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NFL's most overperforming/underperforming units of 2023 season: Lions' attack shined, Eagles' DBs failed

Over the past few seasons, I have been identifying overperforming and underperforming units using a model I created that seeks to measure the difference between preseason expectations and actual game outputs. In order to come up with the preseason expectation rankings, I project each team's win share by unit. Preseason projections are more subjective than postseason win-share metrics, as the preseason rankings blend more certain factors (veteran personnel, free-agent signings, salaries) with less certain clues (how the new draft class is likely to impact production, how injuries will come into play). Actual game outputs are calculated based on the unit's actual win share in each game played. (Reminder: My win-share figure is defined as the measurement of how each player, position group and side of the ball impacts a team's ability to earn first downs and touchdowns, as related to wins. And yes, these can be negative.)

The whole point is to apply structure with as little bias as possible in order to interpret on-field production through the actual situations that led to specific outcomes. And then, for the purposes of this exercise, I compare the final figures to preseason expectations. The goal here is to identify the units with the biggest difference between preseason forecast and postseason win share.

Injuries always impact these rankings -- and this season, the quarterback position changed offensive win-share figures more than in any of the previous five campaigns. I try to avoid just listing the teams with tons of injuries here, but it is impossible to entirely escape.

NOTE: Win-share rankings note where a unit/team is positioned league-wide.


Detroit Lions

The Lions' offensive line checked in at sixth in my preseason win-share rankings, and the unit finished at No. 3. So that kind of played out as anticipated, but not everything was so predictable. The run game was a bit of a question mark entering the 2023 campaign, given Detroit's new-look backfield and the fact that head coach Dan Campbell intimated that No. 12 overall pick Jahmyr Gibbs would be slowly integrated into the lineup. Meanwhile, fellow rookie weapon Sam LaPorta was a promising prospect as a high second-round pick, but it was unclear how effective the tight end would be right from the jump. Furthermore, with 2022 first-round wideout Jameson Williams serving a suspension to open the season, it was hard to forecast where production would come from beyond established stud Amon-Ra St. Brown. Well, considering the offense nearly carried Detroit to its first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history, I'd say preseason expectations were indeed exceeded. And with offensive coordinator Ben Johnson recommitting to the Lions for the 2024 campaign, I can't wait to see what this attack can accomplish going forward.

But getting back to this past regular season, Next Gen Stats provides three fascinating notes that help provide valuable context for how this Detroit offense operated. First, the Lions featured the top two players in the entire league when it came to shifts/motions, with LaPorta ranking first (249 snaps with shift/motion) and St. Brown second (220). Secondly, Jared Goff clearly trusted his No. 1 target, as St. Brown earned 741 yards on in-breaking routes (third in the NFL). Lastly, let's finish up by getting back to that dominant offensive line: Goff's sack rate (4.7%) was the third lowest among qualified quarterbacks, trailing only Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

That preseason ranking wasn't on wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. Just want to put that out there. Back at the beginning of September, how many folks anticipated Baker Mayfield leading the Buccaneers to the NFC South title and blowing out the defending conference champion Eagles in the playoffs? Not only did Baker become just the second Bucs QB to eclipse 4,000 yards passing with a 90-plus passer rating (Tom Brady is the other), but he also connected with Evans for seven deep passing TDs (20-plus air yards), which ranked second in the NFL behind only the Tua Tagovailoa-Tyreek Hill combo. He also threw 14 touchdown passes on attempts under 10 air yards during the regular season (fifth most) and generated a +40.5 EPA on these attempts -- the third-highest figure in the league -- with 29 of those tosses going to RB Rachaad White (tops among QB-pass catcher duos).

Bottom line: The Buccaneers crafted a system that worked for their QB, and he executed at a very high level. 

Houston Texans


I have never not isolated a position group -- or at least a side of the ball -- for a team before in this exercise. But I'm making an exception with this Houston squad, which was one of the most surprising stories of the 2023 campaign. These Texans are not only a great example of how drafting the right quarterback and putting him in a position to immediately succeed can abruptly change everything, but also how adding a number of perfect fits on the defensive front -- guys who suit a new coach's strategy -- can also spawn a remarkable turnaround. Houston fielded a complementary team that accentuated roster strengths and minimized weaknesses.

Wunderkind QB C.J. Stroud's NGS report card for the regular season includes an 8:0 TD-to-INT ratio and a 142.8 passer rating on deep passes (20-plus air yards). The probable Offensive Rookie of the Year was a deadly big-play hunter in Year 1. Wildly impressive stuff. And he was complemented by a defense that included a strong candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year in Will Anderson Jr., who finished with seven sacks and a whopping 22 QB hits. And after fielding the most porous run defense in the NFL in 2022 (170.2 yards per game), Houston ranked sixth in 2023 (96.6 ypg), marking the largest year-over-year improvement since the 1980-81 Saints. Oh, and one more nugget because I love it: NGS shows that breakout star WR Nico Collins led the entire league with 399 receiving yards over expected.

The future is exceedingly bright in Houston.

Los Angeles Rams


I just mentioned in the Texans' blurb that I've never spotlighted an entire team before in this exercise ... Well, I'm kind of doing it again here. I am not trying to make a habit out of this, but the Rams were an extremely difficult read heading into the 2023 campaign, seeing how they didn't have a first-round pick (again) and Cooper Kupp began the season in injured reserve, among other factors. Who could have anticipated the rookie campaigns we'd see out of WR Puka Nacua (who struggled with injuries in college), DT Kobie Turner and OLB Byron Young -- not to mention, the transcendent Year 2 from RB Kyren Williams? All of that helped propel a team few believed in to 10 wins and a playoff appearance.

