Player development in the NFL isn't always linear. Football is a game with so many moving parts and variables that an individual player's production can ebb and flow over the years. There are so many reasons why some do and don't thrive at the level they could potentially reach based on their talents. With that in mind, here is a closer look at 10 offensive players ready to roll in 2023, thanks to some tiny or massive changes to their football ecosystems.
Face-of-the-franchise quarterback Justin Herbert finally has a new offensive coordinator: it's former Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore! He led productive offenses in Dallas as they boasted a top-five scoring offense in 2022 (27.5 points per game, the fourth-most in the NFL) and averaged 354.9 yards per game. The development of Dak Prescott, who broke the Cowboys single-season passing touchdown record in 2021 under Moore, was "at the center of Kellen's impact," according to Dallas head coach Mike McCarthy, who wanted to take the reigns back and call plays again.
Moore paired with Herbert, who has the most passing yards (14,089) through a player's first three seasons in NFL history and the second-most passing touchdowns (94) through a player's first three seasons in NFL history, will likely lead to many more fireworks at SoFi Stadium. Former offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi's Chargers offense averaged an NFL-low 6.34 air yards per pass attempt last season, woefully underutilizing one of Herbert's biggest strengths. Dak Prescott averaged 8.41 air yards per pass attempt over his four seasons with Moore as his OC, the ninth-most in the NFL in that span. Herbert should see a similar uptick in that department, only strengthening Los Angeles' aerial attack.
The Chargers ranked 13th in scoring offense (23.0 points per game) in 2022 despite having Herbert, running back Austin Ekeler -- the NFL's scrimmage touchdowns leader in each of the last two seasons -- and an outstanding wide receiver duo of Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. That duo has since become a trio with 2023 first-round pick Quentin Johnston (21st overall) out of TCU now onboard. In Moore's four seasons (2019-2022) calling plays for the Cowboys, Dallas ranked second in scoring offense (27.7 points per game) and total offense (391.0 total yards per game) behind only the reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs (28.8 points per game and 401.5 total yards per game). Better use of Herbert's and his playmakers' talents should have Los Angeles' offense playing much more prolific football.
If the Chargers can keep their offensive line and defensive stars -- like Slater, four-time Pro Bowl defensive end Joey Bosa and three-time Pro Bowl safety Derwin James -- healthy, a huge IF given their injury woes the last couple of seasons, Herbert will be thriving in 2023.
Reasons for thriving: Finally named the Cowboys RB1, Ezekiel Elliott is a New England Patriot
The 26-year-old running back earned his first Pro Bowl selection after the 2022 season because of a career-high 1,378 scrimmage yards and 12 total touchdowns. He topped 1,000 rushing yards for the first time, and 75% of his scoring was on the ground with nine rushing touchdowns. Despite Pollard suffering a fractured fibula in the Cowboys' season-ending NFC divisional round playoff defeat at the San Francisco 49ers, Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott completely forgot about Pollard's injury while practicing alongside of him in training camp because of how smooth the running back's rehabilitation process has gone.
"He's [Tony Pollard] been the same guy since he was drafted, and the year he was drafted  was the year Zeke held out," Prescott said at training camp in Oxnard, California on August 17. "Being able to come in then and have such a huge role early in training camp to take all the reps, to pass protect, and to essentially be an every-down back in his first training camp to when Zeke came back, they could get into a duo-tandem type of back rotation. Now, him being able to take this step and have the starting role, he's a true professional. He takes care of his body, he leads by example, and he's the perfect pro for guys to watch his approach. Even coming off of an injury, you don't even think about that, and it's a credit to how he approached his rehab and how he goes about his game. TP is a hell of a back, a hell of a player, and he's going to have another huge year."
Pollard already being at essentially full health is a critical development for the Silver and Blue because when healthy, Pollard is as dynamic with the football in his hands as anyone in the entire NFL. His 5.9 yards per touch led the league among players with at least 200 touches in 2022. Just as notable is that with the Cowboys releasing Ezekiel Elliott -- one of their franchise leaders whose 3.9 yards per touch was dead last in the league among players with at least 200 touches last season -- it's Tony time in Dallas. Despite the contrast in productivity a year ago, Elliott, who was on a six-year, $90 million contract, received 16 more touches than Pollard.
