• Brandon Aiyuk’s ascension: The 49ers receiver has improved in every season but finally makes the jump into elite territory.

• Dak Prescott gets his flowers: Prescott is playing at an MVP level this season and has significantly boosted his grade from 2022.

• DaRon Bland’s improvement creates history: Bland has the most pick-sixes in a single season in NFL history. There also isn’t a more improved cornerback.

Estimated Reading Time: 15 minutes

It’s time to give some NFL players their flowers. With just a few weeks left of the 2023 NFL season, the awards races are heating up.

Here, we recognize some of the most improved players in the NFL this season.

QB: Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys

2022 Grade: 71.82023 Grade: 92.2

Spoiler: Dak Prescott has always been a good quarterback. In fact, Prescott has been a great quarterback for a while now. He has commanded one of the NFL’s best offenses for a few years but probably doesn’t get as many plaudits as he has rightly earned. Be it the syndrome of playing for the Cowboys, a team constantly in the national scope, the manner of the team’s recent playoff exits or the fact that he has thrown a few too many interceptions in the past two years, Prescott sometimes flies under the radar.

However, Prescott is playing his best football in 2023. His 92.2 overall grade is the highest among quarterbacks this season, and he has completed 70.1% of his passes for 3,234 yards and a league-leading 26 touchdowns. On top of that, Prescott leads all quarterbacks in big-time throw rate and turnover-worthy play rate while continuing to play aggressive football. He’s taken the next step and could win the MVP award as a result.

RB: David Montgomery, Detroit Lions

2022 Grade: 67.92023 Grade: 83.6

It would be unfair to call David Montgomery “2023 Jamaal Williams.” It’s easy to understand why the comparisons exist. Both are bigger, between-the-tackles runners who set the table for their counterparts to break off the big runs. Only, Montgomery is doing it way more efficiently. He is averaging a career-high 4.7 yards per carry and boasts his best yards after contact per attempt mark since 2020 (2.98 yards).

It helps that Montgomery is rushing behind one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, but his vision and ability to break off big runs have still improved. Montgomery is recording an explosive run on 28.3% of his rushing attempts, the highest mark of his career, and he has rushed for a career-high 10 touchdowns. Sometimes, a change of scenery can get the best out of a player, and Montgomery is having a career year in Detroit.

WR: Nico Collins, Houston Texans

2022 Grade: 72.42023 Grade: 87.7

For some, Nico Collins has always been on the precipice of a breakout. A big, modern-day alpha X receiver, Collins has the uncanny ability to win against press and man coverages on the outside consistently thanks to his size and speed. He has already posted career highs in catches, yards and touchdowns, and we’re only 14 weeks into the season. If that’s not an indication of a breakout, then what is?

Collins is a true big-play threat. His 16.8 yards per reception mark ranks fifth among all NFL receivers, and his nine receptions of 20-plus yards rank 10th. But he’s doing everything efficiently, not just winning on deep routes. Only Keenan Allen has more third-down catches than Collins’ 26.

WR: Brandon Aiyuk, San Francisco 49ers

2022 Grade: 78.72023 Grade: 91.5

Brandon Aiyuk has finally taken the leap. The 2022 season was his breakout year, but this season, Aiyuk has cemented himself as one of the best receivers in the NFL. His route running is true and crisp, he can seamlessly separate and he’s nasty enough to win at the catch point.

Only Tyreek Hill has a better grade and a higher yards per route run average than Aiyuk this season, a true sign of his development. He might not have as many catches this season as in 2022, but Aiyuk is displaying a more refined game. He has cut down on dops and also shown that he can be a consistent deep threat, with his 18.5 yards per reception ranking third among all receivers. He is also on track for career highs in receiving yards and touchdowns.

