Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. In today's installment, he spotlights eight units poised to make serious noise in the coming season.
Every January, the NFL playoffs are dotted with teams that have made a significant improvement on one side of the ball. Whether it's an offensive revolution sparked by the emergence of a dynamic quarterback or a defensive flourish fueled by the formation of a ferocious front, postseason tournament bids often spawn from one rising unit inducing the transition from pretender to contender.
As a scout with the Carolina Panthers in the 2000s, I watched a perennial underdog suddenly make a Super Bowl run behind a substantially improved defense. Driven by a mix of blue-chippers and no-names playing outstanding football from Week 1 on, Carolina's D battered and bruised opponents with an ultra-physical approach. The core of that group was a nasty front seven featuring Julius Peppers, Kris Jenkins, Mike Rucker, Dan Morgan and Mike Minter (in a box-safety role).
Despite utilizing a simplistic scheme that did not attempt to trick or deceive opponents, the 2003 Panthers' defense overwhelmed opponents with its mastery of the fundamentals on the way to securing a berth in Super Bowl XXXVIII. Although John Fox's squad did not claim the Lombardi Trophy -- barely losing to Tom Brady's Patriots -- I walked away from that season impressed with how the coach transformed an overlooked defense into a vital piece of Carolina's surprising run to Super Bowl Sunday.
So, which units are poised to break through in the 2023 NFL campaign? Here are four offenses and four defenses that should make a significant jump this fall.
- 2022 scoring offense: 23rd
- 2022 total offense: 28th
Justin Fields flashed electric ability last year, but after the Bears spent this offseason upgrading the offense, the 24-year-old needs to emerge as a true franchise quarterback in Year 3.
Chicago gave Fields a serious vote of confidence by trading away the No. 1 overall pick in April's draft -- and in doing so, the Bears also gave their young field general a true No. 1 receiver (D.J. Moore). That's not the only notable veteran addition, either, as GM Ryan Poles also boosted the offensive line (OG Nate Davis), tight end position (Robert Tonyan) and backfield (D'Onta Foreman) in free agency. In the draft, the Bears grabbed a premier people mover in Round 1 (OT Darnell Wright) and then added a couple more enticing playmakers in Round 4 (RB Roschon Johnson and WR Tyler Scott).
All of that gives Fields a far deeper and more imposing supporting cast than he enjoyed last season. Consequently, I expect the former No. 11 overall pick to take a big step in his development as a dual-threat playmaker. The Bears' offense has enough weaponry to produce fireworks against defenses ill-equipped to defend a balanced attack with explosive potential.
- 2022 scoring offense: 32nd
- 2022 total offense: 21st
Sean Payton's arrival should stabilize an offense that was a staggering disappointment under his predecessor, one-and-done head coach Nathaniel Hackett. Payton has directed some of the league's top offenses over the past two decades, utilizing a variety of concepts and personnel groupings to create mismatches all over the field. As a masterful play designer with ample experience coaxing the most out of an aging quarterback, Payton can alleviate Russell Wilson's issues through clever scheming and superb game management. Moreover, the veteran play-caller will maximize a supporting cast with promising potential, thus eliminating the need for the 34-year-old quarterback to play like a one-man show.
As the Broncos embrace a more balanced approach with the ground attack featured prominently in the game plan, the Super Bowl-winning head coach's immediate imprint on the unit could help Denver re-emerge as a playoff contender this season.
- 2022 scoring offense: 29th
- 2022 total offense: 25th
The Aaron Rodgers Experience may or may not result in a Super Bowl appearance, but you can be sure of one thing: The presence of the four-time MVP will accelerate the development of New York's young core while adding structure and organization to an offense that was in flux a season ago.
As a meticulous competitor with a distinguished résumé, Rodgers will set a championship standard for the unit and teach Jets players -- and coaches -- how to perform at that level. With Rodgers demanding more attention to detail, New York's offensive output will improve, as Garrett Wilson, Breece Hall, Alijah Vera-Tucker and Laken Tomlinson team up with the quarterback's guys (Allen Lazard, Randall Cobb and Billy Turner) to create a much-improved unit that could spark a run at the division crown -- and more.
If new offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett can handle game-management duties without a hitch, the Jets' offense should flourish with a gold jacket player at the helm.