Pollard's backfield mates are now the undrafted Rico Dowdle, 2023 sixth-round pick Deuce Vaughn, and the undrafted Hunter Luepke. San Francisco 49ers Pro Bowl running back Christian McCaffrey totaled 1,880 scrimmage yards, 502 more than Pollard's 1,378, while ranking second in yards per touch (5.7) behind the Cowboys rusher (5.9). McCaffrey had 97 more touches than Pollard (329 to 232) in 2022. If Pollard can maintain a similar yards per touch average on a higher workload, he should be able to to perform like one of the NFL's top five running backs in 2023.
Reasons for thriving: Being the Giants' clear-cut top passing game option in 2022 Coach of the Year Brian Daboll's offense
Darren Waller, who signed a three-year, $51 million contract extension with Las Vegas on the eve of the 2022 regular season, will now be joining the G-Men as one of the more prolific tight ends across the last four seasons. He trails only the last two First-Team All-Pro tight ends -- Kansas City's Travis Kelce and Baltimore's Mark Andrews -- in catches and receiving yards since 2019.
Darren Waller TE ranks since 2019
The Daniel Jones-Darren Waller pairing could create fireworks since Jones had the eighth-highest passer rating in the entire NFL when throwing to tight ends, but he targeted them at the 31st-highest rate in the league last season. Waller could also help unlock Jones' deep ball since he had seven catches of 20 or more yards downfield, the most among all tight ends in 2022 despite missing eight games. The Giants were also one of the top 10 red zone offenses in the NFL a year ago, converting 63.3% of their red zone drives into touchdowns -- the seventh-highest rate in the NFL -- despite not having a go-to big body like Waller's 6-foot-6, 255-pound frame to throw it up to. Safe to say Daboll should have fun with Waller's route concepts.
Waller will become the clear-cut No. 1 option for the Giants, instead of having to fight All-Pro receiver Davante Adams for the spotlight and targets like 2022 like he did in Las Vegas, on a receiving core that includes Isaiah Hodgins, Darius Slayton and Parris Campbell as other likely starters. Everything is lined up for Waller to have a monster 2023 season.
Reasons for thriving: A reenergized Rodgers spent OTAs, minicamp and training camp fully invested in working with his new teammates plus he is fully healthy once again
When the Green Bay Packers, Aaron Rodgers' NFL home of 18 seasons (2005-2022), agreed to send the four-time NFL MVP and Super Bowl XLV MVP to the Big Apple via trade, Rodgers became the best quarterback to ever put on a Jets uniform. That's not an exaggeration.
Aaron Rodgers vs. every Jets QB since 1970 NFL/AFL merger
Seasons with 4,000 pass yards
Seasons with 30 pass TD
Super Bowl wins
However, New York isn't acquiring the Rodgers who played like the league's back-to-back NFL MVP that he was in 2020 and 2021. They're acquiring a 39-year-old version who turns 40 in December after coming off arguably his worst NFL season: His 91.1 passer rating in 2022 was the lowest of his 15-year tenure as the Packers starting quarterback.
Aaron Rodgers in 2022
|CAREER RANK AS STARTER|
Much of Rodgers' 2022 play can be explained by the broken right thumb he played though since the last play of Week 5 -- a 27-22 loss against the New York Giants in London.
Prescott missed five games to heal from a similar injury. Rodgers opted to tough it out and play in all 17 games -- with an improved Jordan Love breathing down his neck -- most of which he had a significant amount of tape wrapped around his thumb and palm on his throwing hand. Watching him throw week to week, it was clear Rodgers didn't have the same laser-like accuracy that has become a staple of his Hall of Fame career. Safe to say it's back now after this perfectly placed jump ball to receiver Garrett Wilson in Gang Green's preseason finale against the New York Giants.
