It's the third full week of July, which means there are only a few days standing between now and the start of training camps across the NFL. Many stories predicting what may come in the 2023 season trend positive because it's a fresh start. Teams have new players from free agency and the draft, many injured players begin healthy and ready to roll for Week 1, so there are generally good vibes to go around. Not here. The task at hand is to figure out each team that will finish in their division's basement.
Every division had one in 2022 except for the NFC South in which the Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, and Atlanta Falcons all finished with identical 7-10 records, one back game of the first-place Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-9). That division, along with the AFC North, were two of the harder ones to figure out in terms of how the bottom will shake out, but here are the most educated projections across the league. Five of the eight teams selected to finish last were bottom feeders in 2022, while the other three are a fresh crop of potential stumbling squads. One of the three new cellar dwellers was a division winner as recently as last season.
AFC East: New England Patriots
2022 season finish: 8-9 (third place, no postseason)
The Patriots aren't a bad team. Their defense is elite: head coach Bill Belichick's bunch had 30 takeaways, tied for the second-most in the league last season with the 49ers, trailing only the Cowboys' NFL-best 33, and they were a top-10 total defense in 2022, allowing the eighth-fewest total yards per game (322.0). However, their offense is a gigantic question mark entering 2023 after the .
Mac Jones became only the 10th rookie quarterback in league history to throw for over 3,500 yards (3,801) and 20 or more touchdowns (22) in 2021, leading to a runner-up Offensive Rookie of the Year finish to his first season. Then, he dramatically regressed across the board with a longtime defensive coach as his offensive play-caller. How he will fare in his third season under new offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien should be much better, but it's unclear how much better that will be after such a weird year in 2022.
Jones did receive a couple new and bigger pass-catching options in former Chiefs wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster (who signed a three-year, $33 million contract) and former Dolphins tight end Mike Gesicki (one-year, $4.5 million deal). Defensively, Belichick may have drafted the cornerback with the highest upside in Oregon's Christian Gonzalez, whom he selected after trading back three spots and adding an extra fourth-round pick. The team's third round pick, Sacramento State linebacker/safety hybrid Marte Mapu, balled out during the early parts of New England's offseason program, according to CBS Sports' own Tyler Sullivan, so Belichick may have found a steal who could contribute right away.
The bottom line is having offensive uncertainty in a division with Josh Allen's Bills, Aaron Rodgers' Jets, and Tua Tagovailoa's Dolphins -- yes, Tagovailoa led the league in passer rating (105.5) and yards per pass attempt (8.9) in Year 1 of a new offense with head coach Mike McDaniel -- is a major liability. The Patriots may very well have a solid team in 2023, but it likely won't be on the level of contention as their three division rivals.
AFC North: Cleveland Browns
2022 season finish: 7-10 (last place, no postseason)
The Browns weren't able to make many moves this offseason as quarterback Deshaun Watson's acquisition cost three first-round picks plus a five-year, $230 million fully guaranteed extension that absorbed much of their maneuverability. Safety Juan Thornhill (three years, $21 million) and defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson (four years, $57 million) represented their big free agency splashes. Thornhill struggled to hold onto his starting safety spot for two years (2020 and 2021) before regaining it a year ago, so adding another up-and-down defender to a defense that didn't live up to its potential may not work out.
Za'Darius Smith appears to be a nice value add after sending a couple future fifth-round picks to the Vikings, but this is a player who has quit on each of his last two teams. He pouted his way off the Packers when his teammates didn't vote him as a captain starting in 2020, and while his 10 sacks with the Vikings last season look nice on paper, only 1.5 of them came in Week 9 or later. Smith also isn't a willing run defender, so a lot of responsibility falls on new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz's shoulders to keep him engaged throughout the season. Offensively, Cleveland overpaid to acquire former Jets wide receiver Elijah Moore, as moving down from the second round (42nd overall to the third round, 74th overall) for a player who fell out of favor with coaches and teammates acts as a bailout for the Jets.
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As a result, the depth is thin behind Pro Bowl receiver Amari Cooper, so the Browns are left praying the 2022 season in which Jacoby Brissett outplayed Deshaun Watson as their starting quarterback was a rust-related issue only. The only real example of hope for a Watson return to high-level play after missing a year-and-a-half of NFL football is Michael Vick's 2010 Pro Bowl season. He won NFL Comeback Player of the Year after helping lead the Eagles to an NFC East title while throwing for 3,018 yards, 21 touchdowns and only six interceptions in addition to leading the NFL in yards per carry (6.8) in 12 starts. A Watson return to glory would be almost unprecedented, which is why the Browns are selected here to be the AFC North's last-place team in 2023.
AFC South: Houston Texans
2022 season finish: 3-13-1 (last place, no postseason)
The Texans fully earned the No. 2 overall draft pick last season, as they were a mess on both side of the ball. Offensively, their quarterbacks (Davis Mills, Kyle Allen, and Jeff Driskel) combined to have the second-lowest pass yards per attempt (6.3) and passer rating (76.8) in the NFL. That led to the Texans averaging 17 points per game in 2022, tied for the second-lowest in the league along with the Indianapolis Colts. Their defense wasn't much better as they surrendered 24.7 points per game, the sixth-most in the league.
