Which NFL teams improved the most during the 2023 NFL Draft?

Kansas City, MO, USA; Alabama quarterback Bryce Young with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell after he was drafted first overall by the Carolina Panthers in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft at Union Station. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

  • Pittsburgh SteelersPittsburgh wasn’t just adding quality players throughout their draft, but it an adding them at important positions, providing good value relative to the PFF big board, and players that will likely start from the get-go.
  • Carolina PanthersWith Bryce Young, Jonathan Mingo and Chandler Zavala, the Panthers made considerable strides in rebuilding their offense for the present and future.
  • Detroit LionsThe Lions had an unusual draft, placing a premium on good players at low-value positions. It’s difficult to resolve that equation and determine whether or not they maximized their return, but it’s difficult to argue they didn’t improve significantly throughout the process.
Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

The sun has set on the 2023 NFL Draft, but there’s still time to peer through the settling dust to evaluate how each team did. You can find team-by-team draft grades already on the site, but this is a list of teams that improved the most in the short term with their draft hauls.

Some excellent drafts won’t make this list because the players they added are likely to be either more future-focused or simply join rosters so good they may only be rotational bodies initially.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Pittsburgh wasn’t just adding quality players throughout their draft, but it an adding them at important positions, providing good value relative to the PFF big board, and players that will likely start from the get-go. Broderick Jones will start at tackle to help upgrade an offensive line that has been solid but unspectacular in recent years. Jones didn’t allow a sack last season at Georgia, surrendering just nine total pressures on almost 500 pass-blocking snaps.

Joey Porter Jr., ending up in Pittsburgh is a feel-good story given the career his father had for the team, but he also fills a need and fits better within this defense than many corners in the draft. Porter is the best press-man cover corner in this class with absurd length (34-inch arms) and 12 forced incompletions last season. If he can develop a little nuance to his play in zone coverage, he could become one of the best corners in this class.

Keeanu Benton should add some disruption to the defensive line, which is in need of some remedial work. He had an 83.4 PFF grade against true pass sets last season and an elite 10.5% run-stop rate. 

In the third round, Darnell Washington was exceptional value. His potential was perhaps overstated by many before the draft, but at 6-foot-6 and 264 pounds, Washington is a rare physical specimen at the tight end position who can erase defensive backs on screens and has more pass-game chops than he’s given credit for.  Two of their Day 3 picks have a chance to earn playing time sooner rather than later as part of a rotation or depth at key areas.

Carolina Panthers

The Panthers' starting quarterback in 2023 went from a blank space to Bryce Young with the first overall pick of the draft, an obvious improvement. Young was the clear best quarterback available in this class, and only historical outlier size kept him from having that top spot locked up throughout the process. He passed for 8.8 yards per attempt in each of the last two seasons, compiling 79 touchdown passes and a turnover-worthy play rate of just 2.0%.

To secure the No. 1 spot and Young, the Panthers had to sacrifice D.J. Moore, their best receiver. They had patched together a receiving corps in free agency, but Jonathan Mingo, who was picked at No. 39 overall, has a chance to immediately start and emerge as their top option before long if he can carry over his strong recent showings in college and at the Senior Bowl. In a draft that was low on bigger-bodied receivers, Mingo’s 220 pounds will be coveted.

Edge rusher D.J. Johnson was a significant reach relative to the PFF big board but could still earn plenty of snaps as part of the rotation. Guard Chandler Zavala, drafted in the fourth round, could still easily work his way toward starting on a line that still currently has Brady Christensen and his 57.3 PFF grade from 2023 slated to start.

Detroit Lions

The Lions had an unusual draft, placing a premium on good players at low-value positions. It’s difficult to resolve that equation and determine whether or not they maximized their return, but it’s difficult to argue they didn’t improve significantly throughout the process.

