2023 NFC North Preview, Odds, Picks for Justin Fields, Jordan Love, More
Quinn Harris/Getty Images. Pictured: Justin Fields.
Reasons for optimism: Jared Goff posted his best season as a pro in 2022. He was fourth in net passing yards per attempt (NYA, 7.02) and adjusted net yards per attempt (ANYA, 7.45), fifth in QB Rating (61.1) and second in interception rate (1.2%) and sack rate (3.8%).
A big part of that was the Year 2 breakout of Amon-Ra St. Brown, who caught 106 passes for 1,161 yards and six touchdowns. Goff also benefits from playing behind one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, with tackles Taylor Decker and Penei Sewell combining to allow just six sacks last season, according to Pro Football Focus (PFF).
Goff has long been known to struggle outdoors in the elements and did nothing to dispel that narrative last season, averaging 270.6 yards and 2.2 touchdowns on 7.8 yards per attempt (YPA) indoors compared to 243.5 yards and 0.8 TDs on 7.3 YPA outdoors. That shouldn’t be an issue this season, however, as a Week 14 date at Soldier Field figures to be the Lions' only true cold-weather game, with the rest of their road games coming either indoors or outdoors with a mild forecast.
Rookie running back Jahmyr Gibbs may have been a reach at 12th overall from a pure value perspective, but at the same time, it's not often you get the chance to add a dual-threat back with 4.36 speed to the roster. With Jameson Williams serving a six-game gambling suspension to start the season, Gibbs gives the offense some much-needed juice as it looks to build upon its fifth-place DVOA finish from a season ago.
The front office has done a good job of building a strong supporting cast around Goff so that he can play within himself, but there still would have been a major dropoff from him to Nate Sudfeld. With that in mind, it can't be understated how much the signing of Teddy Bridgewater raises the offense's floor.
Defensively, the Lions acquired an entirely new starting cornerback group in free agency, adding Cam Sutton, Emmanuel Moseley, and C.J. Gardner Johnson. All three graded out as plus contributors in 2022 and should help to improve a pass defense that was 27th in DVOA a season ago.
The defense should also benefit from a Year 2 leap from Aidan Hutchinson, who could explode for a monster sack total after nothing 9.5 as a rookie.
Causes for concern: The new cornerback trio of Sutton, Moseley, and Gardner-Johnson all played well for their respective organizations last year, but all three have been inconsistent to varying degrees throughout their careers, and it could take time for them to gel in a new scheme.
And while this probably won't have much bearing on their outlook, I can't help but think that based on what we've seen thus far, Williams may have more upside as a gambler than he does as an NFL receiver.
Outlook: The Lions showed what they’re capable of by finishing last season on an 8-2 tear, and I expect them to build on that and win their first division title since 1993 — the days of Rodney Peete, Barry Sanders, and Herman Moore. They'll likely have it earn it, though, as they don't play the Vikings until Weeks 16 and 18. The Lions do match up well with the Vikings, as evidenced by their 34-23 drubbing of Minnesota in Week 13 last year (they should have won the Week 4 meeting as well, but they weren't fully formed at the time and ended up blowing a 24-14 second-half lead and losing 28-24.)
Future: David Montgomery Most Rushing TDs (+2500, DraftKings)
The Lions could have re-signed Jamaal Williams this offseason after he led the NFL with 17 rushing touchdowns, but they opted to spend a bit more and sign the younger Montgomery instead. The former Bear is slated to inherit a role that saw Williams handle a league-high 28 carries inside the opposing 5-yard line and a league-high 45 carries inside the opposing 10. Williams led the league in both of those categories by a substantial margin, with no other back handling more than 20 attempts inside the 5 or 29 attempts inside the 10.
Montgomery's current career-high in rushing touchdowns is eight, but that's not a concern given that Williams' previous career-high was just four before exploding for 17 last season.
It's obviously a long shot, but it's also one that would look painfully obvious in hindsight if it does indeed end up hitting.
Bet to: +1600
Reasons for optimism: They went 13-4 in Year 1 under head coach Kevin O’Connell. Justin Jefferson is the best wide receiver in the NFL. Kirk Cousins finally found himself some swag.
The offensive line will return all five starters, four of which earned a top-11 PFF grade among qualifiers at their respective position: LT Christian Darrisaw (second of 81), RT Brian O’Neill (eighth of 81), LG Ezra Cleveland (eighth of 77), and C Garrett Bradberry (11th of 38).
On the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Ed Donatell was fired and replaced by Brian Flores, who should add some much-needed aggression to a pass defense that ranked 26th in DVOA and was all too content to sit back in zone coverage while opposing quarterbacks and receivers torched them every which way.
Causes for concern: They may well be the most fraudulent 13-win team of all time. They finished with a negative point differential and ranked 27th in DVOA. They went 11-0 in one-score games…until the playoffs, where they were upset at home in the Wild Card Round by the Giants in a game that ended with Cousins exorcising all remnants of swag by inexplicably throwing a 3-yard check-down on fourth-and-eight to seal the team’s fate.
