The NFC is certainly a mixed bag heading into the 2023 NFL season. There are few Super Bowl contenders in the mix (Philadelphia Eagles, San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys), but the rest of the conference is a wild card.
Plenty of playoff spots are up for grabs in a conference that isn’t as deep as the AFC. The NFC South is wide open without Tom Brady, ditto with the NFC North without Aaron Rodgers. Meanwhile, the NFC East hasn’t had a repeat champion in in 18 seasons.
In what should be an intriguing year for the NFC, what is the biggest challenge for each team heading into 2023? These obstacles could be the difference between being a little competitive, a legit playoff contender or challenging for a Super Bowl title (depending on the team and the situation).
Is Kyler Murray coming back anytime soon?
Murray is still recovering from a torn ACL he suffered last season, electing to have surgery in January. The Cardinals quarterback admitted Saturday he doesn’t have a definitive timeline for his return to the practice field or how long he’ll need to practice before he’ll return to game action.
Until Murray comes back, it’s Colt McCoy at quarterback. Murray is learning Drew Petzing’s offense and gathering all the information he can before actually returning to the field — whenever that may be. In a season where the Cardinals are patiently punting, they’ll be taking their time with their $160 million (guaranteed) investment.
Is the pass rush any better?
The Falcons defense have just 68 sacks over the last three seasons. To put this in perspective, the Philadelphia Eagles had 70 sacks last season.
What did the Falcons do to bolster the pass rush? New defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen has new pass rushers in Bud Dupree, Kaden Elliss, David Onyemata, Lorenzo Carter and Calais Campbell (from free agency) along with incumbents Arnold Ebiketie and Grady Jarrett.
The pass rush is better on paper, but is it enough to create consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks? The bar is low after Atlanta had just 21 sacks last year.
Will Frank Reich limit Bryce Young?
Young is going to be the Panthers’ starting quarterback come Week 1, yet how much of the playbook will Reich acclimate into the offense? This isn’t an indictment of Young’s knowledge of the offense, but will Reich pull the reins back on Young to get him used to life in the NFL?
Is Reich going to have Young throw 30-40 times a game or will he be conservative and base the offense around Miles Sanders and the running game in the first few weeks? Young is a tremendous talent and is the franchise quarterback in Carolina, yet the Panthers have to monitor how much command of the offense they want him to have.
Fortunately, Reich had this experience with Carson Wentz in 2016.
Who’s going after the quarterback?
Like the Falcons, the Bears’ pass rush was not good in 2022. The team leader in sacks was Jaquan Brisker — a safety.
The Bears have DeMarcus Walker, Rasheem Green, Trevis Gipson and Dominique Robinson as their top four edge rushers. Walker was the only significant upgrade on the edge after Green had a poor season with the Houston Texans (Chicago only got him for $2.5 million).
Is this group good enough to improve upon the 20 sacks from last season (the fewest in the NFL)? Probably, but this pass rush needs some work — especially in a winnable NFC North.
Does this team have enough depth on the offensive line?
Dallas has a very good starting offensive line on paper: Tyron Smith, Tyler Smith, Tyler Biadasz, Zack Martin and Terrence Steele, in that order. If the Cowboys can go three-quarters of the season with that starting offensive line group intact, that’s a major win.
Here’s the problem. Tyron Smith has played just 15 of the 34 eligible games over the last two seasons while Steele is coming off a torn ACL that required surgery. Will Steele be ready for the start of the regular season? The Cowboys could be down both their starting tackles if Smith can’t get through camp.
Tyler Smith would have to be moved from left guard if any of the tackles are out, leading to some major reshuffling on the interior. One of Matt Farniok, Matt Waletzko, or Chuma Edoga will have to step up in camp.
The starting offensive line is great on the field. This group never does seem to stay healthy.
How’s the new-look running game going to look?
The Lions certainly upgraded on paper with David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs this offseason, but can they match the production of Jamaal Williams and D’Andre Swift? Williams had the most rushing touchdowns ever in a season for the franchise last year while Swift was a productive pass catcher out of the backfield.
Gibbs should provide the same burst Swift had the past three years for Detroit, yet he’ll have to be an immediate contributor with Jameson Williams missing the first six games. Can Montgomery be the bell-cow back to carry the run game while Gibbs figures things out in the NFL?
The running back situation is better, but Detroit will have to be patient with both Montgomery and Gibbs.
Will this team let Jordan Love cook?
The Week 12 matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles on “Sunday Night Football” was enough to showcase Love’s talent, as he made some impressive throws against one of the best defenses in football. Love got the short extension as a result of the front office’s faith in him, but will Matt LaFleur let him take command of the offense?
Love has been the Packers backup for three years now. He knows the offense inside and out and has enough pass catchers to thrive in Green Bay. He has a good rapport with Christian Watson, but there’s young pass catchers (Jayden Reed, Luke Musgrave, Tucker Kraft) who need to get targets.
Love throwing the ball significantly would be a good thing for the Packers.
Is there anyone who can play on this defense besides Aaron Donald?
The Rams have clearly decided to leave Donald on an island to make an impact on their defense. Donald can certainly make an impact, but he needs help if the Rams are going to be competitive. Outside of rookie Byron Young, the Rams really didn’t do anything to significantly improve the defensive line.
Los Angeles moved on from Bobby Wagner and Jalen Ramsey, so the defense significantly lacked playmakers heading into the year. Ahkello Witherspoon and Jordan Fuller are good in the secondary, but they appear to be the only quality starters on this defense. The Rams let a lot of quality players walk on that side of the ball this offseason (including Leonard Floyd and Taylor Rapp).
