NFL 2017 Season Preview

Welcome back to the best season of the year — football season!

The first Sunday of the season is always an exciting time because people like my myself — and a few thousand other NFL fans — have predictions for you to disagree with. Except for me, because my predictions are always right. So please take everything I say extremely serious, and if you have a disagreement just remember that there is a zero percent chance I could be wrong.

Quick award predictions, with a short team preview and division predictions to follow:

MVP: Russell Wilson

Dark Horse MVP: Jameis Winston

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Joe Mixon

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Myles Garrett — Reuban Foster if Garrett misses significant time

Offensive Player of the Year: Le’Veon Bell

Defensive Player of the Year: Von Miller

Comeback Player of the Year: Rob Gronkowski

Coach of the Year: Mike Mularkey 

First Coach Fired: Chuck Pagano

Surprise Team of the Year (better): Broncos, Cardinals

Surprise Team of the Year (worse): Raiders

NFC Championship: Seahawks @ Falcons

AFC Championship: Steelers @ Patriots 

Super Bowl Champions: Patriots over Seahawks

AFC East:

1. New England Patriots

The defending champions are the favorite to win the Super Bowl once again (+325), as they rightfully should be. While the 16-0 chatter was brewing from the moment the Pats signed Cooks, let me just say that wasn’t going to happen. A tough schedule mixed with the loss of Edelman, will hold the Pats to 13 wins.

Here are the five best team New England plays, I don’t see them losing more than three of these: Vs. Chiefs, Vs. Falcons, @ Broncos, Vs. Raiders, @ Steelers

We will see how the loss of Julian Edelman, arguably the best slot receiver in the NFL, will affect New England’s offensive structure. There’s a real case to be made that he’s the team’s most important weapon, but in true Patriot fashion, I’m sure it’ll be “next man up”.

With an opening in Tom Brady’s circle of trust, my guess is that nobody will benefit more than Chris Hogan. The Patriots will have two top twenty fantasy wide receivers this year, Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan, yet the most dominant piece will be Rob Gronkowski as he enters the season with a clean bill of health for the first time in years.

A lot of people have assumed that the Patriots will be missing LeGarrette Blount’s red zone dominance. Of his league-high 18 rushing touchdowns last season, 12 came from inside the opponents five yard line where he owned a consistent 50% conversation rate (12-24).

But I expect Gillislee to fill that void nicely. Of his six rushing attempts inside the five yard line last season, he was perfect and scored six touchdowns. While it won’t be as fun as yelling BLOUNT FORCE TRAUMA each time Gillislee plows into the end zone, he will be just as sufficient if not better. I expect his goal line success to stay above Blount’s mark of 50 percent.

Even without Edelman, their receiving core combined with a plethora of highly-skilled, versatile backs gives Brady his largest offensive advantage he’s had in years. Additions to both sides of football, along with the retainment of Dont’a Hightower and Malcolm Butler have New England primed for another run at the Lombardi.
2. Miami Dolphins

When I look at the Miami Dolphins, I see a regression to the mean written all over them. They lost their starting quarterback, and overpaid to bring Jay Cutler back into the National Football League.

While Adam Gase has had success with Jay Cutler in this league, I don’t think that Cutler finally puts it all together and begins playing winning football this late . With young weapons surrounding Cutler, I see fantasy production all over this offense, but not enough winning plays to bounce some of the rising teams in the AFC out of the playoffs.

Miami, very quietly, has one of the best receiving cores in the game — Jarvis Landry, Kenny Stills, rising DeVante Parker, and Julius Thomas. I expect a gigantic jump in production from Parker as he will naturally get the “Jay Cutler throws to 6’3″ or bigger receivers regardless of coverage boost” that we saw him give Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey for years. While Parker isn’t as talented as those two, he’s a plus athlete entering a team option at the end of the season, and if there was a time for him to ball it is now.

While the offseason hype for Jay Ajayi is in full force, I’m leaning more towards the regression side of things for him as well. Was Ajayi a solid running back last season? Sure, but nothing more than that to me. He finished with 1,272 yards and eight touchdowns, but failed to reach 80 or more yards in all but four games. Of those four games — 204, 214, 111, 206 — two came against the Buffalo Bills who were a dysfunctional train wreck from the start. I would expect Ajayi to finish near his numbers from last season, but I don’t see a significant jump. I think a much more diverse spread of yards from game to game is more realistic.

Miami’s defense ranked 29th last season and gave up almost 150 rushing yards per game. Regardless of the changes they made in the defensive coaching pedestal, there aren’t enough additions on the market that could transform this defense into something formidable to show Tom Brady, who Jarvis Landry says they’re going to sweep this season. Nice thinking, Jarvis.

3. Buffalo Bills

A very strange week 17 + offseason for the Buffalo Bills.

First off, the benching of Tyrod Taylor in Week 17 made zero sense in the moment. It was argued that it was to avoid a guaranteed payout for their quarterback if he were to get injured, but he was the starter all season and played well. Who else were they going to bring in? Why not show Tyrod Taylor that love?

