• Kyler Murray gets back on the field early: The opening weekend of NFL action will mark almost exactly nine months of recovery, so an October return is not at all unlikely.
• Aaron Donald “returns to form”: A down year for Donald is likely a career year for any other player, but he is poised to bounce back in 2023 and potentially win Defensive Player of the Year.
• Trey Lance gets shipped to a new team: At this point, Sam Darnold looks like the better backup, which makes Lance trade bait. (Lance has since been traded to the Dallas Cowboys.)
Estimated Reading Time: 8 minutes
We’ve had time to digest the moves of the offseason, so now it’s time to lose all perspective and offer some bold predictions for the 2023 NFL season.
This will move beyond simple win-loss predictions and focus on specific things for each team, some relevant to PFF grades and some more big-picture in nature.
Remember, these are bold predictions. They won't be the most accurate predictions in the world, but the takes will be rooted in data or tape evidence and are things that have a realistic chance of taking place, not just craziness summoned from ChatGPT.
Other Bold Prediction Articles
1. Kyler Murray is back starting games by October
Given how late into the season Kyler Murray was injured last year — it was Jan. 3 when he had surgery — combined with having little to play for this season, it was an offseason assumption that he wouldn’t feature until late in the year, if at all.
Murray’s recovery has been going well and he has already been jumping and working his way back to full explosive football activities. The opening weekend will mark almost exactly nine months of recovery, so an October return is not at all unlikely, barring any setbacks. His early return would give the new regime a significant portion of the season to evaluate their star quarterback.
2. Isaiah Simmons looks like a Pro Bowler at safety
Editor's Note: Simmons has since been traded to the New York Giants
The NFL still struggles badly with players who don’t fit the physical prototype at certain positions (more on that next). Isaiah Simmons was not a linebacker when he played well enough at Clemson to be drafted No. 8 overall. At 6-foot-4 and more than 235 pounds, he was the physical prototype of a linebacker’s body, but he was an outstanding defensive back or matchup player within that Clemson defense.
The Cardinals have slowly come to that realization during his time in the NFL and ended up playing him essentially as a slot cornerback last year, where he earned by far the best PFF grade of his career. This year, he figures to play primarily at safety, and I would expect another jump in production.
3. Zaven Collins at OLB will be a failed experiment
If the franchise is learning its lesson with Simmons, they’re immediately repeating the mistake with Zaven Collins, another player with an unusual body type for his position. At 6-foot-4 and around 260 pounds, Collins looks like an edge rusher, but he doesn’t yet have that skill set — and may never possess it.
Collins finished 2022 with just 16 pressures from 127 pass-rushing snaps, primarily on the blitz, where the matchups are easier for a pass rusher. He was virtually never deployed as an edge rusher in college, but the Cardinals are projecting that position switch for him in the hope that he will play better because he looks like he should be an edge rusher purely from a physical standpoint. My expectation is that it just won’t work.
1. Aaron Donald wins Defensive Player of the Year
The first significant injury of Aaron Donald’s career and the world acts like the man’s career is toast. The NFL players voted him as the 11th-best player in the league heading into the 2023 regular season. Last year was unquestionably the worst season of Donald’s professional career, and it still saw him post a 90.7 PFF pass-rushing grade and notch as many total pressures as Carolina’s Derrick Brown (40). Donald has been the best player in the NFL for almost the entirety of his career, so there’s no reason he does anything but bounce back in 2023.
2. Tre'Vius Hodges-Tomlinson ends up a starting cornerback
Most draft scouting reports on Hodges-Tomlinson talked about him being one of the best slot cornerback prospects in the draft, despite the fact that he played just 29 snaps in the slot last season. When measuring just under 5-foot-8 and 178 pounds, it is assumed that you can’t survive on the outside. That was never a problem in college for Hodges-Tomlinson.
In his preseason debut, he went toe-to-toe with Chargers first-round rookie receiver Quentin Johnston, a player seven inches taller and around 45 pounds heavier. Tomlinson won that battle, allowing just one catch for eight yards on five targets. The Rams have opportunities available at cornerback, so if Tomlinson can continue to defy expectations, don’t be shocked to see him win a starting job outside, not in the slot.
