The 2023 regular season is rocketing toward us and will be here before we know it. We've already crossed a key threshold as we step closer to Week 1, with teamswhere they'll be setting the foundation for the upcoming year over the next few weeks.
As you may expect, this offseason's game of musical chairs has a bunch of teams looking quite different from when we last saw them, reshaping how we should look at things, particularly in the AFC. With that in mind, let's dive a little deeper into the league's more competitive conference and identify the potential MVP of each team. It should be noted that this isn't a mere rundown of who'll actually bring home MVP honors at the end of the year, nor will it solely be about those who could be in contention for the award. Instead, we'll be highlighting players who will be key to his team's success in putting a winning product out on the field. Naturally, there are plenty of quarterbacks on this list, but we also tried to extend ourselves beyond that pillar position whenever we could.
With all that said, let's get to it.
The Ravens were able to smooth things over with Lamar Jackson and keep their MVP quarterback in-house for the foreseeable future after agreeing to a mega extension this offseason. While the new-look offense with Odell Beckham Jr. and OC Todd Monken will help Baltimore return as a true contender in the AFC North, their secondary could be what prevents them from ascending to one of the elite teams in the conference. Specifically, it's the cornerback spot opposite Marlon Humphrey that was previously held by Marcus Peters, who is still out on the free-agent market. Currently, the job looks like it would go to Rock Ya-Sin, who signed a one-year deal with the team in May. The 27-year-old is now on his third team in as many seasons and hasn't recorded an interception in the past two years. That makes Baltimore awfully thin at the cornerback spot, which isn't exactly where you want to be at a loss for high-caliber players, especially in a conference with Joe Burrow, Josh Allen, and Patrick Mahomes.
That said, Ya-Sin is coming off a solid 2022 season during which he allowed just an 82.6 passer rating and a 60.9% completion when targeted against last season. If he can hold his own, Baltimore could surprise a lot of teams this season with a deep playoff run.
Joe Burrow has established himself as one of the best quarterbacks in the league over the past three seasons. What has prevented Cincinnati from hoisting a Lombardi Trophy over that time, however, has been the team's inability to protect him in the pocket. In 42 regular season games, Burrow has been sacked a total of 124 times (2.9 per game). That rate increases in the playoffs, where Burrow has been sacked 4.1 times per game. To help fix that problem, the Bengals made a major splash by signing Orlando Brown Jr. to a four-year, $64 million contract to protect Burrow's blindside. His presence moves former left tackle Jonah Williams to right tackle and should stabilize the unit. And if Brown's arrival means more time for Burrow to deliver the football to the likes of Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins, that'll put Cincinnati in the best possible position to succeed.
The Browns are being slept on as we enter training camp, and it's largely because of Watson's poor play upon returning from his suspension last season. They have a strong overall roster, prolific weapons at the skill positions, and a defense headlined by DPOY candidate Myles Garrett. If Watson can look more like the quarterback he was during his days in Houston, there's no reason to think the Browns won't be in the playoff conversation throughout the year and possibly even be a dark horse to go on a deep run. Watson showed some flashes of his former self throughout his six starts last year, and now with a full offseason to prepare and his off-the-field troubles behind him, it wouldn't be all too surprising to see him reestablish himself among the elite quarterbacks in the conference. After all, he is still only 27.
We could have easily rolled with Kenny Pickett here as the Steelers quarterback enters a pivotal Year 2, but let's diversify this list a bit more by highlighting first-round rookie Broderick Jones. After Pittsburgh traded up for the right to draft the Georgia product, he's now in the running to with Dan Moore Jr. during camp. At 6-foot-5, 311 pounds, Jones has the ideal size to be an elite starting tackle in the NFL. If he can even scratch the surface of his potential in Year 1, that'll do wonders for Pickett and his own development. That's particularly true when Jones plays in a division with Myles Garrett, Za'Darius Smith, Sam Hubbard, Trey Hendrickson, and Odafe Oweh.
It's a new era in Houston after the Texans selected Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud with the No. 2 overall pick at the 2023 NFL Draft. While Stroud isn't expected to resurrect the franchise overnight in Year 1, he is expected to show signs that he's the guy for the job. Houston will likely be among the worst teams in the league once again in 2023, but if Stroud can make them a more competitive product on a weekly basis, that'll be a win for the Texans heading into 2024.
A lot of the same things that we just noted with Stroud apply to Richardson, the No. 4 overall pick in this year's draft. It remains to be seen when he'll assume his spot as the Colts starter, but owner Jim Irsay did indicate this season that Richardson will be in there. Richardson oozes talent, but most did say throughout the pre-draft process that he may be best served by having a redshirt year in 2023. It seems unlikely he'll be afforded that in Indianapolis, but we've seen raw quarterbacks burst onto the scene before with stellar rookie seasons, so Richardson isn't asked to do anything that the NFL has never seen before. Similar to Stroud, if Richardson can show that he has the makings of a franchise quarterback, that'll be the signature win for the Colts in 2023.
Trevor Lawrence is the former No. 1 overall pick whom most will look at as the pillar for Jacksonville continuing its ascent as a potential powerhouse in the AFC, but don't sleep on fellow former top pick Travon Walker. The Jaguars were able to pressure the quarterback a good amount in 2022, applying pressure 25.1% of the time (fourth highest in the NFL). However, their sack totals ranked in the bottom third of the league. That's where Walker could come in with a more productive sophomore season after totaling just 3.5 sacks in 2022. While the Jags are expected to have a prolific offense, it'll be a leap from the likes of Walker that could turn them into a legitimate contender in the conference.