It would be like telling your girlfriend that she’s awesome and that you want her in your life, but you’re just going to look at some other options during the summer. Just bizarre.

Secondly, letting so much talent leave your locker room is strange — Stephen Gilmore, Robert Woods, Sammy Watkins, Aaron Williams, and Mike Gillislee.

But the departure of Gillislee is the most confusing to me because he proved to be a very good backup for LeSean McCoy in a breakout season last year. He led the NFL in yards per carry, was durable, versatile, and was a threat inside the five yard line as he scored from there six times. Why let someone like that get scooped up by New England, especially when your featured back is injury prone?

I do like Sean McDermott, a lot actually, but I believe it’ll take a couple of seasons to really compete within the division, and install his coaching style after the traveling circus Rex Ryan left town.

4. New York Jets

The Jets are taking an NBA style approach to this season as they’ll be tanking for the number one overall pick in the draft.

Darrelle Revis, Brandon Marshall, Sheldon Richardson, Nick Mangold, Ryan Clady, and Breno Giacomini have left the roster as the new aged Jets will lose as many games as they can.

Let the McCown/Hackenberg regime begin. Yawn.

AFC North:

1. Pittsburgh Steelers

If you wanted to convince me that the Baltimore Ravens belong here I’d listen, but at the end of the day the Steelers have the most offensive talent on their roster in the AFC, and Martavis Bryant being fully reinstated only confirms that.

Having all of his weapons in place should only help Roethlisberger, but after appearing in 14 games last season, he fell short of 4,000 yards, 30 touchdowns, and only reached 300 yards (exactly) one time. Roethlisberger deciding to come back another season will keep Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl aspirations alive another go-around, but the 35-year-old quarterback needs to bounce back in a big way to make that happen.

I’m predicting Big Ben to throw over 30 touchdowns for the third time in his career. His career high is 32, twice.

At this point, the Steelers are in the same situation as the New England Patriots — anything besides a championship is a disappointing season.

It has been reported that the Steelers are changing their defensive tendencies because of New England. They’ll be moving away from their zone defensive concepts, and try their luck by mixing in a lot more man-to-man coverage. No matter how you slice it, stopping the Patriots is easier said than done, but a change could be beneficial considering Brady has averaged 294 yards per game with a 9.66 touchdown/interception ratio in his 12 career games (10-2) against the Steelers typical zone coverage defenses. My guess is the final straw was the 36-17 AFC Title gashing that Brady delivered Mike Tomlin.

Last season, only the Panthers (79.9%) ran more zone coverage than the Steelers (75.2) did. With additions such as Joe Haden, rookie standout TJ Watt, and a returning young core, a change in defensive philosophy should create more turnovers and land this defense in the top 10 at the end of the season.

Of course, having arguably the best running back and wide receiver in the NFL gives you an offensive ceiling that most organizations can only dream of.

Many people would argue David Johnson is the best running back in the league after his phenomenal statistics he put up last season, but the 2017 season will show that it is actually Le’Veon Bell. In four less games, Bell totaled more rushing yards than David Johnson on 32 less carries.

While Bell is down in receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns, he also competes for touches with one of the game’s best wide receivers in Antonio Brown — which takes its largest effect inside the red zone, and Bell’s touchdown totals.

Last season, Bell was only given five rushing attempts inside the opponents five yard line, which was 55.6% of his team’s rush attempts from that distance. They were also among the highest attempts of passes from that same distance. Of the attempts he was given, Bell scored three touchdowns which would give him a 60% conversation rate.

For Johnson, he was given 22 attempts from the same distance, which was 81.5% of his team’s attempts from that distance. Of those, he scored 12 touchdowns (!!), but at a lower conversion rate of 54.5%.

I think David Johnson has a lot of room for regression, the yearly injury to Carson Palmer, the hype surrounding JJ Nelson and other offensive targets have a chance to fall, and a year’s worth of film being out on Johnson who was only in his second season last year. Now, if the Cardinals stay healthy, and everything comes into form, Johnson only makes them that much more dangerous.

I think Bell has the power, path, and the ability that will win him the Offensive Player of the Year. The only thing that worries me about Bell is that he wasn’t at training camp or play in any preseason games, and that’s when you develop the soft tissue injuries, or pull a hamstring, etc.

2. Baltimore Ravens

Okay, if you’re still with me, terrific. Listen, the Ravens are a good football team, but they aren’t a super dangerous threat until playoffs. Any given team can beat them any given week, but when it’s Wildcard Weekend, or the Divisional Round, I want nothing to do with this team, particularly that defense.

They have the talent to put together a season that will showcase a top four defense, after building on where they left off last season. They ranked top 10 in points, rushing defense, passing defense, and top five in turnovers. They were the seventh overall defense.

After an early injury bug biting what seemed like every position, the Ravens have made some small noise as they are looking to return to the playoffs. I love the additions of Danny Woodhead and Jeremy Maclin to their offense, and expect them to be competing for a Wild Card spot at the end of the season. Football fans should be hoping for a January playoff matchup between Baltimore and Pittsburgh or Baltimore and New England.

3. Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals have added talent to their offense, no doubt, but it’s extremely disappointing and head-scratching to see Joe Mixon will open the season as the third running back on the depth chart. I believe Mixon will be the featured back no later than week three of the season, and he will surge in that role.

The only thing more disappointing on this team is watching Vontaze Burfict continue his career as the league’s dirtiest player and tarnishing the reputation of a talented defense. Well, or the fact that Marvin Lewis is still the captain of this mediocre ship. This will be Lewis’s last season before he is relieved of his duties.

4. Cleveland Browns

The Browns will still be the Cleveland Browns, last place in their division. However, I believe the Browns can climb up between four and six wins this season.

The Browns have nice, young pieces on their team and could easily “put it all together” if that only means grabbing a handful of wins.

I really, really like Corey Coleman. I think he was the best receiver in last year’s draft and I could see him having similar production to what Terrelle Pryor was able to find in Cleveland last season. A Pro Bowl selection — for what it’s worth at this point — sounds about right for Coleman.

After cutting Brock Osweiler, the word is that DeShone Kizer is actually pretty good. Not great, but certainly competent. After watching some of him in preseason, I think he’s good enough for Cleveland. For the first time since World War 2, I not only think the Browns will have a season of good quarterback play, but I expect him to start all 16 games.

And last but not least, Myles Garrett is the Defensive Rookie of the Year. Not a bold prediction by any measure, but the Browns finally have someone who will someday rank up there with the best players in the league.

(I had that blurb of Garrett written before the news of a high ankle sprain was released. Going to leave it as the injury will affect his first handful of weeks, hopefully no more after that. If so, I see a similar career path to Clowney.)

AFC West:

1. Denver Broncos

After a disappointing 2016 season where they finished 9-7 and outside of the playoffs, the Broncos season starts and ends with the run game. If they want to create legitimate noise they must have a strong performance on both sides of the ball in that category.

Last season, the Broncos defense was 28th in the NFL when it came to stopping the rush. They were gashed for 2,085 yards in 16 games. On the flip side, the offense was 27th in total team rushing yards at 1,484.

The fourth best defense in the NFL nearly gave up 300 yards per game, despite only allowing 186 per game through the air. After releasing TJ Ward, many believe the Broncos defense will climb down a little ways, but I actually think they’ll be better than they were last season.

All I hear about the Broncos defense is how phenomenal Justin Simmons can be. Many say he’s in a more natural role now that he is taking the place of TJ Ward, and gives Darian Stewart the chance to move to strong safety as well.

How’s this for a bold prediction? The Broncos will become the first team in league history to have the sack leader (Von Miller) and interception leader (take your pick on Harris Jr or Talib) on their roster.

An offseason focus was to improve the offensive line, which was done with the free agent signings of Menelik Watson, Ron Leary, and drafting of Garett Bolles. A better offensive line will take pressure off of the second year quarterback, Trevor Simeon, but will also work to create a more balanced offensive attack.

The Broncos offense might not be sexy like it used to be, but it’ll prove to be effective. An efficient, balanced offense next to that defense will be enough to win the division. No, the Broncos aren’t back, but that defense can travel to any stadium in any weather, which is enough to keep you in any game.

A dominant defense, healthy CJ Anderson (for the time being), combined with an army of running backs who are ready to carry the rock, certainly shows the direction the Broncos are heading for. But when that is combined with veteran play makers such as Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, I see the Broncos as a team that will surprise many as they have a bounce back season to the playoffs.

2. Kansas City Chiefs

I actually flipped the Chiefs above Oakland into this spot only a couple of minutes before the Kansas City/New England game, believe it or not. I just think their offense can be more electric than it was last season and I like their defensive talent, a lot. Sadly, they lose Eric Berry for the season, but have 15 more games to find a way to work around that.

I’m all aboard the Mahomes bandwagon, and have stated numerous times how he is the most talented QB in the class. I don’t think it’s particularly close either. When he gets an opportunity this year, or next year, or the year after, he lifts the Kansas City offense to a level that Alex Smith simply can’t. When Mahomes is good he’s really, really good. And when he’s bad, well, he’s really, really bad. It’s feast or famine for Mahomes, and for the Chiefs to make noise beyond what they’ve done the last few seasons, Mahomes and his rocket arm are the risk that needs to be installed into the offense.

Regardless of what Alex Smith did in New England on Thursday, we know that isn’t sustainable. Let’s not pretend like a decade worth of tape on Smith isn’t out. That was a fluke, career performance from him.

One of my favorite things in sports is versatility, and it’s becoming more and more important in each sport. Versatility is fantastic in football because each versatile piece compliments the next. Versatility creates a new layer of mismatch with each wrinkle to a formation, and essentially keeps you a step ahead of the other team at all times. Football is a game of chess, and the more queens you have — or players that can play multiple positions, do different things — the tougher it is to game plan against.

