The bulk of free-agent signings are completed, offseason programs are commencing and the 2023 NFL Draft is upcoming, so this is a good time to take stock of the biggest questions and storylines to follow in each NFL division. After all, OTAs, training camps and the 2023 regular season are on the horizon, so let’s check the pre-draft landscape around the NFL.
How Will Rodgers-Jets Trade Affect Other Teams?
The trade of the year is going to be finalized in the coming months and perhaps as soon as before the draft. This means the New York Jets passing attack that ranked 31st in receiving touchdowns with 15 last season should improve significantly with Aaron Rodgers at the helm instead of Zach Wilson or Mike White. The Jets already have a top-five defense, so the addition of Rodgers has to be of major concern to their divisional opponents.
The Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots want to be sure their pass rushes and pass defenses are up to the challenge of containing Rodgers and his fine receiving corps, which includes last year’s Offensive Rookie of the Year Garrett Wilson and free agent signees Allen Lazard and Mecole Hardman.
New York also has an excellent lead back in Breece Hall, who will be returning from his ACL injury. Hall will be a solid target out of the backfield for Rodgers, who also will have a good tight end in Tyler Conklin (58 catches last season).
The return from injury of star edge rusher Von Miller in Buffalo and the addition of Pro Bowl cornerback Jalen Ramsey in Miami will help those defenses, as should the draft, although Miami is missing its first-round pick due to league punishment for tampering. The Patriots could look to add a corner from a strong draft crop at No. 14 overall to help their secondary.
The bargain free agent signing period after the draft could bring reinforcements to the Jets’ divisional opponents. That also could be the case for the Jets, who are seeking their first division title since 2002.
>> READ: 7 Bargain Free Agents to Target
Can Deshaun Watson Put Browns Over the Top?
Last season was ugly for Deshaun Watson. It was ugly off the field because of his 11-game suspension for violating the NFL personal conduct policy and on the field as he acclimated to the Cleveland Browns offense. He finished with a career-low 79.1 passer rating while going 3-3 as the late-season starter. He will have a full season ahead after a year in coach Kevin Stefanski’s system, and the pressure is on Watson to produce at the level he did in Houston where he was a three-time Pro Bowl pick.
The heat also is on Stefanski to get Watson back to an elite level and return the Browns to the playoffs after two consecutive losing seasons. Cleveland has a top-10 running game led by one of the league’s best backs in Nick Chubb (1,525 rushing yards and 12 TDs last season) and a good offensive line to support Watson. The Browns traded for wide receiver Elijah Moore, a former second-round pick of the Jets, to join Amari Cooper and Donovan Peoples-Jones in three-receiver sets, with a fine tight end in David Njoku.
If Watson can up his game, the Browns’ offense will be difficult for the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers to stop in what should be an excellent AFC North in 2023. All of the teams in this division surely will be looking to fortify their defenses in the upcoming draft considering the quarterback talent in this division.
Can Jacksonville, Lawrence Continue to Ascend?
The Jacksonville Jaguars were a late-season surprise as they won their last five regular season games to overtake the Tennessee Titans and win the division. They followed up with a historic comeback from a 27-0 deficit to beat the Los Angeles Chargers 31-30 in the wild-card round before playing the Kansas City Chiefs tough in a 27-20 defeat.
Coach Doug Pederson did a great job in his first season with the Jaguars, helping elevate the team and particularly quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who made a big leap in his second season. Lawrence went from 12 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions as a rookie to 25 touchdown passes and eight interceptions in 2022. He also ran for five scores. Lawrence was the top pick in the 2021 draft, and the big question in the AFC South is if Lawrence will ascend further to top-five quarterback status, as Patrick Mahomes and Joe Burrow did early in their careers.
The Titans, the Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts have a lot of work to do in this draft and free agency to load up against the surging Jaguars, who have added a top receiver in Calvin Ridley (via trade from Atlanta) to go with receivers Christian Kirk and Zay Jones. They also retained top tight end Evan Engram with the franchise tag.
Can Sean Payton Resurrect Russell Wilson?
The Denver Broncos were one of the most disappointing teams in the league with their 5-12 record after expectations were high following the Russell Wilson trade. A shaky coach selection in Nathaniel Hackett combined with too many key injuries, poor pass protection and Wilson’s shockingly bad performance, especially early in the season contributed to that result. Now Sean Payton comes in to try and elevate Wilson back to his elite Seattle Seahawks days, which will be key if the Broncos want to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2015.
Payton coached a shorter quarterback, Drew Brees, to great success and Wilson is of similar stature. Wilson had a career-low 84.4 rating and was sacked a league-high 55 times last season. He’ll have more help with left tackle Garett Bolles, top back Javonte Williams and receiver Tim Patrick all returning from injury. Plus, Payton and general manager George Paton made a concerted effort to improve the offensive line with the expensive free agent signings of right tackle Mike McGlinchey and guard Ben Powers.
The question is how quickly can Payton and Wilson make the Broncos a factor in the AFC West as they compete with the Super Bowl-champion Chiefs and a playoff team in the Chargers. The Broncos are lacking draft picks from the Wilson trade (no first- or second-rounders this year) so improvement will have to come from what’s already in house, some astute mid-round picks, a few more bargain free agents and Payton’s coaching prowess.
Can Eagles Hold Off Cowboys, Giants?
