Having a potent offense is the name of the game in today's NFL. It's partly why the Jets went all in for a 39-year-old Aaron Rodgers, why the Panthers had no hesitation going quarterback with the No. 1 overall pick, and on and on. But that doesn't mean defense is irrelevant. Just ask the 49ers, whose ferocious pass rush helped fuel three trips to the NFC Championship Game in four years; or the Buccaneers, whose Todd Bowles-led attack notably aided Tom Brady's seventh and final Super Bowl championship.
As we look ahead to 2023, here are 10 defensive players who could have a monumental impact on the season:
This big man was solid in Pittsburgh, then became special for the Eagles during their 2022 title bid. Now he's only joining the most talented defensive front of his career, suiting up alongside Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead, in front of Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw. If he's as disruptive as he was in his 11-sack breakout, he should help San Francisco remain a true power in the NFC.
Speaking of Eagles linemen, Carter may not be asked to singlehandedly fill Hargrave's shoes, with Fletcher Cox, Milton Williams and Jordan Davis also on the interior. But his tantalizing combo of size (6-3, 314), speed and strength could be unleashed as a situational force. Philly is returning plenty of Super Bowl starters, and his addition could retain their spark.
Detroit's hometown standout wasn't necessarily as imposing as other pass rushers in his class; Travon Walker and Kayvon Thibodeaux both have freaky upside. But he still managed 9.5 sacks as a rookie, and now he's on a much better defense that should have improved secondary support. A breakout feels possible as the Lions look to finally storm the NFC North.
Buffalo paid a pretty penny to add the future Hall of Famer in 2022, only for the eight-time Pro Bowler to miss the most important half of the season with a torn ACL. Back in the saddle at 34, Miller may well open 2023 on a slower note, but reunited with ex-Rams rushing mate Leonard Floyd, he's still got the difference-making bend to aid a deep playoff run, as he did in Los Angeles.
Smith was already a top-shelf linebacker with the Bears, but he played with added menace upon his midseason trade to Baltimore, quickly taking over as the heart and soul of the defense. Still just 26, he should be even more comfortable with his teammates this time around. If he even comes close to replicating his debut impact, he'll help Baltimore back to the playoffs.
The anchor that won't break, Davis has been violently patrolling the core of New Orleans' stingy defense for a half-decade, and there's no indication he'll slow down at 34. Derek Carr's arrival as the Saints' new QB will get the headlines, but if Davis remains his normal self for Dennis Allen, the rest of the NFC South will continue to have fits preparing to take on this club's "D."
Just one year into his NFL career, the Cincinnati product is already among the . We all know Aaron Rodgers is the key to what happens next in New York, but let's say the longtime Packers great doesn't get great protection behind the Jets' iffy line. Gardner's lockdown ability on the outside could still keep Robert Saleh's club competitive.
The Rams were eager to unload his big deal while rebuilding, but the Dolphins should benefit in a big way. The former Pro Bowler may be approaching the end of his prime, but his unwavering confidence and technique is still far above those of many peers. Now opposite Xavien Howard and under Vic Fangio, he's got a chance to become a new face of the Dolphins.
The smallish Illinois product has yet to take an NFL snap, but many draft experts raved about his playmaking physicality, and he'll open his career opposite Tariq Woolen, who's fresh off a dominant rookie campaign in Seattle's secondary. On a "D" that also got better up front and in the middle with Dre'Mont Jones and Bobby Wagner, he could be an X factor in the NFC West race.
The general public doesn't seem to recognize just how productive Fitzpatrick's been at a position where the headlines often go instead to guys like Derwin James, Jessie Bates, etc. In just under four full seasons with the Steelers, he's totaled 17 picks and 38 pass breakups. In other words, he's everywhere the ball is. Joined by Patrick Peterson, he's got the takeaway skills to throw a wrench into AFC North projections widely favoring the Bengals and Ravens.