The 2023 NFL draft is over, so too is much of the big spending in free agency, and training camps are right around the corner, meaning that optimism is surging throughout the league.
Unlike the AFC, which figures to be a gauntlet with some of the most complete and experienced rosters in the league, the NFC figures to be fairly wide open.
As training camps draw near, it’s time to shift our focus to the X-factor players from each division who are poised to make a significant impact on the playoff race in the upcoming 2023 season.
However, it’s important to note that these lists will exclude quarterbacks, given their undeniable influence on the game.
Instead, we’ll delve deeper into the other positions that could potentially determine division championships this year.
Drawing insights from valuable conversations with coaches and executives across the NFL, here’s a rundown of the X-factors for each NFC division.
NFC East: Brandin Cooks, WR, Dallas Cowboys
The dropoff in the Dallas Cowboys‘ offense from 2022 to 2023 was dramatic.
Dallas finished the 2021 campaign as the NFL’s leading offense, averaging 407 yards per game, including boasting the league’s No. 2 ranked passing game. However, after trading Amari Cooper to the Cleveland Browns, the Cowboys tumbled to No. 14 in total offense, last season.
Enter Brandin Cooks, whom the Cowboys acquired for a measly fifth-round pick in 2023 and a sixth-round pick in 2024, a trade with the Houston Texans.
“Brandin will give the Cowboys a solid second option,” an AFC scout told Heavy. “He might not be the dynamic player he’s always been, but the will be an upgrade from what they had and a true deep threat.
“From everything I’m hearing down there, his biggest impact is going to be off the field, as a leader in that locker room.”
While CeeDee Lamb showed he can be a true No. 1 wide receiver, setting new career-highs with 107 receptions for 1,359 yards and 9 touchdowns, quarterback Dak Prescott and the Cowboys were sorely missing a second deep-threat last season.
NFC South: Cade Otton, TE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The NFC South is wide open, and even if the Buccaneers are still trying to find a long-term solution at quarterback, there’s enough talent on this roster to keep Tampa Bay in the mix.
One young player who seems primed to take a big step during the 2023 campaign, and figures to play a starring role in the trajectory of the Buccaneers’ offense around Baker Mayfield, is tight end Cade Otton.
“Cade’s one of those big, young and smart tight ends you love to build an offense around,” an NFC Personnel Executive told Heavy.
Last season, Otton caught 42 passes for 391 yards with a pair of touchdowns, as a rookie. Sources around the Buccaneers have raved about Otton’s performance during this spring’s OTAs and minicamp. If he builds on last season’s production increases in his second season, Tampa may have a legitimate underneath option in the passing game and in the red zone.
NFC North: D.J. Moore, WR, Chicago Bears
Moore is a prototypical field-stretcher, who averaged 14.1 yards per reception last season, while catching passes from Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield, and P.J. Walker. Dropping Moore into a receiving corps with Justin Fields, who showed flashes of excellence pushing the ball deep last season, could be a match made in heaven.
Following Aaron Rodgers’ departure from the Green Bay Packers, Moore’s arrival along with other marquee additions on defense via free agency and the draft, should raise the expectations around Fields and the Bears significantly in the NFC North.
NFC West: Devon Witherspoon, CB, Seattle Seahawks
There’s a chance that the NFC West becomes one of the most competitive divisions in football in 2023.
If the Rams, and Matthew Stafford, return to form, Los Angeles should be in the mix. San Francisco might have the strongest roster from top-to-bottom, but with quarterback uncertainty and the possibilities of Brock Purdy, Sam Darnold, or Trey Lance leading the 49ers, opportunity is abound for the Seahawks.
Witherspoon was one of the more relentlessly competitive and physical cornerbacks in this year’s class, holding opposing quarterbacks to an otherworldly 25.3 passer rating in 62 targets last season at Illinois. His arrival in the Seattle secondary gives the Seahawks the chance to neutralize the likes of Deebo Samuel, Cooper Kupp and other top targets within the division while stabilizing a premium position.