NFL Team Position Groups That Will Decide 2023 Season
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Khalil MackDylan Buell/Getty Images
Football is a team game, but it's the units within those teams that can sometimes be the difference-makers.
At this point, we all know some of the best position groups in the NFL. The Bengals' receiving corps, the Eagles' offensive line and the 49ers' overall collection of offensive weapons are the kind of personnel groups that you can build around.
However, there are position groups that are a little less solidified and are going to have an outsized impact on how the 2023 season shakes out. These position groups have the potential to go either way, but their team's stock will only go as high as they can take them.
Whether it's an offensive line that has some questions to figure out or a secondary that has to figure things out on the fly, these position groups are going to have a major impact on the playoff race and Super Bowl picture.
Atlanta Falcons Pass-Rushers
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Arnold EbiketieCooper Neill/Getty Images
The bottom five teams in the league in pressure percentage went a combined 31-54. Only the Pittsburgh Steelers, who went 9-8, were able to have a winning record with a toothless pass rush and that's probably a product of still having T.J. Watt for 10 games.
Put simply: If you can't pressure the opposing team's quarterback, you won't win many games in the NFL.
The Falcons were last in pressure percentage at 14.6 percent. Their ability to get after the passer has been a weakness for years.
Former Saints defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen is in charge of the defense this season. Hypothetically that should lead to better performance from the guys rushing the passer.
They signed Bud Dupree on the edge and beefed up the interior with Calais Campbell and David Onyemata. The most significant development would be getting more out of 2022 second-round pick Arnold Ebiketie, who had just 2.5 sacks as a rookie.
The pass rush has a chance to make a significant impact because of the wide-open nature of the NFC South. The Falcons offense has a lot of intriguing ingredients in place with Bijan Robinson, Kyle Pitts and Drake London forming a dynamic young nucleus.
If the pass rush can improve under Nielsen, then the Falcons could become major players in the division and earn their first playoff berth since 2017.
Detroit Lions Secondary
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C.J. Gardner-JohnsonAP Photo/Paul Sancya
If there's going to be a surprise Super Bowl contender, there's a good chance it's coming from the NFC. The Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals made up three of the top four teams in B/R's pre-training camp Power Rankings.
The power structure in the NFC is a little less entrenched, with the Eagles as the favorite and the 49ers not too far behind.
That leaves room for a team such as the Detroit Lions to build off a 9-8 season last year to become a contender in the conference. To take the next step, they have to fix the defense.
Offensively, the Lions were top six in EPA and yards per play, total points and total yards. The problem was that they were bottom six in each of those categories on defense. The secondary was a large culprit, it gave up a passer rating of 94.2 and only generated seven interceptions.
Detroit went to work renovating the secondary this offseason. It signed Emmanuel Moseley, Cameron Sutton and C.J. Gardner-Johnson while adding Brian Branch in the draft.
On paper, it's a massive upgrade. Moseley and Sutton have both proved to be solid starters on the outside, while Gardner-Johnson is a tone-setting playmaker with versatility.
However, it's not easy assimilating that many defensive backs on the fly. Secondaries have to have elite communication and trust to function optimally.
How quickly the Lions figure it out is going to be a huge factor in the NFC North race.
Kansas City Chiefs Wide Receivers
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Kadarius ToneyScott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Last season, the Kansas City Chiefs had to prove they could still be explosive on offense without Tyreek Hill.
They answered that question with a resounding yes, but JuJu Smith-Schuster was a large part of the equation. He saw 101 targets, which he converted into 78 receptions for 933 yards and three touchdowns. He was the clear No. 2 receiver behind Travis Kelce.
Kelce will return in 2023, but Smith-Schuster is now a New England Patriot. Marquez Valdes-Scantling is coming back as one of the team's primary vertical threats, but there are questions as to how the rest of the roles will turn out.
Kadarius Toney caught a touchdown in the Super Bowl but has only played in 19 games in his first two years in the league and has missed a large portion of training camp with a knee injury.
Skyy Moore will try to rebound from a disappointing rookie season in which he had 22 receptions for 250 yards.
