Analysis

6 NFL Teams Ready to Make Big Leap in 2023

Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells once said, “You are what your record says you are.”

While that is absolutely true, history has shown us that if you know what you’re doing, your record doesn’t have to stay the same for very long.

Consider:

>> After winning just four games in 2018, the 49ers went 13-3 a year later and made it to the Super Bowl.

>> The Jaguars finished 3-13 in 2016. The following year, they went 10-6 and made it to the AFC Championship Game.

>> The Cowboys went from a 12-loss team in 2015 to a 13-win team in 2016.

>> The 2011 Colts and 2012 Chiefs finished 2-14 and won 11 games the following year.

>> Last year, seven of the league’s 14 playoff teams didn’t qualify for the postseason the year before.

>> In 2017, eight of the 12 playoff teams were newcomers.

You get the picture.

As the 2022 NFL playoffs draw closer, who are the teams that could leap into the Super Bowl conversation next season? Here are six prime candidates:

Jacksonville Jaguars

2022 record: 7-8

What have you done lately? Jags have won five of their past seven games, including wins over the 11-4 Cowboys and 10-5 Ravens.

A look at the draft: Nine picks, including five in the first four rounds.

Projected ’23 cap space: Minus-$5.5M (sixth fewest per overthecap.com). They spent more money on free agents than any team in history last off-season. They won’t be making many headlines on free-agent signings this time around.

Key free agents: ER Dawuane Smoot, TE Evan Engram

The QB scoop: The departure of Urban Meyer and the hiring of The Quarterback Whisperer, Doug Pederson, has done wonders for Trevor Lawrence. In the last seven games, he is first in the league in passer rating (108.2), third in completion percentage (69.7), tied for fourth in touchdown passes (14) and has thrown one interception in his past 254 attempts.

And here’s the thing. He’s only going to get better.

Jags in a nutshell: With the collapse of the Tennessee Titans, the Jaguars very well may win the AFC South this season. They’re sixth in takeaways (24) and tied for seventh in turnover differential (plus-5).

Lawrence has only been sacked 25 times and doesn’t get enough credit for his running ability (5.2 yards per carry, 25 rushing first downs in 51 rushing attempts). Lawrence’s former Clemson teammate, running back Travis Etienne, is a 1,000-yard rusher. Wide receiver Christian Kirk, one of the free agents the Jags signed in the offseason, has 76 catches and seven TDs.

Oh, and the Jags acquired wide receiver Calvin Ridley from the Falcons at the trade deadline. In March, Ridley, who caught 90 passes for 1,374 yards and nine TDs in 2020, was suspended for gambling through at least the 2022 season.

“Trevor Lawrence has really turned the corner,” said The 33rd Team’s Rich Gannon, who started 132 NFL games in a 17-year career and was the league’s MVP in 2002. “I think Doug has done a real nice job there of changing the culture and the environment. He’s got a lot of good, young players on that roster.”

“Doug and his coaches have nursed these guys back to a good place after everything they went through last year [with Meyer],” said CBS television analyst Charles Davis, who also is a contributor to The 33rd Team.

“Lawrence is ascending. They brought in (wide receiver) Christian Kirk and (tight end) Evan Engram, who both are playing well. Marvin Jones is playing better. And I like their defense. I like what they’ve got there.”

Jaguars general manager Trent Baalke has taken his share of criticism. But Davis thinks he’s done an excellent job of putting the current roster together.

“People look at Baalke’s drafts and say what about this and what about that,” he said. “But he drafted Lawrence. He drafted (edge rusher) Trevon Walker. Walker is always going to be compared to Aidan Hutchinson. But it’s not like he’s having a bad year. They’ve found value. They’ve found players. In that division, they have a chance to keep ascending.”

Davis believes Lawrence’s talent will enable the Jags to lure even more quality players to Jacksonville.

“Free agents are going to cock an eye and say, ‘Hey, maybe that’s a spot for me,'” he said. “That happens when you’re playing like he is.”

