Teams across the NFL are gearing up for the 2023 regular season as we head toward the final week of preseason. Of course, as teams sift through their roster, folks will try to identify players who are due for an ascension. This could be a second-year player taking a leap after getting a season's worth of experience under their belt or even a veteran who is in a new situation and looking for a reset.
Below, we're going to look at each AFC team and identify one player who is flying a bit under the radar but could have a massive impact on his club and be a household name by the end of 2023.
The Bills have Super Bowl aspirations this season, but they'll need strong play by their defense to get over the hump. The AFC is littered with top-tier quarterbacks, so seeing a player like 2022 first-round pick Kaiir Elam ascend in Year 2 would be a welcome sight. The Florida cornerback had an up-and-down rookie year that saw him play just 13 games during the regular season due to injury. However, Elam ended his rookie season on a positive note in the postseason. He had a couple of notable plays in Buffalo's win over the Dolphins during Super Wild Card Weekend and then got the start in the divisional round against Cincinnati. Head coach Sean McDermott, who'll be calling defensive plays for the team this season, called that Miami game a "launching point" for Elam. If he can carry that over into 2023 and be a consistent presence opposite of Tre'Davious White, the Bills will be well-positioned for a Lombardi Trophy.
The Dolphins selected the Texas A&M product in the third round of the 2023 NFL Draft. Achane comes to Miami with blazing speed after running a 4.32-second 40-yard dash. Achane does have competition with Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson above him on the depth chart, so he may be a player who sees more reps as the season goes on. That said, head coach Mike McDaniel if he can scheme looks to get him out in space.
The Patriots brought aboard wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster and tight end Mike Gesicki to help the pass-catching unit this season, but a leap from 2022 second-round pick Tyquan Thornton could be what helps take the offense to a different level. He has and new offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien should be able to utilize Thornton's speed, which sets him apart from the rest of the receiver room. On top of dealing with offensive turmoil last season at the play-caller position, Thornton's rookie season also got off to a bad note after fracturing his clavicle in the preseason, which resulted in him being on injured reserve until Week 6. With a healthy start to the season, Thornton is in position to have a bigger role in New England's passing attack.
Of course, all the hoopla in New York this offseason has centered around Aaron Rodgers and his arrival along with a bunch of his ex-Packer friends. That said, don't sleep on former Chiefs pass-catcher Mecole Hardman and what the speedy wideout could bring to this offense. ESPN reported earlier this offseason that Hardman signed with the Jets in part because they promised he would have the ability to expand his route tree. The report also noted that New York believes he has untapped potential on intermediate routes. With Kansas City, the 25-year-old was used as more of a vertical threat, so if New York can unlock a new piece of his game, he'll be that much more dynamic with Rodgers.
The Bengals selected Brown in the fifth round of the 2023 NFL Draft out of Illinois, but don't let that Day 3 selection make you overlook the up-and-coming back. He had a tremendous college season last year, rushing for 1,643 yards and 10 touchdowns while adding 27 catches for 240 yards. Joe Mixon is coming off a 2022 season where he averaged just 3.9 yards per rush. If his downward trajectory continues in 2023, Brown won't simply be the No. 2 back on the depth chart but may rival for the starting spot at some point in the season.
Likely flashed at times last season after the Ravens selected him in the fourth round out of Coastal Carolina. Now that he has a year of experience under his belt, he should be much more comfortable within the NFL, even as he learns a new offense under new OC Todd Monken. Monken would be wise to utilize Likely's athleticism in the passing game. His 6-foot-4, 241-pound frame should be able to create a number of mismatches, allowing he and Mark Andrews to form a lethal tight end duo.
Jaylen Warren was one of the bigger surprises for the Steelers in 2022 after signing as an undrafted free agent out of Oklahoma State. While Najee Harris will continue to be the lead back and get the lion's share of the touches, Warren should see some more work as the No. 2 on the depth chart, especially after a solid showing as a rookie where he averaged 5.6 yards per touch. Warren averaged 6.5 touches last season. Even if that increases to 10 touches, his ability as both a pass-catcher and pure runner should help create a change of pace in Pittsburgh's backfield and keep Harris fresh.