Two of the most versatile offensive pieces in the NFL are Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. Both will be used heavily in Andy Reid’s unorthodox misdirection offense. To me, Kelce will see a line similar to 90 catches, 1,200 yards, and 9 touchdowns. He is the best, most complete tight end in the league that isn’t named Rob Gronkowski.

It has been reported that Hill will be used heavily as a primary ball carrier throughout the season as he has proven he’s capable of breaking a big play at any time. I’m a huge fan of the Chiefs offense, even without Spencer Ware and the traditional role filled by Jamaal Charles. Kareem Hunt, obviously, is an important piece to their offense. While nobody expects Hunt to keep the scrimmage yards pace he set in his first ever NFL game, I believe he’ll finish his rookie campaign with the most touchdowns in his class.

Of course everybody knows about Houston, Peters, and Parker’s ability on their defense, but a defensive player that’ll make a huge jump if healthy is second year stud defensive lineman, Chris Jones.

3. Oakland Raiders

Last season Derek Carr threw 28 touchdowns to only 6 interceptions and was mastermind behind seven comeback wins for Oakland. While I expect the Raiders to drop more games than they did last season, I believe in Derek Carr and think that he’ll remain in the NFL’s second tier of quarterbacks — tier one being Brady and Rodgers.

Of those 28 touchdowns, almost half went to one of the best receiving duos in the league, Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper (in that order). Both receivers will catch 90 passes, reach 1,200 yards, and haul in 7 or more touchdowns.

I see Marshawn Lynch having a good season for his role, but I really see Oakland turning more into a back by committee more than they already were last season. ESPN fantasy football has Lynch projected at 10.3 touchdowns, I do not see him reaching that total. Going to committee gives more touches to DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard, but in all reality, will keep the ball in Carr’s hands.

There’s talent on the defensive side of the ball, and Khalil Mack is arguably the best defensive player in football, but they were only 26th in the league on that side last year. That number will need to move much closer to the mean, otherwise Oakland will for sure struggle against good playoff teams, struggle within the division, and struggle to pull out close games.

Overall, I think the Raiders lose a couple more of those 50/50 games they won last season and ultimately miss out on the playoffs.

Here are last season’s close wins: @ Saints + 1, @ Titans + 7, @ Ravens + 1, Chargers +3, @ Buccaneers OT +6, Texans +7, Panthers + 3, @ Charges +3

4. Los Angeles Chargers

Last season, Phillip Rivers threw 21 interceptions and fumbled 9 times. Turnovers were a gigantic reason for their failures on the way to a 5-11 record. Rivers has to take care of the football this season, as his 21 interceptions was second to only the New York Jets.

The spike in Rivers’ turnovers can be found related to the loss of his WR1, Keenan Allen. When healthy, Allen is one of the league’s most targeted receivers and will find his way back into the swing of things early.

If you ask owners from within the fantasy football realm, Melvin Gordon had an amazing season. He certainly improved as his rushing yards jumped up 357, and he found the end zone 12 times after doing so zero in his rookie campaign. However, Gordon has yet to rush for 1,000 yards despite 254 attempts last season. With Danny Woodhead leaving town, Gordon should see more opportunity for targets in the receiving game once again. Even with a healthy Keenan Allen, emergence of Hunter Henry and other serviceable offensive weapons, Gordon is the focal point.

I expect Gordon’s yards from scrimmage to raise, touchdowns to remain the same or increase slightly, but he’ll become a more efficient player along the way.

It’s easy to predict his touchdowns to fall since he was well above the league average, but he was among the NFL’s elite inside the red zone. He scored 9 touchdowns on 17 attempts inside the five yard line while receiving 85% of the running back touches. While remaining his team’s best weapon inside the five, Gordon will remain one of the four best red zone backs in the NFL.

Joey Bosa will be a force, once again, next season. In his 12 games, his 10.5 sacks and 23 hurries rank with the best pass rushers in the league on a per game basis. The Chargers are switching their style of defense, and will have one of the top edge rushers in the NFL to build around for years to come.

While the Chargers will finish last in their division again, I expect them to be competitive in all of their games like they were last season. Out of each of their 11 losses last season, only one was settled by more than one possession. As a result, the Chargers win at least seven games. 

AFC South:

1. Tennessee Titans 

Certainly one of the biggest trends of the offseason is the notion that the Titans can win their division, and I’m buying stock.

The Texans are a very good team and played New England close in last year’s playoffs, but the Titans made the most improvements to their roster over the off-season within their division. They tied up a weak secondary, and added offensive weapons around Mariota. After watching him throw 22 touchdowns to 4 interceptions over his final 11 games, I’m very confident in the Titans as they missed the playoffs by one game.

With all five starting offensive lineman returning, the Titans rushing explosion should remain close to the best in the league. The Titans coaching staff used Murray,  Henry, and Mariota as a direct path to the third best rushing total in the league — rightfully earning the title as an “exotic smash mouth” offense. My belief is that after adding so many receivers, the Titans will develop a more balanced, effective attack.

It’s clear that Marcus Mariota is a game-changing quarterback, and will take the next step this season, helping his team wins the division outright. Mariota will finish as a finalist in the MVP voting and score over 35 total touchdowns.

