The Schein Nine

Which NFL players will improve in '23? Dak Prescott, James Cook, Kyle Pitts among GUARANTEED risers

As I say every year around this time, summer is the season of hope in the NFL. Mandatory minicamps spawn chatter of veterans getting back on track, of young players taking a leap. Last season is last season, with the promise of a new campaign coming down the pike.

But when it comes to offseason hype, how do you separate the wheat from the chaff? Which players are truly in position to level up in 2023? Well, I'm here for you.

With optimism running rampant across the league, I'm ready to take my annual endorsement plunge, Schein Nine style. I guarantee the following players improve on their 2022 output in the '23 season.

1
Dak Prescott
Dallas Cowboys · QB

Bang on Prescott at your own risk. I still love Dak. Now, I didn't love Dak's NFL-high 15 picks last season. That was also a career-high for the seven-year veteran, and he reached that total in just 12 games, with a thumb injury sidelining him for five weeks early in the season. But I see the Cowboys quarterback bouncing back in a major way this fall, and not just because of the clean bill of health.


Head coach Mike McCarthy is taking the play-calling reins for the first time in his Dallas tenure, a development I strongly support. Don't get it twisted: I think Kellen Moore -- now the offensive coordinator of the Los Angeles Chargers -- is a fine young mind. But clearly, McCarthy and Moore weren't always on the same page. Now it's McCarthy's offense from stem to stern. No confusion, no conflicting strategies. And seeing how I believe McCarthy is a true quarterback/offensive guru, I really think Dak and the 'Boys will reap the benefits of this change. Not to mention, Dallas acquired WR Brandin Cooks via trade back in March. Brilliant move. CeeDee Lamb actually headlined this file one year ago, and he proceeded to show significant improvement across the board, shattering previous highs in catches (107), yards (1,359) and touchdowns (nine). But Dallas' second-leading wide receiver was Noah Brown, who contributed a ho-hum statistical line of 43/555/3. Lamb needed better support in the WR corps. Cooks provides that. Also, Michael Gallup should be closer to his former self in his second season back from an ACL tear.


I think Dak throws for 4,500 yards and 40 touchdowns while reducing his interception total by at least five. All in all, we've seen a nice body of work from Dak in the NFL. Last season was a blip. It's his time to shine again.

2
Quenton Nelson
Indianapolis Colts · LG

Last season was ... weird. A first-team All-Pro in each of his first three NFL campaigns and Pro Bowler in each of his first four, Nelson started his Colts career on a Hall of Fame track. But last year was strangely ordinary. Yeah, he still made his fifth Pro Bowl, but that was a reputation nod. According to every measuring stick, Nelson was far from elite. By PFF's count, he allowed five sacks -- a higher total than his first four seasons combined (four).


Now, to be fair, everything was a hot mess in Indianapolis last season, with the Colts stumbling to a highly disappointing 4-12-1 season. But Nelson took immediate accountability for not playing up to his standard.


"I gave up a decent amount (of pressure)," Nelson told The Athletic's Zak Keefer back in January. "I need to be better in 1-on-1 protection.


"Everything’s fixable. I plan to have my best year next year. It starts with the offseason. I truly believe I can do that."


And I truly believe in Nelson. With Shane Steichen taking over at head coach and No. 4 overall pick Anthony Richardson poised to receive the reins under center, the Colts could field a devastating ground attack with a healthier season from 2021 NFL rushing king Jonathan Taylor. I can see it now, with Nelson blowing open holes once again as a road-grading force. The man just turned 27 years old this offseason, after all -- he's still squarely in his prime.

3
Jerry Jeudy
Denver Broncos · WR

Speaking of hot messes, the 2022 Broncos didn't exactly meet expectations. Shoot, Nathaniel Hackett didn't even make it through one full year in the big chair, with the head coach fired the day after Christmas and Denver ultimately finishing the season at a disastrous 5-12.


Insert Sean Payton, one of the best offensive minds in football history. If anyone can get Russell Wilson back on track, it's the man who brought the Lombardi Trophy to New Orleans. And if Russ is just cooked, well, Payton aggressively targeted Jarrett Stidham in free agency. One way or another, the new head man is going to produce better quarterback play in Denver, which will redound to the benefit of Jeudy.


Since becoming the highest-drafted receiver in Broncos history as the 15th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, Jeudy's yet to live up to the billing. Still, despite Denver's lackluster season in 2022, the wideout set career bests in catches (67), yards (972) and touchdowns (six). And he really appeared to hit his stride with Wilson down the stretch, posting 100-yard outings in two of the final three games. I think the route-running specialist has another gear. Payton will maximize his talent and show that Jeudy is indeed a true No. 1 wideout.

4
James Cook
Buffalo Bills · RB

When you lose a fumble on your first NFL carry, you get buried. That's what happened to Cook, who coughed up the football on his first snap of the nationally televised Kickoff Game against the defending champion Rams. The Bills wound up winning in blowout fashion, 31-10, but it took a while for the rookie to get back into the regular rotation. In fact, he didn't log 20 snaps in a game until December. However, he sprinkled in plenty of promise as a runner and receiver. And with last year's leading rusher (Devin Singletary) now in Houston, Cook is a prime candidate for a Year 2 breakout.