Detroit Lions

2022 record: 7-8

What have you done lately? The Lions had won six of seven before last weekend’s 37-23 loss to Carolina. They’ve beaten the Vikings, Jags and Giants and lost by three to the 12-3 Bills.

A look at the draft: They have two first-round picks – their own (currently 18th) and the Rams’ (currently 7th), which they picked up last year when they swapped quarterbacks with the Rams. They also have two second-round selections.

Projected ’23 cap space: $27.7M (12th most)

Key free agents: WR D.J. Chark, RB Jamaal Williams, CB Mike Hughes, LB Alex Anzalone

The QB scoop: Jared Goff’s solid season seems to have convinced GM Brad Holmes and head coach Dan Campbell that they don’t need to go out and get a quarterback in the draft. Goff is having his best year since 2018. He has a 98.3 passer rating and a plus-19 touchdowns-to-interceptions differential.

Lions in a nutshell: The Lions were 3-13-1 in Dan Campbell’s first season as head coach. This year didn’t start out much better. But after losing six of their first seven games, the Lions have fought back into playoff contention.

Their offense can move the ball on pretty much anyone. They’re fifth in the league in scoring (26.1 points per game). Goff is playing well. His offensive line has given up just 21 sacks.

WR Amon-Ra St. Brown, a fourth-round pick in ’21, had 90 catches as a rookie and 96 already this season. RB Jamaal Williams has a league-high 14 rushing touchdowns. RB D’Andre Swift is averaging 5.4 yards per carry.

It’s on the other side of the ball where they need to get better. They’re dead last in both points allowed (26.7) and yards allowed (409.9) per game.

“You’re seeing Dan Campbell’s vision for what he wanted his team to be – a gritty, scrappy, tough team,” Davis said. “They’ve built steadily. I love their drafts. I love that Brad Holmes and Dan Campbell seem to be in lockstep on how they want to put this together. I think Brad has shown a lot of astuteness and conviction in the moves that he has made.”

In April, the Lions used the 12th pick in the draft on Alabama wide receiver Jameson Williams, who tore his ACL in the national championship game in January. Holmes and the Lions knew he probably wouldn’t play much this season – he finally was activated earlier this month and has played just 45 snaps in four games. That’s not a move you’re going to see a lot of GMs of three-win teams being willing to make. But they expect big things from Williams next season.

“For a team that was in their situation to have the patience to say, ‘I’m going to move up and take a guy at 12 that’s not going to help me for most of the first year, if at all, but is going to pay off for us down the road,’ that took some guts,” Davis said.

“I like where they’re going. They’re learning how to win this year. [Campbell] doesn’t have to teach them that going forward. Regardless of how this season ends for them, they have something to build off of. And if you look at the rest of the NFC North, I mean Green Bay has more questions than we ever thought possible. Minnesota is having a heck of a year. But 11 wins by one score or less? Is that a sustainable formula?

“If you look at what Goff has done this year, he’s not the reason they’ve lost games,” said Gannon. “He’s really played well. They’ve got two good young backs in Williams and Swift. They’re just a tough football team. They play hard. They’re physical. They compete. They do a lot of little things right that don’t require a ton of talent.

“They’ve done a good job in the draft. Aidan Hutchinson is a force as a rookie and is going to be a great player. They’ve done a good job of picking up some guys in free agency. They have a pretty good offensive line. They won just three games last year and now [Campbell’s] got them on the verge of making the playoffs. That’s a big turnaround. And they’re only going to get better. This isn’t a fluke.”

Daniel Jones Saquon Barkley New York Giants

New York Giants

2022 record: 8-6-1

What have you done lately? The Giants shocked everybody by jumping out to a 7-2 start and earning Brian Daboll a lot of coach of the half-year votes. But they’ve come back to earth lately. They’re 1-4-1 in their last six games but still are very much in the playoff hunt.

A look at the draft: They have nine picks, including two in the third round.