2. Houston Texans

Last season, without J.J. Watt, the Texans finished with the top ranked front seven in football, according to Pro Football Focus.

At the front of that ranking was Whitney Mercilus (7th) and Jadeveon Clowney (9th). After adding arguably the best defensive player in the league, and giving players such as D.J. Reader a second season, it’ll be a scary sight. They’ll repeat as the league’s best defense, and likely jump to the top pass rush.

However, the obvious achilles heel of this team is the quarterback play. They go as far as Tom Savage and/or Deshaun Watson can bring them. The excitement for Watson is real, and I buy into it, but I don’t see an immediate impact from him as a rookie, or Savage in his first season as the starter.

While both are an improvement over The Heist, I don’t this team catching the Titans in the win column.

brock-fumble
Photo Credit: Broncos Wire

3. Jacksonville Jaguars

At some point the Jaguars have to finish above fourth place, right? I see improvements to their team, but I also think the Colts are heading towards the season from hell.

Outside of the quarterback, the Jags actually have a nice offensive unit. Pro Football Focus graded their offensive line 13th in the league, and they have play makers across the board in Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns, and Marqise Lee. Leonard Fournette, who has pretty much been a grown man since he was about six-years-old, is expected to boost this offense even if limited by Bortles.

The thing with Bortles is that it would be difficult to be worse than he was last season. With a healthy dose of Fournette, the thinking is that they can cure many of his passing mistakes by becoming an even attacking offense.

Everybody knows this is the final straw for Bortles if he performs poorly, but if you’re him you have to remain a little confident that your organization has some trust remaining in you after not drafting a quarterback. My guess is Coughlin is just waiting until 2018 like a few teams because that draft is forming into the year of the quarterback.

4. Indianapolis Colts

As I previously stated, I believe the Colts are heading towards the year from hell.

Nobody has any idea when Andrew Luck will actually return, the backup quarterback is 107-years-old, their best offensive player is completely dependent on the franchise quarterback playing, their starting running back is eventually going to fall of the wagon, their defense is below mediocre, and the head coach should be the first coach fired. Correction, the head coach will be the first head coach fired.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

1292793785340942439
Photo Credit: Deadspin

Also, has there ever been a more obvious quarterback/head coach hiring in the history of the National Football League than Andrew Luck and Jon Gruden? This will happen.

NFC North

1. Green Bay Packers

Every season the Green Bay Packers are picked near or at the top of the NFC. Not just their division, but the NFC. Despite being heavy favorites every year, since 2010 they have one Super Bowl appearance, in which they won. Which is one more than most NFL teams.

They have made the Conference Championship two of the last three seasons, both of which went to overtime and their quarterback was unable to touch the ball. They have also won their division five of the last seven seasons.

Each year, the NFC predictions start and end with one player, Aaron Rodgers. While I haven’t watched as much football as John Madden, Rodgers has the most impressive arm talent of any quarterback I’ve ever seen. Regardless of the team around Rodgers, he’ll always be an MVP candidate and a Super Bowl favorite. Last season the Pack were a bad football team, and he still willed them to a Conference Championship appearance.

Even with the second worst pass defense in the NFL, they were able to compete week in and week out with the eighth best rush defense and eighth best total offense in the league.

After averaging 531 pass attempts (per 16 games) through his NFL career, Rodgers chucked the rock 610 times last season. That number will come way way down now that they have an entire season with featured running back, Ty Montgomery.

I’m a huge fan of Montgomery because of what I mentioned when discussing the Kansas City Chiefs, versatility. With more rushing attempts and a peppering of targets from Rodgers, Montgomery will own one of the diverse spreads of rush attempts and receptions in the league. After converting to running back last season, Montgomery led all backs with 5.14 yards after contact.

He also led all backs with an elusive rating of 116.4 (second was 90.7). An elusive rating is  Pro Football Focus’s way of measuring backs success beyond help from their teammates. Montgomery is so good in space that he will be the difference maker for this team in a playoff game as they finally have a threat out of the backfield since Eddie Lacy’s rookie season.

2. Minnesota Vikings 

After a scorching start, and a forgettable finish, the Vikings are now being severely underrated by the national media. Before a series of injuries, an entire offensive overhaul, and a series of missed games from Zimmer due to eye surgeries, the Vikings first five wins included four teams that finished with a winning record. Talent is all over this team, but almost exclusively the defense. To me, they’re the NFC Broncos.

Anthony Barr fell off from a tremendous first two seasons in the league, but all reports are that he is going to bounce back up from last season’s fall. If the Vikings want to find the playoffs, they need health across their defense, and Barr to be back to his old self.

Even without a good season from Barr, the Vikes were graded with the sixth best defensive front seven by Pro Football Focus. The dominance of Danielle Hunter — who finished as the sixth best pass rusher in the NFL — showed off his elite athleticism all season long. While the Vikings front seven have the ceiling to be the best in the league, they’re going to bully their schedule until they get to that point, regardless of how far behind the offense might be.