Justyn Ross has been the story of camp, but he's not played in a game yet. Rashee Rice will also have a chance to make an impact as a second-round pick, but Moore showed us last season that rookie receivers aren't guaranteed success.
The combination of Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes are able to cover for some deficiencies at wide receiver. But this receiving corps could test the limits of the duo this season.
Los Angeles Chargers Defensive Line
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Tuli TuipulotuAP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
Under Brandon Staley, the Los Angeles Chargers have had a whole lot of potential with middling results.
Despite having a top quarterback in Justin Herbert and an offense full of weapons, the defensive-minded coach is 19-15 with a playoff loss in his first two years as head coach.
Part of that has to do with injuries. The Chargers had several major injuries at key positions last season that were difficult to overcome. However, part of it has to do with a major flaw in his defense.
Staley's philosophy of limiting big plays and forcing teams to drive the field means he's more interested in creating an umbrella on the back end than building a wall with his defensive front.
In some regards, it makes sense. But it also puts a lot of pressure on the defensive front to make plays. That didn't happen last season. The Chargers gave up the fifth-most yards on the ground and ceded 5.4 yards per carry.
The pass rush wasn't all that great either. It was 21st in pressure percentage, and Derwin James and Drue Tranquill accounted for nearly a quarter of the team's sacks.
The problem is that the Chargers didn't do much to solve the issue from a personnel standpoint. They made no major signings on the defensive line, so second-round pick Tuli Tuipulotu is their best hope at getting better through addition.
Getting a healthy and bulked-up Joey Bosa could be transformative enough, but the Chargers' hopes of breaking through in 2023 are on the shoulders of this defensive front.
New York Jets Offensive Line
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Mekhi Becton and Max MitchellAP Photo/John Minchillo
The New York Jets mostly have what they need to make huge strides on offense in 2023. They replaced Zach Wilson with Aaron Rodgers, have an emerging star receiver in Garrett Wilson, Breece Hall should come back healthy, and they just signed Dalvin Cook.
But none of that is going to matter if they can't keep the veteran quarterback upright and clear running lanes for Cook and Hall.
Head coach Robert Saleh was a little more blunt, telling reporters that, "we as coaches—we as an organization—can't want it more than you do," in regards to his offensive line.
Right now, the unit has Max Mitchell (left) and Billy Turner (right) manning the tackle spots. Mekhi Becton has not seen many first-team reps and Duane Brown has not made his return from a shoulder surgery he had during the offseason.
If the Jets can figure out who their best starting five is, and they jell, they will be a problem in the AFC East. If they don't, they will be the source of several storylines and the element that holds the entire New York team back.
San Francisco 49ers Quarterbacks
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Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
The San Francisco 49ers might be the only team in the league that could have real questions at the quarterback position and still be considered a Super Bowl contender.
Their group of offensive weapons combined with the play-calling wizardry of Kyle Shanahan virtually guarantees they will have an effective offense regardless of quarterback talent.
But whether they can actually raise the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the season still depends on quarterback play.
Right now, the chips are down on Brock Purdy building on his improbable rookie season. He emerged as the team's starter as the last pick in 2022 draft after injuries destroyed the depth chart.
The 23-year-old earned the job by going 5-0 with 13 touchdowns to four interceptions to close out the season before winning two playoff games. But he suffered a UCL injury in the NFC Championship Game that required surgery, and he's struggled with turnovers in camp.
David Lombardi @LombardiHimself
Sampling of INT rates for 49ers QBs under Shanahan (I've tracked camp rates since 2021)...<br><br>Garoppolo 2021 camp: 3.1%<br>Garoppolo 2021 season: 2.7%<br>Garoppolo 2022 season: 1.3%<br>Lance 2022 camp: 3.4%<br>Purdy 2022 camp: 5.9%<br>Purdy 2022 season: 1.7%<br>Purdy 2023 camp: 5.1%
The Niners signed Sam Darnold this offseason, and he is now competing with Trey Lance as the backup quarterback. Neither has lived up to their draft pedigree at this point.
If Purdy's incredible run as a rookie was legitimate, the Niners are a legitimate Super Bowl contender. If there's a sophomore slump or he gets hurt, it becomes a question of just how quarterback-proof the team is.