“Heck of a game.” – Del Griffith
And it actually WAS one heck of a game. The 2022-23 Super Bowl was indeed entertaining, featuring an epic second half comeback by hobbled QB Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs against the game and responsive Philadelphia Eagles, culminating in a 38-35 Chiefs victory, a fitting end to a very watchable 2022 season.
In the AFC North, oddly, all four squads have reason to feel optimistic and hopeful for their chances of success in 2023. Lest we be reminded, no team is perfect and flaws may not be evident at this point; real analysis begins when training camps end, which will be roughly seven months from now. Until then, speculation is king.
So, some final observations and speculation about our beloved teams and their direction in 2023. Enjoy.
The offseason will surely be dominated with the same tired recriminations the Ravens weathered all of 2022 – when will they sign QB Lamar Jackson to a long-term deal? The sports media machine will lose a lot of daily material if and when this happens, as some programs – ESPN’s “Get Up”, for instance – dedicate significant time every day to “analysis” of Jackson’s potential contract and his supposed demands, which have never been publicly stated. In some ways, these reports alternate between laughable and pathetic in their obvious pandering for attention; takes like “here’s why you shouldn’t assume Jackson will sign in Baltimore” get rather tiresome and are, as implied, rolling with baseless speculation without any input from the parties involved in negotiations. The Ravens have indicated their intent is to apply the franchise tag to Jackson in any event, which will happen on or before March 7, ensuring significant draft compensation if Jackson signs elsewhere and also ensuring the team can match any prospective offers he receives.
The team still has plenty of other roster decisions to make. The defense has several questions and could use a real infusion of depth at every level. The team is expected to jettison some high-priced veterans; CB Marcus Peters will be a stretch to re-sign, DT Michael Pierce is simply incapable of staying healthy, and DEs Justin Houston and Calais Campbell aren’t exactly surpassing their youthful personas these days, despite the fact both have indicated they’d be open to a return. WR remains the team’s biggest gap, as has been the case almost every season of this franchise’s puzzling offensive existence. Will they finally resolve it this year?
My magic 8-ball says it’s doubtful.
Speaking strictly from a football perspective, media-embattled QB Deshaun Watson did little to quell his haters and doubters in his limited 2022 appearances, and we truly won’t know what he’s capable of until he experiences a full training camp and preparation with the Browns. Two years of rust is considerably daunting, and Watson hasn’t engendered much goodwill, even in his own fanbase. Needless to say, a successful 2023 hinges on his continued acclimation and avoidance of further legal issues. Simply put, “The world is watching”, especially in light of the fully-guaranteed $230 million the Browns owe him.
Outside of Watson, there’s a lot to appreciate in Cleveland. RB Nick Chubb remains the proverbial wrecking ball he’s always been; regardless of what Watson does, any offense should be keyed off Chubb’s significant presence and contributions. Head coach Kevin Stefanski seemed to forget that at crucial times, to the team’s obvious detriment. Outside of Chubb, the team boasts solid talent at every offensive level – WR Amari Cooper, TE David Njoku, and an unheralded but very good offensive line all should play key roles going forward.
The Browns’ 2023 draft should skew heavily towards defense, as depth is an issue in places. Star DE Myles Garrett will obviously again be the defensive linchpin, but there are significant gaps around him, especially with the assumed departure of fellow DE Jadeveon Clowney. The secondary appears set with CBs Denzel Ward and Greg Newsome II and safeties John Johnson III and Grant Delpit, who came into his own in 2022. The LB corp is in need of a significant upgrade, with WLB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah the lone consistent playmaker there (when healthy).
The Steelers made some strides in the latter half of the 2022 season, as rookie QB Kenny Pickett found his NFL footing and cut down significantly on his turnovers, which is generally the biggest challenge for young passers. Pickett showed some mobility as well; the team seems to feel confident he will continue to develop and offer the sort of multi-threat package at QB most teams seem to be favoring these days. Pickett’s supporting cast has a few budding stars, but there remain obvious gaps on offense the team will surely look to the draft to fix, especially on the offensive line. RBs Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren provide a decent threat at RB, and WRs George Pickens and Diontae Johnson have the ability to open up significant parts of the offense and TE Pat Freiermuth has shown himself to be an effective possession target, but all suffered from a lack of time to engage – a direct implication of the offensive line’s inability to carve out rushing lanes or give Pickett time enough to move through his progressions. It should be noted that the team improved in this area as the season wore on, but significant help is still needed.
Defensively, the team outperformed expectations, especially in light of star LB T.J. Watt’s injury absences. In a familiar refrain, the team could use depth – couldn’t everyone? The area most in need would probably be at CB, where the Steelers have had notable drafting problems. While the Steelers don’t typically dabble in free agency much, this is the lone area they should consider, since they currently boast enough salary cap space to spend a little if needed. The team’s slate of LBs outside of Watt isn’t particularly frightening and could stand some additional pieces in the rotation. The defensive line could use some extra hands beyond DT Cam Heyward, whose age has to be considered at this point.
If the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that the Bengals are talented. They’ve drafted well, even outside of their obvious selections of QB Joe Burrow and WR Ja’Marr Chase in successive years, both of whom were coveted prospects across the NFL. Their playoff drives, which featured the franchise’s first playoff wins in 31 years, have been fueled in no small part by both players, fulfilling their extensive draft promise. This team has developed starters at every level and sprinkled in a few key free agents during these title runs; the real consternation will begin when the franchise has to pay those “home grown” players, as several will be lost through free agency, and the Bengals aren’t known for their generosity in player negotiations.
The key, of course, is Burrow, and the team is assumed to be considering tendering him a new, potentially record-breaking contract this offseason. He’s earned all-pro honors two of his three active years and added a Super Bowl appearance; in most places, that would be enough to reset the quarterback salary market. In Cincinnati, it remains to be seen. Fans surely remember the team’s gradual roster decline after signing former star QB Carson Palmer to a pricey long-term deal. While Burrow has enjoyed greater success than Palmer, the same ownership group remains in charge. Bengals fans, commence worrying.
The rest of the team, as currently constructed, presents few weaknesses. They could probably use a new starter at RB; lead back Joe Mixon remains inconsistent and underused, and backup Samaje Perine, while a solid third down and short yardage option, scares few. Some draft investment here is probably in order. The back end of the defense, especially at LB, needs help; outside of WLB Logan Wilson, there’s little to be excited about. The team addressed the secondary in the 2022 draft, and while rookies Daxton Hill and Cam Taylor-Britt didn’t instantly shine, they showed enough to perhaps push the need for further CB depth down to later draft rounds.
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So, I’m outta here for awhile, at least for writing purposes.
It’s been a pleasure, but my desire to digest or express anything related to football is at a marked low. Look for new chat boards to drop every month or so. They might not contain my tidbits or snark, but it’ll be something to keep you busy.