Bold predictions for every NFL team in 2023 — AFC East

2MA1JHN Miami Dolphins linebacker Jaelan Phillips (15) pursues a play on defense against the Detroit Lions during an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 30, 2022, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Rick Osentoski)

• Buffalo stumbles in the division: The AFC East figures to be ultra-competitive in 2023, so it wouldn't take much for the Bills to not retain their division crown.

• Jaelan Phillips joins the elite edge rushers: Phillips finished 2022 with a 90.1 PFF pass-rushing grade, one of the best marks among edge rushers.

• Will McDonald IV paces the rookie class in sacks: McDonald fits perfectly in Robert Saleh's defense after not being used optimally at Iowa State.

Estimated Reading Time: 7 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.

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Buffalo Bills

1. The Bills fail to win the division

Buffalo has been one of the best teams in football in recent years, winning the AFC East for three straight seasons after the decline of the New England dynasty. But they’ve failed to take advantage of that dominance and have yet to appear in a Super Bowl, let alone win one over that time.

This season, the division figures to be as competitive as it has been for a long time, and it wouldn’t take much for the Bills to fail to retain their division crown, even if they still make the playoffs. There’s a solid chance that one of these AFC East teams can challenge Buffalo.

2. Dalton Kincaid becomes only the third rookie TE to eclipse 1,000 yards in NFL history

Rookie tight ends typically don’t have huge production right out of the gate, but a big part of that is the blocking responsibility that limits their use. With Dawson Knox already in place, the Bills have the rare luxury of being able to deploy Dalton Kincaid with very little in-line blocking responsibility, essentially turning him loose as a big-slot weapon.

Kincaid’s 2022 PFF receiving grade (91.8) was the best in the nation, and he averaged 2.4 yards per route run. Buffalo’s offense is already elite, but there’s a clear and obvious role for him inside and he has the skill set to capitalize on it right away.

3. Buffalo’s defense bounces back to a top-five unit

Last season, Buffalo’s defense ranked ninth in expected points allowed per play. The year prior, the unit placed second. A lot of the focus in 2022 was on Von Miller and his impact, but the Bills' secondary was banged up virtually from start to finish. If they can have a healthier season on the back end in 2023, the unit could be dramatically improved even without significant changes to personnel.

The expected development of young players such as Christian Benford and Kaiir Elam — both rookies a year ago — and the potential bounce-back of Tre’Davious White another year removed from injury could also move the needle in a major way.

Miami Dolphins

1. Jaelan Phillips has an All-Pro-caliber season

Phillips had a quietly excellent season in 2022, sacking the quarterback 10 times and notching 77 total pressures on a little more than 500 pass-rushing snaps. He finished with a 90.1 PFF pass-rushing grade and an 88.8 overall mark. This year, the system around him should be better and the third-year talent could really lay down a marker and place himself among the league’s best defensive linemen. Phillips ended his 2022 season with back-to-back games of seven pressures and has the versatility to line up all over the defensive front.

2. Miami misses the playoffs

Despite losing Tua Tagovailoa last season, the Dolphins still made the playoffs and scared Buffalo in the wild-card round more than a Skylar Thompson-led team had any right to. With the moves they have made this offseason and Tua coming back healthy, Miami is a popular pick to take the next step and really make noise in the AFC playoffs.

There are still concerns about the roster overall, however, and Tagovailoa remaining healthy is by no means a guarantee. If he goes down, Mike White should provide a significantly better backup option than a season ago, but the AFC is such a gauntlet that losing a couple of games could easily drop a playoff contender out of the postseason entirely.

3. Vic Fangio oversees a top-five defense

Vic Fangio is the father of the defensive scheme currently sweeping the NFL. His brand of split-safety defense, heavy on quarters and Cover 6 has been very successful at limiting the explosive plays that became the hallmark of the best offensive schemes in football, and that also gave the Shanahan-based offenses the most trouble.

Miami brings Fangio in to help improve a defense already moving in the right direction with a lot of talent. The Dolphins' defense ranked 16th last year in expected points allowed per play but could leap into the top five with Fangio on board.

New England Patriots

1. The Patriots' offense improves in the rankings by 10-plus spots

It’s difficult to overstate how important installing a proven offensive coach as coordinator is for the Patriots' offense. Their solution to the departure of Josh McDaniels last season was a disaster and jeopardized the development of their new quarterback, Mac Jones. Bill O’Brien comes in with the potential to get both Jones and the offense in general back on track in 2023. As a unit, they ranked 29th in expected points added per play a season ago, but this group has the talent to land in the top half of the league.

2. Christian Barmore has a breakout season

Barmore has yet to hit his full potential in the NFL. The No. 38 overall selection in the 2021 NFL Draft, he arguably had first-round talent. While he has been improving on a per-snap basis, he played just 327 snaps last season due to injury. If he can stay healthy, he could be primed for a year-three breakout that sees him add to the long list of disruptive interior defenders taking over the NFL right now. Barmore has 74 total pressures over his career from 641 pass-rushing snaps. His PFF pass-rushing grade topped 80.0 last year.

3. Cole Strange earns a PFF grade above 75.0

Strange was largely derided as an unexpected first-round draft pick by the Patriots, and his 54.6 overall PFF grade during his rookie year might suggest that the criticism was valid, but his season was far more complex than that. He had eight games with a PFF pass-blocking grade of 80.0 or better, including four of his last five. He also had four games with a pass-blocking grade of 40.1 or worse. The Patriots left him one on one with some very good defensive linemen, and he generally held his own. With a year under his belt, Strange could be in line for a big improvement, given the promise he flashed.

New York Jets

1. Garrett Wilson has an All-Pro season

I’m fully buying into the Aaron Rodgers to Garrett Wilson connection. Last year’s Offensive Rookie of the Year managed to put up 1,103 yards with one of the worst quarterback situations in the league. In games where Wilson’s quarterback was Joe Flacco or Mike White, he averaged more than 85 receiving yards — or 1,458 extrapolated over a 17-game schedule. Wilson also trailed only Deebo Samuel in broken tackles among wide receivers. He is primed for a monster season if he has even halfway-viable quarterback play.

2. Will McDonald IV leads all rookies in sacks

McDonald is a perfect fit for the Robert Saleh defense in New York. Arguably the most-explosive pass rusher in the 2023 NFL Draft, McDonald featured in a role that often didn’t allow him to showcase his skill set in Iowa State’s stack defense. He had an elite pass-rush win rate of 16.8% last season despite almost half of his snaps coming lined up over the tackle or inside. Lining up wider more consistently should help him showcase his pass-rushing prowess as part of a deep line rotation in New York.

3. The O-line undermines the offense, remains in the bottom third of the league

Acquiring Aaron Rodgers should solve a lot of problems for the Jets and propel them into a different area among AFC contenders. It won’t solve every problem, however, and their offensive line still has some issues on paper, even if everybody stays healthy.

At 37 years old, Duane Brown posted a career-low 57.8 PFF grade last season and may firmly be on the way out at this level. Mekhi Becton lasted just seven (good) snaps in the Hall of Fame Game before being withdrawn and has played fewer than 800 snaps in three years. There’s a world where the offensive line comes together in New York, but the greater probability may be that it continues to struggle.


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