Which teams in the AFC are most likely to go from worst to first in 2023?
It’s May – the NFL draft is over and the majority of significant free agency signings and trades have taken place. Rookie mini-camps are also underway. Fans of each team are living with the hope that their team can improve on last year. There is hope, and quite rightly so. Since divisional realignment in 2002 there have been very few years in which at least one team has not gone from divisional basement dwellers one season, to divisional champs the next. Most recently we have seen the 2021 Cincinnati Bengals and the 2022 Jacksonville Jaguars follow this well-trodden path.
So who is most likely to continue this trend in 2023?
AFC North – The Cleveland Browns
2023 was an odd year for in Cleveland. Finishing with a 7-10 record they propped up a strong division as the only team with a losing record. A large portion of the season was spent waiting for DeShaun Watson’s suspension to be over. When it was, the rest of the season was spent waiting for Watson to come good.
Cleveland has potentially one of the better Quarterback of the ‘worst to first’ contenders. Watson really needs to show why the invested so heavily in his talents. The addition of wide receivers Elijah Moore and Cedric Tillman should certainly help their passing attack. Nick Chubb remains one of the best pure runners in football and their offensive line, chock full of good starters, returns mainly in tact.
On the defensive side of the ball, new DC Jim Schwartz will have to establish his game plan early if Cleveland are to have success in 2023. There is plenty of talent to work. The dominant Myles Garrett gets some help with Za’Darius Smith coming over from Minnesota. Another ex-viking Dalvin Tomlinson and rookie Siaki Ika should add beef to the defensive interior. There is also huge amounts of talent in the defensive backfield with the likes of Denzel Ward, Juan Thornhill, Greg Newsome and Grant Delpit all expected to contribute.
Overall, Cleveland appears to have a very strong roster, however they are in a very difficult division in the North, with Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati all having play-off ambitions of their own.
AFC East – The New York Jets
After a lengthy, drawn out process the Jets finally got their man. Future Hall of Famer, and multi time league MVP, Aaron Rodgers is the man piloting Gang Green in the 2023 season. 2022 had moments of promise from the Jets with rookies Garrett Wilson, Sauce Gardner and Breece Hall all looking the part. However, things never quite clicked for any length of time for various reasons.
The Jets have one of the top defences in the NFL. John Franklin-Myers remains an underrated talent on a defensive line that boasts the likes of Quinnen Williams (provided his contract issues are resolved), Carl Lawson and Quinton Jefferson. Add in the ability to rotate in the likes of Jermaine Johnson (who will surely have a bigger role this season), Solomon Thomas, rookie 1st rounder Will McDonald and Bryce Huff, opposition quarterbacks may have a few sleepless nights prior to facing the Jets.
Chuck Clark was a nice pick up at safety from the Ravens . Robert Saleh’s defence has plenty of talent in the back end of the defence to be more than adequate for a title charge.
However, 2023 really comes down to how well the offence clicks. The Jets have done what they can to appease Rodgers – bringing in his old OC in Nathaniel Hackett as well as trusty sidekicks Randall Cobb and Allen Lazard to round out the wide receiver room. The offensive line should also be better this year with rookie Joe Tippmann challenging for starting spot immediately and (hopefully) a health Mekhi Becton to call upon.
For me this feels like a make or break year for HC Robert Saleh and GM Joe Douglas and going from worst to first has to be their aim.
AFC South – The Houston Texans
I think it’s fair to say things have not been rosy in Houston the last couple of years. However, this offseason feels like the green shoots of recovery are starting to emerge. Their first big move in an this offseason was the capture of the much sough after DeMeco Ryans as their head coach. The former 49ers DC played in Houston for many years and has spark the imagination of a dormant fanbase.
However, it is going to take a lot more than a new head coach to drag the Texans out of the doldrums. Their entire playing staff needed an upgrade. The first round of the draft saw the Texans swing, and swing big. Initially taking QB CJ Stroud at 2 and then trading up to take stud edge rusher Will Anderson at 3 was certainly a bold move. The draft capital to do so was considerable, but the Texans felt the addition of these 2 players would help kick-start their franchise
Their is a nucleus of a potentially decent offensive line with Laremy Tunsil still playing very well at left tackle, Shaq Mason joining to play guard and Tytus Howard has started to show promise at right tackle.
However, the Texans roster is still made up of mainly journeymen or young players. Whilst the moves they have made this off-season suggest things are heading in the right direction, I feel they are still a year or two off in being contenders to make the playoffs. Doing so with a brand new coach and a rookie QB would be quite the achievement
AFC West – The Denver Broncos
2022 was a disaster for the Denver Broncos. Head Coach Nathaniel Hackett did not see out the full season before being fired. The huge trade for Russell Wilson did not pay off, with Wilson looking a shell of his former-Seahawks self. Nothing seemed to click on either side of the ball.
However, the winds of change should be blowing through Denver right about now. Sean Payton is heading up the charge after coming out of his 1 year retirement and looking to stamp his authority on an under achieving roster.
A partially revamped O-line sees Mike McGlinchey (from the 49ers) and Ben Powers (from Baltimore) step into starting roles. Former Cardinal Zach Allen was the main pick up on the defensive side of the ball, joining former Niner DJ Jones in trying to improve the Broncos up front.
Denver were a little hamstrung in the draft due to aforementioned Wilson trade however wide receiver Marvin Mimms, linebacker Drew Sanders and CB Riley Moss were all nice pick ups who could contribute something early on.
If Javonte Williams stays fit I could see Denver running the ball a lot more in 2023, regardless of whether this will keep a certain QB happy. The dynamic between Payton and Russ may well be on the main headlines as the season progresses
So who is going worst to first? For me, the most obvious candidate is the New York Jets, which pains me to say as a Dolphins Fan. The Jets have a loaded defence with potential top 5 ability. They have some good pieces on offence and if Aaron Rodgers can recapture the magic which saw him voted 2020 and 2021 league MVP. They are in a tough division, however, I feel the opportunity is there.
The Bills, who have run the East the last few years, are likely to be their main hurdle. Josh Allen is one of the league’s premier QBs. However, I feel a slump is coming in Buffalo. They have been so close, yet so far, in the recent playoffs and I wonder how much this will affect the team moving forward. Do they have the juice to keep relentless driving for that Super Bowl Holy grail?
The Dolphins have also made moves this off-season, most noteably acquiring Jalen Ramsay from the Rams. They possess the leagues most explosive offence in terms of sheer speed. However, so much relies upon Tua Tagovailoa’s health and he has yet to show he withstand the rigorous of a full NFL season.
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