Last season’s version of this list did not feature Brock Purdy (oops), was headlined by Trey Lance (double oops), and hit on Aaron Rodgers’ impending divorce from Green Bay (we’ll take it). Hopefully we do better this year (not guaranteed).
1) Brock Purdy, San Francisco 49ers
There were questions heading into the offseason over who would start for the Niners at quarterback. Brock Purdy was coming off elbow surgery and Trey Lance, who the team shelled out a number of draft picks to move up and select in the 2021 draft, is returning from an injury of his own. As an insurance policy, the Niners added Sam Darnold this offseason. Now it’s clear that Purdy is healthy and will be the starter. “Brock Purdy would have to melt in practice to lose the starting job,” 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan told Albert Breer this week.
Purdy was outstanding after taking control of the Niners’ offense last season, guiding the team to the NFC title game before his injury. He did what was asked of him: He played the role of distributor and showed just enough offbeat creativity to help elevate the Niners’ all-world offense.
The NFC is the league’s JV conference. The Niners and Philadelphia Eagles occupy a tier of their own, with the Dallas Cowboys a few steps behind. After that, there’s little sign that anyone can compete for the conference title. Purdy’s health – and play – will dictate whether the Niners can get back to the Super Bowl.
2) Robert Saleh, New York Jets
Aaron Rodgers’s move to New York has, understandably, dominated the conversation around the Jets over the offseason. There’s pressure on Rodgers, a chance to show it was those silly folk in Green Bay’s fault for past failings, not his. There’s pressure, most of all, on Robert Saleh.
Saleh has proven his credentials as a defensive architect, but what about as a program builder? What about running a team, and not just any old team, but a championship team? And what about running a championship team with a cantankerous 39-year-old at quarterback and an organization that has loserdom coursing through its veins?
How does he cope when the team lose back-to-back games? How does he keep a young roster grounded when they win four on the spin? What about when Sir Moans A Lot takes a shot at a teammate? What if there are early struggles on offense, or his defense falters out of the gate? For a young head coach, it’s a lot to juggle.
Recent championship coaches fall into four buckets: those who had reached the Super Bowl before, either winning or losing (Andy Reid; Sean McVay; Bill Belichick; Tom Coughlin); second-time head coaches with bags of experience (Pete Carroll; Gary Kubiak; Bruce Arians); coaches whose win was the end product of a team’s traditional cycle: getting close, losing, then coming back to win (John Harbaugh); and the outlier: Doug Pederson, author of the Eagles’ Super Bowl Cinderella run with Nick Foles at quarterback.
To win it all, Saleh will have to buck a trend. He doesn’t have the time to build in the traditional cycle. He doesn’t have the experience of Carroll or Arians or Kubiak; or the the most overwhelming roster in the league as Pederson did. Any mistakes will be amplified. There can be no learning on the job.
3) Deshaun Watson, Cleveland Browns
Last season’s return to the sport after his suspension was a dud. Watson ranked 30th in the RBSDM composite, which measures the value of a play and how much the quarterback is responsible for the value, behind the likes of Davis Mills, Taylor Heinicke, Russell Wilson and Colt McCoy. The offense functioned with a better flow and rhythm with Jacoby Brissett at quarterback than with Watson.
Watson’s game had always revolved around two traits: his deep ball accuracy; and his ability to create when pressured. Last season, both cratered. He was less accurate, less aggressive, less decisive and looked slower with the ball in his hands.
Average and bad quarterbacks fold when the pass rush comes screaming at them. Watson had always held steady. That was until he stepped on to the field for Cleveland: He turned pressures into sacks at the highest clip in his career to date and averaged just 4.8 yards per attempt under pressure – the only time he’s been below 7.5 yards per attempt – and this in a season in which he was pressured at the lowest rate of his career by far.
Watson believers will point to rust – and the Browns best hope they’re right. Watson’s huge contract means the Browns are wedded to him for the medium-term no matter what. If he soars, they’re a contender. If his play from last season carries over into this year, it’s going to be painful.
4) Von Miller, Buffalo Bills
Things move quickly in the NFL. In the aftermath of ‘13 seconds’, the Bills still had one of the brightest futures in the league. A year and a bit on from that painful playoff exit, with another disappointing postseason run under their belts, they’re now battling time.
Buffalo pushed a ton of chips into last season and failed to push on. Things are dicier this season. It’s probably the final run for the veterans who have helped navigate the early years of the Josh Allen era. Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde, once the best safety tandem in the league, are starting to creak. Tre’Davious White, once one of the best corners in football, fell off a cliff in 2022. Stefon Diggs, Buffalo’s star receiver, continues to grumble.
