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 one overlooked team with serious upside ... and a purported contender that could be on the decline.
The 2023 NFL season is officially underway, as the Detroit Lions ruined the Kansas City Chiefs' Lombardi party on Thursday night by pulling off an upset win at Arrowhead Stadium. Not a bad way to kick off Week 1. But before the new campaign really gets going with Sunday's 14-game slate, allow me to toss out a couple of last-minute predictions.
On this Friday one year ago, I used the Scout's Notebook to identify one sleeper contender and one paper tiger for the 2022 season. My sleeper contender, the New Orleans Saints, obviously did not meet my expectations, posting a 7-10 mark to finish third in a lackluster NFC South. But my selection for paper tiger, the Denver Broncos, proved prescient. Russell Wilson stumbled to the worst season of his professional career; Nathaniel Hackett didn't even make it through his debut campaign as a head coach; and the team finished last in the AFC West at 5-12.
I went 1-for-2 in that forecasting exercise. Room for improvement. So let's run the concept back today!
Reflecting on everything that occurred on the transaction wire this offseason and on the gridiron during training camp/preseason, I have settled on two teams carrying opposite vibes, at least to me: one sleeper contender and one paper tiger. Let's get to it.
SLEEPER: Green Bay Packers
I hope Aaron Rodgers and his legion of fans do not take the Packers' selection in this spot personally, but here's what I think about Green Bay in 2023: Matt LaFleur and Co. are now actually better positioned to advance through the NFL postseason tournament due to a philosophical change on offense that's designed to help Jordan Love flourish as a first-time starter. I can't wait to see what this team looks like in a season-opening trip to Chicago for a Sunday showdown with the rival Bears.
Again, I'm not throwing shade at Rodgers; I'm fascinated to see what the four-time MVP can accomplish with a nice supporting cast on the New York Jets. But the Pack went 8-9 last season, missing the playoffs. Clearly, the marriage between Rodgers and the Packers had grown stale. In the wake of a contentious divorce, though, I think the franchise is rejuvenated by the transition to Love. And I truly believe the Packers, with the way their roster is currently constructed, will benefit from a more balanced approach that makes the running game and play-action passes the foundation of every game plan.
With AJ Dillon and Aaron Jones stabilizing the offense via their complementary skills as inside/outside runners, the Packers can feature a multi-faceted, ball-control attack that enables their 24-year-old quarterback to assume a managerial role until he is ready to excel as a playmaker at the position. With Love under center, I expect LaFleur to employ more heavy personnel packages with two tight ends on the field. Then the savvy coach will lean on a series of off-tackle runs and intermediate passes to tight ends Luke Musgrave, Tucker Kraft and Josiah Deguara, while also dialing up shots downfield to wideouts Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs. The balanced game plan will keep opponents guessing throughout the season. (Though Watson and Doubs obviously have to get healthy.)
Defensively, the Packers are brimming with homegrown talent. The unit boasts eight players with a first-round pedigree, covering all three levels of the D: defensive linemen Kenny Clark and Devonte Wyatt; linebackers Rashan Gary, Lukas Van Ness and Quay Walker; defensive backs Jaire Alexander, Eric Stokes (currently on the reserve/PUP list) and Darnell Savage. These guys are loaded with high-level traits, which should enable defensive coordinator Joe Barry to overwhelm opponents utilizing a player-friendly scheme that allows natural physical ability to shine. Although the Packers will still have to live with some of the ups and downs that come from younger players, their raw talent allows them to go toe to toe with the NFC's best.
If LaFleur and the Packers can master the art of playing complementary football with the offense, defense and special teams working in unison, the wins will pile up, and Green Bay could hit the postseason as an underdog with intriguing potential to make a run in a top-heavy NFC.
PAPER TIGER: Buffalo Bills
I hate being the bearer of bad news, but the current run is over in Western New York. Heading into the Bills' Monday night matchup with the Jets at MetLife Stadium, I'm just not buying what Buffalo's selling.
Despite the presence of an MVP-caliber quarterback with "take over the game" potential, the championship window has closed on this version of the Bills. Buffalo has been weakened by free-agent departures (SEE: leading tackler Tremaine Edmunds and leading rusher Devin Singletary), coaching attrition (Leslie Frazier stepped away from his role as defensive coordinator in February), philosophical changes (current OC Ken Dorsey vs. old OC Brian Daboll) and potential chemistry issues (hello, Stefon Diggs). All of that, plus the general trend line of this team that finished last season with an enormous thud, does NOT inspire confidence in a Super Bowl run through the minefield that is this season's AFC.
At publishing, Buffalo boasts the third-highest odds to win the Super Bowl on Caesars Sportsbook & Casino, tied with San Francisco and only trailing Philadelphia and Kansas City. But for me, it's hard to envision these Bills competing with the very best teams in the league. The offense seriously sputtered at times in 2022 under the direction of a new play-caller attempting to tweak the scheme to suit his vision. After watching Josh Allen and Co. repeatedly misfire in crucial moments, the question remains whether Dorsey's offense can evolve to make the game easier for a quarterback who already has too much on his plate.
In addition, the lack of an established WR2 puts the onus on Diggs to really carry the passing game. Sure, first-round rookie Dalton Kincaid and Pro Bowler Dalton Knox could form a dynamic duo at tight end, but defenses are unlikely to significantly shift their focus away from Diggs unless the Bills' rushing attack and ball-control passing game light up the scoreboard with minimal contributions from the superstar receiver.
From a defensive standpoint, Frazier's departure could shift the scheme's emphasis. The veteran defensive architect crafted a system that enabled defensive backs to play fast as "see ball, get ball" defenders. Although head coach Sean McDermott has always played a significant role in defensive game-planning and game-day decisions, his transition from overseer to play-caller could shift the Bills' defensive approach while also diverting McDermott's attention away from key game-management decisions. Given the challenge of wearing multiple hats on game day, Frazier's absence could substantially impact the Bills' synergy this season.
In addition, Buffalo's front-line personnel does not stack up with the elite defensive units in the AFC, particularly when it comes to the pass rush. Von Miller is an all-time great, but the veteran will spend at least the first four weeks of the season on the PUP list. And whenever he returns, the 34-year-old will be coming off a major injury (ACL tear) that could limit his impact as a disruptor. Remember, the eight-time Pro Bowler's game is built on extreme quickness and bend off the edge. Although the June addition of Leonard Floyd gave Buffalo a veteran at defensive end, the Bills' pass-rush-by-committee approach leaves a lot to be desired in a pass-happy league. 2021 first-rounder Greg Rousseau needs to make another big leap in 2023.
Given the slim margin for error in this AFC -- which is absolutely loaded with elite teams and quarterbacks -- I'm concerned about Buffalo's outlook this season. Shoot, the AFC East race alone looks like a bear, with the Jets and Dolphins clearly on the come-up. At the moment, I find it difficult to envision the Bills making the playoffs at all, much less winning a fourth straight division title and vying for a top seed.