Projected ’23 cap space: $59.2M (third most)

Key free agents: RB Saquon Barkley, QB Daniel Jones, LG Nick Gates, C Jon Feliciano

The QB scoop: The Giants didn’t pick up Daniel Jones’  fifth-year option last spring, indicating that they were inclined to move on from him. But then Brian Daboll arrived, and everything changed. He has embraced Jones, and the young quarterback has played well, despite not having any pass-catching weapons or consistent protection. While he’s thrown just 13 touchdown passes, he has just three interceptions in the Giants’ past 12 games. While the Giants are keeping their options open, the best guess is that they’ll re-sign Jones and move forward with him as their starter.

Giants in a nutshell: The offense has struggled all season. The Giants have scored more than 24 points in a game just once – 27 vs. the Packers in Week 5.

Saquon Barkley has rushed for 1,254 yards and 10 touchdowns despite facing constant six- and seven-man fronts.

The Giants have what almost certainly is the least talented wide-receiver corps in the league. Their offensive line is a work in progress. It has allowed 47 sacks. The defense has just four interceptions. And yet, they are 8-6-1.

They have two good young edge rushers in 2022 first-round pick Kayvon Thibodeaux and 2021 second-rounder Azeez Ojulari. With their cap space, they need to improve the receiving corps and offensive line and keep adding talent to the defense.

“I really like what Brian Daboll is doing there,” Gannon said. “They’re obviously not the most talented team in the league. They’ve got to get better on the offensive line. Their receiving corps needs a major overhaul. But they’ve won eight games and could make the playoffs.”

“They’ve played above who they were for much of the year when you look at their roster and talent level,” Davis said. “Offensively, outside of Barkley, if you’re a defensive coordinator, do you wake up terrified in the middle of the night before you play them? No.

“But what Daboll has done there is build a base. I asked him a while ago, how do you have these guys winning games in the fourth quarter when there was no real basis for it before. I mean, it wasn’t like last year, they lost but they were gritty and tough down the stretch. It kind of came out of nowhere, but he’s been able to fuse that into them.

“They’ve still got a lot of work to do compared to, say, Jacksonville. This is going to be a big draft for (general manager) Joe Schoen. But they have the resources to be aggressive in free agency.”

Re-signing Barkley is a must. As for Jones, a short-term contract – possibly three years – might be the best way for both the player and the team to go. We’ll see.

“They have to re-sign Barkley,” Davis said. “Normally, when you’re talking about a running back, you say, well, we can get one for a lot cheaper. But this is different. He is that guy. And when he’s healthy, he can do everything for them.”

Said Gannon: “Barkley’s had a phenomenal year. Put the film on and see how many times he’s running into a six- or seven-man front. It’s a lot. Basically, every snap, the safety is down along the front or charging toward the line of scrimmage at the snap of the ball.

“But he still has made a lot of guys miss. He’s run through tackles. He’s the real deal. He’s good in the passing game. He has good hands. He gets a lot of yards after contact. He has that shake and wiggle to him. They can’t afford to let him get away.”

And Daniel Jones?

“I think he’s earned the right to come back in 2023,” Gannon said. “Everybody wants Patrick Mahomes or Aaron Rodgers. They all want that guy. But there’s only a handful of them. Jones has played well enough to give them a chance to win each week.”

New York Jets

2022 record: 7-8

What have you done lately? This isn’t a team on the upswing right now. They lost four in a row and six of their last eight.

A look at the draft: The Jets have five picks — one in each of the first five rounds.

Projected ’23 cap space: $15.3M (18th most)

Key free agents: C Connor McGovern, DT Sheldon Rankins, S Lamarcus Joyner

The QB scoop: Zach Wilson, who the Jets took with the second pick in the ’21 draft, has struggled and been benched. Whether he ever plays again for the Jets is the million-dollar question. For now, at least, the offense is in the hands of journeyman Mike White, a former fifth-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys.

Jets in a nutshell: Good news first. The Jets already have one of the league’s top defenses. They’re fourth in points allowed (18.8) behind only the 49ers, Bills and Ravens and third in yards allowed (309.3) behind the Niners and Eagles.

