49ers, Eagles fight for best grade

The Cardinals are a difficult unit to rank with Kyler Murray’s status a bit shrouded in mystery. He has his flaws but is good enough to bump them into the C or B- range if fully healthy. At this stage, I don’t expect him to start Week 1. The Cardinals also employ a few veterans like Zach Ertz and James Conner who are on the deep back-nine of their careers.

Marquise Brown is their lone skill position player who is established as a high-quality starter in the prime of his career. Brown is an underrated player overall and was on a tear prior to DeAndre Hopkins returning from a PED suspension last year. 2023 could be Hollywood’s best season yet as he enters camp the top receiver by a wide margin.

That last part is a roster issue too. Arizona’s second-best receiver, Rondale Moore is a nice role player but is more of a gadget/short area slot-only option. If third-round rookie X-receiver prospect Michael Wilson isn’t ready to start Week 1 — a lot to ask — this is going to be an extremely light (pun intended) room.

The Panthers have lost a ton of talent since the start of last season but did acquire a franchise quarterback prospect in Bryce Young. Counting on rookie quarterbacks to be high-level starters in Year 1 is usually a bad bet but Young has a great coaching staff and solid offensive line to work behind.

The skill position room is another story.

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Miles Sanders is the best player here. He’s a good runner and should be a bit more utilized in the passing game in Carolina than he was recently in Philadelphia. Hayden Hurst is an acceptable tight end but not a difference-maker. If you squint at the receiver room, you can see guys who will fit in solid roles — Adam Thielen the savvy vet chainmover, D.J. Chark the vertical threat — but these free-agent adds haven’t played at their peaks in years and players like Terrace Marshall Jr. and Laviska Shenault have flopped. Unless Jonathan Mingo (I am a fan) is a starter out the gate, this unit is an issue.

The DJ Moore trade was huge for the Bears but this grade is a reminder of just how far they have to go. Moore is a true No. 1 as a vertical X-receiver who can win on in-breaking routes. That’s exactly what the Bears needed. Darnell Mooney would be better as a WR3 but that would require Chase Claypool to step up and be consistent. Not sure we will get that.

Cole Kmet is a solid starting tight end and there is a bevy of options at running back to form a good committee, but there just isn’t a star in either room. Justin Fields made massive leaps as a rushing threat to the point he needs to be considered one of the best mobile quarterbacks in the game. There is still much progress to be made by him through the air, however.

The Packers are so young. Their top-three receivers are two second-year wideouts and a rookie, and they’ll likely start another rookie at tight end. And of course, Jordan Love is a massive unknown at quarterback.

Right now, the Packers have a great starting running back in Aaron Jones and a good change of pace in AJ Dillon. It gets dicey after that. Youth does equal potential, though. If Christian Watson takes another step, Jayden Reed is ready to be a high-volume slot receiver right away and Luke Musgrave bucks the trend of slow-developing rookie tight ends, this unit can be quite good.

All of those “ifs,” however, lead me to go a little conservative with this grade.

The Giants are not in a healthy place with their best offensive player, Saquon Barkley. I think you have to ding them for that. The player they did hand out big money to this offseason, Daniel Jones, deserves immense credit for taking a step last year. He’s still not a top-10 or 12 option at the position but is certifiably a solid starter.

The Giants made some moves to alter the pass-catcher rooms around Jones. Darren Waller was the big-ticket item but he’s a risky bet at his age and with his recent injury history. He could elevate this unit but is unlikely to be a transformative talent. Parris Campbell joins a rotating cast of slot receivers whereas outside, New York is counting on Isaiah Hodgins and Darius Slayton to keep pace with their strong finishes to last season.

The Bucs are a tough unit to grade because they’ve had one of the best wide receiver duos in the NFL in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, but severe questions everywhere else. It’s also fair to say that neither Evans nor Godwin is coming off their best season. Godwin can easily bounce back one year removed from an ACL tear but it’s at least worth wondering if we’re in the early stages of Evans’ decline. 2023 free-agent signing Russell Gage struggled with injuries last year but is a great WR3 option.

Beyond that, the Bucs don’t have a proven quality starter at tight end or running back. Rachaad White wasn’t consistently effective as a runner last year but has a clear runway to the starting job in 2023.

And then there’s the quarterback question.

I just cannot bring myself to believe in the Baker Mayfield/Kyle Trask room the Bucs will field. Mayfield has sunk pass offenses with similar talent to this crew. Trask is a complete unknown.

If the Commanders had a Derek Carr-level starting quarterback, they’d be in the B range. That’s how high I am on the rest of the offense. As it stands, they have a quality “hold down the fort” option in Jacoby Brissett and an unknown in Sam Howell. It sounds like the latter will get the first crack at the starting job and he has a smooth runway to be supported by a quality cast.

Terry McLaurin is a top-10 receiver in the NFL who separates at all levels and has fantastic hands in tight coverage. He’s a No. 1 wideout through and through. Jahan Dotson quietly had an excellent rookie year. Dotson could take a DeVonta Smith-type leap in Year 2 and become a screaming fantasy value.

Curtis Samuel is good enough to be a No. 2 receiver but rounds this group out to form one of the best trios in the league. Logan Thomas is a fine starting tight end.

While I won’t pretend to know how the backfield rotation is going to go, I think they have a solid tandem in grinder back Brian Robinson — who should be better in 2023 after he was literally shot last preseason — and Antonio Gibson as a slasher.

I love what the Falcons have going on offense. The Desmond Ridder uncertainty is the only thing holding them back from an A. I think Ridder can be functional, at least, but I’m sure about the talent surrounding him.

