• Tyreek Hill, Jaylen Waddle and Jaelan Phillips feature for Miami: The Dolphins have built a dynamic offense around quarterback Tua Tagovailoa with a frighteningly fast duo in Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, and Jaelan Phillips could emerge as the newest household name in 2023.
• Broncos have impressive secondary leaders to build around: Patrick Surtain II and Justin Simmons are among the best players at their positions, and they join wide receiver Jerry Jeudy to form Denver's trio.
• Kansas City is set for the foreseeable future: Perhaps there is no clearer trio to build around in the NFL than that of Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce and Chris Jones.
Estimated Reading Time: 14 minutes
As NFL front offices make roster decisions each offseason, they often look to the building blocks of their roster around which everything else falls into place. Not every good player can be retained, and each decision comes with an opportunity cost — both financially and with respect to the strengths and weaknesses across the team.
Heading into the 2023 season, we are identifying three core players that each AFC team should work to build the roster around going forward. Click here for the NFC version.
JUMP TO A TEAM:
The Ravens' roster is full of top-end talent earning major money on both sides of the ball, with Baltimore resetting two position markets this offseason with Lamar Jackson at quarterback and Roquan Smith at linebacker. This current core of players along with recent draft picks needs to finally break through, and 2023 could be the year everything comes together.
Humphrey has just one season with a coverage grade below 75.0, remarkable consistency for a cornerback who lines up all over the formation. The former Alabama star also just turned 27 years old ahead of his seventh NFL season. He needs to continue shutting down opposing receivers while he’s surrounded by a much younger and inexperienced defensive unit.
The Bills have loaded up once again for 2023 and currently sit in second with $301 million in cash spending for the season. They need recent draft picks such as Gregory Rousseau to step up. Rousseau amassed 42 quarterback pressures and eight sacks on just 300 pass-rush snaps in 2022, earning a very respectable 82.7 pass-rush grade. The return of a healthy Von Miller and continued growth from Rousseau could help this defense keep up with the high-flying offense led by Allen and Diggs.
This wasn’t an easy decision by any means, as Tee Higgins is arguably the top No. 2 wide receiver in the NFL and would be viewed as a foundational building block for any franchise. Higgins’ 2.08 yards per route run since 2021 ranks 13th among wide receivers, and he’d be the top option on plenty of teams across the league.
The main reasons Hendrickson deserves a spot on this list, outside of his own production, are the offensive firepower outside of Higgins and standout interior defender D.J. Reader entering a contract year. Hendrickson’s 90.4 pass-rush grade over the past three seasons ranks sixth among edge defenders, and his 16.5% pressure rate ranks fifth. He’s become an elite pass rusher and still has two years remaining on a very team-friendly deal, a solid building block for the defensive front to work around as the Bengals infuse young talent on that side of the ball.
The Browns have assembled one of the league’s most talented rosters on paper. Now everything just needs to come together once and for all, culminating in a playoff appearance, at the very least. Garrett has led the NFL in pass-rush grade in consecutive seasons, and his 22.6% pass-rush win rate over the span is comfortably ahead of the pack. After four straight seasons earning coverage grades above 70.0 for Ward, he needs to bounce back from a pedestrian 2023 campaign. Still, he is among the league’s best young lockdown outside cornerbacks.
In reality, quarterback Deshaun Watson is having a roster built around him unlike any player we’ve ever seen, given his unprecedented fully guaranteed contract. Shaking off the rust that was visibly on display to close out the 2022 campaign is a must for this team to ascend in a loaded AFC North. The seemingly underrated Amari Cooper had his fourth season in five years with at least 1,000 receiving yards and a receiving grade above 75.0 in 2022, and he should benefit from more weapons around him in 2023 taking attention away so he can feast in one-on-one matchups.
Denver was aggressive during free agency, in particular bolstering the offensive line with left guard Ben Powers and right tackle Mike McGlinchey. A move they didn’t make could prove to be the sharpest, as they reportedly turned down trade offers for wide receiver Jerry Jeudy after a strong finish to the 2022 campaign. From Week 7 on, Jeudy’s 82.2 receiving grade ranked 15th among wide receivers and his 2.53 yards per route run was good for seventh. A fully healthy Jeudy in a Sean Payton offense could finally break out in a big way.
