared in Seattle — lending credence to the idea that maybe the brilliance was the system and not the player. If Russ can’t turn this around and once again become one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, it will doom both the Broncos’ salary cap and competitive chances for years to come. It will also render this whole Sean Payton experiment a failure before it begins.
Bill O’Brien, Offensive Coordinator,
After the 2021 season, it looked as if the New England Patriots had indeed found their next quarterback in Mac Jones. While the team lost in the opening round of the playoffs, Jones and New England were back in the postseason for the first time since Tom Brady departed in free agency.
Then came last season, which was a big step back for the QB. He dealt with a high-ankle sprain that opened the door to Bailey Zappe to get some starts — and in the process capture the hearts of a portion of the fan base — and saw his efficiency numbers dip after a solid rookie campaign.
While much of the blame was put at the feet of Matt Patricia, who served as the team’s de facto offensive coordinator, it’s on Jones to take a step forward this season. Enter Bill O’Brien, who returns to Foxborough as the team’s offensive coordinator for the second time. Can he get the best out of Jones? Or will the Patriots have to revisit the quarterback position in the upcoming offseason, for the third time since Brady walked out the door?
Bijan Robinson, Running Back,
This past offseason was dominated, at least in part, by the ever-present discussion regarding running back value.
With Saquon Barkley, Tony Pollard, and Josh Jacobs locked in contract battles with their respective teams, the debate over running backs shifted into high gear. With the modern emphasis on the passing game, the question of value starts with what RBs can contribute when the quarterback drops to throw.
Enter Bijan Robinson, who is the next running back to put that theory to the test. One of the hallmarks of his evaluation was what he can do in the passing game, whether out of the backfield or even aligned outside. At the Combine last winter, Robinson made a point of telling the media that he considers himself a “four-down back.” Not only can he stay on the field in third-down situations and help in the passing game, but he can also get you that tough yard on fourth-and-short.
If he lives up to the expectations, he might shift that ongoing discussion about his position.
Aaron Rodgers, QB,
“The potential Super Bowl champion New York Jets.” Something about that phrase still feels weird, and it will never stop being weird. Aaron Rodgers making his move to New York ushers in the most hyped era of Jets football well, since the last time they thought Brett Favre would get them over the hump.
Quarterback has been a perennial problem for the Jets and this is truly their Hail Mary to try and get a ring right now. 2023 is everything, regardless of what Rodgers has said about being committed beyond this season. Every piece is there on paper for the Jets to succeed, now it’s just about whether they can actually get the job done. Every Rodgers throw will be judged, each win or loss scrutinized. This is New York moving from being a surprising curiosity to playing with the big boys in the AFC, where they’ll need to get past Buffalo and Kansas City for any hopes of a Lombardi Trophy.
If this crashes spectacularly it could be another indictment of “win-now” football failing. If it succeeds we could see more teams try to cash in to win a ring. Beyond those lofty league-wide stories is the ever-present reality that the Jets are desperate, and Rodgers is the only man who can take this team to another level.
Jordan Love, QB,
For the first time since 1992, the starting quarterback for the Green Bay Packers in Week 1 will not be named Brett Favre or Aaron Rodgers.
With Rodgers in New York City — or the New Jersey outskirts to be more accurate — the Packers turn to Jordan Love as their starting quarterback for the 2023 season. There were many reasons the organization was excited to turn the page to Love, but now we will get to see if Love lives up to the expectations.
Let’s face it: How he fares in Green Bay, along with how Rodgers gets in with the Jets, is going to be a major story this season.
Justin Fields, QB,
This is Year Three for Justin Fields.
The make-or-break year for many young quarterbacks.
Think about some of the other “Year Three Leaps” we have seen in recent seasons. In his third year, Josh Allen went from “talented young quarterback” to MVP candidate as the Buffalo Bills finished 13-3 and advanced to the AFC Championship game.
Last year Jalen Hurts went from “talented young quarterback” to MVP candidate, as the Philadelphia Eagles finished 14-3 and advanced to Super Bowl LVII.
Expecting Fields to have a similar leap might be asking too much. But with some new weapons for him to target in the passing game — most notably D.J. Moore — this is a year where Fields has to take a big step forward.
Or the Bears, armed with an additional first-round pick thanks to their trade with the Carolina Panthers, could look in a different direction next season.
Eric Bieniemy, Offensive Coordinator,
For years, Eric Bieniemy was in the mix for head coaching opportunities each and every offseason. But while the Kansas City Chiefs kept winning games, and their offense remained explosive under his and Andy Reid’s stewardship, Bieniemy kept missing out on head coaching jobs.
While there might be reasons teams were wary of hiring Bieniemy, one question regarding his time in Kansas City is this: How much of that offense’s success was due to him? After all, the Chiefs have Patrick Mahomes, they have Travis Kelce, and Reid’s hands were all over the offense as well.
If he succeeds in Washington, those questions will go away overnight.
Darren Waller, TE,
While the New York Giants shocked the football world a season ago, advancing to the playoffs in the first year under new head coach Brian Daboll, there is room for improvement on both sides of the football.