Drake London proved himself to be a star-caliber X-receiver prospect in Year 1 and Kyle Pitts is a dynamic tight end. Bijan Robinson will add juice to the run game and it sounds like they want to use him in multiple facets. Tyler Allgeier might be too good to be a simple backup running back and was an efficient runner as a rookie. The receiver depth is an issue but overall, the high-end talent on this team is too desirable to ignore.

The Lions have a good offense but I have concerns on the margins. They’re counting on a rookie tight end to play a big role and while their running back room should be better in 2023, it’s likely only a marginal improvement from last season’s output. Amon-Ra St. Brown is one of the best power slot receivers in the game and continues to make strides. But this team has zero proven high-quality outside receivers and I am unsure who they’re throwing the ball to 20-plus yards downfield while Jameson Williams is suspended.

Ben Johnson has crafted a great ecosystem and Jared Goff is an above-average starter at quarterback. There are just a few more holes here than the members of the Lions hype machine want to admit.

The Rams are a tough unit to rank because the duo of Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp is nearly unmatched in the league. They are top-10 players at the position and were difference-makers in 2021. Both guys have injury questions and the rest of the skill positions are ok to weak.

I like Van Jefferson as an underrated player but he’s the lone proven receiver behind Kupp. Tyler Higbee is a fine starting tight end and I’d put Cam Akers in that same range among running backs. I can hear an argument that I am overrating the Rams based on two players alone.

I really like what the Saints have going, and it starts with Chris Olave. The 2022 rookie was absolutely sublime when viewed in isolation last year. He’s already a star-caliber route runner and can shred defenses in the vertical game. Everything about Olave’s game screams superstar No. 1 wide receiver. He could be the next Justin Jefferson. While the Raiders unceremoniously dumped Derek Carr, he’s an above-average quarterback who can lift Olave to a mega season.

The rest of the roster has quality players as well. Michael Thomas is a wild card and looked like a declining player last year but he could be a WR2 behind Olave. If not, I am very intrigued by Rashid Shaheed as a John Brown-type of receiver. The tight end tandem is quite good. The running back room has both a solid option in Jamaal Williams and a high upside bet in rookie Kendre Miller if/when Alvin Kamara is suspended.

Dallas Cowboys – B+

The Cowboys have the makings of a top-five offense … again. The receiver room has the potential to be excellent. CeeDee Lamb is a pure alpha receiver who specializes as a slot matchup nightmare but can win at all three positions. Brandin Cooks was brought in to be the speed flanker complement this team desperately needed last season.

The real key is Michael Gallup, who did not have a good season last year but prior to his ACL tear was a strong X-receiver. If Gallup truly just came back too soon last season but is right this year, and Cooks is still good, this trio will be fantastic.

There’s a bit of unproven nature in the tight end and running back room, to varying degrees. At running back, we know Tony Pollard is good but we just haven’t seen him in a feature role over the course of a season. Tight end is up in the air with Dalton Schultz gone. While Dak Prescott is the subject of much nauseating online and TV debates, he’s a good starting quarterback somewhere in the nine to 11 rankings league-wide.

Seattle Seahawks – B+

The Seahawks offense is insanely talented. The wide receiver duo of DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett was already electric and then Seattle went and added the top receiver in the draft in Jaxon Smith-Njigba. What a group. Metcalf is squarely in his prime and has developed with each passing year. Lockett has been the most underrated wideout in the NFL for years and has shown zero signs of slowing down. Smith-Njigba’s strengths complement and complete this unit.

The tandem of Kenneth Walker and Zach Charbonnet has the potential to be murky for fantasy managers but it’s a pair of young backs who should fill the gaps in the other’s skill-set. Even Noah Fant at tight end is a quality start. I was tempted to put the Seahawks in the A-tier but wanted to leave some wiggle room for the risk of Geno Smith taking a step back. I don’t think it happens — I buy his performance from last year — but it should be backed in nonetheless.

Minnesota Vikings – A

The Vikings have one of the best players in the NFL in Justin Jefferson. That goes a long way in this exercise. He’s a transformative talent who makes the entire operation go. He is far from alone on this unit, too. Jordan Addison should bring some juice and separation skills to the WR2 spot. T.J. Hockenson is a top-five tight end and Alexander Mattison is ready to assume the role of a top back.

Kirk Cousins gets plenty of flack but he’s a top-12-level quarterback in the league. He’s a nice fit in this offense.

San Francisco 49ers – A

Easy A grade. Christian McCaffrey is the best player at his position and brings so much to the offense from a rushing, passing and gravitational defensive-attention standpoint. Deebo Samuel is a unique player but an underrated technician against zone coverage — and a YAC monster. George Kittle is an elite tight end. Lastly, I happen to think Brandon Aiyuk can be the best and most valuable player on the offense this year. Players who run routes and separate against man and press coverage like he does as the X-receiver are special.

If I was sure that Brock Purdy was both going to start Week 1 and play at the level he did to end 2022, they’d be in the A+ group. For now, you have to admit the quarterback position is uncertain and that leaves something to be desired for this unit no matter how good Kyle Shanahan is as a play-caller.

Philadelphia Eagles – A+

The Eagles have, for my money, the best wide receiver duo in the NFL right now with A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith. The WR3 spot is pretty light but overall it doesn’t matter much because they have an excellent starting tight end in Dallas Goedert.

The running back rotation is just that: A moving target rotation after the departure of Miles Sanders. However, there are some clear roles available that guys like D’Andre Swift, Rashaad Penny and holdover Kenneth Gainwell can take in the backfield. Philadelphia can more than cobble together a strong ground game with these guys.

Jalen Hurts is the straw that stirs the drink. The run game is mostly built around his ability and he took several leaps as a passer last year. He’s not on the quarterback elite tier but is a top-10 player at the position right now. Depth is an issue for this team but the star power at the top and at quarterback are enough to earn the NFC’s top fantasy-team grade.