In The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha provides a snapshot of the hottest stories and trends heading into Week 10 of the 2023 NFL season, including:
But first, it's midseason awards time! ...
We've reached the halfway point of the 2023 NFL season, and it's apparent that this year has been markedly different than what we've come to expect. For one, defense is ruling the day. Winning ugly is becoming a more constant sight, and the idea that a dominant team exists is pure foolishness. This league arguably has never been more wide open. There are at least 10 teams that could make a legitimate run at a championship.
With that in mind, the opening section of this edition of The First Read examines what we just saw over the previous nine weeks. Awards are handed out, but not for the categories you've become accustomed to seeing. Some choices were obvious, others difficult. All were fun to think about.
Without further ado, here are The First Read's midseason awards for 2023.
Scariest team: Baltimore Ravens. Nobody in the league has looked more impressive than Baltimore. Lamar Jackson is playing at an MVP level in an offense that is finally showing the promise that came with the change to new coordinator Todd Monken. Defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald has blossomed into a rising star behind the strength of a unit that has become the league's best. Of course, head coach John Harbaugh already has one Super Bowl win and a secure place as one of the best coaches of his era. If that weren't enough, the Ravens are straight-up kicking tail these days. We can all agree that Detroit and Seattle are two of the best teams in the NFC right now. Baltimore beat those squads by a combined score of 75-9. This isn't Alabama vs. Bethune-Cookman. These are good NFL teams getting bullied in games they expected to compete in. This is what gives Baltimore the edge over teams like Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Kansas City. When the Ravens have turned it on this season, they've gone to levels nobody else has reached thus far.
Most impressive coaching job: Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Steelers. It's tempting to select Robert Saleh, given everything he’s done with the New York Jets in the absence of quarterback Aaron Rodgers. It just makes more sense to give Tomlin some love for what he's done in Pittsburgh. The Steelers are 5-3 with an offense that is feeble at best. They're the 34th team in NFL history to be outgained in each of their first eight games -- and the only member of that dubious group to produce a winning record during such an unimpressive stretch. How are they doing it? It's simple: They have one of the best head coaches this league has ever seen. Nothing about the Steelers is threatening except for the way they prepare and somehow execute in critical moments. A lesser-coached team would be in the running for a top-five pick in next year's draft. This group has a legitimate shot at a playoff spot because of the man leading them.
Best return on offseason investment (offense): Derek Carr, QB, New Orleans Saints. Carr hasn't been exceptional in his first season with the Saints, but this franchise also didn't need him to be that. New Orleans simply wanted a quarterback who could be reliable, which is what Carr has supplied lately. The Saints had an especially rough stretch to start the year, scoring just 62 points combined in their first four games. But they've averaged 26.6 points over their last five games, with Carr playing his best football. He's completed at least 69 percent of his passes in the Saints' last three wins -- including Sunday's 24-17 victory over Chicago -- and he's amassed six touchdowns and no interceptions in those contests. That's plenty good enough to get it done in the NFC South, where Carr is easily the best quarterback in the division. There are other players worth consideration in this category (like Philadelphia running back D’Andre Swift and Chicago wide receiver D.J. Moore), but it's hard to compete with Carr's overall importance. The Saints have struggled at this position since Drew Brees left town. Carr is giving them a chance to be a playoff contender once again.
Best return on offseason investment (defense): Bobby Wagner, LB, Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks have seen legitimate bank for their buck with Wagner's return to the franchise. The 33-year-old linebacker signed a one-year, $5.5 million deal in the offseason, the kind of contract that suggested he'd be more valued for his intangibles than his on-field play. Look at him now. Wagner ranks among the league leaders in tackles. He's leading a defense that struggled mightily last season (especially against the run), helping transform it into a unit that ranked 11th in points allowed heading into Week 9. He's also doing the same impactful things he did during his first 10 years with the Seahawks, showing younger players how to be true professionals. Wagner is at the point of his career when he should be slowing down. At this rate, it's hard to know exactly when that's going to happen.
Best player nobody saw coming (offense): Puka Nacua, WR, Los Angeles Rams. It already feels like Nacua has a pretty strong shot at NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, though obviously Houston quarterback C.J. Stroud appears poised to give him a real run. Nacua simply has done things we've never seen first-year receivers do. No player in league history has ever had a better start when it comes to catching the football -- his 39 receptions and 501 yards were the most in anyone's first four career games -- and he hasn't slowed down much since Cooper Kupp returned from a hamstring injury. Nacua has 64 receptions and 827 yards after Sunday's loss in Green Bay. He's also effectively reminded everyone that the Rams' Super Bowl win a couple years ago wasn't solely about a celebrity-laden roster. This team has thrived on finding players on the second and third days of the draft; Nacua, a fifth-round pick in April who never amassed more than 48 receptions in any of his collegiate seasons, is one more example of that.