Jahmyr Gibbs may have been seen as a major reach at No. 12 overall, even independent of the concept of drafting a running back that high, but Gibbs brings elite speed and critically an impressive receiving skill set to an already dangerous offense. Gibbs averaged 1.83 yards per route run last season, sixth in the draft class.

Jack Campbell will start right away at linebacker and brings one of the few traditional linebacker frames (6-foot-5, 249 pounds) to the table in this draft. Sam LaPorta is a broken tackle machine with the ball in his hands, forcing 20 missed tackles last season on just 58 catches. At pick No. 45, Brian Branch is one of the best value picks of the first two days of the draft. Branch was arguably a top-10 player in this draft but seemed to slip because teams weren’t quite sure what to do with him. Ostensibly a safety, Branch essentially manned the slot for Alabama and has the skill set to play anywhere in the secondary. A relatively average set of workout numbers is the only thing keeping him from being spoken about the way somebody like Minkah Fitzpatrick was when he came into the NFL.

In the third round, Hendon Hooker likely makes little-to-no contribution in the short term, but he is an outstanding roll of the dice at the most valuable position in the game while fellow third-rounder Brodric Martin is the last player in their draft that figures to see significant playing time early. The mammoth defensive tackle can find playing time on a defensive line still working toward its final shape.

Seattle Seahawks

Seattle had one of the best drafts in the NFL. Devon Witherspoon and Jaxon Smith-Njigba represent the No. 1 cornerback and wide receiver on the PFF big board and many other draft boards. To come out of the first round with both is an outstanding result that didn’t seem likely pre-draft. 

Witherspoon plays with an exceptional ability to read the game and anticipate what’s coming, and targeting him last season yielded a 25.3 passer rating, more than 10 points worse than just throwing the ball at the dirt every play instead.

JSN is a route-running technician who spent over 90% of his snaps in college in the slot, the one area where Seattle was without a major receiving threat.

Derick Hall was seen as a bit of a reach in the second round, but he should feature heavily for the Seahawks defense that needed an injection of talent along the defensive line. Hall is something of a one-trick pony in terms of a pass-rusher right now, but he has the tools to develop into more, and that one trick (power combined with a long-arm move) has been very productive in the SEC.

Running back Zach Charbonnet was a curious pick with Kenneth Walker III already on the team, but it gives Seattle’s backfield impressive depth and makes it one of the most formidable one-two punches in the league. Four picks along the offensive and defensive lines on day two represent a sensible targeting of depth and players that could easily earn playing time early on given the weaknesses the Seahawks have in those areas.

Cincinnati Bengals

In an ideal world, teams roll into the NFL draft after already addressing their roster needs in free agency, but in reality, most teams end up with a few spots that they would very much like to find talent to fill in the draft.  The best result at that stage is to be able to address those needs while still getting value at the picks, and that’s what the Bengals managed to do repeatedly with their draft.

Myles Murphy allows them to future-proof their defensive line and build more of a rotation up front. The Clemson product looked like a future superstar during his freshman season and while he never quite developed the way he was expected to, he consistently flashed that top-end ability throughout his college career and has all the physical tools. He had a consistently good-not-great PFF pass-rushing grade in the high 70s and notched 35 total pressures last season.

D.J. Turner brings elite speed to the cornerback position and plays the game very much like Trent McDuffie, last year’s first-round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs. Turner allowed 46.5% of passes thrown his way last season to be caught and pick No. 60 overall represents good value for a player that could start before long.

Jordan Battle was available at the back end of the third round due to pedestrian workout numbers, but he earned 80.0-plus PFF grades in each of the past three seasons starting for Alabama’s defense in the SEC – those are not insignificant credentials. 

Receivers Charlie Jones and Andrei Iosivas in addition to running back Chase Brown could all find their way to contributing either on offense or in the return game while Brad Robbins may end up being the answer to a punt game that ranked among the league’s worst last season. Kevin Huber and Drue Chrisman split the duties last season for the Bengals, but each had a PFF grade in the 50s.

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