There is also complete offensive synergy between Rodgers and his hand-picked offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, a person Rodgers has also called "a dear friend." There were times last season when Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFLeur and Rodgers weren't on the same page with their offensive vision. That is no longer an issue in Florham Park, so Rodgers is ready to roll once again 2023.
The reigning Offensive Player of the Year (the only New York Jet to win the award) led the entire 2022 rookie class in catches (83) and receiving yards (1,103) while catching passes from the following quarterbacks: Zach Wilson, Joe Flacco, Mike White and Chris Streveler. Wilson, 23, also added four receiving touchdowns. Now, in case you live under a rock, Wilson will be catching passes from future Hall of Famer Aaron Rodgers, a four-time NFL MVP and Super Bowl XLV MVP. Rodgers is now to pepper his favorite receivers with targets, and Wilson should be no different. Rodgers has already compared the second-year player to three-time First-Team All-Pro Davante Adams, his longtime Green Bay Packers top option.
"Yeah," Rodgers said on July 20 when asked if Wilson reminds him of Adams. "Look, I love Davante. I saw him this summer. Davante is in a category by himself still, but that 17 [Wilson] reminds me of the other 17 [Adams] as far as his [Wilson's] ability to get in and out of breaks and his quick twitch at the line of scrimmage, for sure."
Yes, it's only the preseason, but the new Gang Green duo already has their jump ball chemistry down, as evidenced by their 14-yard touchdown against the New York Giants in their preseason finale. Expect Wilson and Rodgers to make similar music all season long.
Reasons for thriving: Having two legit wide receivers in 2022 Second Team All-Pro CeeDee Lamb and Brandin Cooks and the first offense of his career in which the routes and blocking are synched up to his footwork
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott will thrive in 2023 because he'll have a new voice relaying plays into his helmet: head coach Mike McCarthy. He called offensive plays in six seasons as an offensive coordinator for the New Orleans Saints (2000-2004) and San Francisco 49ers (2005) as well as throughout the bulk of his 13 seasons as the head coach of the Green Bay Packers from 2006-2018. McCarthy is invigorating the existing playbook with elements of his foundational West Coast offense, which led Prescott to name Dallas' new offense the "Texas Coast."
New offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer went out of his way to clarify on June 8 the final day of the Cowboys' mandatory minicamp, that many elements of Kellen Moore's attack will remain in place. A logical decision since Moore's offense averaged 27.7 points per game across his four seasons running the offense from 2019-2022, the second-most in the NFL since 2019 behind only the Chiefs' 28.8 points per game.
One of the adjustments in the new system will likely be more up-tempo, no-huddle action, a staple of McCarthy's offenses alongside future Hall of Fame quarterback Aaron Rodgers when the two were together on the Green Bay Packers. Dallas averaged 65.5 offensive plays per game in 2022, a number that ranked as the ninth-most in the NFL. The Cowboys are likely looking to climb into the top-five in that metric in 2023.
"When you can change your pace, you're gonna catch [the defense] off-guard," Prescott said June 7, via the Cowboys' official website. "You want as many at-bats so we'll try to get as many plays as we can, as many chances to make big plays. Lastly, we want to be the aggressors. We want to attack these guys and push the tempo. We just want to make sure that we're dictating the pace and being the aggressors so the team is on our pace and not theirs."
One of the goals of their new offense is to become more efficient, score more points and have fewer turnovers, obviously. Last season, Prescott hindered the offense's efficiency by co-leading the NFL with 15 interceptions. Yet, the Cowboys don't see their quarterback as "needing to be fixed" so much as he needs to embrace some of the safety nets the new "Texas Coast" offense will provide.
"He [Dak Prescott] certainly doesn't need to be fixed," Schottenheimer said. "There's no question about that. The guy is a great player, and you guys have watched him more than I have. He's a competitor. He's going to compete and say 'I can make that throw.' He's just got to understand situations in the game, down and distance, and all that stuff and clean up some of the decisions he knows last year that he kind of missed."
