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Analysis

Micah Parsons to Christian McCaffrey: Ten of the NFL's most important people in 2023 season

Christian McCaffrey is primed for another huge year after lifting the 49ers to new heights in 2022, while Colts head coach Shane Steichen begins life with rookie QB Anthony Richardson; watch the Lions at the Chiefs live on Sky Sports NFL at 1.20am Friday morning

Dallas Cowboys edge rusher Micah Parsons

New weapons for Trevor Lawrence and Josh Allen, a trusted target for Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs, a new-look offense for Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens and a year of decision for the Minnesota Vikings.  

On Thursday, the Chiefs will begin their Super Bowl defence against the Detroit Lions in the opening game of the 2023 NFL season, live on Sky Sports.

Ahead of kickoff, we explore 10 of the most important individuals heading into the new campaign...

Todd Monken - Offensive coordinator, Baltimore Ravens

Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Todd Monken
Image: Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Todd Monken

'Marriage' has been a common theme to any analysis and success-forecasting surrounding the appointment of Todd Monken as Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator. Marriage between Monken and a newly-paid Championship-yearning Lamar Jackson, marriage between Greg Roman's option offense that torched teams in Jackson's 2019 MVP campaign and Monken's air raid passing background with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The sought-after outcome being a cocktail of the Ravens quarterback's devastation as a creator outside the pocket along with increased opportunity for him to exploit his unsung talents as a conventional pocket presence. A more balanced pick-your-poison best-of-both-worlds deal. Sell the life out of the run to tee up the pass.

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Monken wants his defensive counterparts to bite like never before. He wants to align in condensed formations in order to expand at the snap, he wants to cut back slightly on heavy sets and meaty backfields while doing so in favour of injecting speed and explosion. He wants horizontal reconnaissance by way of pull blockers and counter-flow jet-sweeping receiver handoffs to set up vertical play-action bombardment.

The Ravens tooled up to accommodate as much this offseason as they signed Odell Beckham Jr and Nelson Agholor in free agency while also drafting Zay Flowers in the first round to accompany Rashod Bateman and Mark Andrews.

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The arrival of Monken threatens the most diverse Jackson-led offense yet, which might prove decisive for a team that showed it isn't far away during their playoff defeat to the Cincinnati Bengals in Lamar's absence.

Micah Parsons - EDGE, Dallas Cowboys

Micah Parsons
Image: Micah Parsons will be a leading contender to win Defensive Player of the Year

Dan Quinn and the Dallas Cowboys have annotated and tinkered with convention to sketch up their own player type in Micah Parsons. They drafted the off-ball linebacker and dipped their toes in usage off the edge in light of injuries across the defensive line in his rookie year, before ramping up his pass rush duties to the sound of 13.5 sacks and 41 pressures in 2022.

This offseason, they committed to a full-time transition to defensive end, booking Parsons into the lab and seeking to bulk him up accordingly. Parsons teased he could wind up playing eight positions this coming season, from every spot across the front seven to the occasional spell dropping into coverage.

He has become the face of the Quinn defense and so too that of the Aden Durde defensive front, Parsons' move to a more traditional edge alignment in-keeping with the Cowboys' efforts to substitute blitz aggression with a stunt-heavy approach as their route to pressure.

The best units in the league are disrupting the pocket with four and five-men rushes that enable them to play umbrella coverages designed to limit splash plays; the Cowboys were arguably the most effective at doing as much last season.

While Mike McCarthy takes the reins back as offensive play-caller following the departure of Kellen Moore, the Cowboys are counting on continuity to Parsons' production as they look to keep their pressure rate around the 25 per cent mark.

Sean Desai - Defensive coordinator, Philadelphia Eagles

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The Philadelphia Eagles' 75 overall sacks in 18 regular-season and postseason games now ranks third all-time and the most since the 1985 Chicago Bears

The Eagles are excited about Sean Desai, who has the potential to become one of the beaten Super Bowl team's most impactful offseason acquisitions as he succeeds Jonathan Gannon as defensive coordinator after coming across from the Seattle Seahawks.

Philly spearheaded the league with 70 sacks last season while operating off four and five-man pass rushes and run-inviting light boxes with two high safeties in-keeping with the league-wide effort to starve the chunk-arm quarterbacks.

Gannon, though, faced some criticism for frailties against the run, a shortage of aggression and evolution, particularly as a means of adapting his plan to blunt a Patrick Mahomes once Plan A began to fall short.

