Lions, Falcons, Steelers among teams that could be heading for success with a good 2023 NFL Draft

East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell looks on during the first quarter against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Now a week away from the 2023 NFL Draft, franchise-altering opportunities await all 32 teams to different degrees. For clubs such as the Carolina Panthers at the top, they could kick off a new era of their franchise with a quarterback. For others such as the Kansas City Chiefs, they can add valuable pieces to sustain an ongoing dynasty. For those residing closer to the middle, a good draft could catapult them from a fringe playoff team to a contender.

Our criteria here was fairly straightforward: the selections could not be playoff teams from 2022. There are undoubtedly 2022 playoff teams that could take another step to even greater heights, but we identified three teams that missed the playoffs in 2022 and could change their fortunes with a good draft next weekend.

Detroit Lions

  • Expected points added per play Weeks 1-9: -0.008 (17th)
  • Expected points allowed per play Weeks 1-9: 0.161 (32nd)
  • Expected points added per play Weeks 10-18: 0.144 (1st)
  • Expected points allowed per play Weeks 10-18: 0.027 (28th)

Two years after the blockbuster trade between the Lions and Los Angeles Rams that featured a swap of starting quarterbacks, the Rams are spiraling towards a top-10 pick in 2024 and the Lions are looking to make serious noise in the NFC playoff picture. The Rams would, of course, make the trade again 10 out of 10 times, but the slow-burn roster approach in Detroit is finally starting to pay off and may truly hit a fever pitch if general manager Brad Holmes knocks this draft out of the park.

The Lions have four picks in the top 55, with No. 6 overall acquired from the Rams in the Matthew Stafford trade and No. 55 overall acquired from the Minnesota Vikings for tight end T.J. Hockenson at last year's trade deadline. If Detroit can add a true difference-maker at No. 6 overall, particularly to bolster their defensive line, the transformation of their porous defense could be near complete.

Perhaps no unit in the NFL improved more in free agency than the Lions' secondary, adding Cameron Sutton, Emmanuel Moseley and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson. Improving the league’s worst defense in 2022 into an average unit in 2022, with continued success on offense that could get even better with a healthy Jameson Williams, could morph the Lions into a legitimate NFC contender.

Ideal start to the 2023 NFL Draft:

Atlanta Falcons

  • Expected points added per play Weeks 1-9: 0.033 (10th)
  • Expected points allowed per play Weeks 1-9: 0.107 (31st)
  • Expected points added per play Weeks 10-18: -0.060 (20th)
  • Expected points allowed per play Weeks 10-18: 0.024 (27th)

The Falcons may not vault themselves into contender status in 2023, but in a weak NFC South they could certainly battle for the division crown with a strong draft class added to a major free-agent haul.

Atlanta’s defense will be almost unrecognizable in 2023 compared to the 2022 unit, though a few key mainstays — interior defender Grady Jarrett and cornerback A.J. Terrell — remain the top foundational pieces. Perhaps most importantly for new defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen, the defense boasts far more depth than recent rosters. Interior defender Calais Campbell, edge defender Bud Dupree and cornerback Jeff Okudah may not have starting gigs but could still be valuable contributors over the course of the year.

Atlanta has three top-75 picks and five in the first 115 selections, with an extra fourth-rounder acquired from the Tennessee Titans for wide receiver Julio Jones. A blue-chip edge defender almost has to be the top target with their first selection, though the addition of Northwestern offensive lineman Peter Skoronski to play left guard could give Atlanta and sophomore quarterback Desmond Ridder one of the best units across the NFL. Beyond the first round, adding another wide receiver and more depth at cornerback should be the top priorities.

If Ridder can carry forward the momentum from his Week 18 start against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, earning a 75.7 grade with two big-time throws and zero turnover-worthy plays while averaging 7.5 yards per attempt, this offense could be explosive enough with a healthy Kyle Pitts and strong play caller in Arthur Smith to win a few more of the one-score games that didn’t go their way in 2022.

Ideal start to the 2023 NFL Draft:

Pittsburgh Steelers

  • Expected points added per play Weeks 1-9: -0.105 (28th)
  • Expected points allowed per play Weeks 1-9: 0.042 (25th)
  • Expected points added per play Weeks 10-18: 0.078 (4th)
  • Expected points allowed per play Weeks 10-18: -0.083 (5th)

Pittsburgh is acting out of character this offseason, spending a good amount of money in free agency and acquiring wide receiver Allen Robinson II in a salary-dump trade that provides another weapon for sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett. The Steelers' offensive line with new starting guard Isaac Seumalo also has quality interior depth to overcome potential injuries, but adding a tackle early in the draft will be smart long-term move, even if that player serves as the swing tackle in 2023.

The Steelers showed dramatic improvement on both sides of the ball from a play-to-play efficiency standpoint over the second half of the season, although the strength of schedule and health were certainly factors. On defense, T.J. Watt‘s return was an obvious catalyst for better performance down the stretch, and adding a premier cornerback in a first round loaded with options would help the unit to continue playing at a top-five level.

Last but certainly not least, the Steelers have always had a healthy rotation of interior defensive linemen, and another big body up the middle to solidify an uncharacteristically porous run defense in recent years like Wisconsin’s Keeanu Benton or Baylor’s Siaki Ika could go a long way on early downs. 

Ideal start to the 2023 NFL Draft:

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