On the other side of the football, Patrick Surtain II has a case as the best young cornerback in the NFL, with his 86.7 coverage grade in 2022 ranking second in the NFL and his 0.66 yards per coverage snap allowed placing fifth. Justin Simmons keeps everything in front of him on the back end, with his 93.8 coverage grade over the past four seasons ranking second among safeties over the span.
While Houston is still a ways away from competing at a high level, they deserve credit for prioritizing premium positions during their rebuild and working to overhaul both trench units. Their tackle duo of Laremy Tunsil and 2019 first-round pick Tytus Howard is among the league’s best.
2022 third-overall pick Derek Stingley Jr. showed flashes during his rookie season and could have been our selection here, but Houston very quietly has a talented and deep secondary already with a solid mix of youth and veterans, many of whom offer positional flexibility. After trading up to the No. 3 overall pick in this year’s draft, the Texans need to continue to add around Will Anderson Jr. and fortify this defensive line. The veteran presence of Jerry Hughes pairs perfectly as Anderson develops, and an interior duo of Sheldon Rankins and Maliek Collins is nothing to scoff at, but Houston will need another true difference-maker alongside Anderson if this unit is going to start causing problems for opposing quarterbacks.
The Colts are such an interesting team because, despite landing the No. 4 overall pick following a disastrous 2022 campaign, the roster boasts blue-chip or very good players at many key spots. They just need to get healthy and simply play better.
Wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. seems underrated despite hauling in 99 receptions in a passing offense that ranked dead last in expected points added per dropback, but he’s not necessarily an elite athlete, using his big 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame to haul in contested catches. He also rarely drops the football. The outside speed addition of 2022 second-rounder Alec Pierce and 2023 third-round pick Josh Downs, a shifty slot weapon, is a good start in building around the dynamic Anthony Richardson. And an option run game with Jonathan Taylor will be diabolical to stop once Richardson gets his NFL feet under him.
Buckner is still among the league’s best interior defenders, and nose tackle Grover Stewart is entering a contract year as one of the more underrated players across the league. Growth from Kwity Paye and Dayo Odeyingbo, along with free agent acquisition Samson Ebukam, could turn this unit into a problem, which will be needed with some major question marks lingering in the secondary.
From Week 9 through the end of the season, Lawrence’s 87.1 passing grade ranked second among quarterbacks, his 5.9% big-time throw rate ranked fifth and his 2.5-second average time to throw was the second fastest in the NFL. Everything funnels down from Lawrence, and adding wide receiver Calvin Ridley at the trade deadline could prove to be a stroke of genius by the Jaguars brass.
On defense, Travon Walker, last year’s No. 1 overall pick, was an obvious option here, and while he did show a lot of promise throughout his rookie season, he’ll need to improve upon his 59.0 pass-rush grade and 8.5% pass-rush win rate. The unit is filled with young players at all three levels, and they should improve over time, but cornerback Tyson Campbell has already emerged as one of the best young cornerbacks in the NFL, with his 81.2 coverage grade and 0.72 yards per coverage snap allowed the fifth-best marks among cornerbacks with at least 300 coverage snaps in 2022.
This was an easy decision. All three players have a very strong case as the best players at their respective positions. (Yes, Aaron Donald deserves to retain the crown at interior defender for now, but Chris Jones is not far behind.) Jones led the position in pass-rush win rate, pressure percentage and total pressures and sacks in 2022 by a rather comfortable margin.
Back-to-back end-of-first-round picks at edge defender in George Karlaftis and Felix Anudike-Uzomah was a smart use of early draft capital, and if one can emerge in the near future, that would go a long way in keeping this defensive line humming. The addition of inside-outside pass rusher Charles Omenihu may prove to be one of the more underrated free agent signings of the offseason, as well.
The Raiders are in a weird spot, given the lack of clarity about the short or long-term vision. But, fortunately, they do have a handful of elite building blocks to work around. Maxx Crosby has the most total pressures and defensive stops in the NFL over the past two years among edge rushers, and he leads both categories by double digits. He’s a complete defensive end who never comes off the field, always a good foundation to build around on defense. And if first-round pick Tyree Wilson can grow next to him, the two could create a scary tandem.
While Adams may not be around forever, rookie tight end Michael Mayer and free agent addition Jakobi Meyers will work well next to arguably the best wide receiver in the game still today, with Adams’ 2.63 yards per route run over the past two seasons tied for second in the NFL.