Harrison Smith is the key to the defense in Minnesota. Despite missing two games last season, he had the second most tackles on the team at 91. He’s truly one of the most gifted defensive players in the sport.

For what the Pro Bowl is worth, I could see six-seven defensive players getting in for Minnesota — Barr, Kendricks, Smith, Hunter, Griffen, Joseph, and Rhodes.

One of the worst offensive lines in the league has improved, not by much, but they are better than they were last season. The switching of backs from Peterson to Dalvin Cook will immediately help this offense based on the style that they want to play, but he will need to rise quickly in his rookie season to make this Vikings offense average.

Last year, only four teams had a worse offense in the NFL than the Vikings, despite Sam Bradford breaking the record for completion percentage — the most overrated record in sports. After being in Minnesota for a season now, I expect Bradford to be better, more comfortable, and hopefully take more chances down the field. The offense isn’t super, but they do have playmakers at each position, it’s time to give them a chance.

It might take some time for the offense to find their true identity, but I see Minnesota as a team competing with others for the wildcard this season. Maybe they get in, maybe they don’t. To me, it comes down to health, the offensive line, and if they can break the tendency to be ultra-super-conservative. That elite, devastating defense will show up each game this season, I’m confident in that.

If there’s good news for Vikings fans, the last team to start 5-0 and miss the playoffs? The 2015 Atlanta Falcons. The following season they went to the Super Bowl and became the first team to ever blow a 25… you know the story.

Also, Bradford is expected to hold onto the title for the tallest shoulder pads in the NFL.

NFL: SEP 25 Vikings at Panthers
Photo Credit: FanRag Sports

3. Detroit Lions

The highest paid quarterback of all-time ran the 21st best offense in the NFL. He has a losing record on the road, and against teams with above .500 records. The Lions are a stay away team from me as far as betting and fantasy football.

The only highlight they have in my opinion is the lighting in a bottle that is Ameer Abdullah, but he’s in a crowded, mediocre backfield. If he gets a chance at the role of the featured back this offense will pick up some steam, but I don’t see any way this team finds the playoffs again.

After eight fourth quarter comebacks, and finishing the season on a three game losing streak, the Lions somehow made it to Wildcard weekend last year in what was the most confusing season of football I’ve possibly ever seen from a team.

The only reason I have them ranked ahead of the Bears is because the Bears are the same team that has Mark Sanchez listed on the depth chart ahead of a rookie quarterback they traded their entire future for. Their rookie quarterback literally isn’t even the second string guy on the roster because of MARK SANCHEZ. The Bears are also the team that picked Roberto Aguayo off of waivers and were forced to pay the remaining $400K on his contract, only to cut him. Genius.

4. Chicago Bears

Read the last paragraph. The Bears legitimately have no idea what they’re doing.

Random fact, the Bears had a better offense and defense than the Detroit Lions last season and finished with a 3-13 record.

The bright spot for Chicago is that they’ve found a running back in Jordan Howard, and a nice backup in Tarik Cohen. Running behind the fifth best offensive line in the league, Howard has a chance to go after the rushing title if given the volume.

Howard wasn’t even the starter until week four last season, but was still second in the league in rushing yards with 1,313. If he’s the man for 16 games, I don’t see a way Howard doesn’t gain at least 1,600 yards and find the end zone 9 times.

NFC West

1. Seattle Seahawks

Despite receiving Pro Football Focus’s worst offensive line ranking, I think Seattle wins the NFC this year. Every team has their weaknesses, but for this one, is there a single quarterback in the NFL you’d rather have to counter this issue than Russell Wilson? Probably not.

I think the high-flying, smash-your-chest, turnover creating Seahawks defense is back. Sheldon Richardson makes this team all that much better, they’re healthy, and have their swagger back.

Wilson figured out how to use Jimmy Graham effectively last season, Doug Baldwin morphed into a top wide receiver, and they have enough running backs on the roster that one is guaranteed to fit. The team’s leading rusher this season won’t be Lacy, or Rawls, or Prosise, but it’ll be the rookie Chris Carson.

2. Arizona Cardinals

What’s interesting to me about the Cardinals is how many people are sort of overlooking, or just giving up on them after a disappointing season from them last season at 7-8-1. They have an immense amount of talent on both sides of the ball and one of the game’s best coaches. I see them returning to the playoffs and making a deep playoff run, truly returning to Super Bowl contending status. I wouldn’t even be surprised if they made it, but for now, they’re a wildcard team for me.

On paper, this might be one of the most talented teams in the league.

If the NFL MVP was selected the way the MLB or NBA’s (this season) was, David Johnson would have one of them in his trophy case after his stunning sophomore season he displayed. Fantasy MVP, the league’s top running back last year, and nearly 1,000 rushing AND receiving yards. He’s a touchdown machine, versatile as any player in the NFL, and built like the terminator.

You surround Johnson with Carson Palmer in likely his last go-round, Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown, and J.J. Nelson, and this team will deliver another top ten offensive season.

And on the flip side, they were the second overall defense last season. Second!