That led the franchise to start over with their coaching staff once again, firing Lovie Smith after one season and replacing him with former 49ers defensive coordinator -- and Texans all-time tackles leader -- DeMeco Ryans. Houston is now only the fourth team in the Super Bowl Era to have a different Week 1 head coach in four or more consecutive seasons.
They also hopped off the retread quarterback rollercoaster and finally settled with a legit, young passer they can develop in their No. 2 overall draft pick, Ohio State's C.J. Stroud. Providing him two of Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott's top targets in tight end Dalton Schultz -- one of five tight ends with 2,000 or more receiving yards (2,000) and 15 or more receiving touchdowns (17) since 2020 along with the Chiefs' Travis Kelce, the Ravens' Mark Andrews the 49ers' George Kittle and the Vikings' T.J. Hockenson -- and Noah Brown on cheap deals (one-year, $6.3 million for Schultz and one-year, $2.6 million for Brown) is good business. Third-round wideout Nathaniel "Tank" Dell could grow nicely with Stroud as they already have a strong rapport. Former Bills running back Devin Singletary is a nice complement to Dameon Pierce in the backfield.
However, Houston's offseason was also marred by some questionable decision-making. Casting away Brandin Cooks for only fifth- and sixth-round picks after it could have flipped him for top-three round selections at last season's trade deadline is a whiff. Robert Woods could be productive in his place, but he looked many steps slower in his return from an ACL tear in 2022 with the Titans. Selecting Alabama defensive end Will Anderson Jr. provides them a nice foundational piece on defense -- he was far and away the most productive pass-rusher in the draft -- but the acquisition cost was astronomical. They moved up nine spots from No. 12 to No. 3, but in exchange they surrendered their 2023 second (33rd overall pick), their 2024 first-round pick and 2024 third-round pick.
The bones are there for the Texans, something that couldn't be said the last couple of years, but Houston is also still a few years away from making real noise again.
AFC West: Las Vegas Raiders
2022 season finish: 6-11 (third place, no postseason)
Wide receiver Davante Adams' 1,516 receiving yards were the third-most in the NFL behind only Justin Jefferson's 1,809 and Tyreek Hill's 1,710. Adams also led the league in receiving touchdowns with 14 in 2022, gleefully proving he didn't need to be in Green Bay with Aaron Rodgers to be one of the NFL's best. His production could noticeably dip with Jimmy Garoppolo replacing Adams' BFF Derek Carr as the Raiders starting quarterback. Adams caught seven touchdowns thrown 30 or more yards downfield, the most since Hall of Famer Randy Moss' seven such scores he caught in the Patriots' perfect 16-0 regular season in 2008. On the flip side, Garoppolo has completed just 8 of his 47 career passes (17%) thrown 30 or more yards downfield. The pairing is a significant stylistic clash.
Josh Jacobs' future with the Raiders is TBD after r if he doesn't receive a long-term contract.
Defensively, Las Vegas' 26th-ranked scoring defense (24.6 points per game allowed in 2022) may struggle once again unless seventh overall pick defensive end Tyree Wilson can play at a Pro Bowl-caliber level as a rookie opposite two-time Pro Bowl edge rusher Maxx Crosby. Chandler Jones did nothing to make his three-year, $51 million contract look like a good idea last season, and 2023 is the 12th NFL season for the 33-year-old. Entering the upcoming season, the Raiders are one of the easier last-place division picks in the league given their division competition and questions marks on both sides of the ball.
NFC East: Washington Commanders
2022 season finish: 8-8-1 (last place, no postseason)
The Commanders have one of the best defensive lines in football with three Pro Bowlers along their front four in Daron Payne, Jonathan Allen and Chase Young. That line (36% quarterback pressure rate, seventh-best in NFL) helped power them to the seventh-ranked scoring defense (20.2 points per game) and third-ranked total defense (304.6 total yards per game) in the league. Washington also did a nice job investing in young talent for the secondary -- first-round cornerback from Mississippi State Emmanuel Forbes (college football's leader in pick-sixes with six) plus second-round defensive back from Illinois Jartavius Martin (44-inch vertical, best at 2023 NFL Combine). The Commanders' secondary had allowed 60 touchdown passes in the last two season, tied for the most in the NFL.
However, questions abound at their quarterback position. The hiring of assistant head coach and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy will help the development of the two quarterbacks in contention to start -- 2022 fifth-round pick Sam Howell (one career game played) and journeyman Jacoby Brissett -- but neither appears poised to make a Geno Smith-like leap in 2023 despite some nice wider receiver talent in Pro Bowler Terry McLaurin plus speedsters Jahan Dotson and Curtis Samuel. Too much is unknown about Washington's offense at this point to pick them to finish ahead of the Eagles, Cowboys or Giants -- all teams that won a playoff game last season.