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FLEX: D.J. Moore, Chicago Bears

2022 Grade: 73.92023 Grade: 88.1

Bears fans were right to be excited about landing D.J. Moore in the deal that sent the No. 1 overall pick in 2022 to the Carolina Panthers. Before the 2022 season, Moore had registered three straight 1,100-yard receiving seasons and had been the focal point of some poor Carolina offenses. Now, he is the focal point of a not-so-great Bears offense, but he has looked as good as ever.

Moore has built up excellent chemistry with Justin Fields, already racking up 1,006 receiving yards and six touchdowns through 12 games while having the eighth-highest grade among wide receivers. Fields might not be the Bears quarterback next year, but Moore would be the perfect WR1 for any rookie quarterback. He can win as an X or as a flanker, and he brings enviable explosiveness.

TE: Trey McBride, Arizona Cardinals

2022 Grade: 50.92023 Grade: 79.3

As most tight ends do in their rookie season, Trey McBride struggled. The talented second-round pick caught just 29 passes for 265 yards and a touchdown and started the 2023 season equally slow. However, over the past two months, McBride has been playing like one of the best tight ends in the NFL.

Since he took over as a starter in Week 8, McBride has more targets (53) and catches (41) than any tight end in the NFL, also racking up the second-most yards (440). He has proven to be a reliable chain-mover while flashing the ability to create after the catch. He looks like the real deal.

LT: Bernhard Raimann, Indianapolis Colts

2022 Grade: 73.32023 Grade: 79.7

Raimann stepped in as the Colts’ starting left tackle midway through his rookie season. Considering he hadn’t put in a lot of mileage as a left tackle in college, Raimann played well enough to get a shot to start there again in 2023. He hasn’t looked back.

The former Central Michigan man is allowing a pressure rate of just 5.3% and a knockdown rate of 1.4%. Raimann has at least six games with a pass-blocking grade of over 76.0 and has allowed just two sacks on the season. The Colts’ offensive line as a whole has improved, and Raimann’s consistency at the unit’s toughest position has played a big part.

LG: Tyler Smith, Dallas Cowboys

2022 Grade: 71.42023 Grade: 78.8

Tyler Smith slotted seamlessly into the Cowboys’ offensive line in his rookie season, proving that he could play at left tackle if required, as well as guard. That versatility will help later in his career, but with Tyron Smith back to his best in 2023, Smith has reverted to left guard and been one of the best in the NFL.

Smith is a force on the move in the run game, using his elite athleticism and power to displace defenders and create gaping space for rushers to attack. He can win in a phonebooth and space and has proved adept at pass blocking, allowing just a 3.6% pressure rate — ranking 11th lowest in the NFL among guards. Smith is making a name for himself as one of the best interior linemen in the NFL, and he is only 22 years old.

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C: Drew Dalman, Atlanta Falcons

2022 Grade: 65.92023 Grade: 84.7

Dalman has been at the center, literally, of one of the NFL’s best rushing offenses this season. The Falcons are averaging the sixth-most rushing yards per game in 2023, and it starts with Dalman at the snap. Sure, there have been some issues between him and Desmond Ridder, but Dalman has greatly improved in 2023.

His 91.0 run-blocking grade is the best among NFL centers, and Dalman, despite allowing 24 pressures, is still improving as a pass-blocker. His best days are still ahead of him, but there aren’t many more dynamic centers in the NFL right now.

RG: Kevin Dotson, Los Angeles Rams

2022 Grade: 65.42023 Grade: 84.5

Kevin Dotson’s ascension has been a surprise in the best way possible for the Los Angeles Rams. The Rams traded a 2024 fourth- and a 2025 fifth-round pick just a few short weeks before the start of the 2023 NFL season. They needed something, anything, to bolster the offensive line. Dotson had put together a couple of underwhelming seasons with the Steelers and needed a fresh start.

So far, so good then. Dotson has been one of the standout guards in the NFL this season. His 84.5 overall grade is the second highest at the position, and he has allowed just 10 pressures in nine games, forming an excellent 3.2% pressure rate that ranks seventh best in the NFL. Dotson has gone from an afterthought to someone playing at an All-Pro level. He’ll be a hot commodity if he makes it to free agency.