What’s not to love about the Arizona Cardinals? They lost like 62 games on missed field goals last season! They currently have the same odds at 40-1 to win the Super Bowl as the Eagles!

3. Los Angeles Rams

Under a new coaching regime — including Wade Phillips running the defense — the Rams can only move up. Goff has many serious question marks next to his name, but wasn’t given enough time last year to fully be evaluated from me. Under the microscope, I’m sure he’ll fair better this year with a revamped offense that will actually feature the featured running back, Todd Gurley. If the offense can make a small jump, they’ll be competitive with teams because of a defensive maestro having access to a handful of disruptive defensive talents.

I love that the organization went out and traded for Sammy Watkins. When healthy, he’s right with the other elite receivers in his class, but that’s been the trouble for Watkins. I feel he has a completely healthy season this year and plays in all 16 games after a change of scenery.

4. San Francisco 49ers

Three straight losing seasons. Three straight head coaches.

Shanahan is up for a challenge with this team because he’s literally starting from scratch. The quarterbacks he’s carrying around on the roster — Hoyer, Barkley, Beathard — are most likely the worst set of quarterbacks in the league. They’d be better off right now with Kaepernick or Gabbert still on the roster, but my guess is there’s someone who he has an eye on in the 2018 class.

I don’t expect them to win games, but they have intriguing pieces on both sides of the ball, including the two kids they grabbed in the draft this year — Thomas and Foster. The writing is on the wall, this team is two years away from being two years away, but the coach has them going in the right direction.

NFC East

1. Dallas Cowboys

A few years back, this was arguably the best division in football. I no longer think that’s the case. While any order of the top three teams wouldn’t surprise me, I’m picking Dallas because they have the highest ceiling, in my opinion.

The Cowboys are powerful, even once their record slips this season. They have a mighty schedule: @ Broncos, @ Cardinals, Packers, Chiefs, @ Falcons, @ Raiders, Seahawks, plus a very competitive division.

Whether Elliott faces a suspension or not, we know the identity of the Cowboys. They want to dominate the line of scrimmage, play smash mouth football, control the clock, and take advantage of play action.

I’m still waiting on one moment, or one specific instance where Jason Garrett shows he’s in charge of this team instead of just a professional clapper. I’m pretty sure his only assignment is to throw the challenge flag when told by ownership.

giphy
Photo Credit: Giphy

2. New York Giants

Remember last season when the Giants lost in the first round of the playoffs? How awful they were in Green Bay? Remember how many people liked them as the NFC Super Bowl team as the playoffs were starting? Well, they got better.

Brandon Marshall is always open, and just plays the game as an adult on the field. Marshall will look like he’s in his prime playing across the field from Beckham Jr. while Manning throws dozens of ill-advised, controversial red zone targets his way.

Ten of the starters are back for the Giants on defense and they’re going to be nasty once again. That pass rush is violent and the secondary is electric.

What’s strange to me about the Giants is that they’re one of those teams you don’t feel confident picking, but you are never happy when you see your team has to play them.

3. Washington Redskins

Outside of their mediocre defense, I kind of really like this Washington team.

To me, Kirk Cousins is explosive Alex Smith. What I mean by that is no matter what team he plays on, or whatever he does in Washington, fans are looking for an upgrade. You’re happy you have Cousins while you do, but if some young buck in the draft with elite arm strength and alllllll the intangibles becomes available, you know damn well you’re pulling the switch-a-roo on Kirk.

I like this offense though. Terrelle Pryor is going to be a lot of fun playing next to Jordan Reed, Jamison Crowder, and whatever eventually comes out of Josh Doctson.

4. Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles chatter is starting to pick up, but I have no interest in them this season.

I read all the time how smart of a coach Doug Peterson is and how he’s an offensive mastermind, yet his team’s offense was 22nd in the league last season. They were 26th in first quarter scoring. They lost five of their last six games. I just don’t understand where all the optimism is coming from?

Sure, they had a rookie quarterback last season. Sure, they didn’t have a lot of playmakers, but what’s different this season? They went out and got Blount who is primarily a short-yardage back, and Alshon Jeffery who is a phenomenal contested pass catcher, but primarily a complimentary wide receiver.

In 2013 and 2014 he played with Brandon Marshall: 1,421 yards & 7 touchdowns, 1,133 & 10 touchdowns

In 2015 and 2016 he did not: 807 yards & 4 touchdowns, 821 yards & 2 touchdowns.

Mike Lombardi makes an excellent point on The Ringer NFL Show Podcast when he says that Carson Wentz played 50 plays this preseason to Tom Brady’s 53. Carson Wentz last season was below 50% on throws over ten yards, yet he’s playing less in the preseason than Tom Brady after not really doing anything as a rookie.

NFC South

1. Atlanta Falcons

To me, the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers bounce back this season and the NFC South becomes the most competitive division in football.

But that doesn’t change the fact that the Atlanta Falcons are a clear tier above the others, Super Bowl hangover or not (definitely not).