Freshly minted Madden cover boy Josh Allen is a dynamic MVP candidate, but he needs more balance in the offense. Veterans Damien Harris, Nyheim Hines and Latavius Murray can have roles in the backfield rotation, but Cook needs to be the straw that stirs the drink. It's why Buffalo took him in the second round of the 2022 draft. He has explosive potential as a playmaker in Ken Dorsey's offense.

5
Bradley Chubb
Miami Dolphins · OLB

Acquired by Miami in a blockbuster deal with Denver just before last year's trade deadline, Chubb abruptly received a five-year, $110 million extension from the Dolphins. But with 3.5 sacks in nine games with his new team (including the postseason), the former top-five pick got off to a slow start in the Magic City. Granted, he was pretty banged up health-wise, but Chubb knows his production wasn't up to snuff.


"They brought me here for a reason," Chubb told the Palm Beach Post in April. "And I've just got to make sure I live up to that reason."


He will, especially now that he's reunited with defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who served as Chubb's head coach for three seasons in Denver.


"This is one of my favorite coaches that I've been in the room with, just because he expects so much out his players," Chubb said to the Palm Beach Post. "He's going to keep it straight up with you. If he calls a play and you didn't execute? He's going to ask you: 'Why didn't you execute? I put you in a position to execute.' "


Healthy and entrenched in Miami, Chubb will execute to the tune of at least 13 sacks. The Dolphins gave up a first-round pick and a whole bunch of dough for his services. Now he rewards their commitment.

6
D.J. Moore
Chicago Bears · WR

Let's get one thing straight right off the bat: Moore wasn't the problem in Carolina, which posted losing records in each of the former first-round pick's five years with the franchise. Despite shoddy quarterback play throughout his entire Panthers tenure and multiple coaching changes, Moore valiantly eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards in three separate seasons. His talent was evident to anyone who watched Carolina. Now in Chicago, he's poised to make a name for himself on the national scene.


Acquired by the Bears as part of the trade that gave the Panthers the No. 1 overall pick in April's draft, Moore gives Chicago exactly what it needed to foster Justin Fields' growth as a passer: a legit WR1. Still just 26 years old entering Year 6, Moore is set to blow past last year's production (63 catches for 888 yards and seven touchdowns). Put him down for at least 1,200 yards and 10 scores, both of which would be career bests.

7
Travis Etienne
Jacksonville Jaguars · RB

After missing his entire rookie season due to a Lisfranc injury, Etienne burst on the scene with a dynamic showing in 2022. I loved him at Clemson, so I wasn't surprised. But don't lose sight of the fact that last year was essentially his NFL debut. 2023 is going to be special for this home run hitter.


Despite piling up 1,125 rushing yards at a healthy 5.1 per carry and catching 35 passes, Etienne somehow ended up hitting paydirt just five times. That's confounding, given his big-play ability. I foresee a big jump to 12-15 touchdowns in 2023, along with 1,300 rushing yards and 50 catches. Trevor Lawrence loves his former Clemson teammate, and the Jaguars' passing attack is going to flourish this fall. With Calvin Ridley joining the party on the perimeter, Etienne's going to have room to operate out of the backfield.


Fantasy fiends, this is a public service announcement: DRAFT TRAVIS ETIENNE.

8
Ikem Ekwonu
Carolina Panthers · LT

Ekwonu looked like a rookie early last season, but the No. 6 overall pick progressed over the course of Year 1, going one 10-game stretch without giving up a sack. He has the tenacity and tools to become a star on the blind side, especially with new leadership guiding his way.


I love the Panthers' new coaching staff. Frank Reich is a gem. Overall, the offensive staff is experienced and filled with high-character teachers. This is not only a godsend to rookie QB Bryce Young, but also to the man tasked with protecting the No. 1 overall pick. Ekwonu has the makeup and tutelage to emerge as one of the elite tackles in the game right now.

9
Kyle Pitts
Atlanta Falcons · TE

After eclipsing 1,000 yards as a rookie, Pitts managed just 356 yards in an injury-riddled sophomore campaign that ended with knee surgery in November. But I still believe. And more importantly, so does Falcons coach Arthur Smith.


"We are expecting the next step for him as he comes back from his knee," Smith said back in March, via the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Couldn't be more excited about Kyle and his future."


As the highest-drafted tight end in NFL history (No. 4 overall), Pitts entered the league with unparalleled hype. Consequently, while he earned Pro Bowl honors as a rookie, some still view him as a disappointment. That is wrong, especially just two years into his career. Don't let your preconceived notions suffocate a developing player. Everyone praises Pitts' work ethic, and given the pass-catching prowess that he entered the league with, his plus blocking has been a pleasant surprise. I anticipate the receiving numbers will come back in a big way in 2023.


Flanked by Drake London and now Bijan Robinson in Smith's attack, Pitts won't command all attention from opposing defenses. That said, with Desmond Ridder under center, you can bet the second-year quarterback will routinely lean on his 6-foot-6, 246-pound mismatch nightmare/safety valve.

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