Cinderella danced again!
Yes, it's that time of year. Having watched yet another wild, delicious, delirious period of NFL free agency frenzy coincide with the genius of the NCAA men's basketball tournament -- March Madness abounds! -- I'm ready to unveil my annual choice for Cinderella team of the 2023 NFL season.
And after my Cinderella picks fizzled down the stretch for two straight years (the 2020 Arizona Cardinals and 2021 Los Angeles Chargers), my selection in 2022, the Miami Dolphins, rode Mike McDaniel's Tyreek Hill-led offense into the postseason.
This isn't actually meant to be a playoff prediction -- I'm thinking more about teams that can put together a Horatio Alger-like rags-to-riches story and less about whether they can extend their season past Week 18. But I'm not going to lie, it's extra satisfying when my choice for Cinderella waltzes into January. I kicked off this annual exercise with three consecutive playoff-qualifying Cinderellas (the 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars, 2018 Chicago Bears and 2019 Buffalo Bills), and, well, it's good to get back on that track!
Before we go any further, a reminder of my criteria: Candidates must have missed the playoffs in the previous season, and they shouldn't be considered Super Bowl contenders going forward (this knocks out the Jets, whom I would rank among the top six teams in the NFL once Aaron Rodgers is officially in the fold).
While this year's NCAA tourney has featured the requisite dose of amazing upsets, I don't want to find the NFL equivalent of ninth-seeded FAU or even 16th-seeded FDU; I'm not looking for a group currently on the fringes of contention. I want a team like the University of Miami or San Diego State, who, as No. 5 seeds, were not outlandish underdogs but also weren't likely picked by many to reach the Final Four.
In other words, I want the Cinderella team that makes you say, "Yeah, I should've thought of that originally."
Which is what led me to the 2023 New Orleans Saints.
This team underachieved last season. Not only should the Saints be plenty motivated coming off that 7-10 debacle, but they still have a strong roster, assembled by ace general manager Mickey Loomis. They still have plenty of talent on offense and a defense that ranked fifth in yards allowed in 2022.
The fact that Carr, who signed in New Orleans after being released by the Raiders, remains a polarizing figure among NFL observers is baffling to me. Over his nine NFL seasons, he's proven himself to be a stud. He's a leader. He's clutch. He's the king of the fourth-quarter comeback, with 28 of those so far in his career -- no one in the NFL has had more since he arrived in the NFL in 2014.
The Saints went 5-6 in one-score games in 2022. Think of how much better their record might have been with Carr working his magic under center.
The 32-year-old Carr is also tough. Consider everything he went through during his time with the Raiders, including a franchise relocation, the Antonio Brown saga in 2019 and an especially rocky 2021, during which Jon Gruden's second Raiders tenure came to an ignominious end. Several poor draft classes failed to boost the roster. Carr worked with many different quarterback coaches and offensive coordinators.
The stability he'll find in New Orleans is special. When Dennis Allen, the longtime defensive coordinator (and Carr's first head coach with the Raiders), took over for Sean Payton last year, it marked just the second head-coaching change for the organization since 2000.
To me, Carr consistently ranks between the top eight and 16 quarterbacks in the NFL, which means he's a legit franchise QB. Carr hit the jackpot with the Saints -- and the Saints hit the jackpot with him. Loomis didn't wait on other potentially available quarterbacks, like Rodgers or Lamar Jackson. He struck quick. And he struck gold.
Carr and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael should make beautiful music together; I think Carr will have the season of his life. I feel especially confident considering Carr's supporting cast. He'll have a highly motivated Michael Thomas and second-year stud Chris Olave at his disposal. Loomis talked up Thomas while appearing with me on SiriusXM radio earlier this offseason; I'm not dissuaded by Allen's recent comments that Thomas is "not 100 percent" yet after losing most of the past three seasons to injury. I think Thomas will get back to playing at an Offensive Player of the Year level. And I expect Olave to be a top-15 receiver after he racked up 72 catches for 1,042 yards and four scores as a rookie.
Do-it-all running back Alvin Kamara has topped 1,000 yards from scrimmage in each of his six NFL seasons -- only two other NFL players (Mike Evans and Travis Kelce) have as many such seasons since Kamara entered the league in 2017. There is some uncertainty around Kamara, who is set to go to trial in July after pleading not guilty on charges to conspiracy to commit battery and substantial bodily harm. But newly signed touchdown machine Jamaal Williams helps provide depth at the position. Speaking of depth, there is plenty at receiver, tight end and the offensive line.
The Raiders' defense finished 21st or worse in all but two of Carr's seasons with the team -- and they never got higher than 14th. He'll think he's in heaven in New Orleans, working with a top-10 difference-making unit. Even after losing some pieces in free agency, the Saints' D is loaded at every single level, from the Cam Jordan-led pass rush to Demario Davis and the tackling machines at linebacker to the diverse and deep defensive backfield.
Loomis is a gem. He works the salary cap brilliantly. He, Payton and Drew Brees built the Saints into a consistent winner. The 9-8 finish in Payton's final season in 2021, followed by a transition year under Allen in 2022, will look like bumps and blips in the grand scheme of things.
With an offseason centered around the acquisition of Carr, Loomis made sure of that. And based on the Saints' recent hit rate with prospects (over their past six drafts, beginning with the banner class of 2017, they've uncovered a raft of productive pros, including Kamara, Marshon Lattimore and Ryan Ramczyk that year and Olave in 2022), I'm confident he'll find a way to further boost the roster in the 2023 NFL Draft.
After rolling out Jameis Winston, Taysom Hill and Andy Dalton at quarterback, the Saints finally have their post-Brees answer at the position. They are going to take the wide-open NFC South in 2023 and win at least one home playoff game. And I wouldn't bat an eye if they reached the NFC title match.
Carr and Co. will drive this Cinderella team to the ball -- and they'll stay well beyond midnight.