RT: Penei Sewell, Detroit Lions

2022 Grade: 80.62023 Grade: 90.0

Already one of the best young tackles in the NFL, Sewell has made the jump to elite status in 2023 and isn’t looking back. He is everything a team could want in a franchise tackle. He is a gifted athlete and a dominant run-blocker, proving difficult to displace in pass protection thanks to his size. Oh, and he’s still only 23 years old.

Sewell’s 90.0 overall grade is the best among all NFL tackles by a considerable margin — Tyron Smith is second with an 86.5 grade — and he has allowed just 12 pressures all season. He was already a rising star, but Sewell is going to be considered one of the best in the game for a long time.

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EDGE: Andrew Van Ginkel, Miami Dolphins

2022 Grade: 74.82023 Grade: 90.7

It’s never too late for an NFL breakout. Andrew Van Ginkel is almost 29 years old and in his fifth NFL season, but 2023 is his best campaign to date. Van Ginkel has been a force off the edge for the Dolphins, racking up 33 pressures and six sacks through 12 games.

His 20.1% pressure rate ranks fourth, and with Jaelan Phillips out for the rest of the season, his contribution matters now more than ever as the Dolphins look to stay in the Super Bowl hunt. He is showing that he can be an every-down player as one of the most efficient pass-rushers in the league right now.

EDGE: Odafe Oweh, Baltimore Ravens

2022 Grade: 60.12023 Grade: 78.0

A defensive system change has greatly helped, but Odafe Oweh is starting to look like a first-round talent — something the Ravens hoped would happen when they drafted the edge rusher in 2021. Oweh has only four sacks on the season, but he is on pace to set a career high, beating the five sacks he notched in his rookie season.

Pass-rushing efficiency is the name of the game for Oweh so far. He missed four games earlier in the season, but his 18.4% pressure rate is the seventh highest among edge defenders, equal to Myles Garrett. That’s not a comparison, but more just to highlight how well Oweh is doing to get to the quarterback. He is still scratching the surface, but he has been excellent.

DI: Osa Odighizuwa, Dallas Cowboys

2022 Grade: 63.32023 Grade: 88.3

Odighizuwa has essentially been a starter for the Cowboys since day one, but he’s having a full-on breakout in his third NFL season. After flashing as a pass-rusher in his first two seasons, racking up 37 and 32 pressures, he has already totaled 31 pressures and three sacks in 2023 and is comfortably on pace to set career highs in both statistics.

His performance in run defense is night and day. After earning a 45.7 run-defense grade across his first two seasons, Odighizuwa has earned an 82.8 mark in 2023 — the third best among interior defenders. He has also cut down on his missed tackle rate and is on pace for a career high in stops. Odighizuwa is evolving into the complete package.

DI: Alim McNeill, Detroit Lions

2022 Grade: 69.82023 Grade: 88.1

It’s a shame that the Detroit Lions had to place Alim McNeill on injured reserve earlier this week. The third-year defensive tackle was easily playing the best football of his career as an important component of the Lions’ defense. McNeill’s 88.1 grade ranks sixth at the position, and he has already set career highs in pressures and sacks, showing his excellent improvement as a pass-rusher.

His improvement as a run defender is noticeable, too. McNeill’s run-defense grade has shot up from 59.8 in 2022 to 77.9 this season. The Lions will be without him for the next four games at least, but if he comes back in time for the playoffs, he’ll make a massive difference.

LB: Blake Cashman, Houston Texans

2022 Grade: 54.02023 Grade: 89.8

Cashman was a standout on special teams for the Texans in 2022, but he has translated his excellent play to defense in 2023. He has improved in just about every possible way.

