There are good surprises and bad surprises in every NFL season.
In picking surprise teams for each division, former NFL head coaches Marty Mornhinweg and Dave Wannstedt believe several can exceed expectations for the 2023 NFL season and a few that might surprise in the other direction.
Mornhinweg: Rodgers Gives Jets Chance
The Buffalo Bills are clearly the favorites in this division. However, the New York Jets have coach Robert Saleh and quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The Jets will have a heck of a defense, at worst. They have excellent special teams. And they’ve traded for one of the most prolific quarterbacks ever.
The Jets have a chance to rock and roll as long as Rodgers stays healthy and age hasn’t caught up to him. To do this correctly, the Jets have to allow Rodgers to turn it loose with his talent and experience on offense. That could vault New York to a possible Super Bowl run.
Wannstedt: Dolphins Have What It Takes
The Miami Dolphins are a team that is going to close the gap on the Bills and have an opportunity to win the division. Think back to last season in Buffalo, the last time these teams played, Miami had the football — playing with a third-string quarterback — and they had a legitimate chance to run the ball and win the game. They got away from the run for whatever reason, and that’s coach Mike McDaniels’ specialty.
Here are some reasons why the Dolphins can make a move: No. 1, they will make more of an effort to be more balanced on offense. No. 2, that will take pressure off quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, which is good. Because at the end of the day, it’s going to come down to how healthy the Dolphins are because they have Jaylen Waddle, Tyreek Hill and Cedric Wilson at wide receiver — they’re as talented a group as there is in the league. And lastly, they hired Vic Fangio as their defensive coordinator and added one All-Pro, Jalen Ramsey, to pair with another, Xavien Howard, at cornerback. Those two on your defense, plus Fangio? The Dolphins are going to make some noise.
Mornhinweg: Watson Key to Browns’ Hopes
The Cincinnati Bengals are the clear favorites, and the Baltimore Ravens are right on their heels with Lamar Jackson getting a new contract, signing receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and drafting receiver Zay Flowers to pair with an excellent defense.
However, if coach Kevin Stefanski and the Cleveland Browns can get quarterback Deshaun Watson to play at the level he was at a few years ago they might have an opportunity to win the division or slip into the playoffs as long as Watson plays at a high level.
Wannstedt: Cleveland Can Rock Division
The Browns might not win the division, but they are going to make a lot of headway for a couple of reasons. Watson cannot be as bad as he was last year, so I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt. I’m going to give the coach and the offensive coordinator the benefit of the doubt. They’re all under a lot of pressure, and they will respond and get a good year out of Watson. The Browns also have a very good running game led by Nick Chubb. They have a good receiving corps with Amari Cooper and Elijah Moore, whom they acquired from the Jets.
On defense, they added pass rusher Za’Darius Smith in a trade with Minnesota, and he will team up with Myles Garrett, who had 16 sacks last season. They added defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson in free agency, so the Browns have really helped their defense, especially up front. This team has the talent to make a move in their division.
Mornhinweg: New Coach, QB Give Colts Shot
This is not a very good division, and the Jacksonville Jaguars appear to be the favorites, but the Indianapolis Colts have a new coach Shane Steichen and they drafted a quarterback in Anthony Richardson who is one of the most elite, talented men I’ve ever evaluated.
Richardson ran a 4.4 40, and he’s a natural passer. The only problems are he started just 13 games at Florida and he went 6-7. Another problem is he only completed 53 percent of his passes, which doesn’t match his natural passing ability. If the Colts can get Richardson to develop into a great decision-maker and throw more accurately, which will take a lot of reps, and gain an understanding of NFL timing — which is different than college — they may have something there.
Wannstedt: Ryans, Top Picks Energize Texans
Yes, the Houston Texans were the worst team in the league last season, but they have a new sense of energy. New coach DeMeco Ryans had San Francisco’s defense play with high energy and emotion. The players rallied around him. That’s something that’s very valuable when you have a young team like Houston. The Texans need that energy, that excitement he brings.
Look for rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud to play well because Ryans is a strong defensive coach who believes in running the ball. The Texans had an excellent rookie running back last season in Dameon Pierce, who was a fourth-round pick from Florida. They signed Devin Singletary from the Bills in the offseason, so now they have two good backs. That will take a lot of pressure off of Stroud.
The Texans also drafted Will Anderson right after Stroud to be a foundational piece in their 4-3 scheme that will be the same one Ryans ran with the 49ers. Anderson will only have to play one position, pass rusher. They’re going to simplify this scheme, which will help young players play faster. So the Texans have a good running game, a head coach who’s going to bring a lot of energy and expertise, and a player in Anderson who Ryans is going to make into a star.
Mornhinweg: Chargers Have Pieces to Surprise
It would be a surprise if the Kansas City Chiefs don’t win this division unless they have a massive amount of injuries at key positions. A team to watch is the Los Angeles Chargers, especially if they get things ironed out and quarterback Justin Herbert gets over the hump. They could knock off the Chiefs. Everything may have to go their way, but the Chargers can be a surprise team.
Wannstedt: Herbert Can Help Close Gap
This is the year the Chargers close the gap and catch the Chiefs. Obviously, it all starts with Herbert. He’s the key, and they have quality receivers. They have Mike Williams and Keenan Allen, and what did they do in the first round? They drafted Quentin Johnston of TCU, who is another big and fast receiver. In the fourth round, they added another receiver Derius Davis. They also have running back Austin Ekeler, who is the most underrated back in the NFL.
