1) Anthony Richardson, QB, Indianapolis Colts
Are you ready? The Colts are. We haven’t seen a quarterback this dynamic enter the league since Cam Newton. Richardson can run past players, through them, or hurl the ball 60 yards downfield.
In Indy, he’s landed with the ideal coach for his game. Shane Steichen was the architect of the Eagles’ vaunted power-spread offense, which helped tap into Jalen Hurts’ potential.
Richardson may never reach the down-to-down consistency of Hurts – and he certainly won’t in his first year in the league – but he will bring electricity to a flaccid Colts roster. Every week will be box office.
2) Jalen Carter, DL, Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles have the most loaded roster in the NFL. In Hurts, they have a complete quarterback. Their offensive and defensive lines are overwhelming. They have a top-tier tight end. AJ Brown is one of the game’s true field-tilters at wide receiver. They have one of the top cornerback duos in the league. The only lingering question mark: The spine of the defense.
The Eagles are relying on first- and second-year players to be impact pieces in the middle of the defensive line and at linebacker. There will be growing pains, but Philly are banking that everything will coalesce by the postseason.
Carter is pivotal. He was the best player in college football last season. On a defense dripping in talent, he’s still an outlier – a player with superhuman quicks, size, and strength. Carter will take time to adjust to the every-down rigors of the league, but the highlight plays will be there from the off. If he can find his footing by the mid-point of the season, the Eagles will be confident they can run through anyone in the NFC.
3) Bijan Robinson, RB, Atlanta Falcons
Robinson hype has reached a fever pitch, and for good reason. Robinson is the kind of back who can turn should-be dead plays into positive ones – and who can turn any daylight into a touchdown. He will carry the torch for the new era of running back-receiver hybrids, which could help end the plight of running back pay.
Arthur Smith and the Falcons are betting on a brand of ‘positionless’ football to carry the offense, with receiver Drake London, tight end Kyle Pitts, and Robinson able to flip-flop between the skill positions. It’s tantalizing in theory. In practice, it will come down to how well Robinson can adjust to the league as both a runner and receiver.
4) Bryce Young, QB, Carolina Panthers
Questions about Young’s size and tap-dancing style, and whether they can translate to the NFL, will be ever-present this season. The early showings for Young in preseason – which counts for little – have been encouraging. Young fits the trend of where quarterback play is at and where it’s heading, and he’s surrounded by enough talent (and an outstanding coaching staff) that he could be an above average starter from the jump.
Putting win-the-division pressure on a rookie quarterback is unfair. But the NFC South is lousy, and the Panthers’ defense may wind up being the best single unit in the division.
5) CJ Stroud, QB, Houston Texans
Quietly, the Texans have executed their rebuild brilliantly. After addressing concerns on defense 12 months ago, and plugging in one of the league’s top defensive gurus as head coach this offseason, they turned their attention to the offense.
Houston have poured plenty of resources into a talented, young offensive line that can grow with Stroud. They have just enough playmaking talent around the young quarterback to make his jump to the pros easier.
The Texans are still a couple of years away from being able to compete. But they will certainly be better this year. Stroud’s ceiling is uncertain compared to the likes of Young and Richardson, but he has landed in a good spot to show what he could become.
6) Dalton Kincaid, TE, Buffalo Bills
The Bills traded up to get Kincaid with the 25th overall pick this year, and they’ll want him to produce. This version of the Bills is weaker than the one that started 2022 with such hope – several of the team’s most important players are starting to creak, and the offensive line has weaknesses. The Bills will roll this year as far as Josh Allen is able to carry them.
Outside Allen and Stefon Diggs, the Bills lack a genuine difference-maker on offense. They need Kincaid to be that guy. The history of rookie tight ends is rough; it’s a difficult position to master, with a level of complexity at the pro level missing in the college game. But Kincaid profiles as someone who can make the leap quickly. He’s functionally a wide receiver, someone who can be a mismatch threat in the middle of the field.
Kincaid may never be the all-around, three-way threat (receiver, blocker, flex piece) that offenses crave. But in his rookie season, the Bills only need him to be a plus receiver to give this offense a chance to go toe-to-toe at the top of the AFC.
7) Cam Smith, CB, Miami Dolphins
Jalen Ramsey’s injury was a tough blow for the Dolphins’ defense. Outside the cornerback room, the unit is as deep as any in the NFL. With Vic Fangio joining as the team’s new defensive coordinator, they added the high priest of a style that has taken over the league.
With Ramsey down for at least a few months, there’s pressure on Smith to step in right away. Smith is a walking, talking gambler. He’s a raw cornerback with an idiosyncratic style. But he also just so happens to be a turnover machine. Smith lives in attack mode. In subbing out Ramsey for Smith early on, the Dolphins will be trading out some consistency for volatility. With the other pieces on defense, that won’t be a bad thing.
8) Jalin Hyatt, WR, New York Giants
Hyatt has lethal speed. We’re talking is-my-TV-OK fast. The Giants are in desperate need of a field stretcher on offense if they’re to come anywhere close to replicating last season’s success. Hyatt doesn’t need to be a quality or consistent receiver for the Giants this year. He just needs to serve up two splash plays a game to bring value to Brian Daboll’s offense.
9) Ivan Pace Jr, LB, Minnesota Vikings
Worried about the Vikings defense? Fear not: Pace is on the case.
OK, worry just a little bit – maybe more than a little. It’s hard to find a team with a more ill-fitting roster to the philosophy of their coach. Brian Flores, the team’s new DC, is an evangelist for all-out-pressure. The Vikings cornerback room is a barren wasteland of spare parts. Unless Flores has had a personality transplant, the Vikings secondary will be in trouble.
The burden will fall on the rest of the defense to make up the difference – to pressure quarterbacks at something bordering on a league-leading level that it offsets the rickety secondary.
There will be plenty of pressure on the linebacking corps to help make up that chasm. Step up Pace, a bowling ball in linebacker clothing. He is the rare undrafted player who’s set to play a chunk of snaps in his rookie year. He is likely to start, and if not, at least play two of the three downs. That’s hard on an undrafted rookie. But if the Vikings’ defense is going to be halfway this season, they will need him to be an impact piece early and often.