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These Promising NFL Players Will Improve Tremendously In 2023

As NFL OTAs start, the first tastes of actual football are permeating the sports world. As teams look to iron out their best selves, players want to do the same. Here are a few prominent NFL guys whose situations will allow them to make leaps in 2023.

Khalil Herbert – RB, Bears

Herbert will be in a similar situation as last year with David Montgomery – splitting time, this time with D’Onta Foreman. This past season, he saw a year where the Bears’ offense wasn’t able to function consistently in any facet. Due to the lack of a strong offensive line and no great passing decoys, running backs were not an effective position group for the Bears.

Khalil has all of the traits people look for in an NFL RB. He has excellent vertical speed, downhill toughness, and the ability to change direction. Already coming off a pretty good sophomore season where he had an impressive 5.7 yards a carry, he will be looking to take advantage of increased usage, a better offensive line – with the acquisitions of Darnell Wright in the draft and various other depth signings. He showed flashes of being able to be effective in the pass game, but ultimately didn’t do much with it, having only nine receptions for 57 yards and a touchdown.

This season, I expect to see more usage from Herbert, and for him to eventually edge out D’Onta Foreman for the RB1 role. In addition, he is primed to be more effective as a pass catcher and in general, get in the end zone a lot more than the five trips he had last year.

Mac Jones – QB, Patriots

Who’s the real Mac Jones in this NFL? Is he the upstart rookie who threw for 22 TDs, remained toe-to-toe with Tom Brady in their head-to-head, and led the Patriots to the playoffs? Or is he closer to last year’s struggling second-year with turnover issues, poor reads, and a lack of explosiveness? Is he somewhere in the middle? Does he have a ceiling much higher than either of his first two seasons?

My bet is on the last of these. Jones, last year, had to deal with a number of hindrances simultaneously that hurt his effectiveness. After a good season under Josh McDaniels, he had to deal with the Matt Patricia experience. After a preseason of play calling “auditions” with Patricia and Joe Judge, Patricia took over the bulk of the play calling and was clearly out of his element. In the NFL, he’s well below average offensively, and putting him on that side was an ill-advised experiment.

Furthermore, he had to deal with a poor offensive line, one that rarely gave him time and space to work with – a unit that was also coached by Patricia. This offseason, the Patriots addressed this in a big way, signing Bill O’Brien to be their offensive coordinator and grabbing Oregon Assistant HC and former Patriot Adrian Klemm to coach the offensive line.

With a true offensive mind calling plays and a more fundamentally sound unit in front of him, the positive traits that define Mac as a player can come to the forefront. He’s exceptionally accurate, has a quick release, is excellent at distributing the ball among a large number of weapons, and is a smart player who can read defenses and pick out the highest percentage plays. In a make-or-break year for Mac, he won’t break, and will rather climb up the NFL QB ranks.

Jeff Okudah – CB, Falcons

If last season was Jeff Okudah’s year to arrive on the NFL scene, this is his year to show that he’ll never leave it. After a rather successful season with the Lions, one where he found his best form late in the season, and was an instrumental part of why that defense was able to elevate, he finds himself an Atlanta Falcon.

Okudah is a corner with a rare combination of physicality and athleticism. He’s able to disrupt routes at the line of scrimmage and then has the speed to keep up with them, even against some of the NFL’s quickest. He uses his hands well, either to directly get to the ball (seven pass deflections and an interception in 2022), or to use disruptive contact while avoiding a penalty.

What Jeff can work on is his predictive ability – he largely relied on his athleticism to keep up with receivers, but if he can start reading the QB and the play, he can improve tremendously in the interception column. This year, Okudah finds himself atop the Falcons CB ladder, and will be leading that secondary. Working with a stellar defensive mind in new Falcons defensive coordinator Ryan Neilsen, he gets a mentor who prioritizes physical, traditional football. I expect Okudah to become one of the NFL’s best this year.

Baker Mayfield – QB, Bucs

Rarely has the NFL world seen a QB with such a large gap between his peak and worst possible levels. It’s impossible to predict which version of Baker will come out at any given week. Last year was the culmination of that, in a season where he bounced in and out of starting roles with multiple teams. The end result was a season where, despite a couple of great games here and there, he was never able to find his footing, and one where he had career-worst marks in yards/attempt, completion percentage, and touchdowns.

I expect that to change this year. While he enters a QB competition with Kyle Trask, it’s a very winnable one, and if anything, that adversity should help him enter a competitive headspace early in the season. Coming from a system in Carolina that has proved to be a hindrance to many QBs in the past, he enters a Bucs offense with decent weapons, particularly at WR with Mike Evans and Chris Godwin to throw to.

In the Bucs’ new OC Dave Canales, Mayfield gains an offensive mentor who led a potent offense in Seattle and just helped Geno Smith have a career year after an up-and-down start to his career. In the right NFL situation, there’s no question about what Mayfield can provide a team. He has a rocket of an arm that’s capable of throwing deep, he’s perceptive, and he has a penchant for the big moments. Lost in the ups and downs is the fact that he has led his team to the playoffs and even won a game – having been at first given a team with a 21-game losing streak.

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