The NFL 2022/23 season looks unpredictable given the massive movement of players and coaches and the sense that the change in the power structure is underway.
As with last season, there is a very small group of teams we can bill as elite--not surprisingly, they tend to be the ones driven by the top quarterbacks. Yet last year's Super Bowl was contested by two teams I hadn't picked among the elite: the seemingly Bengals, who put together an exceptional late-season run behind definitely elite second-year QB Joe Burrow (and elite rookie placekicker Evan McPherson); and the Rams, with free agent Matt Stafford, an almost-elite pickup who (along with super-elite defender Aaron Donald) won the Super Bowl.
Big moves make for unpredictable season
This year's off-season was filled with big and sometimes controversial moves, especially at quarterback: DeShaun Watson to Cleveland, Baker Mayfield to Carolina, Russell Wilson to Denver, Matt Ryan to Indianapolis, Carson Wentz to Washington and Jimmy Garoppolo to, uh, nowhere in the end.
It was also an off-season for the guys who catch the passes to cash in: Davante Adams to Las Vegas, Tyreek Hill to Miami, AJ Brown to Philadelphia, Christian Kirk to Jacksonville, Hollywood Brown to Arizona and Marquez Valdes-Scantling and JuJu Smith-Schuster to the new Hyphenated Heaven, Kansas-City.
What does it all mean? As the poet Charles Olson wrote: "What does not change, is the will to change". Everybody's got the will, but have they found the way?
Elite Teams: Bills look strong but Chiefs can rule roost
Buffalo Bills: Miller adds winning pedigree to nearly men
They came close to the AFC Championship game: in their OT divisional loss to the Chiefs, which saw 25 points scored in the last two minutes, they did the one thing a Sean McDermott defense isn't supposed to do: give up the big play, especially from Patrick Mahomes to Tyreek Hill.
But the Bills return an almost-intact team, and though they play better when Josh Allen is unleashed, as they did late in the year, they are plenty good while protecting him. In the playoffs you sometimes need an elite pass rusher: they added Von Miller, (pictured below playing for the Rams) whom Super Bowls follow around, to fill that need.
Tackle Ed Oliver is an up and coming star, and with top corner Tre'Davious White still on the injured list they drafted Kaiir Elam as a replacement.
Offensively Stefon Diggs and Gabe Davis are a fine one two, they use Isaiah McKenzie imaginatively and drafted Khalil Shakir who could surprise in the slot. Their offensive tackles aren't elite, but they survive, and rookie James Cook, brother of Minnesota's Dalvin, could be a change of pace back they need.
Over/Under Wins: Back over 11.5 at 4/6
Kansas City Chiefs: Mahomes is aiming for redemption
Having beaten the Bills to get to the AFC final, the Chiefs lost to the Bengals when Mahomes threw an interception on the first play of overtime, which Eli Apple dropped, then followed with one that Vonn Bell held. Tyreek Hill has gone, and they are hoping to replacement him with MV-S and JJ S-S, as noted above, and maybe a step forward by Melcole Hardman. They also hope Justin Reid, with help from Deon Bush, fills the hybrid safety role Tyrann Matthieu played.
LT Orlando Brown turned down a $139million contract and will play on the franchise tag this season. If his heart is in it the Chiefs' O line is good. Watch rookie Skyy Moore to pick up some of the Hill slack in the middle of the field. Rookie George Karlaftis is expected to add pass rush, and his fellow first-round pick Trent McDuffie probably steps right in at corner. KC is in a tougher division than Buffalo, which will make the win total harder.
Betfair Over/Under: Over 10.5 at 4/5
The Contenders - Bengals can build on last year
Cincinnati Bengals: Solid again with shrewd signings
It's hard to imagine everything dropping right for the Bengals as it did in December and January last year, but you can tell they're solid because the biggest story in camp was a battle at punter, which veteran Kevin Huber duly won. In the draft they addressed their biggest need, in the secondary, and kept safety Jessie Bates for at least one more season while drafting his likely replacement Daxton Hill.