Despite being an 8.4-win team according to point differential, a 7.5-win team according to one-score luck, and a 6.3-win team according to DVOA, the Vikings still have to play a first-place schedule, which includes dates with all four participants from last season’s Conference Championship Games (Week 2 at Philadelphia, Week 5 vs. San Francisco, Week 7 vs. Kansas City, Week 14 at Cincinnati).
Their offseason consisted of letting some of their best players (CB Patrick Paterson, DT Dalvin Tomlinson, RB Dalvin Cook) walk due to salary-cap reasons, placing another (Danielle Hunter) on the trade block to no avail, and trying and failing to move up in the draft and take Cousins’ successor.
Flores may not be able to work his magic right away. The Dolphins went from 27th to 32nd in his first year with the team in 2019 before posting top-12 finishes in each of the following two seasons.
Former Cardinal Byron Murphy Jr. will need to post a career-best season to come anywhere close to matching the production Peterson gave the Vikings at corner last season, and they will be relying on unproven rookies and second-year players opposite him. Safety Harrison Smith is 34 and coming off a season in which he posted his worst PFF grade (68.4) in a decade.
The Vikings also benefited from top-five injury luck last season, which is unlikely to repeat.
Outlook: The offense should benefit from another year in O’Connell’s scheme, but the overall roster is probably slightly worse than it was last year and their one-score luck and injury luck should even out. Ultimately, I expect the Vikings to continue to be the middling team suggested by their underlying metrics, but without the ridiculous one-score luck. I could see this team winning anywhere from 6-10 games.
Future: Justin Jefferson to Lead NFL in Receiving Yards (+600, BetMGM)
Jefferson’s receiving totals in his first three NFL seasons are 1,400 > 1,616 > 1,809. He has never finished lower than fourth in receiving yards and beat Tyreek Hill by nearly a game’s worth of yardage (99) for the receiving yardage crown last season.
What sets Jefferson apart from Hill and Ja’Marr Chase is that he doesn’t have to compete for targets with an elite No. 2 the way Hill does with Jaylen Waddle and Chase does with Tee Higgins. It’s a nitpick for sure, but every target counts in this market.
The last player to win the receiving crown at age-30 or later was Muhsin Muhammad in 2004, so I’m not too worried about Davante Adams (31), Cooper Kupp (30), Stefon Diggs (30), or Travis Kelce (34).
CeeDee Lamb and Garrett Wilson are two sleepers who could surprise in this market, but elite defenses in Dallas and New York could cap the passing upside of the Cowboys and Jets relative to the Vikings, who finished 27th in defensive DVOA a year ago. It also helps that Kirk Cousins has a far superior track record of durability compared to Dak Prescott and Aaron Rodgers.
Bet to: +325
Reasons for optimism: The addition of a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver in D.J. Moore puts Justin Fields on the Josh Allen/Jalen Hurts career growth track. Allen saw his completion rate increase from 58.8% to 69.2% and his YPA go from 6.7 to 7.9 in his first year with Stefon Diggs, while Hurts saw his completion rate rise from 61.3% to 66.5% and his YPA jump from 7.3 to 8.0 in his first year with A.J. Brown.
The pieces around Fields are shaping up nicely. The addition of Moore allows Darnell Mooney to return to his more natural WR2/3 role. Cole Kmet is coming off a breakout year that saw him earn a lucrative extension while establishing himself as a legitimate red-zone threat, converting six of his 10 targets inside the 20 into touchdowns.
The backfield is deep but will likely be led by third-year RB Khalil Herbert, who is averaging 5.0 yards per carry on 232 career totes.
Most importantly for a quarterback that has posted a double-digit sack rate in each of of his first two seasons, the offensive line projects as a strength, with Braxton Jones (19th of 81 tackles at PFF in 2022) and Taven Jenkins (third of 77 guards) anchoring the left side, Cody Whitehair (28th of 77) returning to the pivot, and Nate Davis (17th of 77) coming over from Tennessee to fortify right guard. No. 10 overall pick Darnell Wright has the pedigree to be an immediate upgrade on last year’s right tackle, Riley Reiff.
The defense is still a work in progress after finishing dead last in DVOA in 2022, but it should take a step forward after shelling out for two elite linebackers in free agency: Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards. Yannick Ngakoue, who has recorded at least eight sacks in each of his first seven NFL seasons, is also a nice add for a pass rush that finished with a league-low 20 sacks a year ago.
Thanks to a last-place 3-14 finish last season, the Bears have a schedule teeming with winnable games, save for a Week 3 matchup at Kansas City.
Causes for concern: Sack rate is a quarterback trait more so than an offensive line trait, so an improved O-line is no guarantee to alleviate Fields’ sack issues. Moore is great, but no one would argue that he’s a tier or two below Diggs and Brown.
The defense still has a low floor. Edmunds and Edwards are excellent, but there is a reason linebackers are widely considered the least valuable components of a successful defense.