While I highly doubt that the Atlanta offense scores another blistering 540 points, I do think they’re the top scoring team in the NFL again. To me, no other team has more talent on that side of the ball in the entire league. The Falcons have more than the Steelers. More than the Patriots. More than the Packers, Raiders, Cowboys, Chiefs, whoever. Yup.

Julio Jones goes head to head with any receiver in the NFL, and if I’m starting a team, there isn’t a receiver I’d pick before him as an NFL GM. Nobody has a better combination of strength, size, speed, hands, body control, or athleticism. Along with him, I love the compliments that are Sanu, Gabriel, and Hooper.

Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are the best one-two running back punch in the league. Both can run ball, make you miss, run you over, catch the ball, lineup anywhere on the field, and are savants near the goal line. But we’ve all learned, Freeman can’t pass block. At least not Dont’a Hightower.

untitled-22
Photo Credit: CBS Boston

Matty Ice was last season’s MVP. He can make any throw, can lead his team to the biggest stage, and rip apart defenses all season long. No, he’s not Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers, or even Drew Brees. But I challenge you to find a QB who is unquestionably better than Ryan is in present day. He’s in the same tier as a handful of great passers, and they might be better, but he has proven that he’s plenty good enough.

Oh yeah, and those dogs up front. Pro Football Focus has them coming into this season as the sixth best offensive line.

Even after a historic collapse, this much offensive talent and a young, athletic Dan Quinn defense don’t just fall on their sword. They’re NFC contenders and might even be heading back to the Bowl in February.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Buccaneers seem to be this season’s darling to a lot of people. So many football geniuses are out here assuming that they’re a playoff team and that they’re the consensus “dark horse” contender. I’m not sure if it’s because of Hard Knocks, or people understand that Jameis Winston is a natural-born winner and you can’t hold him down, or if maybe it really is that obvious? But either way, they’ll be knocking on the playoff door.

In the history of football, only Andrew Luck has thrown more yards in his first two seasons than Jameis Winston. Only Peyton Manning, Dan Marino, and Derek Carr (3 more) have thrown more touchdowns. However, his 33 interceptions is dangerously high for two seasons as well. If the Bucs want to take the next step, Jameis needs to climb the ladder as well, and that starts with taking care of the football. He trusts his arm too much, and is still breaking bad habits he created at Florida State.

But just like the Buccaneers, I believe in Jameis. That team has taken over his personality and he is the unquestioned leader in that locker room. Anybody who watched Hard Knocks was able to see how locked in the players are to Jameis. He has some of the greatest leadership skills I’ve ever seen in an athlete. Once he learns to translate that to wins at the NFL level, his teammates will follow through.

But what I love about Jameis is he’s best when all the chips are on the table. We’ve seen him time and time again in college and already in the pros be able to rally his team back even after he’s the one who put them down. Even when he was under pressure last season, Winston had the highest QBR in over a decade, according to ESPN.

But maybe what I’m most excited for on this team is the defense. I think they have the chance to be sneaky good on that side of the ball. Adding a player like TJ Ward will help them young dudes out so much. He’s not only a great safety, but knowledgable and brings a championship attitude with him from Denver.

3. Carolina Panthers

The Panthers broke an NFL record last season for the biggest drop off of any team to go 15-1 the season before, mostly due to health.

Luuuuuuuke missed six games and Cam was clearly beaten up throughout the season. Injuries killed the Panthers, particularly their two most important players.

As a result, the Panthers coaching staff is making an adjustment to create Newton into more of a pocket passer and to preserve his health, which I’m not sure I agree with. After an offseason of treatment and recovering, Cam should be ready to rock this year. I’d rather have the dynamite of Cam being dual threat for a handful more years, rather than take away his greatest strength to make him do something more often that he’s pretty average at. To me, it’s similar to what San Francisco did to Kaepernick. They didn’t want him running anymore, in case of injury, and tried to force feed him to their offense as a pocket passer, rather than playing to his strengths — designed runs, passing outside of the pocket, etc.

While Cam is much better than Kaep, I think the story is similar. Luckily for Carolina, Christian McCaffrey will make the difference. He is the same size as LeSean McCoy, like identical, so let let’s stop even talking about what he can and can’t do. What he will do is force Carolina into running the ball more often and present a high percentage target for Cam to make easy throws.

4. New Orleans Saints

A season removed from the worst statistical defensive showing of all-time, and the Saints moved up to 27th.

Drew Brees lost Brandin Cooks, and Willie Snead is suspended. An offense known for their ability to host community running backs brought in the John Wick of backs 3 years too late in Adrian Peterson.

I’m not trying to sound extremely down on the Saints this season, but I’m extremely down on the Saints this season. I wouldn’t be surprised if Michael Thomas struggled adjusting to a true wide receiver one, or if having Adrian Peterson will throw a wrench in their entire offensive identity.

That being said, if there is a quarterback who can make this work, it is Mr. 5,000 yards. However, it could be the year from hell for the Saints and Drew Brees as he’s another year closer to 40, and has less talent around him than he has had in years.

 

Statistics were found on Pro Football Focus, Pro Football Reference, and ESPN.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s