- 2022 scoring offense: 26th
- 2022 total offense: 23rd
As Kenny Pickett settles into his role as a QB1 following a solid if unspectacular rookie campaign, Pittsburgh's offense should take a significant leap forward. Flanked by a well-rounded skill-position group that includes Diontae Johnson, George Pickens, Allen Robinson, Pat Freiermuth and Najee Harris, Pickett should play with more confidence and command in Year 2. Consequently, the Steelers have the potential to attack with an aerial circus that creates and exploits mismatches.
Also, the team's continued upgrading of the offensive line (SEE: free-agent guard Isaac Seumalo and first-round tackle Broderick Jones) -- as well as the third-round selection of mammoth tight end Darnell Washington -- will enable offensive coordinator Matt Canada to lean on a punishing rushing attack that overpowers opponents.
Considering the quarterback's expected improvement and the upgraded personnel around him, the Steelers are poised to make a surge in production that should enable them to compete for a playoff spot once again in 2023.
- 2022 scoring defense: T-28th
- 2022 total defense: 32nd
The Lions finished last season with top-five rankings in total offense and scoring, so everyone expects Ben Johnson's attack to produce again in 2023. But when you pore over the offseason additions on the other side of the ball, you see why Detroit has emerged as a dark-horse contender in the NFC.
With DEs Aidan Hutchinson and James Houston, DT Alim McNeill and S Kerby Joseph, the Lions already had a promising core of young talent. But I love what Brad Holmes added this offseason, particularly in the back end. With C.J. Gardner-Johnson, Cameron Sutton, Emmanuel Moseley and second-round pick Brian Branch shoring up the secondary, Detroit can eliminate the big plays and force opponents to deal with a front line that features speed, strength and power. And while some folks questioned Holmes for using the No. 18 overall pick on an off-ball linebacker, Jack Campbell should provide immediate returns in Year 1.
As Aaron Glenn's unit builds upon the confidence established in the second half of last season, the Lions’ defense could spark a run that results in Detroit's first division title since 1993.
- 2022 scoring defense: 24th
- 2022 total defense: 18th
The arrival of Vic Fangio as the team’s new defensive architect should clean up some of the issues that plagued this unit in the past. The grizzled defensive mastermind has a knack for crafting rock-solid game plans that force opponents to play left-handed in critical moments. Fangio’s simplicity and attention to detail will eliminate some of the mental miscues that held Miami's D back last season.
In addition, the chemistry and connection between the defensive leader and a bevy of blue-chip players (SEE: Bradley Chubb, Christian Wilkins, Jaelen Phillips, Xavien Howard, Jevon Holland and Jalen Ramsey) should result in more consistent production from a unit that is as talented as any defense in the league.
- 2022 scoring defense: T-28th
- 2022 total defense: 31st
Although it takes exceptional talent to flourish in the NFL, the presence of a high-end coach can help a group exceed expectations. First-year Vikings defensive coordinator Brian Flores will produce better results than predecessor Ed Donatell, thanks not only to his attention to fundamentals and detail but his creative Xs and Os, as well. The former Dolphins head coach showed an ability to confound opponents with a bluff-and-blitz Cover 0 scheme in Miami, and I expect him to utilize some of those same tactics to help the Vikings diffuse the high-powered offenses around the league. Coach Flo will transform a group lacking in star power into a disruptive force that creates chaos with blitzes and simulated pressures.
As Flores works his magic, the brilliant defensive strategist could quickly re-emerge as a head-coaching candidate, having directed an impressive turnaround in short order.
- 2022 scoring defense: 25th
- 2022 total defense: 26th
Pete Carroll finally has the pieces in place to recreate the dynamic defense that fueled the Seahawks’ dominance in the mid-2010s. The Super Bowl XLVIII-winning coach has invested big bucks and draft capital to upgrade a unit that needed a little more pizzazz to play at an elite level.
The return of Bobby Wagner brings leadership and swagger. The additions of Dre’Mont Jones, Jarran Reed (another Seattle reunion) and Julian Love add more savvy and experience to the group. Rookies Devon Witherspoon and Derick Hall should step in as key contributors from Day 1.
The Seahawks’ mix of new and old gives Carroll an opportunity to reclaim his crown as one of the top team builders in the game.