It's time for one of my favorite annual offseason features. I've taken a close look at the playmakers for each of the NFL's 32 teams and ranked them, worst to first, for what they could do in the 2023 campaign, all else being equal.
I say "could" and not "will," of course, because this is a thought exercise. I'm not trying to project which team will have the best offense this season. Instead, I'm trying to separate out a team's playmakers -- its running backs, wide receivers and tight ends exclusively -- to estimate how they would perform outside of their current offense. In other words, if we gave every team an average quarterback, offensive line and playcaller and had them play at an average pace, which would have the league's best offense?
This is a long article, so I won't belabor the point. What I do need to do before we start, though, is go through the rules I used as I formulated these rankings:
This is only about on-field performance for the 2023 season. While I might bring up contractual information or where a player was drafted, the only factors that matter are how we would project a player to perform this season alongside his current teammates. There aren't any concerns about how much it costs to acquire that player or how he'll do in 2024 and beyond.
Obviously, I'll use players' recent performance to help gauge how they would do independent of their surroundings, but it's an inexact science. It's also difficult to do for those rookie draft picks who haven't yet played an NFL snap, so I'm leaning more on pre-draft projections and the round in which a player landed to estimate how they'll do in 2023.
Injury history and suspensions matter. While it's impossible to reliably project an individual player's chances of getting injured in a 17-game season, it seems reasonable enough to use a player's history as a gauge of their potential availability in 2023. I'm not writing anybody off altogether, but it's only realistic to project Michael Thomas to miss more time than Travis Kelce.
For players who are healing from injuries that are expected to impact them heading into the season -- such as Breece Hall or Zach Ertz -- I've tried to factor in reports about when they're expected to return and some element of ramp-up time into my estimates. I've also docked players who are suspended -- Jameson Williams is a notable example -- and made smaller adjustments for players who might face disciplinary action. Given that we don't have any concrete information on who might or might not hold out during training camp, I'm treating all holdout candidates as likely to show up for camp and play.
Wide receivers are weighted more heavily than running backs or tight ends. This one is key. The top of the running back market on extensions of three years or more is Christian McCaffrey, who makes $16 million per year. At tight end, it's Darren Waller, whose extension with the Raiders was worth $17 million per year.
Both figures are less than what Christian Kirk is averaging on his deal. Sixteen wide receivers make more than $17 million per year, and while there's some fuzzy math at the end of his contract, Tyreek Hill is at $30 million per year.
Wide receivers are valued accordingly as a result in this piece, where the most valuable playmakers are guys such as Justin Jefferson and Ja'Marr Chase. I bumped up superstars such as Kelce and Nick Chubb a bit, but there's a handful of wide receivers valued before any running back or tight end. As a result, you'll find that teams that have a superstar receiver (or two) rank ahead of teams that have great running backs or tight ends but lack top-tier wideouts.
The focus is on elite players and a team's top five contributors. While I considered hundreds of players, this article already is going to be long enough without mentioning every backup running back, fourth wide receiver and second tight end. Most teams can find competent players to fill in their roster, but it's harder to find superstars who can win you games on their own. Those players are valued accordingly.
While in general I focused my rankings by considering the top five contributors for each team, where the rankings were close I usually broke ties by considering depth and what a team has in the sixth through eighth spots.
Efficiency matters. I've done my best to try to normalize differences between what players can do and how their team played, which aren't always the same thing. Pace is one key factor. Consider that the Vikings ran a league-high 1,118 plays last season, while the Bengals ranked 31st with 996. At Cincinnati's pace, that would be like the Vikings getting to play nearly four extra games to rack up numbers. That's a product of how Cincinnati's coaches choose to play and the disaster that was Minnesota's defense in 2022, not player skill.
As a result, you'll see a lot of metrics that use averages as opposed to cumulative performance. Two that come up often for receivers are yards per route and target share. Yards per route is the average number of yards a receiver gained when he ran an eligible route, regardless of whether he caught the ball or was even targeted on the play. Target share is the percentage of the time a pass-catcher was targeted when he ran a route. Neither stat is perfect, but each will help us get a sense of whether a receiver was able to create opportunities when he was on the field.
With that all out of the way, let's get to the rankings. If you've read along the past couple of years, you've noticed a team consistently finish at the bottom of the charts. Well, if you were looking for something new at No. 32, you're going to be disappointed ...