Best player nobody saw coming (defense): DaRon Bland, CB, Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys were supposed to be in a huge bind when All-Pro cornerback Trevon Diggs sustained a season-ending knee injury in practice prior to a Week 3 loss to Arizona. As significant as that setback was, it also created an opportunity for Bland to display more of what he can offer. The second-year pro has already shown the same penchant for turnovers that turned Diggs into a star. Bland has returned three interceptions for touchdowns already this season, which is a franchise record. He also picked off five passes as a rookie last season, when injuries forced the former fifth-round pick into extended playing time. The beauty of Bland is that he's been effective playing in the slot and on the outside, which gives defensive coordinator Dan Quinn critical flexibility with his schemes. The Cowboys knew they had a promising talent when Bland was in Year 1. He looks more like a hidden gem with each passing day.
Most improved player (offense): Zack Moss, RB, Indianapolis Colts. The Colts have endured their share of problems on offense, including the shoulder injury that ended the season of rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson. Moss has been one of the bright spots for a team that probably wasn't anticipating him being one of the league's top rushers at this stage of the season. That's exactly where Moss sits, as he came into Week 9 ranked third in the league in rushing. He now has 615 yards on the year, which is more production than he ever generated in any of his first three seasons (the first two-plus of which were spent in Buffalo before the Bills sent him to Indianapolis at last year's trade deadline). Moss was a solid player in Buffalo. He's been a revelation for the Colts, a blue-collar ball carrier who's equally adept at banging between the tackles and contributing as a receiver out of the backfield. Moss was able to jump out to a fast start because star running back Jonathan Taylor was hurt. He's surely done enough to deserve his share of touches with Taylor back in the mix.
Most improved player (defense): Geno Stone, S, Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens had planned on having Marcus Williams thriving at safety this season. Instead, they've watched Stone produce a breakout season while Williams has battled a torn pectoral muscle and a hamstring injury. Stone hasn't just stepped in and stabilized the back end of the Baltimore defense; he's leading the league with six interceptions and making a pretty strong case for Pro Bowl consideration. Stone also has earned his success the hard way. His career has included being waived (twice as a rookie in 2020) and spending time on Baltimore's practice squad before thriving as a special teams player who showed promise while filling in for an injured Williams last season. Stone was good enough to play in three-safety looks when this season began. His performance with Williams sidelined proves that he's even better than the Ravens ever imagined.
Best assistant coach (offense): Brian Johnson, Philadelphia Eagles. For all the scrutiny Philly's offense has received in the first half of this season, the Eagles are still doing a pretty damn good job on that side of the football. Johnson is a huge reason for that, as he moved into the offensive coordinator post after Shane Steichen moved on to become the head coach in Indianapolis. Entering Week 9, the Eagles ranked third in the league in both total yards and scoring. They joined the Miami Dolphins as one of only two teams to rank in the top seven in both rushing and passing yards. If you want to take it further, no team had more first downs, a better third-down conversion rate or fewer penalties in that span. Yes, we get it. The Eagles haven't been as consistently dynamic as they were last season, and quarterback Jalen Hurts hasn't been as spectacular. But aside from Miami, no team has played better offensively than this bunch.
Best assistant coach (defense): Mike Macdonald, Baltimore Ravens. This has become a year when defense is taking center stage again, and nobody is creating more havoc than the Ravens. Baltimore has surrendered the fewest points this year (an average of 13.8 per game) and the second-fewest yards (262.6). The Ravens also have been proficient at creating pressure, as their 35 sacks top the league. Macdonald is even getting career years out of role players like Stone and defensive tackle Justin Madubuike, who has 7.5 sacks. This is a unit that is strong on all three levels. There are other defensive coordinators enjoying a great year, like Jim Schwartz in Cleveland and Steve Spagnuolo in Kansas City. Macdonald beats them with the sheer consistency of his unit every week.
Stroud continues to impress in his first NFL season. He threw for 470 yards and five touchdowns against the Buccaneers on Sunday, leading his offense to a game-winning scoring drive in the final minute of a 39-37 win. The No. 2 overall pick now has thrown 14 touchdown passes against just one interception on the year. More importantly, Stroud has led Houston to a 4-4 record, giving the Texans a real shot at making a run at a playoff spot in the second half.
The Chiefs have their best defense of the Patrick Mahomes era and Spagnuolo is making the most of his resources each week. Only one team has scored more than 21 points against Kansas City all season. Miami boasts the league’s top offense, but the Dolphins managed just 14 points in the Chiefs’ win in Germany on Sunday. The difference in that contest turned out to be a forced fumble caused by cornerback Trent McDuffie that safety Bryan Cook ultimately returned 59 yards for a touchdown. You also could argue that Kansas City won at least two other games in the first half of this season because its defense was equally clutch.