The Vic Fangio disciple may not stray from the high shells that have garnered success, but he has underlined plans to make the force of his Eagles 'felt' to a greater extent.

Desai likes to get creative with the appearance of his defensive fronts and will have fun shifting his tandem of Haason Reddick and Nolan Smith across multiple positions around the likes of Jalen Carter and Jordan Davis, while he is faced with the job of carving a contributor out of second-year linebacker Nakobe Dean in his first season as starter and compensating for the departure of safety CJ Gardner-Johnson.

The Eagles' pressure rate starred in guiding them to the Super Bowl. Desai's job is to not only sustain but further.

Dalton Kincaid - Tight end, Buffalo Bills

Call it one of the newest strands to the Patrick Mahomes effect. Can't shut him out? Then you better outscore him. Brian Daboll had tried, spending the best part of a year formulating ways of outlasting the Kansas City Chiefs offense during his final year as Bills offensive coordinator, only to find mere seconds would still be enough for the league's best quarterback to conjure a demoralising response in the 2021 AFC Divisional Round game.

Daboll's successor Ken Dorsey sought to posterise teams through the unflinching splash arm of Josh Allen about as frequently as scheme would allow last season, even in the face of the league's deep shell trends, before regression in efficiency down the stretch and in the playoffs pointed towards the need for a new dimension, a new branch.

In came tight end Dalton Kincaid as the Bills' first-round Draft selection, tasked as the roaming pass-catcher with whom to pair with a more conventional in-line blocker in Dawson Knox.

The introduction of Kincaid widens the avenue to the 12 personnel packages the Bills might have liked to have incorporate more prominently last season, only it is more 11.5 personnel such is the prospect of Kincaid being deployed in traditional receiver roles.

Suddenly personnel groupings become less about who is on the field and more so about where they line up. Allen bags himself one of the most polished route-runner received-bodied tight ends and the Bills a more balanced and unpredictable offense.

Shane Steichen - Head coach, Indianapolis Colts

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Anthony Richardson throws in front of head coach Shane Steichen
Image: Indianapolis Colts quarterback Anthony Richardson throws in front of head coach Shane Steichen

Roll out the red carpet, prepare a banquet of his favourite snacks, take him out for steak and lobster, fly in his closest friends and family. In other words, make Anthony Richardson feel as comfortable and as at home as possible in Indianapolis, both in a social and footballing sense.

It is the job that looms for first-year head coach Shane Steichen, who assumes the what-we-live-for responsibility of tailoring his offense to one of the stories of the 2023 NFL Draft.

Richardson crushed athletic testing on an unprecedented scale for a quarterback during the pre-Draft process, evidencing the explosiveness that fuels his out-of-structure, off-script wizardry, along with the ground threat that had the Colts licking their lips over the prospect of him in a triple-layered option offense that Steichen ran with Jalen Hurts en route to the Super Bowl in Philadelphia.

How Steichen, offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter and quarterbacks coach Cam Turner help develop Richardson's accuracy and precision as a pure pocket passer and how they integrate him in year one will work towards determining whether the Colts have finally uncovered their long-term solution under center.

Calvin Ridley - Wide receiver, Jacksonville Jaguars

Trevor Lawrence takes his most meaningful strides towards the NFL's elite passers in 2023. The development to his decision-making, field diagnosis and scheme understanding unfolded before the eyes of the league over the course of last season and now, with a year alongside Doug Pederson and Press Taylor under his belt, he is primed to reap the benefits of continuity as a springboard for further progress.

Lawrence enters year three armed with one of the league's most accomplished route runners in Calvin Ridley, who returns from his suspension for breaking gambling rules as a legitimate wide receiver capable of elevating the Jags offense to the next level.

While Travon Walker stands to play a defining role with his prospective leap off the edge, Ridley's introduction upgrades Pederson's weapons room immediately and provides Lawrence with a buzzer-beating finisher to accompany Christian Kirk and Evan Engram, both of whom just produced career years.

Ridley was one of six receivers to post 3,000 receiving yards and 25 receiving touchdowns over his first three seasons in the league between 2018 and 2020, the latter seeing him log career-best figures of 90 catches for 1,374 yards.

Bradley Chubb - EDGE, Miami Dolphins

Is the best yet to come from Bradley Chubb?
Image: Is the best yet to come from Bradley Chubb?

Almost went for Joey Bosa, here. Contemplated Rashan Gary. Landed on a less-talked-about Bradley Chubb. As Tua Tagovailoa feeds Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle in Mike McDaniel's high-octane offense, Vic Fangio pitches up in Miami as the NFL's highest-paid defensive coordinator to the sight of a star-studded unit, including his old friend from Mile High.