His 89.8 overall grade ranks third among linebackers, his run-defense grade places fourth and his coverage grade is a top-10 mark. Cashman is an excellent athlete who can get downhill in a hurry. He hits hard and plays smart. Cashman has proven to be a big-game player for one of the better defenses in the NFL.

LB: Tyrel Dodson, Buffalo Bills

2022 Grade: 48.42023 Grade: 89.9

Dodson played a bit part in his first few NFL seasons but has stepped in as a starting linebacker for the Bills over the past five games. His 89.9 overall grade is the second highest in the NFL and, in that time, he has recorded 20 tackles, four pressures and 13 defensive stops. Overall, his game has significantly improved.

With the Bills’ defense suffering significant injuries, most notably to Matt Milano at linebacker, they’ve needed a spark to help steady the ship. And while things are a bit uncertain for the team this season, Dodson’s play is a silver lining.

CB: Paulson Adebo, New Orleans Saints

2022 Grade: 49.12023 Grade: 85.5

There’s no other way to put it: the Saints have done it again. A team that has proved so smart in bolstering its defense with young talent, the Saints drafted Paulson Adebo in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft and have watched him mature into one of the best young cornerbacks in the NFL. Only two cornerbacks have a better overall grade than Adebo.

Through 12 games, Adebo has the third-most forced incompletions (13), the second-most interceptions (five) and a low 54.1% completion percentage allowed. He is the whole package and a true breakout star in the Saints’ secondary.

CB: Jaylon Johnson, Chicago Bears

2022 Grade: 62.92023 Grade: 90.0

Since the trade deadline passed, the Chicago Bears have ranked in the top 10 in defensive EPA per play, and Jaylon Johnson‘s play has been a big reason why. It looked like Johnson might be on his way out at the deadline, but he and the team reconciled and his play hasn’t declined.

Johnson’s 90.0 overall grade is the second highest among cornerbacks this season, and he has allowed just a 45.5% completion percentage when targeted, the fourth lowest among 111 cornerbacks this season. Because of that, he has one of the lowest target rates in coverage. Quarterbacks just don’t go near him.

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FLEX: DaRon Bland, Dallas Cowboys

2022 Grade: 66.02023 Grade: 90.5

There was justified concern for the Cowboys when Trevon Diggs went down with a season-ending injury in Week 2, but DaRon Bland assuaged that doubt early on with some excellent displays. Now, he’s having a historic season. Bland owns not only the highest grade among all cornerbacks this season but also the record for the most pick-sixes in a single season (five). He has another three interceptions on top of that to lead the league.

Bland has been a blackhole for opposing quarterbacks this season, allowing just a 51.9% completion rate while forcing the ninth-most incompletions. He quietly showed potential in his rookie season, but Bland is now one of the frontrunners in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation. Who saw that coming?

S: Camryn Bynum, Minnesota Vikings

2022 Grade: 58.72023 Grade: 85.0

After a sophomore slump, Camryn Bynum has rebounded with an excellent third season in the NFL with the Minnesota Vikings. He has been excellent as a deep safety in Brian Flores’ system and has forced more incompletions than any other safety in the NFL this season. On top of that, Bynum has proven to be adept at getting downhill and affecting the run game, making the fourth-most stops among safeties.

His 85.0 overall grade ranks fifth at the position this season, and his play has helped the Vikings turn their defensive misfortunes of 2022 around.

S: Jevon Holland, Miami Dolphins

2022 Grade: 67.22023 Grade: 91.2

There hasn’t been a better safety in the NFL this season than Jevon Holland. His 91.2 grade is the best among every player at the position, and so is his 90.7 coverage grade. After Holland made his name as a jack-of-all-trades, a safety who had no issues blitzing and rushing the quarterback, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has turned him into an outright deep safety.

Holland has four forced incompletions and one interception on the season and has allowed just a 63.3% completion percentage — one of the better marks among safeties. At just 23 years old, Holland has already made the jump to elite in 2023.

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Kay Adams