My favorite Next Gen Stats note on Nacua: The rookie ranked second in the entire league in yards after catch over expected with 217, trailing only Deebo Samuel. Meanwhile, Turner led all rookies in sacks (nine) despite playing defensive tackle and facing a double-team rate of 54.1 percent. Williams had the fourth-most rushing yards over expected (109) among 1,000-yard rushers. And one last random tidbit: Computer vision shows that Matthew Stafford had a higher passer rating and completion percentage on downs after a pressured down than in his Super Bowl-winning season.



I know that the difference between the preseason ranking and the final ranking doesn't seem like a lot at first blush. But in this 2023 season -- including the playoffs -- defensive efficiency is significantly more corelated to wins than in the previous four seasons, so you should think of the six-spot jump in the win-share rankings as more like a vault of 10-to-12 slots. Additionally, the Chiefs had the most drops in the regular season and just generally struggled with offensive consistency, which put even more pressure on the defense to hold the fort.

NGS shows that the Chiefs generated the most unblocked pressures (73) at the highest rate (11.3 percent), while also allowing a grand total of +2 yards after catch over expected (ranking second, behind just the Falcons). On third down, they were able to get pressure on opposing QBs at the fourth-highest rate (49.4%) with the second-highest sack rate (16.3%). And of course, when it comes to Steve Spagnuolo's blitz rate, Kansas City ranked fifth (37.5%).

We all know how dominant DT Chris Jones has been for years, but second-year DE George Karlaftis took his game to a new level in 2023 with 55 pressures, a 12.7 percent QB pressure rate and 10.5 sacks in the regular season. As for the secondary, second-year corner Trent McDuffie generated 14 QB pressures from the slot (most in the NFL), while veteran L'Jarius Sneed allowed a league-low -19.2 target EPA as the nearest defender in coverage in the red zone.


New England Patriots


With New England bringing back offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien (who's known for dialing up creative play-action passes), the Patriots expected a bounce-back year from QB Mac Jones (who enjoyed a promising rookie season in 2021, when play-action passes were a key part of the game plan). Furthermore, with high expectations for the rushing offense, there was legit optimism for the 2023 Pats' offense. But the season was an abject failure on that side of the ball, ultimately helping to end the Bill Belichick era in New England.

In 2021, the Patriots incorporated play action on 25.3 percent of their dropbacks, with Jones completing 74.4 percent of his throws, averaging 9.2 yards per attempt and posting a sparkling 108.4 passer rating. In 2023, the Pats incorporated play action on 18 percent of their dropbacks, with Jones completing 62.9 percent of his throws, averaging 7.0 yards per attempt and posting a ghastly 67.5 passer rating. Both Jones and Bailey Zappe posted a negative completion percentage over expected and both threw more interceptions than touchdown passes.

Sixth-round rookie WR Demario Douglas led the team in receiving with just 561 yards, while veteran RB Ezekiel Elliott had the most receptions at 51.

Carolina Panthers

According to Pro Football Focus, Carolina's offensive line ranked fifth-worst in run blocking and sixth-worst in pass blocking. Specifically, though, the interior offensive line was extremely problematic, as best illustrated by Carolina just plain cutting guard Calvin Throckmorton in mid-November -- after he'd started the previous seven games. Ten different Panthers played the left and right guard positions for Carolina in 2023, and it was a revolving door of ineptitude.

This was especially troubling for No. 1 overall pick Bryce Young. According to Next Gen Stats, Carolina yielded the fifth-most pressures (252), which significantly contributed to Young posting the lowest total EPA in the league (-184.0).



According to NGS, the Chargers allowed the third-highest EPA in the pass game (+16.0) and the second-most yards after catch over expected (451). Los Angeles also ranked in the bottom five in yards per attempt allowed (7.7), passing yards per game allowed (249.8) and passer rating against (96.4).

The Bolts cut bait on their blockbuster free-agent addition from the 2022 offseason, cornerback J.C. Jackson, while three-time Pro Bowl safety Derwin James posted the lowest PFF grade of his career (by far).

Brandon Staley, who took over as head coach of the Chargers in 2021 with a reputation as a rising defensive mind, was fired in mid-December.



In 2022, the Eagles ranked in the top five in many pass-defense metrics -- including passing yards per game allowed (179.8, tops in the NFL) and passer rating against (81.6, third) -- while yielding just a 22:17 TD-to-INT ratio. This season, they allowed a whopping 252.7 passing yards per game (ranking 31st), a 97.6 opponent passer rating (29th) and a 35:9 TD-to-INT ratio.

On third down -- obviously a crucial spot for any pass defense -- Philadelphia allowed the most passing yards (1,382) and touchdown passes (15) in the entire league, per NGS.

Atlanta Falcons


As outsiders, we don't have all of the information about what was called or what the intended strategy happened to be. So, to be fair, it's possible some inefficiencies in the run game weighed the aerial attack down even more. That said, this was quite the disappointment. And head coach/offensive play-caller Arthur Smith lost his job, continuing a common theme in bottom half of this piece.

Atlanta's passing offense had a -3.4 completion percentage over expected (ranking 30th) on just 327 receptions (29th). And on third down, the Falcons had a -3.7 CPOE (also 30th). They also took the fewest passing attempts on first down (177), which is interesting, given their explosive personnel.

The good news for new coach Raheem Morris is that RB Bijan Robinson, WR Drake London, TE Kyle Pitts and the makings of a great O-line are all in place on offense.

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