The Dolphins traded for Chubb last November in a bid to ramp up their pressure rate without relying on the blitz, but were denied a true window into his potential long-term impact due to a lingering high ankle sprain.

Chubb is well-rehearsed in Fangio's desire to generate pressure with his front four in aid of two-high shells and disguised coverages, his most productive seasons to date coming under the former Broncos head coach.

He is the marquee bookend Miami are counting on to serve as not only a closer in the backfield but a ploy to unlock the best of Jaelan Phillips.

Miami ranked 23rd in EPA/play and 30th in dropback EPA between Week 1-8 last season, before rising to 19th in EPA/play and 21st in dropback EPA from Week 9-18 following the arrival of Chubb, who, while not playing fully healthy, put up 2.5 sacks, one tackle for loss and 12 quarterback hits in eight games for the Dolphins.

Travis Kelce - Tight end, Kansas City Chiefs

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Patrick Mahomes connects withTravis Kelce for an 18-yard touchdown against the Eagles

As if it really needs explaining. Where Travis Kelce goes, a Patrick Mahomes pass follows. It makes for the great mystery as to how the Chiefs tight end pierces defenses and buys soft spots with such ease; it is like turning a blind eye to a big flying purple elephant as if there is little reason to be alarmed or intrigued.

Kelce enters the new season having made 606 catches for 7,573 yards and 63 touchdowns in 92 games (including playoffs) with Mahomes, torching teams en route to the Super Bowl in the post-Tyreek Hill era last year with a tight end-leading 110 receptions for 1,338 yards and 12 touchdowns.

He became one of the demoralising dilemmas for defenses who wanted to retreat to eradicate the deep shots only to be intimidated into dropping down again such is the shallow catch-and-go threat of Kelce. He has surpassed 1,000 yards in seven straight seasons, across which he has missed just three games.

So long as Mahomes and Kelce are healthy, in red and on a field together, the Chiefs remain contenders.

Kwesi Adofo-Mensah - General Manager, Minnesota Vikings

Minnesota Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah
Image: Minnesota Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah

A big and question-littered season awaits for the Minnesota Vikings, so too for second-year general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah as he works to shape the long-term appearance and prospects of the franchise.

He already made the decision to part ways with Dalvin Cook, whose drop in efficiency didn't serve him kindly when coupled with the value of the modern running back, along with veteran receiver Adam Thielen and linebacker Eric Kendricks, and now has the coming season to decide whether Kirk Cousins is the man to guide Minnesota to the Promised Land. Cousins turns 35 in August and is heading into a contract year after signing a one-year, $35m extension last March.

The oft-divisive quarterback battled through a barrage of physical punishment to string together one of his most productive campaigns in 2022 as he led the Vikings to 13 wins, his team eventually falling short by way of a passive defensive display against the New York Giants in the playoffs, for which newly-appointed defensive coordinator Brian Flores could also be considered one of the most important figures this season.

For all the solid numbers and precision, one playoff win in 11 years will always work as a defining argument against him. A lot rides on the 2023 campaign for Cousins and the immediate future under center for Kevin O'Connell's side.

Christian McCaffrey - Running back, San Francisco 49ers

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A moment of magic from Christian McCaffrey against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

While Brock Purdy operates under the familiar Niners quarterback microscope, Christian McCaffrey will hold the fort as the team's all-facets enforcer of his head coach's prized outside zone system.

McCaffrey immediately enhanced the Niners offense upon arriving in a trade from the Carolina Panthers, averaging 114 yards from scrimmage with 746 rushing yards and 464 receiving yards in 11 games while lifting the team's average points scored as well as their third-down conversion rate.

San Francisco ranked first in DVOA from week eight - McCaffrey's full-time introduction to the line-up - until the end of the regular season, Shanahan manipulating mismatches in his favour by draining every ounce out of the luxury to motion the league's best receiving back to the outside where defenses were denied the opportunity to sub in more tailored opponents. He is the perfect yards-after-catch horizontal dicer for what the Niners like to do on offense, armed with a full route-tree that can even be accessed from the backfield.

A cocktail of McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, Kyle Juzsyck and Trent Williams is the dream scenario for any young quarterback.

Don't miss a second of the 2023 NFL season with Sky Sports NFL - watch the Kansas City Chiefs begin their Super Bowl title defence against the Detroit Lions in the early hours of Friday September 8 live on Sky.

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