They addressed their other need, O line, through free agency. Last year Burrow was sacked 54 times, this year ex-Buc Alex Cappa, ex-Patriot Ted Karras and ex-Cowboy La'el Collins will offer better protection. Burrow to college teammate Ja'Mar Chase may be the most deadly combo in the league, but Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd offer alternative targets, and free-agent Hayden Hurst is a good pass catching tight end.
McPherson gives them hope in the close games if his toe stays hot. The NFC North is a balanced division, which makes life tough
Betfair Over/Under: 9.5 Over at 4/6
Denver Broncos: Talented Wilson boosts their chances
Russell Wilson is the new QB, their best since Peyton Manning, and he has a good group of skill position players to work with. New coach Nathaniel Hackett comes from Green Bay, where his approach to Aaron Rodgers may work well with Wilson, letting him function as a playmaker within his system. Adding tackle Billy Turner from the Pack could help the O line, while Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon are a good pair of runners.
Defensively they are a rush (Randy Gregory, Bradley Chubb and rookie Nik Bonitto) and cover team (Pat Surtain, Justin Simmons, Kareem Jackson and Ronald Darby joined by ex-Niner K'Waun Williams). The trade for Wilson was a mirror-image of the Rams' deal last year for Stafford: can it push them over the hump in a tough division with four top quarterbacks?
Betfair Over/Under: 9.5 Under at 11/10
Baltmore Ravens: Jackson returns but puzzle still incomplete
Lamar Jackson is back from injury, and the question is can the Ravens adjust their offense to protect him running and also to make the basic plays passing?
They've added ex-Chief DeMarcus Robinson to replace Hollywood Brown, but they need last year's rookie Rashod Bateman to take a big step up at WR so they don't have to throw 10 times a game to TE Mark Andrews. Rookie TE Isaiah Likely looks like a Likely draft steal if he catches the ball the way he did in pre-season. If T Ronnie Stanley stays healthy their O line, with rookie Tyler Linderbaum at C should be good, but Stanley has problems staying on the field.
Defensively, coordinator Wink Martindale is gone and as I write this they are still looking for edge rushers. Bringing back nose tackle Michael Pierce will help stop the run, ex-Bronco Kyler Fuller takes over as slot corner and rookie safety Kyler Hamilton probably fits in somewhere. On paper, I always like the Ravens, but on the field, there are challenges.
Betfair Over/Under 10.5 Under at 8/11
Las Vegas Raiders: Work in progress despite Adams' arrival
Jon Gruden and GM Mike Mayock are gone, Josh McDaniels and GM Dave Ziegler are in from the Patriots and with the signing of Davante Adams, arguably the best receiver in the NFL and even better QB Derek Carr's favourite target in college at Fresno, their offense should be fine. Adams, Hunter Renfrow and TE Darren Waller mean they can attack on many levels, and Josh Jacobs is a power runner.
The line remains a work in progress, but British RT Jermaine Elumenor looks to replace last year's top draft pick Alex Leatherwood, who was cut. Defensively they also need work, though the addition of Chandler Jones at end opposite Maxx Crosby will help. A trade for Indy corner Rock Ya-Sin was a good move too, but there are still too many questions in the back seven.
Betfair Over/Under 8.5 over at 5/6
Los Angeles Chargers: Playoffs within reach if they click
Justin Herbert is a potentially great QB who may be held back by the team's inability to build a complete winner and integrate that with the coach. Brandon Staley wasn't great in-games. They've spent two years rebuilding the O line, but there is still a hole at RT; their top receivers Mike Williams and Keenan Allen are both great players, but Allen is aging and injury prone and the addition of Gerald Everett at TE is not ground-shaking.
Rookie RB Isaiah Spiller may take some of the pressure off the excellent Austin Ekeler, one of the league's most undderated players. They've added Khalil Mack as a pass rusher on the opposite side to Joey Bosa; Staley and defensive coordinator Reynaldo Hill both came crosstown from the Rams; ex Ram Troy Reeder could replace highly touted draft pick Kenneth Murray at linebacker.
Their big off-season signing was corner JC Jackson from the Pats; he's going to miss a few games at the start of the year, but Asante Samuel, Bryce Callahan, Derwin James and Nasir Adderly is a solid secondary once he returns. This could be a team that has a playoff run if things go right, or a disappointing season if they don't.