On defense they have Kahlil Mack, Joey Bosa, Derwin James, and Asante Samuel Jr. They have playmakers at key positions on what should be a very good defense. I think they helped their offense and coming off a playoff berth should give them a positive vibe.
Mornhinweg: Don’t Overlook Giants
The Philadelphia Eagles, who are coming off a close loss in the Super Bowl, have to be the favorites, and the Dallas Cowboys are nipping at their heels. That will be a heck of a division race. However, can the New York Giants create some magic again after a pretty good run last season? Can they improve after reaching the playoffs and winning a wild-card game? The Giants could be a surprise team again.
Wannstedt: Cowboys Could Head South
The Cowboys have a lot of pressure on them, especially quarterback Dak Prescott and coach Mike McCarthy. Mike fired offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. Mike is a friend of mine and I hope he has success, but it bothered me when you’re the head coach and you say we didn’t run the ball enough. Why not just say we’re going to run more? Then when your quarterback throws a lot of interceptions (an NFL-high 17), that’s a problem. So how will the Cowboys solve this?
They wanted to run the ball more, but they released Ezekiel Elliott. I’m glad they kept Tony Pollard, but he’s coming off a knee injury and it might take him a year to get up to full speed. Then Dak lost his security blanket, tight end Dalton Schultz, who signed with the Texans. That’s a lot of pressure on Prescott, and I don’t see how the Cowboys can move up. They could struggle and fall in the other direction.
Mornhinweg: Got to Love Packers’ Chances
The Dan Campbell-coached Detroit Lions are favored to win this division, but I have a big surprise pick here. Can the Green Bay Packers create a little momentum with Jordan Love at quarterback? They just traded Rodgers, who is one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play, but they have Love. You’ve got to have some love for Love at quarterback. The Packers have a great home-field advantage, so they should be able to accumulate some wins at home. Can they have some surprise wins, especially early to gain some momentum? Go Pack Go, I think they can.
Wannstedt: Red Flags Surround Vikings
The Minnesota Vikings won 13 games last season and won the division. They won 11 one-score games, so hats off to coach Kevin O’Connell. He did a fantastic job, but I’m a little concerned about the Vikings. They appeared to be a fragile team. They won all those close games, but I didn’t see a lot of confidence in their team.
This year, they added Brian Floes, who is an excellent defensive coach, as their defensive coordinator. He is a hard-line, no-nonsense guy. O’Connell has a more laid-back approach. So how will this staff mesh?
They drafted receiver Jordan Addison in the first round. He won the Fred Biletnikoff Award after his sophomore season at Pittsburgh then transferred to USC and had a good, but not great, year. So there are questions about how this will work out when one looks at how they won games last season, the dynamics of this coaching staff and how Addison is going to start.
Other than those areas, they’re pretty much the same team. They moved on from some players and added a couple, but none are impact guys. This seems like the same type of team that has some personality issues they’re going to have to work through. If they do, they’ll be as good as they were last season. If not, this team could slip.
Mornhinweg: Reich, Young Give Panthers Hope
The New Orleans Saints are favored, which is a little surprise, but this isn’t a very good division. Can the Carolina Panthers with first-year head coach Frank Reich and No. 1 overall draft pick Bryce Young create some wins? Can Young get the Panthers in the end zone time after time and lead them to win after win? You have to stack wins to win your division. I think Reich and Young will lead the Panthers to the NFC South title.
Wannstedt: Carr Can Drive Saints to Playoffs
This should be the Saints’ year. They signed quarterback Derek Carr, who always plays with a chip on his shoulder and has so much ability. He’s a top-10 quarterback, maybe top-five. The Saints are getting wide receiver Michael Thomas and running back Alvin Kamara back healthy, and they have second-year receiver Chris Olave, who is a star.
The Saints have a good mix of veterans and younger players, and I like the addition of Carr a lot. He gives them stability they haven’t had since Drew Brees retired.
Mornhinweg: Seahawks Can Build on 2022
Quarterback Geno Smith, the league’s Comeback Player of the Year, general manager John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll did an excellent job. Can they do what they did last season even better? Seattle, with its 12th Man, is a very difficult place to play, especially if the Seahawks are at full strength. I think they can make a run at the division crown.
Wannstedt: Don’t Sleep on Seattle
Seattle has Smith coming off an outstanding year. Anytime your quarterback throws three times as many touchdowns to interceptions that’s going to give your team a chance to be a playoff team. Smith is capable of doing it again. Why? We know Carroll likes to run the football and rookie Kenneth Walker III, when he was healthy, was a star. He’s going to be a superstar.
At one point last season, the Seahawks were starting five rookies, and now all of these guys have experience. Then Seattle added two more standouts in the draft’s first round. Cornerback Devon Witherspoon could be Defensive Rookie of the Year if he plays the way he’s capable. And then they added receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who is an excellent route runner who will complement DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett in the passing game. So the Seahawks have solidified their offense, and they’re always going to have a good defense under Carroll. They drafted edge Mike Morris and they signed Dre’Mont Jones in free agency. He’s an outstanding player who will help that front.
Seattle will close the gap on the 49ers and make a run at this division.
Marty Mornhinweg is a former head coach of the Detroit Lions and a longtime NFL offensive assistant. He was the quarterbacks coach on the 1996 Green Bay Packers team that won Super Bowl XXXI. Follow him on Twitter at @MartyMornhinweg.
Dave Wannstedt is a former head coach of the Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins. Follow him on Twitter at @CoachWannstedt.