Their offense is another story. They lost their second-round rookie running back Breece Hall to a season-ending injury in October. Then, Wilson was abysmal at quarterback, completing just 54.5% of his passes and throwing six touchdowns and seven interceptions in 242 pass attempts before getting the hook.

“(Jets GM) Joe Douglas has done a terrific job in building that team, but when you miss on a high first-round quarterback, it sets you back,” Davis said. “They can play with Mike White. He’s a guy the team believes in and has played well when he’s been on the field. He can be a bridge. But they’re going to have to go out now and evaluate everyone else in this year’s draft and evaluate the free-agent quarterbacks and figure out what they’re going to do going forward.”

“The offensive line needs to keep being built. It will help when they get (Alijah) Vera-Tucker back. He’s a heck of a player. I love him more at guard than tackle. But he was playing at a Pro Bowl level at tackle.

“Getting Breece Hall back next year will help. I know he’ll be coming off a knee. But between him and Zonovan Knight and Michael Carter, they’ll have a pretty good running back group.

“Defensively, they have a unit that travels and wins for you. They have two terrific corners. I know Sauce (Gardner) gets all the attention. But D.J. Reed can flat-out play. And Michael Carter is an underrated nickel.

“I think there’s nothing but ascension there, whether it’s Mike White playing quarterback or somebody they go out and get.”

Gannon has been impressed by White.

“Clearly, he’s better than Wilson right now,” he said. “He’s not the more athletic quarterback. But he’s the better-functioning quarterback. You just have to watch the first half of the Chicago game a couple of weeks ago to see that.

“That offense looked like a real offense [with White at quarterback]. The timing, the rhythm of the passing game, it looked like the offensive coordinator had taken the gloves off. I think he feels he can be more aggressive with the play calls when this kid is in there.

“I think he processes things better. I think he sees the field better. He’s a more accurate thrower of the ball. They can win with him.

“The other guy has a lot of work to do. His feet are bad, his eyes are bad and his accuracy isn’t good. His confidence is shot. You’d better find out how tough this kid is and what his level of commitment is.

“I don’t know that his preparation was what it needed to be prior to his benching. They’re going to have to go back to the beginning with him if they’re going to have any luck at salvaging him.”

Cleveland Browns

2022 record: 6-9

What have you done lately? They have won three of their past five, including a 13-3 win over the Lamar Jackson-less Ravens and a 23-17 win over Tom Brady and the dysfunctional Bucs.

A look at the draft: They have eight picks but no first-rounder. They sent that to Houston in the Deshaun Watson trade.

Projected ’23 cap space: $1.9M (12th fewest)

Key free agents: RB Kareem Hunt, LB Deion Jones, ER Jadeveon Clowney, QB Jacoby Brissett

The QB scoop: Browns are set for a while after trading for Deshaun Watson and giving him a fully-guaranteed five-year, $230M contract. Watson has started four games this season since serving his 11-game suspension for the numerous sexual misconduct allegations against him in Houston.

Browns in a nutshell: Watson has a lot of rust to shed. He sat out the entire 2021 season as well as the first 11 games this season. In his four starts since he was reinstated, he has a 69.3 passer rating that includes a 57.7 completion percentage, 5.7 yards per attempt and just two touchdown passes.

But before the spit hit the fan in Houston, he was one of the league’s best young quarterbacks. Right there alongside Patrick Mahomes. Assuming he can get back to that level, the Browns should be in good shape.

They already have an excellent offensive line, one of the best running backs in the league in Nick Chubb, and a solid receiving corps headed by wide receiver Amari Cooper and tight end David Njoku.

They’ve run hot and cold defensively. Myles Garrett is one of the league’s best pass rushers, but Jadeveon Clowney, who will be a free agent, has been a bit of a disappointment. That said, since giving up 70 points in back-to-back November losses to Miami and Buffalo, the Brown have allowed just 74 points in their last five games.

“I think (Browns coach) Kevin Stefanski does a real nice job,” Gannon said. “It’s been a bit of a shit show this year. But they’ve got some good players. They’ve got a good offensive line. They’ve got a good defense when it’s healthy; some really good running backs.

