The NFL's release of the 2023 regular-season schedule has players, coaches and executives scouring the grid to identify the challenges -- and opportunities -- that lie ahead.
As a former NFL player and scout, I distinctly remember weighing the pros and cons of a freshly released slate -- and analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of upcoming opponents. Typically, styles make fights when ultra-talented rosters square off. But a handful of position groups can overwhelm and overpower all comers. The collective dominance of the unit sets the tone for the team while also creating chances for blue-chip individuals to simply take over the game.
With the free agency frenzy and 2023 NFL Draft in the rearview, I took some time evaluating each roster to determine which teams possess the most imposing units to face on game day. Based on overall talent and impact potential, here is my ranking of the five best position groups in football heading into the 2023 season.
After racking up the third-most sacks (70) in a single season in NFL history, the Eagles went into the draft and promptly spent a pair of first-round picks on two more quarterback hunters from their favorite college football factory. Defensive tackle Jalen Carter (the No. 9 overall pick) and edge rusher Nolan Smith (No. 30), fresh off a second consecutive national championship with the Georgia Bulldogs, join a star-studded defensive front that overwhelms opponents with waves of pressure.
Featuring a collection of pass-rushing specialists with size, speed, athleticism and explosiveness, Philadelphia creates mass destruction in the trenches. Four different players on the Eagles' defensive front hit double-digit sacks last season: Haason Reddick (16), Brandon Graham (11), Javon Hargrave (11) and Josh Sweat (11). With Fletcher Cox (seven sacks) and Milton Williams (four) also providing pressure, Philly cycled through a series of game-wreckers, keeping everyone fresh and raring to wreak havoc. I haven't even mentioned last year's first-round pick, Jordan Davis. A gargantuan human being at 6-foot-6 and 336 pounds, the surprisingly athletic Georgia product flashed disruptive ability -- especially against the run -- before a midseason ankle injury. With difference-makers all across the front, the Eagles can confine quarterbacks to the pocket while generating the gut pressure to register sacks through simplistic rush schemes. And in a passing league, this dynamic unit is a big reason why Philadelphia has emerged as a perennial title contender.
Now, the Eagles did lose Hargrave to San Francisco in free agency. For a normal unit, this would be a crippling blow. But Howie Roseman has built up such enviable depth in this area of the roster that Philly's defensive front will continue to devastate opposing offenses in the coming season and beyond. Even without Hargrave, this remains the best position group in football.
Joe Burrow's undoubtedly one of the best processors at the quarterback position in the game today, but that's not the only reason for the immense success in his first three seasons as a pro. Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd are the best receiving trio in the NFL, partially because they complement each other so well. Chase is an explosive playmaker who can beat you with speed or strength, while Higgins is the big-bodied target with sticky hands and contested-catch ability. And then Boyd does his work in the middle of the field as a crafty slot machine. Chase and Higgins have both crossed the 1,000-yard mark in consecutive seasons, with Boyd averaging just under 800 and five touchdowns in his past two campaigns.
The trio's size, speed and running skills challenge opposing defenders' ability to cover and tackle in space. In addition, each wideout's one-on-one skills make it difficult for defensive play-callers to craft game plans that can slow down the Burrow-led attack when it's operating at warp speed. As an unstoppable unit with elite playmaking skills, the Bengals' receiving corps is a cheat code in a pass-happy league.
As mentioned in each of the previous two blurbs, the modern NFL is an aerial game. Consequently, nickel has become the de facto base defense for most teams. Put another way, it's a two-linebacker league. Good luck finding a more athletic and disruptive pair of LBs than Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw.
San Francisco's ultra-instinctive duo displays outstanding diagnostic skills and awareness to complement rugged games built on physicality and toughness. Warner, a two-time first-team All-Pro, is the heart-and-soul of the 49ers' defense as a savvy tackling machine with unlimited range. The sixth-year pro is the new prototype at the Mike position: a rangy defender with thump and legit cover skills. Greenlaw is an active second-level defender with exceptional sideline-to-sideline ability. The fifth-year pro is a disruptive force flowing freely to the ball, and his knockout power makes runners and receivers pause before venturing between the hashes.
With two elite defenders at the second level, the 49ers can match up with any offense, regardless of style or personnel. This is a schematic advantage that cannot be overstated.
As one of the hottest teams in the second half of last season -- SEE: eight wins in their final 10 games -- Detroit earned plenty of fanfare as a fun group on the rise. And at the moment, the Lions aren't just NFC North favorites heading into the 2023 season, but according to Caesars Sportsbook & Casino, they boast the fourth-highest Super Bowl odds in the NFC, trailing just the Eagles, 49ers and Cowboys. What's the core of this emergence from a long-downtrodden franchise? An offensive line that's become the new bully on the block.
Dan Campbell's trench warriors can mash and maul defenders at the line of scrimmage in the run game, while also displaying the cohesion and connectivity to handle exotic twists and stunts on passing downs. The O-line's ability to excel within a balanced offensive approach speaks volumes of the individual and collective talents. The unit's three best players are a trio of former first-round picks: tackles Taylor Decker and Penei Sewell, as well as center Frank Ragnow. Jonah Jackson, a third-round pick in 2020, has become a rock at left guard. The RG spot is a bit of a question mark at the moment -- with Halapoulivaati Vaitai and Graham Glasgow the most likely candidates -- but Detroit only needs passable play to complement the aforementioned quartet.
The unit sets the tone for Detroit. Lions GM Brad Holmes is still building up various areas of the roster, but the imposing O-line gives this team exactly the kind of identity Campbell champions.
With a pair of multi-time Pro Bowlers on the perimeter to complement a rising star at safety, the Dolphins can lock down opponents utilizing a variety of man-match and zone schemes.
Although Jalen Ramsey and Xavien Howard became household names before they joined forces this offseason in South Florida, the duo could earn more accolades and honors as shutdown specialists snuffing out some of the best receivers in football. With a combined 10 Pro Bowl nods and four first-team All-Pro designations, the talented tandem could make life miserable for the premier quarterbacks in the AFC looking to string together completions on downfield throws. And with stellar third-year pro Jevon Holland floating over the top to eliminate the deep ball, the Dolphins' defensive backfield should stymie opponents with talent, toughness and tenacity.
Furthermore, Miami might have uncovered a real gem in Kader Kohou. After going undrafted last year, the Texas A&M–Commerce product shined in the nickel role, making 13 starts while piling up 72 tackles (including five for loss), 10 passes defensed, an interception and a forced fumble. And the Dolphins spent their first pick in this year's draft -- a second-rounder at No. 51 overall -- on an athletic, big, instinctive cover man in Cam Smith. I had the South Carolina product as my fourth-ranked cornerback in this draft class.
All in all, this is a loaded defensive backfield with a nice mix of proven veterans and promising youngsters.