All the hype will be around DeAndre Hopkins as he just recently signed with the Titans, but most of the focus should be on the development of Treylon Burks. The Titans invested heavily into the wideout, trading away A.J. Brown in part for the 2022 first-round pick that was used to bring Burks to Nashville. Injuries derailed his rookie season, but the former Arkansas Razorback possesses plenty of talent to help elevate Tennessee's offense. With Hopkins in town, opposing secondaries won't solely have to focus on Burks, which should allow him to make an impact in Year 2. If he can even come close to filling the shoes of Brown, the Titans will have an offensive attack that could make them a sneaky contender in the AFC South.
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There are bigger pieces within Buffalo's offense (Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs being top among them), but Gabe Davis is arguably the key to the Bills getting over the hump and heading to the Super Bowl. The franchise has been desperately searching for a secondary pass-catching option opposite of Diggs, and Davis has been the one they've tried to lean on the most. While he's come up clutch in various situations, Davis has been inconsistent. He had just three games where he went over 75 yards last season and only caught 51.6% of his targets. If he can find a way to be a more reliable figure in the passing game, Buffalo's offense will explode.
The health and availability of Tua Tagovailoa will be a story that follows the Dolphins throughout the 2023 season. The quarterback suffered several concussions throughout last season, which ultimately cut his year short. When he was under center, however, Miami's offense was high-flying and Tagovailoa was statistically among the best in the league at his position. With Tagovailoa more experienced within Mike McDaniel's offense and the Dolphins making some notable upgrades on defense this offseason, they are in a position to surprise plenty of teams and push for the playoffs once again in 2023. If Tagovailoa goes down, however, that dramatically changes the calculus of how we'll look at this club.
In a division with Josh Allen, Aaron Rodgers, and Tua Tagovailoa, the Patriots are going to need to slow down the passing attack if they want any chance of contending in 2023. It does seem like Bill Belichick also realizes that fact as New England used its first-round pick in this year's draft to bring in Oregon cornerback Christian Gonzalez. Throughout the offseason, Gonzalez has looked like a plug-and-play starter on the boundary, which will be a major development for the Patriots, who are growing a bit thin at cornerback, particularly with second-year defensive back Jack Jones facing off-the-field issues. If Gonzalez can come in and play at a high level immediately, that should take loads of pressure off Mac Jones and the offense.
New York Jets: Aaron Rodgers
Arguably the biggest move of the offseason occurred in East Rutherford as the Jets pulled off the blockbuster trade to land Aaron Rodgers. Naturally, he's expected to lift the franchise to new heights and send them on a deep playoff run, possibly even a Super Bowl appearance. On top of that, he'll be asked to shift the overall culture of a Jets organization that currently has the longest playoff drought in the NFL. New York does have the pieces around Rodgers on both sides of the ball to make a significant run, but it'll be up to the quarterback to pull all the right levers to get the most out of his new team.
In just two seasons in the NFL, Patrick Surtain II has established himself as one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. While most of the attention in Denver will be paid to Sean Payton and his ability to get the most out of Russell Wilson after an abysmal 2022 season, it'll be Surtain's job to anchor the defense under new DC Vance Joseph. He'll be tasked with slowing down the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert, and Jimmy Garoppolo within the division to help keep the Broncos afloat throughout the year. If he continues to be the type of cornerback that can shut down an entire section of the field, it'll make everyone else's lives easier.
The Chiefs saw JuJu Smith-Schuster and Mecole Hardman leave in free agency, leaving the wide receiver room a bit thin in Kansas City. While tight end Travis Kelce will certainly still be the No. 1 option for Mahomes, the defending Super Bowl champions do need someone to emerge out of the wide receivers and it does seem like they are pegging Kadarius Toney to be that top option. Mahomes already noted this offseason that he thinks Toney can be a No. 1 receiver in the NFL. If Toney can prove his QB right, that'll make facing this Chiefs offense that much scarier.
Las Vegas Raiders: Jimmy Garoppolo
The Raiders swapped out Derek Carr for Jimmy Garoppolo this offseason, and the biggest thing that Las Vegas will be hoping for with their QB is for him to remain healthy. After offseason foot surgery, Garoppolo with the team, which paves the way for a healthy training camp. However, if you've been following Garoppolo throughout his career, injuries are never too far away. When he's been on the field, he's helped his team win football games, but durability has always been the issue. For the Raiders to make waves in the AFC West in 2023, it'll require a rare healthy season from Jimmy G.
The Chargers invested heavily into J.C. Jackson in 2022, inking the cornerback to a five-year, $82.5 million contract. In his first season in L.A., Jackson struggled and was limited to just five games after rupturing his patellar tendon in his right knee in Week 7. When he first signed, Jackson was expected to anchor the Chargers secondary alongside safety Derwin James Jr., but that never came to fruition. A healthy Jackson could turn the tides for a Chargers franchise that has struggled to put teams away and truly become a contender in the conference. During his last healthy season in 2021, the corner led the NFL in pass breakups and was an All-Pro caliber player. If that's the player L.A. finally gets, their pass defense could be among the best in the league.