It was a wild March for Philadelphia Eagles general manager Howie Roseman, who has worked his magic for the defending NFC champs by doing extensions and voidable deals to retain important players. Re-signed for Philadelphia’s second-ranked defense were excellent corners Darius Slay and James Bradberry and long-time contributors Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham on the defensive line along with All-Pro center Jason Kelce.
Seven starters, many of them top players, were lost in free agency: Javon Hargrave, C.J. Gardner-Johnson, T.J. Edwards, Kyzir White and Marcus Epps on defense plus lead running back Miles Sanders and guard Isaac Seumalo.
It will be a challenge for the Eagles to stay on top in one of the NFL’s best divisions, but the good news for Roseman and coach Nick Sirianni is they have a top quarterback in Jalen Hurts, who will likely be extended in the coming months, and two first-round picks (No. 10 and No. 30 overall) to replenish their talent.
They also will count on last year’s first-rounder defensive tackle Jordan Davis to replace Hargrave and 2022 third-round pick Nakobe Dean to be a starting linebacker. The Eagles will hope a bargain free agent running back Rashaad Penny, a former first-round pick of Seattle, can team with Kenneth Gainwell and Boston Scott to make up for the loss of Sanders. Gainwell already had taken on a big role last season.
The Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants and Washington Commanders have their full complement of high draft picks to try and bridge the gap with perhaps a slightly less talented but still formidable Eagles team in the upcoming season.
Is Detroit Ready to Take Control of Division?
The Detroit Lions are the team to watch in this division even after the Minnesota Vikings won 13 games and ran away with the NFC North title last season. After a 1-6 start, coach Dan Campbell’s feisty Lions won six of the next seven games (including an 11-point home victory over Minnesota). Detroit’s only poor performance was in its Week 16 loss to Carolina. They knocked Green Bay out of a playoff spot in Rodgers’ final game as a Packer.
So the arrow was already pointing up for the Lions, who had a top-five offense led by revived quarterback Jared Goff. Then, the team made major strides toward improving its league-worst defense through free agent signings of solid cornerbacks Cam Sutton and Emmanuel Mosley.
Plus, they added an excellent safety in Gardner Johnson, whose six interceptions for the Eagles last season was tied for the league lead. Running back David Montgomery was signed to replace Jamaal Williams, who had a league-leading 17 rushing touchdowns, and the Lions hope D’Andre Swift can stay healthy and provide a change of pace from Montgomery.
The Lions’ haul from the Matthew Stafford trade continues with them holding the Rams’ No. 6 overall pick in this month’s draft. Detroit has its own No. 18 pick, so the Lions have a good opportunity to further improve their defensive line and secondary with these picks.
The Packers will begin the Jordan Love era and the Bears are in transition with a lot of new talent incoming, so it should be Detroit and Minnesota at the top of the NFC North. We’ll see if the Lions can take the next step to their first divisional title since 1993.
What Will Tampa Bay Look Like Post-Brady?
It appears Tom Brady has truly packed it in this time. After a lousy early season in Carolina that led to his release, Baker Mayfield played fairly well for an undermanned Rams team late last season, especially in leading a game-winning 98-yard drive against the Raiders two days after joining the team. He also quarterbacked a 51-14 win over Denver.
That raised the interest of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 2018 first-overall pick, who led the Browns to the playoffs in 2020 before injuries slowed his career. Cap-strapped Tampa Bay signed Mayfield to a one-year deal for $4 million plus $4.5 million in available incentives.
He will compete with Kyle Trask for the starting job, but it’s possible the Buccaneers could pick a quarterback at No. 19 overall. It’s more likely the Buccaneers look to add youthful talent to a defense that ranked 24th in takeaways or on the offensive line, where starting tackle Donovan Smith was released, and help is needed at guard.
Tampa Bay won the weak NFC South with a losing record last season before a quick playoff exit at the hands of the Cowboys. The Buccaneers were limited in free agency by their cap with Brady’s $35 million in dead money.
Can they add enough talent with their nine draft picks to help win their third straight division title, holding off the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, who are making moves to improve? And is Mayfield the quarterback to make that happen?
Can Rams Rebound From Disastrous 2022 Season?
The Los Angeles Rams appear to be in reboot mode after an awful 2022 season in which they went from champs to 5-12 chumps. They were derailed primarily by injuries to three of their best players — Stafford (played in nine games, 3-6 record), Cooper Kupp (missed eight games, 75 catches after 145 the year before) and Aaron Donald (missed six games, career-low five sacks).
Coach Sean McVay says he’s “excited” about trying to return the Rams to competitive status in their division that includes two playoff teams (San Francisco and Seattle). He certainly needs to have Stafford, Kupp and Donald playing full-time at their Pro Bowl levels. McVay and general manager Les Snead must fortify the team through the draft where the Rams hold 11 picks, but eight of them are in Rounds 5-7. They are without their first-round pick from the Stafford trade.
They need more talent and depth for an offense that fell from ninth in 2021 to dead last in 2022. The Rams picked up valuable salary cap room, a third-round pick and tight end in Hunter Long by trading their top cornerback to Miami. But even after dealing Ramsey, the Rams were limited in free agency by their tight cap.
The San Francisco 49ers quarterback situation and the pending competition between Brock Purdy and Trey Lance also is of great interest in this division, but the status of the Rams going into the 2023 season rises to the top of the NFC West’s question marks.
Jeff Diamond is a former Minnesota Vikings general manager and Titans team president. He was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. Follow him on Twitter at @jeffdiamondnfl