Then there’s Von Miller, who is 34 and returning from an ACL injury. With Miller in the lineup last year, the Bills had an overwhelming four-man pass-rush. Once Miller went down, that evaporated.
Winning in the playoffs these days comes down to two things: Having a quarterback who can create magic outside the structure of the offense; and generating a four-man pass rush. Allen is good for one of those things. But if Miller returns as a shadow of his former self and there’s no one to pick up his production, the Bills will almost certainly fall short in January again.
5) Dan Campbell, Detroit Lions
The last time the Lions won a division title, they were playing in the NFC Central, which no longer exists. Now that Rodgers has bolted from the NFC North, the division is up for grabs. The Minnesota Vikings are in the midst of a mini-rebuild. Who knows what the Green Bay Packers will get from Jordan Love? Likewise for the Chicago Bears’ Justin Fields, an electric talent who still has to show consistency as a passer.
For the first time in a long time, the Lions head into a season with expectations. They’re the most well-rounded side in the division, with the most certainty at key spots. They reinforced a flaky secondary over the course of the offseason. On offense, they have the most gifted offensive line in the division – and one of the best in the league – and explosive talent throughout the skill positions. In Ben Johnson, they have a warlock of an OC who has dragged the best out of Jared Goff.
It’s Dan Campbell’s job to pilot it all and deliver on the team’s promise.
6) Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys
If any team can break the Niners-Eagles duopoly in the NFC, it’s the Cowboys. They have a ferocious defense and star power on offense. They added wisely during the offseason, bringing in a pair of key veterans (Stephon Gilmore and Brandin Cooks) to help on either side of the ball.
Ultimately, though, the team’s bid to end their Super Bowl drought will fall on Prescott. The quarterback turned the ball over too much last season, partly due to bad luck and partly due to poor decisions. He changed his style, too. The old Prescott, the off-script creator, was turned into the DakBot. Playing such a precise Manning-esque style can still be effective, but only if a quarterback refrains from putting the ball in harm’s way.
Prescott is good enough to lead the Cowboys to a title. If the defense isn’t the best in the NFL, it will be as near as makes no difference. So long as Prescott can cut down on the unforced errors, Dallas have a shot to win it all.
7) Kellen Moore, LA Chargers
You might have missed it, but the Chargers are already up against the clock. Given their cap situation, a haul of splash free-agent signings was never going to happen. Such is the cost of splurging the cash 12 months prior and locking Justin Herbert into a long-term extension.
Development will need to come internally. Brandon Staley remains one of the best single-game defensive gameplanners in the league, but throughout his tenure in LA his defenses have been beset by nagging issues: they’ve been allergic to stopping the run; injuries have knee-capped the pass rush. Outside Herbert, the team’s star players are ageing out of their primes.
Herbert has proven to be one of the most gifted quarterbacks in the game despite playing in a largely moribund offense early in his career. The Chargers are hoping that bringing Kellen Moore, the former Cowboys OC, on board will help ignite a stale system. If Moore can help drag an extra 5% out of Herbert, if he can make the quarterback’s life a smidge easier, then the Chargers have the spine – on both sides of the ball – to compete deep into the postseason.
Herbert should be at the forefront of MVP conversations. It’s over to Moore to help unlock all of his talent.
8) Aaron Rodgers, New York Jets
OK, we can’t leave out Rodgers.
Rodgers and the Jets will be the story of the season. The quarterback turns 40 in December, and the history of 40-year-old quarterbacks makes grim reading. Only Tom Brady has fought off Father Time (temporarily). Brady accounts for 40% of starts for quarterbacks over 40, 46% of wins, 65% of completions, 64% of yards, and 73% of touchdowns. Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger, a cavalcade of the great and good, all saw their skills vanish at 40 (for some of them, it was before). Brady is the exception, not the rule.
Which version of Rodgers will show up in New York? He’s been on his best off-the-field behavior so far. He appears to have bought into Saleh’s rah-rah culture. He’s in legacy burnishing mode, and that should tamp down the kind of shenanigans that plagued the end of his time in Green Bay.
What about on the field? There were warning signs of a decline last season: his deep ball dropped off; he struggled to generate explosive plays; he abandoned the middle portion of the field. Still, the talent around Rodgers this season is immense. Even if he’s merely a league-average (or slightly above) starter, the Jets have championship potential – and his ceiling is much higher than that.
9) Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs
Duh. He’s the best player in the league by some distance. While he’s playing, no one is more important.