Regarding their offense, the Giants need to find more explosive plays in the passing game. Running back Saquon Barkley led the team in targets, and tied WR Richie James for the team’s lead in receptions. Part of the offseason effort to address this issue was the selection of speedy wide receiver Jalin Hyatt in the 2022 NFL Draft.
But tight end was another issue. Rookie Daniel Bellinger led tight ends on the Giants with 35 targes, catching 30 of those for 268 yards and a pair of touchdowns. If the Giants are going to create more explosive plays in the passing game, and be more effective in the red zone, getting more production from the tight end position would go a long way. Plus, if New York wants to lean into the 12-personnel wave that could be coming, having another option, and potentially a dynamic one, would be huge.
Enter Darren Waller.
A few years ago Waller was consider among the game’s best at the position. He struggled with injuries last year, but the Giants traded for him this offseason with the hopes he can help ignite the passing game in New York.
If he does, that would be a massive boost to this offense.
Derek Carr, QB,
As our dear friend James Dator will tell you, the NFC South is the most chaotic division in football.
In Carolina you have a rookie quarterback in Bryce Young. In Tampa Bay you have newly-minted starting quarterback Baker Mayfield, and down in Atlanta the hopes of the Falcons lie in the hands of second-year passer Desmond Ridder.
As for the fourth team in the division, the New Orleans Saints also have a new starting quarterback for Week 1 of the 2023 season: Veteran Derek Carr.
Given this situation, expectations are rather high around the Saints. Whether Carr lives up to those, however, remains to be seen.
Deshaun Watson, QB,
The Cleveland Browns made a massive investment in Deshaun Watson, to the tune of $230 million fully guaranteed.
Putting the harrowing off-field issues to the side, the quarterback Browns fans saw in limited action last season certainly did not look like a passer worthy of such an investment. In just six starts, Watson threw seven touchdown passes, and five interceptions. He posted an Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt of 4.79 which put him just ahead of rookie Kenny Pickett, and behind David Blough, Jameis Winston, Davis Mills and yes, Zach Wilson.
Cleveland fans are hoping that was due to Watson sitting out the entire 2021 season, as well as his unfamiliarity with Kevin Stefanski’s offense. Perhaps that is exactly what happened, and we see the Deshaun Watson we saw at the end of his run in Houston this year.
However, what if that is not the case?
What happens then, given Cleveland’s investment? Under the terms of his current contract, Watson is due $46 million guaranteed for each of the 2024, 2025, and 2026 seasons. The soonest the Browns could possible move on from him would be in 2025, where cutting him with a post-June 1 designation would still cost the team around $50 million in dead cap space.
Cleveland needs this to work.
Brock Purdy went from being Mr. Irrelevant in the 2022 NFL Draft to starting the NFC Championship game.
While the quarterback suffered a UCL injury early in that contest which required surgery this offseason, he was cleared to return to training camp, and is now entrenched as the team’s starting quarterback.
Which cleared the way for the 49ers to trade former third-overall pick Trey Lance to the Dallas Cowboys.
There is certainly evidence to support San Francisco rolling with Purdy. But this is a playoff team with a talented roster, and expectations are very high around the organization. Last year’s body of work shows that the 49ers were able to make a deep postseason run with him at the helm, but can Purdy get San Francisco over the top in the NFC?
Baker Mayfield, QB,
Baker Mayfield is going to suck. It’s just a question of how much he’s going to suck. The decision by the Buccaneers to roll with Baker over Kyle Trask is tantamount to them saying they’ll be looking for a new long-term QB, and it’s going to be fascinating to see just how damaging starting Baker can be.
The Buccaneers clearly think they can win now, and that Mayfield is their best chance to do it. The NFC South is a sloppy mess that someone has to win, and why not Tampa? The question is whether a divisional championship now is worth pulling them out of a position to get a top quarterback.
Baker is pivotal to the long-term success of the Buccaneers. If they win and get stuck in QB limbo we could see their talented receiving corps age out before maximizing their potential again, with a full rebuild necessary. If this team tanks and can get a top passer then they could bounce back into NFC prominence very quickly. It’s all on Baker.
Ikem Ekwonu, OT, Carolina Panthers
The Panthers are all-in on Bryce Young and invested a significant amount of talent and draft capital into getting him. This year isn’t about whether Young succeeds, but if he survives. Enter Ikem Ekwonu, who was one the most promising rookie tackle a year ago — then sucked out loud this preseason.
It’s imperative that he can keep the rookie QB standing so he can get comfortable in the Panthers’ system without being sacked 35 times. It’s not the end of the world for a QB if they get hit (lord knows Joe Burrow took his lumps), but with a smaller QB like Bryce the team really needs to protect him, and than begins with Ekwonu.
George Pickens, WR,
What is the next era of the Pittsburgh Steelers? We know they have one of the best defensive players in the league in T.J. Watt. We know they have one of the best running backs in Najee Harris. We know they have a tremendous coaching staff led by the ironclad Mike Tomlin — but what is the post-Ben era?
