Earlier this week, we looked at three teams the general public may be overrating now that the 2023 NFL schedule is out and the market is offering odds on individual games. If pessimism about good teams is your bag, go check it out!
If, however, you would rather talk about unhinged and baseless optimism about bad teams, then you’re in the right place! Today, we’re looking at the other end of the spectrum – the teams that are being underrated by the public at the moment. In many cases, these are “if everything breaks right” sorts of picks, but what else is May for? It’s time to dream about last year’s rookie class making giant sophomore leaps, and about intricate offensive plans working before they hit the cold reality of defenses in September. Here are three teams who should be dreaming slightly above their station, given what the general feel is for their 2023 prospects.
Market Ranking: -2.5 points below average
Someone has to win the NFC South. I know, I know, that sounds crazy, but I checked the NFL bylaws and it’s true. The general feeling among the market is that someone will win by default, with all four teams rated as below average. It wouldn’t be particularly surprising if Atlanta won their division; no matter who comes out is expected to be fairly easy fodder for whoever the top wildcard ends up being.
If there is an NFC South team that might be able to string something together and end up with more than a playoff berth by default, however, I think it’s Atlanta. They’re the one with the live draw at quarterback, as Desmond Ridder was serviceable in limited action as a rookie. After finally getting to start in Week 15, Ridder improved week to week as he got his feet underneath him. He ended up with a 2.7% passing DVOA on the season, but that jumps to 9.1% if you exclude his first start against New Orleans. This lines up with how I viewed Ridder before the draft. Derrick Klassen considered him a first-round-caliber pick, and he wasn’t alone. Yes, I would have liked to see more rushing value, and there were times where his pocket presence was on the lines of “run around in a panic until something happens”, but there were enough positives there that make me want to see more, with a full offseason under his belt as the starter. He, at the very least, looked better than Malik Willis, which counts for something.
And Ridder has talent around him. We can laugh all we want about the Falcons using a first-round pick on a running back, but Bijan Robinson might have the skills to be used like Christian McCaffrey; a wide receiver in running back’s clothing. Kyle Pitts and Drake London are a solid 1-2 punch, and between Pitts, Robinson, Jonnu Smith and Cordarelle Patterson, the Falcons might be able to play some 49ers-esque positionless football this season, moving players in and out of the slot and backfield all willy nilly. That could, theoretically, be exciting – or at least adequate. And they’re working behind a legitimately great offensive line – one that just got better with Matthew Bergeron being drafted. If Ridder can hit average levels in 2023, this offense could surprise people.
I’m less sold on defense, but Atlanta has at least thrown some money at the problem, bringing in Jessie Bates, Calais Campbell, David Onyemata, Bud Dupree and Kanen Ellis. Put it all together, and maybe the Falcons won’t be an embarrassing playoff team – maybe they’ll be an entirely forgettable playoff team! Let’s go Red Stallions.
Market Ranking: +0.1 points above average
And speaking of quarterbacks entering their second season…
Kenny Pickett’s rookie season wasn’t a disaster, but you would hope for more than 6.2 yards per attempt from your first-round passer. You’d also hope that he’d throw more touchdowns than interceptions; these are not super-high bars to clear. That being said, most of Pickett’s interception trouble came early on, before he had settled in. Over the last six weeks of the season, Pickett’s passing DVOA jumped from -11.6% to 1.1%. His accuracy and decision-making both improved, and we saw flashes of what made him a first-round selection in some impressive two-minute drills down the stretch. He has a ways to go, clearly, but if he can continue to build on the progress he made at the end of last year, then the Steelers’ ceiling improves dramatically.
Once again, quarterbacks taking that second-year leap is a great way to find teams that outperform expectations, and if you believe in Pickett, the Steelers are set up well. I like the potential of Pittsburgh using plenty of 12 personnel with Pat Freiermuth and Darnell Washington on the field at the same time. George Pickens has shown he can make fantastic contested catches, though I’d love to see him get open more frequently. Diontae Johnson gets open more than any receiver in the league. Allen Robinson is a low-risk, high-reward signing at this point. Hakeem Butler just tore up the XFL and gives the Steelers another big-bodied target. Isaac Seumalo should help shore up the interior line and provide more room for Pickett and Najee Harris to work. I don’t think this is going to be a top-10 offense, but there are a lot of positive pieces that could pay off. I’m optimistic, if not dancing up and down.
And if the Steelers offense is averageish, a bounceback year from the defense should be enough to make them contenders. The return of a healthy T.J. Watt is huge; he and Alex Highsmith make for one of the better pass rush duos in the league. I’m a bit concerned about the secondary, but the veteran Patrick Peterson and the rookie Joey Porter (and there’s a sentence that makes me feel old as dirt) is promising. And remember, this is a defense that held their last seven opponents (and 10 of their last 12) to fewer than 20 points last season. It wouldn’t take much of an offensive step up for this team to be in contention. Mike Tomlin has never had a losing season as a head coach, and I’m willing to bet he won’t start in 2023.
Market Ranking: -4.1 points below average
It’s not always a good thing for a team to be better than expected.
Tampa Bay’s answer to their quarterback problem now that Tom Brady has retired appears to be “no thanks”. They’re sticking with Kyle Trask, who has all of nine career pass attempts, and Baker Mayfield, who had the lowest QBR in football last season. Tanking may or may not be a thing in the NFL, but that quarterback room screams “hey, how about that Caleb Williams, huh?”. The market agrees, sticking them as the fourth-worst team, ahead of only the Colts, Texans and Cardinals.
The Colts and Texans are starting rookies. The Cardinals’ starting quarterback will likely miss half the season. The Bucs get Mayfield, who…was alright? Once he got out of Carolina? With the Rams, Mayfield had a DVOA of -1.7%, and while that’s heavily, heavily weighted from destroying the Broncos on Christmas, Mayfield has historically shown to be somewhere right on the edge of being a below average, but acceptable, starting quarterback. If your plan, explicit or not, is to be bad enough to have a chance at a Williams or a Drake Maye or a Quinn Ewers or whoever we end up salivating over next April, Mayfield might give you too high of a floor to make that happen. Mayfield certainly didn’t have the benefit of throwing to a group as good as Mike Evans and Chris Godwin last season, after all.
Defensively, the group of Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean, Ryan Neal and Antoine Winfield is a secondary that’s legitimately one of the league’s best, and Lavonte David and Shaq Barrett ahead of them provide a very solid back end of the defense. Do I have questions about the pass rush? Absoutely. Am I concerned that the most promising running back on the roster is probably UDFA Sean Tucker? 100%. But the Buccaneers have more areas of strength than the other teams in that bottom tier of teams expected to be terrible, and that might push them all the way to the heady heights of seven whole wins, especially playing in the NFC South.
…Which, of course, would be a disaster, because it would mean that Tampa Bay doesn’t have an easy long-term plan at quarterback, leaving them in limbo for the immediate future. When your plan apparently revolves around positioning yourself high in the draft, limited short-term success can be a net negative. Honestly, they may have been better off sinking or swimming with Trask – if he succeeds, great, there’s your quarterback situation sorted, and if he fails, then there’s your high draft pick ready to go. But with the roster they have, it’s entirely possible the Buccaneers get stuck in the morass of the below average, and may struggle to pull themselves out.