“The quarterback, the layoff has been evident. Not just the 11 games this year, but all of last year. A full offseason will certainly go a long way to helping him. I think these last couple of games are important to him and them. Because you want to go into the offseason with some confidence.”

Gannon felt Watson was one of the best quarterbacks in the league in 2020. Whether he can return to that level is the million-dollar question.

“I did a lot of his games (as an analyst for CBS) when he was in Houston,” he said. “In 2020, the Texans were a bad team. I mean really bad. The offensive line wasn’t very good. They couldn’t run the ball. The receiving corps was all banged up.

“Given all that, this kid went out there and had an MVP-type season. They finished 4-12, but he completed 70 percent of his passes. Throws for over 4,800 yards and 33 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. It was unbelievable. He kept them in every game. He made plays. He made guys miss.

“Now, can you bring him back from basically a two-year sabbatical and get him back to the level he was at? We’ll see. He’s still very young. I think Kevin’s a very good coach. So is (Browns offensive coordinator) Alex Van Pelt. They’ve got a good coaching staff there. They’ve got a good offensive line. They’ve got playmakers. I think Watson is going to make them a real competitive team in that division.”

Houston Texans

2022 record: 2-12-1

What have you done lately?: The Texans beat the Titans last week in Tennessee. The week before, they took the 12-3 Chiefs to overtime before losing. The week before that, they gave the 12-4 Cowboys all they could handle before losing by four points on the road.

A look at the draft: This could be a game-changing draft for the Texans if GM Nick Caserio makes the right decisions. They have 11 picks, which is the most in the NFL. They have two picks in the first round – their own, which is expected to be the first overall, and the Browns’ pick, which right now would be No. 11. They have their own second-round pick and two thirds.

Projected ’23 cap space: $46.7M (8th most)

Key free agents: DE Ogbonnia Okoronkwo

The QB scoop: Davis Mills has started 24 games the last two seasons, including 13 this year. He’s shown some promise. But the Texans almost certainly will use the first of their two first-round picks on a quarterback, probably Alabama’s Bryce Young.

Texans in a nutshell: They have a Pro Bowl left tackle in Laremy Tunsil, and the rest of the line isn’t bad either. They have an excellent young running back in rookie Dameon Pierce, who rushed for 939 yards in his first 13 games before getting hurt.

But their passing game has been impotent. They don’t have a receiver with more than three touchdown catches. They haven’t scored more than 24 points in a game this season. They have the third-lowest third-down success rate in the league. They’re 28th in red-zone offense.

Defensively, they’ve done a good job against the pass, giving up just 13 touchdown passes, but have struggled against the run. In their last four games, they’ve given up 168.5 yards per game on the ground. There’s a lot to fix, starting with the quarterback position. But they’ve got a lot of ammunition in both the draft and free agency.

“They are my huge wildcard,” Davis said. “We’re used to them being just miserable. But they’ve been playing a lot better lately. The quarterback situation, I said last year that if Davis Mills had stayed in school another year and came out this year, he would’ve been the first quarterback taken. I don’t know if that’s how it’s being viewed in Houston. We’ll see.

“But Dameon Pierce can run the football. They have to figure out the receiver situation. I don’t know what’s going on with Brandin Cooks. It looks like he’s going to be moving on again. He puts up numbers, but he never stays. It’s a weird thing.

“Defensively, I thought last year’s draft with Caserio and his crew was as professional a draft as they’ve had in a while. They got people they can build off of. The linebacker from Alabama (third-rounder Christian Harris). The safety from Baylor, Jalen Pitre, who I love. He just needs to slow down so he doesn’t miss as many tackles.

“I like where they’re going, and I like what they’re doing. I think they’ve benefitted from Lovie Smith’s style of leadership this year.”

Paul Domowitch covered the Eagles and the NFL for the Philadelphia Inquirer for four decades. You can follow him on Twitter at @pdomo.

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