Another area McCarthy and Schottenheimer are looking to tie even tighter around Prescott in addition to timing the routes to his footwork is the way they pass-protect him. Prescott was under pressure on 31.4% of his dropbacks in 2022, a number they would like to see decline in 2023.
"When you look at interceptions, there's so many factors that go into it," Schottenheimer said. "The point is the protection part of it of us trying to tighten up some of the pocket and make it a little bit firmer and how we kind of fit our backs into being the sideboard for different whether you're sliding protections, things like that. ... That's more of a philosophy for Mike [McCarthy] and I that we've been around. [Offensive line coach] Mike Solari and I've been together a couple different times. That is something that we've definitely worked towards doing .I feel like we've come away with not only just the right answers, and fits for blitzes, everyone talks about blitzes and how you block those up, but just even in a four-man rush. Whether you're sliding or whether you're in a pocket declaration, we block into how you fit the pieces together. If the backs are involved, or whether they're blocking someone who just fit in through a gap, they're always involved, and we definitely want to play in a physical mindset in all protections issued."
Given those schematic adjustments plus the trade acquisition of Brandin Cooks, whose six career seasons of at least 1,000 receiving yards are tied for the third-most in the NFL since he entered the NFL in 2014, trailing only Buccaneers wideout Mike Evans (nine seasons) and Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce (seven) in that statistic, Prescott is set up for rousing success in 2023.
Reasons for thriving: System continuity under head coach Doug Pederson, a true WR1 in Calvin Ridley
The primary reason why the Jaguars are the prohibitive favorites to repeat as AFC South champions is because of Trevor Lawrence's continued growth under Pederson. Going from having Urban Meyer as his head coach to Pederson launched his production into another galaxy. Lawrence threw 12 touchdowns and 17 interceptions, the third-worst TD-INT ratio in the entire NFL, which led to a 71.9 passer rating, the second-worst in the entire NFL as a rookie in 2021. Following the signings of receivers Christian Kirk and Zay Jones, plus tight end Evan Engram in addition to Pederson's arrival, he became a top-10 quarterback with a top-five touchdown-to-interception rate (25-8, tied for the fifth-best) and the 10th-best passer rating (95.2).
Lawrence's dramatic progression is historic among quarterbacks who have been in his shoes: his passer rating increase of 23.3 points is the second-highest jump among first overall pick passers from their first to second seasons in NFL history. Only Hall of Famer and four-time Super Bowl champion Terry Bradshaw progressed more quickly than Lawrence from his first to second season.
Now, imagine how much better Lawrence could be with system continuity in regards to the playbook entering his second season with with Pederson, third in the NFL overall, plus the addition of Calvin Ridley, a 28-year-old receiver who ranked top five in receiving yards (1,374) back in 2020 (the last full season he played). Ridley only played five games with the Atlanta Falcons in 2021 before stepping aside to focus on his mental health, and he was out for the entire 2022 season because of a gambling suspension. Before the essentially two-year layoff, Ridley was one of the league's best pass-catchers. Entering the 2021 campaign Ridley was in a six-player club of guys with at least 3,000 receiving yards and at least 25 receiving touchdowns from 2018 (his rookie year) to 2020. His contemporaries in this group were Davante Adams, Travis Kelce, Mike Evans, Tyreek Hill and Tyler Lockett.
Early on Jacksonville's offseason, Ridley was wowing coaches and showing he can still be a top-tier WR1.
"I've been really impressed with Calvin," Jaguars offensive coordinator Press Taylor said on May 22. "I've watched every snap Calvin's played in the NFL, just like a lot of our guys have. So we're very confident in the player we're getting. And then to be able to meet him in person, we've had a lot of people that vouched for him, obviously going back to when we acquired him, but the work he's put in this offseason has been impressive just in terms of meeting the extra work he does. And you can tell he is doing it because he comes in the next day, he's got his list of questions, and they're very thought-out. You can tell he's peeked ahead of the install or just looking a couple of days ahead as we go on. So he's done a great job, just intermixing with the group and making his own role."