The Chargers face a lot of pressure entering 2023 in what could be the final year for wide receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams along with edge defender Khalil Mack, and they’ll have to retool the roster around Justin Herbert’s impending monster extension. Allen, Williams and Mack have a combined cap hit of $105 million in 2024, so while they all should have high expectations in 2023, they may not be long-term building blocks. A healthy Rashawn Slater at left tackle could go a long way in working through an offensive overhaul.
Joey Bosa missed some time in 2022 but earned his fourth straight pass-rush grade of 88.0 or better and should still be viewed as a franchise cornerstone to build around.
The Dolphins have built a dynamic offense around quarterback Tua Tagovailoa with a frighteningly fast duo in Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, both of whom rank in the top 15 in yards per route run over the past two seasons.
Jaelan Phillips could emerge as the newest household name in 2023 after a dominant 2022 campaign with 70 pressures and a 16.9% pass-rush win rate that ranked ninth among edge defenders with at least 250 pass-rush reps. Christian Wilkins, Bradley Chubb, Emmanuel Ogbah and others could form a terrifying unit under new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.
The Patriots are currently 31st in cash spending in 2023 and 2024, and in some ways that shows up on this roster. There are plenty of good football players across each unit, but it’s harder to identify any great ones. Matthew Judon’s four-year, $54.5 million contract signed in 2021 free agency has proven to be a complete steal, with his 129 pressures over the past two seasons the fifth most among edge defenders and his 28 sacks tied for third. Young contributors such as Josh Uche and Christian Barmore, along with rookie Keion White, need to grow around him to take this unit to another level.
Dugger is a pending free agent but has proven to be a dynamic safety at all three levels, and while we hesitate to put a rookie on this list, 2023 first-round cornerback Christian Gonzalez could turn this secondary into the top unit in the NFL if he develops in short order.
Even after the blockbuster trade for Aaron Rodgers, the Jets' roster is still loaded with young talent on both sides of the ball. First-round picks Jermaine Johnson II (2022) and Will McDonald IV (2023) will be competing for snaps on the edge going forward alongside a talented group of veterans, and Sauce Gardner locking down opposing wide receivers on the back end will lead to plenty of coverage sacks — as will the presence of Quinnen Williams on the interior, with his 90.1 overall grade in 2022 ranking fourth at the position and his 13.7% pass-rush win rate placing eighth.
Garrett Wilson could erupt in 2023 with Rodgers in the fold, already displaying elite separation ability at every level of the field and forcing the most missed tackles in the NFL among wide receivers with an average depth of target over five yards (22). It may not be hyperbole to say Wilson could be Rodgers’ next Davante Adams.
T.J. Watt’s injury in 2022 has caused some to forget just how dominant a player he is when healthy. From 2019-2021, Watt ranked fourth in pass-rush win rate and pressure rate to go along with 118 defensive stops, which led the position over the span.
Minkah Fitzpatrick’s playmaking ability in the deep third has helped cover up deficiencies at the cornerback position for a few years now, and he’s coming off a career-best 82.4 overall grade and 83.3 coverage grade in 2022.
Diontae Johnson still deals with the occasional drop, but they are more than negated by his acrobatic snags and how consistently he creates separation in the intermediate areas of the field. Johnson’s 42 missed tackles forced over the past three seasons rank sixth among wide receivers, and he will continue to feast as Pat Freiermuth and George Pickens develop in this offense with quarterback Kenny Pickett.
The Titans smartly hit the reset button this offseason and took care of the most important business as early as possible, inking Jeffery Simmons to a four-year, $94 million extension after he put up 115 pressures over the past two seasons, which ranked tied for fifth among interior defenders. A healthy Harold Landry III and Arden Key should continue to benefit from all the attention Simmons commands on the interior.
We’re going with two unproven commodities on the offensive side of the ball. Wide receiver Treylon Burks missed time during his rookie season but put up a solid 1.75 yards per route run. Burks can be a downfield threat using his size-speed combination, he can catch a screen in the backfield and turn on the jets while making defenders miss in space and he’s sure-handed with just one drop on 53 targets in 2022.
Skoronski was the first draft pick for new general manager Ran Carthon and was probably a pretty easy card to turn in after earning a 93.0 pass-blocking grade with just six pressures allowed on 475 snaps in 2022 at Northwestern. The offensive line unit still looks like one of the league’s poorest on paper, but Skoronski will be the key to turning that around.