3. Offense ranks bottom 10 in the NFL
The Sean McVay tenure with the Rams has been a rollercoaster in terms of offensive success. When everything is in place, the system is dominant and the offense looks as good as any in the league, but it has also fallen apart and struggled multiple times now.
Last year, a slew of injuries sank Los Angeles to 25th in the league in expected points added per play, but the team ranked only 24th in 2020. The Rams' offensive line, in particular, still looks like a major problem, so don’t expect to see this group bounce back without significant changes up front.
1. Brock Purdy has a better PFF grade in Year 2 with worse box score numbers
Brock Purdy’s unexpected rookie season was an enigma. We know that Kyle Shanahan’s offense can create offense with virtually any quarterback and has generated career years from players at all levels. But it’s also impossible to deny how much better the team looked with Purdy in the lineup last year.
He was definitely adding value that wasn’t there before he got the start. On a throw-by-throw basis, his PFF grade wasn’t dramatically higher than Kenny Pickett’s, just with wildly different results. This season, don’t be shocked if the numbers come back down to earth a little, even if he performs better individually and sees a bump in PFF grade.
2. Trey Lance is traded before the deadline
Editor's note: Trey Lance has since been traded to the Dallas Cowboys
It’s difficult to paint an optimistic picture of Trey Lance and his future in San Francisco. Brock Purdy took the job from him on the back of eight starts, despite 259 picks in draft stock separating them before they each entered the NFL in their respective drafts.
In his preseason debut against the Raiders, Lance looked hesitant and indecisive, in addition to his propensity for turnover-worthy plays. As soon as you considered it may be his supporting cast letting him down with backups in the game, Sam Darnold comes in and immediately drops a dime in the hands of his intended receiver for a big gain. At this point, Darnold looks like the better backup, which makes Lance trade bait.
3. 49ers' O-line finishes as a bottom-10-graded unit
Given how good the 49ers were a season ago, the offseason narrative has tended to be that they will be right back where they were last season, in the NFC Championship game. The roster has some thin spots, however, and the offensive line may be the biggest.
Trent Williams earned the best overall PFF grade among all tackles again last season and is as good as it gets, but Mike McGlinchey will be replaced at right tackle by Colton McKivitz, a player with fewer than 500 career snaps to his name and 17 total pressures surrendered on 241 pass-blocking reps. The interior trio averaged a PFF grade in the 50s last season, so four-fifths of the line could easily end up below average in 2023.
1. Geno Smith turns back into a pumpkin
Geno Smith was one of the most amazing stories of the 2022 NFL season, earning himself a new contract with his performance as the Seahawks' starter. Smith made 35 big-time throws and recorded a 77.7% adjusted completion rate, ranking among the best quarterbacks in the game in a variety of categories.
The issue is that Smith also tied for the league lead in turnover-worthy plays (29) and his grade was built largely on three extraordinary single-game performances. Outside of those games, Smith’s PFF grade ranked 20th in the league and he had more turnover-worthy plays than big-time throws. Of course, removing every passer’s best games would impact their numbers, but few seasons were as top-heavy as Smith’s last year. It wouldn’t take much for him to regress into a more marginal starter from his 2022 level.
2. Tariq Woolen finishes top five in PFF coverage grade
Tariq Woolen had a case to win Defensive Rookie of the Year despite being a fifth-round draft pick as well as a player who was playing wide receiver until partway through his redshirt sophomore season at UTSA. Few, if any, players have ever had his athletic and physical profile, and for him to be as good as he was from day one suggests a sky-high ceiling.
Woolen allowed just a 72.1 passer rating into his coverage and had 10 pass breakups to go along with six interceptions. With another year of development and growth playing cornerback, he could be among the very best in the NFL.
3. Jaxon Smith-Njigba leads the team in targets as a rookie
Jaxon Smith-Njigba is bringing a skill set to the Seahawks that has been missing for a few years — the ability to work the middle of the field effectively and move the chains. Last season, D.K. Metcalf led the team in targets with 152, so the bar is set pretty high, but his route-running savvy and change-of-direction skills play in an area where no other Seahawks receiver thrives.
The last time we saw JSN play football for an extended period of time, he averaged 4.0 yards per route run and was both more productive and targeted more often than Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave — who were playing outside of him in the same offense.