A revived Ridley alongside a confident, comfortable Lawrence could lead to the 2021 first overall pick reaching new levels of production.
Calvin Ridley is going to have 30 catches on speed outs and outs alone— Ted Nguyen (@FB_FilmAnalysis) August 30, 2023
Trevor has love throwing these since his freshman year and with Ridley’s ability to cut with speed, it’ll be very tough to cover
3 of Ridley’s 5 preseason catches were on outs pic.twitter.com/aYvmtatioq
Reasons for thriving: A quarterback upgrade and a healthy, legitimate receiving threat on the other side
Chris Olave was on pace to top former Ohio State Buckeyes teammate Garrett Wilson for Offensive Rookie of the Year before a hamstring injury sidelined him for two games. He had to "settle" for 72 catches and 1,042 receiving yards in addition to four receiving scores. His catches and receiving yards were second in the 2022 rookie class, trailing only Wilson.
However, his underlying metrics indicate he could be in for a bigger season in Year 2. Olave averaged an incredibly efficient 2.42 yards per route run in 2022, the seventh most in the NFL among the 127 players who ran at least 300 routes last season. The only players who averaged more yards per route run than Olave from that group in 2022 were First-Team All-Pro Tyreek Hill (3.21), 2022 Offensive Player of the Year Justin Jefferson (2.62), Pro Bowler A.J. Brown, speedster Jaylen Waddle (2.59), Pro Bowler Stefon Diggs (2.50) and 2022 First-Team All-Pro Davante Adams (2.46).
Olave also received an upgrade at quarterback, going from Andy Dalton and Jameis Winston to four-time Pro Bowler Derek Carr, the Raiders all-time leader in passing yards (35,222) and passing touchdowns (217). Michael Thomas, who has played in 10 games since 2020, is also supposedly entering the upcoming 2023 season, and his presence should help pull coverage away from Olave.
Reasons for thriving: An improved offensive cast opens up more room to run
Dameon Pierce was the hub of the Houston Texans offense in 2022 because of a woeful aerial attack. The 2022 fourth-round pick ranked eighth in the entire league in rushing yards per game (72.2) and third in tackles avoided (79, trailing only Josh Jacobs' 103 and Nick Chubb's 97). With the extra room to run provided by the additions of 2023 second overall pick C.J. Stroud, wide receiver Robert Woods, tight end Dalton Schultz and offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik's Shanahan-style zone-blocking scheme, Pierce could thrive in a big way in 2023.
Reasons for thriving: Being completely on the same page with his quarterback for the entire season
"If he [Aaron Rodgers] doesn't trust you, he's not going to throw you the ball, I promise you that," New York Jets wide receiver Randall Cobb said on the third episode of "Hard Knocks," via Bleacher Report. "He does not like throwing interceptions. If he doesn't trust you're going to run the right route, he's not going to throw it."
Christian Watson learned this truth the hard way in Green Bay in 2022 after having an ugly drop on his first throw from Rodgers in Week 1 against the Minnesota Vikings, dropping what would've been a 75-yard touchdown. It took Watson until Week 10 against the Dallas Cowboys, when he broke out with 107 receiving yards and three touchdowns on four catches in a 31-28 overtime victory, to earn Rodgers' trust. From there, he exploded, finishing the year with nine scrimmage touchdowns.
The nine touchdowns were tied for the most among all rookies with Seattle Seahawks running back Kenneth Walker III. They were also tied for the fourth most in the entire NFL among all wide receivers with a few of the league's best: the Vikings' Justin Jefferson, the Bengals' Ja'Marr Chase, the Cowboys' CeeDee Lamb, the Browns' Amari Cooper and the Seahawks' Tyler Lockett. Watson's seven receiving touchdowns from Weeks 10-18 were tied for the third most in the entire NFL with former Packers great Davante Adams.
Being on the same page with Jordan Love from the get-go in Year 2 after working closely with him all offseason could mean more fireworks for Watson in 2023.