• Aaron Rodgers and the New York Jets coming for the AFC East: The four-time MVP's 77.5 PFF grade last year was the second-lowest of his career, but no Jets quarterback has surpassed that mark since PFF began grading in 2006.
• The Cleveland Browns made improvements: The Browns addressed a lot of their defensive issues this offseason, adding Dalvin Tomlinson in free agency and Siaki Ika in the draft to boost their interior defensive line and trading for Za’Darius Smith to pair with Myles Garrett off the edge.
• Can the Denver Broncos catch the Super Bowl favorites? Catching the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers will be no easy task, and it’ll come down to how much new head coach Sean Payton can reinvigorate quarterback Russell Wilson.
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
We often see NFL teams go from worst to first in their divisions, with the league set up to do just that through the scheduling quirks, the NFL draft and the salary cap.
PFF’s Zoltán Buday looked at the teams most likely to make the jump back in February, but with the offseason largely behind us and some difference of opinion from myself, we’re back to take a look again.
The Jets came in at No. 4 on Buday's list in February but made the biggest upgrade at the most important position when they traded for Aaron Rodgers. The four-time MVP's 77.5 PFF grade last year was the second-lowest of his career, but no Jets quarterback has surpassed that mark since PFF began grading in 2006.
The Bills and Dolphins will make winning this division tough, but the Jets finally have the signal-caller to help them do it.
The Browns addressed a lot of their defensive issues this offseason, adding Dalvin Tomlinson in free agency and Siaki Ika in the draft to boost their interior defensive line and trading for Za’Darius Smith to pair with Myles Garrett off the edge.
However, their hope of going worst-to-first mostly hinges on whether quarterback Deshaun Watson can get back to the level of play he showcased before his suspension. Watson's 92.5 grade was the third-best among quarterbacks in 2020, but his 55.3 mark last year ranked 32nd among players at the position.
Heading into the season, the NFC South doesn’t have a team that ranks inside the top 12 Super Bowl favorites in terms of betting odds. It’s a division the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won with an 8-9 record last season, so the path to the top here is arguably the smoothest. And with a strong offensive line and the addition of running back Bijan Robinson, the Falcons might have the best ground game in football.
The biggest issue is that we simply don’t know what we’ll see from new starting quarterback Desmond Ridder. In four starts last year, he earned a PFF grade above 70.0 just once and had three games where he didn’t throw a touchdown pass.
Wilson was the sixth-highest-graded quarterback in the NFL in 2020 but has seen that drop significantly in each of the past two seasons, ranking 18th in his final season with the Seahawks in 2021 and just 29th in his first season in Denver. With Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton, they have the weapons to get it done, but it all rests on what version of Wilson we see.
Russell Wilson: PFF grades and rank since 2018 (postseason included)
|2022||66.2||29th of 41|
|2021||73.9||18th of 38|
|2020||90.5||6th of 38|
|2019||91.9||1st of 39|
|2018||88.9||6th of 39|
This is as much to do with no real contender residing in this division as it does with the Bears improving this offseason. They have improved, though, adding D.J. Moore in a trade down from No. 1 overall with the Carolina Panthers and then using that selection to draft offensive tackle Darnell Wright.
Moore has produced a PFF receiving grade of 73.0 or better in all five seasons in the NFL and will immediately be Justin Fields’ WR1. And let’s not forget that Fields led all quarterbacks — and was seventh among all players — with 1,143 rushing yards last year.
The Commanders are strong on the defensive line and have clear options at quarterback heading into 2023. If Sam Howell is the guy, he will have to beat Jacoby Brissett to the job in training camp, with Brissett coming off a season where his 82.6 PFF grade was the sixth-best in the NFL.
Howell earned a 68.5 grade last season in his only start, but if he can’t win the job, they’ll feel confident fielding a playoff-caliber roster with Brissett. The tough thing is that to get to the top of this division, they have to see off three playoff teams from last season, including the NFC Champion Philadelphia Eagles.
The Texans will likely be starting rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud in 2022, and with their rebuild now in full swing, success is likely to take a little longer than would be needed to get them to the summit of the AFC South in 2023.
The Tennessee Titans and Indianapolis Colts might feel like attainable targets to leapfrog for the Texans, but getting ahead of a Jaguars team led by Trevor Lawrence at quarterback is a much tougher proposition.
The Cardinals have a lot going against them heading into 2023, with two playoff teams in the NFC West from last season in the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks and the fact that they are likely to be without quarterback Kyler Murray for at least some of the 2023 season.
The good news for the future is that they don't just have their own first-round pick in 2024 but also have the Texans’, so they can already feel good about their opportunity to build coming out of the 2024 NFL Draft.