The Browns let Kareem Hunt walk in free agency this offseason, which means 158 touches out of the backfield are up for grabs. While starting back Nick Chubb could factor into adopting some of those touches, 2022 fifth-round pick Jerome Ford could be the main benefactor. Ford saw limited action throughout his rookie season but has quite the opportunity in front of him in Kevin Stefanski's offense. While playing as the No. 2 option to Chubb last year, Hunt saw 123 carries and 44 targets while playing 42% of the offensive snaps. During his final collegiate season at Cincinnati, Ford rushed for 1,319 yards and 19 touchdowns while adding 220 yards receiving and another score. The talent is there for Ford to make an impact in Cleveland's offense and now he's in line for an opportunity to showcase it.
Ridley is the highest-profile name on this list, but I still believe his arrival into the Jaguars offense is falling under the radar just a bit. He was acquired at the trade deadline last season and just recently was reinstated by the league after being suspended for violating the league's gambling policy. Before this issue, which served as a massive speed bump in his career, Ridley was looked at as one of the top receivers in the league, already having a 1,300-yard season under his belt. If the 28-year-old can return to that form, he could have a similar impact on Trevor Lawrence as Stefon Diggs did to Josh Allen and A.J. Brown did to Jalen Hurts, which makes Jacksonville a potential sleeping giant.
Tennessee selected Spears in the third round out of Tulane, and he could very well be a Day 1 impact player. On top of the Titans lacking in the skill position department, Derrick Henry has logged a tremendous workload over the past few seasons, including a 2022 campaign where he registered a league-high 349 carries. At some point, they'll have to ease up on that to keep the star back fresh, which could open the door for Spears to see additional work. On top of being a No. 2 option behind Henry, Spears can be used as a pass-catcher. Already, Spears .
Woods was Indy's third-round draft choice last season and was solid down the stretch. In his last six games, he caught 18 of his 27 targets for 233 yards, which included an eight-catch, 98-yard showing against the Steelers in Week 12. With the Colts selecting Anthony Richardson fourth overall in the 2023 NFL Draft, Woods could end up being one of the go-to options in the passing game. As we've seen with other rookie quarterbacks, they tend to use the tight end as a security blanket, which could be Woods in this situation.
The Texans selected Dell in the third round of the 2023 NFL Draft out of Houston, and the wideout has reportedly been opening eyes throughout OTAs. He's been working with the second-team offense, but if he continues to shine, it wouldn't be surprising to see him push for some reps with the starters. Houston doesn't have an array of pass-catching talent on the roster, which makes Dell's ascent as a rookie even more plausible. During his final collegiate season, Dell hauled in 109 catches for 1,398 yards.
Kansas City is going through a youth movement at defensive end. The club let veterans Frank Clark and Carlos Dunlap go this offseason, which means 2022 first-rounder George Karlaftis is in for a sizable work increase. The Purdue product started all 17 games for the Chiefs last season and piled up six sacks, but he'll likely see even more opportunities to get after the quarterback as arguably the team's top pass-rusher.
It looks like Austin Ekeler will remain with the Chargers despite a tumultuous offseason that featured a trade request. Even as Ekeler may continue to dominate the carries, Spiller should still be a prospect to monitor. He came into his rookie season with a lot of fanfare, but that didn't translate into on-field production. He only appeared in six games and logged 54 yards from scrimmage. That said, Spiller now has a season under his belt and an entire offseason to gear up for his sophomore campaign. Most importantly, the Chargers didn't select a running back at the 2023 NFL Draft, so there isn't a ton of competition around him. Ekeler doesn't seem like he'll be long for L.A. beyond 2023, so the club could give Spiller an increased role in Year 2 to get him ready to ascend to the full-time role in the seasons to come.
The Raiders moved on from Darren Waller this offseason and completely renovated their tight end room. Not only did they bring in O.J. Howard and Austin Hooper, but they also drafted Michael Mayer in the second round. Tight ends have been heavily featured in Josh McDaniels' offense in the past, and Mayer has a skill set that should allow him to flourish. Throughout the pre-draft process, Mayer was commended for his blocking ability, which should allow him to remain on the field with Las Vegas throughout his rookie season. Jimmy Garoppolo has also shown an affinity to throwing to tight ends throughout his career, so the stage is set for the rookie to impress on Day 1.
Dulcich came out of nowhere in 2022 and was a bright spot for the Broncos offense in what was otherwise a forgetful season. He put together several impressive performances after missing the first five weeks of the regular season and is now set up for even more success as the clear-cut starter coming into 2023. He's already drawn praise from new head coach Sean Payton, who has coached tight ends like Jeremy Shockey, Jason Witten, and Jimmy Graham in the past. If Payton can get Russell Wilson back on track, it could be a true breakout season for Dulcich.