This year is finding out who can play on this defense, at the expense of Donald.
How will Brian Flores put his stamp on the defense?
Hiring Flores was a major move for the Vikings. Flores turned the Miami Dolphins’ defense around in two seasons and helped the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense to top 10 rankings in opponent points per game, opponent rushing yards per game, passes defensed and interceptions. The Steelers run defense also were tied for the fewest rushing touchdowns allowed in 2022.
The fix won’t be a quick one, as the Vikings have some personnel questions at each unit of the defense to figure out. The secondary does have Harrison Smith and Byron Murphy and the pass rush has a happy Danielle Hunter and free-agent addition Marcus Davenport to start. A foundation has to be built on this defense before it can thrive.
This defense is projected to have seven new starters in 2023. If the younger players (Lewis Cine, Andrew Booth Jr., Mekhi Blackmon) can step up in the secondary, the turnaround may come sooner than expected.
Will Michael Thomas be Michael Thomas again?
Injuries have ruined Thomas’ path to greatness, as the wide receiver has just 56 catches for 609 yards and three touchdowns over the last three seasons — playing in just 10 games. This was after Thomas won the 2019 offensive player of the year honors.
Thomas will have the opportunity to be the No. 2 wide receiver to Chris Olave, who looked very good in his rookie season. If the Saints can not only get a healthy version of Thomas, but 75% of the player he once was — life could be very easy in the NFC South.
The Saints have Rashid Shaheed, but he fits better in the slot. This offense is better if Thomas can play closer to his 2016-2019 levels again — which involves staying on the field.
Are the wide receivers good enough?
The Giants have Saquon Barkley back in the fold and acquired Darren Waller this offseason. Both players are valuable for Daniel Jones this season and make the offense better, but what about the wideouts?
The Giants don’t have a difference-maker at the position. Isaiah Hodgins and Darius Slayton are solid and Parris Campbell is an upgrade in the slot. The Giants like rookie Jalin Hyatt and Wan’Dale Robinson flashed in his rookie season last year.
The group is deep, but it may be a bunch of twos and threes. Is that enough to help out Jones?
Are the in-house options good enough at linebacker and safety?
The Eagles arguably have the most talented roster in the NFL. There are still some holes on defense that need to be filled — at linebacker and safety.
Nakobe Dean has one of the starting linebacker spots on lock, yet who starts the season next to him is up in the air. Nicholas Morrow and Christian Elliss are the frontrunners for that other off-ball linebacker spot and have rotated through camp. Elliss has impressed thus far, but will Philadelphia go with him come Week 1?
Terrell Edmunds and Reed Blankenship were in line to start at safety to open training camp. Blankenship has taken all the snaps on the first team thus far in camp, while Edmunds has rotated with K’Von Wallace. Sydney Brown has moved up the depth chart, too.
The Eagles have a good defense, but it remains to be seen if general manager Howie Roseman will look to upgrade from outside the organization.
San Francisco 49ers
Who is the quarterback?
The 49ers have made the NFC Championship game three times in the last four seasons, despite the uncertainty at quarterback. Trey Lance was never healthy enough to unseat Jimmy Garoppolo and Brock Purdy played too well to not be considered the frontrunner to be the starter in 2023.
If Purdy is 100% recovered from his UCL, the job should be his. The Lance dilemma will always linger since the 49ers invested so much to acquire him. Sam Darnold is also in this equation.
This will come down to Purdy’s health, but do the 49ers think it was just a seven-game hot streak? This fall will show where they stand.
How will Geno Smith fare in Year 2 as the Seahawks starter?
The Seahawks did plenty to surround Smith with even more talent on offense, drafting Jaxon Smith-Njigba in the first round and Zach Charbonnet in the second round. They already had Kenneth Walker at running back and Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf at wide receiver.
In short, the Seahawks are loaded on offense. The pieces are all there for Smith to thrive again.
Can Smith replicate the success he had in the first half of last season? He did have 12 turnovers in his last nine games (Seattle went 3-6 in that stretch), so it’s worth wondering if he can recapture that form.
The Seahawks gave Smith plenty of help. He’ll be fine if he takes care of the football.
Is Baker Mayfield going to be the starting quarterback the whole season?
Mayfield may not be the runaway winner of the starting quarterback job as most thought entering training camp. Kyle Trask has, as offensive coordinator Dave Canales admitted Trask has performed better than Mayfield over the last two practices.
Can Trask seize the starting job from Mayfield before the season? While that is certainly possible, Trask has been improving throughout camp while Mayfield has not. This could be a situation like Mayfield had in Carolina last year where he opens as the starter, but gets benched midway through the season.
Whoever the Buccaneers pick as the quarterback, they’re better off sticking with that player the entire year. That may not be Mayfield.
Will Eric Bieniemy produce the results the offense needs to contend?
Bieniemy finally gets the opportunity to call plays and run an offense outside of Kansas City. Washington averaged 18.8 points per game last season under Scott Turner (24th in NFL) and 330.3 yards per game (20th in NFL). The Commanders have started 12 different quarterbacks since 2018, the most in the NFL. Bieniemy was needed to get the offense on the right track.
While Bieniemy has offensive playmakers and an improved offensive line, the success of the offense comes down to Sam Howell’s development. All of Bieniemy’s concepts and game plans mean little if Howell doesn’t provide competent play at quarterback.
This comes down to Howell and his development. In a talented NFC East, Howell needs to take care of the football and make some plays to score with the offensive juggernauts in the division.
This offense could be very good under Bieniemy, but it may take a few weeks in the regular season to figure out.