Betfair Over/Under: 10 Under at 6/5
The Pretenders - Colts a good bet for playoffs
Indianapolis Colts: Taylor key to postseason hopes
There's a new QB in Matt Ryan, and ace receiver T.Y. Hilton is gone, but this team will live and die off play-action with Jonathan Taylor at RB, and a solid O line, led by all-pro guard Quenton Nelson in front of him. Michael Pittman and rookie Alec Pierce are the kind of big targets coach Frank Reich likes to try to find downfield, but Parris Campbell, who's spent more time injured than on the field, is in his contract year and needs to step up. Rookie TE Jelani Woods could factor in with Mo-Alie Cox too.
Defensively, coordinator Matt Eberflus is gone as head coach in Chicago, and veteran Gus Bradley will switch to the kind of D he ran in Seattle, and Jacksonville and the Chargers and Las Vegas. MLB Shaquille (formerly Darius) Leonard is the key to any defense; he's just come off the injury list and should be ready for the season's start. The Colts have the advantage of playing in a weaker division, which makes the playoffs a good bet despite the over/under.
Betfair Over/Under: 9.5 Under at 5/4
Pittsburgh Steelers: Trubisky must start post-Big Ben era
Big Ben has chimed his last. Ignore the hype around rookie QB Kenny Pickett and WR George Pickens. Pickett has looked good, and Pickens has looked like what some people called him; the best receiver in the draft. But unless Mike Tomlin's really gambling, the smart money would have Mitch Trubisky starting in week one. He is a veteran and Pickett is a rookie, and he was sometimes effective for some bad Bears teams, and it makes sense to give him his shot and replace him with the rookie if he falters, rather than start with the rookie and maybe kill his development.
Their opening schedule, with the Pats, Cleveland and Jets all looking vulnerable, could see Trubisky get settled in. They can run the ball, even with a line that's still a question mark, and get the ball to Pickens, Chase Claypool and Dionte Johnson, maybe even with something different than the thousand three yards slants Big Ben Rothliesberger threw last year. Defensively TJ Watt is a player of the year candidate; Cam Heyward another overlooked star and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick signed a big deal which had Jessie Bates saying "why not me?"
Betfair Over/Under: 7.5 Over at 10/11
Miami Dolphins: Speed and sizzle but is there substance?
Tyreek Hill is here, to make Tua Tagovailoa a top flight QB. I hear a lot of talk about Tua's lack of a deep arm, but he threw a lot of deep stuff at Alabama (admittedly usually with time) and with Jaylen Waddle and Cedrick Wilson signed from Dallas he will have targets.
New coach Mike McDaniel will run some sort of Shanahanly offense based on zone running play action, which means TE Mike Gesicki has been dangled as trade bait because he doesn't really block. Terron Armstead comes over from the Saints to play LT which he does very well when he's healthy, which isn't all the time, and he's a LT and Tua is a lefty, which means the right side is his blind side.
Raheem Mostert and Chase Edmonds are fast one cut backs, which is what the team needs. There's a lot of sizzle, but how much Don Shula Steakhouse Steak?
Betfair Over/Under: 8.5 Under at 11/10
Tennessee Titans: Hopes rest on Henry's return
It's hard to tell about the Titans, because we haven't seen how powerhouse runner Derrick Henry will be coming back from injury. They hung in last year after losing Henry, but part of that was because of AJ Brown, who was traded to the Eagles. They drafted Treylon Burks to replace Brown; physically he looks the same, but so far in camp he's shown very little.
They drafted Hassan Haskins to spell Henry, and Malik Willis to develop as a replacement for Ryan Tannehill, but right now they're going to be a running, two TE team depending on their D to keep things tight: they have another underrated great player up front in Jeffrey Simmons and an underrated very good one in Denico Autry and they are solid behind them. It's going to be old school football from coach Mike Vrabel, a tough trick to pull off in the modern basketball game NFL.