The Steelers are hoping to make doubters eat their crow when it comes to Kenny Pickett, but that isn’t possible unless George Pickens can help turn him into “the guy.” Diontae Johnson is great first step, but it’s Pickens who has the All-Pro potential to return Pittsburgh to having one of the best receiving corps in the league.
If Pickens can continue to develop and make life easier for Pickett then the pick-and-pick connection has a potential to really surprise this season. If he fades into the ranks of “good” then it won’t happen. It’s more important for Pickens to take a big step forward than his QB this season, which sounds bizarre — but if the Steelers want to make the playoffs that will need to be the reality.
Chris Jones, DL, Kansas City Chiefs
The Kansas City Chiefs are hoping to make a return trip to the Super Bowl.
But a current fly in the ointment? The ongoing contract status of standout defensive lineman Chris Jones.
Jones did not participate in the team’s offseason activities and his holdout continued through training camp, as he seeks a contract extension on par with the recent deal signed by Quinnen Williams. According to Adam Schefter of ESPN, there is “no end currently in sight” to the situation. While General Manager Brett Veach expressed some optimism recently, the Chiefs were forced to place Jones on the reserve/did not report list when it came time to set their initial 53-man roster.
Jones even surmised on social media that his holdout could linger deep into the regular season.
Kansas City has a few questions they need to answer this season if they are indeed going to repeat. First, who will Patrick Mahomes lean on for targets in the passing game outside of Travis Kelce. Second, how will that defensive front fare, particularly in terms of getting after the quarterback?
Without Jones in the fold, answering that second question in a positive light becomes much tougher for the Chiefs.
Mike McCarthy, Head Coach, Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys in the last two years under head coach Mike McCarthy have been just on the precipice of reaching the class of the NFC, only to fall short every year. This team is far too talented to not make a deep playoff run, and if that doesn’t happen quickly in Dallas heads will start to roll.
That’s exactly what happened in Dallas this offseason, with former offensive coordinator Kellen Moore being let go, and bringing in Brian Schottenheimer and pretty much giving the entire keys to the offensive playcalling to McCarthy. This is a massive bet on himself to get this Cowboys team over the hump, one that could lead to his exit from Dallas is things go wrong.
No pressure though.
Kyle Shanahan, Head Coach, San Francisco 49ers
The decision to trade Trey Lance to the Dallas Cowboys for a fourth-round pick has already opened the door to discussions over whether drafting Lance — and using three first-round picks to trade up to acquire him — is one of the worst draft-time decisions in NFL history.
However, we all know that winning cures all. If the 49ers can win with Purdy going forward, the Lance trade will be looked at as a mistake, but not a fatal move for the organization.
Conversely, if Purdy crashes back to Earth and this playoff-ready roster fails to live up to expectations, the conversation will be much different.
And it will focus in large part on Head Coach Kyle Shanahan.
Tua Tagovailoa, QB,
When Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa is healthy, the Dolphins offense teeters on the border of brainmeltingly fast and extremely precise in short areas. With Tua on the field, the offense makes them a serious threat in an AFC with a who’s who at the QB spot.
However, Tua’s health will remain the question. After a series of scary concussions that took him out of multiple games, Tagovailoa has changed his helmet, while also taking jiu-jitsu classes to learn how to fall so he’s taking major impact off his head, the Dolphins are extremely optimistic that Tua can remain healthy enough to take the Dolphins deep into the playoffs.
Josh Harris, Owner, Washington Commanders
When a new ownership group for the Washington Commanders led by Josh Harris was finally approved by the NFL 106.7 The Fan, one of the major sports radio networks in the Washington, D.C. area, held a “Burgundy and Sold” party at a bar near Nationals Park in downtown D.C..
The crowds told the story (note the chant here is not exactly safe for work):
What a damn day #BurgundyAndSOLD
— Lynnell Willingham (@Nell_BTP)
It is a new era in Washington, with Harris at the forefront. Awkward handshakes aside, there is optimism again surrounding the football team in D.C., and while it remains to be seen whether Sam Howell is the answer at quarterback, and whether the Commanders can keep pace in a tough NFC East, the despair felt under Dan Snyder is no more.
Just imagine what those crowds will look like — and be chanting — if the team starts winning.
Roger Goodell, Commissioner, National Football League
For a variety of reasons Roger Goodell is probably the most important person this NFL season.
The league remains atop the sporting world, with dominant ratings and an ability to stay relevant throughout the calendar year. Perhaps no night is a better indication of the NFL’s dominance over the sports world than a Thursday night in May when the league releases their schedule for the upcoming season.
Remember, these are simply the dates and times for games that we know are going to be played, thanks to the NFL’s scheduling formula. But the yearly schedule release dominates the conversation for a few days, speaking to the league’s hold over us all.
At the top of that is Commissioner Goodell, who has seen the league enter into massive television and streaming deals, and become a worldwide Goliath in the sporting world.
This content was originally published here.