Moore came into Sunday’s game against Carolina with one interception this season. He finished the contest with a franchise-record two pick-sixes, one that went for 49 yards and the other for 66. Moore damn near outscored the Panthers by himself in a 27-13 win, helping Indianapolis shed the frustration of surrendering 114 points in its previous three games.
Miami quickly has become the most confounding team in the AFC. McDaniel knows how to get his squad going against lousy teams, as the Dolphins are undefeated and averaging more than 40 points per game versus opponents with winning percentages below .500. They have yet to beat a team with a winning record, and the Chiefs just added to that frustration in Germany. There’s a lot to love about McDaniel’s offensive creativity and the overall explosiveness of his team. The problem is the Fins officially have a habit of wilting in the big moments. It’s up to their coach to figure out how to change that before the postseason arrives.
All the skeptics who questioned whether Pollard was too light to handle a bigger role in Dallas' backfield are smirking these days. He hasn’t rushed for more than 53 yards in any of his last five games (he had only 51 in Sunday’s loss to Philadelphia) and is averaging 4.0 yards a carry (after picking up 5.2 per attempt last season and 5.5 in 2021). Then there’s this nugget: Pollard hasn’t scored a touchdown since the season-opener. The Cowboys still have the entire second half to mine more production out of their star runner, but it’s going to be a tougher challenge than Pollard proponents imagined.
Head coach Brian Daboll has been lording over a train wreck all season -- and it’s only going to get worse. Quarterback Daniel Jones already had missed three games with a neck injury and now he is done for the season after tearing his ACL in Sunday’s 30-6 loss to the Raiders. The Giants already have put backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor on injured reserve, while third-stringer Tommy DeVito hasn’t inspired any optimism with his two appearances. This is an offense that is last in the league in points scored (11.2 per game) and yards gained (268.9). The only upside here is that the Giants are likely to have a top-five pick in next year’s draft.
SUNDAY'S BIGGEST SURPRISE
Joshua Dobbs leads the Vikings to victory. Minnesota traded for Dobbs last week after losing Kirk Cousins for the season to a torn Achilles. The Vikings found an immediate return on that investment in Sunday's 31-28 win over the Falcons. Dobbs played efficiently from the pocket (completing 66 percent of his passes for 158 yards and two touchdowns), improvised effectively (running for a team-high 66 yards and another score) and threw the game-winning touchdown pass to Brandon Powell with 20 seconds left. The crazy thing is that Dobbs didn't even start. He only entered the contest after the Falcons knocked rookie Jaren Hall out of the game. But this is also what Dobbs does. He started the final two regular-season games for Tennessee last year after showing up in late December, and then he started the first eight games of this season in Arizona after being traded there on Aug. 24. The Vikings now have their fourth straight win because of the veteran QB's resourcefulness.
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Houston Texans: An old-fashioned shootout breaks out and ends with Houston quarterback C.J. Stroud orchestrating a last-second victory.
- Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles: A classic NFC East showdown closes out with the Eagles' defense delivering.
- Minnesota Vikings at Atlanta Falcons: The Vikings pull out a last-minute win with a backup quarterback who joined the team just a few days earlier.
MOST INTRIGUING GAME OF WEEK 10
Both teams are coming off a bye week, but they're heading in different directions. The 49ers have lost three straight games after opening the year with five consecutive victories. The Jaguars are one of the the hottest teams in football with five straight wins following a 1-2 start. This is a game San Francisco desperately needs to win. If Jacksonville takes it, Doug Pederson's group becomes an even more dangerous threat for the top seed in the AFC playoff race.
A simple ranking of the top five candidates, which will be updated weekly, depending on performance. Here is how it stands heading into Week 10 (with Caesars Sportsbook odds as of 8:30 a.m. ET on Nov. 6):
- Caesars odds: +500
- Weeks in top five: 3
- Next game: vs. Browns | Sunday, Nov. 12
- Caesars odds: +750
- Weeks in top five: 1
- Next game: vs. Texans | Sunday, Nov. 12
- Caesars odds: +500
- Weeks in top five: 9
- Next game: vs. Raiders | Sunday, Nov. 19
- Caesars odds: +250
- Weeks in top five: 9
- Next game: vs. Eagles | Monday, Nov. 20
- Caesars odds: +10000
- Weeks in top five: 2
- Next game: at Chiefs | Monday, Nov. 20
My slowly evolving Super Bowl LVIII pick, which also will be updated each week, depending on performances: Ravens over Eagles.
Previous picks ...
- Week 8: Eagles over Bengals
- Week 7: 49ers over Dolphins
- Week 6: 49ers over Dolphins
- Week 5: 49ers over Dolphins
- Week 4: 49ers over Bills
- Week 3: 49ers over Dolphins
- Week 2: 49ers over Bills
- Week 1: 49ers over Dolphins