NFC North: Chicago Bears
2022 season finish: 3-14 (last place, no postseason)
The Bears maximized the value of the 2023 NFL Draft's first overall pick, acquiring two first round selections and two second round picks from the rebuilding Panthers in addition to 26-year-old wideout D.J. Moore, a legit No. 1 wide receiver option. However, general manager Ryan Poles' free agency spending was questionable. Handing inside linebacker Tremaine Edmunds a four-year, $72 million deal to become their new Roquan Smith after sending the former top-10 pick to the Ravens at least season's trade deadline seems like wishcasting a level of play on someone who hasn't shown Smith-like play to be in his development to this point. Signing another inside linebacker in T.J. Edwards to a three-year, $19.5 million deal was a nice pickup.
It's ideal that Poles found a way to upgrade quarterback Justin Fields' offensive line, but the help came on the right side in ninth overall pick Darnell Wright, a tackle out of Tennessee, and the signing of guard Nate Davis in free agency for $30 million over three years. Fields' blind side could use more options beside just 2022 fifth-round pick Braxton Jones.
Perhaps even more worrisome was how the Bears, whose 20 sacks and 24.4% pressure rate both ranked dead last in the league last season, didn't find notable upgrades in terms of their edge rusher position. Head coach Matt Eberflus admitted they're still lacking in that area at the end of their organized team activities and minicamps. That's worrisome for a team whose scoring defense (27.3 points per game allowed), third-down defense (49%), and passing yards/attempt allowed (8.0) also all ranked last in the NFL.
The Bears did sign 26-year-old defensive end Rasheem Green, who has 17.0 career sacks in five NFL seasons, to a one-year, $2.5 million contract after he spent last season with the Houston Texans. Green spent his first four seasons with the Seattle Seahawks from 2018-2021. Chicago also added soon-to-be 29-year-old defensive end and six-year NFL vet DeMarcus Walker, who has 19.5 career, in free agency. The former Denver Bronco (2017-2020), Houston Texan (2021), and Tennessee Titan (2022) signed a three-year, $21 million deal after recording a career-high seven sacks in 2022. Neither of those additions appear to have moved the needle noticeably in the eyes of Chicago's coaching staff. The Bears have made some huge steps in the right direction with their rebuild, but they still have a ways to go.
NFC South: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2022 season finish: 8-9 (first place, lost 31-14 vs Cowboys in NFC wild-card round)
Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht ought to take a bow for dancing around the $35 million in dead cap space caused by Tom Brady's second retirement to retain linebacker Lavonte David (one year, $4.5 million), their defensive leader, and cornerback Jamel Dean (four years, $52 million), who in tandem with Carlton Davis forms one of the NFC's top cornerback duos. Tampa Bay has the defensive horses to challenge for the NFC South throne even without Brady, but relying on Baker Mayfield isn't a sturdy option. He could be the 2023 Geno Smith veteran breakout quarterback while throwing to four-time Pro Bowl wideout Mike Evans as well as Pro Bowl receiver Chris Godwin. Mayfield could also highlight why he's played on three different teams in the last two seasons since he has exactly 26 passing touchdowns and 26 turnovers as a starting quarterback across 24 starts spanning the last two years.
However, the Buccaneers should be in a good spot to reset the deck in 2024 once Brady's dead money is off the books no matter how well or poorly 2023 goes. Just in time for the.
NFC West: Arizona Cardinals
2022 season finish: 4-13 (last place, no postseason)
The Cardinals kicked head Kliff Kingsbury and general manager Steve Keim to the curb, replacing them with former Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon and former Titans director of player personnel Monti Ossenfort.
The new regime was left a crumbling foundation with the Cardinals coming off a 4-13 season in which face-of-the-franchise quarterback Kyler Murray, whose game thrives off of his otherworldly athleticism, tore his ACL. Murray could even miss the start of the upcoming season while recovering from the knee injury. Arizona did well to parlay moving back in the draft in a trade with the Texans into possession of their 2024 first- and third-round picks. That move positions Arizona to potentially have multiple top-five picks next year when generational talents at quarterback -- 2022 Heisman Trophy winner from USC Caleb Williams -- and wide receiver -- Ohio State's Marvin Harrison Jr. -- will be draft-eligible. Eventually landing Ohio State offensive lineman Paris Johnson Jr. sixth overall is a nice way to establish a foundation along the offensive line.
However, it would have been nice to see Arizona get something for DeAndre Hopkins instead of releasing him outright. The move does help the team's unsaid pursuit to race to the top of the 2024 draft, though. What they decided to do with five-time Pro Bowl safety Budda Baker, who demanded a trade in the event the team decides not to make him the new highest-paid player at his position, will be an interesting storyline to follow. Their decision will reveal if they're willing to take an even deep dive into the depths of their rebuilding process. The Cardinals are more likely to be in a race for the top overall draft pick in 2024 than an NFC West division title.