Ngakoue will produce sacks, but he isn’t the same player he was earlier in his career. There’s a reason a player with his track record was still available in August despite being only 28 years old.
At cornerback, they are counting on No. 57 overall pick Tyrique Stevenson to contribute immediately, and they also need second-year pros Kyler Gordon and Jaylon Jones to each take a massive leap forward after they graded out at 109th and 113th, respectively, among 118 qualified corners at PFF.
Outlook: The Bears are a team I'd rank below the Lions and Vikings to start the season, but they have major upside due to all of the new pieces and young players who could make a jump. Obviously, that starts with Fields, whom I believe we could be talking about in the same breath as Hurts and Lamar Jackson at this time next year if he reaches his full potential. I'm also bullish on the Lions, but I think the Bears are a good bet to beat out the Vikings and could give the Lions a run for their money if things break right.
Future: Justin Fields to Win MVP (+2500, Caesars)
I could be a year early to the party here, but Lamar Jackson's 2019 MVP campaign was preceded by a year in which he averaged just 159.4 passing yards per game across seven starts, while Cam Newton's 2015 MVP season was proceeded by a season in which he posted career-low efficiency marks en route to a 5-8-1 record as a starter.
From a statistical standpoint, Fields is already showing signs. His passer rating jumped from 73.2 in Year 1 to 85.2 in Year 2, and his QBR more than doubled, going from 26.4 to 54.0. His TD rate of 5.3% was sixth among 33 qualified quarterbacks. His 7.05 YPA mark was already a tick above the league average despite a vastly inferior receiving corps to the one at his disposal this season.
And then there's the rushing upside. Fields' average of 7.1 yards per carry led the league, and his 1,143 rushing yards were seventh most. He was the only player to crack the top 10 in rushing yards while missing more than one game (he missed two). To truly put his rushing prowess into context, consider that he ran for 383 more yards than Hurts in the same amount of games, and he finished with more rushing yardage than Christian McCaffrey despite playing in two fewer games.
Bet to: +1500
Reasons for optimism: Despite moving on from Aaron Rodgers, the Packers offense isn’t devoid of talent. Christian Watson posted a 31/523/7 line over the last eight games and appears poised for a Year 2 breakout. Aaron Jones averaged 5.3 yards per carry for the fourth time in six seasons and posted 1,516 yards from scrimmage despite playing only 58% of the snaps. Left tackle David Bakhtiari and left guard Elgton Jenkins give them one of the NFL’s best left sides of the offensive line.
Defensively, they have a shutdown corner in Jaire Alexander and an excellent No. 2 in Rasul Douglas. The defensive line is stacked with first-round talent (Frank Clark, Rashan Gary, Devonte Wyatt, Lukas Van Ness, Quay Walker).
Causes for concern: Over the past two seasons, the Packers have gone from employing one of the best wide receivers of this generation in Davante Adams and one of the best quarterbacks of all-time in Rodgers, to one of the least experienced quarterback/pass-catcher groups in recent memory. As a 25-year-old with one NFL start to his name, Love is somehow the elder statesman of the group. With Josiah Deguara moving to fullback and fellow fourth-year tight end Tyler Davis no lock to make the roster, it’s possible that the Packers open the year without a single wide receiver or tight end with more than one year of NFL experience.
Many who follow the team believe Bakhtiari could be traded, so this could devolve into a full-on tank. The fact that defensive coordinator Joe Barry was brought back for a third season may be the clearest signal of all that the Packers are tanking. Barry inherited a defense that ranked 17th in DVOA in 2020 and has done nothing but lead it to two straight finishes of 20th or worse despite considerable talent.
Outlook: Even without Rodgers, I think the Packers have enough talent and a soft enough schedule to be a tough out most weeks, but ultimately, I'm expecting their passing game's lack of experience to result in a turnover-prone mess unlike anything we’ve ever seen from a Rodgers-led offense. The fact that this team went 8-9 last season despite Rodgers starting all 17 games is a major red flag, as is the fact that they will be more reliant than ever on a defense that has consistently underachieved relative to its talent level under Barry. When it’s all said and done, I think the Packers will end up in last place for the first time since 2005.
Quay Walker just got ejected again.
Future: Jordan Love to Lead NFL in Interceptions (+1300, FanDuel)
Love is a good bet to start all 17 games if healthy, as the coaching staff has every incentive to get as much of a sample size on him as possible before making a decision on whether he is the Packers' long-term answer at quarterback.
And it just so happens that Love has quite the checkered past when it comes to protecting the football (keep in mind that the league average interception rate is around 2.3%):
- 3 INTs on 83 NFL regular season attempts (3.6% INT rate)
- 5 INTs on 119 NFL preseason attempts (4.2% INT rate)
- 17 INTs on 474 attempts in his final season at Utah State (3.6% INT rate)
If Love does end up leading the league in interceptions in 2023, it won’t even be his first such achievement, as the 17 picks he threw at Utah State in 2019 led all college passers in the nation.
Bet to: +1000
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