Betfair Over/Under: 9.5 Under at 5/6
New England Patriots: Likely to underwhelm again
I was about to say the Pats may resemble the Titans, only their D isn't as good and their runners aren't Derrick Henry. My biggest worry is for Mac Jones as I wonder who's going to be calling the plays: they may get structured by Bill Belichick, but my gut says neither Matt Patricia nor Joe Judge is really up to the game-calling business and I wonder why Bill didn't bring in a younger QB coach to work with Jones. Maybe that's what Brian Hoyer is supposed to do.
Their receiving group, on paper, is strong: Davante Parker, Kendrick Bourne, Jakobi Meyers, Nelson Agholor. But I can't figure out what they are running to take advantage of the mix of skills and I wonder if Agholor has a repeat of his one good season (in Vegas) in him. They're trying to unload Isaiah Wynn, after moving him to RT, which isn't a huge positive for the line. Defensively they needed to get faster, which I guess they have, but there is no defender out there, not even Matthew Judon, other teams need to account for.
Betfair Over/Under: 8.5 Under at 10/11
No hopers - The Jest and the rest
Cleveland Browns: Brissett unlikely to change Browns' fortunes
For the first 11 games the star-studded Brownies have Jacoby Brissett as their starter. Brissett is a try hard gamer who still is a slow processor in the drop back game, which will mean it's like a 1.0 version of Watson 3.0.
They may make plays defensively with Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward, and ex-Colt Anthony Walker could be their MLB of the future. They can run the ball behind a strong line with Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt and D'Earnest Johnson, but I don't think the addition of Amari Cooper helps them that much; rookie David Bell may gobble up a lot of checkdowns from Brissett but I fear the big contract to David Njoku may not help.
Over/Under: 8.5 Under at 4/7
Jacksonville Jaguars: Bad team dependent on defensive rookies
After the disaster of Urban Meyer, Doug Pederson is a breath of professionalism, and QB Trevor Lawrence could be the beneficiary. Pederson is, like the ex-Pats in Vegas, churning the roster to rid himself of the previous admin's players: the recent trade of Laviska Chenault to Carolina shows that. Lawrence will be throwing to vets Marvin Jones, Zay Jones, Tim Jones and just for a chance Christian Kirk, for whom they paid big bucks.
James Robinson may get to share touches with Travis Etienne, who missed all his rookie season last year. Defensively they need rookie linebackers Devon Lloyd and Travon Walker to make an impact right away; Josh Allen is running out of time to justify his first-round pick in 2019. They're a bad team trending upwards, around six wins.
Over/Under 6.5 Under at 4/6
New York Jets: More confusion and amusement on the menu
OK no jokes about Zach Wilson and his personal life; what's more worrying is that the second year QB is injured, which means the day one starter is likely Joe Flacco; he and Mike White are the place-holders although journeyman backup Chris Streveler was the star of preseason. The team drafted Garrett Wilson, in round one; he could be a number one receiver, and RB Breece Hall in R2, considered the best in college last year. They had two other first round picks: Sauce Gardner and Jermaine Johnson for their D, though Johnson too is hurt. What's most interesting is that the Jets have Brees Hall and corner back Bryce Hall.
They have a RB named Michael Carter and a corner back named Michel Carter. They have a defensive tackle named Quinnen Williams and a linebacker named Quincy Williams. I fully expect them to use the WWF "Killer Bees" strategy: at some point in the game two players with the same name will put on Jets masks and trade jerseys to confuse the opposition. To what point? Who knows, which is all anyone ever knows about the Jest.
Over/Under: 5.5 Under at 6/5
Houston Texans: Season of transition
This is a bad team treading water, with Lovie Smith the new coach until they dare hire Josh McCown and Davis Mills the QB not getting enough development which means they draft someone in 2023. The big story out of camp was the emergence of fourth-round rookie running back Dameon Pierce, to the point they cut veteran ex-Colt Marlon Mack.
Lovie will play run game and short passing and a defense that tries to take away the big play; rookie Derek Stingley could be their next star at corner. But whatever they do it is likely prep for next season. They will play hard for Lovie, but they are undermanned.
Over/Under: 4.5 Under at evens
Mike's Divisional Winners Prediction: Buffalo, Baltimore, Indianapolis, Kansas City